04 July 2018

On Contemplative Prayer and Living

[[Dear Sister, hi there! Do you think of yourself as a contemplative? I wondered if there is a way to justify living as a contemplative. I grew up in a Protestant family and was taught to distrust contemplative prayer and maybe contemplative living too. This had something to do with distrusting prayer rooted in an inner and unverifiable mass of feelings. Too subjective I guess. Later I became a Catholic and more and more came to appreciate the accent it has on active ministry. But my pastor also talks about how important it is to cultivate a contemplative way of living and praying. He reads your blog by the way and suggested I look at it; he also said you might answer any questions I had. imagine my surprise to find you had written a piece called "A Contemplative Moment: How I become Myself"! So I was wondering how you can justify not working and being a contemplative. Can you answer this for me? Thank you.]]

Welcome to this blog! I realize you don't know me and I also understand something of where you are coming from when you say that you learned to distrust contemplative prayer and life. Despite what Catholics say "officially" I suspect many of them really don't trust contemplative life and think contemplative prayer itself is for an elitist few. Some Protestant ecclesial groups tend, as you say, to distrust the subjectivity of contemplative prayer. Some speak outright about the devil tricking folks to believe they are communing with God when really they are, at best, only navel gazing.

If you check under labels for my posts you will find a number dedicated to the heart. The way we conceive of the human heart is an important part of why we consider contemplative prayer a critical piece of Christian spirituality. For me and for other Christians the human heart is the center of the human being and the place "where God bears witness to Godself''. This idea or description of the human heart recognizes that the most central, sacred, and inalienable part of ourselves is an event rooted in the continuing gift/speech of God. We must learn to listen to and with our hearts and that is an essentially contemplative  thing. Our culture esteems rationality, thinking, busyness, but is not too comfortable with matters of the heart in this sense. Thus it takes real work to learn to listen to one's heart, and more, to listen with one's heart. Quiet or contemplative prayer is really about this. It allows us to truly be present to and for another --- something our world needs desparately.

I am reminded of a poem by Wendell Berry. Berry captures a sense of the work of contemplation and contemplative living. It is counterintuitive and contrary to our usual Enlightenment ways of approaching reality. Berry writes in Standing by Words:

The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
So, what I can say to you now is that contemplative prayer and contemplative living are vastly different things than most people know or have experienced. I suppose I would be surprised that these are not distrusted by some, especially by those who cannot trust subjectivity, paradox, or who overestimate external authority. However, contemplatives tend to take our stand in discernment as Jesus described it: by their fruits you shall know them. That said, the folks I know who are contemplative value truth, are loving and compassionate, and are incredibly committed to personal integrity. Their way is non-violent and respectful of others and the whole of creation. They work quite hard pouring out their lives for others and exploring an inner landscape most may not even imagine exists. While contemplative living may be relatively rare today this does not mean such lives are elitist; no, the truth is all are called to this kind of living and prayer. It is a focused way of living, attentive, and care-full. There is nothing strange or unworthy of trust about it. It is, quite simply, authentically human.
In saying all of this please be aware I am not writing a justification of contemplation or contemplative living. I don't think I need to do that. Instead, I believe folks who distrust these things need to re-examine their objections. Eremitical life is fraught with stereotypes and sometimes authentic hermits suffer when otherwise intelligent folks hold such stereotypes. I guess the same is true with regard to contemplative prayer and life. Stereotypes get in the way of real understanding. Fortunately, your questions indicate you are not allowing that to occur here.