I am often aware that time can be a singularly powerful distraction from contemplation. Nowhere is it more evident than when one is alone on retreat. Time is a universal reality of human consciousness that marks our mortality. In the broad sense we are marked off by our birth and death - that is our time! More narrowly, our attention is also drawn to the changing of the climates and the flavors of the seasons. Along with this vies the rising and setting of the sun, its movement across the daylight sky and its absence during the dark night.
If there wasn’t a clock in the world we’d still be very much aware of time. But there are clocks and schedules all of which pull us and our thoughts to the demands of the hour. Living our life by the clock is almost a foregone conclusion. At an early age we learn that it’s time to go to bed, time to get up, time to come for supper, not to mention five days a week when our movements are governed by school bells. If there is an all- pervading lesson of human existence it is this: pay attention to time! Therefore, when we try not to think about time - when we go our way intentionally trying to ignore it (as when we’re alone on retreat) it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of it. It is always there in some form pulling us on to whatever is next. It is this expectation of what is next that competes directly with Your presence at any given moment.
If we can learn to manage even small snatches of time without time controlling us, we can gain some spiritual advantage. To have a time for prayer, a time for Mass, a time for lectio and so on, is good. But while engaged in any of these, it is a sure sign that time is managing us if we’re thinking about "what’s next?" To not be concerned about what’s next, to be Mary, absorbed by the moment and not Martha, worried about what’s next is the trick to snatching away Your presence from time. To be not concerned about what you will wear, what you will do, where you will go and so on is to create an atmosphere in which we can rest totally in You. If I am able to do this, even for a small amount of time, then I can control time without it controlling me. Grant that in those random moments amidst the calendars of days and months, I may, Jesus, forget time and rest in You.
Earlier I wrote to You about doing things in the most unobtrusive way - without fanfare and in silence. It occurs to me that there’s even more to this that I don’t like about myself. I catch myself in certain actions, justifying them as "sharing" when, in fact, they may simply be boasting or showing off. It is not just "sharing" but "doing" things for others to which is attached this same impurity of intention. I cannot picture it any better for myself than the actions of a little boy "being good" because he knows it will get him what he wants. It will also result in recognition and appreciation which can be powerfully driving forces. But in terms of what motivates genuine love, they are impure and very hard to get rid of. In one sense, we are raised this way.
My parents as well as myself as a parent, are guilty of perpetuating the mythology of what one gets or can expect for being a loving person; as if love were a means to an end. It seems to me that a strong element of the notion of sin (and a serious one) might just be this bothersome dross from which it is so hard to shake loose: namely, loving for what we can gain for ourselves - or for pride-filled recognition. I find myself here very often and regard it as the sin most in need of eradication.
Your love for me gains You absolutely nothing! But You love me! If You did not love me I would not exist, and if I do not love You, Your existence in my life vanishes. Love is the bond that sustains the relationship and it is pure. Nothing ulterior pollutes it. You love me because I am a made in Your image with potential. You don’t love me because I love You. You love me because I am. My love, to be pure and true, whether of others or of You, must not expect anything in return. This, for me, is immensely hard to do. Over all there is that immense opaque pall of "everything good I do buys me heaven". So many people fault the good nuns (whom I love dearly) for the type of spirituality they taught as we grew up in elementary school in the first half of the last century. But to me, the only fault (if any) was perpetuating this "business" approach to working out one’s salvation; but many of them were as beautifully simple as the children they taught - and it was a metaphor even they bought into. The fact is, nothing I do can "buy" my salvation. It is already purchased for me as a gift. My gift to You is my gratitude and love - no strings!
In one sense, all this talk and writing about the active and passive life is a waste of time. Oh, I understand pretty much what is meant by it, but it strikes me that it has more to do with quantity than with quality, for the fact is that once we are born into this world, activity is a given. Even passivity is an activity - certainly the pursuit of it is. Therefore, if we’re breathing, we’re all engaged in the active life. What is meant by the passive life is the active pursuit of solitude, a holy indifference and an openness to the workings of Your spirit. None of these comes, though, from just vegetating. The cultivation of a diminished self, of stillness, of indifference and openness is a most active quest.
