~ Contemplative and Active Living ~
“The reason why the Psalmist confesses that he understands the things of God [is not] ‘because I have attended the schools, because I have learnt from learned men,’ but ‘because I have sought out your commandments’…Let the sons of the bond-woman listen to this, those who seek the wisdom of the earth, the sons of Belial puffed up with learning, who tend to despise the simple and ignorant because they are not powerful in letters…Let the humble listen and be glad that there is knowledge of holy Scripture learnt from the Holy Spirit which often the layman knows and the theologian does not, the fisherman, not the lawyer, which the old woman has learnt, but not the doctor in the schools.”
The above is a quote from Meditations written by John Whiterig in 1371. Prior to living a solitary contemplative life, he led an active life of service and had been a student at the University of Oxford. This scholar and contemplative knows first-hand about which he writes.
Augustine observes “It is not what you are nor what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be…The whole of life of good Christians is nothing else but holy desires.” Gregory the Great adds “all holy desires grow by delay; and if they diminish by delay, then they were never holy desires.”
This may indeed be part of why God sometimes delays His response to our prayers and tells us to wait. We are blessed with the ability to test our desires directly by experience. Sometimes when we hear the inspirational words of truth and accounts of divine grace from those who lived them in activity, or read the promises of Scripture or even writings such as these Weekly Reflections, we feel a love and attraction to them and for more of them, wishing very much to experience them directly. This is evidence of a Christian's love for growth and self-transcendence. But it remains holy only if the desire does not diminish during those periods of activity when we tend to our work and mundane chores of cooking, cleaning, repairing or fulfilling obligations. During those times we may feel a spiritual dryness and long for the time we can again “take a break” from such activity for contemplation or for “getting back into the word” so to feel those holy desires and consolations again…a stop-and-go spiritual life.
Then there are those times when long after your contemplation, reading or hearing or seeing the holy truth and its promise and gifts, you feel your attraction and desire grow overwhelming. They press upon you as you sit in traffic, as you cook and wash dishes, as you lay in bed waiting for sleep, and find their intensity in you just as strong upon awaking. Your active and contemplative living have merged into one, each giving witness to the other. You are living truly in the constancy of grace. Although still a sinner by nature and consenting to temptations, you are at the same time approaching the perfection of Christlikeness. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4, NIV).
Grace is so ineffable, so pure, so holy, it cannot be perceived by our physical senses or even sin-tainted hearts. But the fruits of grace are very and wondrously evident in this physical world. The fruits of grace are felt and seen by even those who don't know what they are perceiving in the grace-full person. Children, to just rejoicefully play in that grace with self-abandonment and feel its loving strength and nurturing. Jesus says we must become like that to enter His kingdom.
Too often we assume the office of the independent workers of God and ask Him to bless the work we have chosen to do. The active life does possess an element of this, though it is infused with humility and not ambition. We pray for His wisdom and guidance over our activities and work, for His validation and will, and His blessing as we proceed. We must exercise our own decisions and strategies since we are not God's robots but His free-willed children. In this sense the active life is a partnership with God. When we pray His will be done, we must realize He may choose us to carry it out. When we pray for our daily bread, we must realize He may choose us to help distribute it.
However, in the practice of contemplation, we leave God alone. We ask nothing. We work towards nothing. “Be Still and know that I am God…the Lord Almighty is with us” (Psalm 46:10a, 11a, NIV). “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14, NIV). “You teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (Psalm 51:6b, NIV). “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8, NIV).
We do this every day. Soon, contemplation and activity merge and the fruits of grace grow abundantly, to be shared in love with our enemies and friends alike.
The three great powers are faith, hope and love (Corinthians 13:13). These cannot be even touched by the intellect or exercise of reason. They are understood by the silent rest of contemplation.
The contemplative spirit forsakes all thought and plans. There is nothing to “figure out.” Even images of God are forsaken and prayer is silent, wordless, for “he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will” (Romans 8:27, NIV). In this sacred communion we realize “he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17, NIV). The Sacred Heart of Christ beats in our souls, with our gratitude and joy.
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1-2, NIV). While pondering the Psalms, Augustine remarked, “Let us love God with a pure and chaste heart. The heart is not chaste if it cares for God for the sake of the reward…God is loved gratis; one asks for no other gift. Whoever seeks another gift from God, makes what he desires to have a more precious gift than God himself. God's gift is himself.” “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing…You yourself are my prize” (Psalm 16).
We can relate to that as humans. Gift giving delights both God and us. Gifts celebrate our love but the gifts turn into bitter sorrows if we discover that those we love, love us only for our gifts. When love withers as the gifts decline, we suffer anguish in realizing it was not us who were ever loved. Can you feel God's sorrow too? Contemplation in God's presence for only Him must bring God great delight. So much so that He desires to increase our awareness, peace and joy of His presence.
In response, we must not use reason or intellect to penetrate deeper into His presence. We rest in faith, hope and love. We let God be God to us in total self-forsakenness and trust. Without any effort or work on our part, God's presence and love become a healing balm to our hurting souls, both body and spirit. “You are my hiding place, my fortress, O Lord” the psalms frequently proclaim. Thus in His presence we rest in a pervading cloud of wisdom, power, and protection from adversity and evil. Any knocking on contemplation's door by malice that wants to steal our souls from Love's consumption makes us sigh deeper and more trustingly into His presence. We were taught to pray for the Father's deliverance from evil, not for His help in our efforts to deliver ourselves.
This is not a meditative
exercise in “getting in touch more with our inner self” or other “feel
good” or “self-empowering” practices. If you feel yourself more than God
(and you will know the difference), pause in sorrow and prayerfully desire
with all your heart, strength and mind to rest unselfconsciously in the
loving Father and Creator. Christ said “Without me you can do nothing”
so do nothing except cry out for His love and Spirit. Christ said “Seek
first the kingdom of God and all else will be added to you,” but there
is no need to reflect upon the “all else” in contemplation. We trust Him
for the purest care and perfect gifts and recall that “No eye has seen,
no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those
who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, NIV).
However, Paul does add, “ but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit” (v. 10a). We must remember, though, such revelations do not come from any efforts of ourselves.
Virtues are the
fruit of such grace, “and over all these virtues put on love, which binds
them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14, NIV). As a result
of daily prayerful contemplation, we can “let the word of Christ dwell
in you richly” (v.16) which then merges with our activities “as you teach
and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns,
and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (v. 16b-17).
When the deer “panting
for streams of water” finds one, she doesn't drink while thinking about
where she'll sleep that night. She just drinks, mindfully, gratefully.
The soul panting for God does not think about unpaid bills in contemplation.
Mindfully washing dishes in gratitude to God for daily bread can be an
act of contemplation.
Drinking cool water from a water fountain in a grocery store in mindfulness of God can be an act of contemplation. “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed,” become acts of worship and contemplation when you “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Gradually, the “you” is lost in Him, forsaken for Him, as He taught it must be.
Once Jesus was publicly baptized by John, the baptizer and herald of Christ announced “He [Christ] must increase and I decrease.” In a ceremonial way, John presented Christ to the world: “Behold the Lamb of God!” The words of John's self-decrease apply to everyone of us who follow him in heralding the presence of Christ, the Immanuel, the God-with-us.
John was a very active contemplative. Paul was a very contemplative activist. Jesus summoned us to be the active light on a hilltop, and also the silent salt resting unseen on the earth. The light must not be hidden and the salt must not lose its flavor. Contemplation preserves the salt's savor and activity keeps the light burning. And that “which binds them all in perfect unity” is love. “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services © November 2002
Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com
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