Turning points in contemplative life:
Uncovering the healing power of awe
It is a great privilege to honour Brian and Patrica Stitt through this Oration today. I was minister at Dianella Church of Christ (now Living Grace Church) for nine years and it was there I first met the Stitts and learned of their long practice and teaching of the contemplative life. I was excited by their vision for what we now know as Dayspring. I saw its potential for fostering spiritual growth and depth, not only among those already committed to the contemplative life in the wider Perth community, but also in our church. So began Dayspring. It is as instigators of this venture, as well as their deep personal input into our lives, that we celebrate the Stitts today.
I had come earlier to an appreciation of the contemplative life through a Christian background, possibly quite different from yours. My father, a pastor, theologian, and teacher, sometimes seen as a mystic by his students, had some favourite themes. He would diverge at every opportunity, for example, into contemplating the wonderful hesed love of God for his people and unite that intimacy with a focus on God’s glory, seen like Elijah, in the still small voice. He delighted in discussing life and theology with me over the washing up or on the drive to school and so I inherited his desire for that combination – the intimacy of being loved by the Father in reflective meditation, combined with experiencing the otherness and majesty of the Creator, especially for me now, in the wide outdoors.
Coming from a Baptist background, I didn’t realise how unique that joining together was. However, some years later I discovered Richard Foster’s category of Christian traditions in his Streams of Living Water, and found I identified most closely, not with the Evangelical or Charismatic streams which were part of my background. I appreciated the Contemplative, but it was the Holiness stream that made sense of my desire to centre my life in God in a contemplative way, but with a view to how to live godly, serving the community.
Two other aspects of my background are relevant to the topic of this Oration. My initial academic research was concerned with social systems, leading to employment as a city planner for a number of years in the U. S. in what was a very volatile time in that country. I continue to have a strong sociological interest in societal wellbeing, especially through collective pastoral care, writ large in communities, and in the church. This was the focus of my doctoral work. Psychotherapist Roger Hurding’s pathways to pastoral care is helpful here. His five pathways cover Biblical Counselling, Healing Ministries, the more general Pastoral Counselling, Spiritual Direction and Social Change. From his list, I embrace both general pastoral care as well as social change as my interests, but my inclination is always towards integration. So I endorse the coming together of Foster’s streams and Hurding’s pathways as contributing to a rich wholeness, a shalom, and one that Dayspring encourages.
All of this is to say that I do not identify primarily as a contemplative, nor have I trained in spiritual direction, but I love the many practices that the contemplative life offers and I long to see many people find reality and solace in a deeper relationship with God as both Creator and Father. This corrective is needed very strongly in Australian society today. Let me explain.
WESTERN SOCIETY TODAY
Opportunity to travel and work in other cultures helps us see our own worldview more clearly. At home, we are like the frog in the kettle, slowly coming to the boil without realizing the danger. I would argue that experiencing Asian honour and shame cultures in particular, has given me a revised perspective on western society.
Although we Australians do not live under the constraints of an honour and shame culture, many of us here at this Oration grew up in the twentieth century, experiencing the kind of rigidity and restrictive role definition that are characteristic of an honour and shame society. So we must first acknowledge we are grateful that today we have more equity, wider access to education, and freedom to explore how God has gifted us as a legacy of the western worldview. We are glad our identity is not defined solely by the family or class or nation into which we were born. In my case, I had new opportunity to respond in mid-life to God’s call to pastor as a woman. For my husband, it meant he was to go on to university and not leave school at 14 for a sheet-metal apprenticeship as his father did. But it is becoming obvious that the cost in our present century and society of that freedom is that identity is considered so fluid and free of outside constraints, that the search for it is a prolonged life struggle.
The common explanation of the problems in our western post-modern society today is that we have lost what were historically Christian-based values in a morass of consumerism, expressed as the lure of money, sex, and power. These dangers are, of course, not new. It was against them that the early Christians developed vows of poverty, chastity, and humility. In recent decades, Richard Foster has written succinctly regarding them, as has Tim Keller, warning in 2009 about what he calls the counterfeit gods of western society – “the empty promises of love, money and power”.
But I am convinced that a more nuanced analysis of contemporary western society is needed now, one that offers the possibility of the contemplative life being an underappreciated but much needed response and tool in today’s world. I address this as an introduction to offering the experience of awe as a corrective.
THE PREDICAMENT OF WESTERN SOCIETY
In the last few decades, rather than rail against mindless consumerism, observers of American society such as sociologist Robert Bellah, have introduced the term, expressive individualism, to explain the primary value taking hold in western society. They assert that the tension between individual expression and community good has tipped too far in the direction of individualism, at the expense of community. This is manifesting in growing selfish behaviour and exploitation of others. It is the dynamite beneath what we think of as the Enlightenment implosion, bemoaned by scientists like my husband and those wanting acceptance of the facts of climate change.
This is a deeper understanding of twenty-first century western society’s malaise than blaming consumerism, whose excesses in the arenas of money, sex, and power are only symptoms, external manifestations of a profound and urgent personal impetus to focus exclusively on uncovering one’s identity to make the best of life.
Within the term expressive individualism, we understand what individualism means. It involves distancing oneself from community, putting the focus solely or primarily on me, myself and I, as Christian psychologist Arch Hart titles his early book on the search for self-fulfillment in the self. The addition of the word expressive in this concept, makes the self-focus even more emphatic, asserting that for the self to be heathy, it must be uncovered, displayed, and validated, over-riding all other values and all other persons in the process. Bellah explains: “Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” He adds:
What we fear above all, and what keeps the new world powerless to be born, is that if we give up our dream of private success for a more genuinely integrated societal community, we will be abandoning our separation and individuation, collapsing into dependence and tyranny. What we find hard to see is that it is the extreme fragmentation of the modern world that really threatens our individuation; that what is best in our separation and individuation, our sense of dignity and autonomy as persons, requires a new integration if it is to be sustained.
Observers argue that this understanding of self, called by philosopher Charles Taylor the ‘buffered’ self (that is, it had strong borders against the outside world) is going too far in trying to replace the previous ‘porous’ self which found its identity in societal and family expectations. They suggest that it is this quest to find one’s identity solely in the self, that has contributed to weakening marriage and family ties, society fragmenting into left-right extremes and silos, and to growing economic inequality. These observable trends are public manifestations of the self-focus shift in the West.
One example in popular culture sometimes quoted to illustrate this trend to finding identity internally, only in the self, is the song sung to Maria by the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow
‘Till you find your dream.
However, I’ve always loved that song. I hear it as the Mother Abbess encouraging Maria, in her search for identity, to discover the Creator’s imprint in her life, even at the cost of not pursuing her postulant calling within the Abbey. It is the theme of my recent book, Finding Your Voice.
A clearer example of finding identity in the self alone, is Elsa’s “Let it go!” cry from the Disney movie Frozen – an anthem loved by many young girls (and older ones too!)
