VOLUME XII, Number 1 January - June 2022
1. What do we mean by the contemplative dimension of life? Since we do not want to attempt a definition of contemplation, which has received different interpretations in various religious traditions and spiritual experiences, we simply emphasize the functioning and originality (or perhaps better, the originalism) of this dimension. Let us start with what the expression “of Life” means. In contemplation this has to be a subjective genitive and not just an objective one. Life is not an object; rather, it is the subject that is felt within us. A French philosopher, who has given us an original re-reading of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, speaks of the “self-awareness of Life in us,” of a “feeling of Life in its communication of itself to us.” Contemplation is an integral experience of Life feeling itself.[1] Note that we capitalize Life to indicate that the mystery of Life is not reducible to its physiological or psychic dimensions. Life is a mystery, it is not simply the life I have, but is in me and somehow feels itself throbbing, living in me. Contemplation is not just one among many ways of experiencing Life; it is an integral way that brings other dimensions of experience into a harmonious whole.
Experience of Life. Everyone is conscious of living and of the fact that Life represents our highest value. Everything else depends on it; rather, it is bound up with it. Self-preservation is the first human instinct. This basic experience can tap into different but inseparable levels of depth. Some feel alive because they feel the blood pulsing in their veins—in all the richness of this metaphor, which embraces passion and feeling. Some feel fully alive when they think; that is, when they realize that they are endowed with a wonderful ability to feel the pulse of reality; this is an intellectual experience of Life. There are others who realize, with even greater intensity, that Life transcends them, that it has been given to them, that it is a gift, a grace... The three experiences proceed together and sometimes one prevails, sometimes the other. Thus, we speak of the experience of body, soul, spirit.[2]
We therefore have to deal with an integral experience of Life, fully attentive to all three dimensions: the sensitive, the intelligible, and the spiritual. “The experience of Life is the more or less harmonious union of the three consciousnesses before the intellect distinguishes them.”[3] In this perspective, “mystical” experience is meant to indicate the experience that by harmonizing the three dimensions allows one “to enjoy Life fully.” We are faced with the challenge of an integral human experience and thus a self-consciousness that is open to the meaning of the Whole. This is what is found in the human archetype of the “monk,” with the simplicity or innocence that is characteristic of the monastic man or woman.
What we have to do is find the way to realize this basic attitude. Some obstacles that might stand in the way are preoccupation with doing at the expense of being, or distinguishing knowledge and love to the point of separating them, or even the dynamics of cognitive specialization that fragment human experience. To aid us in overcoming these obstacles, there are multiple and diverse schools of thought and life—which are to be known and respected in their particularity—that can help us recover the innocence manifested in the free and spontaneous attitude flowing from the fullness of the person and in a monastic simplicity that grasps humanity in its wholeness.
In addition to this focus on the wholeness and fullness of Life, one element emerges from the contemplative act:.
Contemplation is something definitive, something connected with the very end of Life. It is not a means to something else. The contemplative act has in itself its own raison d'être, its own foundation. Contemplation cannot be manipulated to achieve another end. In that sense, it is not a stage. It has no ulterior intentionality. The contemplative act is purely spontaneous, free, unconditioned. The contemplative is the one who simply “sits,” simply “is,” lives. Contemplation is the very breath of Life.[4]
Such an attitude is opposed to the orientation of modern civilization, both secular and religious.
2. We need to take a look at the cultural and social context in which we experience the way various contemplative experiences relate to one another. The encounter between religions is always a three-way relationship that must include the context in which this encounter takes place, that is, the shared world. Religions or spiritual experiences meet and confront each other by offering an (overall) way of inhabiting the world “differently,” a way of giving meaning and purpose to a reality that is at variance with the codes of the dominant culture. Therefore, religions cannot be reduced to spiritual techniques or resources for survival, relaxation, or wellness that are disengaged from the visions of reality they unveil and structure. Doing so would mean putting them at the service of the dominant culture and its way of organizing and experiencing life, rather than grasping its original capacity to structure a world of experience and a way of making sense of life in its various dimensions. Thought of in this way, the contemplative dimension represents a cultural and anthropological challenge of considerable depth. We note only two fundamental aspects of it:  inhabiting space and living in time.
First and foremost, contemplation constitutes a challenge to the way we organize space in our societies and specifically raises the question of the center of our living space. What is at the center and how does it (God, the self, the cosmos, Unitotality) place itself there? What is the circumference that establishes the center? What does it include and what does it exclude? Where is its point of equilibrium? Does it demarcate a space that is hospitable or inhospitable, closed or open, uniform or attentive to otherness? The pluralist context has put again into play the experience of the peaceful and immediate non-coincidence of self with self. We have always been inhabited by the other and in relationship with the other. Hence the anthropological alternative: can I find in myself a center, a point of equilibrium that allows me to be myself in relation to the whole, or must I live without a center, at the service of something else?
Sometimes, in our society, such decentralization is experienced as a loss of self, the feeling that one is condemned to try to be useful and productive in order to legitimize one's existence, even to the point of being obsessed with the possession of goods or money that allows one to acquire a space in which to live. A radical alternative is created in which act is opposed to product, being to profit. One senses today an inauthentic condition in which Life is subjugated to the “imperative of enjoyment,” according to which one must make the most out of what happens in life so as not to be a failure. Doing so, however, means that one runs the risk of living in service to something else, namely things to be done and mastered.
Something similar occurs with regard to time. Life today appears to be increasingly unbalanced, focused on the future, stretched out to the time to come—credit, development, savings, insurance, business, planning, prevention, and so on. Everything is hinged on the “then,” on the “later,” on a future that remains uncertain. We experience time as something that must be overcome, mastered. The acceleration of time represents the great success of science and technology. Thus one experiences the tyranny of the future and an obsession with the accumulation of power, knowledge, money, success. Contemplation, on the other hand, is concerned with the “now,” with the fullness of the present. It has no path to rush walking, no place to reach. It has no purpose beyond itself. Contemplation reveals the fullness of all that is: each moment contains the whole universe. Contemplation does not finds its life in the absence of time but in its fullness.
By organizing space and making sense of time, the contemplative dimension of Life calls us back to a way of being human that reveals the possible distortions of the present and challenges us to go deeper.
