Reflections given by the Ven. Father Ugo-Maria Ginex for the “Cloister of the Heart” retreat held at St. Luke’s Chapel Oxford University, Saturday March 3, 2007.
«One should seek solitude as much as possible and dwell within the silence of one’s soul,resting a while within the simple and simplifying light with which God infuses you»
Good Morning my dear reverend sisters and brothers, my friends, I take this opportunity the welcome you all as one family in Christ. Today I would like to broach the topic of ‘living in a contemplative manner.’ Contemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit, who infuses the wisdom of His soul into our own souls; this simple and simplifying light therefore, is the light infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit so as to purify and sanctify it.
‘What would become of the Church without the contemplative life? A question the current Pope addressed some years ago. The Pope made it clear that he would not want to contemplate a Church without those who give themselves to contemplative life. What would become of the weaker members of the Church who find in you the support to continue their journey? What would happen to the Church and to the world without the beacons which signal a safe harbour to those who are lost or in distress on the high seas, without whose torches which illuminate the dark nights which we stumble through or without those who keep watch over and for us, announcing the beginning of a new day through their prayers, whilst it is still dark outside?
In order to understand whose side we are on, or if we are overemphasising because we are overthinking the topic, perhaps even a gnostic style of contemplation; or perhaps we are too busy; we have to stop and ask ourselves these key questions: “Am I in love with the Lord? Am I certain, that He has chosen me?” Or do we simply live our Christianity in a manner simply by doing this or that! Yet, what are our hearts doing? Are they contemplating? Each individual thing that the Apostle Paul did, he did with a spirit of contemplation, of gazing upon the Lord. It was the Lord who spoke from Paul’s heart, because Paul so loved the Lord. This is the compass which will prevent us from going astray: ‘to be in love with the Lord’ not merely by saying it but by our very deeds.
Contemplation and service are the “paths” we must choose in our lives in order to prevent us from falling into the temptation like the lovers of that new modern religion which is called commerce, yes they do some good, for a profit, but not in a Christian way: in their own manner they provide a human good.
We must all strive to be devoted, to teach others to pray by our lives and example, to convince all people that we must pray. We must raise everything up to God with an unceasing prayer. In short, this is my life, I know it works because I live it daily: praying constantly, bringing everything back to the Lord, reaching a fullness of contemplation in the midst of the world. I intend to pray until the very last moment, well, at least until the Lord calls me to His side.
Recently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, based on the Christian spiritual tradition, teaches that contemplation – together with vocal prayer and meditation – is one of the three fundamental expressions of the life of prayer, and the simplest expression of the three. The Catechism also affirms that contemplation is a gaze of constant faith and reaffirms his infused character and his relationship with charity.
“The Christian is either contemplative or not ”
To become a contemplative it is not necessary for you to go and live in a desert or even within a monastery. In a surprising way, it can happen that one living in the desert or within a monastery may not be a contemplative at all. Or someone who lives a busy life with multiple tasks throughout the day and is, a contemplative.
St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life: “It is an error, and even a heresy, to endeavour to banish the devout life from the ranks of the soldiers, the shops of tradesmen, the courts of princes, or the households of married people…” where at the term “devout” we quite simply replace it with the word “contemplation”.
One of the essential aspects of the spiritual message that God entrusted to Blessed Josemaría Escrivá is precisely the full and open proclamation of contemplation in the midst of the world: “Contemplation is not for the privileged. There are those who, with a limited knowledge of our religion, think that contemplatives are in a state of ecstasy all day. That is a great naivety on their part. The monks in their monasteries have thousands of activities: they clean the house and work to earn their living. Religious men and women of contemplative life often write to me, who have great affection for the Opus, and tell me that they pray a lot for us. They understand what many people don’t seem to understand: our secular life of contemplatives in the midst of the world, and among temporal activities”
The contemplative dimension is basically a reality of grace, experienced by the believer as God’s gift. It enables persons to know the Father (cf. John 14:8) in the mystery of trinitarian communion (cf. 1 John 1-3), so that they can enter into the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10).
The classical definitions
Let us first ask ourselves: what exactly is contemplative life? We could say: it is the Christian life that is decidedly oriented towards the growth of grace and theological virtues that allow us to contemplate God alone. In a synthetic manner: faithful love stretched out in hope.
Contemplation is the faith that lives within love and that recognises God everywhere and unites itself to Him.
It is a life which constantly reminisces on God. It is walking in His presence. Beyond the forms that it can take (as different as each life and every manner are different), contemplation is a way of searching. A particular form of consciousness.
Although they are similar, contemplation is distinct from the practice of meditation. “contemplation is nothing more than a mental attitude of loving, simple, persistent attention to holy things; which you may readily understand by comparing it with meditation.” It must be emphasised that, contemplation essentially consists of an attentiveness or looking fixedly upon the spirit which has the attributes of simplicity and constancy.
Whoever prays in spirit and in truth does not draw thoughts from creatures to give glory to God, but taking from the Creator himself contemplative thoughts to His praise.