It’s time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through,
No right, no wrong, no rule for me.
Having inherited the task of ruling her kingdom, Elsa is abdicating her queen responsibilities in search of personal freedom and a new identity. But at what cost to society, to the kingdom?
Expressive individualism means putting my rights ahead of anybody else’s; not acknowledging that I need anyone else around me to live my life well, and certainly not looking for a Higher Power or a Creator outside of myself. Many people without thinking, may live their lives this way, not accepting responsibility for anyone else or any obligation to the collective society. But widespread acceptance and endorsement of expressive individualism means that this supreme value of my self and my rights, is legitimately asserted vigorously and understood as a ‘good’ that no one can argue against.
A recent, much publicized example was a riot in Union Square, New York. It began when an influencer with many millions of followers, offered to distribute free Xboxes to whoever turned up in the square at the nominated time. But when he arrived late, and with far fewer Xboxes to give away than the number of people who had gathered, the crowd rioted. It was not just a protest or an expression of disappointment. The crowd were taking out their frustration on anything and anybody: police, shopkeepers, even each other, because they had been denied their right to an Xbox. Expressive individualism says that my rights trump the rights of everyone else. Moreover, you do not have any right to impinge on me, because you will be impeding my right to full expression of my identity.
Individual human rights have long been championed by Christians affirming that every person is created in the image of God and so should be treated equally and sympathetically. This understanding has historically issued in Christians establishing schools and hospitals available to all, and leading the hospice movement, for example. But the Christian ethos has also asserted that our rights exist in community, which means accommodating to, and serving, others. Giving as well as taking.
The critique of consumerism in western society is usually that the gods of money, sex, or power are displacing worship of the one true God, revealed to us as Creator, and in Jesus, as Father. Or maybe it is the other way round: that denying the sovereignty of the Creator has led to worshipping money, sex, or power in the resulting vacuum. As novelist David Foster Wallace has argued:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you choose to worship will eat you alive.
But when sociologists such as Bellah describe a significant post-modern shift in our self-concept to the self-in-isolation, the self becomes the highest value, higher than the other gods. The self is now what is worshipped, and this is proving to be a useful analytical tool for commentators seeking to understand the rising tide of societal problems: loneliness, for example. A recently released Australian State of the Nation Report into Social Connection, titled Ending Loneliness Together, reported a survey of 4000 adult Australians. Nearly one third said they often felt lonely or disconnected. This was highest in the 18-24 age group. Moreover, people who described experiencing frequent loneliness were found to be many times more likely to suffer from chronic disease, depression, social anxiety, and overall poorer wellbeing. In the youngest group, loneliness was also associated with a high percentage of social media addiction.
Similarly, suicide numbers are also increasing, again with a high representation among young adults. When individuals insist on their right to choose this drastic action (including through assisted dying), social analysis suggests they are expressing the ideology of exclusive ownership of their own body and the consequences for those around them are unimportant compared to their personal right to exercise agency. A similar argument is made about the right to adopt a gender based on internal feelings, when it is at variance with objective observation.
A recent article examining the alarming trend in Canada of a rising number of suicides, describes this understanding of self as claiming absolute right to one’s body. That is, the person is the owner of their body. No one else has any justification for even talking about the impact of the action on them, and certainly not their family or society. This attitude is summarised as the self-worshipper saying in effect: “I am a piece of property that I own. Because I possess property rights to myself, I can dispose of my property as I see fit. My life is a project I am creating.”
Other trends, for example the move to unfettered use of abortion; an anxiety epidemic among teenagers; and a dramatic rise in the number of girls presenting with early onset gender dysphoria, have also been linked to an expectation that the only resources available to a person are to be found within the self, with no expectation of, nor desire for, help from a supportive family or community, and no responsibility in return, to society as a whole.
Christian apologist Keller has recognised the significance of this shift in western culture. His 2009 book “Counterfeit Gods”, demonstrating the emptiness of a pursuit of money, sex and power was written in response to topics raised by his New York congregation in their regular Sunday Q&A’s, reinforced by conversations at Oxford University. In it he made no reference to the overarching pursuit of individualism, though we would now understand that contributes to the consumerism which he was warning against. But in 2016 he published a follow-up book, “Making Sense of God”, moving his apologetic from a philosophical point of view to a sociological one, and focusing on the emerging trap of expressive individualism. He says:
In all former cultures, people developed a self by moving toward others, seeking their attachment. We found ourselves, as it were, in the faces of others. But modern secularism teaches that we can develop ourselves only by looking inward, by detaching and leaving home, religious communities, and all other requirements so that we can make our own choices and determine who we are for ourselves.
So what response can we make to this significant societal shift and circumstance? My purpose here today is to suggest that the contemplative life can make a meaningful contribution to combating the harm arising from this extreme self-focus. And it can be fostered through the healing power of awe.
THE HEALING POWER OF AWE
My husband and I live in a community of eight villas. During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, which in Perth was relatively short and less restricted than in most cities, it nevertheless became obvious that those of our neighbours who lived alone were finding the isolation particularly hard. So we invited everyone to come to our front lawn, “socially distanced” with drink in hand, to watch the sun set each evening over the ocean at the end of our street. We first initiated this at the time of the autumn equinox, so the sun really did set over the nearby Indian Ocean right at the end of our east-west street. I saw how significant and beneficial these social interactions in the presence of a glorious sunset were. This is what started my exploration of the value of awe, especially awe experienced large in nature, awe shared with others.
The therapeutic value of being in nature has long been acknowledged in many cultures. It is starting to be noticed more generally in western society. When recommended by doctors for health reasons, it is called ‘nature prescribing’ or ‘green prescriptions’ and has strong empirical support. Awe is one step further. It is not just sitting under a tree or exploring the intricate structure of a flower. It is being moved emotionally by it, with even greater benefit. For example, research by Fuller Seminary’s Thrive Center, which has a mandate to investigate positive psychological approaches for young people, demonstrated that experiencing natural wonder, awe, is one of the best resources available for reducing teenage depression. They found that being in awe-inspiring nature can measurably diminish feelings of impatience and aggression and stimulate generosity.
Another example is Californian psychologist Dacher Keltner who researches happiness. He is convinced that happiness comes best from experiencing awe. Not just nature, but spine-tingling awe. With colleagues, he searched through writings of the mystics, of people describing their “peak experiences”, theorists examining emotions in crowds, and stories from many cultures. His team developed a useful definition of awe as “Being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that transcends your current understanding of the world”.
Their research collected 2600 narratives across 26 countries and classified what they call the Eight Wonders of Life. Ranked in order of frequency mentioned by the respondents, nature is third in the list, music number four. (Spiritual and Religious Experience is at six! ) Of particular interest at number two is what they call “collective effervescence”, encompassing crowd interactions such as a mass experience at a festival, a sports event, or a choir.
