Coronavirus and Contemplation: A First Reflection

Coronavirus and Contemplation: A First Reflection

Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:25-33

You can listen to this post as a podcast with further reflections by clicking on the “play” button above.

Social Distancing and Contemplative Prayer

In the context of our current situation with coronavirus, or COVID-19, with whole states and nations mandated to socially distance themselves and to stay still as much as possible, I have been asked to provide a “how to” on contemplative prayer. Finding themselves with extra time on their hands, many people are interested in giving contemplative prayer a try.

Sacred Ground

I have been reflecting on the connections between our social distancing and contemplative practice for well over a week now, and had hoped to offer some reflections on this very thing. At the same time, I certainly did not want to be trite or to use the situation to garner attention or to push a cause. We do not know what the repercussions of current events may be, and we face the specter of economic and financial hardship for some time to come. God’s will be done; we have to submit ourselves to his mercy as well as his majesty. Still, it seems like sacred ground, and I have been circumspect to dare to tread here. My mother in law, who has Alzheimer’s, and both of my own aging parents are in facilities where all visitors are currently disallowed. It is a source of intense pain for both my wife and I to know that, if anything should happen to them, we would not be able to see them. For many, the distress of our current situation is real and sharp, and we know it is to worsen before it gets better. I have also noticed how some are politicizing the situation, using it to push a special interest or agenda, or just exploiting it outright for ungodly gain (such as in the severely overinflated prices of certain necessities, medical supplies included). All of this turns my stomach. Since, however, I have been asked, I will dare take a step onto this holy ground to present this series of small offerings, for whatever they may be worth, on how we might grow spiritually under our current material trials with contemplative prayer in mind.

A Lively Interior Life

With many churches closed and the only options for corporate worship being in the rather unsatisfying virtual realms, people of faith might be finding themselves in irons when it comes to their life of prayer. Christians are called to have a lively interior life, and if we have neglected that life, now is certainly a good time to give it some attention. When it comes to prayer, there is simply no reason why our current situation should be much different than usual; we are commanded to pray always, that our lives constantly be referenced toward God our Creator and Redeemer in good and ill. Still, because this is usually not the case with any of us, our current situation, stripped as it is from many normal distractions, does provide some opportunity to practice the recollection of the soul to God.

Getting Clear About Contemplative Prayer

When we are talking about contemplative prayer, however, we first need to be clear about a few things. The contemplation of God—that is, beholding the vision of God directly and intuitively—is a gift from God, and nothing that we can create. At its heart, contemplative prayer cannot be reduced to a method or to anything that we do or can achieve. God is utterly free, both to hide and to reveal himself. However, God very well may be revealing himself to us much more than we are willing to receive. Certain conditions help us to be more receptive, making us more vulnerable to the gift. Cultivating these conditions comprises the practice of contemplative prayer. The chief of these is stillness, both outer and inner.

Another point is that all real prayer, both liturgical and ad hoc, derives directly from the soul’s spontaneous longing for God. This deep longing for God is born of the soul’s actual knowledge—gained through searingly honest self-reflection—of her own inner emptiness. The one crushing lesson that the saints have all learned is that every created thing, every created condition, on which we might pin our hopes and our trust will ultimately disappoint. There simply is no lasting happiness, no fulfillment, no peace apart from God. He alone is eternal, complete, whole, and holy. We share in these insofar as we have participation in his life—by following his commandments, by the sacramental life of the church, by availing ourselves to him in prayer. Yet none of these can be fully effective if we are not willing to forsake and renounce the various worldly treasures to which we cling in the place of God. In this secret space of the total abandonment of all things for the sake of God, here is the space of contemplation.

Practically, this means that, instead of turning to Netflix or to noshing when you are bored, anxious, or lonely, you must instead remain still, entering that uncomfortable place in prayer, there to offer it to God as the reality of your life in that moment. If we are always running from ourselves, how can we ever be in authentic relationship to anyone, let alone to God? By consciously and purposefully not running away, contemplative practice assists us in coming to the deep crisis of existence, to our own inner emptiness from which the desire for God springs. Stillness and silence are the two basic conditions of the practice of contemplative prayer, stripping away from us all distractions, all the things that we chase and pin our hopes in, all the things that we fall upon for comfort instead of the ghostly strength of God. In this stillness, we slowly come to realize that God is indeed the source of all life.

This is a life-long practice, and before setting out one must be ready to confront the demons in the wilderness.1This is why I always say that a lively practice of contemplative prayer is not something to undertake without help from a qualified spiritual director, remembering that there are a host of charlatans out there. Therefore, contemplative prayer is not an object of banal curiosity; it is a matter of life and death. Will we perish persisting in our worship of things, running to and fro in their service, or will we surrender our will and lives to the One who alone has life eternal?

Contemplative Prayer: Not a Program of Self Improvement

Whatever pop culture might tell you, contemplative prayer is not a program of self-improvement; it is a program of self-renouncement. It makes us smaller, not bigger. In times like these, it is not necessarily the enforced stillness that might push a person into true prayer, but the realization of his own emptiness and of the fact that this world, as so many saints have said so clearly, is passing away.2Ps 119:96; Matt 24:35; 1 Cor 7:31; 1 John 217, etc. Whatever goods we may here enjoy, they are not the goods to be enjoyed forever, as we clearly realize when these goods slip out of our hand.

Saint Francis of Assisi began seeking God in earnest while a prisoner of war. Saint Ignatius of Loyola began seeking God in earnest while laid up with an injury. Saint John of the Cross underwent his deep spiritual breakthroughs while being held prisoner and beaten daily by his own fellow monastics. When the conditions of our lives no longer feed our idolatry of things, there we are urged to find within ourselves something more original, more perfect, something that transcends time and its changes and chances. This is God, whom we can only come to know intimately within our own selves as the very source and ground of the life we enjoy. All life is God’s life; to him belong all things.3See Rom 11:36. What a paradoxically painful and hopeful truth this is, at once stripping all self-sufficiency away from us, and showing us where our deepest happiness lies. Why not seek this life always? Why allow our incessant running around and acquisitiveness to separate us from that place where true life abides?

Social Distancing and Spiritual Growth

This particular reflection, by way of a response to a request, provides a little background and perhaps a warning. Unless you are prepared for a long walk through a trackless desert, waiting only on God and his graces, perhaps you are better off using your newfound time reading holy books. Better yet, pray the daily office, speak to God, ask his forgiveness and his mercy, surrender to his majesty. This is prayer—just do it, as the saying goes. If, however, you persistently feel called to a deeper, quieter intimacy with God during this time, and are willing to try to give all that he asks for the sake of this intimacy, look for the next post. In it, I hope to provide some functional instruction for the practice of contemplative prayer, keeping in mind that it is not a technique, but at heart dependent on our sincere longing for the Lord for himself and as he is in himself.

Please also know that I am happy to field phone calls from anyone desiring to talk about these things. I can be reached at 607-832-4401 between 10 am and 5 pm EST on weekdays. If I am not in, please leave a message with some good times to reach you and I will phone you back.

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References   [ + ]

1.This is why I always say that a lively practice of contemplative prayer is not something to undertake without help from a qualified spiritual director, remembering that there are a host of charlatans out there.
2.Ps 119:96; Matt 24:35; 1 Cor 7:31; 1 John 217, etc.
3.See Rom 11:36.

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