I have some issues with what has seemed to be the evolution of the “Glory Be,” the “Hail Mary,” and the “Our Father” into the penny, nickel, and dime of spiritual currency. I further take exception to the fact that wittingly or unwittingly the church has perpetuated this notion of transacting salvation. Such “inflation” devalues the prayers, praying, and the loving extension of Your redemptive role in every aspect of our lives. When I was growing up these three prayers were the recommended cornerstones of all petitions. They were also the bricks and mortar of the rosary, the conciliatory payback, in various multiples, of confessional penance, as well as the common prayers summoned up at funerals, before classes, for the souls in purgatory, etc. I’m guessing here, but I would venture to say that for a number of Catholics they define praying. So commonly summoned are they that their mindless recitation is, often, robotic and far from praying. To dwell and meditate on the words and spirit of each prayer can be a revelation to those of us who’ve thoughtlessly uttered their syllables over the years. Intention is what may save them from being mere verbal exercises.
The reality of this having been said, it is still not the point I’m getting at. The real problem seems to be the attitude attached to the use of these three prayers. At various points, as we grow up in the faith, we somehow arrive at, or are led to the conclusion that x-number of Hail Mary’s, Our Fathers, and Glory Be’s will “purchase” something we seek: the health of a loved-one, success on a test, the repose of a soul, mercy, forgiveness, grace, or peace in the world. When we are young we are taught this currency and how to use it. But what we are not taught is that prayer from the heart is better. We do not use formulaic repetitions to speak to those we love. We speak from the heart as friends and lovers. The Hail Mary, Our Father, and Glory Be are not the prescribed offerings with which we purchase Your favor. Prayer not from the lips but from the heart is.
I have not seen, read, or heard the term “narcissistic contemplation.” I’m coining it here and now to describe a condition I am red-flagging in myself. I engage in it frequently when I do something that I think brings me closer to You and it makes me feel good about doing it. I suspect it’s less contemplation than manipulation. I write to You a great deal about contemplation. It’s kind of funny because I’m not really sure I understand it. Oh, I understand what I do and call it contemplation; and I even understand some of what others do and call contemplation. But when I ponder it there’s still so much “self” involved and I don’t think we are truly contemplative until “self” is eliminated. This is very discouraging because it means I’ll probably never get there. The one thing about contemplation that I’m pretty sure of is that it is not so much about anything I do as it is about what You do to me.
Genuine contemplation contains something of the mystical. Poet, Kathleen Norris, correctly says of the mystical experience that it is like special moments in time when we see with more than our eyes and hear with more than our ears. There is joy in it – serendipitous joy: like a parent bathing his/her baby and, through the cooing sounds, through the image of a cherubic face, through the touch of soft new skin the existential realization of the completeness of this being that is yours blows you away and fills you with joy; or when you behold in the weathered/wrinkled face of an old person a magnificent reflection of a life lived by someone who is loved and who loves, and instantly there is a revelation of some deep something that makes us glow with the discovery of the face of God in that face; or the aura of “God with us” created by the gamut of emotions on the faces of scores of poor and homeless men and women waiting to be fed at a hunger center – in all these there is something wonderful and mystical and beautiful.
Contemplative moments such as these take us out of ourselves, out of our narcissism. These moments just come upon us. They are not under our control. You bring us to them and we briefly touch You as Thomas did and we say, “My Lord and my God.” Contemplation grows from mystical moments like this – not from anything I do.
In all the spiritual books I read and in all the browsing of spiritual sites I do on the internet I always take great delight in finding new definitions and descriptions of contemplation and contemplative prayer. I meditate on them and sift them and just generally enjoy any new insight into contemplative life I might gain. I’d like to talk to You about two of them that I think come close to the mark.
One is: “Contemplation is self-realization attained by self-annihilation (Merton). The other, which I think also comes from Merton is: “Contemplation is the effect on the intellect of the union that already exists through love.”
