Sometimes I get asked “Where is contemplation in the Bible?”
One obvious answer to this question is Psalm 131.
It’s a short Psalm, only three verses. Here it is in its entirety from the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (but every translation works):
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and for evermore.
Let’s reflect on this lovely Psalm.
Verse one is a statement of humility. Throughout the western contemplative tradition we learn that humility is a prerequisite for meaningful prayer. Not humility in the sense of self-denigration (which is not true humility, but actually a form of pride); rather, humility in its original, earthy sense of remaining down-to-earth and even being a bit self-forgetful. It’s keeping our eyes on God rather than ourselves — or, as so beautifully expressed in this Psalm, keeping our eyes (and heart) trained toward how God comes to us in the ordinary, down-to-earth places in our lives, thus liberating us from having to master arcane theology or esoteric principles in order to pray. Christian contemplation is down to earth, and the first verse of this Psalm affirms this.
Likewise, Christian contemplation recognizes that our mind/intellect can only take us so far in our quest to respond to God. As the Cloud of Unknowing states it, “Everything you are thinking of is between you and your God. And you are further from God to the extent that anything is in your mind but God alone.” In other words, “things too great and marvelous for me” can actually get in the way of fostering real intimacy with God. Don’t get me wrong — theology and philosophy have their place. But when it comes to deep, contemplative prayer, it’s time to set aside those “great and marvelous” thoughts and simply love God in silence.
Verse 2 gets to the heart of the matter: contemplation is about silence, about calmness and quiet — letting go of our thoughts and interior chatter, and resting in God, the way a baby rests on her mother’s breast. Interestingly, the Hebrew word גָּמוּל (gamul) in this verse means “weaned” but also has connotations of completeness or ripeness. So the baby quieted at its mother’s breast is a baby weaned — no longer relying on the “milk” of theology, it rests in a “meat” of contemplative silence — but also a baby that is complete and whole; that the silence of calm quiet prayer is full and complete in itself.
Finally, verse 3 of this Psalm calls Israel (and by extension, all who read and pray it) to a place of hope and trust, beginning in the present moment and extending forth throughout eternity.
So in Psalm 131 we find a basic trinitarian model of contemplative prayer:
- Begin with humility, letting go of the temptation to relate to God through clever thoughts or complicated ideas;
- Move into silence, finding calmness and rest in God like a baby finds resting on its mother’s breast;
- Finally embrace hope, that in the down-to-earth quiet of contemplative prayer we learn to fully trust God.
So there you have it: instructions for contemplative prayer, straight out of the Bible.
Thanks for sharing Ps 131 and revealing the contemplative aspect of sctipture. Thanks also for showing the actual Hebrew. This helps me see scripture in a different light.
Thank you so much Carl for this beautiful post. I am attempting to read a psalm every day,as well as a couple of verses from the rest of the Bible, although i find that with the busyness of the day i often forget what i’ve read. But i do believe that i am somehow picking up the essence of the beauty, simplicity and meaning of them. Thank you also for the five ways to have a more prayerful life. Anne