Windows of Wonder
Father Daniel ‘O Leary on Contemplative Prayer ... A "must" read from THE TABLET May 2008 - P.T.
Contemplation is not a technique to be mastered but a journey inside ourselves to become one with what already is. When we do this and glimpse what is there, it takes our breath away
A few weeks ago I was listening to the bells of Ampleforth Abbey pealing grace across the moors and valleys of North Yorkshire. The invitation to share a week with the monks was a great honour. And a great grace. The discipline and regularity of monastic life protects the sacred setting for exploring the shy secrets of God. Together we wondered at the meaning of Incarnation - did God really become human, totally our flesh, utterly our senses, breath of our breath, heart of our heart?
As if for the first time, what began to occupy our minds then was the extent to which God is really around us, within us. Whatever our experiences of human intimacy may be, God is more intimate still. However deeply we may succeed in accessing levels of our own consciousness, God will always be deeper still. Incarnation is experienced in terms of profound earthly presence and promise. And when we glimpse and feel its meaning in the flesh, it takes our breath away.
At the 400th anniversary of Downside Abbey in 2006, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor reminded his listeners that a monastery is not a flight from the fragility of human nature but a way of meeting it, of exploring and transforming it, of celebrating it. Our traditional mystics have written so revealingly about the holiness of the ground we walk on: it is sacred space, the eternity within every moment of the day; it is sacred time, the Holy Spirit inspiring our very breathing; it is sacred breath, the divine energy in our beating pulse; it is our sacred heart, all that is perceived through the senses - they are thresholds of the soul.
As I walked one windy evening through the rugby fields of the monastery's school, Ampleforth College, I continued wondering about the closeness of God to us, about the utter miracle of it all. Can it be true that divine peace is really and instantly available at every second, and in every place, with every experience of our senses, as accessible as our next breath and heartbeat? Does God's warming presence truly fill our most profound depths with every experience of every sense? Is it, in fact, whether we know it or not, quite impossible to avoid being centred in the very pulse-beat of heaven?
It is all too extraordinary to believe, I felt.
Understandably we flinch before the realisation that we can actually experience the vibrancy of God. Surely it cannot really be as ordinary as that, we argue. The "Other" can never be so familiarly present. That is altogether too shocking, certainly too uncomfortable. It is much easier to build a religion and keep God within it. We can live our lives then without touching the sacred at every hand's turn. That is why we are happy to regard contemplative living as the "religious" way of getting close to God - a sununit that only monks can reach.
One morning the mystic, monk and poet Thomas Merton realised, to his surprise, that contemplation is not about the acquisition of a consciousness emptied of everything except thoughts of God. It was the opposite - not a movement towards a distant God but a sinking into a deeper awareness of one's own life and to find God already there. Contemplation, he surmised, was not a different state to our usual way of being. There is only one reality. Our hours and our days are divided not between time spent with God or with the world but between those occasions when we are more, or less, aware of God's presence in our experiences - when we are more, or less, distracted from that presence by the heartaches of our work.
"It is enough, to be in an ordinary human mode, with one's hunger and sleep, one's cold and warmth, rising and going to bed, putting on blankets and then taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it;' he wrote. 'Also defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating ... Contemplation is a way of being really inside our own daily experiences. We are in contemplation when we perform the routine tasks of our lives so as to perceive in them that our lives are not little, anonymous or not important any more, but that what's timeless, eternal, is in the ordinariness of things:'
Eternity is not opposed to time. It is pure presence. That is when we experience timelessness. "Time is eternity living dangerously!" the Kerry mystic John Moriarty believed. For those of us who feel too inadequate, too sinful to believe that any true intimacy with a Lover-God is ever even remotely possible, these are words of hope. Contemplation is not a technique to be mastered, a discipline to be perfected. It is the journey of the spirit into what is already within.
Only a few days ago a friend sent me a Masai prayer: "May you see what you see through different eyes, hear what you hear with different ears. May you taste what you have never tasted before, and go further than yourself' The story of Gods inner being is written everywhere, strewn around us like pearls in a parking lot, like love letters in a tip, like treasure hidden in every field. All we ask for is the grace to notice and believe in this extravagance, to identifY the grace place. This is the work of contemplation.
"Too often we are not present to the beauty, love and grace that brims within the ordinary moments of our lives;' Roland Rolheiser writes. "Our lives come laden with riches, but we are not sufficiently present to what is there." That presence is the gift and revelation of Incarnation; it is the sheer fulfilment of it, the authenticity and truth of it. It is the miracle of mindfulness.
That is why, the holy ones tell us, the contemplative way is not really a way at all. The secret is that there is no secret. Our underlying desire is, in fact, to have no desire, apart from the desire simply to be. The place we're going to is nowhere. The task is to occupy the place we are in, but in a new and transformed way. All we have to do is simply to be present to the music of what happens, to be attentive to the mountain behind the mountain. Contemplation is something we become, not something we do. It is a way of presence, of seeing, of always being amazed.
As I was leaving Ampleforth the winds had calmed down, the air was sweet. I was still tender with mystery. Fr Paul, rather shyly, slipped one of his poems into my hand. And then, yet another window of wonder was opened for me - a deeper sense that contemplation is a dynamic, two-way encounter. Maybe God needs to gaze at us, too, so as to wonder again and again at the incarnate shape of love's divine face:
God wants us to sit for him not that he may paint our portrait but that he may paint his own within us.
Daniel O'Leary, a priest of the Leeds Diocese, is based at Our Lady of Grace Presbytery, Tonbridge Crescent, Kingsley, Pontefract, West Yorkshire WF9 4HA.
The Tablet, May17, 2008