Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Living Life Contemplatively

It would seem that contemplative living is in vogue. Do a search on for “contemplation” or “contemplative living” and you come up with over 15,000 citations! It would seem that the idea of living more contemplatively has become as cozy a notion as “Martha Stewart living.” Here are some of the titles you would find:

A Listening Heart: The Art of Contemplative Living by David Steindahl-Rast
Organic Spirituality: A Six-fold Path for Contemplative Living by Vandergriff
The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living by Thomas Keating
The Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life by Teasdale & Wilber
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s
Religions by Teasdale
Mirror of the Heart: Consciousness at the Root of Identity also by Teasdale

There must be something to this. Since such a list (and the shelves of Borders and Barnes and Noble too) reflects that a lot of other people must be coming to that conclusion.
In my first talk I tried to convey the meaning of Redemptoristine lives, indeed all contemplative life. But I tried also to communicate how this orientation in life is not just for us as official contemplatives, official nuns and monastics. All of us are called to great union with God. That is why we are here. Remember the Baltimore Catechism teaching? Why did God make me? Answer – “To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him.” To know, to become more intimate with any one we must engage in loving companionship and mutual sharing.
Earlier I spoke of our call to be “living memories” of Jesus. If we profess the faith, if we listen to our baptismal call, isn’t that what we are all meant to do within our own particular life circumstances?
The fruits of such contemplative living are a strengthening of faith, an increase in charity and clarity of vision. How could this look in your every day life? Another way of talking about this is to ask, “How can we, indeed all of us, whether we are monastics or lay people, how can we live in a way that is consistent with trying to be a living memory of Jesus. How does trying to keep your “eyes on the prize” look in the day to day of relationships, family life, career, the line at the supermarket, the crowded waiting room of the doctor’s office, participation in local and national politics and, on the grand scale, being a citizen of the world?
But giving witness to an interior disposition, an interior dedication IS what we are talking about here. We have an old mimeographed copy of a translation of a scaled down version of Alphonsus’ The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ done by Father Bernard Haring, the great Redemptorist theologian. In his note on the translation he wrote, “Over and over he [Alphonsus] reminds us that ‘surface’ Christianity is not enough. We must surrender to the overwhelming force of the love of Christ, and allow ourselves to become transformed into the redeeming Christ.” Therefore to live contemplatively is to give witness, to become Celeste’s “viva memoria”, a living memory of the Redeemer for ourselves, those with whom we live in family or community and those with whom we share the planet.
In his book, Contemplation in a World of Action, Thomas Merton wrote:
…I am talking about a special dimension of inner discipline and experience, a certain integrity and fullness of personal development,
which are not compatible with a purely external, alienated busy-busy
existence. This does not mean that they are incompatible with action,
with creative work and dedicated love. On the contrary, these go together.
A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful
action. Without a more profound human understanding derived from
exploration of the inner ground of human existence, love will tend to be
superficial and deceptive. Traditionally, ideas of prayer, meditation and
contemplation have been associated with this deepening of one’s personal
life and this expansion of the capacity to serve and understand others. (Chap. 9)

