Why I choose to approach dailyness as a contemplative
Glenna Thomas, one of my favorite old saints at the church of my childhood, was once looking around during congregational prayer. After the “Amen” and when everyone else had raised their heads and opened their eyes, her granddaughter, who had spied Glenna’s eyes wide open, blurted out loud: “Grandma, you’re supposed to close your eyes when we pray, but you were looking around.” Glenna laughed and, without missing a beat, retorted just as openly: “Honey, the Bible says to watch and pray, and I was watching!”
Impressed by the witness, practice and writings of Thomas Merton, I committed to try to become a contemplative a number of years ago. It’s a spiritual practice deeply rooted in church history. Though most often associated with monasteries (Merton was a Trappist monk), contemplative Christian spirituality is just as well practicable in a fully engaged, work-a-day world. Who knows? You may be a contemplative and not even realize it.
The best way I can describe it is this: contemplatives live and pray with eyes wide open. We pray with the newspaper in one hand and the Scriptures in the other. We literally pray the news—and not just the news, but life as we experience it. We take it all in—the good, the bad and the ugly—consider it, reflect on it as fully as possible, and then respond to it in light of what we can grasp of God’s story and Spirit of grace.
Contemplative living intentionally heightens awareness and sensitivity to what impacts life both near and far, small and great, personally and systemically, micro and macro. Instead of narrowing one’s focus to one’s own particular vocational niche, organization, interests, direct responsibilities and assigned tasks, a contemplative dares to set one’s own limited responsibilities and small tasks in the context of all others--of systems, of networks, of powers that be, of relationships with known neighbors nearby and unnamed and not known on the other side of the world. A contemplative takes the whole world, as it were, into one’s heart, and begins to see otherwise imperceptible connections and relationships across the whole spectrum.
This way of living refuses to pretend that what’s really evil or difficult or inconvenient isn’t really there, isn’t serious, or is “not my problem” and dismisses it. Instead of using religion to label, avoid, or trump what’s difficult or oppositional, contemplatives dare to let the fullness of both light and shadow, both positive and negative, both what is soulfully uplifting and what is soul sabotaging to be revealed, felt, considered, discerned, lifted up, and then continue to be responded to in grace again and again throughout life.
Contemplative prayer doesn’t grant the option of ignoring or caring less about what is troubling or complex in our world. Instead, it faces it (sometimes with trembling), takes it in, discerns it as fully as possible, and lifts it up to God, and considers it in the light of grace. For long periods of time, it sometimes seems, apparently irreconcilable paradoxes can weigh on one’s mind and heart. One feels something of the impact of profound tensions--real sorrows and the agony of injustices, as well as the joys of breakthroughs and healings. As the weight of paradox is felt, heaviness is lifted to God. Contemplative pray-ers turn heartfelt anguish or awe inside out to God in a manner similar to the Psalmists.
So, I approach this Thanksgiving with an acute awareness of the profound paradoxes in our culture and world at the moment. I hold in tension Thanksgiving and bloodshed in Gaza, Black Friday frivolity and mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the desire for personal integrity and the reality of confounding social complexity (and my unavoidable complicity in it). And I pray for a heart broken enough, a mind broad enough, and a faith buoyant enough to embrace these realities with a forward-looking, creative stewardship.