What is contemplation? Simply put, contemplation is entering a deeper silence and letting go of our habitual thoughts, sensations, and feelings. You may know contemplation by another name. Many religions use the word meditation. Christians often use the word prayer. But for many in the West, prayer has come to mean something functional, something you do to achieve a desired effect, which puts you back in charge. Prayers of petition aren’t all bad, but they don’t really lead to a new state of being or consciousness. The same old consciousness is self-centered: How can I get God to do what I want God to do? This kind of prayer allows you to remain an untransformed, egocentric person who is just trying to manipulate God.That’s one reason why religion is in such desperate straits today: it isn’t really transforming people. It’s merely giving people some pious and religious ways to again be in charge and in control. It’s still the same small self or what Merton called the false self. Mature, authentic spirituality calls us into experiences and teachings that open us to an actual transformation of consciousness (Romans 12:2). I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. We need some practice that touches our unconscious conditioning where all our wounds and defense mechanisms lie. That’s the only way we can be changed at any significant or lasting level.
The difference between work and play is only a matter of attitude. Work, fully done, is play. When the body works, it is dancing. When the mind works, it is dreaming. Appreciating the joys and sadnesses of both, one moves within the process of life.
From Gerald May’s Simply Sane, pg. 87
“But why am I so favored…” (Luke 1:43)
I love Mary’s questions. Her ponderings bring me pause. She is the “God-bearer” and she is humble. She has every reason to lift herself as high as the peaks, and she asks a question like this: why am I so favored?
In a good way, she asks, why me? What did I do to get this?
I know that we tend to ask that question when things go off for us, when things go wrong. It’s a reflex it’s so common. God, why are you letting this happen to me? God why aren’t you letting this happen to me? Seldom do we pose Mary’s question: why am I so blessed? She humbly assumes that she is blessed.
But there is another way of framing her question, and it is by asking what the reason is that God favors. One frame has to do with why God picked her while the other has to do with the purpose God went around picking in the first place.
The beauty in Mary’s question is the sneaky reminder that we do not earn God’s goodness. She did nothing and yet God must have favored her because of the uniqueness of who she was. God always honors who we are and still doesn’t hold us to perfection. That’s an important element in thinking through Mary’s favored status. She was special. And though we can only guess, God chose her, from her town and at her age, and God didn’t choose others. She was unique.
The second element, though, is in our asking the pivotal question about purpose. God has a purpose for choosing Mary for the glorious opportunity of being the mother of Jesus. Whatever God’s good background reasons for choosing Mary, God chose her in order that she would bear the child called Jesus. Mary was intended to bear the infant, carry him, and bring him into the world. While it wasn’t the totality of God’s plan for her life, it became the focus for that portion of her life.
She would train her energies in the direction of being a mother to the child. And she would retain this steeped humility to ask questions, to pronounce how undeserving she felt, and to do for God in spite of those questions. Her questions would keep her touching the ground of humble humanity, even while she was the “holy Mary, mother of God.”
What questions might you raise in God’s hearing? Can you wonder into the world of God’s purpose for you, for today, and listen for an answer? If you asked Mary’s question in your own prayer, what might God say?
“How will this be…?”
I find myself thinking often–and saying too–that God can handle our questions.
One of my preaching heroes said that the Bible is much more a “why” book, than a “how” book. It offers us more questions than answers. Now, that preacher’s way with words wouldn’t rest well with some folks I know. It’s really hard to read biblical question after question and not get an answer. We’d rather make up things to answer our deep wonderings than sit with the heaviness of a truly open-ended dialogue with God.
I think, in this question, Mary invites us to contemplation. Sure, she’s asking the angel to tell her how something so baffling will happen. She wants to know how a virgin can get pregnant. That belief is incredible, unbelievable! And consider Mary, the one to whom that “news” was first uttered after it had been discussed in the lovely tones of Trinitarian conversation. It had to be most unbelievable to her.
But beyond the baffling incredulity is an invitation. I think that we can ride on Mary’s curiosity into a moment of wonder. That is contemplation.
Contemplation is settling. Contemplation is settling on some sustained question or thought. A moment of contemplation is a moment where we wonder or wander into the thick things that God is doing in us and in the world. We consider God’s doings. We consider ourselves. And we sit.
Contemplation isn’t very productive, though it brings about all of life. It’s difficult to prove that you have been “in contemplation.” It’s hard to show the fruit of it, if that makes sense. But the fruit of living one’s questions before God is present. It’s there or it isn’t. We have a contagious, if unsettling, contentment when we’ve lived by placing our sustained questions and thoughts before God.
Look at what Mary did when she remarked to Gabriel’s strong promises. She brought her first reactions and they came in the form of practical questions. This probably is off the mark, but I like to imagine Mary with a smirk, with a slight roll of her eyes, or with a bit of salt in her tone. Perhaps Mary placed hands of her hips, convinced that she’s got God’s messenger in a corner now. “Can he really think this is possible?”
We can bring our questions the way Mary did. Do you have things you must know, questions you’ve been afraid to ask God because God couldn’t hear them? I wonder if you can stretch your faith a bit, or have it stretched. I wonder if we can hear all those biblical questions, in the Psalms and in the lives of God’s people, and use those queries to encourage us to raise our own. Maybe our questions will become our best prayers, and maybe God can handle them.
Here are a few of my current questions:
- What do you think and feel when you see so many black people being killed, in particular by law enforcement officers?
- Are you still with those families whose relatives have been my patients?
- How can I release my daily worries to you, the ones about raising my son?
- Can you really do something about poverty, something more?
- What do my prayers these days sound like in your ears?
- What do you want me to do?
Such a contemplative thing to say:
Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that any deliberate campaign to achieve it is so misguided, is that it isn’t an obtainable goal in itself but only an after-effect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to—by which I don’t mean ethically correctly but fully, consciously engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomenon familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the real stars, those blinding cataclysms in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.
From Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, pg. 218
I read Barbara Holmes’ book on contemplative practices in the Black Church the other month, and the book was as amazing as it was historically grounding and refreshing. In it she says, “Some sacred spaces bear none of the expected characteristics.”
It is within the spirit of contemplation and the gift of sacred spaces that I offer this poetic piece which Nate shared with me. You may enjoy it, but hopefully you won’t (in the best way). There is language in this that you may not want to blast:
When history is collapsed into myth, responsibilities become diffused, and repentance and reconciliation become impossible. In the inflated realm of mythical oppression, villains are so villainous that no one sees themselves reflected on the image. Few can trace accrued privileges to specific and intentional evil acts. Similarly, victims become so quintessentially and epically victimized that all escape routes from the condition are sealed off by a maze of self-doubt, blaming, and low self-esteem. The antidote to this phenomenon is to attend to the details, to understand the specific events, ancestors, life stories, causes of oppression, and avenues of social change. Historical and spiritual specificity is salvific. Then and only then can the movement toward moral flourishing begin.