A recent ABC TV Compass program hosted by Julia Baird presented Keltner’s work on cultivating wonder in everyday life. She also highlighted her own delight at natural ocean phosphorescence, first described in her book of that name, in which she tells of its contribution to her recovery from personal trauma. Be an “awe hunter” daily, she now urges, suggesting there are many surprises of awe to be found by those who go looking for them in the natural world, including in the very small things. The ABC TV Catalyst program last month also endorsed the life-enhancing power of awe, highlighting research on positive emotions arising from interactions between humans and nature.
Let me give that Keltner definition of awe again: “Being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that transcends your current understanding of the world”. Obviously, there will be great variation in what stimulates awe for each of us. For me, it is best found in the big generous experiences of nature – a sunrise or a sunset, or the energy and sound of pounding waves on a rocky cliff in a storm. In the summer, my husband and I snorkel in the nearby ocean, watching the fish and delighting in identifying them and anticipating what we will see over the season. Though it is a daily activity, unexpected highlights such as a swirl of pilchers brought up the coast on the currents, especially provoke awe and get photographed!
In our younger days, we sought out mountains to climb and vast scenery to experience though awe-inspiring wilderness, especially in north America. Our greatest climb was the 14,000-foot glacier-topped Mt Ranier outside Seattle. My husband grew up within an hour of the Lake District in the UK and its ridges and peaks are well known to him with such awe (and fear) that he has enjoyed taking some of our grandchildren there to experience them. My “peak” awe experience was first sighting Mt Everest as we drove towards its China base camp. I have never had aspirations to climb it, but its very peak is so recognizable and iconic that the experience of actually seeing it moved me to silence and tears.
We can, of course, experience awe in the more accessible, in the small, in the intricate. I remember a day wading along a nearby beach with my granddaughter, hunting for shells. Just as fossickers have done for generations, she picked up the beautiful ones, ready to take them home. Wary of this impetus to possess, I suggested she leave them there for others to enjoy. Fortunately, we cannot sequester the beauty of a sunset or a surging tide, though people have been known to cage birds to admire their plumage and song! In the natural landscape of Western Australia, late winter and spring bring a wonderful display of wildflowers to our botanical hotspot. The great variety, the unique colours and foliage hidden in seemingly ordinary ‘bush’ landscapes are a wonderful surprise to locals and visitors alike.
Whatever generates the awe, studies of its healing power have two strong findings: awe may move us internally, but it is stimulated by something outside of us; and its inspiring power is multiplied when shared. So the challenge for us in a western post-modern society suffering growing loneliness and anxiety, is how to bring opportunities for the healing power of awe to as many people as possible; and what tools can we offer to help them experience creation collectively?
GOD’S CATHEDRAL IS SHARED WITH US
I remember one time. when hiking a section of the Cape-to-Cape trail south of Margaret River, sitting and looking at the magnificent ocean vista, as surfers tried to master the left-hand break. I found myself wondering if the Creator enjoyed the ocean and the surf before we humans ever discovered it. Yes, must be the answer. Genesis records that the seventh day of creation, the day of completion, became the rest of satisfaction. God enjoying all that he created.
Perhaps we can think of the created world as God’s cathedral—not a high-vaulted building with which we humans seek to construct awesome grandeur, but something far grander, giving its Creator great delight. Just as what we make gives us satisfaction, no matter how small and insignificant our efforts, the vast wonders of nature—sunsets, storms, mountains, forest, ocean—that provoke awe in us, surely God enjoys too.
And, it seems, he wants the extra pleasure of sharing them. There is a classic philosophical conundrum: When a tree falls in a forest, but no one is there to hear it, does it actually make a sound? Philosophers as well as scientists argue about this, the latter stating that there must be an eardrum nearby, or else the sound waves produced by the tree falling cannot be called sound. (Apparently, there is some connection between this and quantum physics which I do not understand.) But in a parallel way we can ask: Is the natural world only awe-inspiring when someone is observing it, being awed? No doubt it can be a solitary activity, but sharing awe is important to its healing power. We are relationship people, made in the image of the relationship God who seeks to love and be loved by the people he has created. Perhaps this includes sharing enjoyment of beauty. C. S. Lewis, ruminating on being moved by the beauty of colours and tastes that probably even angels could not experience, wrote: “I fancy the ‘beauties of nature’ are a secret God has shared with us alone. That may be one of the reasons why we were made.”
We might add to Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created, to share with us, the heavens and the earth.”
THE CONTEMPLATIVES’ DILEMMA
But returning to how this impacts the contemplative life, we are faced with a dilemma. In practicing contemplation, our habit has been to look primarily within ourselves to hear God speak, confident in God’s love and acceptance, and guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Often, we pursue solitude in which to do this. However, in our current climate, this practice may for some, reinforce the extreme self-focus infecting contemporary society. As Christians, we understand the importance of the individual. We stand before God as individuals receiving the gift of grace. But is how we do it in danger of reinforcing the individualism and the lack of connection to community that expressive individualism promotes? In contemplation it can appear that all the resources we seek to live well, to flourish, are available within. No outside reference needed! No giving or receiving in community! Mindfulness practised solo. How different from the biblical concept of shalom, flourishing in community.
Of course, we know that the contemplative life has in most eras been practised in community. And we appreciate the wisdom of the cloud of witnesses who have walked this journey before us. The monasteries, the desert communities, are examples of the contemplative practised within communal rhythms and rules of life. However, a post-modern ethos so strongly based on the self, may cause the contemplative life to reinforce individualism, while ignoring the other centeredness that is also part of being human.
We know too, that our personal practice of contemplation does not consist only in “navel gazing”, to use a derogatory term. Often the beauty of a flower, a tree, a sunset, focuses our minds and hearts on life in its fulness, and on the Creator. How many of us have precious memories of hours spent at Nathanael’s Rest enjoying the trees, the paddock, the labyrinth. And nature figures richly in the imagery of meditation booklets Dayspring has published. But I want to suggest that in Australia today we need a determination, a turning point, to put even greater emphasis on awe-inspiring experiences outside of ourselves, and on sharing the contemplative life. I have a few suggestions of how to go about this shift in focus, but I am not the expert here and my challenge to you today is to incorporate these additional elements in your contemplative practice and teach them to others. But first a word of caution about not worshipping nature itself.
NOT WORSHIPPING NATURE
The majesty of sky and sea, of sun, moon, and stars, are so far beyond anything we humans can construct with all our technology, it is no wonder that people have long worshipped them. On a visit to Machu Picchu in Peru a few years ago we explored the ancient Inca site. Its orientation was chosen so the royal priests could lead worship of the rising sun in the east at dawn, so on the second day, our tour group got up early to experience the first rays of light appearing through what were once the temple windows. It was warming and majestic. The guide formed our group into a circle and led a prayer of thanks to the sun and mother earth, just as the long-gone Inca priests had done each morning. But my thoughts turned to the Creator of the universe. I was filled with awe at this sunrise display of God’s handiwork and gave thanks to Yahweh God as revealed in the Christian Scriptures.
