PRAYER: Contemplation And Leisure—Building The Temple by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Contemplation And Leisure—Building The Temple by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Those who first introduced the term “contemplation” into our Christian vocabulary, in spite of the fact that it still was a technical term of the rival Roman religion, must have found it irreplaceable.  They may well have been aware that contemplation stands for a primordial and universal human reality.  They realized, for sure, that the concept was central to Biblical tradition.  It stands behind a whole theology of the temple, connecting Moses, the great contemplative, with Solomon’s temple and with the temple that Divine Wisdom builds; with Jesus Christ, in whom both Wisdom and the temple are seen personified; and with his body, the new humankind, temple of the Holy Spirit.

For us, today, Moses is the great lawgiver, rather than the contemplative.  But at a closer look he fits the contemplative model quite closely.  He goes up to the mountain, to the higher realm; he exposes himself to the transforming vision, so much so that the afterglow of God’s glory shines with blinding brightness on his face; and he brings down to the people not only the law, but the building plan for the temple.  Again and again the Bible emphasizes that Moses built the tabernacle precisely according to the pattern that had been shown to him on the mountain.  And even the law must be understood as a kind of plan according to which the people are to be built up into a temple of the living God.  They become living stones rising to measure up to the vision of a divine order that must in the end shatter all measure.

Only by sustaining the tension between the ideal and its realization, between vision and action, may we hope to build the temple.  And only by building the temple does contemplation prove that it is genuine.  The little prefix “con-” (cum, with, together) should remind us that merely gazing at the vision is not contemplation at all.  It might at best deserve to be called “templation.”  Contemplation joins vision and action.  It puts the vision into action.  Action without vision is action running in circles, mere activism.  Vision without action is barren vision.  Throughout history, genuine contemplatives saw what needed to be done and what they saw to be necessary they simply did.  That is why some of them had to work as tirelessly as Catherine of Siena, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Teresa of Ávila.  The temple on which they worked is still rising.

Bernard was so steeped in his inner vision that his outward eyes seemed blind at times.  When the upper windows of his abbey church needed repair, the monks in charge asked him to make the decision.  To their surprise Bernard did not know what they were talking about.  In all those years, the abbot had never looked around in church, we are told.  He had never noticed that there were any upper windows.  But when it came to shaping Europe according to the light of his inner vision, Bernard, the last of the Fathers, became the first international diplomat of an emerging Christian West.

Or take Catherine of Siena.  Still in her teens, she set out on a vision quest, like the youths of some Native American tribes.  For years she stayed in seclusion, intent on nothing but the inner vision.  She buried herself in obscurity.  As her father’s twenty-third child, alone in a back room of his house, she was well hidden.  Yet, a decade later she stands in the limelight of history.  An ambassador for peace, this laywoman, not yet thirty, persuades the Pope to return from Avignon to Rome.  The great mystic rises to the challenge of her vision and becomes a great woman of action.

Teresa of Ávila’s life shows us that this matching of vision by action means more than putting theory into practice within.  There is her vision of watering the soul’s garden, of journeying from mansion to mansion to the luminous center of the Interior Castle.  And outwardly there is her entanglement in church politics, in fighting, and intrigue.  The two seem worlds apart, at first sight.  She was not shown a blueprint for reforming the Carmelites, ready to be carried out.  That is not how contemplation works.  She simply exposed her heart to the radiance of “the temple not built by human hands.”  And in its light it became clear to her, step by step, where the building of the temple here below needed a helping hand.  That she was obedient to that vision was what made her the great contemplative.

What is it that makes it so difficult for us to hold vision and action together in contemplation?  Maybe it is this: each half of the double challenge of contemplation seems by itself more than enough for our strength.  Putting vision and action together seems asking too much.  How tiresome merely to do the same round of chores again and again, faithful to detail, careful to avoid mistakes, patient when they invariably happen.  And how strenuous to keep the inner eye focused on the light.  But as long as I take these two efforts separately, I remain in control.  As I pay attention, now to the vision, now to the action, it is I who determine the price.  I pay what I consider fair and go no further.  But when I put vision and action together, the task becomes demanding.  It demands.  I can no longer set the price.  When we speak of a demanding task, we mean more than strenuous action.  The action can only make me tired.  But the vision, if I dare face it, might demand that I go on, in spite of being tired.  The little “con” which puts vision and action together is what makes contemplation demanding and, therefore, so difficult.