The first one is very active. It connotes a kind of energetic “in-your-face” dynamic. To get to my true self I’ve got to destroy my false selves. Identification, isolation and annihilation of the false selves requires an introspection one aspect of which is a trusting “release” of much that we are, including much that we’ve picked up as baggage along the way. The activity of such displacement is contemplative activity. It is a sorting, culling, winnowing, purifying activity that moves by inches, not miles. It is honesty about the essence of our being, its purpose, and its destiny.
The second one is more passive. It has to do with perfecting the ability to become an open channel to the reality of our oneness with You, the ultimate reality of life. This oneness, this reality, is something we bury under tons of rubble. When we come to the point of realizing this, it affects us. Our hearts are moved; and this is contemplative activity. This reality is always there. It cannot be removed. It can either be ignored or attended to. Attending to it is a contemplative activity. The growth and discovery here flows to us if we but open our minds and let go of our baggage. “The more I search, the more I find. The more I find, the more I search,” says St. Catherine of Sienna. There are times when we engage in these kinds of activities without even thinking they are contemplative or giving them that label.
I use the word “contemplative” to describe a state of prayer-life to which I aspire; and that may be my simple answer to someone who would ask me ‘what is contemplation?’ I’ve read many “definitions” of contemplation, all of which are descriptive and most of which brush up against some aspect of self-transcendence. Some of these descriptions are helpful, others just add to the confusion.
There is one part of contemplation on which I think I’ve got a pretty good handle – not that I’m very good at it – but it does pervade all notions of contemplation. It’s love! The contemplative should be a person on fire with love for others. Contemplation has much to do with putting ourselves in Your presence. In a world of myriad inane distractions, in a world that promulgates delight in criticizing, judging, and maligning others, Your presence is brought forth beautifully in the love we have for another. The more we can see our way to loving another, and another, and another, the better we become (even though we might not be aware of it) at contemplation.
When we begin to discover that we love another because of qualities and goodness that emanate from and point to the spirit of God in them, we are contemplative. To be aware of this can bring us, on occasion, to that rare but confirming experience of the bond of spiritual union we share with everyone. This is the bond Thomas Merton experienced in a flash one day at the corner of Fourth and Lexington in Louisville, Kentucky. Flashes of similar momentary awareness point to that within us which is sometimes able to transcend self and senses. In such moments there is a warm feeling of outgoing love for everyone and everything in creation.
Many of those who write about contemplative prayer would dismiss the warm and fuzzy feelings of any emotion’s role in contemplation. But we can only know contemplation in human terms because that is the debilitating limitation of who and what we are. Among those human terms is the vocabulary of inner feelings and emotions. Sovereign among these terms is “love.” It is this that rules our success or failure in contemplative prayer. You are love and to abide in love is to abide in You – all else flow from this.
Jesuit writer, Fr. Henri Nouwen, says: “Contemplative life is a human response to the fact that what is central to our lives is invisible and can be easily overlooked by the busy.” It is also, I would add, not an objective response but rather a very personal one.
The fact that it is a human response means that there are many flaws in it and as long as we are bound to our humanity there always will be. But rather than dwell on the debilitating factor of our humanity, we should concentrate on our “response.” It is in our response that growth and understanding in contemplation takes place.
Because of Your invisible centrality to our very being we are left with only the means our human imaginations are able to summon, and these are forever faulty. To conjure what we cannot see we use the eye of the mind which is irrevocably attached to and influenced by our human senses. What serves us so well as a guide to seeing our way in this world is an insurmountable barrier to seeing Your way in the spiritual world of our essence. But the greatest threat to attaining to any degree of the contemplative life is becoming so taken up with the business of the outer world that we ignore the business of our inner world.
Thomas Merton suggests that the pitfalls to contemplation are presented by habitual concerns with temporal business making no allowance for anything beyond what can be sensed: “For the birds there is not a time that they tell, but a pointe vierge between darkness and light, between non-being and being. You can tell yourself the time by their waking, if you are experienced. But that is your folly, not theirs.”
