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.
When a person has been injured or hurt or wounded, there are usually direct ways to heal. At times, that injured person knows the way forward. Something inside tells us that we should do this, refrain from that, be gentle here, be firm there. Our healing comes from an interiority which is directive and caring and insightful.
And then, sometimes the experts know that we should do specific things to recover. The experts are those voices which are outside ourselves. They may be soul doctors or medical doctors. The experts may be spiritual directors or therapists or significant others. They are usually, in one form or another, friends.
The experts are needed people who stand outside our experience and bring to us gifts from their knowledge and experience. Their wisdom is beneficial. But sometimes what they know contradicts what we know. They suggest a plan of care that is disagreeable to us.
The discernment is in doing what the caring others say even in the face of our internal conflict. “I believe that the plan should be this but I’ll submit.” Trust inevitably leads to submission, surrender.
It takes incredible trust to heal. Trust in oneself. Trust in one’s spirit or body. Trust in time. Trust that God and God’s creation is bending toward restoration where we are concerned.
But the other incredible trust is exhibited in others. Trust to believe that someone else is wiser or more informed about your healing even if they aren’t the right-now recipient of your particular pain.
I’ve been reading occasional media reports for two months as one of my alma mater’s has been in the news. Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college, in a western Chicago suburb, has been on screen as some administrators and board members have tried to remove from the faculty Professor Larycia Hawkins, the school’s first tenured female African American scholar. She is a political science scholar who wore a hijab in an expression of solidarity with Muslims being persecuted in the political sphere. She also wrote on her Facebook wall sentiments about standing as a Christian with other people of the book, Muslims in this case.
The administration’s initial response, putting Dr. Hawkins on a forced leave, was on theological grounds. They quibbled with her theological articulation which included a quote from Pope Francis about who God is. Very recently faculty members responded by questioning those grounds, Bible and Theology faculty included. The faculty voted unanimously for the administration to revoke the leave and restore Dr. Hawkins. More information can be read here, here, and here.
There is trouble and beauty in what Wheaton’s done. As an institution, the place where I did my first master’s degree, has singled-out a sister scholar and chastised her for publicly showcasing the thing the college stands for: Christ and his Kingdom. They didn’t like the way she did it, of course. And they unfairly chose to punish Dr. Hawkins and not follow a similar course for other faculty members who made similar testimony of faith in relationship to political issues (i.e., theologically informed ethics in society).
Do something a black sister scholar, tenured mind you, and there’s theological and historical refuge. Overlook the white sisters and brothers doing the same, and it’s something else altogether. There’s trouble. I’m ashamed of Wheaton’s administration.
But there is beauty too. Students and teachers have reacted in Christian ways to an administration that in its hyper-evangelical consciousness lost hold to the message of evangelicalism. And I saw the name of the scholar who taught me principles of hermeneutics, which a class about how to read and apply the Bible. And what he said was freeing, moved me to actually write a quick blog.
Dr. Greene called Professor Hawkins’s gesture(s) beautiful. And he wasn’t alone. A unanimous faculty, in its own way and for its own collective reason, joined together to underline the beauty of Wheaton. If they hadn’t done so, I’d have a whole load more of trouble with Wheaton. And I do have stirrings for the school for sure.
Nonetheless, I pray for Dr. Hawkins, that her faith would not fail, that it would flourish. I pray for Wheaton, that the entire community would live deeply into the values and acts of the person of Jesus.
Books grow out of the lives of the people who write them, of course. But they also grow out of the lives of the people they touch. The writer writes one truth; the reader brings to it another. When we read something that has meaning to us, we ourselves give it a meaning it never had before. If what we read resonates with nothing we ourselves know to be true, we call it fantasy.
From Joan Chittister’s Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (pg. xiii)
A cursory glance at human history reveals that men have sought for countless generations to bring peace into the world by the instrumentality of violence. The fact is significant because it is tried repeatedly and to no basic advantage. The remark which someone has made, that perhaps the most important fact we learn from history is that we do not learn from history, is very much to the point. Violence is very deceptive as a technique because of the way in which it comes to rescue the of those who are in a hurry. Violence at first is very efficient, very effective. It stampedes, overruns, pushes aside and carries the day. It becomes the major vehicle of power, or the radical threat of power. It inspires fear and resistance. The fact that it inspires resistance is underestimated, while the fact that it inspires fear is overestimated. This is the secret of its deception. Violence is the ritual and the etiquette of those who stand in a position of overt control in the world. As long as this is true, it will be impossible to make power–economic, social or political–responsive to anything that is morally or socially motivating. Men resort to violence when they are unable or unwilling to tax their resourcefulness for methods that will inspire the confidence or the mental and moral support of other men. This is true, whether in the relationship between parents and children in the home or in great affairs of the state involving the affirmation of masses of the people. Violence rarely, if ever, gets the consent of the spirit of men upon whom it is used. It drives them underground, it makes them seek cover, if they cannot overcome it in other ways. It merely postpones the day of revenge and retaliation. To believe in some other way, that will not inspire retaliation and will curb evil and bring about social change, requires a spiritual maturity that has appeared only sporadically in the life of man on this planet. The statement may provide the machinery, but the functioning of it is dependent upon the climate created by the daily habits of the people.
