17 Pentecost, Oct. 1
The surging interest in contemplation, mindfulness, centering prayer, and non-duality can be a healthy corrective to the tyranny of repetitive, pointless, and exhausting patterns of thought and emotion that may rule our lives. Stopping what poet R.S. Thomas called “the wild hawk of the mind,” even if for a few minutes each day, can bring a needed calm and new perspective. Theologically, this concerns the gift of a real presence and grace in every moment of every day, a grace that is not an idea or an image, and most certainly not an argument. Rather, the moment is attended by a presence who cannot be easily named. I Am Who I Am. This presence is wholly other and yet also may be received as a gift. “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Thomas Merton is chiefly responsible for recovering the contemplative tradition in the 20th century. Predictably, admirers and imitators have passed on his message, but not without some damage to the presumed background of contemplative prayer, which is not simply a psychology of the mind. In New Seeds of Contemplation, one of his best-known books, Merton writes, “Everything taught in the Gospel of Christ and the Rule of St. Benedict, everything accepted by Catholic tradition about the self-discipline of Christian asceticism, is here taken for granted, and there is no attempt at apologetics on these points or any others” (New Seeds of Contemplation, Author’s Note). In Lord I Believe, Austin Farrar says the same in fewer words: “Prayer and dogma are inseparable.” Contemplation presumes a world of study and a long-distance effort.
Every person is faced with both common and particular moral challenges that cannot be “breathed” away, cannot be “centered” or “emptied” in quietness, but must be faced with honesty and seriousness in the real trouble of daily life. “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall not die” (Ez. 18:27-28). These are words of hope. By the prompting of God’s grace and by the grace of human consent, rooted no less in God, humans may change, like the faithful son in the parable who changed his mind and went and did as his father commanded. It is a message of hope especially to those “regarded” as sinners, who likely suffer ridicule and abuse. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31). Moral effort is exhausting, but worthwhile and life-giving.
Prayer and dogma are one. Dogma is a hard and discernible content outlined in the historic creeds and explained further in all that the Church has taught, confessed, and believed. Scripture and tradition are the landscape of dogma, for which a lifetime of study is never enough. But one must start and continue. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me”; “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right and teaches the humble his ways” (Ps. 25:4-5, 8-9). A disciple is one who is taught, one who is often at study. If the disciple is a preacher, the study is a home, and books treasured friends.
These three remain: moral effort, study, and prayer.
Look It Up
Read Psalm 25.
Think About It
Moral and intellectual work are a primer to contemplation.