This is the emphasis we find when we turn to the Bible. There are many references to the wonder of the created world, including how it brings perspective to us humans who are inclined to laud our own mastery of it. Psalm 8 begins, for example:
LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Or the beginning of Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God:
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Always, Yahweh God is lauded as Creator, the one to be worshipped; and the “high places” of any lessor god or baal are to be shunned. Significantly, worship of the one true God is linked with the Creator’s care for the created. Psalm 8 goes on to wonder at God’s care:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?. .
We see this also in Psalm 136 with its refrain “His steadfast (hesed) love endures forever” interspersing the recitation of the Creator’s work:
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever . . .
to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever . . .
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever . . .
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever . . .
who made the great lights –
His love endures forever . . .
the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever . . .
the moon and stars to govern the night . . .
His love endures forever.
Creative power and intimacy combined. One writer has subtitled his book on prayer: “Experiencing awe and intimacy with God.” I love that prayer offers this wonderful combination of awe and intimacy.
Awe is also a corrective to the human desire to possess, to be a consumer of nature and experiences of nature. Beauty, wonder, are words associated with awe, but any definition also needs to take into account awe’s prompting of the emotion of fear as well. The power of a thunderstorm, the strength of ocean waves roaring onto rocks, the vastness of the sky in sunsets and sunrises all offer something big and beyond us. We cannot control them nor domesticate them, yet they are also available for us to share. In a recent discussion of awe, one young man described to me how, when his wife was facing a terminal diagnosis, she found the night sky full of stars gave her a sense of perspective about her life. It was vast; she was small. But she was loved.
The Apostle John begins his gospel attributing the act of creation to the one who as the Son shows us what Father love is. Echoing the creative act described in Genesis 1, John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So we understand that in creation, the Word spoke the world and its people into being. And now, John will say, the Word is the one who will show us the power of love. Creation awe and intimacy together in Jesus.
CONTEMPLATION AND BRINGING AWE’S HEALING POWER
I want to suggest in closing three ways I believe we who value the contemplative life can serve people and a society in the grip of a demanding self. We know that ultimate healing comes from God, Creator, and loving Father, and we long to see others come to know that God and the love offered in Jesus. But we also acknowledge that the God-image within every human being means that all can benefit from the healing power of awe, even when its Creator is not acknowledged. So this is a potential benefit for all.
Three ways to expand experiences of awe and share it:
1. Increase our use of the Scriptures that speak of God’s creation
I have found that many of the students in the spiritual formation groups I lead have never been encouraged previously to meditate on the creation psalms or used tools such as meditation from creation. By harnessing the growing societal awareness of the value of nature, and especially of awe, for people’s wellbeing, we can encourage and lead in this. Group settings and subsequent sharing of these experiences will be important.
2. Develop more tools to practise presence in creation
Presence, appreciating it, practicing it, has been one of my greatest learnings in the contemplative life. I am finding my young students often do not know how to be still, let alone how to experience solitude. They find even 15 minutes difficult, especially when it means turning off Spotify and their screens which are the background of their life. Demonstrating through practical experience what they are missing is a start. Tools to widen and practise presence in creation would greatly help.
For example, the labyrinth. It can be indoors or outdoors, but how much better in a natural environment. Many times I found it a wonderful tool to meet with God along the way in, or out, and at its centre. Once, at Dianella when I was pondering the wisdom of going to Pakistan, the outward movement of exiting spoke to me of being open to a future safe with God. But recently it has occurred to me that I have not been fully appreciating the natural setting of labyrinths such as the big, now developed one at Nathanael’s Rest. In fact, twice in the last few years I have led a group at Mundaring when it rained all day. We stayed indoors. How much better it would have been to don raincoats and fully experience and ponder the wonder of refreshing rain.
Then there is awe at the small and intricate. There are students whom I have tasked with contemplating God as the Creator in a nature walk or a retreat who have never experienced concentrated focusing for a length of time on a gumnut or a tree or an intricate flower, so word oriented have they been. My preference for awe in the big and wide – the sunset, storm, ocean - would make me prefer to lead them on a trek up Bluff Knoll or along the Bibbulmun Track, but sometimes learning a new skill of contemplation in the accessible is just as valuable as peak experiences.
3. Incorporate opportunities for collective effervescence through shared experiences
Keltner’s term for the awe-building value of shared experience is collective effervescence. Something big is happening and we sense the wonder of being part of it and sharing the feeling. The pub choir is the usual classic example of this. We need this communal source of awe; and we need to make it happen for others. We all are enriched by it. Can we find ways to more fully share the contemplative life with others? At a retreat, even a silent one? That is the challenge I give you today.
Brian and Patricia Stitt are no longer in a place to lead us in this. We honour the legacy they have given us, modelling and teaching the contemplative life, quietly, internally as well as in the world of nature and society. We value too their contribution to our personal lives through friendship and example. I remember in particular, that when in later years they travelled to the ocean near us, they revelled in its beauty and power. And stopped by our house for a cuppa and conversation. But today we journey on, richer in our experience of God as Creator as well as Father, because of them.
And we pray:
Be Lord Jesus
a bright flame before us
a guiding star above us
a smooth path below us
a kindly shepherd behind us
today and forever.
Jennifer Turner 1/10/2023
 Richard Foster. Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. San HarperCollins, 1998.
 Roger Hurding Pathways to Wholeness: Pastoral care in a Postmodern Age. Republished as Five Pathways to Wholeness: Explorations in Pastoral Care and Counselling. London, U.K.: SPCK, 2013.
 Richard Foster. Money, Sex and Power. London, U.K.: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.
 Timothy Keller. Counterfeit Gods: When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power Let You Down. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009.
 Archibald D. Hart. Me, Myself, & I: How far Should we go in our Search for Self-fulfillment? Guildford, U.K.: Highland, 1992.
 Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, CA: U. California Press, 2008,333-334
 Bellah, 2008, 286.
 David Foster Wallace, novelist. Commencement address at Kenyon College May 21, 2005, reproduced in Dave Eggers, The Best Non-required Reading, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006, 355-264.
 Ending Loneliness Together, Australian State of the Nation Report into Social Connection, www.endinglonellinesstogether.com.au, 2023.
 David Brooks, The Atlantic Quarterly, June 2023 quoted by Paul Kelly, The Australian, Comment column, 2/8/23, 11.
 Keller, 2009.
 Collin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023, Chapter 17.
 Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, London: Hodder &Stoughton, 2016, Loc 1953.
