ears ago, when I was a novice, one
of my Dominican brothers suggested one day that we pack a picnic
lunch and spend our free day enjoying the autumn colors in the
mountains of North Carolina. It sounded like a great idea, and
an hour later we were in the car heading north from our home in
Columbia, South Carolina, enjoying the sense of "fall freedom."
We drove frantically for several hours,
stopped at a national forest, got out and ate our lunch, and sped
home in time for evening prayer! I was so dizzy during prayer
that I could hardly focus on the psalms. In fact, now that I look
back, I ask myself if perhaps we didn't miss the real prayer--the
chance to praise God for the wonders of creation-in order to fulfill an obligation. I think I know the
Today's Challenge: Contemplation
How do we pray in a world that seems
to be moving in fast-forward? How do we grow in the contemplative
dimension of our Christian life in a culture in which the only
public service that hasn't installed a drive-through window--at
least not yet--is the Church?
We've become accustomed to a quick fix for losing weight and a
quick method for learning French. The oil in our car is changed
in 10 minutes and our photos are developed while we wait. And
yet we open the Bible and read that the Kingdom of God is like a woman who kneads the yeast into the dough and waits for it to
rise, or like the farmer who sows the seed and patiently awaits
The 40 days of Lent used to seem like a natural part of our Catholic
life in the past, but now 40 days might seem like a bit much.
Some may think: Why not cut it back to 20 days? God just doesn't
seem to fit into our fast-food world today.
No matter how we cut it, though, Israel's 40 years in the desert
and Jesus' 40 days of struggling to be faithful to the Father's
call cannot be cut in half for good behavior. The number 40
for the Hebrews was a way of saying "many." In other
words, the spiritual life isn't a weekend affair; it's a lifelong
commitment. The living water of faith cannot be boiled in a microwave.
Following Jesus means pacing ourselves to the rhythm of a lifetime
of contemplative discipleship.
Those of us who live our Christian
lives out "in the world" have to fashion a spirituality
that fits our way of life without looking for a fast-food cop-out.
Maybe we will choose to pray the rosary on the way to work--it's
certainly better than much of the radio garbage polluting the
airwaves these days! What is important is that we find creative
ways to pray. We need to deepen our call to love and serve God
in ourselves, our neighbors and in all of creation. And we don't
have to become monks or nuns to do it.
Seeing Through God's Eyes
The path before us may seem overwhelming
at times, so we must choose a spiritual practice that will prepare
us for the long haul. But that's O.K. The good news is that we
do not have to hurry. God has graced us with a whole lifetime.
But we have to turn off our mystical microwave for a while and
begin the journey--one step at a time.
Our purpose here is not to give an
overview of contemplative prayer. For that there are classical
and contemporary authors who are masters on this topic. What we
will do is to look at how to discover the contemplative dimension
of everyday life, in other words, how to do the things we do each
and every day with contemplative ease. The sun rising in the kitchen
window, the walk to the post office, the church bell ringing on
Sunday morning, the little niece's kiss on her uncle's cheek,
the bright red tomato in the salad: They are all an opportunity
to breathe deeply and "be filled with all the fullness of
God" (Ephesians 3:19).
We will look at five dimensions of
daily life: seeing, breathing, walking, eating and speaking. There
is no trick or magic blessing to convert these raw materials of
daily living into a life of contemplative ease. All we have to
do is downshift our frenetic pace and begin to live with mindfulness,
the prayerful awareness that all that is contains the fullness
of God's glory. Each of us can be contemplative. The first of
our five ways to pray always is by opening our eyes.
The essence of contemplation is seeing
all of creation through God's eyes. We've all had contemplative
experiences, but perhaps we didn't know it was contemplation.
