Thursday, August 13, 2009

Contemplation, in Place

Every so often I'm contacted by readers who suggest (politely, but pointedly) that it's all well and good to pontificate about time-consuming spiritual disciplines when your kids are grown and gone and you no longer have an 8:00-5:00 job, but what about people in the real world? The implication being that normal life automatically precludes spiritual luxuries like the kind I write about and, worse, people who do enter the contemplative path must be part of a privileged elite. Having raised four kids--two of my own, and (on a part-time basis) two step-daughters- I do understand the objection. Before everyone grew up and moved on, before I could quit full-time teaching, my spiritual path was often characterized by frustration, even grief. I loved my family and my students, but I secretly longed for silence and solitude. How could a person even pray in the midst of such chaos?

Thus, when our oldest daughter and her husband and two-year old Eli relocated to California and joined our household last month, I wondered: would those skeptical readers of mine be proven right after all? Would the re-entry of a super-cute but demanding little person into our peaceful world change everything?

I must admit, I've been privately waiting for signs of that old frustration to arise, the long-ago fear that if I didn't regularly escape the boisterous family compound, I'd fly into a million pieces. But so far, all is calm, all is bright. What's going on?

I found a clue in a new book out from Ave Maria Press, Compassionate Fire: The Collected Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty. One was a world-famous hermit, and the other, the matriarch of a large network of intentional spiritual communities. The physical circumstances of their lives could not have been more different: his way of life was rooted in the legacy of St. Antony of the Desert, and her spiritual ancestor was more like the ever-active Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker. Yet in the dialogue between them lay the confirmation I was seeking: the contemplative life is not confined to the monastery, and never has been. I should have known this before, back when the kids were young and my students swarmed around me like bees. But I didn't; I couldn't help but think back then that physical circumstances were all, and mine were not conducive to a serious life of prayer.

Since those hectic days, however, I have found, praise God, what I was so ardently seeking. Most importantly, I've come to realize that a change in surface conditions cannot disturb what lies beneath. To live contemplatively means to live where we are--and to see God's hand in all of it. In this state of being, the inexhaustible exuberance of a two-year-old leads not to stress and weariness, but rather praise and thanksgiving, and family cacaphony becomes song.

1 comment:

Captain and Crew said...

Henri Nowen quotes Mother Teresa as saying, "Spend one hour in adoration of our Lord and never do anything that you know to be wrong, and you will be all right."

I realize the same thing. That I have always been at more peace, no mater the demands of my life, when I spent an hour a day in prayer and adoration with the Lord.

It is possible in any setting if one is willing to commit to the discipline. Or, if one is ready to committ to the relationship. One practice, I think I got is from Dutch Sheets, was to never get up from prayer unless the Lord dismissed me from his table. If you can committ to this practice, then you are committed to the ALIVE relationship with the LORD.

Try it. Don't leave your prayer closet until He releases you to your day! Waiting for His dismissal changed my prayer life!