CHAPTER 32, IN WHICH WE ARE REMISS AND LIGHTNING GETS INTO THE RIVER.
Lightning began this week telling a story about attending a protest rally with his kids. On the drive home, he asked himself “how did I become a political activist?” The only answer he could give is that trying to live a quiet inner life has changed his heart. Daily contemplative prayer has shifted what he cares about, and that has shifted how he spends his time.
This week the guys talked about contemplative prayer, which is a core component of the quiet life. Contemplative prayer is a long-standing practice in the Christian faith tradition, the roots of which are hard to trace. At its most basic, contemplative prayer is a practice of considering all kinds of things with God. It is an exercise in slowing down and spending intimate time with God, while reflecting on a wide variety of things. Vince shared last week that for a season of his life, he spent two hours at a coffee shop every morning talking with God…sometimes about big things, and sometimes about the birds flying in formation. This is the beginning of contemplation.
Waiting is a big part of contemplative prayer, and just the practice of waiting seems to undercut the American expectation of cause and effect. When we consider our lives, with God in the conversation, we are contemplating. When we pray for and reflect on the state of the world around us, we are contemplating. Contemplation is a practice that draws us. We sometimes catch ourselves contemplating without meaning to. A quick walk to the post office can become a 10 minute consideration of the clouds.
Contemplation is something we do, and yet it is something that we are drawn into. People who have lives of contemplation will take credit for making the time and space, but they never take credit for the outcome. Contemplation is to the soul what research is to the intellect.
Thomas Merton was perhaps the most well-known contemplative of the 20th century. In his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, he takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery and knowing God more intimately. Lightning observed that true contemplatives take credit for making the space and time to meet with God, but that they rarely take credit for the results of that time. For instance, In the author’s preface to this book Mr Merton says “This is the kind of book that writes itself almost automatically in a monastery.” He spends the entire preface unselling the book because he believed anyone in his context could have written it. Lightning urged us to read Thomas Merton’s writings of the early 60s about the Cold War, and then later around the Vietnam War.
Because of our wealth and privilege in the west, we can build our lives in a way that insulates us from pain and suffering—both our own and that of others. Contemplation is a tool to that helps me regularly face and consider the pain and suffering in my life and in the world around me. If I have a regular practice of contemplation, it will help me through the difficult seasons of life. Contemplation is a practice of getting in touch with the heart of God. The more time I spend listening to God and considering the world he has made, the more I can know myself and him and what he thinks of what is happening in my life.
Contemplative prayer is like walking into a river. No one walks into a river to try to change its course. Lightning stands in a river to feel the flow, to be part of something bigger, and to satisfy a part of himself that longs for the freedom that he feels when he’s part of something bigger than himself. Contemplative prayer is not a vending machine that I operate…it’s not about pushing the right buttons or saying the right words in order to get what I want to come out at the bottom. Contemplative prayer is not a process that I learn. It is not like learning to dance with the painted footprints on the floor. Contemplation may be sitting with God without saying anything. Sharing space with him the way I would with an intimate friend, without needing to say anything…but I could if I wanted to.
Vince closed the conversation this week with a quote from Maya Angelou:
Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.