-Feast of St. William of York
Before I became a Catholic, the word contemplation meant something altogether different than it does to me today. Chalk that up to intellectual laziness because the definition has been sitting right there in the dictionary for all of those years before I woke up. Let me show you.
Here is how my handy-dandy Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word,
Definition of contemplation
1 a : concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion
b : a state of mystical awareness of God's being
2: an act of considering with attention : study
3: the act of regarding steadily
4: intention, expectation
Examples of contemplation
contemplation of the meaning of life
He goes to the forest to spend time in contemplation of nature.
She was lost in quiet contemplation of the scene.
First known use of contemplation:
As you may have guessed, my education on the usage of this word focused exclusively on the secondary, tertiary, and quaternary definitions. The primary definition, both a) and b)? Never heard of 'em. "Contemplation as prayer" was a brand new concept to me, even though Merriam-Webster (Funk & Wagnel's and Oxford too) knew all about it long ago. Not that you would notice from their examples on the usage of the word or anything. To me, contemplation only meant "deep thinking" or "careful study" and frankly I never did either of those about my faith. I was too busy chasing success, the American Dream, etc.
I knew as much about contemplation as a form of prayer as I did about "ejaculatory" prayers, which is to say not at all, though I knew what ejaculation meant because I had read all of Arthur Conan Doyles' Sherlock Holmes stories, and every time his friend Dr. Watson got excited about a brilliant idea he "ejaculated," which meant an abrupt emphatic exclamation expressing emotion. My older brother told me that the "e" word meant something, else, but I ignored him for the longest time too.
But "contemplation as prayer" was a foreign concept to me. You prayed before you went to sleep, before you ate a meal, and whenever you wanted something for yourself (a job, courage, a good grade, etc.) or for someone you loved, you know, who was sick or something. That was all I knew about prayer. Now that I'm a Catholic, I know that prayers of petition (Dear Lord, please help me to ______________), and prayers of thanksgiving, were basically the only way that I knew how to pray for most of my Christian life.
There is much for me to learn about prayer. I've written here before that many of us don't do it enough, even when we have been instructed to do it "without ceasing." It is more important to pray than to read about praying, or write about praying. We need to pray as we need to breathe, and I didn't understand that for the longest time. But sometimes I'm not reading about prayer intentionally and yet I stumble upon wise words that help me to see it as oxygen rather than as water. The one you know naturally how to breathe in, the other you know instinctively to not.
Here are the words of the Jacques Maritain that I ran across just yesterday in his The Peasant of the Garonne,
The word "contemplation" makes many people afraid and I have noted earlier that, like every human word that designates exalted things, it is not without risk of deceiving honest readers. In addition, the very sublimnity of those who teach us about it is enough to frighten one. To advance as one must toward God, it is prescribed to me, a businessman or a factory worker, or a doctor overwhelmed by his practice, or a family father bent under his burden-– to talk with God like St. Gertrude or St. Catherine of Siena, and to aspire to transforming union and the spiritual marriage like St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross? Not really; that is not what is involved.
Contemplation is a winged and supernatural thing, free with the freedom of the Spirit of God, more burning than the African sun and more refreshing than the waters of a rushing stream, lighter than birds’ down, unseizable, escaping any human measure and disconcerting every human notion, happy to depose the mighty and exalt the lowly, capable of all disguises, of all daring and all timidity, chaste, fearless, luminous, nocturnal, sweeter than honey and more barren than rock, crucifying and beautifying (crucifying above all), and sometimes all the more exalted the less conspicuous it is.
And those insightful words prompted me to come up with the title, and the simple formula therein, for this post. Basically it is a riff off the lyric of Soft Cell's one hit wonder, Tainted Love. "To think love, is to pray. But I'm sorry, I don't pray that way." And yet, we must. I'm sorry, but I must pray that way. You see how my friend Jacques puts it. Prayer can't be bound. There is no "one right way to pray." If you are waiting for the equivalent of the time and motion study specialists to present you with the one right way to pray, you will never "pray without ceasing."