Watching the slow, multicolored sunset with simple, childlike
awe to the point where we simply become engulfed by the red-orange
horizon: This is contemplative seeing. We are told in the Genesis
story of creation (Genesis 1) that after marvelous acts of creative
artistry, "God saw how good it was." Contemplative people
see all of the universe with the compassionate, delight-full eyes
Breathing the Breath of God
This contemplative seeing, however,
requires training and hard work. We tend to zip through life so
days that we fail to notice the dandelion that has
pushed its way up through the hot pavement or the lovely but pained
eyes of the young mother in front of us in the grocery store checkout
Luke's Gospel says that when the prodigal
son neared the last bend before reaching his home, ready to weep
in repentance at his father's feet: "his father caught sight
of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced
him and kissed him." The father saw the son with the eyes
of God, making possible his response of mercy and compassion (see
Our eyes are open most of the day,
but do we really see the world's truth as God sees it? Is not
racism rooted in our blindness to see the beauty of all people
having been created in God's likeness? What a different world
it would be if government and big business recognized the oceans,
rivers and rain forests of our earth as the beloved garden of
God--and not just as a means to turn a profit.
God is inviting us to slow down, stop
and look, notice the details, the surprises, the unexpected. Before
raking up the autumn leaves with a humdrum sense of boredom, why
not stand in awe and watch the bright yellow leaf dive off its
towering limb and dance its way to death? We, too, like God,
will see that all is good.
One of the post-Resurrection accounts
in John's Gospel says that Jesus extended his peace to the disciples
and then breathed on them saying, "Receive the holy Spirit."
It is the very same breath of God that the Creator breathed into
the nostrils of the very first human being, formed from the clay
of the earth (Genesis 2:7). Every moment of every day we breathe
in and out the very breath of God. Contemplative breathing is
simply becoming aware of that Spirit-breath within us.
Walking With Jesus
For centuries Buddhist and Hindu contemplatives
have been observing the natural rhythm of their breathing as a
way of experiencing their oneness with Ultimate Reality, with
God. Christians have known this since ancient times, too. As the
medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, "I will
sit and be silent and listen to God's voice within me." God
is as intimately close to us as our very own breath.
For many years the Vietnamese
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has shared his very simple teachings
on observing our in-breaths and our out-breaths with rhythmic
mindfulness as a way of remaining fully in the present moment,
"our true home." He says, "Peace is all around
us--in the world, in nature and within us-in our bodies and our
spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace (through mindful breathing),
we will be healed and transformed."
It works. It doesn't cost anything
but a little effort and patience. One doesn't have to be a foreign
missionary or a diplomat in the United Nations to be a peacemaker.
We can practice mindful breathing when we get up in the morning
and before going to bed at night, driving the car or waiting in
the doctor's office, when we feel angry or when we are bursting
with joy. We, like Jesus, can breathe peace into our troubled
world, a peace that flows from the very center of our being. As
St. Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the
Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be
expressed in speech (Romans 8:26).
We are accustomed to saying, "I'm
going to take a walk"--a phrase which points to a kind of
possessive, "I'm in control" attitude. Perhaps it's
because we usually view walking in terms of going somewhere, accomplishing
something, getting from here to there. What would it be like to
walk just for the sake of walking, to simply enjoy a walk?
Eating in Solidarity
Our Judeo-Christian tradition has a
long history of holy walking, what we call pilgrimage. The people
of Israel have had a tradition for centuries of making an annual
pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and we Christians have
always considered visiting holy places part of our spiritual heritage.
In many ways, though, our pilgrim spirit has gotten swallowed
up by our "gotta-get-somewhere" living in the fast lane.
Walking can become a way of contemplation
for us who live in the goal-oriented busy-ness of today's world.