May we tax our own resourcefulness and may these good peaceful things be so in us. (From Deep Is The Hunger, 34-35)
There’s one more post next week on this, where I’ll try to offer a grid to pull things together. The final category that Debra Farrington teaches we should include in the Rule of Life is hospitality. It comes after prayer, service, self care and so on. Hospitality builds upon these previous traits, these earlier acts. Centering our efforts in these other places, as hospitable people, we show who we are and how we’ve become and how we are becoming.
When I think of hospitality, I think of my mother’s regular, unmentioned, almost unseen way of opening our home to several people when I was a child. I think of how our table on Sundays was the church’s table, our house turning inside out as people came and ate at her hand.
I think of Grammie and how she takes us in each winter for a week in the upstairs of her home, with a water pitcher on the nightstand, how she considers our time, how we make meals together, and how we have our long liberal conversations which cover beginning to end of the current things that matter.
I think of my sister friend, Maggie, and how she naturally exerts herself into the hearts of people by preparing meals, cooking simple and elaborate options, listening and making me listen, and talking about so many things I’d never notice.
I think of the earlier Bishop and Mrs. Trotter from my boyhood who granted me an essential hospitality, taking me into their home and allowing it to literally become my home. Each memory was somehow sweet behind those trees on Hopkins place and like these other powerful events have shaped me into someone attempting hospitality when people come around.
Hospitality is a peopled act. It’s not between me and God. It’s defined by the interaction between people. It doesn’t always involve food and housing, but hosting is that plain way we take or accept or invite or keep people in our presence. It’s about how well we notice and sustain contact between us and another.
I don’t do hospitality well when I’m tired because of my natural bent toward interiority. I know I need to retreat regularly in order to be like Mama or Maggie or Grammie or the Trotters of my childhood. What seemed easy for them is good work for me.
And that’s where the Rule comes in. The Rule of Life asks us to be intentional about those times when we’ll turn toward others, not for service, but for humanity. We need others. We don’t need to do things for others, but we do, simply, need people. Like food and water, our lives only make sense in relationship with others.
There is an essential rightness to friendship, a wrongness too when it’s real, but the rightness signals how we just require people. The same with marriage or long-term working relationship and so forth. We need those peopled affairs because those affairs compose or lives.
Where will you stretch in this area over the next months? Where will you extend yourself and thereby become your self? Where will you intentionally place people in your day or week so you can be hosted and so you can host?
This message gets a lot of play in church. In my church, there is an assumption that serving is so much a part of our Christian life that there’s rarely a Sunday when service of some kind isn’t mentioned.
I almost don’t need to connect this to the practice of developing a Rule because we live by the implied rule that doing for others is Christian or religious or spiritual at its core. It’s hard to live in the world and not care for others, give to others, and serve for others. It’s even harder to be a part of a religious tradition and not serve, because service is a part of most, if not all, religious traditions.
Still, the placement of this in the work of developing a Rule is important because having service somewhere in this instrument of spiritual growth will help us 1) reflect on our service, 2) inspect our motives for service, and 3) discern what we’ll do next as we care for others.
That’s the framework when it comes to questioning or discovering what kind of service needs to be in your rule. Where have I served or given to others? To serve is to be generous; it is to give of one’s self and one’s stuff.
Serving, when paired with reflection, is another way of reflecting upon our motives. We ask, “Why am I doing this?”
Richard Foster wrote, “When the heart is purified by the action of the Spirit, the most natural thing in the world is the virtuous thing. To the pure in heart, vice is what is hard.”
I agree with Foster. For the person whose heart continually turns toward the Divine, sin and wrongdoing and wrongbeing is what’s hard. But that transformation of motivation takes a long time, i.e., a life time.
I’d love to know that rather than jumping at the chance to serve, the people in my church were pausing long enough to question their motives. Not so that their motives would be pure and sacred. It’s impossible to get to the clear ground of a person’s motivation. No matter how long we search or how long we look, we’ll never be truly aware of our motives. But we can survey them. We can question them.
Third, placing service in your rule is a simple way of looking forward to what’s next. There is a host of ways to serve around you. In your family or your apartment building, in your residence or in your workplace, there are countless needs–some of which you can meet. What do you do next? Carry with you your clarified sense of intention, your hopes and expectations, your goals for personal transformation, your awareness of God who works–always–through people.
Then, listen to that voice that’s within you, that voice that either sounds so familiar you gauge that it isn’t God’s or that voice that is so strange and uncommon that it could be nothing other than God’s. Perhaps that voice is the hushed voice of friends who are sure that you should do this or do that.
Don’t retreat from the service others call you to. Inspect it prayerfully. Wonder around in it for a while. See if there’s a place in it for you.
That’s the way I came into ministry. I was headed toward the more effective arena of politics in my earlier view. I wanted to study law so I could write law. I wanted to give my skills over toward the social-political world and have God use me there. I knew I wanted to be of service, and of God’s service, in the world. But I didn’t entertain ministry until others told me to.
I tell people who ask about my “call story,” that the story was written by the community of people who told me to face this way and go that way when it came to my call. I was headed elsewhere, but the persistent whisper emerging in me was repeated, distilled, and clarified in the inflections and voices of church people around me. And they’re as much responsible for my life of service as anybody.
So, for you, what service do you need to start doing? What will you write into that Rule to turn you both inward, toward that inside voice, and outward, toward the world that very much needs you?