18 September 2015

On Contemplation, Regard for Contemplatives, and Science and Contemplation

[[Dear Sister, thanks for the post on the theological points which have been central to your life. I was able to see a little more clearly how these things are linked together. Well anyhow I was able to see THAT they are closely related and interrelated. One thing that was interesting was the [centrality] of paradox. I liked what Henri de Lubac said about only being able to contemplate paradox and that we can't resolve it. Oh, by the way, thank you for your explanation of docetism and arianism. I had never heard anyone explain these as a loss of the [paradoxical] nature of truth. That was pretty cool.

But anyway, my questions are about contemplative life and prayer. I know the Church regards contemplative life highly in some ways, but I wonder if you think they REALLY regard it highly? I read somewhere about a hermit not feeling contemplatives had a real place in the Church and that no one understood contemplative prayer or mystical prayer and experiences. She wanted to write for her diocesan paper but I think they had no space for something on these topics. Do you feel like your life is really regarded?

If what you say about paradox and contemplation is true then shouldn't everyone become a contemplative? But most people don't. Are scientists contemplatives or are they anti-contemplatives? I mean sometimes they seem to be contemplating the paradox of nature or reality and other times they are tearing things apart and seem to be incapable of contemplating things. How do you define contemplation anyway? Is it gazing at God and if it is, then how do we do that? I can't see God and I don't think you can either.  .  .]]

Definitions of Contemplation:

LOL!! No, I can't see God and yet I do consider myself a contemplative! Let me start with your last questions, not because they necessarily lead to the others, but because they have me laughing and because they are based on an important truth, namely, we can't talk about anything unless we are all on the same page regarding definitions. There is a sense in which contemplation has always meant gazing on the face of God. It involves a profound look at reality and especially at the depth dimension of reality. I think that when we talk about the contemplative stance of artists, writers, scientists (more about that later!), composers, etc, we are speaking about people who do look reverently on reality and let it grasp and shake them to the core with its beauty, order, relationships, structure, power, fragility, meaning or value, and so forth. I believe that those who are known in the Church as "proper" contemplatives "possess" such an attitude towards reality, but especially towards nature and towards other persons. These people, in one way and another, are concerned with gazing on the face of God.

But I think that there is a second and more fundamental sense to the term contemplation which has less to do with looking on the face of God than it does with allowing God to gaze at us. When contemplatives sit in prayer they often see and feel nothing at all --- except the deep quiet that comes from surrender to the silence of solitude. If you ask what they saw the only answer is often, "darkness" or "nothing", and there can be the sense that the darkness, as the silence and solitude, are living realities which, though too great to be seen or comprehended by us, somehow grasp or take hold of us instead. In these moments we are known in the biblical sense of that term, that is, with an intimacy which is almost sexual in its comprehensiveness. We know ourselves as known and loved by God and one of the better metaphors for this prayer speaks in terms of being gazed at and delighted in by God. In such a view contemplation is less something we do than it is our submission to the dynamism of God being God. Occasionally these experiences might be translated into visual imagery or other sensible experiences --- wonderful when it happens --- but also not really necessary for the profound sense of being seen, touched, and known.

On Science, Scientists and Contemplation

Both dimensions are present in the properly contemplative life, that is, in the lives of those who are, properly speaking, contemplatives. At the same time though, probably every person knows something of these two dimensions of the contemplative life and of contemplative prayer. This leads me to your great question about scientists. My sense is that generally scientists are contemplative without being contemplatives. They are capable of being grasped by reality in a way which compels them to do science, to explore, analyze, experiment with, hypothesize, test, and then repeat the process or parts of the process again and again. They are passionate and "ultimately concerned" in the way any person of faith is concerned in an ultimate way. They submit to the truth that grasps them and thus too to order, depth, beauty, structure, and so forth. They are, to a certain degree, reverent about the reality which is the focus of their work --- and often about the greater reality we all know. And some are contemplative in the theological sense of that word; they are aware of the necessity and reality of something transcendent which grounds and is the source of even their own science; more, they reverence and submit to that reality in the way of any person of faith.

