The Holy Irrelevance of the Contemplative Christian Life

The Holy Irrelevance of the Contemplative Christian Life

When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6

Christians with a call to the contemplative life often experience confusion, dissatisfaction, even shame and guilt. Let’s face it: contemporary American society is decisively focused outward, entrenched and adrift in the things of this world. We measure our lives and the value of them by outward achievements, by the things we can quantify, by external signs. This is why Christians who hear the call to the secret inner life tend to experience frustration and even depression. While their desire is to delve into that interior quietude and the things of the Spirit, everything and everyone around them tells them that they must enter the fray and the clash of outward things, the things of the flesh. Even their churches tell them so: they must do-good. They must be activists, always busying themselves with works; they must prove the relevance of their faith to this world.

The Atmosphere of Our Thoughts

Columba Marmion, early twentieth century priest, monk, and teacher, pointed out that “in every sphere of life the atmosphere in which our thoughts habitually move is of great importance.”1Columba Marmion, Christ: The Ideal of the Priest (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1957), 76. He goes on to ask,

What is the atmosphere best suited to the soul of a priest? Is it the atmosphere of lay society? Of village gossip? Of the latest news in the paper or some book of profane literature? Certainly not. I do not suggest that a priest may not keep in touch with many things, but, first of all, he must have a true interior life.2 Marmion, Ideal of the Priest, 76.

Marmion was speaking specifically of the priestly vocation, but the quality of life he articulates is the life to which priests especially, but all Christians generally, are called. While the outlook of Christians on the world is to be benevolent,

it must not, however, be like that of the young man who is dazzled by the glitter of things, and does not consider the dullness of the reverse side.3See Mk 10:17-31. The minister of Christ may not find his joy in the goods of this world; he must consider them with the eyes of Jesus Christ, that is to say, as his faith reveals to him their value and their vanity.4Marmion, Ideal of the Priest, 77.

Irrelevance: The Very Burden of the Cross

Marmion well describes the inner orientation that renders the Christian contemplative life so difficult, even when we are called to it. When Jesus went to the cross, he not only endured physical pain. He also faced what is likely the deepest terror of the human heart: to be worthless, a failure, a total outcast, betrayed and utterly forgotten. In short, he faced unmitigated irrelevance to the world. While he suffered the bitterness of crucifixion, soldiers cast lots for his clothing, with absolute disregard for his life. While the world went on buying, selling, conquering, and achieving, he breathed his final breaths, his whole life and ministry a seeming flop. In this, of course, is the power of his gracious act; in this is our salvation from the sting of slavery to the world’s passing devices. The martyrs, too, shared in this suffering, completing in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.5Col 1:24 Yet, every Christian is called to share in the irrelevance of the cross, folly to those who are perishing, but the power of God to those who are being saved.61 Cor 1:18.

The Courage to Be … Irrelevant

The contemporary Christian scene betrays a great loss of courage on this point. That is to say, many Christian communities and organizations seem unwilling and unable to confront irrelevance for the sake of the world. One sees Christians scrambling about and bending over backwards in various and sundry efforts to seem pertinent to the trends of our age, be they conservative or liberal. A busyness heralded with trumpets, self-proclaimed charity and open-mindedness. Though I will not begrudge these efforts the praise they deserve, I cannot help but to discern at their heart something a little less praiseworthy: an unwillingness to share in the cross of Christ. If this is so, we Christians shall have to answer for it. I believe we already are.

History tells us that the profound renunciation stipulated by the cross has been difficult from the beginning. You bet it is difficult. It is certain that contemplatives, those called to the contemplative life, will no doubt find themselves face to face with this aspect of Christ’s suffering if they take their call seriously. The deeper one grows in prayer, the more irrelevant one becomes to this world. Nobody sees the inner life of a Christian; it does not garner nor would it seek praises.7See, for example, Matt 6. But it is real, and to take care of this life is the fundamental work of the disciple. We have lost the deeply Christian notion that the visible life has its source in what is invisible. As the world has its source in God, so the shape of one’s life and actions has its source in the spiritual heart.8See Matt 15:18. Society grows from the rankness or the purity of people’s souls. Marmion’s words are indeed words of life; the atmosphere in which our thoughts habitually move is of great importance.

Contemplative Prayer and Silence

In the practice of contemplative prayer, and especially during long periods of silence, we are able to work more directly with the atmosphere in which our thoughts habitually move. Better to say that we able more easily to clear this atmosphere of smog that God’s light might penetrate into it to clean, heal, and illumine our thoughts, from which spring our lives and societies.

Let’s take care, then, of the inner life, wholeheartedly offering ourselves to it even at the risk of being blamed for irrelevance. To be irrelevant in a broken, sinful world is to be holy. In holiness only shall we overcome.

Mons Nubifer Sanctus: Christian spiritual training in the fullness of the ancient faith.

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References   [ + ]

1.Columba Marmion, Christ: The Ideal of the Priest (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1957), 76.
2. Marmion, Ideal of the Priest, 76.
3.See Mk 10:17-31.
4.Marmion, Ideal of the Priest, 77.
5.Col 1:24
6.1 Cor 1:18.
7.See, for example, Matt 6.
8.See Matt 15:18.


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