Recently I attended an Institute on contemplative awareness at which James Finley was the keynote-speaker. He brings some pedigree to the task. He has nearly forty years of experience as a therapist, is a much sought-after lecturer, has written extensively and deeply on the subject of contemplation, and, as a young man, for several years, had Thomas Merton as his spiritual director and mentor. He knows of what he speaks.
I would like to share some of his insights with you by way of a collage of sound bytes, each of which has a certain “stand-alone” quality; but, when taken together, also shed some light on the nature of God, on the nature of contemplation, and on our struggles with both faith and contemplation.
Here are some of Finley’s perspectives:
- The mystics bear witness to the perfectly holy nature of human existence, to the fact that we are infinitely loved and held in existence by love, and that there are times when we momentarily glimpse and taste that in our lives. A mystic is a person who has been transformed by such an experience.
- Anxiety comes from our estrangement from the consciousness of God’s love inside us.
- Why do we spend so many hours trapped outside the richness of our own lives, living like persons standing outside our own houses looking in through the windows of our own homes? Or, worse still, why are we inside our own houses but in a mental condition that has us believing we are living outside? What must we do to wake up before we die?
- Our lives are habitually pressured and so this is the perennial task: How do we, in the midst of our pressured lives, give ourselves over to the love that holds us? We cannot make a graced moment happen, but we can work at putting ourselves into a position where we offer the least resistance to be overtaken by a graced moment.
- Contemplative awareness isn’t hard to find – it’s hard to not run away from.
- Contemplative awareness is seeing things as they are. It’s resting in God. To be in contemplative awareness is to sit like “an unlearned child”, in a time of “non-thinking”.
- By sitting still we can learn to be still. Contemplation depends upon fidelity: If you are faithful to your practice, your practice will be faithful to you.
- There are some simple rules for the practice of contemplation: Sit still. Sit straight. Have your eyes closed or lowered. Take slow deep natural breaths. Have your hands in a comfortable position. Then be present, open, and awake: Do not cling to nor reject anything that comes to you in thought. As a thought arises, let it arise, if it lingers, let it linger, if it passes away, let it pass away, but don’t let the thought carry you away with it. Move gently and slowly in prayer – don’t violate your body’s stillness.
- A recommended exercise: Go to your room just before sunset some night for no other reason than to be there with God when the sun sets. Have absolutely no other agenda than to watch it grow dark. Sit for a full hour. Sit in the unrelenting sovereignty of the day’s end. Sit in radical obedience to the falling light. You’ll know solitude.
- People who pray regularly generally do not pray well … but they become persons who rely upon God to make their prayer well. And those who pray regularly will, like everyone else, still experience sadness and death, but sadness and death will no longer have a tyranny over them.
- There is a difference between spiritual “sweetness” and spiritual “consolation”: “Sweetness” is feeling good while in prayer; “consolation” is the sense of having your heart enlarged (and that can be painful).
- Quoting Gabriel Marcel: We know we love someone when we glimpse in that person something that is too beautiful to die.
- From Theresa of Avila:– When you reach the highest level of human maturity, you will have just one question: How can I be helpful– Love is two people sitting in a room, talking to each other. Neither knows what to say, but they recognize each other.
- Why do the Buddhists speak of “emptiness” in relationship to the concept of God? They do so to refer to God’s infinite simplicity, that is, God as God is before all the distinctions made about God. “Emptiness” is our standing before God’s ineffability, utterly overwhelmed by an over-fullness.
- How can we be helpful in the face of others’ suffering when we feel so helpless to do anything about it? When persons share their fragility and pain with someone who hears with a true listening, those others uncover inside themselves the ‘pearl of great price’.
And not least:
- The generosity of the Infinite is infinite. Among other things, this means that we must give ourselves over to a generous orthodoxy.
- To be unknown by God is altogether too much privacy!
- With God, a little sincerity goes a long way!