 Susan Mangan “Finding Awe in Uncertain Times.” The Thrive Center, Fuller Seminary, 2020. https://www.thethrivecenter.org/finding-awe-in-uncertain-times
 Dacher Keltner. Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder. Penguin, U.K.: 2023. @024 paperback to be released as Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder & How It Can Transform Your Life. Random, 6-7.
 Keltner, 2023, Chapter One.
 Julia Baird. Phosphorescence: A Memoir of Finding Joy When the World goes Dark. Random House: 2022. Also released as an audio book Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You When the World Goes Dark.
 C. S. Lewis: Readings for Mediation and Reflection (New York City: HarperOne, 996), 93.
The Inaugural Stitt Oration was presented by Fr. John Herbert OSB, Abbot of the Benedictine Community in New Norcia, on Sunday 26th September, 2021
Thank you for inviting me to be with you today to deliver this Inaugural Stitt Oration, marking the 20th anniversary of the foundation of Dayspring. I take this opportunity to acknowledge our Noongar brothers and sisters past and present, and to give honour to Dayspring’s founding director Brian Stitt & his wife Patricia. What a gift you gave us twenty years ago, and what a gift your extraordinary work – and that of your whole team – has been to countless souls in their journey towards God through contemplative spirituality in these past twenty years. You are two ‘greats’ in the Christian Community of Western Australia, and it is truly an honour and a privilege to be given this opportunity to present this oration, the first of many, I’m sure.
Although I am humbled by the invitation, it’s certainly fitting, because we at New Norcia have valued our close connection with Dayspring over the past twenty years, and we are grateful for the prayerful presence participants have brought to our monastic community during the many retreats spent with us; in them we have seen the face of Christ.
In considering the topic chosen for this oration – Turning Points in Contemplative Life – I begin by confessing that the only knowledge or insight I might have into such things comes from the monastic tradition to which I belong, most particularly the Benedictine tradition, and my own fumbling journey along the way.
When one begins the task of talking on any subject, it is important, I think, to begin with the context. So, I would like to anchor my musings in Dayspring’s identity and the four core values through which it has served contemplative spirituality these past twenty years, that is:
It would make good sense to begin with a definition of contemplation itself, and, as Jesuit Patrick Mullins suggests in the latest edition of The Swag, the quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia (Vol. 29 No.3 Spring 2021), we couldn’t do much better than the great 20th century Cistercian monk and hermit, Thomas Merton:
“Contemplation is the highest expression of [humankind’s] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith … for in contemplation, we know by ‘unknowing.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, London: Burns & Oates, 1962).
Merton’s understanding of contemplation is firmly rooted in the reality of human experience i.e. the contemplative life is not some ‘other-worldly’ religious affair, disconnected from the rest of life – it includes the awareness of every aspect of the human condition – physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, sexual and spiritual. The significant turning point for Merton came in the form of a kind of ‘epiphany’ in which he experienced this total awareness while simply running an errand – he says:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine, and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, a spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate existence is a dream.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday,1966).
In this experience of awareness, we are encouraged to seek God, not through extraordinary phenomena, but in simply practicing the present moment, as Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection tells us in his spiritual classic, who found his home in God in the scullery, serving the community by washing pots and pans. This is contemplative prayer in its essence. Again, from Merton:
“Better just to smell a flower in the garden, than to have an unauthentic experience of a much higher value. Better to honestly enjoy the sunshine or some light reading, than to claim to be in contact with something that one is not in contact with at all.” (Contemplation in a World of Action, New York: Doubleday, 1971).
Before going any further, I’d like to make a few other important points, which, at least in my understanding, are worth taking into account:
Firstly, contemplation is not limited to any particular religious tradition – or any – and of course, this is where Dayspring has excelled in being truly open, truly ecumenical.
Secondly, the contemplative quest is not a degree in private naval-gazing. Although we all have a unique, individual, personal journey towards God, in the Christian Tradition this journey has its ultimate meaning and expression in the context of community, the Body of Christ.
Thirdly, I would argue contemplation on its own is useless. I wouldn’t mind a few ‘bob’ for every person who has said to me “I’ve enrolled in a course in contemplative spirituality” or “I’ve just been on a silent retreat”, or “I’m going to join a contemplative monastery”. Well, to the latter, I’d say: “go get a real job!” To those enrolled in a course or attending a retreat, I’d say, “good on you; but what for?” We all know the answer: to experience God, and to discern how that encounter might have an effect in our lives. All contemplative endevour, at least in the Christian context, must result in some kind of action, and every action should be centred in contemplation. The familiar biblical pericope telling the story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha is the standard text for considering the dynamism of passive and active contemplation in which we are able to identify significant turning points in the contemplative life i.e. signs of conversion, growth and transformation – indications of deeper understanding of and union with God, which in turn deepens our relationships with one another.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so, she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)
We’ve read countless interpretations and listened to as many homilies on the Mary and Martha story. Benedictine Laurance Freeman makes some significant points:
Jesus comes to visit Martha and Mary, two sisters, two friends of his. Martha, representing the active life, welcomes him into the house while Mary, symbolizing the contemplative life, sits at his feet listening to his words. The text says that she sits and stays there. Martha, however, becomes distracted by her many tasks and emerges as a kind of domestic terrorist by bursting in complaining to Jesus: 'Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do everything by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!'
Martha is clearly the star or anti-heroine of this story. The ordinary reader identifies and sympathizes with her. Who hasn't at times felt like her? She is not in a pleasant mood but she is not condemned by Jesus — or the narrator, or the reader — because she is so clearly in a state of suffering, isolated, angry, paranoid, overwhelmed, feeling abandoned. Her ego has painfully inflated and she sees everything revolving around herself. If we were to give the multi-tasking Martha one more job in her heavenly rest it would be to be the patron saint of stress, of which she is showing all the classic symptoms. Yet behind the self-dramatizing she is only trying to get a good meal ready, to be hospitable. Why doesn't she ask Mary to help her directly? Why does she blame Jesus and become the only disciple in the Gospels who tells him what to do? These are questions that make the story instructive for us at one level of reading Scripture by yielding us insight into its 'moral sense'. How does the story help us understand our own behaviour? However, at a deeper spiritual level we are not dealing with psychology but with the very makeup of our humanity. The two sisters represent not just two personality types but the two halves of the human soul. This is implicit in the way Jesus responds to Martha.
Calmly and in a friendly way he explains to Martha, first of all, that she is way out of touch with herself. He says her name twice to bring her back. She is now, we hope, learning to listen to him as Mary was doing. 'Martha, Martha, you are fussing and fretting about so many things,' he tells her. Jesus is not blaming, but diagnosing her problem by pointing out how alienated she has become from her other half, her sister. He tells Martha she has become unmanageably stressed in her many tasks whereas 'only one thing is necessary'. He does not define this one thing.
