Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
~ GK Chesterton

Monday, June 23, 2014

What is a contemplative life?

“Keep in mind that I say we should all try to be contemplatives, since we are not here for any other reason.”

Way of Perfection, Ch 18.3

The contemplative life.  This is daunting for me to attempt to explain in a few words or a few sentences.  There is so much written about the contemplative life for Christians of all stages, other religious faiths, and even seculars who would describe themselves as “spiritual, if not religious.” Here are three good Catholic sources for descriptions on the contemplative life:

·         Fr. Gabriel, in the “Little Catechism of Prayer,” wrote, “The contemplative life is a form of Christian life in which one endeavors to live not only ‘for God,’ but also ‘with God.’ It is not restricted to religious, but can also be lived perfectly in the world.” He goes on to say that this is done through spiritual exercises (prayer, mortifications, practicing the virtues). 

·         Contemporary author Connie Rossini shared in her e-book “Manual for Mental Prayer” that the contemplative life is one which is ordered toward union with God.  This is achieved through prayer and mortification.

·         An obvious source for a look at the contemplative life is St. Teresa of Avila. “I repeat, it is necessary that your foundation consist of more than prayer and contemplation.  If you do not strive for the virtues and practice them, you will always be dwarfs.”  (Interior Castle, VII: 4.9)

What is the common theme in each of these descriptions?  The contemplative life is not defined solely by the time spent in active prayer.  Anything that happens during meditative time must spill over into a life of virtue.  In any number of places in her writing, St. Teresa describes this way of life as living as both Mary and Martha.  So often, we try to take sides about who is offering more to the world, siding wherever our natural inclinations happen to be more Mary or more Martha.  Stop doing that.  Strive to integrate the industrious work of Martha with the prayerful attendance of Mary.  In describing those who have achieved this integration, St. Teresa said, “Mary and Martha never fail to work almost together when the soul is in this state. . . When active works rise from this interior root, they become lovely and very fragrant flowers. . . The fragrance from these flowers spreads to the benefit of many.  It is a fragrance that lasts, not passing quickly, but having great effect.”  (Meditations on the Song of Songs, Ch 7)

St. Teresa also wrote, “Union consists in the spirit being pure and raised above all earthly things so that there is nothing in the soul that wants to turn aside from God’s will; but there is such conformity with God in spirit and will, and detachment from everything, and involvement with Him, that there is no thought of love of self or of any creature.” (Spiritual Testimonies, #25)

So, wait.  You mean, you do this with children?

I believe that children are natural contemplatives.  Observe children when they become forgetful of the world around them, so intent are they on their task at hand.

From “Story of a Soul,” where St. Therese of Lisieux is writing about the happy childhood she remembers before her mother died.
“Ah! How quickly those sunny years passed by, those years of my childhood, but what a sweet imprint they have left on my soul!  I recall the days Papa used to bring us to the pavilion, the smallest details are impressed in my heart.  I recall especially the Sunday walks when Mama used to accompany us.  I still feel the profound and poetic impressions that were born in my soul at the sight of fields enameled with cornflowers and all types of wild flowers.  Already I was in love with wide open spaces. Space and the gigantic fir trees, the branches sweeping down to the ground, left in my heart an impression similar to the one I experience still today at the sight of nature.”

Putting aside for the moment individual temperament, I believe that most people are born with this sense of wonder.  It’s more easily observed in children, who do take time to stop to smell the roses.  And watch ants.  And play in tidal pools.  And gaze at clouds.  One day, when my son was only two years old, I was passing the room in which he was playing.  He turned to see me at the door and beckoned me to the window with him.  “Mommy, look!  Clouds!”  I leaned against the window sill, watching the fluffy white cumulous clouds, moving gently across the blue summer sky.  Nothing noticeably remarkable was happening up in the sky.  He was merely taken with the moment of beauty in the pretty summer day.  We didn’t say anything.  (For once in my life, I was intuitive enough to know to just shut up, watch the clouds, and not make it a teachable moment.)

Yes, children are natural contemplatives.  I wrote early in this project of mine that we are cultivating a garden that’s already been planted.  Perhaps the best thing we can do to foster the contemplative life in children is to improve the soil by offering them a world of beauty: nature, music, literature, artwork.  Then plant the seeds of faith: God’s creation, art as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Maybe work in a little compost with the soil: every small task we do with love, even the unpleasant ones, can be an offering to God.  (Enough with gardening?  Sorry!  I write this on a beautiful day when my senses are overwhelmed by the glory of God’s earth.)

In “The Living Flame of Love,” St. John of the Cross shares quite a few words about spiritual directors and how they can do so much to help or hurt the progress of souls under their care.  There are parallels between the relationship of John of the Cross writes about and the way a parent can foster spiritual growth in a child.  If I were to paraphrase what he write in Stanza 3, it would be that spiritual directors (think: parents) must leave souls alone, that intellect can hold back a soul.  We come close to God through faith, and this gets accomplished by an idleness that John of the Cross remarks upon.  When I read that, in Stanza 3, I couldn’t help but think of how children have a way of becoming reflective all on their own.

So, parents provide the opportunities.  Then, stand back.  Allow God to work.  Allow the child to mature.  Understand that this is not a one-time readying the soil/plant/observe growth/harvest.  This is the work of a lifetime.  We shouldn’t measure spiritual growth as we do physical growth or scholastic development.

More about this ‘inner idleness’ and the concept of parents as spiritual directors next week!

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