2021 Stitt Oration Turning Points in Contemplative Life - Abbot John Herbert OSB
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.
Leave a Reply.
These posts will consist of the texts of the orations given each year in honour of Brian & Patricia Stitt. The first post in this Blog will outline the origins and purpose of the Stitt Oration - see below.