A contemplative life is lived: prayerfully, simply, consciously, and faithfully.
To live simply – here I have to tell you a bit of my story. Over the years, to defend myself from the incursions of three growing sons I made my bedroom at home into my little kingdom complete with TV, VCR, radio, tape and CD player, computer, sewing machine and, of course, a telephone. My feet would hit the floor in the morning and at least one, if not two, of these devices would be turned on. I cooked while talking on the phone; never worked without media accompaniment of some kind. About two years before I entered I began my shift into the contemplative way by not turning on the car radio for the drive to work. Big sacrifice! A year before I entered I began to do my morning routine in silence. That was a big change and you may not want to go there but I share it because I was as addicted to it as anyone else. But the truth is to live simply we have to say “no” more often so that we are not constantly bombarded and shaken from our efforts toward interior contemplation. And we may also consider that it is necessary to live simply in order that others may simply live. It seems to me that this is where “the rubber hits the road” when we speak of ministry to the most needy and abandoned. Can we in some ways, even though they be small, put our money where our mouth is, where the charism has meaning?
To live consciously – is to be fully present, fully aware. We may not need to change anything we do but it is valuable to ask ourselves occasionally, “Why am I doing this?” “Why do I come here; why do I buy these things; why do I spend time with these people or doing these things; why do I vote the way I do?”
To live consciously also implies being AWAKE. Did you ever find yourself talking to someone and suddenly realize that they had zoned out, left you and gone off to some other world,that they were no longer listening. We may ask ourselves, “Who is it that I may not be paying attention to, listening to, being present too?” Could it be your spouse, your child (small or grown up), your friend of many years, your newly widowed elderly neighbor, the person sitting nearby at Mass, the hungry or homeless who flock to Catholic Charities and Family of Woodstock, the starving people of Sudan? I don’t know. But I do know that I tune people out all the time. A contemplative stance requires that I be present and accounted for.
Another aspect of living consciously is to be awake to our surroundings. God can speak to us in the beauty, wonders, and awesomeness of nature. Fr. Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who became famous as one of the first Christians in history to look with deep respect and genuine spiritual curiosity at the great religions of the East, eventually came for form a Benedictine ashram community in India. He recorded this little description of his earliest “religious” experience. As a young teen he was walking near his school playing fields on a summer evening.
A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where
I was standing and pour out its song above my head, and then sank still
singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the
veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of
awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as
though I had been standing in the presence of an angel.
(The Golden String:An Autobiography 9)

Can we allow ourselves the kind of time to experience such things? Can we stop and smell the roses?
The last of the over-riding principles on the contemplative way is to live faithfully. Each of you, I am sure, has lived out of your faith for a long time. And each of you, I am just as sure, has lived faithfully committed to a vow, an ideal , a work. So this is nothing new to you. This is the grace to persevere in the daily; to keep on keeping on.
I am going to give you a bookmark with some additional thoughts that may inspire in the future. Just a few comments about them:
Nothing you do is really wasted time. Prayer is time “wasted” on relationship with God. The “silent witness of brotherly presence” is time “wasted” for the sake of charity in community.
Finding a balance we can live with … including Sabbath time. There is so much that calls to us to minister, to serve, to help, to organize, and even to listen. Without balance these are invitations to discouragement and burnout. Thoughtful, conscious consideration on how you balance your commitments and your needs is an expression of a contemplative value, the value of what we call monastic leisure.
Allow your particular community to “work” on you. In your rule and ours the section on the vows is preceded by a call to life in community characterized by charity, a life that by is very nature is to be an instrument of our conversion. The call to love is a challenge and formation by community can sometimes be painful. But to be attentive and receptive to it and God’s voice within it is to be contemplatively surrendered to cooperation with grace.
Attending to issues of peace and justice for all people, the earth and our cosmos. Sister Paula spoke to this value in her words about living consciously. The only thing I might add is that we may experience the call to this in very small ways and therefore ignore them. It speaks to our ability to live with difference in our most intimate communities and all the way out to the family of nations. We can hope that the prayer of contemplation that “fixed gaze” will heighten our awareness.
And finally, aspire to an attitude of gratitude. A few years back Oprah Winfrey steadily advised her listeners to keep “gratitude journals”. It became quite the rage. Her viewers wrote in about how taking a few minutes a day to write five things that they were grateful for had produced massive changes in attitude, relationship and morale. And for us, who are so very blessed by our communities, our families, and the wealth of this country surely this is an exercise we cannot ignore.
This is the new saintliness to which you too are called – to keep our eyes on Christ so that we might see Christ Jesus in all things.

Now we would like to give you some time to consider how this contemplative attitude might fit into your lives as you live them today.

Is any of this appealing at the outset?
What might the challenges be for you?
What might your life, daily routine, choices look like?
Do you find this realistic or off-putting?

No comments: