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A Contemplative Life

 For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  Isaiah 30:15

What exactly is a contemplative life? How is it different from a regular life? Most of our lives are too busy to add anything new, so where does a contemplative life fit? I intend to make a case for why contemplative practices are important additions, even to hectic lives.

First, a contemplative life is not typically a silent, inactive life of naval-gazing. Rather, many contemplative people are active and involved in effective and efficient ways that positively impact the life and lives around them. A contemplative life is not an escape from life’s activities, but a technique to become increasingly and effectively present to life’s moments. In spite of our best efforts, we can only truly live in the moment. Typically, we find ourselves stuck in our thoughts, mired in regretting the past or worrying about the future. A contemplative life is one that seeks to become increasingly present to the moment while giving less attention to the past and future.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17), Paul describes a contemplative life when he writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This may sound like a way of life for someone who has no life. Rejoice always? Pray with out ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? Most days, that is simply laughable. Laughable, that is, when we stray outside of the moment. Contemplative practices focus us. Even our most hectic and stressful daily activities become works of prayer and acts we do with God. We cease feeling that life is being done to us or being forced upon us. We acknowledge the presence and action of the Spirit in all things and at all times. Knowing that God works in and through us gives meaning and purpose to everything we experience, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Most of us were taught that prayer is a special time we set aside to be with God. We learned techniques for praying “correctly.” Prayer before meals required a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands. Prayer before bed occurred at the bedside, on our knees, hands folded on the bed. Prayer at church meant being quiet, eyes (mostly) closed, hands folded in one’s lap. When these images comprise our total understanding of prayer, it is no wonder that to pray without ceasing seems like the impossible dream. Must we become something we normally are not in order to please and communicate with God? I believe God cares less about how we pray and more that we integrate prayer (intentionally being with God) into our daily lives.

One aspect of a contemplative life, then, is that it strives to be one, continuous, unbroken prayer. That requires our willingness to expose ourselves to God in naked surrender of all our imperfections, all our failings, and everything we do that may or may not meet expectations. We acknowledge that God walks with us on every step of every day, no matter where we are, what we do, or who we are with. And that God loves the pure and raw essence of who we are regardless. God rejoices when we rejoice, God weeps when we weep. There is no trick to get God to join us in our everyday moments. The trick is to acknowledge to ourselves that God is with us in our everyday moments whether we recognize it or not. When we know we can never stray from God’s love and that God will never reject us, we can embrace and fully experience the moment, regardless of the circumstances. We can even laugh at our absolute and flawed humanness, knowing God finds even our most annoying quirks endearing.

A contemplative life does not separate being with God from anything else. Rather, it allows us consciously to affirm God’s presence in all things. We cannot hold God at arm’s length, so why pretend as if we can? Three traits of a contemplative life named in Isaiah 30 are rest, quietness, and trust. Interestingly, those are exactly what I crave on my most difficult days. In the coming weeks I will explore ways to integrate contemplative practices into our daily lives.

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This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life. For a list of contemplative activities in Lawrence, Kansas, go to www.ContemplatingGrace.com/contemplativelife

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 1

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Who am I? And who is God? Francis of Assisi, a 12th Century Catholic Saint, pondered these questions regularly. Indeed, such questions plague us throughout our lives and are seemingly unanswerable. When we are infants, we almost completely identify with our support system – those who feed and care for us. Our world is small, and we are vulnerable. As we grow and become increasingly independent, we realize we have a measure of free will – we can manipulate our environment to better meet our needs. We increasingly find ways to gain control over our lives and cease to accept without question that which our support system offers. Thus begins our identity as a separate and independent being. As we reach adolescence, we become increasingly dissatisfied with those who provide for us. We want our freedom, we want to live life on our terms, and we no longer want to be held back by the seemingly uniformed wishes of parents, teachers, and others who retain annoying levels of control over us. By the time we are in our late teens, most of us have developed a strong and entrenched ego. We find this growth process recorded allegorically in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. They rebelled against God and left paradise to live as beings separate and apart from God.

