One definition of contemplation is simply resting in the presence of God. One of the first steps in the contemplative life is learning to cultivate the inner witness, the neutral, non-judgmental observational awareness of our inner state.
The affect this process has on us is an awareness of the way in which we (and everything else around us) is held in this kind of loving gaze. It’s as if, magically, detaching from the judgmental, evaluative tapes we usually have running allows a wellspring of gracious acceptance to bubble up.
In seminary, it was pretty common for students to come to a point of crisis at one time or another during their studies. The individual inflection points were different but the effect was largely the same.
What do you mean most scholars don’t think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob actually existed? What, the timelines in the synoptic Gospels don’t line up with the Gospel of John? What do you mean there are two conflicting accounts of how Judas Iscariot died? So I guess God just lies to us then?
When we think of the great religious traditions of the world, we tend to think in terms of symbols, a history of regional conflicts, of doctrinal distinctives. We think of surface differences.
The common bumper sticker challenging us to “Coexist” spells this out graphically. A crescent moon, a star of David, a cross. To some, common sense, to others, a hopeless compromise.
Growing up in an Evangelical Christian context, there was a lot of emphasis on conquering, on winning. Christ had conquered the grave. God was to defeat Satan in the final battle. We were said to be a chosen nation and more than conquerers.
There was a general sense and celebration of victory, of triumph. In seminary study we examined this kind of triumphalism and concluded it needed to be counterbalanced by an authentic appreciation of our struggle and our suffering. As a culture in general and in the Christian subculture in particular, we needed to learn to embrace the shadow.
Part of the instructions for the practice of Centering Prayer is to find a sacred word that signals a consent for the action and presence of God within. Some practitioners use “love” or “grace” or “light.”
The anonymous author of the 13th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing simply uses the word God.
In Jim Jarmusch’s movie Dead Man, the native American character Nobody or “He Who Talk Loud, Say Nothing,” quotes from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in a moving scene:
Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
And some are born to endless night.
Most contemplatives, especially in the Christian tradition, are familiar by now with the basics of Centering Prayer. It’s a daily practice, ideally at least 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night, during which we open ourselves to the divine presence in the silence.
It’s a time to set aside the din and cacophony of everyday life and the workings of our monkey mind. That’s constantly looking for shiny new things to grab hold of.
Quick. What do you identify with? What groups do you belong to? And who do you feel attacked by? Who do you prepare to do battle with?
Most of us have these categories in play somewhere in the background of our everyday awareness. White, black, progressive, conservative, American, Canadian, pro-life, pro-choice. Maybe it’s none of those, and you identify more with your family. Or your church. Or your town. Or your country. Or your team. Or just the way things used to be.
There’s this crazy idea the mystics have that we are spirit having a human experience. Notice the singular: spirit? There’s this mystery of multiplicity-in-unity and unity-in-multiplicity. Beneath the surface veneer we’re drinking from the same well, animated by the same source.
“Take and accept yourself just as you are, where you are. If you are aggressive, lustful, fearful, or shy and passive, notice your feelings before, during, and after each incident, without emotional reactions of blame, shame, anger or discouragement. Let God work with your faults and limitations. Just recognize them and be with them, without trying to correct them directly. As you watch them, feel them, and accept them, their force and exaggeration will gradually diminish. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is and be present to and welcome whatever bodily feeling or emotion that is happening. The present moment contains all we need to be happy.”
Contemplatives tend to make pretty radical claims about the transformation on offer through our simple practices.
Thomas Merton put it in strong terms: “Contemplation is the highest form of prayer. [It] is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully alive.”
But what is the inner experience of this movement? What actually changes?