This pointe vierge of Merton’s can, I think, be well used to characterize the “response” of which Nouwen speaks. It is the eternal NOW - the present moment of existence. When found, it is purely by itself, untouched by anything in our experience. It is pure “is-ness” which is union with You. There is no other point to contemplation – just You. There is nothing in our minds, or through our senses, or in our experiences. There is no petitioning, thanksgiving, or devotional litany. There is just this pointe vierge – this present NOW, this “is-ness” with, in, and through You. It is the highest, most sublime response we as humans can muster, and we can muster it only when, by seeking it, we seek You and allow You to gift us with it.
Contemplative prayer seeks to accomplish the purpose for which we were created – union with You. When we are able to grind off all the dross of life, all the emotions, all the attachments, all the selfishness we, with the help of Your grace, might come to realize that our center is You and to be one with that center is a special gift at the magnetic core of our nature.
We seldom think about that core, let alone try to visit it because so much has to be put aside to make the trip. The gift that enables us to do this comes in the form of graces like motivation, introspection and restlessness. Through these graces we move toward contemplation; and when we move toward contemplation we move toward You. The “nirvana” of this life is self-transcendent contemplation.
Sunday’s gospel was about the transfiguration. While scripture documents it with witnesses as an historical event, it also serves as a fitting metaphor for what should take place in our own lives. Like the ugly duckling who becomes a swan, we have the capability of transforming our flawed and fault-prone nature into something beautiful with which the Father is well-pleased. Such a transfiguration in our lives is a labor of ongoing proportions but, with Your grace, it is that to which we are called. Transfiguration is the destiny meant for us even though we are quite capable of turning our backs on it.
Implicit in the notion of transfiguration is the idea that I am a being becoming – right up to and including the day I die. This ongoing becoming is influenced by the people and events in our daily lives, by what we read and study, and, most of all, by what we learn of love. We are transformed and, ultimately, transfigured by these things.
The hinge pin of transfiguration is change. When we seek and accept the process by which we change the focus and direction of our becoming away from the material and sentient toward the spiritual attraction of love, we are transfigured. Sustaining this in a material and sentient atmosphere must be impossible. Even Your transfiguration on the mountain, while dazzling, was brief. The world militates against such an event. Its climax cannot happen here. But flashes of selfless love preview climactic transfiguration. This is gift. With Your grace we may be allowed to unwrap that gift here and now one corner at a time. But the wrapping doesn’t come totally off till later.
In the spiritual life the prefix “trans-“ is a very meaningful one. As we learn to transcend the physical world around us, we transform our being and it is transfigured. The crossing from one state of being or level of consciousness to another is characteristic of such transit. It was Your Father’s will that You be transfigured before the eyes of men and that they be overcome with the joys of its possibilities.
We speak so often in our spiritual lives of “losing our self” in our daily activities, negating the ego and playing down prideful conceit, There is, however, another form of this self-negation connected specifically to our prayer life as it exists apart from the mundane commerce of the marketplace. It has to do specifically with losing ourselves in the present moment and is called “transcendence.” I’ve written to You before of what I’ve learned about this concept, but there’s more -and it will always be so.
The moments of transcendence are, as Fr. Donald Cozzens has said, “always ecstatic.” The sense of time and place are lost. Like children at play we enter zones where we literally lose track of such things. Contemplative prayer, in one sense, is a dire attempt to recapture such moments for, in these moments, I think we draw nearer to You and are transformed. In fact, I have recently been entertaining the thought that transcendence is a more than apt description of everything about which the spiritual life is connected.
For one example, Christians are often called people of “the word,” but that label falls far short of what they should be. The words of a prayer, of scripture, or of a great spiritual writer only carry us so far simply because the words retain in themselves their own limitations – like the words I am writing now. They are often descriptive of something beyond which the words cannot get. When the words have enabled us to cross over to a juncture beyond the descriptive, we have transcended the words as the writer would have wished us to do. When we do this we lose ourselves in that which is beyond words, but toward which the words pointed.
