My grandson loves to color pictures with crayons and markers. When we do it together it’s especially enjoyable for both of us. Even though he’s only five, we’ll sit for up to two hours coloring together. We pretend we’re artists. His “masterpieces” go up on the refrigerator. Mine, later, get discreetly trashed.
It’s my trashing of my work with him that got me to thinking. The colored pictures I do with him, or the crossword puzzles I enjoy doing in the morning paper, all get trashed when they’re finished. There’s an important distinction that comes to light here: when I think about it, the end-product of what I do is not my goal (as his probably is). My goal is what is contained in the process. With puzzles the process of meeting the mental challenges to memory and vocabulary (especially as I grow older) is what they’re all about – not the finished product. With the pictures I color with my grandson, for me it’s not about the finished product. Rather, it’s about the process of doing something enjoyable together that affords me built-in opportunities to bolster his self-esteem and confidence.
So, why am I writing to You about this? – because, as I think about it, it actually applies to these letters I write You. With them too the goal is actually the process I go through in writing them – not the finished letter, which, indeed, could be trashed but for the fact that I like to revisit and reflect on them in different ways. These letters are, to me, a form of prayer, and, as with prayer, the most valuable part is the process – not the end-result. The praying is in the process. When a letter is finished the inner, ongoing moment of connection and dialogue is done until it’s revisited. But while it’s in process it’s alive! It’s my way of coloring a picture with You.
In my heart I have a compulsion to share with others these letters to You. It comes from the conviction that the really valuable insights come from You, not me, and from the conviction that I may somehow be a channel for truths that are meant to be public. Operating under the assumption that this might possibly be so, I am compelled to choose the opposite of putting a basket over such light.
In book form the letters have made the rounds of small, specialized publishers all of whom showed no interest. It therefore occurred to me that they could be offered electronically on the internet. Accomplishing this showed me that there was some interest and, therefore, hopefully some need. My postings are all anonymous under an assumed identifier. I tell myself I do this to minimize my “self” and any vanity I might harbor about the good I (rather than You) might be able to do through them.
I do not delude myself about the dangers of such vanity. The comfort of its warm glow entices my ego. This temptation coexists with the certain knowledge that it showcases my role in the correspondence rather than Yours. For this reason I have never told anyone (including family) about these letters. What would be the point? To draw attention to myself? The only person to whom I ever mentioned it was a friend to whom it should not have come as any surprise since I write similar letters to him. However, that has all changed somewhat with the internet.
If there is the possibility that You have chosen me as a channel of Your grace, then I too must find a means of channeling that gift; and, I think, I’ve found it! This pleases me! I hope it pleases You. Some readers have made comments on the letters – most favorable – and this is encouraging, but also a potent source of vanity. Obviously my “self’ keeps trying to shoulder its way into the whole matter by, among other things, looking for a pat on the back.
The idea that our lives must constantly bear witness to Your life and Your love should always be before us, and sometimes we must even use words.
When I look back over 30-plus years of writing letters to You I observe certain formulaic nuances that seem to endure over the years. By “enduring” I mean they keep repeating themselves. One thing this could mean is that over the years I have never been successful enough in dealing with them to eliminate my concerns about them.Thus the formula of my sharing a concern with You, exploring the possibilities of Your whisper regarding it, and wrapping it up with an often pithy conclusion plays out over and over again. This can be an indication of a lack of progress, just stubborn persistence, or, more likely, both.
I have not overcome my “self,” so I continue to write to You about it. I do not act with the love I should, so I continue to write to You about it. I am not convinced of the ways in which I dispose myself to You, so I write to You about it. I am concerned about the ways in which I see You in others and how I respond to that, etc., etc. These and many other themes repeat themselves again and again. Hence, another letter to You.
I am made up of a lot of things, including the ruts from which I never seem able to fully extricate myself. What I find comforting is talking to You about my ruts. If I were You, however, I’d be a little bored with all the same old stuff over and over. But my solace is in knowing that You care despite my weakness. I wonder what my responses would be if the tables were turned and You were writing to me about Your concerns each week.
In our relationship I keep going back to the nature of language and words. Yet there always seems to be a sinister element to our use of words – an element that’s built into the very fiber of language itself. As soon as we utter a single word we have created some kind of limitation, or drawn some kind of boundary.
