Thursday, May 05, 2016

Contemplating contemplation

I recently read chapter 7 in Eugene Peterson's "Eat This Book: A Conversation In the Art of Spiritual Reading." This particular chapter is on lectio divina - which is an ancient discipline of reading Scripture consisting of: lectio (to read the text), meditatio (meditate on the text), oratio (pray the text), and contemplatio (live the text).

I have studied and practiced this discipline myself for years. I'm sure I've written about it on this blog many times. One thing that really jumped out to me while reading this chapter, though, was what Peterson had to say about contemplation. I found it both interesting, and quite compelling. He referred to it in ways I'd not previously considered.

Contrary to popular notions of contemplative people, normally thought of as nuns or monks holed away in a cave in some remote location, Eugene lifts up the idea that ALL Christians are called to contemplation, and actually can do it. I will list a few instances from the book:
  • On p. 110 he quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar, "The life of contemplation is perforce an everyday life, of small fidelities and services performed in the spirit of love, which lightens our tasks and gives to them its warmth."
  • On 111 he quotes Kathleen Norris: "I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self. They may be young parents juggling child-rearing and making a living... [I]f they are wise, they treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God's presence and they open their hearts toward prayer."
  • I really like what Eugene follows that up with: "I stake my claim for the democratization of contemplation on the observation that virtually all children up to the age of three to five years are natural contemplatives: unself-consciously present to the immediate flower, absorbed and oblivious while watching an ant track its way across a log." (That mental picture really struck a chord with me).
  • On p. 113 he states, "Contemplation means living what we read, not wasting any of it or hoarding any of it, but using it up in living. It is life formed by God's revealing word, God's word read and heard, meditated and prayed. The contemplative life is not a special kind of life; it is the Christian life, nothing more but also nothing less. But LIVED."
  • He also notes that it's okay to think of ourselves as 'failed contemplatives.' In regard to living it out, we won't master it (we fail); but it's the trying that makes us contemplatives.
  • I also really liked this call on p. 113: "Contemplative is not an elitist category of Christian. The importance of rehabilitating the word is that our culture has taken to using 'Christian' to refer to virtually anybody who is not a communist or a criminal. We need an unpopular word that kicks off some awareness of what is odd in those who live by faith in Jesus Christ, a verbal tool that calls attention to what is distinctive in this word-of-God-formed life. Maybe the awkwardness of this word in the climate of this age will signpost resistance to the acids of secularism that erode the sharp edges of our identity in Christ."

I suppose this was of great interest to me because I do consider myself somewhat of a contemplative person. But this opens up a whole new way of thinking about it for me. It's not just the ability to sit and think on Scripture while I'm alone, but the necessity of keeping it alive in the midst of life! Imagine contemplating, "The Lord is my Shepherd," at a party, or while in the office break room. Think of the peace and centered-ness that could add to ones life. Or, I think about when I'm with my grandchildren. Just the slowing down of my mind; the being "present in the moment" with them. I believe there is great transformative power possible through this practice.

This is good stuff, my friends. Important stuff. At least to me.