Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Contemplative Life

There is a tendency, and has been probably since the Reformation, to consider objective, measurable things, observable by means of the five human senses, or extensions of them, as reality; and anything else, whether spiritual or imaginal, as somehow less real, and of less consequence.

There is another way of looking at the universe altogether, one which regards all of creation as alive with spirit, shot through with the presence of God, whose being gave it existence, and sustains it at every instant. God is the ground of all being, and all that is is held and kept by God. "In God's hand" is one metaphorical way of putting it, if you can read that without anthropomorphism.

Fr Stephen Freeman, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, puts it like this in a recent blog post:
The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as "common sense" and "normal." Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists. 
The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of "something else" will haunt some modern Christian minds. 
[If you are interested in following Ft Stephen's argument, which is fascinating and important, but which follows a slightly different path to my own post, I'd strongly suggest clicking through and reading the linked post, and the subsequent one, to understand his complete thesis.]
From the point of view of one who prays, the distinction between these two points of view is crucial. If the "objective" worldview governs out thought and our perception, then prayer does indeed become problematical. Either it is a largely solipsistic activity, designed to make us "feel better" about ourselves and those we pray for, or it is a request that God break into the shell of cause and effect he has created, and manipulate it for our own benefit or for someone else's.

But if the world is indeed sacramental, if it is as much a medium for the presence of God as for sustaining his creatures, then prayer becomes something very different indeed. The Kingdom of God is perhaps our Lord's way of describing what is going on: it is in part a life lived in the realisation of God's presence and energy - his love - as permeating and renewing all that is. St Paul puts it like this,
...these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
(1 Corinthians 2.10-12)
Now prayer becomes something different indeed. It is much more like entering into the Kingdom with Christ, bringing our will into his unknowable purposes (Proverbs 20.24), in which he works in all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8.28). Michael Ramsey wrote,
Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being 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.
I suspect this is why those who practice contemplative prayer refer so often to "the contemplative life", for to pray like this leads eventually to a life lived largely outside the "real world" of getting and spending, and its rewards. As Jesus himself put it, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5.1) A life like this, though, is a life in some small way like his, and he was on earth "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." (Isaiah 53.3) The needs of the world are beyond counting, and to carry even the least of them on our heart is to have it broken, as our Lord's was; and it is only those who mourn thus who can receive, and carry, the comfort of his mercy. (Matthew 5.2)


Thomas D said...

Yes, quite. If we discount what can't be measured, held, or quantified, we discount love, mercy, compassion (and their Source).

I cherish the phrases "entering into the Kingdom with Christ, bringing our will into his unknowable purposes."

I feel, too, that this post explains, or helps to explain, without intending to, why I value and love the rosary so much. Yes, it helps me, as an ancillary effect, helps to quiet my incessant internal self-chatter. (Almost wrote "infernal self-chatter"!) But it brings us to a different place, to the "precincts of devotion" as a Roman Catholic writer once phrased it. And for me, at least, I'm enabled to approach the wider world in greater peace.

Forgive the long "tangent." A nourishing post, as always. Thanks, Mike. (And thank you for reminding me of Fr Stephen's fine blog, which I haven't looked at in a very long time!)

Peace and light.

Mike Farley said...

Absolutely. Your remarks about your own practice of the rosary remind me of my own feelings about the Jesus Prayer - which you'll know only too well as a regular reader of this blog! Not a tangent at all.

And yes, I always find good and nourishing this on Fr Stephen's blog, even if he is occasionally too Orthodox for me to relate immediately to everything he writes.