Yesterday at First Christian Church of Atlanta’s inaugural annual conference on Christian spirituality, I spoke about the Biblical roots of contemplation. I focused on two particular verses:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)
The verse from Matthew is used all the time to justify contemplative prayer, with “your room” and “shutting the door” seen as metaphors for entering into interior silence and choosing to observe, rather than engage in, the flow of the thinking mind. But I think if we can read Matthew 6:6 metaphorically, then we can also read Exodus 20:8 metaphorically as well. My insight for this comes from the Liturgy of the Hours. Every day, the Liturgy of the Hours in essence celebrates the entire sweep of cosmic history in its seven offices. The night office (the vigil; the office of readings) begins in darkness, symbolically re-enacting the creation story of Genesis. The morning and mid-day offices celebrate the story of the Hebrew scriptures, concentrating on salvation history as recounted in the Canticle of Zechariah and reciting excerpts from Psalm 119 as a way of celebrating the Jewish law. Evening prayer marks the climax of the Christian view of history: the incarnation, celebrated through the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving both for herself and her child, Jesus. Finally, compline closes out the day with evocative eschatological imagery: even as we face our own mortality as individuals, we also confidently await the completion of history in the splendor of Divine grace.
If the Daily Office can liturgically celebrate the entire cosmos in a day, then it seems to me that we can all approach each individual day with the same kind of creative energy that marked the first seven days of Genesis. In that mythic first week, six days of creation are capped and consummated in the seventh day of rest. And so it is for each of us: our creative and sustaining work, each and every day, finds fulfillment and meaning in the time we devote — each and every day — to rest in God. This, of course, is the prayer of rest, or contemplation.
Just as a Sabbath only makes sense in relation to the six days of work/creation that precede it, so too the Sabbath-time of contemplation makes sense only in relation to the good work done alongside such time. We can engage in contemplation because we engage in regular work. This has a double meaning: work not only in the material sense of our livelihood, but also the spiritual work of prayer, lectio divina, the Daily Office, and engagement in the sacramental life of the community of faith. Contemplation needs to be part of an overall ‘balanced diet’ of spiritual observance: the work of God. We do this work, and then we rest. We pray, we nurture community, we read the sacred text, and then we rest in silence.
Six days of work and the Sabbath need each other. So it is with the work of God and contemplation.