For what is the end of the Christian life except to become like God? And how does one achieve this end without love of God and neighbor above all? Without this, it is impossible. This is, and I'm still a neophyte here so bear with me, the process known as "recollection." In the forefront of your mind, keep the thoughts that St. Teresa, that tower of prayer, taught when she wrote these words,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now."
Pentecost is around the corner and the readings this week will help you recollect who you are called to be. Starting yesterday and continuing on for the next several days before Pentecost Sunday, we are shown how Jesus prays to the Father. It is called the High Priestly Prayer and it is the 17th chapter of John's gospel.
Imagine that you are there now, recollect the scene. You are seated in the empty spot that Judas has left vacant. Turn your head to gaze upon the Messiah.
Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; give glory to your Son, that the Son may give glory to you. You have given him power over all mortals, and you want him to bring eternal life to all you have entrusted to him. For this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the One you sent, Jesus Christ.
Mull that over for a minute or two. Eternal life isn't some curse like it is in the popular literature nowadays. Some baneful, eternally boring existence where the world continues doing it's silly dance, and you have to continue putting up with it, you know, FOREVER. No.
I have glorified you on earth and finished the work that you gave me to do. Now, Father, give me in your presence the same Glory I had with you before the world began. I have made your name known to those you gave me from the world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they kept your word. And now they know that all you have given me comes indeed from you. I have given them the teaching I received from you, and they received it and know in truth that I came from you; and they believe that you have sent me.
Remember those lines the next time you hear a homily that states that the Apostles were "clueless" or that they didn't "get" what Jesus was saying. Maybe they didn't get the fullness of what the Divine plan was, you know, right off the bat, but Christ didn't hold that against them. Instead he says,
I pray for them; I do not pray for the world but for those who belong to you and whom you have given to me – indeed all I have is yours and all you have is mine – and now they are my glory. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world whereas I am going to you. Holy Father, keep them in your Name (that you have given me,) so that they may be one, just as we are.
This is the example I follow when praying for my own children too. But the next words cut me to the quick because I am frail and weak,
When I was with them, I kept them safe in your Name, and not one was lost except the one who was already lost, and in this the Scripture was fulfilled. But now I am coming to you and I leave these my words in the world that my joy may be complete in them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them because they are not of the world; just as I am not of the world.
Can any of us bear to hear the unvarnished truth? We will be hated. You may be the most gifted writer in the world, but if you use your gift truly for the Glory of the Lord, your market will be huge, but your success will be small. That may even be true in your own parish. Which bring us to Our Lord's next point,
I do not ask you to remove them from the world but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world; consecrate them in the truth – your word is truth. I have sent them into the world as you sent me into the world, and for their sake, I go to the sacrifice by which I am consecrated, so that they too may be consecrated in truth.
Remember, you are sitting where Judas was sitting now. What is running through your mind as you hear these words? "Consecrate them in the truth...I go to the sacrifice by which I am consecrated, so that they too may be consecrated in truth." Gulp! Do the math. And just in case you thought these words only pertained to the original followers of Jesus (bold is mine),
I pray not only for these but also for those who through their word will believe in me. May they all be one as you Father are in me and I am in you. May they be one in us; so the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the Glory you have given me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. Thus they shall reach perfection in unity and the world shall know that you have sent me and that I have loved them just as you loved me.
I'm thinking about my wife and kids again, and family, and extended family, and broken homes, and disunity in the world. "May they be one in us." I'm committing that to memory right now, and applying it to those nearest to me first. Pray, brothers and sisters, that I can radiate it out further , and further, like the ripples from a stone dropping into a pond.
Father, since you have given them to me, I want them to be with me where I am and see the Glory you gave me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world has not known you but I have known you, and these have known that you have sent me. As I revealed your Name to them, so will I continue to reveal it, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I also may be in them.
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.
Someone had asked Him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And then the angels told us to move along, so we headed back to town,
...to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
And thus, while they waited for the Holy Spirit to come, the Novena was born.
Is what I have just done "contemplation?" Some would argue yes, and some no. And they can go argue themselves into a corner for all I care. Just remember to keep the Lord in the forefront of your mind at all times. That is "recollection." It is thinking "charity" and acting "love" as you fulfill the roles assigned to you throughout the day. So, you see, to "think love is to pray."
I hope that was helpful.