For over a decade I have sought to establish a life as a contemplative in a very busy world. The first inclination for anyone who strives to live a contemplative life is to withdraw. My study of the desert mothers and fathers reveals that the overwhelming majority of them were hermits. Does that mean that we have to become hermits to be contemplatives? Is it possible for us to become hermits? Is it really necessary to become hermits? Most importantly, is it right to become a hermit? How then can we become contemplatives in the world in which we live? Let unpack those ideas.
Do we have to become hermits to be contemplatives? The initial evidence would certainly point us in that direction. Not only the desert monastics, but Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross and many other well-known contemplatives were hermits. Many of the modern contemplatives we study like Richard Rhorr, Thomas Merton and others have spent extended periods of time each year living as hermits. Almost to a person, these contemplatives would say that being a hermit is not a prerequisite for being a contemplative. Being a contemplative involves developing a lifestyle that allows us to be quiet and alone wherever we may find ourselves. The outer noise does not negate the inner silence. We can develop a contemplative state of mind regardless of our circumstances.
I would also venture to say that it is impossible for the overwhelming majority of people who read these words to even consider being a hermit. For most of us, it is impossible to spend 40 days living in the solitude of a hermitage. We have responsibilities and obligations that are very important that we must keep. God would not want us to abandon our families, jobs, and churches to live an isolated lifestyle. For many of us that would consider life as a hermit, it would not be a calling but an escape or maybe even an abandonment of our responsibilities. I cannot see any real evidence that God says that the only truly set apart contemplatives are living in a hermitage somewhere at the edge of the world. As a matter of fact, such a life would be the wrong thing for most of us to pursue.
I like the concept presented by Eckhart that contemplation is that soil that brings forth the harvest. As Christians, we are told by Jesus that we are the light of the world and we know that without light there is no life. Our Lord further tells us we are the salt of the earth and our presence both preserves and flavors the world. The harvest of the contemplative is to make a difference.
Let me make a few suggestions that might allow us to be contemplatives and people of action.
My contemplation journey has been greatly influenced by some key elements. They are:
My slow, attentive, mindful reading helped me make a profound connection with the words of the Desert Monks, Merton, Julian of Norwich and others. This mindful reading allows me to hear and cherish each word.
Several years ago I began to write my thoughts on this blog and other places. Since then, writing has become a practice that relaxes me and enables me to express those feeling that God has presented to me.
I found solitude to be an essential prerequisite to any contemplative period. Time alone in silence, even in a not so quiet place, became a respite for me away from the busy life I am leading. Solitude for me is being able to shut out the noise that surrounds me and be at one with myself. I found it relaxing, calming, and most of all, healing.
- Detoxing from the media
One thing I find necessary is that I must take some time each week when I don’t keep up with the 24/7 news. It may be a morning or evening when I read or write with no interference. These media fasts allow me to be more positive and responsive to the needs around me.
To deepen the contemplative process I make it a practice to go on retreat at least once a year. This is a good opportunity to get away from everything and spend some time in surroundings that are more conducive to opening up richer thought processes. Even when it is just a long walk in the park, I have managed to mentally reach a better place.
- Meditation practice
A time of pure silent meditation is a very important practice for the contemplative. The practice of Contemplative Prayer is a deep well of spiritual refreshment.
The monks of the desert advocated the concept of work and prayer. I have found that physical labor and practicing creative arts are avenues to the contemplative life. Whether I am working on a woodcraft project or restoring a rusted old tool, I am in communication with God. My work practices are some of my richest times of contemplation.
Contemplation can reap a rich harvest that creeps up slowly, unannounced and unexpected and brings such blessed peace.
Lord help me to plant the seeds of contemplation that will bring the abundant spiritual harvest.
- Why Do We Feel Good After Religious Retreats? (medindia.net)
- What it’s like to spend Christmas in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama (telegraph.co.uk)