PRAYER: Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part Four) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part Four) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

A Heart Turned to God

Let us make sure we mean what we say: Contemplation in Action, not contemplation during action.  This may be a fine point, but it will help us define still more clearly what we mean.  My mother knits all kinds of sweaters for her children and grandchildren and for her great-grandchild.  And while she is doing so, she likes to pray the rosary.  Now, that is contemplation during action.  During her knitting, my mother savors God’s faithfulness, mystery by mystery, and her faith is nourished by that food.  She enters the world of prayer most typical of faith.  We called it Living by the Word.  But she is also entering love’s world of prayer, simply by knitting lovingly, in spite of the arthritic pain in her fingers.  By doing so she understands God’s love more and more deeply in and through her own action.  This is Contemplation in Action, a way of coming to know God’s love from within by acting it out.

This example happens to show, by the way, that the worlds of prayer include each other.  Prayer is prayer.  What matters is that we pray, not that we can label our prayer with precision.  At times however, it can be helpful to know how to tell the different worlds of prayer apart.  Some men and women are true contemplatives without knowing it.  In the midst of busy lives they are practicing Contemplation in Action.  Yet they are hankering for forms that belong to a different world of prayer, instead of growing more at home in the one in which they do live.

A school teacher , for instance, comes home exhausted from having taken her class to the zoo.  “And all day long I didn’t have a minute to pray,” she complains.  Well chances are she did nothing but pray all day long.  Her heart was steeped in Contemplation in Action, and her head doesn’t even recognize it.  The love that made her care for each child with full attention was God’s love flowing through her.  By savoring this love from within, she could have a whole day of prayer – and prayer without distraction at that.  She can’t risk being distracted from her attention to the children.  But this single-minded attention is, in this case, her prayerful attention to God, if she gives her heart to it.

“But what if I’m not even thinking of God?” someone will ask.  “Can this still be prayer?”  Well, are you still breathing, even though you are not thinking of the air you breathe?  Action is realized by acting, not by thinking about it.  And Contemplation in Action is that contemplation in which we realize God by acting in love.  Thinking about God is important.  But acting in God leads to a deeper knowledge.  Lovers are closer to love than scholars who merely reflect on love.  It would be a bit awkward to reflect on kissing while you kiss.

During a simple action like knitting – simple for my mother, not for me – one can think about God and still do the work well.  If your job is typing, it will be more difficult to contemplate during that action.  The Governor may find himself addressed as Godernor, but apart from typing errors little harm will result.  A teacher, however, taking twenty-two children to the zoo, better not try contemplation during that action.  She might come home minus one youngster.  Her only choice is Contemplation in Action, or none at all.  And what a joyful surprise to discover that she can find God in, not only during, her loving service.  No one is barred by outward circumstances from a life of contemplation.  Many people struggle to make extremely active lives more prayerful.  The discovery of Contemplation in Action can bring them great relief and great encouragement.

There is also a trap hidden here.  Our activities create something like a centrifugal force.  They tend to pull us from our center into peripheral concerns.  And the faster the spin of our daily round of activities, the stronger that pull.  We need to counteract it by anchoring ourselves in the silent center of our heart.  “My work is my prayer,” someone says.  Well, it had better be!  After all, we are to “pray at all times.”  Work should not make us stop praying.  But when my work becomes my only prayer, it won’t be prayer much longer.  Its weight will pull me off-center.  We can hear it quickly when a clothes dryer spins unevenly.  Why can’t we hear it when our lives do the same?  It may be time to stop and reload.  It may be time for nothing-but-prayer, time to disengage ourselves, to find our center, and to re-engage ourselves from the heart.  Then our work will truly be prayer.  It will be Contemplation in Action.

Shaker tradition has a saying that puts the idea of contemplation as simply as it can be put: “Hearts to God, hands to work.”  That is how Shakers lived.  We need only to look at a Shaker chair for proof that they understood contemplation.  “Hearts to God” means attention to the guiding vision.  “Hands to work” means making that vision a reality.  The inseparable splicing of vision and action makes contemplation what it is.  In love’s world of prayer, the vision is a deep awareness of belonging; the action puts the consequences of that belonging into practice.  Love’s action is an expression of thanksgiving for the insights of love’s vision.  This is what the Romans called “gratias agree,” not merely thanking, but acting out one’s gratefulness.  With a heart turned to God, love sees: I belong.  With hands turned to work, love acts accordingly.

The Romans had a word for love which expressed precisely that attitude.  It is the Latin word, pietas.  We could translate it as “family affection,” an attitude that springs from a sense of belonging and expresses itself in acting accordingly.  Pietas is, in the first place, the attitude of the pater familias.  The family belongs to the father from whom it receives its name.  Pietas gives rights and duties to the pius pater.  But pietas is an attitude shared by every member of the household and relating each to each.  Husband and wife may love one another with passion and desire, but the bond that holds them most strongly and most deeply together is pietas.  So is the love between children and parents.  But pietas extends also to servants and slaves, to anyone who belongs to the household.  As a household they are related to the ancestors of the family and to the guardian spirits, the lares, by the same pietas that embraces the household pets, the farm animals, the land, the tools, the furniture, and other heirlooms.  We have no concept like that in English.  If we could put the vigor of the Latin pietas into our words “pity” and “piety,” which derive from it, our concepts of compassion and devotion would surely be enriched.  They hinge on the notion of belonging.  We cannot revive a word at will.  But we must recover the sense of belonging that coined the word pietas.

It is fascinating to trace the process by which archaic societies make a stranger welcome.  It teaches us much about love, about belonging, and about gratitude.  An outsider is strange in the sense of being unfamiliar, if not belonging to the family.  But what is unfamiliar is strange also in the sense of being suspicious.  The stranger is suspected of being an enemy.  Being aware of this suspicion, a stranger with good intentions will carry gifts.  They are not a price to be paid but a free present.  Will they be accepted?  If so, the give-and-take of gratitude forges a bond of mutual belonging.  The one who was a stranger is now a guest.  And guests belong to the household.  In their regard the bond of pietas has a special sacredness.  When we become aware that every stranger is gift, strangers need no longer go through a gift-giving ritual to be accepted.  We will welcome them, and this hospitality of the heart will be a celebration of the bond that unites giver and receiver in thanksgiving.

When we lift our hearts to God, whom we call, “Our Father in Heaven,” we see that we belong to a household that embraces all creatures, the Earth House Hold in Gary Snyder’s powerful poetic term.  And if we put our hands to work in service of that Earth House Hold, this contemplative matching of vision by action will spread God’s peace “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  The crucial question is: How big is our family?  How wide is the reach of our belonging?  Can we stretch it to the furthest reaches of God’s household?  Will our care and concern stretch to embrace all members of this Earth House Hold – humans, animals, plants, whom we now still consider strange?  The survival of all of us may well depend on our answer.

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