From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
Abba James said, “Just as a lamp lights up a dark room, so the fear of God, when it penetrates the heart, illuminates, teaching all the virtues and commandments of God.”
here is a danger in the contemplative life. The danger is that contemplation is often used to justify distance from the great questions of life. Contemplation becomes an excuse to let the world go to rot. It is a sad use of the contemplative life and, at base, a bogus one. If contemplation is coming to see the world as God sees the world, then see it clearly we must. If contemplation means to become immersed in the mind of God, then we must come to think beyond our own small agendas. If contemplation is taking on the heart of God in the heart of the world, then the contemplative, perhaps more than any other, weeps over the obliteration of the will of God in the heart of the universe.
Contemplation, the search for the sacred in the tumult of time, is not for its own sake. To be a contemplative is not to spend life in a spiritual Jacuzzi, some kind of sacred spa designed to save humanity from the down and dirty parts of life. It is not an entree into spiritual escapism. Contemplation is immersion in the driving force of the universe, the effect of which is to fill us with the same force, the same care, the same mind, the same heart, the same will as that from which we draw. The mystics of every major religious tradition speak to what those concept imply. “Within the lotus of the heart, God dwells,” Hinduism tells us. “Buddha is omnipresent, in all places, in all beings, in all things, in all lands,” the Buddhist master says. “Withersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is all embracing,” Islam teaches. And Christianity reminds us always, “Ever since the creation of the world God’s invisible nature, namely, God’s eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” But if all things are of God, then all things demand the soft hand of a caring God called justice.
Indeed, the teachings are traditional and the teachings are clear: God is not contained by any one people, in any single tradition. So must the contemplative respond to the divine in everyone. God wills the care of the poor as well as the reward of the rich. So, therefore, must the true contemplative. God wills the overthrow of the oppressor who stands with a heel on the neck of the weak. So does the real contemplative. God wills the liberation of human beings. So will the true contemplative. God desires the dignity and full human development of all human beings, and God takes the side of the defenseless. Thus must the genuine contemplative. Or, obviously, the contemplation is not real, cannot be real, will never be real because to contemplate the God of Justice is to be committed to justice.
True contemplatives, then, must do justice, must speak justice, must insist on justice. And they do. Thomas Merton spoke out against the Vietnam war. Catherine of Siena walked the streets of the city feeding the poor. Hildegard preached the word of justice to emperors and to popes. Charles de Foucauld lived among the poor and accepted the enemy. Benedict of Nursia sheltered strangers from the danger of the road and educated peasants. And so must we do whatever justice must be done in our time if we claim to be serious about sinking into the heart of God.
A spiritual path that does not lead to a living commitment to the bringing of the will of God is no path at all. It is a pious morass, a dead end on the way to God. Clearly, contemplation consigns us to a state of dangerous openness. It is a change in consciousness. We begin to see beyond boundaries, beyond denominations, beyond doctrines, dogmas, and institutional self-interest straight into the face of a mothering God from whom comes all the life that comes. To arrive at an awareness of the oneness of life and not to regard all of it as sacred trust is a violation of the very purpose of contemplation, the deepest identification of life with Life. To talk about the oneness of life and not to know oneness with all of life may be intellectualism, but it is not contemplation.
Contemplation is not ecstasy unlimited; it is enlightenment unbounded by parochialisms, chauvinisms, genderisms, and class. The breath of God which the contemplative sets out to breathe is the breath of the spirit of compassion. The true contemplative weeps with those who weep and cries out for those who have no voice.
Transformed from within, the contemplative becomes a new kind of presence in the world, signaling another way of being, seeing with new eyes, and speaking with new words the Word of God. The contemplative can never again be a complacent participant in an oppressive system. From contemplation comes not only the consciousness of the universal connectedness of life but the courage to model it as well.
The real contemplative takes the whole world in and shelters it, reveres it, and protects it with a body made of the steely substance of a justice that springs from love. To be contemplative it is necessary to reach out every day to the outcast other, just as does the God we breathe.