About five years ago I had a vision for a book at a
conference. The idea came in something of a flash. I had a manuscript on my
hard drive of a project that was going nowhere. But suddenly the question
occurred to me: “what would be the most fun thing to write?”
Instead of trying to write the great American novel, or a
picture of “the way we live now,” what I was truly after was capturing some
component of the process of inner transformation.
At a recent men’s retreat in I was invited to speak at in Idyllwild, one of the talks was about sacred space, sacred rest, and sacred work, and where we find inspiration. One of the questions I had included for small group discussion afterwards was a fairly standard one at these kinds of events: when do you feel most connected to God?
When my group got to this question, I realized, at least from a contemplative perspective, the question isn’t quite right. There’s something limited about it. A spiritual director once asked me a similar question about a challenging life situation: where is God in that? It felt off.
To help motivate people on their spiritual journey, I used to hear a pastor friend of mine say “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
And the point is clear enough: if we’re not integrating practices for alignment, inner renovation, health and wholeness, we revert to our defaults – anger, addiction, selfishness, whatever. Fair enough.
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.
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.