But there are some scientists who insist on divorcing the world around them from depth, meaning, and so forth. For these scientists what Tillich called "technical" reason is enough. So long as they can dissect, analyze, explore, hypothesize, test, and in general "know" and exploit or use something which is finite and no greater than the human mind, they believe this is enough. In fact, they believe this is all that is possible. Some of these scientists are called scientific naturalists. I honestly don't know if these folks never feel as though they have been grasped by something bigger than they are, much less by something which is living, but those I have read seem to rule out any ultimate or truly transcendent dimension to things. My point is simply that there is more than one kind of scientist and we can't lump them together too easily.

One of the really great things about contemporary physics with its notions of entanglement and the sense that some things only really exist the moment they are observed, for instance, is that scientists are coming to see more clearly that paradox and relationality lie at the heart of reality. This means that though they are free (and perhaps called) to explore science even more deeply and rigorously, they are coming to suspect that, by its very nature, reality cannot be pried apart and "objectively known" as was once thought. Instead, one must give oneself over to it, let oneself be taken hold of by it, apprehend it with oneself as an integral part of the equation. Really objective knowledge is also profoundly subjective.

Meanwhile, for instance, the discovery of fractals lets us imagine an infinite depth to reality, a depth which is clearly reflected and imaged again and again and again in all being. In some ways fractals are the face of the infinite. These discoveries, and others as well, open the door to contemplation to the scientist precisely as scientist. It's an exciting time for them but also for theologians and contemplatives (in the proper sense of the term) because in significant senses we know this depth dimension of all reality and have known and been known by "him" right along. This means that while science cannot replace religion and while religion cannot replace science, they can and are called to approach reality with the same reverent sense of awe;  the knowledge we each possess has never been more clearly complementary or capable of enlivening and illuminating one another.

Are Contemplatives regarded in the Church?

I think I read the same piece you did by the hermit bemoaning the state of the contemplative in the Church and world. I both agree (and sympathize) and disagree with her. First, are contemplatives regarded in the Church? Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that they are. What is not properly regarded is the universality of the contemplative experience in not just the life of faith, but the life of the arts, sciences, music, and so forth. We are still suffering under the notion that contemplation is a rarefied form of prayer to which very few are called. Several years ago a diocese stopped all Centering prayer meetings and one of the diocesan officials (a priest and possibly a Monsignor) explained that "contemplative prayer takes years to develop and is really for a relative few religious." (I don't think he realized how serious the criticism was he was leveling at his own prayer life with this judgment!) In any case while we (the Church per se) esteem contemplatives I am not sure folks generally regard contemplative prayer or contemplative living sufficiently. Of course it is hard to really regard what you do not understand or see the value in and the thing about contemplation is that it is hard to point to its value.

I have to say that it also doesn't help any when those who call themselves "mystics" define contemplative prayer in terms of experiences few will ever have, ecstasies, locutions, visions, etc, or in terms of a spirituality which is so "world-hating" and incapable of seeing the sacramental character of ALL reality that no honest or healthy person would WANT to be associated with it. It is important to remember that the truly miraculous, like the truly contemplative, is rooted in something both transcendent and immanent. (It is not "supernatural" in the way we ordinarily think of that word so much as it also transcends the natural.) To associate contemplative prayer with the "paranormal", for instance, is to make it elitist, and for most of us (including most genuine contemplatives), weird and irrelevant as well. So, my answer is that among those who really know what it is, contemplation is esteemed. Among those who do not know what it means or those who mistakenly believe it is elitist and meant for the favored few it is not really esteemed either.