We are all called to be contemplatives in the midst of the world
For many centuries throughout the history of spirituality, contemplation has been considered a phenomenon reserved exclusively for the religious state of life, to the point of making these two terms indistinguishable: “contemplative life and religious life”. In fact, the incompatibility between action or active life and contemplation or contemplative life was, for a very long time taken for granted. Life in the world therefore constituted an insurmountable obstacle for a Christian, who would have had to abandon secular activities if he had wanted to become contemplatives.
Now I will try to describe the characteristics of contemplation in the midst of the world according some teachings. In them it is clearly indicated that contemplative prayer must not be limited to a particular moment of the day or time and which are expressly dedicated to personal and liturgical prayer, participation in Holy Mass, etc., but must embrace the entire day until it your prayers simply become one continuous prayer. As Christians we are obliged to make our ordinary lives a continuous prayer, because we are contemplative souls in the midst of all the paths of the world”. “Wherever we are, in the midst of all the noises surrounding us and the noises of human industry — in factories, warehouses, streets, at the university, even in the countryside these days, in an office, or at home — we can find ourselves in a simple and constant contemplation, a constant dialogue with our Father in heaven, God. Because every moment of the day offers these opportunities — people, things, work — which author our continuous conversation with our Lord.
Life, as it is, is ordained to become the place of our contemplation.
You may be a person who is dedicated to a religious life, but who has not taken any monastic vows and you are a lay person, furthermore it is important to be clear that there is a special grace of God in this kind of existence of yours. We know everyday life cannot always ensue side by side with the path of faith.
I endeavour to relate to you the life of a lay person. The first characteristic is diversity. Among our Christian existence, it is the one most vulnerable to the risk of dissipating, of scattering.
The layman is drawn into many gyrating rhythms, challenged by very different relationships, some of which are uncontrollable. A family expands because a child is born … or because a serious illness affects a family member … farewell to your well ordered life … the rhythms are disrupted… farewell to the organised days, where everything is chronicled …
Question: within this diversity is there not a possibility of a fuller synthesis?
Everyday life must become our monastic cell!
A rabbinic saying lends me a helping hand to explain:
“You have to stand up, but not too much; sit, but not too much; walk, but not too much”.
The meaning of this saying, at first glance perhaps a little enigmatic, applied to life, is as follows. Being on your feet indicates listening to the word evoking a rapport with God in prayer, continuing to listen to the Word, in meditation, in the relationship with oneself; being seated indicates meditation, self-reflection; walking alludes to our relationships with others and for others. They are, after all, the three relationships that embody us: God, ourselves and others. We make synthesis and harmony within our Christian life for our continuous conversion, always keeping in view our mission.
This is the image of the life of a lay Christian. There are no “sacred enclosures”, nor canonical schedules. The lay person is in the world, has to interact with others, is “stretched” by a thousand tasks. The three relationships (I, God, world) are often a tangled element that forms part of a complex and complicated whole. You stand, sit, walk. Often with a longing for a more quiet and calm prayer, for spaces of silence, for the desire to carve out moments of contemplation, but one is forced to sprint frantically like a mad person, here and there and back again, simply because human relationships impose their own rhythms upon us. Afterwards, perhaps, in the evening, before turning off your lights, the television, your computer or mobile, there is a little time left for oneself and for God.
Infrequently, one can accomplish, by forcing one’s way through the invasiveness of business and the mountainous schedule of commitments, to slice out some free time which is never too much and is able to actually “stand up” or catch one’s breath, we know that this is only a short pause, a stop at the ‘oasis’, while the path ahead is still extremely long, we still need to climb many mountains and valleys, cross the seas and deserts.
The quote mentioned at the beginning of my reflection is intended as a polite difference of opinion to a way of thinking which demand impossible or very arduous contemplation for those who lead a “normal” life.
We are comforted by the experience of saints like Augustine and Gregory: torn, due to the events, from their tranquility of a monastic life, in spite of the fact that being tormented that they can no longer live that desired union, they never abandoned their pursuit to return to their cloister.
Wherever we are, in the midst of all the noises surrounding us and the noises of human industry — in factories, warehouses, streets, at the university, even in the countryside these days, in an office, or at home — we can find ourselves in a simple and constant contemplation, a constant dialogue with our Father in heaven, God. Because every moment of the day offers these opportunities — people, things, work — as it offers us the opportunity and the topic for our continued conversation with the Lord … which bring all matters to God’s attention.
A priest, author of a beautiful essay on the Psalms as a prayer for the laity writes: “The vocation of the laity is a life of acrobatics: a constant abandonment of the trapeze bar to grab the hands of someone who waits for us mid flight”. Home, family, work, dishes to wash and dry, laundry to dry and iron, grass to cut, shopping, doctor visits, children to pick from school. The unsettled life of the lay person is made up of this blend.”
It is also within this lifestyle that prayer is awakened to bloom. A life which, despite a thousand abstract purposes, will always endure as a race against time, giving a thousand commitments and numerous anxieties, which don’t just appear in single file, commanded and loyal and indeed it would seem that it is done on purpose, appearing all together, in one fell swoop, and to subvert the good disposition of things which need to be done.