Developing an ego is a necessary and natural part of human development. It helps us identify a place and purpose in the world around us. Our ego dreams of great things and envisions a perfect life, if only we could escape the tyranny of the oppressive others who stand in our way. The ego, however, unchecked by reason and experience, is a deceptive informant. Egos are inherently insecure and narcissistic, protecting themselves at all costs. They portray our problems as the fault of others, so we look external to ourselves for solutions when we should be looking within. Our ego categorizes everything and everyone as useful or useless to itself – she is popular, so I will befriend her; he does not dress nicely, so I will shun him. The ego is a harsh judge and a ruthless critic. In order for one thing to be good, something else must be bad. Our egos strive to carve an important and unique niche in the world. Unfortunately, our egoic special place always comes at the expense of something or someone else.

When we follow the dictates of our ego, we find ourselves saying things, taking actions, and treating others in ways that are inconsistent with how we were created to be. When we reflect on our words and actions, we know we can and should do better. There is a God-given essence within us that the ego finds threatening and tries desperately to suppress. Many authors, Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton among them, refer to the ego as the false self and our essence as our true self. The false self is so called because it only allows a small, self-centered portion of who we are to manifest. Our true self is the part of us that was created in the image and likeness of God. It is who we are at our core. Our true self is directly connected to God by an unbreakable bond. As we learn more about our essence, we simultaneously learn more about God. When our true self attempts to act or speak in ways that go against what is popular or culturally acceptable, however, the false self will seek to shut it down. Our egos cannot bear social criticism.

A contemplative life seeks to allow the true self, the essential self, to blossom – not to destroy the ego, but to put it in its rightful place. We enhance this process of growth through contemplative practices. When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to losing our ego as the primary source for interpreting the world around us. Our egos can be good servants, but they are tyrants as masters. I will focus on our essence next week.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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The Seen and Unseen

 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what is seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

One of the human afflictions Jesus addressed was blindness. True, he cured those whose eyes did not work properly, but physical blindness was not his primary concern. Spiritual blindness – a lack of awareness of the unseen realities within and around us – was his primary concern. “You have eyes but do not see,” was a common sentiment. We are blind to vast swaths of reality in our typical day-to-day consciousness. In general, we focus on what is seen and ignore what is unseen. From imaginary playmates as children to the communion of saints guiding us as adults, if it cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled, it cannot be real. A contemplative life expands one’s awareness of what is real and important to include both what is perceived by our senses, as well as that which is not.

When we gaze into the night sky, we see planets, stars, and constellations shining back at us. Some indigenous peoples saw patterns, not in the visible lights of the night sky, but in the dark spaces between them. Indeed, as we ponder the spaces around us – the air, the open areas of our rooms, the distance between my body and yours – we assume there is nothing there. Indeed, there is no thing there if we limit thingness to that which we can see, touch, hear, or smell. In so doing, we perceive only a small and often misleading portion of reality. Yet, even in our limited ability to perceive what is happening around us, we experience much that we cannot see. We cannot see or touch the fragrance of a rose but we know it is real because we smell it. We cannot see the signals from our cellular phones but we know they are real because we communicate over vast distances through them. We consistently underestimate the magnitude and impact of the unseen world around us.

It is an interesting and humbling aspect of our physical senses that we are capable of perceiving only a limited range of the vibratory spectrums making up the world around us. As a child, I remember someone with a dog whistle. I heard nothing when he blew it, but dogs nearby whimpered in misery. The sound of the dog whistle was not real to me, but it was painfully real to dogs. Sound waves exist on an infinite spectrum, but we can only hear a tiny portion of that spectrum. We are continually immersed in sound waves, even when our senses tell us the world is silent. The same is true of what we experience as light. We perceive a very limited range of colors because our eyes only receive a small portion of the infinite range of possibilities. Indeed, modern science has proven that we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. How did Jesus know?