3. At a second level, the encounter between religions and religious or spiritual experiences implies a dynamic of intra-religious transformation or revision. That is, it invites us to revisit our own tradition and involves knowing ourselves in a new way vis-à-vis the other and with the other. Concretely, this means that the encounter with other contemplative experiences challenges today's Christians to verify the consistency and harmony of the different dimensions of their experience as believers. Have Christians in recent history harmoniously guarded the doctrinal, moral, and mystical dimensions of their faith? Or have they somehow allowed them to become unbalanced by focusing almost exclusively on the doctrinal (dogmas) or moral (precepts) dimensions to the detriment of the contemplative dimension and its anthropological implications, because they needed apologetic resources to counter modern rationality and the overwhelming power of science and technology? It is not a matter of choosing one dimension over the others, but on the contrary of keeping all three dimensions of experience (sensitive, intelligible, spiritual) in harmony.
At this level of the encounter, too, the challenge of the culture in which we live breaks through, a culture dominated by the technological revolution that focuses solely on the present and the future, and that therefore distrusts tradition. In any case, it selectively seeks to retrieve only what seems useful with respect to the demands of the present either through an aestheticizing revisiting of the past, like a tourist visiting museums, or in theories of identity based on conflict and revindication that are put into practice by asserting oneself against others. There is a risk, however, of a reductive and rootless approach to reality that seeks neither masters nor witnesses but prefers sellers of useful or titillating cultural products or incentives for radicalism, extremism, or fundamentalism.
In response to this possible drift, dialogue between religions becomes a challenging dialogue between ancient traditions, involving considerable cognitive effort and great respect. It involves rereading and recounting one's own tradition in front of the other, or perhaps rediscovering dimensions or truths buried in the past that are still authentic or important and can help one live one's experience to the full. More than an effort at translation, it is about narrative hospitality extended to others and how they present their traditions, seeing this as an opportunity for mutual enrichment and cross-fertilization. Dialogue should further a kind of mutual cross-fertilization that does not result in syncretism but, on the contrary, to a deeper knowledge of oneself in relation to the other and thus to the reappropriation of neglected dimensions of one's own religious experience. Adopting such an approach could lead to the forming of religious people or groups who are capable of speaking of their own experience in the language of the other and thus make possible an understanding of the other's experience that the other can actually recognize as his or her own.
4. The hoped-for outcome of such an undertaking, which focuses on the contemplative dimension of life in dialogue with diverse religious and spiritual experiences, is the discovery of the true constitutive bonds of the humanity we share. This is the desire expressed by Pope Francis in Fratelli tutti.
Our current cultural sensibility is characterized by individualism and multiculturalism. Both sides often appeal to our common humanity but find themselves fragile and fatigued by their efforts to express it in concrete ways. We lack a solid anthropological foundation that could nurture sharing. In particular, it now seems clear that a certain kind of formal and non-affective rationality (universal rationality), which should guarantee the neutrality of public space as a place for shared debate about differences, is incapable of creating places of real encounter and interpersonal exchange.  There is a need for a “more of meaning” or perhaps a “more of affection.” The insufficiency of Enlightenment rationality has now shown all its limits. The opposition between faith and reason has not helped. There is a need to meet in a shared “feeling” that interweaves bonds and duties with the pleasure of being together in sharing a contemplative look at reality.[5]
Never before has the connection between the two forms of lamentation — “There is no more religion” and “There is no more community” — been perceived as much as today. One must therefore ask whether the time has not come to encourage the common perception of an “original proficiency for sensing what is universally human”[6] that is proper to spiritual experience, a feeling that is shaped in communities of religious affiliation and tradition. There is an “affective consciousness” that has its own competence in recognizing what is universally human, and religions have an irreplaceable role in shaping such an “order of affects.”[7] Along these lines, the organization of public space on the basis of our “common humanity” finds its origin and goal in a religious perspective that structures a certain order of affects, a feeling that elicits and creates bonds. It is certainly not a matter of more or less sacred emotions, but rather of that cultivation of bonds that shape a person and give meaning to his or her affairs. Put another way: it is that shared feeling in which one learns to spell out fundamental human experiences within a religious language that is symbolic and therefore meaningful.
Without this sharing of an integral experience of Life, even the ecological imperative given expression in Laudato si' is reduced to a sterile claim or an empty protest. From the point of view of the contemplative dimension, one realizes that the current way of inhabiting the world exists in a gap between the vision proper to religious experience and that of secularized public opinion dominated by a scientistic logic or at any rate by an instinctively naturalistic discourse in which rational and natural explanations are the ones that must dominate.[8] Any discourse that brings in the sacred dimension of supernatural or transcendent forces is felt to be a regression to myths and illusions of the past. However, the scientific and rational discourse that is so dominant in our day has not brought with it greater attention to reality. On the contrary: technology has led to “de-substantializing” things in order to make them more appealing and thus marketable. This implies a kind of “loss of Reality” in culture that has led to a world of experience that now lacks the coordinates of transcendence/immanence, substance/appearance, truth/opinion, interiority/exteriority.[9] This development has not provided people with greater freedom from the world of objects. On the contrary, it has accentuated dependence on things, on the fruits of unrelenting production that depends on products quickly becoming obsolescent junk, which in turn fosters a need to get rid of things and introduces a feeling of fragility, anguish, and sense of precariousness. The result is the creation of the “minimal self,” insecure and anxious, because it is tied to a world of appearances that is constantly changing and therefore unstable, offering no reliable points of reference.[10] In this process of emptying things and experiences, which distributes appearances in the real and creates artificial spaces and voids, religion recedes into the realm of the imaginary and does not organize the symbolic order of social ties and communicative codes. Any serious consideration of the human is no longer measured by a normative natural order or a tradition of values that are binding, nor even by authoritative social and cultural codes. But all this increases insecurity and the ensuing conflict between the “I” and the world, between the self and others, between the uncertain human and a distant divine. As a result, people find themselves increasingly alone in an infinite and indifferent material universe.
The loss of the contemplative dimension of Life fragments human experience and exposes it to disruptive forces that make it uncertain, provisional, limited, and therefore insecure. Human beings have lost themselves and cry out for recognition that gives stability to their existence. But they remain entangled in a game of appearances. They lack a center that keeps them connected to the positive whole of reality.
Translated by William Skudlarek

