In the West, proper meditation and contemplation have generally been forgotten. The modern is usually much too concerned with the external to care about real introspection. The idea of inner reflection is often seen as passé. Anyone who would think of doing such a thing is merely engaging in the act of navel-gazing like those ridiculous idealists with their heads in the clouds. Leave it for the oriental monks high up in their mountains. Of what use is rumination and these other pursuits to modern man? If we want to be virtuous, we must be men of change and action! If you’re not out in the streets signalling your holiness, then what’s the point?
Even those who seek what’s been lost are looking in the wrong places. Most of the present forms of inward prayer in our society are poor copies imported from the Far East, which are paraded around as curiosities, passing fads that are little understood. With the abandonment and deterioration of Christianity, the want for internal realization is either left unfulfilled or sought out in places that are inappropriate for a Westerner (neo-paganism, New Ageism, etc.). One needs only to look at Western “yoga” and those who practice it. Nevertheless, there was once a time in Europe when mystical prayer was held in high regard, back when mysticism was present even beyond the Orthodox churches. We can rediscover the fruits of mysticism, which are of great value, if we look to our own history and rekindle old traditions.
Many aspects of Christian mysticism, both Western and Eastern, can be traced back to Neoplatonism and its “founder,” Plotinus. For Plotinus, the goal of the soul was to remove itself from all multiplicity to return to unity in The One, the indefinable and ineffable emanating source of everything. This meant pulling oneself away from the distraction of the illusory material world that merely reflects higher reality, the realm of ideas (Neo-Platonism is, after all, an interpretation of Plato). Through intense contemplation, the soul is able to, in a sense, free itself from the body and being, which allows it to temporarily grasp the uncreated light of The One, its true desire and end. The soul must lose itself to achieve Unity and Oneness. Plotinus tells us that all action is connected to contemplation and, therefore, everyone needs it. This means that it needs to be taught and perfected, which is why Plotinus wrote for his disciples.
When [men of action] produce something, it is because they wish to see it, contemplate it, and perceive it, and they wish the same for other men… The point of action is contemplation and the having an object of contemplation. Contemplation therefore is the end of action. Action seeks to achieve indirectly what it cannot achieve directly. When one has achieved the object of one’s desires, it is evident that one’s real desire was not the ignorant possession of the desired object but to know it as possessed — as actually contemplated, as within one. Action always has some good or other in view — a good for oneself, to be possessed. Possessed where? In the soul. The circuit is complete: through action the soul comes back to contemplation. ~ The Enneads, III, 8
Aspects of Neoplatonism were eventually incorporated into the more coherent metaphysical framework of Christianity. Anyone with a basic knowledge of theology can see the parallels from what has already been stated with the concepts of theosis and divinization. The focus on contemplation, as well as meditation, of the divine remained both in Orthodoxy and Catholicity. This emphasis can easily be seen in a particular work of St. Albert the Great, the famous teacher of Aquinas. His On Union with God touches on the subject in a very Neoplatonic fashion. Intended for religious (that is, those in an order like monks and friars), it explains how contemplation of God is one of the most noble actions:
God is in truth a Spirit, and “they that adore Him must adore Him in spirit and in truth,” that is, with a knowledge and love, an intelligence and will purified from every phantom of earth. Hence it is written: “When thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber” — i.e., into the inmost abode of thy heart — and, “having shut the door” of thy senses, with a pure heart, a free conscience and an unfeigned faith, “pray to thy Father” in spirit and in truth, in the “secret” of thy soul. Then only will a man attain to this ideal [of charity], when he has despoiled and stripped himself of all else; when, wholly recollected within himself, he has hidden from and forgotten the whole world, that he may abide in silence in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Perfection for man is union with God, which is fully realized in heaven. Through mysticism, though, one can unite their soul with God to a certain extent in this life. After Albert, the great Spanish mystics likewise advocated for meditation and contemplation as ways to purge ourselves of sinful habits and desires so that we may be filled with grace and work towards divine union. Obviously, not everyone is a monk or a nun, but these methods are still needed to grow both spiritually and intellectually. It should be noted that this type of prayer does not mean obliterating one’s sense of self and becoming completely passive to God. Such a position, held by the Quietist heretics, was condemned in the seventeenth century.
Even the scholastics, who are denigrated for being too legalistic and “rationalistic,” granted that mystical knowledge received through grace was of much more worth than intellectual knowledge, and they built off of the mystics before them. Many of the scholastics were contemplatives (monks and canons), yet they saw no contradiction in undertaking intellectual exercises; the mind and reason are gifts from God. Both natural and mystical theology grant us an understanding of God, of the mysteries of faith, of the sacraments, of Christ’s life and humanity, of virtue.
Before the stranglehold of liberalism, these insights had been recognized. This false dichotomy of rationalism and mysticism has only been present in modernity. Similarly, both reason and spirituality have been separated from religion, which is how we have both materialist empiricists and fools who parody Eastern religions because they’re “exotic” and “spiritual.” The idea of a European “aligning chakras” or “practicing yoga” is an absolute joke; yet another reason of why we need look to and salvage our own traditions. They look elsewhere only because they do not know their own history.
Furthermore, this idea of always needing to act externally in politics or religion or whatever is entirely modern. Modern Westerners are too afraid for introspection because they’re scared of what they might find inside, so they either reject its usefulness or cover it up with inauthentic actions to puff themselves up, like using flag filters for the latest tragedy. When Sunday was actually the Lord’s day, people stayed inside and prayed, reflected, meditated, contemplated, etc. Enforce that on your typical Westerner and he’d either die of boredom or recoil in fear from the stain on his soul.
Following Plotinus, action is a result of desire, of perceived lack, of contemplation. Man must stop and think before he acts. Thoughtless action, if such a thing is possible, is like running around as a headless chicken. He must look inward to understand universal principles. The good and virtuous life does not come from without. A virtuous man understands higher principles and translates them into his own life. Of course, there is a balance for each individual. Not everyone can nor should sit in an ivory tower thinking all day, or be a farmer or warrior. Some will be contemplatives and others will be doers. The two groups need each other, just as a head needs a torso and limbs or as a body needs a soul. However, all are called to pursue goodness and truth to whatever extent they are able, which involves inner prayer. Likewise all are called defend the good and the true. Being a thinker is not an excuse for being a coward. This idea that everyone needs focus only on theory or solely on action is no different from egalitarianism.