One of the more engaging (if dense) reads I had during my literary studies was Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.
Now in the book Frye makes the case that all the stories we tell – from Coco to the Handmaid’s Tale – have their origins in mythical archetypes, which were in turn developed in response to the natural seasons and cycles.
One implication of the book is that, in some ways, our different ideologies – religious, political, social – have to do with the stories we find ourselves in, the stories we tell ourselves about reality, which determines the way we interpret reality.
I have a violence in me. It’s my vice. After some years of gracious self-observation – one of the methods we advocate on the contemplative path – I’ve noticed this usually emerges when there’s a third stressor.
So if something frustrates me, I can see it, accept it, and move on after a while. A second layer of stress means I have to intentionally stop and breathe. A third stressor layered on top? Then I just want to take a chain saw to a piece of furniture – any piece of furniture will do. If we factor in caffeine, these three stressors can even be fairly trivial, like dropped keys or misplaced sunglasses.
Contemplatives say we rest in the silent presence of God.
This is a little different, though, than what we usually mean by silence, which is just the absence of noise.
A friend asked recently if I got in fights with family about politics. Disagreements? Yes. Inner turmoil? Yes. Fights? No. But, oooooh, can it gall.
Given these times of extremely divisive political action and rhetoric, and the general breakdown in civil discourse, so often, where this hits the hardest is within. Even if we aren’t involved in shouting matches violence plays out in our inner field of vision, in inner tension, inner arguments, disbelief at someone else’s anger, hatred, xenophobia, support for policies that seem extremely damaging to the world. But of course, when the anger or resentment or resistance builds up internally, who is that harming, exactly?
When I was a kid I loved going to the movies. Now that I have a son I’m actually surprised at the amount of movies I had seen by the time I was five. Star Wars. Karate Kid. Never Ending Story. Breakin’(!). The Black Cauldron (don’t get me started).
There’s something magic about the childlike wonder sitting in front of the big screen with family and friends immersed in a different world.
The mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes that we go through different stages in the contemplative life, through times of expansion and contraction. There are times when we experience God’s feminine side, of grace, forgiveness, and mercy, and there are times we experience his masculine side, his power and magnificence, and stand in awe.
Part of our task on this journey is to integrate these two aspects of our spirituality into a unified whole. Part of that is learning to become alert and responsive to the moment we find ourselves in.
One of the surprising aspects of a contemplative life is the nature and impact of silence. And the trick is of course as soon as you start talking about it, you’re breaking the silence. It’s first and foremost experiential. That’s why Thomas Keating quotes Rumi: “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.”
When mystics and contemplatives speak of the abiding mystery or the realization of oneness, these are usually somehow inextricably linked to a deep interior silence.
When I was in college I played Santa every year. My family lived overseas and sent me the Christmas list since US prices were a lot cheaper for consumer goods.
Once I got home as the only one who knew who was getting what, I’d wrap most of the presents, even dress up and hand out the presents Christmas morning. It was a family tradition.
I got an email this morning from a conservative magazine as part of a campaign asking me to help fight the establishment by donating to their organization. A couple emails later I got another email from a progressive group thanking me for helping to strike a decisive blow against the conservative establishment in recent East Coast elections.
So who is the establishment? It keeps changing depending on who’s talking. Fox News has the highest ratings, but everyone else is the mainstream media. We Christians are the majority faith in this country, but carry a narrative of oppression and persecution. The establishment is the liberal media, no it’s the deep state, no it’s the giant tech companies, no it’s the 1%, no it’s that best-selling Rob Bell and those liberal theologians, no it’s those megachurches, no it’s those heathens who want to corrode our Judeo-Christian values. We’ve all got a story in our heads.
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.