Love is not meant so much to be received as it is to be given, and this is not done passively. Contemplation may seem like a very passive experience, but the disposal of oneself to openness, to the influence of grace and love, is active. But for sleep (or death) inactivity is an impossibility. These are truly the passive states in which we can be filled with something else. Therefore, awake, it is a matter of the quantity of time we are able to convert into quasi-states of contemplative receptivity.
Aquinas doesn’t even use the word "passive". His comparisons and contrasts of this nature are between the "active" and "contemplative" states. He says that contemplation is the movement of that which is best in us - the intellect which draws within itself to seek spiritual things.
The case I’m trying to make may be entirely semantic, but it is that, in fact, the contemplative life is very active. This is not a denial of the reality of actions as expressions of love. Your own life was and is the pinnacle of this affirmation. To seek to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, make peace, be intolerant of injustice, to teach, to comfort and even to lay down one’s life for another - these are some external expressions of love.
So, until we are able to sustain long periods of ecstatic, totally open nothingness, such actions (as we learn to refine and exploit them) are the pieces of time with which we fill our lives. May each be a movement toward You
There are two kinds of silence: the general silence that one seeks in solitude which provides a wonderful, peaceful atmosphere for contemplation; and there’s the specific silence that one imposes upon oneself in situations which encourage the opposite. It’s about this second type of silence that I want to write to You today.
Countless little elements of myth and superstition creep into our spirituality almost from the time we’re born. Parents, friends, teachers and the good nuns have all passed on to us, with good intentions, various bits of sincere but truly indifferent forms of belief and practice. Some of these so imbue our spirituality that they will never go away.
There is one though that nobody ever told me about. I didn’t read it somewhere. Nobody ever taught it to me. It just occurred to me recently and, I truly believe in it. It’s just this: talking about anything good that one does, either for oneself or for others, automatically negates the essential goodness of it! Here is where that specific silence I spoke of above comes into play. If I am to truly diminish - to become less so that You can fill me, then I must recognize the correlation between doing something or living a certain way and gaining satisfaction and praise by talking about it. As my "self" is filled with adulation and pride over my "accomplishment", less room is allowed for You. When I am so overjoyed at my growth that I must blurt it out in some way to others, it is not my joy in that growth that makes me speak, but rather that it is me in whom it has occurred. The more me, the less You. Hence not keeping silence about such things negates them. Sometimes there are no ways around it. Lying about it is not the answer. It’s a matter of will and humility to not make a big thing about doing big things. When answers cannot be avoided - let them be "yes" or "no" - as short as possible. Amidst the glow of pride one thing should never be, but often is, forgotten: the one thing that properly orders one’s unavoidable conversations about accomplishments without negating them is, as it should be anyway, to re-direct all credit to You.
It is absolutely fascinating when one considers the evolution of the way we live on this planet and to imagine that there is a way of life we’ve missed - or, for the most part, glossed over. Could there be within our grasp a modus vivvendi as plain as the nose on our face that we continually overlook? Something deeper than: birth, school, work, marriage, family, retirement, death? Something simpler yet more profound? Something that reaches into the deepest depths of being and is the unrecognized "ground" for each word in the litany above? It is the emphatic "NO!’ to the question: Is that all there is? It is something that is at the core of sainthood. Indeed, it is the essence of sainthood. Various saints have been struck with it like a thunderbolt at varying points in life’s itinerary.
To name it is difficult, but to describe it - the first word I’m tempted to seize upon is "interior". Since we are children of the senses, we allow (in fact, cannot avoid) letting them dominate birth, school, work, marriage, family, retirement, and death. Yet the road less traveled bears more substance in a spiritual sense. To bring to each of these ports on life’s voyage a contemplative interior predisposition, even within the distractions of the active life, is something of what I’m trying to describe to You here. It is not easy. It takes constant practice and polishing. It is not the eremitic life (though much can be said for this in lieu of the desert places You Yourself sought) but rather an approach to the mundane seasoned heartily with the contemplative spirit, the interior spirit which reflects not so much what the senses take in but rather what rests already in the heart, soul, and
will. Someday I, as it pleases You, hope to get there.
