Another Look: Mary and the Contemplative Life

The Ghent Altarpiece – The Virgin Mary. van Eyck

Mary and the Contemplative Life

“But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

• • •

The American church is renowned for its activism. We are a “can do” people, and in the Christian context that often means we see ourselves as “saved to serve.” We commend “being about the Lord’s business,” and value that which works and produces results.

On the other hand, we don’t always appreciate the value of practices like contemplation. For some, the idea seems too mystical. For many evangelical types, such disciplines seem too “Catholic” or associated with movements that come dangerously close to “new age” thinking or a lack of doctrinal stability.

It is unfortunate that we divide action and contemplation. It is unfortunate that we sometimes suspect those who pursue a robust inner life.

For example, let’s take a passage like Ephesians 2:10 — “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

This text teaches plainly that Christians are to live out their faith actively. In Christ, we have been made new to walk in the good works that God planned that we would do. On the other hand, the context is instructive. Eph. 2:10 comes in the midst of one of the longest, richest, most prayerful meditations in the New Testament, a breathtaking panoramic examination of the blessings with which God has favored his people in Christ (Eph 1:3-3:21). The section ends with Paul praying that the Ephesians “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (3:18-19).

Apparently for Paul, holy contemplation and action go hand in hand.

In the Christmas story, Mary exemplifies the contemplative side of the coin. Whereas Luke highlights the actions of the shepherds by using six vibrant verbs of motion, he describes the Virgin Mother in quite different terms: “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

To “keep” or “treasure” the things of God in my heart is to put them in a place where they are hidden from the world, yet accessible to me so that I may take them out to consider their value and significance. That place is my private world of heart, mind, and spirit. To live a contemplative life is to walk on the surface of a semi-arid world while drawing from a hidden aquifer far below. To live a contemplative life is to resemble an iceberg in the ocean — what you see is only a small percentage of who I am. To live a contemplative life is to follow the path of the artist, the musician, the craftsman, the athlete. The end-product you see coming from my life is the result of an extensive unseen life of practice and preparation.

Contemplation means to “ponder” as Mary did. It means to thoughtfully and prayerfully meditate on Scripture, on my life, on what’s happening in the world and especially in the part of it that I inhabit. It means to ruminate, to chew things over. Luther said meditation is like shaking a tree until you get the fruit to fall. Some have said it’s like preaching to oneself, taking a thought and drawing out its implications and applications for life. To be a contemplative means to be attentive, a good listener, an observer of details, a believer in the unseen and mostly unappreciated presence and activity of God in every circumstance.

I have a wonderful opportunity in my current job (of which I don’t always take advantage). Between visits, which are often intense, I get in my car and drive. Sometimes I just need a break, so I turn on some music or listen to sports talk radio to clear my mind. But often it’s meditation time. Time to contemplate. Time to think about the people I’ve met. Time to ask what God might be doing in this home, in that family, in this situation, in our team, in me. Time to draw connections between the Bible and life, between what I think is happening and what might really be happening. Time to ponder people’s words and consider what they might really have been saying. Time to review what I said, to reconsider, to repent, to rejoice. Even time to think about what I might write next on Internet Monk.

I know this is a luxury not afforded to everyone on the job. People in different situations or at different seasons of life have more or less space in their daily routines for quiet, solitude, prayer, and formal practices of devotion. But being a contemplative is more about what we are than what we do. It is refusing to skim along the surface of life. It is renouncing the way of busyness and frantic activity. It involves embracing intentionality. It requires developing powers of observation, analysis, and imagination. It means cultivating focus. It is about maintaining an active inner life before God no matter what is happening in one’s outer circumstances.

Think of all that Mary must have been thinking and feeling during the events described in Luke’s Christmas story! Imagine the difficulties of a journey to Bethlehem in her condition, the disappointment and discomfort of finding no lodging, the anxiety of realizing her time to give birth had arrived, the process of labor and delivery, the postpartum emotions, the startling interruption of the shepherds, the realization that people all around town were hearing and wondering and gossiping about her and her baby. This does not sound like a situation conducive to contemplation. “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

In Mary, the seed found good soil. When the Word came to her, she held it fast “in an honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15), exemplifying for all believers the blessings of the contemplative way.

25 thoughts on “Another Look: Mary and the Contemplative Life

  1. I go through periods where I am more contemplative than others. I have read Mystical Christians from Saint John of the Cross, John Cassian, Psuedo-Dionysus etc…

    I have done some silent retreats using the Cloud of Unknowing.

    I am 54 and most would say I am an extrovert. I consider myself an introvert in an extroverts body…


  2. Alternating between the two.
    Not spending all the time in one or the other.
    Again in the words of Moody Blues, “A Question of Balance”.