There is a wonderful word in English which comes close to describing
what is meant by contemplative walking: strolling. "Let's
go for a stroll" carries with it a gentle invitation to rest,
to walk without purpose--the way lovers walk on a beach or down
a country road. There's no beginning and no end, the present moment
is eternity. That's what it means to be a pilgrim: to stroll lovingly
We have even tainted our idea of pilgrimage,
unfortunately. Travel agencies are making lots of money these
days selling trips to holy places for people hoping to experience
God or to see the Virgin Mary. Nothing could be further from the
essence of pilgrimage. God is not over there in a grotto or on
a mountaintop. Flying halfway across the world to snap a few pictures
in front of a miraculous statue is not to be a pilgrim in the
spiritual sense. To be a pilgrim means to stroll with God in faith,
aware that wherever we are is a holy place, wherever we walk is
"How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings glad tidings,/Announcing peace,
bearing good news..." (Isaiah 52:7). Isaiah knew what it
meant to stroll with God, to allow the holy walking to be a way
of announcing peace. We glimpse it again in John's Gospel account
of the Last Supper when Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John
13), readying them to be servants to one another. Our feet are
holy, beautiful to God, for they enable us to go out to the other,
to serve. Jesus' call to the disciples, "Come, follow me,"
called for a response from the head, the heart and the feet!
Jesus taught his disciples how to stroll,
how to wander gracefully through the Galilean towns and villages
of his time, observing the women making bread and the fishers
mending their nets, chatting with folks about mustard seeds and
fig trees. These small details of the Kingdom are missed when
we zoom to and from our places of ministry and work as if getting
there were all that mattered.
Maybe it's time to kick off our sandals,
like Moses, and stroll upon our precious earth, our holy Mother
earth, and again allow our walking to be a proclamation of glad
tidings, a Good News of peace for God's pilgrim people.
Most of us spend a good bit of our
waking (and even dreaming!) hours thinking about, planning, preparing
and eating food. It's one of those very mundane tasks like reading
the newspaper and washing behind the ears. What we eat and how
we eat don't just determine how many pounds we will gain or lose
this month; these actions deeply affect our spiritual lives.
Speaking From Silence
Eating is at the heart of being a Christian.
The last thing that Jesus did with his friends before he was taken
away to be executed was to share a meal with them. During his
three years of public ministry he had dined with quite a colorful
array of folks: prostitutes and lepers, Pharisees and tax collectors,
drunkards and revolutionaries.
Jesus even shared his final meal with
Judas, his betrayer. It was at that last supper when Jesus took
some bread and wine and said, "This is my body. This is my
blood. Take and eat." What a way to end a holy life-becoming
bread for a hungry world.
What, then, does eating have to do
with contemplation? Everything! To eat is to commune with God
who is present in all of creation. To eat with mindfulness, with
deep gratitude and joy is to praise God, our Creator. We become
one with the bread we eat, one with the earth, one with God.
Unfortunately, though, eating has become
a competitive sport in many First World countries. We no longer
remember the origin of the milk that makes our cheese or the wheat
that goes into our pizza dough. The farmers who work the land,
many of them poor immigrants, are faceless in our tidy world of
supermarkets and restaurant chains.
It is as though we have thrown our
precious earth into a coliseum of hungry beasts who maim her and
leave her, like rotting carrion, for the world's poor to gnaw
on for survival. Forty-four thousand people will die today of
starvation while we build yet another fast-food restaurant.
Contemplative eating requires that
we stop shoving our food down a bottomless pit and recover our
spirituality of the Eucharist.
In his book Making Friends of Enemies
Jim Forest tells the story of a Russian im-migrant woman who found
a job clearing tables in the restaurant of a gambling casino in
Las Vegas. One night she returned from her work in tears and told
the Franciscan sisters who had helped her find the job: "I
cannot continue this work. They make me throw away the body of
Jesus." The sisters, confused, asked her to explain.
"If there is any bread left on
the table, even if no one touched it, you have to throw it away...throw
away the body of Jesus." The poor immigrant woman had understood
the essence of the Eucharist: all bread, all food, all of creation
is, in a sense, the body of Christ.
Do our children know the consequences
of our wastefulness for children of the rest of the world? Do
we dare turn off the television long enough at the dinner table
to pray together as a family and to recognize Christ in our breaking
of the bread?