How would we think, communicate, speak, instruct, or pray if words did not exist? But if words did not exist our conscious being would be immensely less limited or constrained. Nonetheless, words cannot explain this even though we are compelled to use them to try.
I save all these letters I write to You and I do go back and re-read them from time to time. I’m always struck by the ostensible sincerity, insight, growth and development they convey. Furthermore, I am strongly struck by examining myself at the times I am re-reading them and realizing how little attention I have actually paid to much of what I have written. Words, words, words! They convey more of what I want to be than what I am. Yet even at the times I feel You have touched me in some direct or indirect way, words are involved.
In all the words I speak, write, or read, I always feel there’s something lacking. The precision of words to perfectly express what is in our hearts and minds, quite simply, does not exist. Unity of mind, body, and spirit with You is wordless. Somehow our immersion in a sea of language and words influences the purity of our being – our being that needs no words to be what it is, yet is shaped (in our own conception) by words.
Thus what I find in my letters to You are ideals. I paint in words what I seek, what I strive for, what I hope to be rather than what I am when all the words are removed. It makes one wonder if man, as God conceived him, really needed language, or if language is a result of “the fall.”
A constant topic written and spoken about by the desert fathers, saints, monks, and spiritual writers is “silence.” Such treatment acknowledges how words get in the way. But even in silence we are left with the words in our minds. I hope and trust that You see beyond all words.
In a sense contemplation is a luxury. That which is a luxury, to be fully enjoyed, must find a time without distraction or disruption. To make room for the “luxury” of contemplation, cares, worries, wealth, possessions, etc. must be put aside because they all demand time that gets between us and contemplation. The poor, the sick, and the busy have little time for luxury.
I am retired, financially stable, and healthy. So, with such opportunity for the luxury of contemplation,why do I still find so many things to put between it and me? There seems to be a number of things each of which gets between me and contemplation – the so-called treasures of my heart. Contemplation cannot thrive (in fact, may not be able to exist) in company with these “things.” That is why if I am a person that willingly carries around these impediments. I must seek the luxury of times when I can, with determination, cast them aside and simply bask in Your presence – and, even better, to perfect ways by which to develop a consciousness of that presence within the context of all those “things.”
The monks and cloistered religious admittedly surround themselves with fewer impediments, but they do engage in work, chores, maintenance, and manufacture that might impinge upon their contemplative life style if they were not able to incorporate their daily routines with contemplation. That incorporation is what seems to be the magical means of living fully the contemplative life. When you reflect on it, it seems odd, but the contemplative state seems to be the state of life every human being was meant to live. All utopias fail without its perfection.
You know that I write down a list of things about which I want to write to You. These are things that simply occur to me or about which I read;or things I hear from others. As I write to You about each one I cross it off on the index card on which it is written, and go on to the next item. I’ve gone through a lot of index cards, front and back, this way over the years.
Today is one of those days on which everything on my current index card is crossed out. There is no “next one” to go on to. This has happened before and it always amazes me that when I think I have nothing new about which to write to You, something just automatically pops up.
In Richard Rohr’s book, Everything Belongs, he talked about the nature of contemplation. He said, “The calculating mind is the opposite of the contemplative mind.” Then he said the following is a prayer he used to get himself in the right frame of mind: “Be still and know that I am God; be still and know that I am; be still and know; be still; Be!”
If anyone ever had a calculating mind, it’s me! I am very much aware of the great joys of stillness and simply being in the present moment. These are attributes of the heart. But the mind races on. Rohr’s little prayer is the spot-on key to contemplative spirituality. Solitude is being alone WITH YOU. Silence is listening peacefully TO YOU. The calculations of the mind (which persistently refuse to exit for more than seconds at a time) need to be vaporized without direct or aggressive focus on them – to be where your body’s at now without consciousness of your body.
Over a period of a few days recently I watched a DVD series on contemplative prayer. One of the catch-phrases used often by the presenter was: “We are incarnate thirst.” I think the meaning of that phrase goes write to the heart of contemplation. Thirst is a gnawing that needs to be quenched. If it is ignored it grows worse. Each one of us has, I believe, a thirst, a gnawing, that needs to be quenched. It is possible, I suppose, to live a life never being able to put a finger on exactly what that gnawing is. But I think most people would agree that it is innate in the human condition. We live it. It is part of us.