And yet, if we allowed this contemplative tension between action and vision to snap, meaning would fade out of any purpose we pursue.  For what I have called action and vision might just as well be called purpose and meaning.  You may have been engaged in pursuing a purpose for a long time, when suddenly you wake up to the question: What is the meaning of it all?  Meaningless purpose is mere drudgery.  Yet, the meaning you find in what you do will inevitably challenge you.  It will make you responsible.  You are no longer running in circles, but this new-found sense of direction makes new demands on you.  To see a little more clearly what life is all about makes it more exciting, more worthwhile, but by no means easier.  That may be the reason why there is something within us that would rather settle for drudgery than rise to the challenge of responsibility to go beyond ourselves.

In sloppy everyday speech we sometimes use purpose and meaning interchangeably as if they meant the same.  But remember how we go about a given purpose and how, in contrast, we experience meaning.  The difference is striking.  In order to achieve our purpose, whatever it may be, we must take hold of the situation, take matters in hand, take charge of things.  We must be in control.  Is this also true of a situation in which you experience deep meaning?  You will find yourself saying that you were touched, moved, even carried away by the experience.  That doesn’t sound as if you were in control of what happened.  Rather, you gave yourself to the experience, it took hold of you and so you found meaning in it.  Unless you take control, you won’t achieve your purpose; but unless you give yourself, you can’t experience meaning.

There is a tension between this giving and taking.  It is the tension between meaning and purpose, between vision and action.  If we let this tension snap, our life becomes polarized.  But to maintain creative tension is demanding.  It demands from us a self-giving we find difficult.  Why difficult?  Because it demands courage.  As long as we are in control, we feel safe.  But when we allow ourselves to be carried away, there is no telling where things will lead.  All we know is that life gets adventuresome.  But there is risk implied in adventure.  Sometimes that risk frightens us so much that we’d rather keep things tightly under control, even though this means settling for boredom.

Do you remember how this works in personal relationships?  You think you are safe with someone: “I know how to handle him,” or, “I’ve got her number.”  But if you keep a relationship too tightly under control, it soon gets boring.  So you open up a little.  Right away it gets adventuresome, but risky, too.  You never know what will happen next when you begin to give yourself to that adventure.  When you get scared enough, you quickly clam up again.  Sometimes we keep going back and forth between giving and taking back, opening ourselves and clamming up, many times a day.

But life is give-and-take, not give or take.  Spasmodic gasping is one thing, healthy breathing another.  When we take a hearty breath, we give ourselves to the air we inhale; and when we give it out again, we take a a quick break from breathing.  This balance of giving and taking is a key to healthy living on every level of life.  In fact, balance is too mechanical a word to apply to the intimate intricacy of this give-and-take.  We are talking about a giving within taking and a taking within giving.  Once this is spelled out, it is hardly necessary to stress the fact that we are not playing off giving against taking.  By no means.  We are playing off a life-giving give-and-take against a mere taking that is as deadly as a mere giving.  It matters little whether you merely take a breath and stop, or give a breath and stop there.  In either case, you’re dead.

Most of us need a good deal of encouragement for giving.  The way we are built (or, rather, forced into a warped shape by our society) the taking takes care of itself.  It might be a good test if you checked for half an hour how often you say, “I take,” and how often, “I give.”  The language we use gives us away.  I take a course, take an exam, take a vacation, take a room, take a car, take a ride, take a trip, take a left, take a right, take a rest, take a walk, take a swim, take a drink, take a meal, and finally, when I’m worn out by all that taking, I take a nap.  Or at least I try to take a nap, until I find out that I will hardly fall asleep until I give myself to that nap and let the nap take me.  But some of us are so set on taking, so unable to give ourselves that we must knock ourselves out with sleeping pills before that poor nap gets a chance to take us.

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