07 February 2011

Why Do We Need Contemplative Convents if we are all called to be contemplatives. . .?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I often wonder why we need Contemplative convents when God is supposed to want each and every soul to be a contemplative and wants them all for Himself. On the other hand, if being a contemplative and giving God your all, just as He wishes, how can you be like this plus be married and committed to someone
at the same time...! I can't get my head round the Secular Carmelite thing. To me, if one experiences the Presence of God...how can they turn round and commit themselves to another!? Many thanks,]]

My basic answer is that while all may be called to some expression of an essentially contemplative life (a position which can easily be misunderstood, by the way) --- even in their great activity, most are not called to a life dedicated to contemplation and all that requires. Some are exemplars of a dedicated contemplative life, while others exemplify contemplative prayer and contemplative (attentive, mindful) living in the midst of the world. It is similar to the idea that every person is ultimately solitary and called to some degree of authentic solitude, but not every person is called to be a hermit.

Likewise, every person is meant to nurture and foster family and the future of the species, but not every person is called to be a mother or a father in the ordinary sense, for instance. Mothers and Fathers inspire all of us to be nurturing and open to bringing forth new life, despite the sacrifices involved. and they do so with a special vividness and, better perhaps, concreteness. Hermits inspire us to give solitude the place it requires so that human poverty can be transfigured by divine grace in the same way. They each remind us of one dimension or aspect of a fully human life. We could multiply images: Contemplatives remind us that we are meant for union with God and called to become prayer ourselves. Consecrated celibates remind us we are ALL made for an eschatological love which transcends all historically conditioned forms of love. Married people remind us of the holiness of sexual love and the important fact that we all bring one another to God and to completion in him -- though marriage is a privileged way of achieving that. Each focuses our attention on an aspect of truly human life, the nature of human love, etc. Each provides a different lens through which we can see aspects of a mystery far too large to get our minds around otherwise. We need these individual and dedicated examples and exemplars, not least, because we do dwell in space and time, and do not see clearly without them. More, we are not inspired without them.

Another reason, of course, is that as human beings living within the limits of space and time (history), we each must take a specific path to wholeness at a given moment. We simply cannot take all paths. For instance, there is no way I can be both hermit and apostolic religious at the same time, no way I can be consecrated celibate and participate in married or sexual love simultaneously, etc. My own call to wholeness and holiness involves a life given to God in a specific way because historical existence requires it. It is not better than other ways, but it is better for me; other paths, though they could well serve my own growth in authentic humanity, would not serve it as well. For me, for instance, diocesan eremitical life is the context which allows the WHOLE of my historical existence with all its limitations and gifts to make sense and serve others. Life in a Cistercian (or Camaldolese!) monastery, for instance, might function similarly for me, but I don't believe it would do so as well. Apostolic Religious life certainly does not do so despite the fact that it inspires me to be true to the "for (and with) others" nature of the Christian vocation.

Your second question is excellent. The answer is a paradox isn't it? The simple truth is we truly give our lives fully to God ONLY to the extent we also give it to those he loves. As noted above, one expression of part of this truth is marriage. Here two people give themselves to one another body and soul precisely so they may come to God together. In their love for each other they discover the reality of divine life/love. This is the most common or usual way persons come to know God's exhaustive love and to commit themselves to it. But your question comes at things from another direction, namely from a more apparently unmediated experience of this love which then leads to life commitment to another. I think your question is really how can one not make this love of God exclusive, true? But it is completely understandable that one's relationship with God spills over into relationships with others, that this love inspires and empowers us to love others and lead them to share in it.

This is true in lives of every contemplative and even every true hermit I know. It is true in the case of Consecrated Virgins whose relationship with Christ is explicitly spousal. It is true of those Apostolic Religious I know whose relationships with God-in-Christ are described as nuptial or spousal (though also in those whose relationships are not of, course). In fact, it is as prayer lives deepen and relationships with God mature that one is called to share with others. Of course, this does not mean these persons give themselves in marriage to another, but, together with our understanding of the Sacrament of marriage, it suggests that for many people, such a dedicated sharing of lives makes tremendous, even ultimate sense. That may not be true of your vocation or my own, but it is true for these people and witnesses to the mysterious nature of Divine Love and the way we share in it. Because God is the ground of all existence, and because we come to know and love others truly only as we come to know them in and of this ground (that is, in and of God), this leads to the paradox I mentioned earlier: we give our lives to God ONLY to the extent we also give it to those he loves.

Let me add one thing which may further illustrate this paradox. It is based on a prayer experience I once had. In that experience I had the sense that I had God's entire and exclusive attention and love. At the same time, however, I had the sense of assurance that he was caring for everyone else in the very same way, that ALL was well, nothing and no one was being neglected or loved less than I. How is this possible? It is divine love after all, and therefore a very great mystery. What I am suggesting is that we are called to love in the same way. We are invited to give ourselves completely to God, to love him exclusively AND we are called to love others exhaustively as well. This is the paradox and challenge of contemplative life.

For some, this love will involve marriage precisely because these persons experience the presence of God in this way, not in spite of their experience of his presence. For some it will mean apostolic religious life, for some others contemplative religious life, and for others of us, it will even mean eremitical or solitary life, for instance, but the sense that these lives are about loving God AND others exhaustively at the same time does not change --- only the way this is expressed. I suspect that once God is ALL in ALL and we are part of that new heaven and new earth Paul talks about, we will understand more clearly how it is that union with God means a total gift of self to others as well. For now all I can affirm is that God's "wanting us all for himself" is a different kind of exclusiveness than we are used to in merely human terms. As I understand it, he has us all to himself WHEN we also love others --- even when that love is expressed in eremitical life or in solitary contemplative prayer and time alone with God. In other words, it is not exclusive in a competitive way, but insofar as it includes others.

I hope this helps some. If I have been unclear or raised new questions, please get back to me!