Continuing our meditation on our Contemplative tradition in the Church, I will try to sketch out how prayerfulness can change the way we view our day. Many of us understand that the Church building is God’s house and a place of prayer. Of course this is true, especially since it is where the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist can be found. But we would be making a big mistake if we think that is the only time and place we can meet Christ and pray.
There is a Jesuit adage that one should try to find Christ in everything. This is one of the reasons why Jesuits have been at the forefront of education and even science. But monks and nuns are for me the true examples of this way of seeing. In monasteries and convents, they live and work, always in the presence of God, even when doing humble tasks like gardening and cleaning as well as in intellectual endeavors like reading and teaching.
So how can this tradition aid our spiritual development here in Astoria, in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world?
Firstly, it can teach us to slow down and appreciate what God places before us. The contemplation of the real is very important. One can see this easily when one goes to the seashore or one is looking at an expanse of mountains and lakes. But the great spiritual writer and monk Thomas Merton (a New Yorker, by the way) taught that within all reality is a ‘hidden wholeness’. He would often photograph empty paint cans, weeds, strange rock formations and reveal, through the light and shadow of the camera, a distinct and irrefutable beauty in these castaway objects. To be contemplative is to look at the heart of the reality before us and see the beauty. Imagine for instance that you are walking down 31st Street to go to the train. You have seen this street a thousand times. But try to see it now for the first time as though you were a visitor from Mars or even Dubuque! I bet you would notice a lot of normally passed-over reality; or the same scene, only this time imagine that this is the last time you will ever see it. Everything you normally would take for granted would scream out, “Here I am!” To have a contemplative vision of things is to try to see the ‘hidden wholeness’ every day and not just under special circumstances.
Secondly, the monastic tradition, especially that of St. Benedict, teaches us that there cannot be a clear division between our prayer and our work. Everything can be made into a prayer. I remember seeing a monk about to milk a cow. He first made the sign of the cross! He was offering up what he would soon do to the glory of God, so that what he does becomes a prayer, particularly when he tries his best to do it well. It reminds me of the story of the medieval craftsman, working on one of the Cathedrals in France, being asked by someone why he spent so much time working out the details of carving a statue that will be high on the face of the cathedral. In fact, at that moment he was laboring on the back of the statue. The onlooker said something like, “This statue is going to be way up on the front of the Cathedral, so why worry about details and why worry about the back of the statue that no one will see?” The faith-filled craftsman responded, “But the angels will see it!”
Even the Shakers here in the United States carved furniture, beautifully and simply, knowing that angels would be sitting on it (The Shakers were a movement that was the closest that Protestantism every got to a monastic life). Their saying “Hands to work, hearts to God” showed the intrinsic connection between labor and prayer.
So next time you have to do the dishes, say a prayer first and then do it carefully as an Alleluia to the honor and glory of God!
A third thing that the contemplative tradition can teach us is the healing gift of silence. We live in a loud world of noise: radios, TV’s, smartphones, construction booms, traffic and car horns etc. Given this, you think we would welcome some quiet. But no, we just put on the TV even when we are doing nothing! I knew a priest who kept his TV on day and night, whether he was in his room or out of it. There was always banter, the applause, the music, the canned laughter to fill up the silence. We both need silence but are afraid of it. Who knows what memories or fears may come up in the quiet? But silence in the monasteries is restful, enriching, full, balanced, deep; in a word: healing. If we could just stop being so afraid of it!
Christ is everywhere. Imagine how great it would be if we perceived Him always with us!