Sourced in the Ground: The Contemplative Vocation
A paper given at a seminar held by the Institute for Spiritual Studies on the 21st November, 2015
Delivered by The Rev'd Dr Sarah Bachelard, Honorary Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.
People often speak as if the difference between 'believers' and unbelievers, people of faith and 'secular' people, was to do with whether or not we 'believe in God', or 'believe that God exists'. The real question, it sees to me though is to do with where our lives are sourced. Some people seem to be able to say that they believe that God exists (I'm thinking of some of those survey responses), but it doesn't appear particularly to orient or affect who they are. This 'belief' seems a bit of 'an idle wheel' — apparently meaningful, but not actually doing any 'work', or making any difference in a life.
We've seen that, in theology and practice, the contemplative tradition affirms the possibility of our lives being more consciously and completely sourced in the life of God. Contemplatives speak of the promise of union with God, being rooted in God as the ground of our being, and of the significance of this vocation.
In this last part of our time together, I'd like to reflect on this promise and this vocation. In particular, what does this contemplative practice and life have to offer the world and the church in our time?
But why focus on contemplation? Theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said that the Christian life is always related to its time and context and that, as a witness to salvation, 'the Christian testimony must be related to the sickness of the given society in a healing way.' So, he suggests: 'the Reformation's testimony to freedom of faith acted therapeutically on the public sicknesses of mediaeval ecclesiastical society ... [and] the Methodist testimony to personal sanctification acted therapeutically on the sicknesses of the rising industrial society in England.'
I find this helpful for understanding the global emergence and hunger for contemplation. When the illness of society includes alienation from creation and our own depths, when it leads to frenzied busyness, anxiety, over-consumption and incessant noise, it's no wonder that the Spirit of God awakens a yearning for stillness, silence and simplicity.
I think it's particularly important to recognise that this isn't just about peace and quiet — it's not escapist and it's not quietist. It's about hunger for God — and the living experience of God rather than empty dogma and ritual. And it's about hunger to be fully human — living no longer alienated in various ways from ourselves, from others, and from the creation ... but whole and in communion. There's a knowing that somehow the way to this deepened wholeness and belonging is by way of silence and letting go ... opening in a much more radical way to the gracious and transforming reality, the ground in whom we live and move and have our being.
I believe that responding to this call is absolutely vital for our time, and I want to touch on three of its implications for how we live.
The first is to do with our capacity to love. This is a quote from Rowan Williams:
This is because being willing to be radically open to God and to let (in Williams' words) 'God's light and love penetrate my inner life', gradually changes the way I see and respond to other people. As I let go my demands and agenda before God, so I become more able to let them go in relation to those around me. I become more able to see and love people, not for what they may give me or do for me, but simply and more gently in and for themselves. As Williams says, 'I discover how to see other persons and things for what they are in relation to God, not to me.' In other words — I learn to see them 'whole'. And this profoundly affects our capacity to be bearers of reconciliation and the possibility of restored relationship, even in contexts of profound alienation and evil-doing. And you don't need me to tell you that this is an urgent issue in our time.
Here's an example of what I mean. It's from the story of Sister Helen Préjean, as portrayed in the 1955 film Dead Man Walking. The film tells the true story of Matthew Poncelet, a murderer and rapist condemned to death in the US state of Louisiana, and of Sister Helen's accompanying him through the weeks and days leading up to his execution. On the film's account at least, this was no straightforward journey for her. She struggled with her own revulsion for this man and his crimes. Yet, what grew from her struggle and her prayer was a love which had the power of both revelation and reconciliation.
When someone does terrible evil, their humanity is obscured — it becomes difficult to see them as 'like us', as our 'fellow human being'. We see this in the responses to last week's massacre in Paris — the perpetrators are said to be 'evil incarnate', 'inhuman'. Sister Helen's love for Matthew Poncelet rendered visible his humanity and so made possible a different kind of response to him.
