The Contemplative Path: Communion with the Beloved

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to participate in a training for Cognitive Based Compassion Meditation. Based on the classic Tibetan writings that are the basis for mind-training (lojong), Geshe Lobsang Tenzin of Atlanta’s Drepung Loseling Monastery developed this protocol in conjunction with researchers at Emory University.

As I experienced the various meditation practices that comprise Cognitive Based Compassion Meditation, I was aware how each of the practices had a parallel in the Christian contemplative tradition. Mindfulness meditation is very similar to what’s commonly called “centering prayer” – a form of meditation that keeps one’s attention in the present moment. Extending compassion and the other elements of the Four Immeasurables is much like elements from Ignatian spiritual exercises. A compassion exercise Geshe Lobsang led was very similar to the Christian practice of the examination of conscience. Buddhist practices about focus are also similar to what is called “custody of the heart” in Christian monastic spirituality.

Reflecting on the four days of training, I concluded that there were two essential differences between mind-training and compassion meditation in the Buddhist tradition and the practices found in the contemplative tradition of Christianity.

First, mind-training and compassion meditation evolved over several hundred years in a relatively small geographic region. While rooted in Buddhist experience in India, these practices evolved primarily on the Tibetan plateau within the context of a particular cultural and religious setting. This resulted in a unified body of writing and practice that is accessible today in an organized way.

Christian contemplative practices also evolved over several hundred years. That evolution began in the third century in both modern day Turkey and the Egyptian desert, continuing throughout Eastern and Western Europe and North Africa and eventually to the Americas. This has meant that the practices emerge in several forms, are heavily shaped by a variety of cultures, and often seem discontiguous from each other. The result is that Christian contemplative practice differentiates among various schools that include, but are not limited to, Heychastic spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, and Carmelite spirituality from the Spanish mystics. Even with a graduate degree in spirituality, I have trouble tracing all the various tributaries of contemplative spirituality in the Christian tradition!

At this point in my life, it is the second difference between the Buddhist and Christian traditions which is more significant to me than the first. Many writers point out that a key difference in the Christian contemplative tradition from the Buddhist tradition is the focus on a belief in God. Whether or not a Buddhist believes in a deity, the deity is not central to Buddhist practices of meditation. What draws me to continue the path along the Christian contemplative path is not so much the belief in a deity but the understanding of who God is within the contemplative tradition.

As one explores Christian contemplative practice, one comes to understand God as the Beloved, as one with whom a sensuous love-affair occurs. The experience of the Divine in Christian contemplation is of the Holy Other enveloping one’s own being and luring one to further depths of communion. There is an intensity and depth in the experience.

In their own practice of meditation, the Cappadocian Fathers came to understand the essence of the Divine as a relationship of three persons; within the same century, those dwelling in the deserts of Egypt articulated the experience of the Divine as fire that burns within one’s innermost being; centuries later, Teresa of Avila and many other writers simply referred to God as “the Beloved.” At the same time, these mystics understood themselves as the beloved of God. Perhaps most striking is French mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, and his reflections on the sensuous Song of Songs as an allegory for the contemplative path.

The only other spiritual literature I’ve encountered that depicts the relationship with God in such sensuous terms as the Christian mystics comes from the Sufi tradition of Islam. Today, Sufi communities mark the death of Rumi as his marriage – his wedding to the Beloved. Probably no other spiritual literature is as intense with sensuous desire as the poetry of the Persian Sufi master, Hafiz.

While I find great value in what I’ve learned from Zen masters years ago and more recently from Tibetan monks about Buddhist practice, my experience of the sensuous, seductive God of Christian contemplation draws me further to union and communion with the Beloved I’ve come to know in my own tradition. While I find Buddhist practices refined and enlightening, my encounter with the Beloved through the communion of contemplative practice draws me further along the mystical path.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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