13 November 2013

On the Value of Contemplation

[[Dear Sr. Laurel, I have a question that has been nagging at me for some time.  . . . There is one funda-mental slant/ viewpoint/ position/ conception which may well underlie much of what you say, but nowhere have I yet found it expressed explicitly, and it is this:  what is the value of contemplative prayer?  Why should a life of contemplation, which is open to the hale and hearty as well as the feeble, aged, sick, sinful, fearful, disabled, and everybody else, be worth just as much as, say, the builder of homeless shelters, the missionary, the priest?

An image which speaks to me was called "God's Transmitters" by Hannah Hurnard, an eccentric but apparently sincere and certainly devoted lover of God.  As I understood her simile, the contemplative just stands there like an electrical transmitting tower, taking in and sending out signals.  One of the transmitters' most important functions is NOT to move around and try to accomplish anything.  Just being there, by remaining faithful to its "vocation" as a transmitter, can it do what it was made to do. . . . What do you believe about the per se value of prayer, with no "works" to accompany it?  No publicity, no recognition?  The Jewish belief that there are a certain number of people who hold up the universe just by existing?  Moses "standing in the breach?" This may not make any sense!  I'm sorry to bother you, but this is a fundamental question to me:  what is the absolute value of prayer FOR THE WORLD?]

Thanks for your comments and questions. I think I have answered this question in part, mainly by talking about why this vocation is not selfish or by referring to the gift quality genuine solitude is in a world fraught with isolation and alienation or by writing about the vividness with which the chronically ill are called to proclaim the Gospel. All of these are attempts at answering your questions though from differing perspectives or vantage points. The basic answer or the common thread in each of these is that human beings are truly human only insofar as they are in relationship with God, and only insofar as they in their weakness and dependence allow God to be the ultimate source of validation and meaning in their lives. Contemplative prayer is simply the purest expression of this dynamic, I think. I guess, as you say, I have just never said that explicitly.

    A contemplative is authentically human. She also mediates God's presence in the act of being human because this (mediating God's presence) is what it means to be human. It is the very nature and vocation of our humanity. We do this in the very act of BEING human. We speak, for instance, of human beings as imago dei and in doing so we point to the call and mission with which human beings are entrusted and which defines humanity itself. The contemplative lives out this vocation in a way which is clear and vivid. While I have heard the Jewish saying about pillars, I don't know if this is what they are referring to;  I personally dislike the additional  transmitter image immensely. It seems to me to need to make prayers into "do-ers" more than "Be-ers" simply sustained by the love of God. Still, if it is an attempt to speak of mediation, I can appreciate it.

Also, in my eremitical world the redemption of isolation and the reconciliation of estrangement is a ministry --- a share in the ministry Christ gave us all to hand on. We do that first of all by being reconciled and witnessing to its possibility at a more foundational level than that of "works" or social justice and pastoral ministries, etc. In a sense then, contemplatives witness to the truth others are trying to proclaim and accomplish in all the standard pastoral ways but they do so at a different  or more fundamental level. (I suspect too this is why Religious congregations generally and the Dominicans more explicitly, for instance, describe their ministries or apostolates as rooted in contemplation.) Contemplatives also serve to check on or "criticize" these  and any ministries; they encourage or even demand that they really flow from a deeper reality.

Prayer is a work, but primarily it is always and everywhere the work of God. Most fundamentally it is not a human work at all. For that reason it reminds us that none of our own works --- no matter how sincere or well-meant --- are the most essential and absolutely they are never the primary thing. Apostolic or ministerial folks remind us that faith always issues in works of love and compassion. Contemplatives remind us that faith, which is the state of being grasped by God's wonder, beauty, truth, love, etc, must ground all ministry. Hermits go a step further and remind us additionally that our most foundational community is with God and, paradoxically, that isolation is inhuman and individualism is destructive of humanity. Additionally of course, contemplatives witness to a number of other values, not least persistence, faithfulness, simplicity, etc. Each of these reflect a continuing, ever-renewed commitment to allow oneself to be loved and to love in response in season and out. It seems to me that a life lived in this way is an immense gift to the world, not least because it witnesses to the great dignity and challenge of the communion we identify as human life.