Friday, August 21, 2020

On the Road to Contemplation

This is what you are to do: 

Lift your heart up to the Lord

with a gentle stirring of love,

desiring him for own sake,

and not for his gifts.


The above words, from the anonymous 14th century English text called The Cloud of Unknowing, are perhaps the best and simplest description of what is often called contemplative prayer. In this one sentence is found the essence of this practice, and if one were to follow its guidance, no further words would be needed.


Few people seem capable of this simplicity. So, reluctantly, more words follow.


Contemplative prayer is as ancient as humanity itself. “To gaze in wonder on inaccessible things,” as St. Isaac of Nineveh puts it, is perhaps the simplest act of an infant, and marks the mature Christian life as well. Be it the wonder evoked by the creation or the utter silence of wordless communion with God, contemplative prayer is the form of love beneath all others, and to share in it is to receive communion with God into the heart, going to the edge of prayer, gazing on those "things unspeakable" to which St. Paul alludes in 2 Corinthians 2:4.


The path to contemplation is a path from complexity to simplicity. This sounds easy enough: discard more and more of one’s activity, and presto! Contemplation happens! 




The path to contemplation, to the free acceptance of what is always offered by God, generally requires a journey from the complexity of a confused life and will to one more in harmony with God’s revealed will for us. 


That journey often proceeds through the classical disciplines of repentance, prayer, study, ascesis, and ultimately, healing—not so that we might be “worthy” or “skilled,” but that we might be open, willing, and interested in the contemplative encounter. 


We are speaking here of the “still, small voice” Elijah heard, as described in 1 Kings 19:11-12, a voice so quiet it will always be passed over until we are able to hear it. The journey Elijah made to Horeb to hear that voice, a journey made in urgency and risk yet marked by God’s abiding care, is a good way to think about our path to contemplation.


The contemplative journey often begins with a searing need to stop the pain or anxiety. The “still, small voice” at this stage is unheard, but our need for it is so profound that our body as well as our mind and spirit calls out for it. The first step may be simply to say: “There has to be more to life and faith than this!” The second step is to flee into the wilderness.

So, let's take that journey together in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Disciple's Calendar: Major Feasts in August

Beloved in the Lord:


I write to you from the coolness of my home’s basement on a warm day, thinking about the coming weeks. August is typically a rather quiet month…yet, this year has been anything but typical! Amid all our concerns, what does this month teach us about how to be faithful?


The major Holy Days in August are the Transfiguration of our Lord (8/6), St. Mary’s Day (8/15), and St. Bartholomew’s Day (8/24). Each of these tells us something about our faith and how to practice it. 


The Transfiguration celebrates Christ’s light-filled presence on the Holy Mountain as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The story connects Christ’s divinity—made manifest in this mysterious encounter—with his mission to bring humanity out of the darkness of sin and strife into the light of God’s presence. It bids us ask the question: Whose “light” do I shine into the world? Is it Christ Jesus and the Gospel light of love, or is it something quite different, the “light of this world,” with all of its limitations and ulterior motives? One leads to the Kingdom of God; the other leads to division, hatred, and death. This is a question to be asked at each day’s start.


St. Mary’s Day celebrates the traditional date of the Blessed Virgin’s “falling asleep” or death (early Christians, with their deep awareness of death’s irrelevance after being reborn in Christ, often referred to it as more like falling asleep than anything else). Each year on this day, we hear again the words of Mary’s Song (from Luke, chapter 1:46-55)—words which challenge all complacency or easy deal-making with the powers of this world (or any ideology, for that matter). It will be a good day to ask if we are, like St. Mary, “God-bearers” into the world, or more like “place-fillers.” There’s a big difference, and the Gospel has no need for the latter. When we say Mary’s Song at Evening Prayer each day, we may think about this.


St. Bartholomew is one of those apostles about whom scripture tells us nothing much beside his name. Even that is a bit sketchy in his case, as St. John never mentions "Bartholomew" in his Gospel account, speaking of “Nathaniel” instead (the Church has always treated these two names as referring to the same person, based on then-contemporary naming practices). In any case, his feast day reminds us we don’t have to be world-famous or even known to others in order to be counted as pivotal to the story of salvation. Indeed, some of the greatest and most holy people probably never know they have been anything other than “just trying” to be faithful. What is important is that we are sent by Christ, bearing and practicing his message. This is a good day to recommit to a simple life of basic holiness, not getting caught up in all the debates and details.


Three holy days, three touch-points with authentic, revolutionary, and very “homely” Christianity. By God’s grace, let’s observe these feasts on their appointed dates—and live their teaching each day.


In Christ,