Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Active Contemplation: On Being Contemplative (part 2)

In the previous post, I offered Thomas Merton's thoughts on being contemplative. [If you did not read that post from June 5, you might start there before reading on in this space.] In the larger context of that essay, Merton is describing kinds of contemplation. The words I quoted in that essay refer to what is known as active contemplation, that is, contemplation that a person intends and which is initiated by some exercise, practice, or prayer method on the human side. Centering Prayer and Christian meditation are exercises of active contemplation, for example. The human role in active contemplation is important, in setting our intention, making space for the practice, and actively engaging in a practice that disposes us of union with God. (Classically, active contemplation is held side by side with infused contemplation, in which God acts in God's own way and in God's own time upon the person, apart from the human initiative.)

For Merton, the intent of active contemplation is to see what is real, genuine, true, or authentic. He writes about the "deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one's whole self into harmony with that will." So the contemplative question in a personal event, a national situation, or a world event asks, "What is God's will in this thing happening?" "What is God doing in this situation?"

Contemplative practice (active contemplation) allows a person, over time, to see beneath the surface of events, to detect the current underneath the obvious, to discern the spirit or animating presence that undergirds a circumstance. This kind of contemplative stance, then, does not lead to knee-jerk responses to what lies on the surface, but rather seeks out the deeper meanings, the ways in which God is woven throughout the fabric of events in subtle, almost unseen ways.

The contemplative, for example, might discern that what looks chaotic and divisive on the surface of things, actually is necessary for the dismantling of unjust and oppressive systems. In other words, with a different lens from which to see, the contemplative observes the world from a very different perspective, noticing what is actually happening in a situation rather than what merely appears to be happening.

Merton says, "Active contemplation is centered on the discovery of God's will, that is to say the identification of the real direction which events are taking, especially in our own life." (italics mine)

And again, contemplation "remains in living contact with that which is genuinely true in any traditional movement." (italics mine)

And then, "the contemplative today might be expected to have an intuitive grasp of, and even sympathy for, what is most genuine in the characteristic movements of our time . . ." (italics mine)

This "intuition" for the "real" or the "genuine direction" in events and happenings does not come quickly from our contemplation. It grows slowly over time, as we faithfully, regularly give ourselves to contemplative practice, to silent listening, to interior prayer. And further, it generally comes only when it has been tested over time with what has actually played out in life. In short, what is "real" or "genuine" may not appear for a very long time.

In contemplative prayer, there is a slow, gradual cleansing of my own biases, my own motivations, many of which are unknown to me, at least consciously. Those biases and motivations which have provided the lenses through which I see God, self, others, and the world are slowly revealed through interior prayer. Slowly those biases and motivations are re-formed -- often many, many times -- as God shapes and re-shapes my life, making me the person I was created to be.

Typically, this slow, gradual cleansing of my interior includes seeing God, self, others, and the world in more expansive ways. In my experience, I have never seen someone truly given to active contemplation, who over time saw God, self, others, and the world more narrowly. The movement is most always toward inclusion, not exclusion . . . toward a wider vision of the world, not a more limited vision . . . toward more creativity and expressiveness, not more legalism . . . toward a more expansive view of God and human-kind, not a more limiting view of God and humanity . . . toward a more global perspective, not a more tribal outlook.

Gradually personal biases are more readily noticed. A person active in their contemplative practice is more likely than before to see an issue or an event from the perspective of "the other", more able to consider a circumstance from the vantage point of someone outside their own tribe or affiliation.

Because active contemplation drops us beneath the layers of thoughts and ideas that fill our minds, and into a pure, naked silence with God, there also grows in the contemplative a posture of less judgment. Judgment usually comes as a result of mental commentaries and the predisposed ideas about God, self, other, and the world that live inside us. To drop beneath thoughts and ideas into the pure silence of contemplation, we are connecting with God apart from thoughts, concepts, and verbalizations; thus, there is little space for judgments. Judgment is always connected to a thought or a commentary about life or about "the other", and is rooted in our deeply ingrained ways of seeing life. Apart from thoughts, those judgments have nothing to latch onto. Active contemplation gives us methods for dropping deeper than thought and idea to that place where judgment falls away.

In the excerpt, Merton also says that the contemplative is "able to live within himself/herself."
"She learns to be at home in her own thoughts."
"She becomes to a greater and greater degree independent of exterior supports."

What are exterior supports? They are the opinions, beliefs, ideas, and thoughts of others . . . books, podcasts, newsfeeds, movies, conversations, and more . . . anything outside ourselves from which we gather information. (This blog, I must admit, is an "exterior support"!!) Indeed, each of us relies to some extent on what others think, what others share with us of their own learning or perspective. But our reliance on others can lead us to adopt a structure or belief system that is not truly our own, but rather is an assemblage of what we have picked up from others . . . I am this part Richard Rohr and that part Thomas Keating; this belief comes from Ignatius of Loyola and that insight from Teresa of Avila. We may be stirred or inspired by what someone else thinks or writes or says, but the contemplative asks, "Is that mine?"
Or, "What part of this idea is mine to live out?"
"Does that thought speak to my unique spiritual path?"
"How does that idea inform my own union with God?"
"What is God's invitation in those words for me?"

Those are the kinds of questions carried into our spiritual reflection, our journaling, our creative exploration . . . for these, too, are contemplative practices.

Merton calls it "spiritual creativeness":
*thinking one's own thoughts;
*reaching one's own conclusions;
*looking at one's own life and directing it in accordance with his/her own "inner truth, discovered in meditation and under the eyes of God."

I recognize that some people cannot take this much freedom. Fundamentalism and much conservatism is bound in a narrowly prescribed, dogmatic formula of do's and don'ts, so that a person never has to come to grips with his/her own inner truth. One never has to think one's own thoughts or reach one's own conclusions. He/she believes only what the group believes, what the denomination, the association, the party, the nation, the tribe believes. Once the "true word" or the "party line" is set forth, all personal (and inner freedom) is forfeited for the sake of the so-called "truth".

So we become a mass of men and women who are automatons, thinking only what Fox News or CNN tell us to think . . . only what "being patriotic" tells us to believe . . . only what "being Baptist" or "Pentecostal" or "United Methodist" tells us to think.

According to Merton, being contemplative connects us to God in such a radical way that this Divine union transcends all these other movements and allegiances.

No comments: