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“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life,” wrote 20th century monk Thomas Merton. “It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.”
Our modern age stands as the antithesis of Merton’s words. We are under constant bombardment by media and information, our minds constantly influenced by scrolling and watching.
As the Church calendar progresses through Holy Week and Easter approaches, I’ve intentionally avoided social media to create the mental space to contemplate Christ’s work on the cross.
But, I’ve wondered, shouldn’t every week be an opportunity to actively consecrate my attention to the Lord?
In the Gospel of Luke, the story of Martha and Mary shows Christ’s call to embrace what I understand to be simplicity of mind: the space to be in His presence. When Jesus visited the sisters’ home, Martha busily prepared food while Mary chose to sit before Jesus and listen to his words. Jesus said:
“‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary,” Jesus said. “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” -Luke 10:39-42
Richard Foster writes that simplicity “is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.” Simplicity is often discussed in terms of materialism, but I believe the practice of simplicity can orient us to something beyond minimalism. Simplicity, properly understood, is a contemplative lifestyle.
Simplicity of mind, the reduction of distraction and stimulation caused by our modern age, leads to the spiritual openness Merton spent his life seeking. Merton wrote in The Climate of Monastic Prayer:
“…The true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence…”
There are times when, despite the external chaos of life surrounding me, I can feel the stillness of my soul and know my God is there, waiting to speak to me in the silence. This inner posture is a “portable sanctuary,” as Foster describes, where God’s presence lives within us.
But how do we begin to attain this contemplative life? How do we shut out the overpowering noise of our modern age?
Foster writes that the spiritual discipline enabling this “portable sanctuary” is meditation, the discipline of practicing the perpetual presence of God. As Mary listened to and pondered Christ’s words, meditation is meant to fill our minds with God.
But it is a discipline requiring much practice to hear his voice. Meditation can be pondering Scripture, sitting in silence, or observing creation. Whatever the form, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we must intentionally quiet our souls to hear “the sound of a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Brother Lawrence wrote in Practice of the Presence of God: that “his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of GOD, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine love: and that when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with GOD, praising and blessing Him with all his might.”
Foster notes that the church fathers call this sense of balance in life, the ability to be at peace throughout the day’s activities, Otium Sanctum, meaning “holy leisure.” Meditation and the contemplative lifestyle are thus truly contrary to the clamor of our modern age that so easily interferes with divine intimacy.
To begin this journey of the contemplative life, I will conclude with a final quote from Brother Lawrence:
“We must make our heart a spiritual temple, wherein to adore Him incessantly… When our minds are thus employed about GOD, suffering will become full of unction and consolation. I know that to arrive at this state the beginning is very difficult, for we must act purely in faith. But though it is difficult, we know also that we can do all things with the grace of GOD, which He never refuses to them who ask it earnestly.”
For more from Susanna Hoffman, find her on Twitter at @_SusannaHoffman