Through our senses and our early training, we think we are surrounded by mostly empty space in our immediate environment, in the atomic structure making up that environment, and in the galaxies surrounding our planet. The important point is not that we understand the physics behind the reality, but that we recognize the limitations of our senses. The empty space around us is not empty at all but is filled with a reality our senses cannot detect. Even so, these unseen realities impact our life experience as much or more than do the seen realities. Our world is vaster, more mysterious, and more beautiful than we can imagine. When our seen life experience leads us into despair, there is hope and reason for optimism in the unseen world. This is not wishful thinking, but faith-guided trust and surrender.

A contemplative life looks beyond what is seen, trusting that God is at work in all things and all situations, even and especially when God’s work is invisible to us. Such a life does not limit what is real or possible to the tangible information coming through our senses. As we become willing co-participants in God’s work through us, we find joy and purpose in whatever is, and we experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Action and Contemplation

 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  Ephesian 2:8-10

When we speak of a contemplative life, some people mistake that to mean a life of inactivity, of continuous meditation, or one of staring aimlessly into empty space. While some who consider themselves contemplative may follow such a path, an effective contemplative life is one of action guided by contemplation. The two paths are not contradictory; they are complimentary. In biblical terms, contemplation helps to build our faith, and action produces our works. The former is a type of prayerful understanding, and the latter refers to active doing. Ephesians 2 states that we are saved by faith and that faith is a gift of God so we cannot take personal credit for it. A contemplative life does not create faith, but it illuminates and strengthens the God-given faith already present in each of us. Even works, according to this passage, are not cause for arrogance. God created us for good works to be the product of our lives. They are not a way to earn God’s favor but are a natural expression of who we are. Good works grow out of faith, and right action grows out of contemplation.

Whether we consciously chose it or not, our lives are a combination of action and contemplation. Even monks who choose a life of solitude and silence have jobs around the monastery they must accomplish. We only differ by degrees. The typical Western life tilts heavily to the action-side of the scale, largely neglecting a contemplative focus. The downside of this pattern is that our actions tend to become unconscious reactions to whatever we experience, as opposed to consciously determined actions that have a plan and purpose behind them.

Yet, if we believe contemplation is only about planning and purpose, we deceive ourselves. Contemplation is about aligning ourselves and our actions to the unique expression of God we were created to become. It is about applying a holistic knowledge to our lives, utilizing the totality of our God-given centers of intelligence. Such knowledge develops from information collected by our heart, body, and mind. While it is true that contemplation is largely an intellectual exercise, it is only effective to the extent it is informed and guided from the entirety of our being. Heart knowledge is emotional intelligence. It derives information from emotions present in the environment. Head knowledge comes from thinking and processing what we experience.

Bodily knowledge is knowledge from the senses – what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. For most of us, this is our least developed intelligence center. Our body is the only intelligence center that keeps us grounded in the present moment. When we focus on information coming through our senses, we are in the moment. The type of information received from the body is intuition. We know something to be true, but there is little emotional or intellectual backing for it. Our head and heart centers easily fall prey to past longings and regrets, or future worries and anticipations, removing us from the moment. Each center of intelligence takes in, processes, and responds to information from the environment in unique ways. People in close relationship often misunderstand each other because their primary centers of intelligence process and respond to the same environment in different ways. One is not better or smarter than the others, only different. Each center by itself, however, provides only part of the truth – a partial glimpse of reality – and limits the range of responses we are likely to consider.

There is a saying among carpenters, “Measure twice, cut once.” It means to gather and check one’s sources of information before taking an action that may be difficult or impossible to undo. A practical contemplative life receives information from all centers of intelligence as it considers the most effective action to take. Awakening our lesser utilized centers is part of what contemplative practice seeks to accomplish. Contemplative knowing is holistic knowledge that helps assure the actions we take will be consistent with our status as God’s children. Contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin, given to us by God for the purpose of accomplishing God’s good work.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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