The practice of contemplation takes many forms: it can be to reflect, read a book or religious text, or simply take time in silence to experience being without agendas, plans and commitments. It can be a walk in the country or tending one's garden or sitting in meditation or taking an afternoon nap. In most cases contemplation provides its fullest gifts when alone: it is a practice of becoming familiar with solitude and the riches of doing what is usually perceived as nothing.
Doing nothing in contemplation means making space for emptiness, learning to be receptive, pulling back into ourselves so that grace can naturally flow without the common blocks of self-directed hindrances. Great sages have known that relinquishing all sense of one’s separateness allows us to merge into something much greater. This merging into a greater reality is what American monk, Thomas Merton, referred to as” the flowering of a deeper identity on an entirely different plane.”1
THE INTERIOR LIFE
To live a rich spiritual life is to be able to relate interiorly. But what does relating interiorly mean? It means, among many things, being fully aware of one's Self (i.e. soul) and the motivations, desires and yearnings the soul expresses, the stimuli that attracts it and the satisfactions and discords that affect it. Such relationship forms a committed process of unfolding awareness of who one is, and how much the Self contributes to the heart of the world, or alternatively the hurts of the world. Over time, interiority provides the roots of life in fertile soil that enables continued growth in oneself, others and the living environment.
Benedictine writer, Joan Chittister, claimed that contemplative living allows each person to experience life in all its fullness.2 This full life is paradoxically not filled with exterior activities, appointments and social engagements, but is free from the chains and claims of societal expectations and behaviours. It is, however, still a life of participation yet with a different interpretation of action and activities.
Contemplative life is one of balance, beginning (and ending) with study and thought to gain a familiar knowledge of God, and its activities enable an ongoing process of deepening love to unfold within, and expand out in a purity of spirit. This expansion from within enables unity with the eternal, universal heart of God that meets and greets us from inside.
Uncovering the benefits of contemplation is "a new self-discovery." Thomas Merton wrote that "the essential thing in our life is...to be centered on love as sufficient unto itself. It is not a love that is actively channeled into something that gets results. Love alone is enough, regardless of whether it produces anything."3
The pursuit of happiness and the need for meaning is shared by everyone. The search is commonly made through outside activities, through others, through looking for the right way in our careers, or matters of relationships, or home life, or achievements. Yet, all the clues and answers already lie embedded within ourselves.
As being silent and listening within are anomalies to most of us, we run a faster treadmill of uncertainty and quiet despair, frequently being unacknowledged and mostly misunderstood. This loneliness Mother Teresa of Calcutta called "the poverty of the West," driven by outward inclinations and the fear of being still.
Affected by society’s assumption of instantaneousness, every contemplative need can become destabilized before it begins to be met. The forces of ceaseless activity are meant to drive us from ourselves, further and further into the shadows of falsehood and away from the light of truth. It requires courage and conviction to prepare for another way of life, one that leads to gladness and peace. Thomas Merton wrote in a prayer to be set free “from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity.”
If our lives are lived through others’ directions, needs and invitations, then it is an imperative to take ourselves in hand and apply some self discipline. This discipline will aid the transition from what we normally do to what we really desire to do. Through one step at a time we can be transformed into an integrative wholeness of Self that permeates not only what we do but who we are and who we become.
Sometimes outright stopping what we find distracting – such as socializing or the media or any other ways we allow ourselves to be pulled out or involved in other’s agendas – can help re-educate those in our lives to the changes we desire and the support we need in their initiation.
As stillness, silence, contemplation and creativity require consistency so that
we can get used to a more organic flow in our daily lives, then learning to say
“No’” to any disruption is a matter of course. This “no” is a clarity that helps avoid any confusion or misunderstanding. By saying “no” to that which is personally inappropriate relieves any expectations otherwise, and is usually seen by others as a confident self-knowledge which precipitates reverence and respect.
