What does it mean to live a contemplative life?
Especially for those of us who are not called to live in a monastery or some other form of intentional religious community, discerning how contemplative and mystical spirituality can shape, inform and bless our lives may be a challenge.
It’s one thing to be interested in mysticism, or contemplation, or the teachings and wisdom of the great mystics. Reading about the mystics and learning all you can about them is all fine, well and good. So, for that matter, is going on a retreat or attending a Centering Prayer workshop.
But it’s another thing altogether to live according to such wisdom. The day-in, day-out, unglamorous, unexciting routine of giving one’s live to the contemplative path. How do we do this — and persevere in it?
Most of us live very busy and frenetic lives. We have demanding careers, children and other family members who need our love and attention, and a never-ending onslaught of information and programming that enters our lives through television, the internet or our smartphones.
How do we sort through it all? How do we discern the contemplative, mystical path that we are called to follow?
I believe the answer to these questions can only come through prayer.
A Unique Path
The saints and mystics do not give us a one-size-fits-all plan for “becoming a contemplative” or “living a mystical life.” Really, the heart of mystical spirituality is to cultivate a meaningful, intimate relationship with God — and then to let the Spirit guide us, each in our own unique way, into what a truly contemplative life looks like.
For each of us, it will be a unique path. No one can walk it for us. We have to find our own path for ourselves.
Brian McLaren wrote a book about the spiritual life called We Make the Road by Walking. I haven’t read it, but there’s wisdom in the title itself. But for a contemplative life, I’d amend it this way: “We make the road by walking… under the guidance of the Spirit.”
My friend Linda, whom I know as a fellow Lay Cistercian of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit here in Georgia, has a wonderful insight into this task of discerning how to live a contemplative life. It begins with prayer.
We’ve talked about it on different occasions. She mentions that, on a regular basis, she brings questions like this into time of her morning prayer:
God, how do I live my contemplative vocation today?
God, help me to understand what it means to live in a spirit of contemplative prayer and sacrifice.
This second way of expressing her prayer comes directly from our Profession Statement as Lay Cistercians. When we make our life-long promises, we make a statement like this:
I promise to strive for a daily conversion of life as my free response to the love of God… to live in a spirit of contemplative prayer and sacrifice in obedience to God’s universal call to holiness.
While I understand that most readers of this blog are not Lay Cistercians, I suspect anyone who has read this far would join Linda and me and so many others in considering contemplative spirituality to be at their heart of our life and faithful response to the God who is Love.
Living into the Contemplative Vocation
A few years back I wrote a book called Answering the Contemplative Call. The title was carefully chosen: I do believe the contemplative life is a calling, that God is the active agent. Anyone who feels drawn to learning about the mystics, reading their wisdom, discovering their prayer practices, and incorporating contemplative forms of prayer and meditation into our lives, does so because the Holy Spirit is stirring our hearts.
So questions like “How do I live in the spirit of contemplative prayer?” or “How do I live a truly contemplative life?” really boil down to this: “How can I discern, and respond to, the leading of the Spirit in my life?”
Because, ultimately, if you want to live a contemplative life, to embrace the mystical path, to live into your vocation as a contemplative — it all begins with fostering intimacy with God. In her autobiography, Teresa of Ávila describes “mental prayer” (the traditional name for contemplative forms of prayer) as “nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
So to live in the spirit of contemplative prayer means calibrating our lives to the love of God. It means giving ourselves to God, not as an abstract idea, but as a living presence that we can discover in our hearts.
Everything else from the world of Christian contemplation and mysticism: silent prayer, Centering Prayer, reading the mystics, working with a spiritual director, going on retreat… it all points back to this essential task: fall in love with the God who loves you, the God who IS Love. And having fallen in love with the God who is Love, make time every day to get to know the God-of-Love more intimately, more closely, more fully.
And step by baby step, you will live — and love — your way into a truly contemplative life.