(The following is an excerpt of remarks presented in the first of our Lenten Series. We were delighted that thirty-five people chose to join us, many coming into our monastery for the first time. The group ended their time with us by joining the community in singing Night Prayer, the Office of Compline.)
Judging from the titles one finds on the shelves of books stores these days, it is plain to see that contemplative living has become as cosy an idea as "Martha Stewart living." Titles indicate that living life contemplatively is not just for official contemplative nuns or monks; that contemplative emphasis can benefit all; that it is a healthier way physically, psychologically as well as spiritually. What would that look like in the life of an ordinary person?
A contemplative life is lived: prayerfully, simply, consciously, and faithfully.
Any observation of contemplative monastic life will find immediate focus in the life of prayer. It is so ideal to have you share in our communal prayer at the end of this presentation. In a way, you do not really experience a monastery unless you attend a time of communal prayer. Those who spend time with us express in a myriad of ways how prayerful the place is. And the communal prayer supports individual lives of attentive prayer. We ARE invited to spend enough time in private prayer, contemplation or meditation to anchor our lives in the power beyond us.
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 at home 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 ways, put our money where our mouth is. This may mean re-examining our charitable giving or reconsidering what we might do to benefit others in our spare time. It might mean making a renewed effort to repair, re-use or recycle the stuff we take for granted or accumulate. I might mean asking questions like: Am I making right use of our water resources? Do I need to buy the next big thing?
Such considerations lead us to another feature of the contemplative orientation. 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, giving you the impression that they were no longer listening? Knowing that feeling when others tune us out we have to ask ourselves, “Who is it that I may not be paying attention to, listening to, being present to?” 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 formed 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 poured 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 necessary to experience such things? Can we stop and smell the roses? Sabbath is another name for stopping to smell the roses. Judith Shulevitz is a Jew who decided to re-appropriate the Sabbath of Orthodox Judaism. In her NY Times article “Bring Back the Sabbath – Why Even the Secular Need a Ritualized Day of Rest” she wrote, “Interrupting our ceaseless striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will…We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.” Sabbath time restores balance to our lives, the balance between action and rest, the exterior and the interior life, conversation and silence. Any monastic horarium, the schedule of the day, is very balanced. When I entered, complete with my body clock set to the demands of life as a working laywoman I found the schedule difficult to adjust to. I mean – rest and be quite from 1:30 to 3:30pm – that is the heart of the day! How will I get anything done? Soon I came to realize that I would be well advised to pray when the schedule said pray, work in the established work time, recreate when time was offered for that and rest when I was given the opportunity. It created a perfect balance.
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 or beliefs about the meaning of life 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. This may be the greatest challenge in any life. It must prevail over routine, boredom, disappointment, disenchantment. It may also be called upon to prevail over real agony, real physical, mental or emotional disability or a myriad of other extreme challenges to the stamina to persevere.