A Lesson In Contemplation Pt. 1
“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel [facing God], and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.”
So much can be unearthed from stories like this. As with all Jewish Scripture, at a literal level this passage has something great to offer, but I’d like to read deeper into it and use it as a guide into a lesson on contemplation. I’ll only dive into the first few verses as there is a ton packed into this small story and then I’ll continue the rest in subsequent posts.
Preparation for Contemplation:
“…he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone”
Notice that there were a few specific prerequisites to Jacob’s experience with God and consequent blessing.
I refrain from saying that there is a “formula” because that implies the ability to control God, which is the wrong approach to spirituality. Attempts to control keep us from ever letting go and entering into true contemplation; this passage teaches us the basics of contemplation through which one can learn to properly position themselves in practice towards the end of Divine encounter and mystical union.
First off — he sent over all of his possessions. Possessions symbolize attachments, which are one of the biggest obstacles to contemplation and experiencing God. The most basic reason is that attachments are a product of the ego which always seeks to control & judge, both of which are antithetical to spiritual law.
Attachments are weak spots in the will. It is the will that must be ordered by Divine love into it’s proper place to experience God, and it is also the will that keeps us from God when weak and full of egoic attachment. As Jesus said to Peter, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”. It is our inability to rightly integrate our spiritual and fleshly natures together that creates over attachment. These attachments fragment our spiritual energy which results in our contemplation amounting to nothing because it is unable able to pierce the heavens with a singular and collected will. A will purified of its attachments is in accordance with the spiritual laws of the kingdom of God and is a powerful force.
A detached heart is a heart that has had its will purified by love. To send our possessions ahead is in a metaphorical way to release the attachments of our will and to give up our egoic operations of clinging, controlling, and judging. It means to be emptied of desire and poor in spirit and in will so as to create a neutral zone for Divine will and Divine love to seize us.
This is why meditators aim at creating a neutral and non reactive emotional space within themselves by their practice. Attachments on the other hand create highly charged emotional reactions when threatened or unsatisfied, which quite literally act as magnetic polarizations towards the singular vision of a purified will — love. With our emotional energies scattered towards our attachments, our spiritual lives will remain shallow and we will remain aemeture in our contemplation.
A detached will — or if you prefer, a non possessive will— has the potential to collect it’s emotional and psychic energies into itself, and that is the first step towards creating a spiritual “black hole” in which the soul transcends time and space within itself, past the conscious confines of the senses.
This is why mystics, monastics, yogis, monks, etc. require moral, mental, and bodily purifications. Asceticism is not necessarily an overly dualistic approach to spirituality, it is a prerequisite to true contemplation (though it can be warped and misused like anything). These are simply ways of cultivating basic virtues and of purifying our will through the practice of detachment.
Jesus said, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” Only a detached heart, that has sent ALL of its possessions ahead and given up every desire and attachment of the will, can be prepared for contemplation.
The second act of preparation was that Jacob was alone. The obvious analogous implication of this is that the age old practice of solitude and silence is necessary for Divine experience (thus the great mystics and saints have been monastics, hermits, celibates, or at the very least, those given to much solitude and prayer).
But Jacob’s aloneness also symbolically represents a deeper quality of solitude — that of spirit & consciousness. Alone in the sense that we are no longer present to our thoughts, emotions, or desires. This solitude could be understood as a voluntary state of forgetfullness, or what some Zen Buddhists have called the “don’t know mind”. It is a state of detachment from any kind of knowledge, other than that singular piercing vision of the soul in love. After we send our “possessions” over and release our attachments of the will, we can have the ability to be left alone and concentrated and collected in our meditation.
To be truly alone allows us to detach from time and space as I said and to enter the “nowhere” zone where God exists. This state is the ultimate state of presence (NOW-HERE), because when you are nowhere, then you can be everywhere, just as God is nowhere and everywhere, outside our 3 dimensional/sensual awareness (and in this way “omnipresent”). Only like can know like, and only that which is like God can know and unite with God.
This is the heart of Christian contemplation and of mystical theology. Pseudo Dionysius, whose 4th-5th century works are the backbone for most of the mystical and contemplative ideology in church history, speaks of the highest knowledge of God being negative knowledge, or “unknowing”. It is easier and safer to say what God is not rather than to utterly fall short in speaking about what God is. No idea, concept, language, or anthropomorphization can capture Ultimate Reality.
So the idea is that God cannot be grasped by thought (finite), but that He can be grasped by love (infinite). Or as the renouned author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, “For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held.”
If God is beyond conception and sense, then we must go beyond them as well to truly reach Him and unite with Him. Any uniting we do with a thought, image, idea, or feeling of God is incomplete and not a “face to face” encounter like Jacob had. God’s is not a feeling or an idea. And the great task of the mystic is to unite with God and reality face to face, spirit to spirit, without obstruction. This is what is considered “pure experience”.
In the contemplative playground these affirmative knowings are only an obstacle and act as a grounding place to somewhere/something (finite) as opposed to nowhere/nothing (infinite). To reach God in this way we must allow the senses to recede for a time and our spirits to reach up in unknowing through a pure act of conscious love alone.
Being alone represents above all being one within oneself, unified, purified in will and having a singular intention and desire. It is that desire of love that is able to act as an arrow piercing into the domain of the spirit where God resides, where spirit touches spirit in loving union.
And lastly, allow me to touch on this idea of night, which only adds to these same ideas.
The night symbolizes precisely the subsiding of the senses and of thought in contemplation. If we are going to reach God in a pure act of love we will have to learn to put these to rest and enter into the darkness.
When a spiritual seeker begins on the spiritual journey they need grounding, clarity, duality, and some kind of affirmative structure of reality to feel safe and sound. It’s what is called cataphatic knowing, or knowing obtained through affirmation. Taken to its extreme it creates rigid and deadly fundamentalism, but experienced rightly it is a helpful and necessary stage. This is the first stage of order.
But at some point, if we are called by God from the active to the contemplative life (which also contains action, perhaps the greatest action), we will leave our cataphatic knowledge behind for a greater quality of knowing — apophatic knowledge, or knowledge obtained through unknowing. The transition stage between the two is what would be called the disorder stage. This happens when out neatly packed ideas of God and reality fail us, and we realize that there is an infinite expanse outside of the box that has served us so well up until now. In this stage we are cast headlong into mystery, darkness, chaos, and confusion. It’s like jumping into the deep end of the water or free falling into an abyss without being able to see the bottom.
This can result in a spirutal depression or a “dark night of the soul” — God and natures way of purging us of our ego and our dualism so that we can enter a grander and more mystical spirituality. But eventually the growing pangs wear off and we all of the sudden find ourselves on the other side — the stage of reorder.
And it’s in this stage that we learn to see the “night” not as a terrifying monster threatening our existentialism and psychological structures. It actually becomes a friend and an intimate partner in leading us to God. This dark “cloud of unknowing” teaches us everything that we could ever need to know through direct experience with the Divine. St John of the Cross tells us that this dark experience is interpreted as darkness from our perspective, but that it is actually the blinding of light. Just as the intake of too much light from the sun into the eyes is blinding, so is the glory of pure mystical experience.
In this reorder stage where we experience “dark contemplation” we slowly but surely learn to allow our senses to be put to rest and to find a quality of stillness and deep quiet that pervades our souls in peace. We learn that through love alone we can grasp God, but not through thought. Our senses and thoughts subside and we leave them behind as we journey to unite with God in love.
Let us end with the beautiful words of the beloved Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, who in his work on the “Dark Night of the Soul” poetically speaks to the night where the senses recede and we find God in contemplation:
“On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.”