[1] See M. Henry, Io sono la verità. Per una filosofia del cristianesimo, Queriniana, Brescia 1997; Idem, Incarnation. Une philosophie de la chair, Editions su Seuil, Paris 2000.

[2] R. Panikkar, Mistica pienezza di Vita, Jaca Book, Milano 2008, p. 5.

[3] Ivi, p. 7.

[4] Ivi, p. 51.

[5] See J. Milbank, “Truth, Liberty and Feeling”, in E. Fogliadini (ed.), Religioni, libertà, potere, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2014, pp. 127-141.

[6] P. Sequeri, “Il sentimento del sacro: una nuova sapienza psico-religiosa?”, in G. Angelini (ed.), La religione postmoderna, Glossa, Milano 2003, p. 85.

[7] On this issue, see in general F. Riva – P. Sequeri, I segni della destinazione. L'ethos occidentale e il sacramento, Cittadella, Assisi 2009. The return of religiosity in the structuring of public space is documented by J. Casanova, Oltre la secolarizzazione. Le religioni alla riconquista della sfera pubblica, Il Mulino, Bologna 1994.

[8] Si veda V. Rosito, Postsecolarismo. Passaggi e provocazioni del religioso nel mondo contemporaneo, EDB, Bologna 2017. This passage from C. Taylor, L’età secolare, Feltrinelli, Milano 2009, p. 46, says it very clearly: “It is a characteristic of our contemporary Closed World Structures to be understood in this naturalizing way by those who reside in them. One of the consequences is that those who are part of it see no alternative except a return to the myths and illusions of yesteryear.”

[9] See S. Žižek, Distanza di sicurezza. Cronache del mondo rimosso, Manifestolibri, Roma 2005.

[10] See Ch. Lasch, L’io minimo. La mentalità della sopravvivenza in un'epoca di turbamenti, Feltrinelli, Milano 1985.

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