  3. Christiane, so many times your thoughts and comments relate to my soul.
    Bless you this Christmas tide.


  4. I hear that criticism about “being spiritual” but think it’s a false dichotomy. It’s being spiritual that compels me to action rather than hindering me. Nothing much else will motivate me past my cynicism.


  5. The love of ‘alone time’ as a way to recharge before returning to ‘the busy world’ is a theme that extends way back into the history of Christianity.

    We see this in the longing expressed in the prayer of Aidan of Holy Island, Lindisfarne, a ‘tidal island’ attached to the mainland only when the tide receded to form a ‘land bridge’ twice a day.
    But when the tide came in and covered the land bridge, Lindisfarne was once more an ‘island’ isolated from the busy mainland, and the monks were left to pray in peace.

    Here is Aidan’s prayer, written long ago in northern Britain
    circa 635 A.D.

    “Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
    As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
    Make me an island, set apart, alone with You, God, holy to You.

    Then, with the turning of the tide
    prepare me to carry Your Presence to the busy world beyond,
    the world that rushes in on me till the waters come again
    and fold me back to you.”


  6. ” To live a contemplative life is to walk on the surface of a semi-arid world while drawing from a hidden aquifer far below.”

    Brings to mind this from Ignatius of Antioch:
    ” “There is within me a stream of living water which murmurs and tells me – “Come to the Father ! “


  7. One of the phrases I heard long ago…

    When it comes to Mary, if Catholics are guilty of over-emphasis, Protestants are guilty of amnesia.


  8. I’ve come to conclude that it all comes down to (in the words of the prophet Moody Blues) “A Question of Balance”.

    The American church (“renowned for its activism”) is out-of-balance in that it neglects contemplation for action.

    But contemplation can also go out-of-balance, to where you do nothing except “be spiritual” contemplating your spiritual frontal lobes.

    And like any two factions out-of-balance in opposite directions, the two are always fighting.


  9. I wrote a college paper (the entire course was graded on the one paper) on the psychology of meditation in 1982. It intrigued me at 21 and it is part of me at 57. I learned a fair bit from the Trappists along the way. It is a very regular part of my daily life but lacks the discipline of regularity. I often find myself meditating in the van during my work day and at other odd times. It has become my common form of prayer as I sometimes find language to be superfluous and actually a distraction. I would add that meditation and imagination are fife and drum.


  10. We do know that Simeon told her that “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35.


  11. As Protest Christians (I am Lutheran), we tend to diminish Mary’s role in Christ’s birth and life and are critical of Roman Catholics for their veneration of Mary. The reality is that Mary is the mother of God and she was there for important events in her son’s life: Birth, Circumcision, Presentation, First Miracle, Dead, and Resurrected Life.

    We need to honor Mary for who she is and what she has done as the Mother of God while without giver her undo honor that is reserved for Christ.


  12. While I don’t necessarily do “such contemplation” on a regular basis, my mind is always going and sometimes I find myself “contemplating” quite often during the normal course of driving, shopping, etc. (And I’m an introvert.)


  13. Also meant to say that my friend directs us to older as well as contemporary Christian meditation teachers and practitioners. The latter include Fr. John Main, Fr. John Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, etc. And now, even local Church of Christ leaders are encouraging and themselves practicing spiritual exploration in this direction. Would like to say more but out-of-town son, wife and grandchild flew in last night and now are awake. See ya later.


  14. Starting in the seventies I became curious about meditation and always had an intention to explore it. But, with family and job and established habits of living, I never took any action to pursue it. My church, locally and broadly, lacked knowledge about contemplative practices and so ignored this aspect of Christian heritage, giving no encouragement. It had come to my attention through personal reading in the early 2000’s that even evangelical writers were beginning to address and explore earlier Christian practices such as meditation and contemplation. My situation changed, after retiring and moving to Memphis. A year and a half ago, after reading the book “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story” by Dan Harris, my wife and I signed up, paid our money, and took a meditation course. Then by a stroke of good luck, I re-connected with an old friend. We both went to a Church of Christ school, Harding College, and later Memphis State in the early seventies. Turns out he conducts Christian meditation sessions. He is now Episcopalian and has a long term deep interest in Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m lucky enough to make it downtown a couple of times per month to participate. Am not a daily practitioner but even so I find the practice beneficial and hope to grow and improve. Definitely I fit the category of an introvert.


  15. I am interested to see who here does such contemplation often, and who does not, and if they consider themselves introverts or extroverts.
    (I am defining introvert/extrovert by how you get recharged- alone or w/ people, not whether you are shy or not).


  16. the Word is made flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.
    He comes to us not just at the end of our Advent waiting but everyday in the
    little things, thoughts and deeds we call our earthly existence.
    Thank God for His everyday attention to the details of our lives.



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