The obstacles to contemplation are graphically summed up in a comic strip – mother inside the house, looking out a window, her little boy sitting in the yard with his back to a tree:
Mother:“Ditto, what are you doing out there?”
Mother:“You must be doing something! Now tell me!”
Ditto:“I’m not doing anything.”
Mother:“Ditto! You tell me what you’re doing!”
Ditto (to himself): “Good gosh!” (He tosses a stone.)(out loud):“I’m throwing rocks!”
Mother:“I thought it was something like that. Now stop it at once!”
Ditto:“Okay.” (to himself):“Nobody will let you just do nothing any more.”[i]
Thankfully, my Midwestern childhood gave me plenty of space to do nothing much and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes it was a long lazy afternoon of baseball in the side lot. Other times it was canoeing and fishing on the slow-moving Fox River. And when I was feeling especially adept at “nothing doing,” I would lie in the tall summer grass and gaze at the clouds in the sky and dream of what my life might be.
Then as I grew into adolescence and young adulthood I shed my doing of nothing in favor of the rule most Americans live by: “Only useful activity is valuable, meaningful, moral.” I was so eager to become an adult that at the age of 22 I simultaneously got married, started full-time church employment, purchased a brand new Oldsmobile, trained for a marathon, and began my seminary education as a commuter student. Always the over-achiever! It took about three years for my entire world to come crashing in on me (a story for another day)!
The prayer of Jesus in the 17thchapter of the Gospel of John feels remarkably intimate to me – like eavesdropping on a conversation between Jesus and the One he calls “Abba.” Jesus prays, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”(17:21). “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, as we are one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”(17:23).
This prayer recognizes a unity within community that is possible when we set aside our egos long enough to seek the Presence of Love that is the Word made flesh among us! Thomas Merton once observed, “Hard as it is to convey in human language, there is a very real and very recognizable (but almost entirely undefinable) Presence of God, in which we confront Him in prayer knowing Him by Whom we are known, aware of Him Who is aware of us, loving Him by Whom we know ourselves to be loved.”[ii]
How do we enter this contemplative way of being, this journey inward? How do we create enough space in the soul’s inner landscape to welcome the One who made us, the One who redeems us, the One who will sustain us until we are home?
When one is young one thinks one knows things! This was true for me when I jumped into adulthood with both feet. I knew I was called into pastoral ministry. I knew I was committed to my young wife until death do us part. I knew I was going to set the world afire. Then I became acquainted with Reality, and it was not overly impressed with my newly minted college degree, or my naive sense of call, or my obligatory marital promises. Indeed it called all of these into question!
I walked through valleys of disillusionment and despair in my twenties and early thirties as I experienced what felt like loss after loss. Ministry became drudgery, marriage a source of deep pain, and life a matter of survival. It turns out that all the books in the theological library were inadequate to meet my existential needs, and Reality set about to educate me on my utter dependence on God!
During this period in my life I wondered: How can I be more present to the Divine Presence in ways that will heal and bring wholeness? Am I able to step fully into the embrace of the One by Whom we are known, loved, forgiven, and brought to awareness of the richness of life?
Marjorie Thompson once wrote, “In contemplation we move from communicating with God through speech to communing with God through the gaze of love. Words fall away, and the most palpable reality is being present to the lover of our souls. When we let go of all effort to speak or even to listen, simply becoming quiet before God, the Spirit is free to work its healing mysteries in us: releasing us from bondage, energizing new patterns of life, restoring our soul’s beauty. Here we allow ourselves to be loved by God into wholeness.”[iii]
For years now a description by contemplative Carmelite William McNamara has spoken to me. He describes contemplation as a long loving look at the real.He calls it “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” He explains that while it is possible to study things, “unless you enter into this intuitive communion with them, you can only know about them, you don’t knowthem. To take a long loving lookat something – a child, a glass of wine, a beautiful meal – this is a natural act of contemplation, of loving admiration.”[iv]
Walter Burghardt adds, “reality is living, pulsing people; … reality is the sun setting over the Swiss Alps, a gentle doe streaking through the forest; reality is a ruddy glass of Burgundy, Beethoven’s Mass in D, a child lapping a chocolate ice-cream cone; reality is a striding woman with wind-blown hair; reality is the risen Christ.”[v]“And so I am most myself, most human, most contemplative when my whole person responds to the real.”[vi]
When I was serving a small rural church in the desert, the parsonage was located just around the corner from the church. So I always walked to work, coming home for lunch, and again at the end of the day. My son Ethan was just a few years old at the time, but he knew my daily routine.
At the end of each morning or afternoon, as I crossed the intersection on my way home and set foot on Cedar Avenue, I would catch a glimpse of our rather plain looking white house. And almost without fail, the drapes in the front picture window would be slightly pulled back and a little head would be sticking up, just watching, waiting, knowing that his daddy would soon be home.
Then, when he saw me he ran out the door as fast as he could, across the front yard and into my grateful arms. I knelt down to receive my son, whose exuberant love astonished me. This is prayer– running to the One in whom we are known and loved and held in welcoming arms.
There were days when Ethan ran out that door with tears in his eyes because something had happened to make him sad or angry. But, you see, he still came running. No matter what kind of day he was having, he wanted nothing more than to be held in strong loving arms and to tell his daddy all about it. Are we this hungry for prayer?
What would it mean for us to cultivate silence within the rhythms of each day – sacred pauses, if you will – so that we might take a long loving look at the real? What would it mean to commune with God, receiving and returning the gaze of love, letting words fall silently away and simply being present? Others might equate it with doing nothing, but we would know this contemplation as time spent with the lover of our souls. We would let it all hang out – our hurts, our fears and struggles as well as our joys, our dreams and hopes, and allow ourselves to be loved into wholeness by the One who is Holy Mystery.
[i]Walter J. Burghardt, “Contemplation: A long loving look at the real,” Church, Winter ’89, p. 15.
[ii]Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, p. 44.
[iii]Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, p. 48.
[iv]Burkhardt, p. 15.
[v]Burkhardt, p. 15.
[vi]Burkhardt, p. 16.
Words (c) 2019 Mark Lloyd Richardson