Withdrawal is arrival
Withdrawing from what is considered “normal” outward activities, brings a relishing of arrival into a new reality, a rich reality, a place of peace. Little by little nourishment from being free from incessant activities begins to be subtly felt. Like honeydew on a flower any fears of isolation are overcome by the awareness that contemplation and being still and quiet affects more than oneself – it affects everyone and everything. It provides a balancing to the widespread imbalance of others’ rushing around. And it allows a more steady relationship with the organic dance of creation and natural life around us, ever ready to welcome us to a simpler, more beautiful way.
Giving up the priority for results
Entering contemplative life requires us to surrender being in charge.
In fact the doorway into such a way of being and becoming requires a rendering of our mind and expectations. As in meditation it takes practice to attain perfection, it takes time, it takes grace, it takes patience and persistence, it requires desire but more than all it is an act of love. It is a way of the heart over the mind: it is about being the best that one can be under the gaze of God.
Only from such a root can we flower back into the world. We cut back and put down into the earth of ourselves in God and wait for the time when we are called up and out again, into new growth, towards the light of Truth.
Contemplative resting is the best antidote for restoring inner and outer equilibrium. Resting is particularly valuable during times of trouble and distress. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 4:4 “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” The suggestion of sin here could well be the ill-informed decision or the hasty, regrettable reaction. Pondering is a prayer of rest: a prayer where even bed can be an altar. By resting we enter the serenity of quiet, the doorway to the inner. From there we find the clarity we need, the assurance, the direction, and with it the confidence that whatever is acted upon from this place is right and true.
Resting is a way to be quiet with God. Resting renews our hearts.
Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Theilhard de Chardin. stated that “all life is contained in the act of seeing, and that the entire evolution of the universe has as its final aim in nothing else but the bringing forth of even more perfect eyes.”4
Developing invisible perception is a seeing that is a knowing guided through grace by love alone. “The contemplative experience” wrote Mary E. Giles, “is a centering and a centering seeing, a seeing that proceeds from the heart as well as the mind and perceives the person in his relatedness to all things, including himself.”5
To learn how to relate through interior sight is an aspect of contemplative practice. It is a looking down into oneself for the truth of what is. Developing the trust that in silence and stillness one can experience seeing so much farther than the next step is in itself one of contemplation’s greatest gifts.
Listening is similar to seeing except that it requires an unpacking of interior barriers. In many cases we fear hearing the truth, but some way or another it will make sure that it is heard.
That small voice within holds all our wisdom: it is like a signpost on the road of our life’s pilgrimage. Through silence and prayer we provide a platform for that voice. A steady practice of contemplation ensures that we learn to act on what we hear. After seeing the results of what can happen when we do act accordingly, we learn to never doubt, to always listen, to trust that this interior voice is our best teacher, our only guide.
Through silent prayer the external circumstances of our lives are experienced differently. We become detached to the things that are temporal, that do not matter in the long run. We become aware of the guiding hand of God in all that we are and do, we cooperate with the maturing of our souls to a place where separation ceases and all has a seamlessness to it. This is when peace takes up permanent residence. We find what we searched for.
Praying is talking to God, or talking with God, or simply loving God. Prayer takes many forms but the best is just turning up, turning towards, turning inward and tuning in. Dedication to learning and practicing prayer enables the grace and beauty of heaven to come just a bit nearer to earth, the immortal to the mortal, the invisible through the visible.
1 Thomas Merton, An Invitation to Contemplative Life ed. Wayne Simsic
(Ijansville, ML, The Word Among Us Press, 2006) p.33.
2 Joan Chittister's address at The Contemplative Alliance, Monterey CA, 2010.
3 Thomas Merton, An Invitation to Contemplative Life (as above) pp. 124/125
4 Pierre Theilhard de Chardin quoted in Josef Pieper Only the Lover Sings:Art and Contemplation (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1990) p. 73.
5 Mary E. Giles quoted in The Flowering of the Soul ed. Lucinda Vardey (Toronto, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) p. 358.