+DEVELOPING A CONTEMPLATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS 3rd Lenten Presentation to the LCG
Back in 2018 I went through a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen called God’s Beloved by a Michael O’Laughlin that came out back in 2004. Many of us are familiar with Henri Nouwen as a spiritual writer who was especially gifted at articulating what goes on in many of our lives. As Robert Ellsberg recently said in his lecture at Bellarmine:
“By the time of his passing, thirty-two years later [after coming to the States from Holland] in 1996, he had become one of the most popular and influential spiritual writers in the world. His popularity was only enhanced by his willingness to share his own struggles and brokenness. He did not present himself as a ‘spiritual master,’ but—like the title of one of his early books—as a ‘wounded healer.’ Those who knew him were aware of how deep his wounds ran.”
Ellsberg is reminding us of something that is key to any spiritual life or journey, the fact that we are all involved in struggles and inner brokenness. I am convinced that God lets us see our faults and failings so that we may come to know our continual dependence on an all merciful Savior, so that we may open our hearts to an abundance of grace with which God seeks to fill us. Nouwen as the “wounded healer” is a true follower of Christ. By owning his true condition he has won the hearts of countless people.
In this Henri Nouwen was a lot like Merton who reached so many people through his Seven Story Mountain and other writings throughout his life. Both had a living faith and a sense of their own vulnerability, weakness and sensitivity. As they shared their own experience, what was going on in the lives of countless readers was able to be articulated and understood perhaps, for the first time. There was a “down-to-earthiness” in both of them which takes on more and more meaning for our own time.
Mysteriously, it is in knowing our own nothingness, coming to recognize our total dependence on God, that we come to experience the living God and not a god of our own making. Everything changes in our lives when we come to know and experience the true and living God. God is no longer out there somewhere, or up there and so transcendent that we feel unable to relate to the Divine Presence. God is right in the midst of our lives.
In another book I have been reading recently called The Contemplative Experience, erotic love and spiritual union, the author Joseph Chu-Cong a monk of St Joseph’s abbey, Spencer, MA says the following (pp 7-8):
It is when I reach rock bottom, falling through every kind of thinking to the sheer emptiness of my being, that the Truth reveals itself. As St Paul wrote about Jesus:
“His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as all humans are. And being as all humans are he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, and death on a cross. But God raised him high, and gave him the name which is above all other names, so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld should bend the knee at the name of Jesus, and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father. “ (Phil. 2:6-11)(To be inclusive in language, I changed “men” to “humans”)
Needless to say this is a text worth pondering during these last days before Easter. As I read this I remember what my scripture scholar told our class as I was studying in Rome some years ago. He said this text from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the finest ever written in terms of Christology. If we want to develop a clear and comprehensive understanding of who Christ is for the human family this is one of the best descriptions you will find in the whole of Scripture. It reveals Christ not only as the eternal Son of God but as one who taken on the full depth of our humanity by reason of God’s self-emptying love. He not only lovingly assumed the condition of a slave but was humbler still by accepting death and death on a cross.
Most of us are familiar with these words of St Paul but what Fr Joseph Chu-Cong wants to bring home to us is the intimate love God is revealing toward us in Christ’s humble acceptance of death on a cross. As we come closer to the end of this season of Lent I would invite each of you to ask God to let you experience the intimacy of Christ’s love for you. Each of us has experience of this kind of love through family life, moments of prayer, or affection expressed in marriage and we know how this evokes our own love in return. I would invite you to let this experience pervade the whole of your lives. A good way to do this is to spend time between now and Easter reading a couple if not all the passion narratives in a slow and reflective way so that what is revealed there of God’s love for you may come off the page and enfold your heart with its love. But let me return to O’Laughlin’s book on Henri Nouwen.
There he quotes from Merton the following:
“Contemplation is not vision because it sees ‘without seeing’ and knows ‘without knowing.’ It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’ Or better, we know beyond all knowing or ‘unknowing.’
As I read this in view of what I have just shared with you above, I think that Merton is talking about his own experience of God’s love for him when he says “in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’ Or better, we know beyond all knowing or ‘unknowing.’ To truly love another or experience the real love of another has for us, is to know beyond all knowing for it is not about something going on in our heads but an experience in the heart that is a sharing in the very life of God, the life of Holy Spirit that gives bliss to the very life of the Holy Trinity. I think this is what developing a contemplative consciousness really means and is a path open to each and all of us if we are willing to explore it.
This is an experience that all newcomers to the monastery go through and in fact, what those who have long been members of a community may go through again and again, this experience of unknowing. There is always a way in which we want to have some grasp on what is happening in our lives, want, in a way, to make sense of it but this is where real faith can take place. You would think that someone like Henri Nouwen with all his popularity and success as a writer or teacher, would have been satisfied or fulfilled but the opposite was true. We are told that he “was afflicted by an inordinate need for affection and affirmation; he was beset by anxieties about his identity and self-worth; there seemed to be a void within that could not be filled.” This, it is suggested is what led him to make several moves in his life, from one place or project to another. He moved from Holland to America, to Notre Dame and then to Yale, to our monastery of Genesee and then to Latin America, to thinking of becoming an affiliate of Maryknoll, then to Harvard and finally visiting a number of L’Arche communities in France and Canada, he settled down somewhat at one in Canada.
