Friday, July 20, 2012

From Activism to Contemplation

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year B

One problem with our complicated lives these days is that many of us never find time to spend alone, in peace, without being bombarded with activity, crowds, noise and information. There’s no doubt about it – we live in a busy world. With all the time saving devices in our homes and work places one would think that we would have so much more time to do the things we like to do, to spend more time with our families, volunteer more of our time to charity and the church, and, of course, have more time for prayer. Just wishful thinking!

Time is something we wrestle with every day. Our lives are packed so full that the day is finished before we have accomplished half of what we wanted to do. In fact, experts tell us that we are trying to do in one day that not so long ago took three days. In spite of the fact that we frequently complain about our daily busy-ness, we also take great pride that our fully booked schedules and cluttered diaries are indications of our self-importance. Busy people are important people. Activity seems to be a good measure of our real worth.

The Twelve apostles returned from their busy assignments in today’s gospel to give a report of their activities to the Master who had sent them out on this mission. They have not been idle. Anyone, including the Twelve, would have hoped that the litany of their achievements would be met with more than a simple approval. In fact, they had done more than what was required. The Lord had sent them out in an earlier chapter to cast out demons, but now they return boasting that they had also taught in his name. Being busy and active seems to be an essential part of the ball game if you decide to play on Jesus’ team. The disciples were in the middle of this flurry of activities that followed Jesus wherever he went. For example, in today’s gospel we hear that "there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat" (Mark 6:31).

But Jesus’ response to the Twelve’s enthusiasm would have floored many of us. Instead of commending them on a job well done, and encouraging them to return to the frontlines as soon as possible, he invites them to enjoy some ‘R & R,’ or rather to go away with him to a deserted place to be alone together with him. Jesus is not just inviting his disciples to take time out of their busy schedule. Time out is a good strategy in sports, when the game needs to be slowed down; when weary players need a short break; when advice from the coach is needed to give the team the winning edge; when a player needs encouragement and support; when it seems that the opponents are getting an upper hand; a call for time out is what is needed. Certainly, taking time out is a wise principle in everyday living.

Rather, Jesus is calling them to a time away with himself. He is leading them away from the distractions posed by their busy-ness and activism, even when such activism seemed to be doing the work of God, to a deeper level of relating with him. Jesus is calling them into prayerful contemplation. Presently, I’m teaching a bible course on the Gospel of Mark where I have introduced the ancient Catholic practice of Lectio Divina as a form of prayer – praying with Sacred Scriptures. I am encouraged in knowing that most of the participants have benefited from this new prayer experience of praying with Scriptures. In a recent feedback, many of them informed their group facilitators of their difficulty in grasping the meaning of contemplation, the fourth section of the Lectio Divina. They are unsure of how one is to do contemplation or whether they have even entered into contemplation. The whole idea of contemplation seems altogether fuzzy and vague.

Perhaps, the inability to grasp the idea or enter into the experience of contemplation betrays a massive evasion. The personal difficulty lies in not being able to surrender control of our lives, or even that of our prayer experience to God. Contemplation is incomprehensible because our only known reality is that reality where we have been in control. We are accustomed to using words in our prayers. Others too have now been able to utilise their rich and vivid imagination to conjure up images of gospel scenes, surrealistic portrayals of Jesus whilst doing meditation. But now when invited to go beyond words and imagination, they are lost because it is an invitation to enter to the ‘dark night of the soul’ or the ‘cloud of unknowing’, as the mystics would call it. It is a frighteningly disarming experience because we ask to cast ourselves on to the mercy of God, allowing Him to do whatever He wishes to do us with us without holding anything back.

Though it has acquired other meanings and connotations in recent centuries, the word contemplation had a specific meaning for the first 16 centuries of the Christian era. St. Gregory the Great summed up this meaning at the end of the 6th century as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. This comes as an assurance to those who fear that when they cast aside the words and the imagination, the frills and the accouterments, they are left with nothing or just plain emptiness. St Gregory reminds us that when the soul casts aside the words or even discursive mental prayer, what is left is not nothingness but pure love. For St Gregory, contemplation was both the fruit of reflecting on the Word of God and a precious gift of God. He referred to contemplation as "resting in God." In this "resting," the mind and heart are not so much seeking God, as beginning to experience what they have been seeking.

In this traditional understanding, contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is not something that can be achieved through will, but rather is God's gift. It is the opening of mind and heart - one's whole being - to God. Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation. It is a relationship initiated by God and leading, if one consents, to divine union. Essential to contemplative prayer is docility toward the word of God resulting in ready obedience. This calls for us to surrender entirely to his will, to put aside our need to dictate terms, to suspend our constant desire to be in control in order to allow God to have total control of us.

When God is in control, we can no longer insist that we wish to have our prayer experience saturated with a particular kind of feeling, especially the feeling of being consoled and loved. When God is in control, He can certainly lead us to move beyond the feelings of warmth and security, in fact, beyond all feelings and emotions.

But perhaps, the real issue faced by most Christians is that they claim that they do not even have time for prayer. The oft repeated excuse is that we are too busy to waste time on this seemingly vacuous and fruitless activity. Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul was once asked how he could find time away from his busy schedule to pray and his simple reply was this, “The more active you are, the more time you should set aside for prayer.” Action, even when it is directed to the mission of Christ and his Church can never be a substitute for prayer. When Christians fail to prayer, they cease to be Christians. Even the most active in Christian ministry will be reduced to a social activist.

Prayer requires solitude, moving away from the crowds which tempt us with promises of popularity as we pander to their needs. Prayer demands silence, silence from the cacophony of noises that try to silence the voice of God. Prayer requires trust – trusting in God who leads us away to lonely deserted places to a deeper relationship that is not measured by the things we do but by how much we are capable of loving and allowing ourselves to be loved. Prayer leads us away from the temptation of trusting our own devices and resources in order that we may learn to trust God and His Providence. Prayer reminds us of the mastery and sovereignty of God, a God who continues to work even when men rests. Prayer teaches us that true measure of a Christian is not what he has accomplished in life but how he has been constantly with Jesus in both work and rest, in prayer and ministry, in and out of season.

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