Our comprehension of Your divine nature is beyond even the most brilliant among us. It certainly cannot be reduced to mathematics, but a knowledge of addition and subtraction may help.
What we can attain of You in this life we do better by subtraction than by addition even though the accepted mode of gaining something in this world invariably connects with some form of addition. We add to our knowledge by more study and reading. We add to our income by working harder or longer or adding wise investments. We add to our possessions by shopping and acquiring. We add to our health and longevity by eating the right foods, getting rest, and proper exercise. We enhance our articulation by adding the pursuit of rhetoric and wit. We add to our appearance by our grooming and our clothes. We even add to the image we want to convey by our outward works of charity and kindness which reciprocally add to our self-image.
There’s a whole lot of addition that goes on in life. But it seems that an inordinate concern with addition builds barriers through which You cannot come. Addition makes doors we close upon You. It makes us increasingly deaf to Your knock as You wait outside. Now, the idea from moment to moment in this life is to destroy these barriers and open these doors. From our waking moment each day it should be a conscious act of the will to be open to You. This is accomplished by subtraction, not addition.
Each time we discard inordinate concerns over the additions of worldly life we open the door to Your knock. Each time we subtract from our lives a concern over what we’ll do, what we’ll wear, what we’ll eat, etc., we open our door to You.
But subtraction is so much more difficult than addition. Yet it is both the quintessential element and problem of contemplative prayer. This is true because we are people of the senses and the senses deal only in addition. To reach a contemplative state everything connected with the senses must be subtracted - indeed, the senses themselves must be subtracted.
What sets humans apart from other creatures is the intellect and will, both of which (in various manifestations) daily deal in addition. That part of the intellect we call imagination and that part of the will which gladly accepts imagination are fountainheads of addition. Like the senses, these too must be subtracted to reach a contemplative state. It is painfully complex to do all that subtraction to reach such simplicity - but that’s what it’s all about - subtraction down to zero. It is at that "zero state", that state of simply being, that oneness is touched even if ever so fleetingly.
The more we subtract the "accidents" of life, the closer we get to its substance which emanates from You. The most consequential subtraction is not the subtraction of activity (for we are unavoidably active beings even in our passiveness) but rather the subtraction of "self" from activity. The "less is more" theory applies here.
Materially, physically, and spiritually throughout our lives we experience gain and loss. Neither is avoidable. Neither is overwhelmingly constant. Both occur inevitably. When we think we are firmly in the grasp of the one, the other takes hold of us. When the savings or checking account builds up nicely so as to make us feel financially secure - a car or major appliance breaks down or a major home repair surfaces. Just when we marvel at the long endurance of our own or some loved-one’s good health, sickness and/or serious injury and hospitalization take place. Just when our spiritual garden seems to be in full bloom, the desert falls upon us and we see nothing but the weeds of our life and wonder how You can love us.
Realistically, in each of these scenarios, the converse is also true: there are those times when, after that major necessary purchase, braces for the kids and an overwhelming pile of bills that the sun peeps through in the form of a raise, a tax refund, or inheritance, etc., and the gain returns. But it could never have been so sweet without the loss first.
Illness make us feel like staying in bed and avoiding everything and everyone - a feeling which we choose but which depresses us even further. The longer the depression goes on the more joyful is the ecstasy of gaining back our health and the outlook that life is good. But the loss of health precedes the gains brought by health’s return. It is just so in the spiritual life as well.
The joy of Your presence is never felt without first experiencing Your loss. The beauty and peace of being able to communicate with You in prayer cannot be felt without first knowing the dryness and sterility of dark nights of the soul. The more too that we lose ourselves, the more we gain You.
