Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 7, 2003
Contemplation allows the joy of presence
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
"I must learn to live so as to forget program and artifice."
- Thomas Merton
Contemplative prayer is the answer to restlessness. But Merton learned that it is not an easy thing, not a technique you master at a weekend seminar. During the last years of his life, living as hermit, he tried to explore more deeply what it meant to live in solitude and contemplation. What he eventually learned and recorded in his diaries during those years surprised him. Contemplation, he found out, is not some altered form of consciousness, nor a blank consciousness emptied of all thought and feeling, nor even a consciousness that empties itself of everything except thoughts and feelings about God. What is it?
As Merton lived these years alone, as a hermit, he sensed himself moving in and out of solitude and contemplation and he tried to give words to that experience. Solitude, he came to realize, is not something we attain once and for all. We don't divide our lives into "before" and "after" we have found solitude, rather our hours and our days are divided between those times when we are more in solitude and those times when we are more caught up in the distractions of our work and the heartaches of our restlessness.
What does solitude feel like? Here's Merton's description: "It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one's hunger and sleep, one's cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen. There is no need to make an assertion about my life, especially so about it as mine, thought doubtless it is not somebody else's. I must learn to live so as to forget program and artifice."
Contemplation is not, first and foremost, a technique for prayer. Sometimes prayer, especially centring prayer, can help us find it: But contemplation is something more. It's a way of being present to what's really inside our own experience. We are in solitude, contemplation, in prayer, when we feel the warmth of a blanket, taste the flavour of coffee, share love and friendship, and perform the everyday tasks of our lives so as to perceive, in them, that our lives aren't little or anonymous or unimportant, but that what's timeless and eternal is in the ordinary of our lives.
Sensing the eternal in the ordinary is contemplative prayer and that, and that alone, stills our restlessness.
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