PRAYER: Contemplation And Leisure—The Sense of Measure by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Contemplation And Leisure—The Sense of Measure by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Stonehenge, the mysterious monument in England, more than three and a half thousand years old, is a circular arrangement of enormous rock pillars.  There are scores of them up to thirty feet in height and fifty tons in weight.  No one knows by what ingenious means they were moved to this place from a quarry twenty miles away or how they were capped with huge slabs of rock for lintels.  No one is even sure who accomplished this feat.  Neither the ideas that bound them together nor the ideals that inspired their common effort are known to us.  All is shrouded in the darkness of pre-history.  We look at the intricate pattern of pillars, ditches, banks, and pits as we would look at runes inscribed on a rock.  We cannot decipher their meaning.  And yet we do find one clue.  The plan of Stonehenge is clearly aligned to the point of sunrise at the summer solstice and to other points on the horizon where sun and moon rise on significant days of their cycles.  The whole elaborate structure turns out to be a giant walk-in sundial – and a moondial, too.  Stonehenge translates the cycles of sun and moon into space.  This small part of Earth is patterned on the heavens.  Order observed above gives rise to order realized below.  Here lies the key to the meaning of Stonehenge.  It is the key also to the meaning of contemplation.

It often helps to follow the linguistic roots of a word if we want to understand more deeply what it means.  The little syllable “temp” in our “con-temp-lation” is of ancient origin.  Scholars tell us that, in the beginning, it might have meant something like making a notch.  You make a notch, and you have a simple device for starting to count and to measure.  You can keep count of the fish you almost caught if you mark each near-catch by a notch on the gunwale of your boat.  Two notches a short distance apart turn any stick into a measuring rod and allow you to measure the fish that didn’t get away.  Though far removed from its original meaning of “notch,” the syllable “temp” still has something to do with measure today.  Even in modern English usage temperature is the measure of heat and cold, temperament the measure of psychological response, tempo the measure of temporal rhythmic recurrence.  To temper means to adjust ingredients in proper measure.  If you have the virtue of temperance, you eat and drink no more than is good for you.  You know your measure.

The word “temple” comes from the same root.  It is the word most directly related to contemplation, and it conjures up associations with the temple-like structures at Stonehenge.  Originally, however, the Latin word for temple, templum, did not mean an architectural structure, but stayed closer to the sense of measure.  It meant a measured area.  That measured area was not even on the ground but in the sky.  Only later did templum come to mean a sacred precinct on the ground, corresponding to the one in the sky, and finally the building erected in that sacred space according to sacred measurements.

It was the templum in the sense of a section of the sky, however, which the Roman priests, the augurs, contemplated.  That means that they fixed their gaze on it with sustained attention, and from what they saw they deduced the most auspicious course of action.  In classical Rome, no important public decision was made unless the proposed plan agreed with what the augurs saw.  This practice expresses a frame of mind older than logical reasoning, an archetypal syndrome deeply ingrained in our human psyche.  We still have access to that depth today, and by exploring it we can shed new light on contemplation.

“Above” and “below” have a significance for us humans which analytical thought cannot fathom.  Inevitably we speak with approval of “higher” things.  We call them elevated, exalted, above the norm.  In contrast, what is below our standards we call inferior, lowly, base.  It is subverting to our world view, not merely confusing to our language, if we speak of low-grade merchandise as precious and high accomplishment as failure.  This must have something to do with the fact that we grow up, not down like carrots.  Not even the clumsiest of us will fall up when we fall down.  The consistency with which above and below polarize all human thought and language is surprising enough.  That up vs. down implies everywhere the same value judgment (improvement vs. decline) is even more astounding.  Even a revolutionary who strives to bring down what is currently on top does so out of the conviction that justice ought to prevail over injustice.  Regardless of our philosophies and convictions, we all share a sense that there is something wrong when things are upside down.

It may be worth noting that it makes a difference for the meaning of “high” whether we contrast it with “low” or with “deep.”  High and deep may coincide sometimes; high and low never coincide.  A high-minded person will think deep thoughts, but never low ones.  In Latin altus means exacted in the sense of both high and deep (the high sea is deep), but the exalted is always in opposition to the base and lowly.  It takes no more than common sense to appreciate these distinctions.  Was Chesterton wrong in this regard when he pointed out that common sense is not so commonly found?  The common sense that makes us understand relationships like those between high, deep, and low must be older than language.  It is closer to sense than to thought.  And it seems to be common to all human beings.

This is solid ground.  Let us make the most of it.  Let us for a moment focus on the fact that the way in which we experience high and low puts a basic order into our human view of the word.  The basic notion of order is simply implied in what I have called our common sense.  That common sense tells us that order is to be valued higher than disorder, that there are degrees of order, and that we are able to rise to a higher level of order, somewhat in the way one scales a mountain, by facing up to the challenge, by measuring up to it.  (We can scale down our ambitions, but once we accept a challenge, we have to measure up to it.  Language does not even allow us to speak of measuring down; that would not make sense.)

This is the point at which contemplation comes in.  To contemplate means raising our eyes to a higher order that challenges us to measure up.  This is what the augurs meant to do.  This is what Stonehenge tried to realize: to measure human life by a higher order and so to transform and perfect action through vision.  Thirty-eight centuries ago humans like us stood there at Stonehenge under the deep dome of the night sky and understood something about human life for which the intellect alone is too shallow.  Only the heart is high and deep enough to hold this vision.  Only life lived to the full measures up to the task of contemplation.

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