The extraordinary for us must be the ordinary: the ordinary lived with perfection. Always smiling and joyful, disregarding — even with human gracefulness — the things which annoy us: being generous without stinginess. In other words, transforming our normal lives into a continuous prayer. Without even realising it, we think of the Lord all day and we feel compelled to place God in all the things that, without Him, appear to us uninspiring. There comes a time when it is not possible to distinguish where our prayer ends and our work begins, because our work is also a prayer, a contemplation, a true mystical life of a union with God – without peculiarities – it is divination.
I would never share — even if I were to agree with — the school of thought of those who differentiate prayer from working life, as if they were incompatible. We, the children of God must always be contemplative: a people who, in the midst of the noise of the multitude, know how to find the silence of the soul in everlasting conversation with our Lord; knowing how to look at Him as one would look at a Father, as one looks at a Friend, who loves Him intensely. Contemplate the Lord after every occurrence, every circumstance, and consequently you will know how to derive from all the events a greater love of God and a greater desire to communicate, because He always waits for us.
Looking for God and discovering Him in everything
God is omnipresent and therefore everywhere! Anyone who loves and searches for God will search for Him in every place and in every venture undertaken; both in activity and periods of relaxation, you will need to use everything at your disposal to discover and experience God. Renew your awareness of the presence of God. Know that He is there, that you are in Him, that His love surrounds you, surrounds all of us. Jesus Christ is like a sun whose light illuminates everything it touches and everything this light shines upon becomes understandable.
There is no other way, either we know how to find the Lord in our ordinary lives, or we will never find Him. Our generation needs to return to our earliest righteous and ethical values, we need to address the issues and set of circumstances that are universal, placing ourselves at the service of the Kingdom of God, elevating everyone to a spiritual level and forming them as the way and instance of our continuous encounter with Jesus Christ.
You can be assured that any kind of escape from the morally correct everyday real life, will be the opposite of God’s will for us. We cannot lead a double life, we cannot allow a breakdown in the relation between our thoughts, emotion, and behaviour, we cannot withdraw from reality and into fantasy and delusion, if we want to be Christians: there is only one life, made of body and soul, and this is what we have to be — in soul and body — pious and filled with God: we find this invisible God in the most visible and material things.
I would like to add the voice of the Servant of God Mother Mechtilde de Bar of the Blessed Sacrament o.s.b. (1614-†1698) the foundress of the order of Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: “When you do a job, do it under the gaze of God and for God, with all possible perfection. Give glory to God by perfectly doing what commands you.” She goes on to say that “All the perfection of Christianity consists in a current look at Jesus Christ, and in a continuous adherence or submission to his approval. These two points encompass everything, their faithful practice will lead you to the highest degree of perfection. Blessed is the soul that observes them. The first point is to see Jesus Christ in all things, in all events and in all actions, in such a way that this divine vision takes away from us the sight of creatures, of ourselves and of our other interests, to see nothing but Jesus Christ. In a word it means having God present at this moment.”
The rewards of contemplation
With faith God gives us a new outlook: through his eyes! With the grace of love He gives us a new heart: His heart! If we agree to receive this gift and know how to benefit from it, devoting ourselves and nurturing this gift then we will be able to observe through His eyes and live with His heart.
We have received the deposit of the gift of contemplation. If faith and love increase, they will be transformed into a faith that lives in love and which recognises God everywhere and in everything joining Him.
The first degree of humility consists in always placing the fear of God before our eyes, avoiding in every way of living as forgetfully.
It is a path which will require perfect patience and utter strength. Those who do not advance will drift back. As we progress, however, we see God in everything and therefore we feel we are more united to Him who is present in everything. We will therefore be able to offer others the advantages of our gifts of contemplation. The “heartbeat” being our action, our charity, our friendliness, our simpler expressions, gestures, even our outer actions, the clothing we wear, the manner we do something.
A pilgrimage in which we are “… being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
So what then is essential? Action or contemplation? Commitment or separation from the world? Following the earlier rabbinic saying: “stand up, sit, walk”, but which one? The answer is: all and every one of them. What is essential is not to leave the gaze of God and to always remain in His presence, it is essential to let everything be unified by love and to always walk decisively in this manner. Have courage because He is always beside you!
1. Cfr. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pt. 4, Section 1, Ch. 3, The life of prayer. №. 2699.
2. Cfr. Ibid., Pt. 4, Section 1, Ch. 3, Expression of Prayer. №. 2713.
3. Ibid., №. 2715: «Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.» cf. №. 2716.
4. Ibid. №. 2713: «It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, “to his likeness.”»
5. Words spoken during a familial reunion, 30-X-1964 (Archivio Generale della Prelatura, AGP, p. 01 VII/G7, p. 7l.
6. St. Francis de Sales, dedicates a whole chapter to the primary difference between contemplation and meditation. See de Sales, Francis. Trans. Lear, Sidney H. L. Treatise on the Love of God, Book 4, Ch. 3, p.183-184. 1888. London: Rivingtons.
7. de Bar Catherine Mectilde Lettere di un’amicizia spirituale (1651-1662): Madre Mectilde de Bar a Maria di Chateauvieux, ed. Pozzo Àncora, Milan 1999, p. 121. [My translation.]
8. Ibid., p. 141. [My translation.]