Embracing Contemplative Depth (on God’s Terms)

A reader writes (and I quote him with his permission):

You seem very knowledgeable and deep and compassionate all at the same time.  I sense a depth to you that is rather rare. How do I go about getting to that point (if it is God’s will)?

I am already doing the Daily Office but I want to be more contemplative.  Perhaps I already am but I don’t think I have the proper tools (I think about things a lot but I feel that contemplation is much more than just thinking about things).  I looked at the Contemplative Outreach website and downloaded their free brochures on centering prayer and Lectio Divina but, honestly, I feel like I’m all alone in this thing.  I am thinking of starting something like a contemplative group or centering prayer group or whatever at the community worship place I am now attending.  But I feel completely inadequate to lead such a thing!  I hunger and thirst for depth!  I feel like I am a person who is standing above a might rushing river.  I can’t see it, but I can hear it in the earth below me.  There seems to be something that is separating me from that river – a dense something, almost like a frozen path that is milky white.  I can even see the river rushing beneath me dimly but the path seems so thick.  There have been places that the path is thinner, but it still seems out of reach.

Further, since you are also married like I am, how to you juggle this contemplation with the muddledness of life?  How do you make time (and how does your family react) to have that 20-30 minutes (at least) twice a day?

I am drawn to this because I sense it is something I need but something the world needs as well.  I yearn to be like the Celtic Saints of old but in a modern context (albeit, I have romanticized them, I’m certain). At the same time, this all sounds so egotistic.  So, again, I’m torn.  I want depth but I don’t want it to be all about me.  I want depth for the sake of others.  But maybe God has not called me to this.  Maybe I’m coveting what my neighbor has.

First of all, thank you for your very kind words. But let me suggest that, since you only know me through words on a page (or on a computer screen), that what you are probably sensing is the depth of possibility for contemplation and compassion within yourself. I think we can safely assume that, generally speaking, it is God’s will for all of us to become more contemplative and compassionate. That being said, keeping the question of “How may I be conforming to God’s will?” front and center is always a wise thing. For now, I’m going to set aside the intricacies of trying to discern just how God is calling each of us to a life of greater love, silence, and service, and assume that such a call does exist for you, in some shape or form. But you may want to continue the journey of your own discernment in the companion of a trusted spiritual guide/mentor/director.

You are right that contemplation is more than just thinking about things. Contemplation emerges from that place where thought shades off into pure being. This does not mean that our thoughts do not matter, for indeed they do! Mental hygiene is an important dimension of the contemplative journey. I think it is wise to “think on these things”: the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc. as found in Galatians 5), the charisms of monastic life (poverty/simplicity, chastity/fidelity, obedience/listening, stability/serenity, silence, solitude, and joyful continual conversion, among others), and the theological and cardinal virtues, for starters. I also think there is wisdom in borrowing from our Buddhist brothers and sisters and considering the role that basic gentleness, basic courage, basic lovingkindness, and basic compassion play in our lives. Learning to think loving thoughts, for ourselves, for God, and for our neighbors and friends and loved ones, is an important foundational exercise. Focusing our attention on the qualities of holiness (and remember, holiness is a joyful state) is the way to cultivate our own desire to become holy, always by God’s grace of course.

But again, contemplation happens at that point where our thoughts, creative, constructive, compassionate and holy as they may be, are gently laid aside before the great ocean of silence. Clearly, a discipline such as Christian zen or centering prayer can be quite useful here. But we need to remember that prayer is about relationship, not technique. The key is not how often you pray, or how many breaths you count, or how long you manage to go without distracting thoughts (the answer for me is: not very long!). The key is how we allow our hearts to reach out to God’s loving heart (or, perhaps, how we allow our hearts to be reached by God’s heart) in the silence. So all techniques, all methods, must be subordinate to this central goal.

One important thing is learning to slow down. Slowing down our thoughts. Slowing down our breathing. Slowing down our capacity to simply sit and be, appreciating the silence and solitude when we have a chance to drink from that well. We are all so harried in our culture. Taking our time to fall in love with God in a leisurely manner is truly a gift.

Your hunger and thirst for depth, and your sense that the river is just out of reach, are in themselves beautiful things. Try to appreciate the longing. Once upon a time you wouldn’t have cared about contemplation or silence or feeling the presence of God. See how much you have already grown? God is a shy and elusive lover. We need to learn that we cannot control the Divine dance — our job is not to lead, but to follow. Remember the serenity prayer (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference) — we cannot control God or even our experience of God (or lack thereof), but we can control our discipline, our fidelity to our prayer practice, our mental hygiene, our living a life shaped by patience, kindness, tolerance, acceptance, and quiet joyfulness. Focussing our energies on what we can control can make the longing more bearable. We are like brides, preparing ourselves for the wedding day. We long for the coming of the groom, but in the meantime there is plenty to do. Adorning ourselves with the beauty of holiness and the fruit of the spirit are wonderful things to do “in the meantime.”

As for how I juggle contemplation in the midst of married life, well, I am lucky in that I married a woman who is more of a contemplative than I am! Frankly, I’m usually running to keep up (bad metaphor, but I hope you get the humor). Fran and I sit in silence together most mornings and occasionally in the evenings. Yes, twice a day is the goal, but frankly, we rarely make it, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you only manage to pray once a day. Once a day is better than none! Fran and I do attend mass together and she participates on occasion with the lay associates at the monastery. But most important of all, we are soul friends to one another. We both value and esteem the contemplative life, and our continually encouraging one another in the delicious adventure of falling more and more deeply in love with God.