My contention would be that it is the urge for that which is beyond us – for the divine. We go about trying to slake that thirst in a lot of ways. We look to Your humanity for clues. You are incarnate man, and as such You are incarnate thirst – but as God Your thirst is doubled. As man You thirsted for God. As God You thirsted for man. In You, in me, in everyone, there is a need to quench this thirst. You sought union with the Father. You sought to do His will – plus, You sought the redemption and salvation of all men. That is the way You lived. That is the way You sought to quench that thirst. It is the contemplative way.
If we choose that same way, we too are choosing the contemplative way. Our thirst drives us to seek it and You help us to find it by Your life and example. You are the model contemplative, and You were not a monk or a hermit. You were a man of prayer. How often it is recorded that You went off alone to be with the Father, and we know not of how many other times that are not recorded.
You lived what You prayed, and so it should be for us. And through it all that thirst for the will of God and for our salvation moved You. The grand culmination of our seeking to be in You and Your seeking to be in us is the contemplative action of quenching that incarnate thirst.
The “techniques” of prayers of petition are consistent and focused supplications to a God who is both Father and Brother, divine and human, who understands our needs and who will give us what is best for us when we ask.
The “method” of meditation is an open receptiveness and inner disposition to the voice of God as He whispers with great love and concern words conveyed by our own thoughts and the words of others.
But contemplation is a whole different matter. Contemplation is not a matter of technique or method. – it is a matter of love! It precludes all notions of techniques and methods. It is a state of being in which we rest in His presence and are open and attentive to His stirrings in us. In contemplation there is no active technique or method. We simply allow our existence, our being, to bask in God’s love; to swim in the ocean of His gifts, and to allow our being to be a thanksgiving. In contemplation we “touch” our being, and are touched by it.
Contemplation is often something like intensely focusing on listening to the answers to questions we may ask even though, at times, we don’t even fully comprehend the questions themselves. We look to You to help us understand You and our relationship with You – and we listen for Your answers.
I tend to believe that most of these answers come in the moments of quiet interior reflection. In apprehending something that is being taught or something another person simply says to us, its clarity is only sharpened when we pull away from it and ponder it. This may more aptly be described as meditation, but it leads to changes in long-term thought that inspire contemplation – and contemplation is lived!
If I picture myself speaking with another person and asking him/her a serious question the answer to which I think this person can provide, I will listen intently to the answer – but not only this – I will also come away from that person and privately ponder what was said. If I accept it, I make it part of myself.
A similar procedure is followed when reading scripture, or the lives of the saints, or spiritual writers. In these instances the answers all refer back to You, and it is in contemplation that we are engaged. We might say, then, contemplation is an internal process of focus, acceptance, and living in the world so as to keep in touch with the center of our being.
I nurture the unfounded inclination that I am contemplative but, on reflection, I know I am far short. I esteem some form of lay-contemplation as a most desirable goal after which to seek. I think I do seek it, but on my own terms. There are many things I need to contemplate about living a contemplative life.
In the lay-life, surrounded by constant day-to-day distractions, it’s a chore to cultivate the primary fundamental tenet of contemplative life, which is keeping You present at all times. I believe the learning of this is the beginning of all contemplation. If, in fact, I am not at this point, then sitting silently in a small room daily for a few minutes, centering on Your presence, can hardly make me a contemplative. But, if I can apply what goes on in those private, more intense confrontations to the less intense public moments of everyday life – then I think I’ve at least made a start toward a contemplative life-style.
But there is more. If we are able to accomplish walking in Your presence, our desire to experience those more intense, more private confrontations will increase. We will want to read more about You, meditate and reflect more upon You, and look for You in others. In short, we will want to do the things more typically identified with a contemplative life-style – especially in the monastic sense. However, whatever our walk of life, it is all made possible by first mastering the technique of keeping You present to ourselves at every moment.
Because of who we are and what the world is, there is no escaping the fact that two things are the absolute catalysts here: solitude and silence! Yet here I am in the everyday midst of neither. I am not quite sure whether the best times are the ones in which I meet You in silent solitude or the ones where I meet You in the noise of the crowd.