When we attempt to transcend our nature (no easy task) we work on getting nearer to that toward which our nature points. When we work on transcending our senses we try to move beyond them but toward that to which they point, and so on. In every instance the transcendental moment is that in which time and place are suspended in the pure present, and it is within these moments we draw nearest to You.
Even our own motives for doing certain things, if examined, will reveal a transcendent element of which we are usually unconscious. In fact, there seems to be a transcendent element in just about everything – certainly in anything connected with our wills. Yet we very seldom take time to smell the flowers and, when we do, we very seldom consider what is beyond the smell.
I love the word “transcendence.” I love what it describes and connotes. The word pops up frequently in my reading and it is both the descriptor and source of much about contemplative prayer. But I find that it is very personal. Because of what each of us brings to our relationship with You, transcendence does not exist per se but only in a context. The important thing for me to remember is that other people to whom I relate each day, consciously or not, has his/her own transcendental relationship with You and it is probably not the same as mine.
Transcendent moments, says theologian, Fr. Donald Cozzens, are like those “childhood moments of play” when all concepts of time and place are lost so rapt are we in the moment of play. This form of transcendence proves its reality occasionally in our adult life when we become “lost” in certain leisure time moments. These moments, Cozzens points out, are a grace and meant to transform.
In the midst of a transcendental state, there is no examination as to what is going on. There is only “is-ness” in the present moment. An analysis of transcendence can only be uttered from totally outside the transcendent state – like now, as I write about it. As individuals we tend to place the absolute highest value on such moments and we consider them very personal. But what I, as an individual, must realize is that such moments are accessible to all of us, though in unique ways to our own personalities. It is not a rare or uncommon experience. Its great value is not in that. Rather it is in the way it communicates uniquely with us. It is not the telephone but the message. And, very often, the message in the moment is from You.
So, the reason I am so fascinated with transcendence is because it is a word used to connote a state of being that can only be lived, not defined. Cozzens speaks cautiously of innate desires to reach transcendence manifested in the muddling effects of trying to reach such a state through alcohol and drug abuse.
Transcending the world and all its trappings, not just in prayer but in the marketplace of everyday life was what Your life showed us. I guess one might say transcendence is, for each of us, in our own unique ways, how we live beyond everything around us.
The Jesuit spiritual writer, Fr. Anthony DeMello, says that spirituality is “being awake” and that religion is the tool meant to awaken us. In a sense then, I guess religion is that without which religion cannot be transcended to spirituality. It makes some sense and certainly holds with the classical spiritual notions of ascent, ladders, stages and castles.
Religion is the nanny or babysitter to spirituality. Author and poet Kathleen Norris talks about “waiting” and learning not to rush to judgment, and about being attentive and vigilant. Church, liturgy, hymns, participation in worship, sermons, sacraments and scriptures have, each in their own way, a piece of religious heritage that nurtures us on and provides us with clues. There is no time limit. The repetitions of religion may or may not resonate within a particular time in our lives, but if we wait, they will. How well You knew that the establishment of fundamental religion must come first. Then, if we wait and are patient we will become more and more awake.
But there is the danger that we simply possess the tool of religion without using it. Here there is no awakening because we become hypnotized by the external superficialities of religion. The awakening DeMello is talking about becomes possible in a spiritual evolution that takes off from the launching pad of an acceptance and practice of a rich religious heritage. There is no ascent, no step, stage, ladder or castle without this. And so, while we would not be correct in allowing religion to become an idol, it is yet the sine qua non of spiritual growth and awakening.
Religion and the church, while promulgated and supported by You, suffer greatly at times from rubbing up against humanity. There are elements that have attached themselves to organized institutional religion that, indeed, are stumbling blocks to our awakening. It seems oddly true that identifying these and weeding them out is part of the transcendent growth that religion fuels.