But if you do not have that sense of shared spirituality with your spouse, my suggestion would be to try to arrange your life so that at least you could enjoy twenty minutes or so of solitude and silence in the morning, before others get up. Let that be the anchor of your day. Beyond that, I think this life is all about learning to find the silence and the solitude in the very midst of the normal tasks of living: taking a shower, cleaning the dishes, navigating through rush hour, folding the laundry, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, cleaning the litter box, dusting the books, sitting on the porch together and watching the sun set. Every day provides us with many opportunities to silently praise God in the very midst of our activities. Learning to do so is another key element of mental hygiene.

Finally, about it sounding egotistical to be like the Celtic saints of old. I suppose it’s wise to be on guard against the ego’s trickery, and one such campaign would be to seek after holiness just in order to feel good about ourselves. But we also need to beware of being so worried about the ego that we become paralyzed. Our motives will never be pure as long as we remain creatures of the earth. We simply need to learn how to, in all humility, accept our imperfections and simply roll with them. When we catch ourselves thinking self-important thoughts or indulging in fantasies related to how “special” we are because of our contemplative genius (!), I think the wisest thing to do is to gently laugh at ourselves and then give it up to God. “There I go, being silly again!” Self-forgetfulness is the key to true humility, and what is egotism other than self-absorption? So learning to be gentle with ourselves and our foibles, and then to gently return our focus to God (where it belongs), is the key.

Now, having said all that, I think it’s lovely that you yearn to follow in the footsteps of the Celtic saints. Good for you! Would that more Christians felt the same way. Let Brigid and Brendan and Aidan and Columcille and Ita and Columba and others be our guides. Remember, though, that even the Celtic saints were not perfect. Kevin, for example, appears to be something of a misogynist. We are all, even the saints, liberated from the tyranny of having to be perfect, so that gives us the freedom to acknowledge that even those we admire had their faults.

Finally, I think asking God for God’s gifts for the sake of others is lovely. This is similar to what the Buddhists call the Bodhisattva vow, and it represents a fairly mature place to be on the spiritual journey. I say this not to puff up your pride, but to simply acknowledge the beauty of that perspective. But do not make the mistake of failing to love yourself. There is a distinction between egotism (loving my self for my self’s sake) and mature Christian charity, in which I love myself for God’s sake (just as I love others for God’s sake as well). Learning to understand that distinction, and then learning to love ourselves in a truly holy way, remains an important part of the journey (one that I’m afraid too many medieval mystics, with their hairshirts and crops, missed out on).

I hope all this may be of some small use to you. Thank you for sharing your holy longing with me. Trust God and trust the process. Keep breathing, and embrace solitude and silence wherever it comes your way. Keep it up with the Daily Office, but don’t forget to set the book aside and simply bask in the light whenever you can. God bless you!

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.healthyspirituality.org Jean wise

    wow what a wonderful response to the question – full of wisdom. I appreciate you taking the time to share this as it helped me quite a bit also. Thank you! Too often we are NOT gentle with ourselves on our journey. Would love to hear more about “mental hygiene”

  • Martha Passman

    What a wonderful response! I think your reader’s comments sum up what a lot of us feel! I still as of yet have not “arranged” my schedule to specifically contemplate on a daily basis. I do however try to practice the Buddhist way of mindfulness. It helps get me through my day! Personally, I feel the “yearning” is more important than the end result. What is it that your reader is trying to gain? What will happen if /when he gets there? When I do have the opportunity to contemplate, I feel peace, I feel gratitude, I feel connected….but it does seem as if there is something there that is just out of reach…..and so I yearn, until the next time! Does anyone ever reach what the Buddhists call Nirvana? Well, for me, it is the journey…the promise that it is possible!
    Thanks again Carl for the great response…its one for the record books!

  • oakabbey

    Thank you for this Carl…very timely and helpful for me as well. And thank you also to the seeker/questioner.
    Deep Peace and Every Blessing,
    Cheryl Anne

  • http://www.maidtoqueen.blogspot.com Laura LaVoie

    Very beautiful and thoughtful post.

    More importantly, in reading your reader’s email I felt that he or she was already well on their way. The gorgeous description of the feeling of being on the dimly lit path tells me they are much more intuititive to the presence of the divine in contemplation than they may be aware. My own spiritual path is one very much of the “now”. Finding grace in the every day and living my life knowing the divine is with me.

    As you put it so simply: “Beyond that, I think this life is all about learning to find the silence and the solitude in the very midst of the normal tasks of living: taking a shower, cleaning the dishes, navigating through rush hour, folding the laundry, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, cleaning the litter box, dusting the books, sitting on the porch together and watching the sun set. Every day provides us with many opportunities to silently praise God in the very midst of our activities. Learning to do so is another key element of mental hygiene.”

  • http://anamcaraexperience.blogspot.com Tony Cuckson

    Dear Carl, Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to a fellow seekers heartfelt quest. Really beautiful response and personally inspiring for myself who is increasingly drawn to share my love of Celtic mysticism but doubt that I have the credentials – except to be in love with the Divine and the beauty of the silence within that guides my heart.



  • http://sljordanstudio.com Stephanie jordan

    Such a lovely post, Carl. Thank you for writing this and sharing it. God bless.