As I read of Nouwen’s life and his insecurity about himself I am lead right back to what Merton says about the true and false self. We will only be at peace with ourselves as we surrender to God’s presence and activity in our lives which we can only do by faith in the divine presence that cares for us. We can strive all we want to make sense of life and work at realizing others’ expectations of us but we will never be satisfied and know our true selves in this way. By prayer and an honest effort to carry out God’s will in our lives as best we can know it, do we come to know who we truly are as children of God and carry out in countless hidden ways a divine plan where we are truly at home and at peace. The love of God will become manifest in our lives in countless ways and all that we do will then begin to reflect this loving presence for our own good and for all those around us. The more we are in touch with our true selves, the more we will assist others in becoming who they are most destined to be. The more authentic we become the more sensitive we are to everyone and everything that is a a part of the climate in which we live.
At St Paul says somewhere “our life is hid with Christ in God.” What is obscure in terms of what this world esteems is the very path to holiness and true greatness. This brings me right back to St Paul’s Christology where he whose state was divine, did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself and became as we are. We all have countless opportunities to walk this path, to be emptied of all unhealthy self-esteem so as know and experience ourselves as God’s very own children. Family life provides endless opportunities to walk this path of self-forgetfulness so as to serve the good of others. I know the loving service of my own parents provided me with an example of faith and love for which I am forever grateful. There were blindness and blockages in our life together as a family of seven but overall, the loving kindness has outdid the failures.
In the midst of all Nouwen’s personal struggles, he was drawn into a contemplative experience, like that of Merton in many respects but one that was uniquely his own: He writes:
“We are called to be contemplatives, that is see-ers, men and women who are called to see the coming of God.. The Lord’s coming is an ongoing event around us, between us, and within us. To become a contemplative, therefore, means to throw off—or better, to peel off—the blindfolds that prevent us from seeing his coming in the midst of our own world. Like John the Baptist, Merton constantly points away from himself to the coming One, and invites us to purify our hearts so that we might indeed recognize him as our Lord.. Thomas Merton invites us to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God. He continually unmasks the illusions that we know God and so frees us to see the Lord in always new and surprising ways.” (The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice, pp 196-97)
When Nouwen speaks of Merton inviting us “to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God” there is something unsettling about this but also clarifying and freeing. The danger of any of us is the inclination to try to tie God down or to cling to a certain understanding of God that puts limits on God’s way of acting in our lives and in the lives of others. Again, it is only when we approach God with faith that we are able to allow God to be God so as to move freely in our lives and in those of others. This can be a real challenge and it certainly demands of us a deeper faith or trust, if God is to act pervasively in our lives. As Merton and Nouwen yielded to this mysterious divine presence in their lives, it continually opened new horizons in both of them, horizons that allowed them to accomplish all that they were destined to be and to do.
As any one of us becomes open to these new horizons through faith, hope and love, we too are empowered to realize our own potential as God’s very own sons and daughters. We are all invited to participate in God’s very own life and in doing so our lives are transformed. We allow ourselves to accomplish all that we have been destined to do during our brief sojourn on this earth.
The other morning while reading in Spanish from the gospel of St Luke at breakfast I came across the parable Jesus told about God’s working in our lives: “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.” It is a perfect parable for what I would like to say in this presentation about developing contemplative consciousness. God is ever doing this in each of our lives, in our families, in our church or religious communities, in our society, in our Nation and in the whole world as we come to live closer together as a human family. The yeast that is mixed into the three measures of flour is the leavening presence of the Holy Spirit.
The great theologian, Karl Rahner build his theology on that moment after Christ died on the cross, when one of the soldiers opened his side with a lance. He tells us that that is when the Church was born, that is when God’s own Spirit was poured into the hearts of all who would believe in the Christ who came that we might have life and have it abundantly. This gift which is a sharing in God’s very own divine life has been poured into my heart and into yours. God’s own Spirit is at work in every baptized Christian like yeast in each and all of our lives so that the reign of God may take over the whole of our world.
As this yeast of God’s own Holy Spirit works its way into more and more into our daily lives, our hearts are expanded, the dough rises and is ready to be baked. Through the fire of faith, hope and love our lives are gradually transformed so that we may nourish the lives of all those around us. From the very beginning of Christ’s appearance on this earth, he spoke of how the kingdom of God was in our midst. The eternal Word of God having taken on our flesh, becoming incarnate, means a whole new horizon had been opened up for the human family. I feel we are seeing this taking place in hidden and wonderful ways in our own time.
Our i-phones, our access to internet, the many uses for modern technology have allowed us to witness what is happening all over the planet we live on. Pope Francis’ recent book Let us Dream tells of how we are being brought together as a human family all the more intensely by the recent pandemic, by the growing awareness of climate change, by the fact that we today more than ever as being asked to establish social structures that are life giving and not death dealing. If we allow ourselves to become more aware of the needs of others, especially of the poor, the suffering and neglected and reach out to them, we will not only see but rejoice in what God has in store for the human family. We will be awakened to an eternal design that is already a sharing in God’s very own life forever more.