But surely the 'one thing' is to be one, to re-integrate the divided self whose internal fracture has led her into anger and aggression. In his next words he defends the contemplative dimension of life which routinely comes under attack from the activist side of the divided self for being useless, non-productive and selfish. This primary unity of the soul, the balance and harmony between action and contemplation, decides the whole pattern and tone of life. Without it every aspect of life is fragmented. In religious terms, theology, prayer, worship are all crippled by this internal division. Faith itself eventually degenerates into ideology and social conformity without the contemplative dimension. In more general terms, the human psyche collapses into one-sidedness, imbalance and disharmony. This is why Jesus says something that might be misread as a putdown of Martha: 'Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.' In fact, he is saying that being comes before doing and the quality of our being determines the quality and effectiveness of all our actions. We don't hear how Martha responds. Does she lift her hands in despair and leave banging the door, or suddenly calm down and do what she should have done at first, which is to ask Mary to help her? It would be the test of Mary's work. If she had said 'No, I'm contemplating, leave me alone', she would have shown her work to be inauthentic. If she had jumped up and helped, her other side would have been in harmony. Martha's mistake, made by cultures and religions as well as individuals, is not to have remembered that Mary was working as well.
We are all Martha and Mary. Our imbalance is represented here by Martha, who shows it up as a universal problem. The one thing necessary is to get the two halves of our soul back into friendship and balance. There are many ways we can do this. Most important of course is to recover the work that Mary is doing — Martha had forgotten the value of Mary's non-action: even though Mary seems to be doing nothing she is working, listening and paying attention and being still.
The story shows us Jesus as a teacher of contemplation who understands and communicates that wholeness is holy balance and integration. Jesus taught this, not only in words but by example. Particularly in Luke's Gospel we see him frequently stopping his fast pace of life, his preaching, healing and travelling, by withdrawing to quiet places to pray alone or with a few of his disciples (Luke 6.12; 9.18; 22.39). If there was not a harmony between what he taught and what he did his teaching would lack authority. Christian identity depends directly on this authority. If we fail to see Jesus as a teacher of contemplation the rest of the picture, the other half of Christian identity, is lost. Bede Griffiths once urged the World Community for Christian Meditation to come to India and start teaching meditation to Christians there. His reason, he said, was that most Indians hardly saw Christianity as a real religion. They saw and admired the many good works, the schools and hospitals, although they were less impressed by the history of intolerance and exclusivism. But a religion without contemplation, as many of them saw Christianity, lacked an essential part of holiness. (Journey to the Heart. Christian Contemplation through the Centuries, edited by Kim Nataraja. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2011).
Dayspring – for the past twenty years – has provided such a quiet place. While contemplation goes hand-in-hand with solitude, it is in this solitude of prayer, meditation and contemplation that we discover the ‘common ground’ with all who contemplate, thus creating contemplative community.
Since I have now broached the topic of prayer, it might be an opportune moment in our time together to pause for a moment to pray. Of course, Jesus taught us how to pray, so I have brought along a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic – the language in which Jesus himself prayed – set to a contemporary musical composition by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy.
Although I speak to you today in the Christian context, we must acknowledge the contemplative traditions from which we have emerged, traditions we would do well to continue to draw from.
The ancient culture of our indigenous brothers and sisters gives us Dadirri, a word for meditation, deep listening and meditation. It would be inappropriate for me to explain this ancient form of indigenous contemplation which has been passed on through generations of Aboriginal mobs for over 40,000 years, so I refer you to the beautiful YouTube videos featuring Aboriginal Elder, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr in which she explains this kind of contemplation. In a Dadirri promo she says:
“To know me, is to breathe with me; to breathe with me, is to listen deeply; to listen deeply, is to connect. This is sound, the sound of deep calling to deep. Dadirri, the deep inner spring inside us, we call on it and it calls on us.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tow2tR_ezL8)
The turning point in this ancient form of contemplation is revealed in the temporary suspension of judgement and the willingness to receive new information… pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. In doing so the practitioner in turn receives peace, wholeness and healing.
We find another example in the Jewish Tradition. The liturgy of the hours central to Christian monastic worship draws from the Book of Psalms, that wonderful book of Hebrew poetry which encapsulates every human experience, every human emotion, the very mystery of our lives – even the aspects we don’t like. It’s all there, on the one hand: joy, praise and love; yet on the other hand: sadness, cursing and hatred. As communities all over the world recite and chant these psalm seven times a day, day in day out, we are constantly interpreting what they mean for us. But, the late great Jewish mystic, philosopher, historian and social reformer Abraham Joshua Heschel warns us:
“We must beware lest we violate the holy. Lest our dogmas overthink the mystery, lest our psalms sing it away.” (I Asked for Wonder, New York: Crossroad, 1995).
The turning point here, is our ability to acknowledge the fact – as many great theologians declare – that we don’t know everything; in fact, when it comes to the God we are contemplating, we know very little at all. To be truly contemplative, we must be at home with mystery. Heschel also encourages us to see contemplation as an invitation to turn from reviling everything, reacting against everything:
“We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight.” (Ibid).
At this point we turn to Benedict, who in his rule for monks, has given us a little rule for beginners, setting out a basic code of Christian conduct – the turning point for Benedict being: turning from evil and doing good. His basic premise for whoever might pick up this rule is the assumption that the reader is seeking God, so he begins by encouraging us to listen attentively with the ear of the heart. For the 6th century monk seeking God in the monastery – and for all God-seekers thereafter – he suggests five practical ways of facilitating this search: prayer, work, Lectio Divina, hospitality, and community.
We tend to beat ourselves up a bit when it comes to prayer – we either feel guilty because we haven’t prayed, or we are overwhelmed by distraction when we do. Personally, I don’t think God gives two hoots whether we pray or not – all God wants to know is: do we want God, do we desire God? If the answer is yes, then all we need do is give ourselves over. When comes to prayer in the contemplative life, the ultimate turning point is to come to the realization that we don’t really need to do much at all, that is, we stop trying to pray and allow God to do the praying in us.
Benedict didn’t like lazy monks, so he was keen that each be given work according to their varying levels of strength. “Work done in the Benedictine tradition (says Benedictine Sr Joan Chittister) is supposed to be regular; it is supposed to be productive; it is supposed to be worthwhile, but it is not supposed to be impossible.” In chapter 57 of the Rule – on the artisans of the monastery, Benedict is keen to remind us that our work belongs to the community, and moment the monk exhibits any kind of self-importance regarding his work, he is to be removed from the job. Sounds a bit harsh, but for the contemplative life, this is a crucial turning point – no matter what our office is (the abbot, the prior, the cellarer) or our job is (the gardener, the cook, the nurse) our work belongs to the community, for the building up of the community. And, because this is sacred business, we are to treat the tools we use to do our work as if they are sacred vessels of the altar.
Interestingly, Benedict situates his instruction on lectio divina in the chapter on the daily manual labour – in other words, like the liturgy of the hours, this is a primary duty – so much so, that Benedict allocates specific times for it.