Importantly, recognising someone's humanity is a far deeper matter than believing that even one who has committed terrible crimes has rights which must be respected by the legal system. In fact, the film shows the radical disjunction between the protocols designed to protect the prisoner's 'rights' and the capacity of those who carry them out to be present to his humanity. There is an 'inhuman' coldness in the bureaucratic procedures and systems which surround the mechanism of judicial execution and which actually function to block any sense of shared humanity between the guards, prison staff and their prisoner.
What love makes visible is not simply the person as bearer of certain rights, but the person himself, in all his unrepeatable particularity, vulnerability and mystery. It makes visible the sense in which he is still 'one of us', a 'fragile fellow creature'. In the case of Poncelet, through Sister Helen's eyes we begin to see his childhood and its vulnerabilities and hurts, his need to belong, his inarticulate love for his mother and brothers mixed with his indiscriminate rage at their poverty and social deprivation. We see tragedy in the pathetic bravado and pointless waste which has led him to death row.
Love is this profound 'seeing' of another which leads us to recognize and acknowledge the sharedness of our lives while, at the same time, revealing his mysterious otherness. In the light of Sister Helen's love, we cease seeing Poncelet merely as an instance of a class (prisoner, evil-doer) and we begin to see him 'whole' — a murderer and rapist, yes, and unfathomably mysterious to us, but also our fellow, a sharer in our common humanity.
This doesn't mean she gives him a free pass. Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita has written that if someone who has done evil were 'the beneficiary of a saint's love' it would be 'a severe love'. This is because, he says, 'it would not count as love unless it were lucid about the evil of his crimes ... [Nevertheless], love it would be.' Early in Dead Man Walking, Poncelet seems incapable of facing what he has done with any lucidity: he claims he's innocent, that his partner in crime is the only culprit. Sister Helen sees him whole and seeks to love him anyway, not in a sentimental way which would allow him to evade or excuse his crime by focusing, for example, on the deprivations of his childhood, but in a way which holds open the possibility of truthfulness, remorese, forgiveness and restoration.
Eventually, in the light of the way she sees him diminished by his crime yet called into wholeness, he's able to let go his evasions, to be present to what he has done and become, and so seek and receive forgiveness. For the first time he calls his murdered victim by his name. This is the kind of love which the risen Jesus showed his disciples. His forgiveness of them was no 'bland legitimation' of all they had been and done. For Peter, for example, to receive the love that saw him whole was a costly process because it meant he could no longer hide from the truth of his action, his denial of his friend and teacher. At the same time, only being held in Jesus' forgiving regard could lead him to that point. Only in the light of Jesus' accepting love could he repent and so be liberated to 'feed the sheep'.
I'm not saying this is easy. Most of us aren't saints — and my response, at least, to news such as of the Paris massacre is anger, outrage and the desire to lash out and punish. The same goes for those who have wronged me more personally. And yet we know that the peace of the world as well as our own fullest life is connected to our capacity to love, to see one another whole, to be reconciled.
How do we become more capable of this kind of love? It seesm to me that neither sincere belief in Christian values, not moral effort alone will get us there. When we suffer deep hurt, when we're faced with the threat of wanton violence and disregard, we simply cannot love out of our resources. Even to want to love seems, at times, like an enormous step we don't want to take. This kind of love is grace, gift — it can't be manufactured. It's a fruit of radical prayer — and that is the contemplative vocation.
This brings me to a second and vitally needed fruit of contemplative practice for our time. Discernment and the habit of deep listening. We live in a highly opinionated and reactive culture, one that often exhibits arrogant certainty, impatience with waiting and with the vulnerability of real listening. Debate, rather than conversation, dominates our public life — and debate is about winning and losing, listening for weakness and exploiting it, rather than listening for understanding and mutual conversion. None of this is conducive to the kind of wisdom we need to respond to our world's ills.
