I really like the definition of contemplation found in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love (2628, 2715).
Remember, this is a Christian understanding of contemplation. In a secular sense, you could define the word as simply “thoughtful observation” or “full or deep consideration; reflection” — as found on the dictionary.com website.
While contemplation in its secular sense is simply a type of mental activity, in its Christian or mystical sense it is a dimension of prayer.
What is prayer? The quickest answer would be “communication with God.” There are many ways to pray; indeed, when Franciscan Media Publishers brought out a book called Prayer in the Catholic Tradition, it was over 600 pages long, with 45 chapters written by different people to describe different types and forms of prayer. So contemplation, mystically speaking, is one type of prayer. And the Catechism definition gives us a pretty good way of understanding this unique dimension of communication with God.
First, it is wordless. Right away this blows people’s minds. How can prayer be wordless? Isn’t communication, by its very nature, word-full? Ah, but we know that so much communication happens on a non-verbal level; what is true between human beings can be just as true between humans and the divine. God communicates with us at a level “too deep for words,” and our heart has the capacity to do the same in return. I love it that the Catechism suggests both mind and heart are engaged in contemplative prayer: it’s a wordlessness that is not just an affective experience, but can also be a kind of cognitive silence. Indeed, this wordless prayer, more than anything else, is a silent prayer. Even if we are filling our minds with rote prayers (like the liturgy), repetitive prayers (like the Rosary) or even just the occasional rhythm of a Centering Prayer sacred word — contemplation takes place in the silence between and beneath the words.
The Catechism goes on to say that contemplation is a focussed prayer. It’s not the same thing as a kind of objectless meditation. Now, some teachers of contemplative practices might take issue with this point; Cynthia Bourgeault in her insightful book The Heart of Centering Prayer speaks of the objectless nature of that particular prayer method (interestingly, though, Centering Prayer is described not as contemplation, but as a method of prayer that prepares us for contemplation — a subtle but important distinction). Here’s how I make sense of this: in a Christian context, contemplation always assumes the immersive presence of God. That presence could be experienced as an object of our focus, or simply recognized as existing at a level deeper than our cconscious awareness. But you don’t have prayer without a deity to pray to, and in Christian understanding. that’s the trinitarian God.
“Affective, loving, adoration.” Is it clear that the heart of this prayer is love? Again, it’s not love thought about so much as simply love embodied. Deeper than thought, deeper than language or words, possibly even deeper than feelings or awareness.
At the end, the definition offers a Christ-centered summary: to look on Jesus… with faith and love. Here we see the gaze (observation, consideration), faith (the impulse to pray) and again, love (that deeper-than-words, embodied encounter).
Practically speaking, contemplation is a prayer of depth: deeper than words, deeper than thoughts, deeper than experience. Like so many dimensions of mystical spirituality, it resists being pinned down by the poverty of human language. To truly attempt to grasp contemplation, it might be wiser to set aside the endless merry-go-round of language and instead look for ways to enter into prayerful silence. Centering Prayer is a good place to start, so is the kind of Christian meditation prompted by the World Community for Christian Meditation. The Jesus Prayer (prayer of the heart) from the Eastern Churches is another entry. Whichever of these methods you might explore, seek to rest in the silence that you find in the prayer. This, more than anything else, is the pathway to contemplation.