Excerpts from Becoming Christ: Transformation through Contemplation (2002 Cowley Publications)
All of us are potentially contemplative. What may be called a “contemplative experience” is natural and common to most of us, at least once in awhile: we are struck dumb by massive shafts of sunlight breaking through dark thunderclouds, falling on the desert; a sleeping child on our lap makes us completely still and fills us with utter peace; in a moment of extreme suffering something opens up and we somehow know that even though everything’s “wrong,” everything’s really alright; a confrontation by someone who loves us leads us to quiet, deep, honest surrender. In one way or another, we find our way into stillness, quiet, a full emptiness; we open to a place within that is truthful, grounded, humble, and utterly real.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the contemplative experience finds its way into us. For contemplation itself is a gift from God; it is not an accomplishment of our own.
Some, perhaps most, are satisfied with this occasional gift of peace and openness, knowing that they can’t control or manufacture it. Others of us want more. We sense that what we glimpse in moments is more vital and alive than our usual mode of being, which can be so attached and self-absorbed. We feel called to seek out this deeper, simpler, truer reality through prayer and meditation, so that our occasional glimpse might come more often and be more sustained. And so we are drawn into some form of prayer that promises to ground us in stillness, vitality, and peace. For many of us, this form of prayer is silence.
Once we begin to invite God’s presence into our silent prayer, the Spirit within takes our desire seriously, and guides us forward into the divine presence. We are led into a loving and life-changing relationship with God. For ultimately, prayer (any kind of prayer) is a relationship with a personal, loving God.
In this relationship of prayer, I believe that God wants to awaken us to joy for the divine life within and around us; to help us respond to this presence by becoming people of loving compassion; and to come to complete honesty about everything in us that stands as an obstacle to this joy and love. Through a life of prayer, over time, we are transformed.
The Spirit shows some of us how we grasp compulsively at life and then helps us become more patient and accepting; God reveals to the perfectionist just how self-condemning they are, and then teaches them forgiveness and their inherent worth as a child of God; others of us are shown our self-centeredness so that we can move beyond it into compassion and service to others. As we devote our hearts to God in prayer, and as the Spirit brings us to self-awareness in that relationship, we grow more fully into the person God has created us to be.
Living in sunny New Mexico, my wife and I tend to enjoy any change of weather, because it comes so infrequently. Sometimes we wake up, look at the blue sky, and mutter “Another damn sunny day.” And so when it gets very windy, or clouds envelop us, or once in a great while when it actually snows or rains, we are ecstatic. We build a fire, get out a book, make tea, and cherish the change.
But we are surrounded by those who have grown up here, knowing practically nothing but sunny days, or those who have moved here from somewhere like Minnesota, who dread even the suggestion of what they have left behind. It seems that everyone panics when different weather comes. A little sleet falls, the roads ice over for a few hours, a car or two overturn, and the headlines scream MONSTER STORM RIPS THE STATE. The meteorologist describes the weather as “nasty, icky, yucky,” and predict that in a day or two “good” weather will return. And this isn’t just in New Mexico. It is almost a universal thing to hear people describe sunny warm weather as “good” and cold wet weather as “bad.”
It is the same with our mental/emotional weather systems. We not only identify with our temporary moods, thinking that we are these moods, we make the further determination that it is good or bad. A “good” mental/emotional state is open, awake, peaceful, happy, simple, and loving. A “bad” state of mind is cloudy, dark, hopeless, complicated, and confused.
If it is good, we do what we can to hold on to the mood. If it is bad, we try to get rid of it or get away from it. Whole schools of spirituality and psychology are dedicated to effective ways of changing the weather, so that we can move ourselves from bad states to good ones. It is commonly assumed that this is what religion or therapy is for: to help us feel those things we have always associated with the word “positive” and to be able to not feel those things that we have always associated with the word “negative.”