The word 'discernment' comes from the Latin 'dis', meaning apart, and 'cernere', to distinguish or sift. Discernment is about seeking to listen well, to perceive more clearly, to be responsive to the deeper truth of things so that we may act with the grain of God, with the grain of life. To value discernment means recognising it's possible to fail to see and hear what's really going on. It's possible to be obtuse, to act unwisely, to be deceived about our motives, desires and character. Too often, our decisions and actions are simply reactive — reflecting either our own compulsed and threatened state, or determined entirely by what is done to us. How do you think cycles of reciprocal violence get going?
Non-reactive responsiveness and truthful discernment involves cultivating a non-defensive and non-grasping attentiveness. It involves making room to be present to what is — letting the reality of ourselves, of another person, a situation, a life direction begin to reveal itself, to show itself more clearly. Attending, listening in this non-grasping way calls for a willingness not to know — to suspend premature interpretation, judgement and resolution. This is a kind of humility.
Relatedly, discernment calls for patience, the willingness to wait. Sometimes it takes time for truth to become evident, for the direction of our lives or the shape of a life-giving response to come clear. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time — it's the kind of timetable time by which we so often demand things happen. Kairos time is different — it's about the 'right' or opportune time — 'when the fullness of time was come', St Paul wrote, 'God sent his Son' (Gal. 4:4). Discernment is connected to kairos time — there is a season for everything, there's need to let wisdom ripen.
What difference would it make for our common life if, in ourselves and in our communities, we were committed to creating the kind of hospitable space and listening from which truly responsible, creative action could emerge? Often, the magnitde of forces arrayed against this possibility seem overwhelming. When we think of our own lives in the church, in parliaments, universities, school staff rooms, hospitals and businesses, we can feel vanquished by cynicism, defendedness and despair, by the seeming impossibility of creating spaces where truth can be spoken and received, and the ground of authentic and courageous action reached.
So the capacity to listen, speak and act from this open space does call for a profound shift in being. Our lives must less and less be sourced in what we can grasp or defend for ourselves, and more and more received as gift and call. The question for those of us who claim to be people of faith is, are we really being answerable for our continuing conversion in this way? Are we really giving ourselves to be liberated from our complicity in the violent reactivity of our world, so as to help create the space where deep listening becomes possible? And are we, as church communities, witnessing to the possibility of a different way of being and being together?
So I've spoken of love and deep listening as fruits of contemplative practice which are profoundly needed in our world. The third fruit of contemplation that I want to touch on today is enjoyment, joy, rejoicing. Amd while this seems like an invitation to light relief it is, almost paradoxically I think, just as challenging and just as necessary as the others.
There seem to be so many reasons not to rejoice — ranging from the often overwhelmed, stressful. painful, frightened, sorrowful experience of our own lives to the tragic reality of a world seemingly helplessly immured in conflict and disaster. St Paul's exhortation to 'rejoice always' and 'in everything give thanks' seems, in these contexts, to be impossible, if not flat-out callous and irresponsible.
And yet, I find myself increasingly sensing that it matters to take more seriously than we do, this exhortation to be joyful and to dare to believe that our vocation is to enjoy and not simply to survive our lives. This is not just because it's a more pleasant way to live, but because joy is the sign, the experience of being in Christ. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed its absence, saying that if Christians wanted him to believe in their Redeemer, they would need to look a little more redeemed. Our joy glorifies God, because it makes visible the nature of God as joyous, one who induces joy. It's a sign that we are indeed connected to the ground of our being.
There are a couple of important touchstones here. First of all, as with the deepest expressions of love and listening, joy isn't something we manufacture or make happen. It arrives as a gift — and often after or even during a painful season, a 'dark night'. And second, it's an experience that's qualitatively different from pleasure or even happiness. Part of the diffeence is that joy is at some level independent of circumstance, not determined by how things are going. It doesn't wait or everything and everyone to be fixed, and it doesn't depend on us ignoring or being blind to painful realities. St Paul exhorted the early churches to rejoice even in the midst of persecution, and while his own suffering continued.
