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Etymology and Insights into Contemplation 


(theoria θεωρία)

The etymology of the word "contemplation" traces its origins and development through various languages and historical contexts. By examining the roots and evolution of "contemplation," we can better understand its meaning and significance.

1. In Greek, theoria (θεωρία) meant contemplation. The term theoria was used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the act of experiencing or observing and then comprehending the knowledge of reality itself. 

2. In Latin, the word "contemplation" comes from the Latin noun "contemplatio." It is derived from the Latin verb "contemplari," which means "to observe" or "to gaze at." "Contemplari" is a compound word, formed from the prefix "con-" (meaning "with" or "together") and "templum," a term originally used to refer to an open space for observation, often associated with divination or religious rituals. In Latin, "contemplatio" had a broader meaning, encompassing not just observing something but also considering it thoughtfully and with focused attention.

3. In modern English, "contemplation" has retained its core meaning of deep, focused thought or meditation on a subject. However, its usage has broadened to encompass a range of contexts and situations. Today, contemplation can refer to a period of reflection and consideration, as well as being used in more specific religious or philosophical contexts, such as contemplative prayer or meditative practices.

Insights into Contemplation


  • For Plato, what the contemplative contemplates are the realities underlying appearances. Plato felt that one who contemplates these realities is enriched with a perspective on ordinary things superior to that of ordinary people. 


  • Aristotle thought of contemplation as the highest activity of man. Leading a contemplative life was Aristotle's answer to the question of "the life humans ought to live."


  • Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism considered contemplation as the knowledge of God or union with him, so a "contemplative life" was a life devoted to God rather than any other activity.


  • In Early Christianity, theoria enabled the Fathers to perceive depths of meaning in the biblical writings that escaped a purely scientific or empirical approach to interpretation. For early Christians, theoria was the act of perceiving a moral and spiritual meaning in the wording and story of Scripture. Early Christians understood that Theosis, or unity with God, was obtained by engaging in contemplative prayer. Through theoria, one comes to see or "behold" God. 

  • In Eastern Christian traditions, theoria is the most critical component needed for a person to be considered a theologian; they believe that the experience of God is necessary for both spiritual and mental health.

Spiritual Significance of Contemplation in Religious and Spiritual Traditions

Contemplation holds a central place in many religious and spiritual traditions, serving as a powerful tool for individuals seeking a deeper connection with the divine or the ultimate truth. By engaging in contemplative practices, individuals can foster spiritual growth and personal transformation and cultivate a heightened awareness of their place in the world. This page explores the spiritual significance of contemplation in various religious and spiritual traditions, focusing on Christian mysticism and Buddhism as prime examples.

Christian Mysticism and Contemplative Prayer

In Christian mysticism, contemplation is a vital practice that helps individuals deepen their relationship with God. Contemplative prayer, which is characterized by a profound state of meditation and stillness, allows believers to experience the presence of God and cultivate a direct, intimate connection with the divine. Unlike vocal prayer, which often focuses on expressing gratitude or petitioning for specific needs, contemplative prayer involves a process of self-emptying, surrender, and receptivity to God's will.


This form of prayer has deep roots in the Christian tradition and has been practiced by mystics and saints throughout history. Influential figures such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, and Thomas Merton have extolled the transformative power of contemplative prayer, emphasizing its role in fostering spiritual growth and deepening one's communion with God. In recent years, the practice has experienced a resurgence in interest, with many contemporary Christians turning to contemplation as a means of grounding themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Buddhism and Meditation

Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices, including mindfulness and insight meditation, play a critical role in helping practitioners achieve enlightenment or "nirvana." These meditation techniques foster spiritual insight and mental clarity by training the mind to focus on the present moment without judgment or attachment. Mindfulness, for example, involves observing the breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions, while insight meditation encourages practitioners to cultivate awareness of the impermanent and interconnected nature of existence.

These practices not only foster personal transformation and spiritual growth, but they also help practitioners develop compassion, equanimity, and loving-kindness towards themselves and others. Through meditation, Buddhists and Christians aim to overcome the cycle of suffering (samsara) and achieve liberation by realizing the true nature of reality, which is characterized by impermanence, suffering, and the absence of a permanent self.


In both Christian mysticism and Buddhism, contemplation serves as a powerful means of connecting with a higher power or gaining spiritual insight. While the specific practices and goals may differ between these traditions, the underlying purpose of contemplation remains consistent: to foster spiritual growth, personal transformation, and a deeper understanding of one's place in the world. By engaging in contemplative practices, individuals from various religious and spiritual backgrounds can cultivate a profound sense of interconnectedness, compassion, and inner peace, ultimately enriching their lives and the lives of those around them.

Thomas Merton's Life and Practices

Thomas Keating on Contemplation

The Contemplative Process

Christian Contemplation Introduction

The Practice of Christian Contemplation

Ongoing Steps to Learning Contemplation

Discernment for Contemplation

Purification for the Contemplative

The Purgative Way

Saint John Paul II on The Rosary

Differences between Meditation and Contemplation

Christian Contemplation Resources

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