Saturday, January 16, 2016

An Odd Occupation

Contemplative prayer is an odd occupation. Thomas Merton described it as a sinking down into the depths of one's being, into the "hidden ground of love". In those who find themselves called to contemplative prayer, there appears to be a sort of magnetic pull towards this: not to some kind of personal improvement, a sort of perfected selfhood, but to the Ground of Being itself - to God.

Compared, too, with "utilitarian" concepts of social justice or of evangelism - the greatest numbers of hungry fed, poor clothed, ears filled with the Gospel - the contemplative life seems an unlikely calling. But we must not forget that all through the years of World War II exiled Russian monks (among them Archimandrite Sophrony) prayed in the monasteries and caves of Mount Athos, and during her years in a Soviet labour camp Irina Ratushinskaya wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt end of a matchstick, committing them to memory before she washed away the evidence.

The closer we find ourselves drawn to God, to the inexhaustible mercy that is at the heart of being itself, in-ness (Eckhart's istigkeit), the more that love comes to fill us, setting gently aside our self-concern, till we come to "[be] with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart" (Michael Ramsey). That is the intercessory dimension of our contemplative prayer, not intercession in the sense of asking for things, but in the sense of being with.

In prayer, time flattens out into presence. It is as though we could stand on a high place watching someone complete a journey on the plain below: we can see the place where their trip began; we can see their destination; and we can see the dot of their vehicle, a tiny model travelling that dusty road across the open land. For them, there is a succession of times: departure; driving; arrival. But for us there is only now, containing the journey whole and present, time realised as space, complete in itself. Within this space that is Mercy itself, all our histories, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out, "past, present and future, all our hopes and dreams, are already contained and, mysteriously, already fulfilled." She goes on:
The great mystics have named this as the heart of the Mercy of God: the intuition that the entire rainbow of times and colours, of past and future, of individual paths through history, is all contained - flows out of and back into - that great white light of the simple loving presence of God. Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. And in that Mercy all our history - our possible pasts and possible futures, our lost loved ones and children never born - is contained and fulfilled in a wholeness of love from which nothing can ever possibly be lost.
To hold such a vision in our hearts, together with those for whom our hearts are simultaneously broken - the poor, the lost, the weary and the sick, the victims and the perpetrators of cruelty, human or otherwise - is surely a calling to be grateful for, even if it is a hidden and a little-known vocation. For me at any rate, it is the best definition of prayer I know.


Anonymous said...

Those drawn to contemplative prayer may be interested in 'Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment' by John Butler, which tells of his gradual transition from being a farmer, among other things, to a life largely devoted to this 'odd occupation' of contemplation.

The mindset of the contemplative is distinctive. I think the assumptions are rather different from those of many others, these being that there really does exist an unseen, implicate order, and that bringing oneself into alignment with it is of importance, not only to oneself but the world at large. In this context we can understand the words of Milarepa, the great Tibetan Yogin, when asked by his disciples if they could devote some time to helping others. His reply (somewhat paraphrased) was that 'if there is not the slightest self interest involved, then it is permissible. However, devote yourselves primarily to the attainment of Buddhahood, for the sake of all sentient beings'.

It is not even a question of praying directly for others, though that may help too. I was once fortunate to correspond with a Carthusian monk who told me that they got many prayer requests. When I asked him how they dealt with these, he said that the Prior instructed them to take these concerns 'into the heart' and let them rest there, in a way very reminiscent of what has been said in this post.

Mike Farley said...

Thank you! Your comments about Milarepa, and about your Carthusian correspondent, are good to read.