Now it's easy to let these apostolic words wash over us without paying much attention — either we think 'it was (somehow) different for them', or there's some pious hyperbole involved. But as Laurence Freeman has pointed out, despite the difficulties, setbacks and dangers of his life, Paul never lost his joy in ministry. And I wonder, what would it mean for us to take that seriously in our daily lives — really to open our hearts and minds to the notion that our experience of discipleship is supposed to be one of 'joy', whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves?
This brings us, it seems, to a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, joy is said to be 'gift', not something we manufacture or make happen. And on the other hand, joy is an imperative — 'rejoice always', 'be joyful'. As I ponder this seeming contradiction, I wonder if the invitation is somehow to open ourselves to the possibility of receiving the gift, to put ourselves in the way of 'joy', daring to desire it, daring to look for it.
If you're like me, you might have to work at not resisting this invitation. It feels a bit like courting disappointment — expecting too much and tempting fate, or else totally incongruent with the reality facing me and so — especially when we're suffering grief or illness or profound despair — just cruel. What could rejoicing mean for me now? And at the same time, it feels almost self-indulgent and selfish — a luxury in a world of so much sorrow and need.
But, that's the thing. More and more I am convinced that it isn't a luxury — and that we, our church and our world, are dying for want of it. The refusal of joy is the refusal of God and the gifts of God, whose presence provokes rejoicing. When we live as 'kill-joys' (and isn't that an illuminating phrase?) we tend to be living earnest, dour, self-important kinds of lives, quenching the Spirit, shutting down freedom and laughter and vitality. It's no surprise, really, that religious fundamentalists are all Puritan to some degree — suspicious of play, art, bodies, sensuality, colour and laughter.
So, how do we put ourselves in the way of joy? How do we open ourselves to participate in God's joyous life, even in the tough times, and so invite others into the circle of rejoicing? Our tradition suggests there's a profound connection between joy and humility, joy and poverty of spirit. And here again is the connection with the contemplative way. As we are simply open to receive, not holding on to an identity or righteousness of our own, we enter into Jesus' own relationship with the Father, turned with him towards God, without remainder or safety net, receiving our lives from his hands.
'The face we need to show to our world', Rowan Williams writes, 'is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end to find our way more deeply into it, into the heart of the Trinitarian life.' In a similar vein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when we follow Jesus, we don't know where we'll be led, but we know it will be a path of joy. Discipleship, obedience, poverty of spirit, joy — these belong together, because joy is what happens in us as we receive from God the fullness of God.
And this is intrinsic to our vocation in what poet Jack Gilbert has called 'the ruthless furnace of this world'. We are to 'risk delight', to be joyful, not in the sense of the relentless, plastic positivity of television evangelists, but with the carefree abandon of those who are allowing themselves to be drawn into deeper enjoyment of God, through whom, in whom, and with whom we join in the rejoicing that enlivens and heals the world.
So let me conclude. Everything i've said about the contemplative vocation and the fruits of contemplative practice I believe with all my heart. Everything I've said, I've glimpsed in my own experience. And I mean, glimpsed! I'm very far indeed from realizing in my own life the fullness of these graces of love, listening and enjoyment. So — at one level, speaking in this way, I feel a bit of a fraud — utterly inadequate to testify of these fruits.
And yet at another level I know that this awareness of how far short I fall is also a necessary part of the contemplative journey. My very failure invites me again to poverty of spiriti — here I'm comforted by Laurence Freeman's words which I quoted earlier: 'If we want to understand poverty of spirit we have to accept it as the reaching of the boundaries of our being and our capacity, and finding we are unable to go further by ourselves.' And he goes on: 'Poverty of spirit is a "grand poverty" because when we have touched this boundary of being..., it surprisingly recedes and marvellously our being expands. That is resurrection.' But it's only as we allow ourselves truly to touch and wait at this boundary, that we may receive the gift of expansion, of resurrection. This might take some time. And this is where a contemplative practice can help to sustain us in our long waiting to be brought by grace truly to the ground — the ground of our being where we long to be rooted and sourced in love.