catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 6 :: 2008.03.21 — 2008.04.04


The paradoxes of the contemplative life

The nave of the chapel is dark except for the light trained on the lectern. The monks file into their stalls one by one, hoods down, heads bowed, as the bell tolls announcing the office of Vigils. I am sitting under dim lights in the visitors’ pews, kneeling, yawning, remembering the first time I joined a group of monks for the earliest office of the day at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. 

I am not a morning person.

At that inaugural service, my mind tried to focus on the goodness of prayer and chant while my flesh screamed rebellion. At the time I thought it was objecting to having its sleep interrupted, but now, as I listen to a different set of monks praying this office, I wonder if something else entirely was happening in my flesh that day so many moons ago. Now, in this chapel, as we read the Psalms and Scripture, I am impressed with the subversiveness of this seemingly innocent ritual. On a purely material level, men in robes are gathered in the dark in the middle of the night to read antiquated verses about an entity that might not even exist. But examine the same sights on a spiritual level, and you will see warriors disciplined in self-denial and spiritual warfare proclaiming the truth and actions of the God of all, the Source who is love and who upsets death and the works of the Devil once and for all. As I sit here feeling subversive, I wonder if my flesh tried to rebel at that earlier date because it knew the spiritual reality. Perhaps it knew that the days of it having its own way were numbered; that it was embarked on a path it never could have imagined, one that would demand its all. The monks may be calm, peaceful, and gentle, but do not let their demeanor mislead you: the life they live is one of radical submission—of all parts of their beings—to Christ.

Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This advice is from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.
(Prologue, The Rule of Saint Benedict)

On the one hand, the contemplative life is attractive because it requires souls to set their lives—inner and outer—in order. In the midst of a culture that increasingly pitches towards chaos, the contemplative life stands fast, offering balance and structure. Along with this balance and structure come costs: following a rule of life will set souls against the patterns and trends of contemporary American culture, against the habits and prerogatives of friends and family and against the principalities of darkness that roam the earth much like the Devil in the Book of Job.

On the other hand, the contemplative life is attractive purely for what it is: a way for souls to grow in knowledge and love of God, His freeing love, and His generous hospitality. Along with this growth in God comes a deep sense of being at home in His creation and being provided for by Him. Peace and tension; freedom and submission: these are some of the paradoxes of the contemplative life.  As the saying goes, a life lived without a rule or plan is as a ship without a chart or compass.

I have come only recently to the Rule of Saint Benedict, although the contemplative life claimed me long ago. A retired Anglo-Catholic priest in my parish, who is also an oblate at a Benedictine-Episcopal abbey in Michigan, introduced me to The Rule when he agreed to be my spiritual director. He is my initial—and thus far only—spiritual director. One of my parish’s rectors advised me to meet with the retired priest because I could not make sense of my inner life and how my relationship with God was changing. Soon after we began meeting the priest encouraged me to draft a personalized rule of life. I drafted, he affirmed and I have been following it—to greater and lesser degrees of success—for the past two-and-a-half years. It includes regular participation in the worship and Eucharistic life of my parish, praying offices daily and regular submersion in the Word. God has used the elements of this rule and its orderliness to draw me closer to Him, operating on my being along the way. My spiritual director has faithfully, patiently, lovingly and firmly helped to guide me. Occasionally we talk about whether, and where, I might become an oblate. In the meantime, I continue to make retreats to various monasteries and convents in order to learn from the professionals. And I continue to be convicted of how badly I need God’s grace to sustain me, and to cover my sins.

He is the Way.
Follow him through the land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety:
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
(W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio)

In contrast to current dispositions in culture towards accessibility, efficiency and materialism, the principles and characteristics of the contemplative life are concerned with living in accord with the Triune God’s order, bearing His image in the world and spiritual warfare. Oriented as it is toward these matters, the contemplative life is not for the faint-of-heart. Paradoxically, however, it is well aware of human frailty and mercifully makes room for weakness without indulging it. It is a way of seeking union with Christ. Should you discover yourself embarking upon this journey, find yourself trust-worthy guides, souls who are wise about seeking and practicing the presence of God. The contemplative life is subversive; it is also an aqueduct through which grace flows. It will require training and discipline. But through it God will delight you in ways you cannot ask or imagine.

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