The Four Phases of Lectio Divina:
1. Lectio (the reading)
The very slow reading of the text until a word, a phrase, or a sentence ‘speaks’ to you, ‘jumps out’ at you, ‘touches your heart’.
2. Meditatio (the ruminating)
The gentle repetition of this word, phrase, or sentence in a non-analytical way, allowing it to sink into the core of your being.
3. Oratio (the praying)
The prayerful response, taking the form of a deep conversation with God either through words or in profound silence.
4. Contemplatio (the contemplating)
The letting go of all thoughts, words and images, allowing yourself the stillness to be absorbed into God.
Seven Principles of Lectio Divina:
1. aimed not at confirming and reinforcing our individual approach to life, but breaking into our subjective world, broadening our horizons to the fullness of revelation.
2. a long-term activity. Fidelity and constancy are paramount.
3. connected with our personal sense of vocation. The aim is to hear the call of God clearly and concretely in our present situation.
7. Lectio Divina should be a formative experience. (Michael Casey OCSO)
“We read (lectio)
under the eye of God (meditatio)
until the heart is touched (oratio)
and leaps into flame (comtemplatio)”
Blessed Columba Marmion
The turning point in the contemplative life regarding lectio divina is to be less concerned with the meaning of the scriptures, that is, stop trying to work it all out, and be more concerned with what God is trying to say to us through them.
Chapter 53: The reception of Guests
Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ…
Upon arrival, let all humility be shown…
Let the head be bowed
or the whole body prostrated on the ground
in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons…
Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands; and let both Abbot and community wash the feet of all guests. After the washing of the feet let them say this verse:
"We have received Your mercy, O God,
in the midst of Your temple" (Ps.47:10). (Quotes from Rule of St Benedict: OSB.ORG)
“We cannot be too busy, too professional, too removed from the world of the poor to receive the poor and sustain the poor.... To practice hospitality in our world, it may be necessary to evaluate all the laws and all the promotions and all the invitation lists of corporate and political society from the point of view of the people who never make the lists. Then hospitality may demand that we work to change things.” (Sr Joan Chittister OSB in Hugh Feiss, Monastic Wisdom, San Francisco: Harper, 1999.)
Benedict says much about community in the rule, but in my 25 years or so of studying the rule, I would suggest there are two primary points he wants to make. The first: stop complaining, arguing, gossiping, speaking ill of others – because it erodes community life, breaks it down. Like a ‘golden thread’ running through his beautifully woven text, he repeatedly instructs us to stop – why? – because he knows, by way of our human nature, that we are going to murmur. So serious is he about this “evil”, that he suggests possible remedies (see Chapter 35: The Kitchen Servers of the Week). The second, comes in chapter 72:
Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness
which separates from God and leads to hell,
so there is a good zeal
which separates from vices and leads to God
and to life everlasting.
This zeal, therefore, the brothers should practice
with the most fervent love.
Thus they should anticipate one another in honor (Rom. 12:10);
most patiently endure one another's infirmities,
whether of body or of character;
vie in paying obedience one to another –
no one following what he considers useful for himself,
but rather what benefits another –
to their fellow monks they show the pure fraternal love;
to God, loving fear;
to their Abbot, unfeigned and humble love;
Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ,
and may He bring us all together to life everlasting!
These five pillars of monastic contemplative life are supported by a multitude of spiritual values. We only have time to look briefly at just a few:
For many, chapter seven, describing the twelve steps of humility, is considered to be the central chapter of Benedict’s rule. Benedictine Luigi Gioia succinctly describes this spiritual ladder in his recent book Saint Benedict’s Wisdom – Monastic Spirituality and the Life of the Church (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2020), each step, a turning point in its own right.
First, cultivating the fear of God;
second, understanding that not everything I want is always good for me;
third, learning the value of obedience;
fourth, learning the power of perseverance;
fifth, recognizing one’s own sins;
sixth, in our trials, seeking rest by remaining with the lord;
seventh, lettings ourselves be taught by suffering;
eighth, trusting the community;
ninth, using words well;
tenth, learning the appropriate way of smiling;
eleventh, knowing the value of silence;
and twelfth, relying only on God’s mercy.
By climbing these twelve steps (he says) we discover a love that overcomes all anxiety and fear. A fruit of humility, this love helps us to intus legere (“to read inwardly”) – that is, to perceive reality beyond appearances, to see things as the Lord sees them ((cf. 1 Sam 16:7). The understanding that we reach by way of humility is the truth about ourselves, our total dependance on God’s mercy, and consequently the truth about others, also in need of this same mercy. We are therefore called to forgive as we are forgiven, to love as we are loved, to be compassionate and eager to comfort others. In this humility and understanding, we discover the joy that characterizes evangelical happiness: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:3,5,7-8).
Obedience (Chapter 5)
The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.
This is the virtue of those
who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ;
who, because of the holy service they have professed,
and the fear of hell,
and the glory of life everlasting,
as soon as anything has been ordered by the Superior,
receive it as a divine command
and cannot suffer any delay in executing it.
Of these the Lord says,
"As soon as he heard, he obeyed Me" (Ps. 17:45).
And again to teachers He says,
"He who hears you, hears Me" (Luke 10:16).
Such as these, therefore,
immediately leaving their own affairs
and forsaking their own will,
dropping the work they were engaged on
and leaving it unfinished,
with the ready step of obedience
follow up with their deeds the voice of him who commands.
And so as it were at the same moment
the master's command is given
and the disciple's work is completed,
the two things being speedily accomplished together
in the swiftness of the fear of God
by those who are moved
with the desire of attaining life everlasting.
That desire is their motive for choosing the narrow way,
of which the Lord says,
"Narrow is the way that leads to life" (Matt. 7:14),
so that, not living according to their own choice
nor obeying their own desires and pleasures
but walking by another's judgment and command,
they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot over them.
Assuredly such as these are living up to that maxim of the Lord
in which He says,
"I have come not to do My own will,
but the will of Him who sent Me" (John 6:38).
Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.
Chapter 4: The Tools for Good Works
These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. When we have used them without ceasing day and night and have returned them on judgment day, our wages will be the reward the Lord has promised: What the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).
The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community. (RB1980)
Renowned Benedictine author Demetrius Dumm shares some further thoughts about the meaning of stability in his book Cherish Christ Above All:
“Benedict wants his followers to stay in one place, where others can get to know them well, and where these others will, in various ways, enable them to learn the truth about themselves. This is a matter of critical importance because real spiritual growth can only occur when one begins with honest self-knowledge…To leave the community as soon as the truth begins to hurt, claiming that one’s confreres are lacking in charity or understanding, usually means taking the path of evasions and illusion. In a sense, monastic stability can be compared to the need for a sculptor to hold a block of marble firmly in place so that he or she may effectively carve and shape it with the chisel. The monastic too must stay in one place to be shaped and formed by the chisel of truth. The proper observance of monastic stability, then, is not so much a matter of remaining physically in one place as it is a willingness to hear the truth about oneself. This is really to practice humility which means embracing reality. Monastics may very well remain constantly in the monastery and still refuse to acknowledge the truth about their true condition before God. Therefore, stability has far more to do with honesty than it does with one’s zip code.”