After walking along the road with the
two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), the resurrected
Jesus began to continue on his way. The two disciples, confused
and shaken by the events of the previous days, still had a spark
of simple Christian charity in them. They invited the stranger
to rest for the night before continuing his journey. He graciously
accepted their kindness, and at the meal that evening he took
a piece of bread, broke it, gave thanks to God and gave it to
them. Eureka! The tired journey now made sense. The stranger was
not a stranger after all.
Now it's our turn, our table. Our hungry
world is knocking at the door.
"Talk is cheap," grumbled
a man in front of an airport television after Haiti's recently
returned president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, spoke of peace and
reconciliation as key issues for the remainder of his interrupted
presidency. Are words cheap or do we speak them cheaply?
One of my preaching professors remarked
years ago, "For the elderly widow who sits day in and day
out in her room at the nursing home, waiting for someone to visit,
the words of the nursing assistant who pokes her happy face into
the room with an upbeat, 'Good morning, Mrs. Johnson!' are anything
but cheap." They are Mrs. Johnson's lifeline, her bridge
to the rest of the world. They are the voice of God in what may
seem to her as an otherwise empty universe.
Our speaking becomes contemplative
when we allow our words to be born out of a contemplative silence,
a silence which is in communion with God. Words and silence go
hand in hand like a pair of figure skaters gliding in tandem across
a fine sheet of ice. Without prayerful, contemplative silence
in our lives, we will never know what it means to speak the word
All people of faith are called to let
God's voice and word be heard in our own fragile act of speaking.
We can argue like Moses that we are "slow of speech and tongue"
(Exodus 4:10), or with Jeremiah we can protest, "'Ah, Lord
GOD!' I said, 'I know not how to speak; I am too young'"
(Jeremiah 1:6). In the end, though, we have to face the challenge
and let God use our mouths as instruments of divine love and the
gospel of peace.
Words born from the silence of God's
heart are not cheap. Words, in fact, can change the world. Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke four simple words back in the 60's
that have kindled the fires of social change for three decades:
"I have a dream." The nursing assistant who greets Mrs.
Johnson every morning may not be aware of the life-giving impact
her simple greeting has on the elderly patient in room #42-B.
The Word becomes flesh in a simple, "Good morning, Mrs. Johnson."
Contemplative speaking is to speak
as God would speak. It requires that we cultivate a quiet space
within us, a place of listening, a field sown in compassion and
love. Several years ago I was walking down a sidewalk behind a
mother who was walking hand in hand with her daughter, who looked
to be about four years old.
The little girl stumbled and fell and,
after quickly jumping up and brushing off her tiny knees, exclaimed,
"Mommy, I'm sorry I fall down all the time." Her mother
could have missed the moment, laughed at or even spanked the girl,
but she didn't. She lifted her daughter up into her arms, kissed
her and said, "That's O.K., honey. No matter how many times
you fall down, Mommy will always love you." Talk isn't cheap
when we talk like God.
Jesus spoke healing, life-giving words
to thousands of people. They were not complicated, theological
homilettes; they were words which welled up from a profoundly
human heart: Your faith has healed you; Know that I am with you
always; Be not afraid; Your sins are forgiven; Peace be with you.
When we rush through life at supersonic
speed we don't even have time to think nice words, much less speak
them. And so we have a world full of deceitful politicians, long-winded
preachers, gossipy neighbors, angry spouses and TV programs filled
with violence. Many of today's speakers have lost the capacity
to speak words of life. Yet words of life are needed now more
It is time to stop, to slow down, to
seek the silence of the desert and learn again how to speak like
God. Simple words like "thank you" and "I forgive
you" can transform our divided world into a global village
of compassion and understanding. Taking a few moments to breathe
deeply and ask God for help before responding to someone in a
tense conversation is a good place to start. Our words can open
the door for God's Word to break into human history, and once
again our world can witness the Word becoming flesh--this time
Brian J. Pierce, O.P., is a Dominican
priest and member of a community of Dominican preachers in San
Pedro Sula, Honduras. The community works in the training of lay
Delegates of the Word and university students, as well as in the
care of persons with AIDS.