An Active, Contemplative Life
"What causes you to wonder, what creates awe in you? Ask for new eyes to see the wonders around you, new ears to hear the wonders of God’s word, a new heart to welcome this family into your family. Ask God to show you new signs and work new wonders today. To whom will you spread the news?” – Sister Rea McDonnell
“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.” – Julian of Norwich (probably a Benedictine nun, about 1342-1416), from Meditations with Julian of Norwich by Brendan Doyle
"Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels. Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb. Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels, but this can happen only if you are willing to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough to harvest its treasure." – Sister Macrina Wiederkehr in A Tree Full of Angels
“Jesus says clearly that the reign of God is within. It is not far from us, already among us. It is written in our hearts. The indwelling presence of the Divine is forever accessible to us. We need only wake up to the mystery of Love always present, always capable of transforming us and our world. It rises up from within as an impulse toward wholeness capable of permeating all of life. We now know that everything has interiority. We are discovering a universe whose implicate order unfolds in creative, evolving patterns toward a fullness revealed as Love. Contemplation is an intentional opening to that Life within our life, that Heart within our heart. To pray in silent attentiveness is to drop a plumb line into the all-nourishing abyss of Holy Mystery. It is to drop within deeply enough to touch the Fertile Emptiness from which all creative movement springs. The Divine movement within aligns us with what is deepest and truest in us. That Love is always present, has always been present, but needs to be liberated in us, consciously embraced, allowed to become all in all. It invites our complete surrender.” – Sister Pat Farrell
God is the fire starter, the divine spark that burns within us, but it is our duty to tend to that flame. We don't do that by ourselves — we can't. We need to lean into God and into others for support along the way. Like a flame, to be sustained, this life needs tending. Space must be made for the fire to breathe and for the burn to encompass our being. We must consent to being consumed. For each person, authentic tending looks different, but there is no doubt that to burn bright we each need the nourishing presence of God as revealed in unity with others on the journey. - Sister Colleen Gibson
“Prayer” and “contemplation” mean different things to different people. Opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s presence can happen in many ways. Many of us are familiar with formal prayer, and we offer you hundreds – for peace, for hope, in challenging times, in the company of many religious traditions. Our lives tell us that many experiences beyond words also lead us into God. This Tree of Contemplative Practices shows a wonderful range from silent stillness through active work, from individual meditation through shared communion. When Catholic sisters note this very wide range, they often speak of “a contemplative stance” that we can bring to every moment of our lives.
How do we let that contemplative stance become our normal way of being?
Contemplation was new to many of us in Solidarity with Sisters. It has been a soul-opening experience. Here are eight people whose different approaches and reflections have helped us to open up:
First, a video - a conversation about exactly this question between two wise and deeply centered women, Sisters Marie McCarthy and Carol Zinn, the LCLWR associate director for programs and the LCWR executive director. Thoughtful, practical, great. They recorded this conversation because people asked them to do it.
If I were going to read only one document about contemplation, my choice would be Sister Pat Farrell’s “Contemplation and Transformation” address at the 2016 Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). She describes the core of contemplation, its central importance for leaders, and also her own personal journey into contemplation and transformation. She is specific and realistic. She shares practices that have helped her through hard, dry times, and in the uncertainties of daily life. Her dramatic life story is convincing testimony that “There is so much more going on within and around us than we will ever be able to perceive. The unseen movement of Love is creatively holding everything together in ways infinitely beyond what we could ask or imagine. We are being drawn and led by the allure of Holy Mystery. Divine Presence is at work in all of the complexities, uncertainties and crises swirling around us and our messy world.”
What happens in contemplation? Contemplation is being “alert to the stirrings of God.” It is “taking a long, loving look at the real.” It is “seeing in new ways.” And how do you begin? Sister Nancy Sylvester tells her own path from childhood love of nature… into decades of deepening adult contemplative practice.
Contemplation is an experience of “moving more deeply into the Divine,” a “receptive prayer of resting in God” that moves beyond conversation with God to communion with God. Contemplation is the way we become available for God’s reign to enter our being and our world. Father Thomas Keating, a great teacher of contemplative prayer, says that “Centering prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.” Fr. Keating emphasizes that Centering Prayer doesn’t replace other kinds of prayer (like our Prayers for Challenging Times) but rather adds depth to them. What he calls “welcoming prayer” is our explicit consent to God’s presence and action in us and in our lives, and “active prayer” is like a soundtrack we choose for our awareness. The Contemplative Outreach website offers readings, courses, podcasts, apps and more for those getting started or far along this path.
Through contemplation, we grow more and more spacious inside. As we gradually let go of inner clutter and open more of our inner space to God’s presence, we begin to recognize God in all that is. It’s as if we move toward seeing everyone and everything with God’s eyes. Fr. Richard Rohr says that we learn how to love God by loving what God loves. And so “To love God means to love everything . . . no exceptions.” He reminds us that "The gate of heaven is everywhere." Fr. Richard’s Center for Action and Contemplation is both an Arizona retreat center and a website with readings, podcasts, and daily meditations via an email subscription option.
All of us face dark times, when it’s hard to see God with us. For immense wisdom, turn to two addresses by Carmelite Sister Constance Fitzgerald, which have become renowned wellsprings of insight and strength. They are dense with richness, so take them bit by bit and contemplate along the way: Impasse and Dark Night (1984) and “From Impasse to Prophetic Hope: Crisis of Memory (2009).” (It took me weeks to read each the first time, sometimes not finishing even a paragraph before I stopped to hold and absorb what I had read.) The link to the pivotal second address has sometimes not worked, so here's a very brief intro; the insights are too important to let technology keep us away. Sister Constance is a member and former prioress of Baltimore Carmel.
For a simple, easily repeated, superb nudge forward – In 1:23 minutes, Thich Nhat Hanh gives us a visceral video reminder that "mindful breathing can bring us back to our true home." Watch, absorb, come back again. (This video can become part of daily morning prayer.)
For more - our contemplation page has much more, including links to websites that offer daily prompts for contemplation (words, art, more). And to see how creativity and choices can flow from this way of being, read or watch the video at contemplative dialogue.