The great poem of Yeats The Two Trees provides for us the perfect meditation for this on-going call to conversion. In it we are presented with an endless contemplative turning point – or rather an endless circle – that is, we are presented with an eternal choice: to look into the depths of one’s heart to find goodness and love, rather than looking into the dark glass of cynicism and bitterness.
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody.
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee,
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart
Thine eyes grow full of tender care;
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to bareness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of un-resting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings: alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care;
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
My monastic journey began in the Carmelite tradition, a 12th century mendicant religious movement which emerged from a group of hermits on Mount Carmel in Palestine some six centuries after Benedict wrote his Rule for monks, establishing monasticism in its western form. Both traditions, of course, grew from the desert tradition of early Christianity. Carmelite spirituality is rooted in the very familiar biblical text describing Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb:
"There he went into a cave and spent the night there. Then the word of Yahweh came to him saying, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' He replied, 'I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh Sabaoth, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me.' Then he was told, 'Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.' For at that moment Yahweh was going by. A mighty hurricane split the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the hurricane. And after the hurricane, an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire, a light murmuring sound. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice came to him, which said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'" (1 Kings 19:9-13, NJB)
There’s so much in this passage which invites us to consider important turning points in contemplative life.
This encounter took place in a mountain cave, in which we are invited into the essential ‘place’ of the contemplative life – i.e. solitude. A key turning point in the contemplative life is to master the ability to sit before God in the utter truth of self, to be alone with God without the need for the protective ‘masks’ we wear for survival in our world and our relationships with other people. This solitude can be physical, but it has it’s deeper meaning and value in the solitude within the depths of our being.
When God asks Elijah “what are you doing here?” we are introduced to the essential ‘question’ of the contemplative life, a question we must ask of ourselves every day. Even if we don’t know the answer, the turning point is to identify the need to ask the question. And, we need to ask this question in the silence and solitude of our hearts. “Day unto day takes up the story; and night unto night makes known the message”, says the psalmist in Psalm 18 (19) (The Grail).
Elijah’s reply identifies the central ‘disposition’ of the contemplative life: “jealous zeal for Yahweh Sabaoth” or we might say, desire for God. When it comes to contemplation, whatever we do, whatever we become, must always be rooted in this desire. So, the turning point here is humility; to be grounded in the truth of who we are before God, to know our need for God. An age-old sign of the authenticity of this disposition is ‘tears of compunction,’ – not tears of sadness or depression, but tears that well up in us through a sense of being pierced by the reality of our desire despite our fragility and unworthiness.
In the image of God passing by Elijah’s cave but being absent in the hurricane, the earthquake and the fire, yet present in a “light murmuring sound”, we are confronted with the ultimate ‘challenge’ of the contemplative life. All very lovely to have an experience of God in the ‘murmuring sound’ (other translations use the terms ‘the sheer silence’ or ‘the gentle breeze’), in other words the ‘feel good’ experiences of the spiritual life’. But what of the unsettling, tumultuous, even destructive experiences of our human journey? The turning point here is the willingness and ability to seek God in these realities too, and to accept and trust that God can indeed be found in both the chaos and the calm.
Being a critical aspect of the contemplative life, let’s look at what Benedict says about silence.
In Relation to Speech:
Different types of silence:
Included in the 1995 Penguin version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince, is his Letter to a Hostage written whilst in exile in America to a Jewish intellectual in hiding in occupied France:
"I lived for three years in the Sahara. Like so many others, I too, was set dreaming by its magic. Whoever has known life in the Sahara, where everything is or seems but solitude and privation, mourns those years as the finest of their life. Phrases like 'nostalgia for the sands' or 'nostalgia for solitude, for space' are merely literary formulas and explain nothing. But now, for the first time, on board this steamer packed and swarming with passengers, it seemed to me that I understood the desert.
True, as far as the eye can see, the Sahara offers only uninterrupted sand - or more precisely, the aspect of a pebbly shore, since dunes are the exception. One is eternally immersed in the very stuff of boredom. And yet, invisible divinities are weaving a network of directions, of declivities and signs, a secret and vibrant musculature. Monotony vanishes. There everything has its proper place. Even the silence is not like other silences.
There is a silence of peace, when the tribes are pacified and the evening coolness is restored; when it seems as if one has moored, sails furled, in some quiet harbour. There is a noonday silence, when the sun suspends all thought and movement. There is a false silence, when the north wind drops and the insects suddenly arrive, blown like pollen from the oasis of the interior, heralding the sand storm from the East. There is a silence of conspiracy, when one knows that some distant tribe is in ferment. There is a silence of mystery, when the Arabs start up their incomprehensible palavers. There is a tense silence, when the messenger is late returning; a piercing silence, when one holds one's breath to listen; a melancholy silence, when one remembers whom one loves."
Having mentioned The Little Prince, I couldn’t complete a talk on contemplation without mentioning another of my favourite childhood books, Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic The Wind in the Willows. If ever you’re looking for an alternative insight into what contemplation is all about, you couldn’t do much better than the chapter ‘The Piper and the Gate of Dawn.’ As most writers’ attest: the critical turning point in contemplative spirituality is to turn form the comfort zone of knowing to the realm of wonder.
Once we have mastered the art of wonder, whether we are Elijah in the midst of earthquake and fire, Mary or Martha have dinner with our Lord, Thomas Merton out running an errand, Miriam Rose listening to nature, Abraham Joshua Heschel gazing at the stars, Antoine amongst the sand dunes of the Sahara, the Mole and Rat rowing down the river at dawn, Benedict in the solitude of his cave in Subiaco, the solitary monk in prayer in the oratory, any community celebrating the Eucharist or around the chapter table, or any of us busy with our daily chores, pondering the scriptures, or offering hospitality… the prophet Isaiah (30:15) gives us some simple words of wisdom to continue the contemplative journey, the ultimate turning point in contemplative life:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and trust shall be your strength.
In Dayspring's 20th Anniversary year the Guiding Committee decided that they wanted to honour the vision and passion of Brian and Patrician Stitt who, with the help of others, established the Dayspring Centre for Christian Spirituality & Counselling in 2001.
It was agreed that an appropriate way to do this would be to inaugurate an annual event at which a person of some eminence in the contemplative community would be invited to deliver an oration focusing on the contemplative life. We believe this will honour these two special people but also be a gift to the contemplative community in Western Australia that exists in the many WCCM groups, religious congregations and monastic communities and other gatherings of people interested in growing in the practice of contemplative exercises.