I do feel my own life is regarded despite the fact that I suspect it is not generally understood. That I and the life I live are regarded is true on the parish level especially, but also on the diocesan and then too on the level of the universal Church. My pastor, for instance, always invites me to special staff occasions and does not expect me to attend the more routine meetings (to which I would have little to add anyway since I am far less involved in the day to day staff concerns). At these and many other times he often suggests a way I can contribute which is reflective of my contemplative life. I am able to lead services three times a month and there is no doubt people appreciate what I bring to them. If I suggest trying a period of silence people enter into that and the kids at our school (the few times I have done some of this for them) certainly are open to learning quiet prayer. One of the things I really appreciate is that I am invited to everything at the parish even when I am unable to say yes. It is rather special to have folks continue to make sure I am specifically invited though they know my life as a hermit may not really allow me to accept the invitation. In any case, all of these people respect my own need for silence and solitude so my sense is they do indeed regard contemplative life (or those living it).

Why is Contemplative Prayer NOT regarded?

Part of the problem which your questions and the comments made by the hermit you mentioned circle around is that we do not teach contemplative prayer or even introduce people to the environment in which it can flower. We teach prayers and have a few moments of quiet, but we simply do not allow for the silence needed for prayer itself. Some of this comes from folks being insecure with "teaching" (mentoring) others in this way. Part of our resistance to doing this, I think, comes from the sense that we are wasting time doing this; we really should be teaching a more "practical religion" some would say, or we should be teaching about social justice, or generally doing something more constructive with clear goals and ends, but sitting in silence to learn contemplative prayer? C'mon! (Both are actually necessary!) Adults know this to some extent, but this points up the third part of the problem, namely, it takes time and commitment with no tangible results for contemplative praxis to deepen and bloom in a person's life. Today folks tend to make (and desire their children to make) commitments to things that give more immediate returns  (including the capacity to get a good job and earn money!) --- and those which the Church has encouraged is a more "proper" part of "their" vocations!

On Contemplation and Contemporary Society:

I wonder if diocesan papers get offers from contemplatives to write about the importance of contemplative prayer in the lives of families, children, and people struggling in all the ways contemporary culture brings on. It would not be enough to write about contemplation using examples from past centuries, for instance. There would need to be some compelling stories about the way contemplation affects people, the way they live, see, hear, appreciate life, etc. For instance, several years ago I did a class in prayer for one of our grade school's classes. We practiced silent prayer at the end and I asked the kids to practice this once or twice each day. (Before bed was one of the times I suggested.) The class wrote me letters to thank me for coming and also to tell me what the visit meant. Several spoke of praying silently each night before sleep. A couple of the students wrote unintentionally humorous comments, to wit: "I really like praying before bed this way. It really works; I go right to sleep!!" but one young man wrote the following really perceptive comment (a budding contemplative in the making, perhaps): "I have been praying silently each night before going to bed. It really helps. When I wake up the next morning I feel different!"

Of course the purpose of prayer is to let God be God; we don't want to turn it into the latest anti-anxiety treatment, or the newest alternative therapy for ADHD, but the simple fact is, when we allow God to be God for us and in us, we really are different. We are completed as persons and as a result we approach life with more patience and perseverance, greater empathy and compassion, and a greater capacity to risk ourselves for others when we don't see any immediate return for ourselves.  There is a generosity and a wider perspective that comes with contemplation. Certainly silence and the simple practice of waiting on God and learning to listen to one's own heart have their effects as well, but even so, quiet prayer is about letting God be God and becoming the persons we are in relation to the sovereignty of Love-in-Act. What we are seeing with a new freshness today is that in a sacramental world increasingly understood as fundamentally paradoxical and relational, the capacity for contemplation is important and often the only adequate approach to truly human forms of knowing whether these are associated with faith and theology or with the sciences.

Postscript: I realized I did not answer the question about everyone becoming contemplatives. I answered a similar question once before but from the "other direction". That one asked why we needed contemplative nuns if everyone was meant or called to pray contemplatively. For that post, please see, Why do we need Contemplative Convents?  Though from a different direction I think it answers your question as well. If not, please get back to me.