There are several problems with this approach. The first is that whatever changes we manage to make, the “bad” weather will always come back. There is no escape for us, as human beings, from the temporary dark storms that will blow through our life from time to time. We will never be able to stay in sunny, “ideal” weather all the time, and if our intention is to do so, there will always be some degree of frustration or sense of not being quite there yet, not quite permanently clear and happy.
Another problem is that no method of emotional weather-changing really works, because all we are doing is substituting one ego-centered reaction (being caught up in a mood or an idea) for another (willfully trying to make ourselves be a certain way). We are still reacting to life as it comes to us rather than appreciating it. And so even though we may try to rise above the storm, we are only continuing to be controlled by it.
Our circumstances and our states of mind and emotion are just like the weather; they come and go, and then come again. We are not any thing at any given time, for we are constantly changing, just like the atmosphere and ecological environment of the earth. Everything is moving, evolving. Confusion gives way to clarity, ambitious hopefulness gives way to despair, heaviness gives way to light-heartedness. Watching the changes of our mental and emotional life is like watching the weather.
Also like the weather, our temporary states are not all that there is at any given time. There is always the bigger picture, there is always blue clear sky surrounding the storm. Contemplation helps us to see everything: to be aware of the storm even as we also see the sky above it. The point of contemplation is not to help us rise above the storm so that we can get from a bad place to a good one. Its purpose is rather to help us see everything: the storm, the earth, the blue sky, and the infinity of space beyond. Its purpose is to see ourselves within the widest perspective possible: the perspective of God.
This wider perspective helps us to not be so identified with whatever temporary state we are in, and to learn to appreciate it, whatever it may be, as we might appreciate a good storm. What’s so bad about feeling temporarily angry or depressed, especially if we see it from the wider perspective of God, rather than being caught up in it? Why do we have to get away from it or change it? Eventually it’s going to change anyway as we watch it.
Of course, there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to change the weather. If we live in the north, we intentionally take vacations so that we can soak up some much-needed sun. If we are chronically depressed or angry, we undergo therapy or take medication for awhile in order to get ourselves out of what we are locked into. Instead of sitting there appreciating our headache, we take an aspirin. Instead of simply watching someone abuse us and others, we do something about it to change it.
But intentional change has its limits, and we forget this. Most of the time we cannot do anything about what we are temporarily experiencing. We are just bored or anxious or in an uncomfortable situation that we don’t like for awhile, and we have to get through it. Seeing that the vast majority of our waking state falls into this category rather than something that we can or should actually change, it becomes helpful to question our constant tendency to either identify with or attempt to change the temporary states we find ourselves in. Much of the time it is appropriate to dis-identify and to question our judgments about what is good and what is bad. Contemplation helps us to do this.
When we sit in silence and observe whatever is going on within and around us, whether formally or in the course of our day, we make a subtle but very important shift: we observe the phenomenon from a somewhat detached perspective, rather than seeing everything from within it. Sitting in silence, as a gripping concern arises, we watch the thoughts and bodily tensions that accompany this concern. Watching what is going on, we are like an outside observer that sees what is happening. Watching ourselves, we are also aware of sitting in God’s presence. We may feel the storm of our personal drama, but we also have a view beyond it into the infinite goodness and clarity of God.
Because we are looking at ourselves from a more detached perspective, we are not the slave of what we experience. Whatever is going on is merely something that is temporarily passing through us, and the observer, or the true self in God, is witnessing it as it passes through our consciousness. Since the true self in God is unchangeable, unconditionally accepting and at peace, the gripping concern is seen within the clear blue sky of awareness. We may feel the storm, but we are also experiencing the bigger picture that includes the calm. We are not making an egocentric effort to rise above the storm into the clarity of peace, but rather we are saying “Yes” to the storm as it runs its course, even as our peripheral vision includes God’s presence. Our perspective in contemplation moves from being caught up in the storm to seeing everything at once.
This perspective is, I think, what Meister Eckhart (13-14th C) was describing when he said
“The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one and the same - one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving.”
(from the sermon Distinctions are lost in God)