There is a certain "debt/payment" mentality that just may be a by-product of my Catholic education, or maybe a misconstruing of it. It starts off with You. If I am good, do good, speak good, think good, etc., I’ll be rewarded by You. To get my reward I’m indebted to You for goodness. What happens to love in this schema?
I find myself so imbued with this mentality that it colors my motivation for doing almost everything. If I extend myself for somebody, work hard, do something special, or do it very well, I expect a reward, a pat on the back, a sincere thank-you, or even a return indebtedness (now you owe me one).
This is hard dross to grind away. Yet, until my motivation is purely out of love, and nothing else, it is tainted, and so then is my love for You as well as my whole spirituality tainted. True love must overlook many conditions including one’s own idiosyncratic predispositions.
What do we "deserve"? Because we came to exist through no effort of our own, and because this existence is prerequisite to the life to come, all that can be said about what we deserve is that it is the opportunity to make the most of this prerequisite in gratitude for its gift. We are not talking about merit here, for all merit resides in You and we deserve none. In a manner of speaking it might be said that we deserve air, food and a relationship with You. Even these are gifts, but You know that without them our opportunity is non-existent. So, maybe it can be said that we deserve these gifts. But , while I pray for many favors, I deserve none.
I do not "deserve" Your love since I constantly act against it. I do not deserve my particular status in this world, this country, this city, this family - all is gift! In fact, the word "deserve" seems as if it may have sprung from self-interest and greed.
The spiritual qualities which put me above the animals but below the angels (intellect and will) make me feel that I deserve to use them (like air and food) in nurturing a relationship with You. The ball, as they say, is in my court. I either pursue this one thing that I "deserve", or I pursue all the other things which are gifts and I don’t deserve. A lifetime is not enough to show sufficient gratitude for all these undeserved gifts.
There is also the ponderous issue of the friction in my life caused by what I desire and what I deserve which is at the root of serious faults and failings.
In its purest sense the goal seems to be not only an acceptance but also a lived belief that no matter what "good" I may do (in regards to You or others) I have absolutely no claim of deserving anything in return. There is much peace in this, but it’s so extraordinarily difficult for me.
There is a curious paradox contained in our "wretchedness" and "nothingness". These are two words that occur frequently among spiritual writers, especially those of the Middle Ages, to describe the state of our humanity. Now, as You well know, I wrestle with spiritual arrogance and, at this time, a denial of my "wretchedness" and my "nothingness" might seem like an affirmation of that arrogance. My problem is this: if we are "wretched" and "nothing" then God, whose image we reflect, must have the qualities of "wretchedness" and "nothingness". Maybe, because I reflect You, and You are not "wretched" or "nothing", I am not basically "wretched" and "nothing". Maybe I’m only "wretched" and "nothing" when I don’t reflect You.
If these words are true descriptors of me, then Your overpowering, all-embracing love for me totally annihilates them - for we must truly be worth a great deal in Your eyes. It is great consolation to know I am so loved. To "be" one engulfed in the ocean of this love is the essence of contemplation; for, indeed, we are "nothing" without God. But Your love makes us God-like and that makes us a quite special "something".
I do not feel "wretched" about this. On the contrary, I feel quite privileged and honored to be singled out among all living creatures to be one of that species You pursue incessantly and who has the capability of pursuing You in return.
The value underlying all of this is quite positive, not negative. It is full of hope, not despair. Its outlook is optimistic, not pessimistic. Therefore, to me, "nothingness" and "wretchedness" are frightfully handicapping words. I would say, rather, that despite an inherently intimidating human nature, I am the one thing in this world of great value. Because I am showered with the limitless riches of heaven, I am the "pearl of great price". Whatever takes away from that is what diminishes me to "nothing" and makes me "wretched". And just what does take away from that? The answer is: everything in which I do not see You or do not include You. Whether I’m watching TV , playing music, or washing the car, if I don’t include You I’m a little more "wretched", a little more "nothing".
My true self is only special in, with, of, by, and through You. My concern with the creation of my false self is what makes me "wretched" and "nothing". This total dependence of my true self on You is what I think You meant when You told us to be like little children - whom we often call precious.