St. Benedict and Abbot Servandus
behold the Cosmos in a Ray of Light

THE Latin word contemplatio is the equivalent of the Greek theoria.  In the writings of Plato theoria often refers to an exalted kind of seeing - an experience of “beholding” the truer world of the Forms which lies beyond the limited, material world.  Theoria is an act of “gazing”, “beholding”, which is also a participation in the reality which is seen.  Theoria connotes communion with “The One” who lies beyond even the realm of the Forms.  The notion of life devoted principally or exclusively to theoria is found also in Aristotle, who extolled the contemplative life (bios theoretikos) as the highest life possible for human beings (Nic.Eth. X, 7-8)


ANCIENT models of of contemplation included the notions of contemplation both as The Vision of that which is Above and The Vision from Above of what is Below.

This is illustrated in selected texts from the following sources.

PLATO: two texts from The Republic, THE PARABLE of  the CAVES and THE MYTH of ER

In the Latin-speaking world CICERO: retells the Myth of Er  in the DREAM of SCIPIO

In the apocalyptic literature of the JEWISH PSEUDEPIGRAPHA   The BOOK of ENOCH portrays the prophet as a seer of the heavenly realms, whose visions have a message for the Jewish people of that era.


IN the Christian appropriation of this tradition there develop two key insights:

First, that there are RHYTHMS of ACTIVITY (practice) AND RECEPTIVITY (contemplation)   rather than a simple, linear ascent.

Second, that spiritual growth requires the dimensions of both APOPHATIC and KATAPHATIC theology and experience.

These insights come to be associated with texts from both the



They are illustrated and further developed in biographies of martyrs such as PERPETUA and FELICITY, and in the later tradition of MONASTIC VISIONARIES

Relatively recently the term SPIRITUALITY has been used to encompass the disciplines formerly referred to as ascetical and mystical theology.

Suspicion of the notion of contemplation in modern times is a result of the condemnation of QUIETISM


THE practice of Contemplation is central to the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of icons and iconography.

This is particularly well-illustrated in Andre Rubilev's Icon of the Blessed Trinity

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