Contemplation and Prayer IX©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
In the course of finding God in all situations, which is the rich discovery of contemplative prayer, we are often surprised to find that God is revealed in sadness as well as joy; in darkness as well as light; in doubt as well as faith. What each setting has in common is vulnerability. The essence of a contemplative attitude seems to be vulnerability, writes Veronica Ward, author of an article that appeared 10 years ago in Spiritual Life Magazine.
As often is the case, her experience of personal failure was the fertile soil of spiritual development. But the contemplation of failure is only fruitful if we accept beforehand that such a possibility exists. For many people, failure has no redeeming value and must be thrown behind without the slightest consideration.
She adds, “Suffering is not good in and of itself, but the contemplative person may put suffering to good use.” Fullness and failure may appear to be opposites. Essentially they are opposites but inextricably tied. They are two sides of the same coin, coexisting in symbiotic relationship.
Saint Francis had his share of suffering: imprisonment, illness, betrayal, rejection. He knew Gethsemane and Golgotha well. He also knew perfect joy. He experienced the joy of the Nativity and the joy of the Resurrection so intimately, in large measure, because he embraced the anguish and agony of the cross out of love for Christ Crucified. Marked by the stigmata, his reward was incomparable joy that, in his words, “Christ gives to his friends (for) conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.”
It is in the confidence of knowing, as Saint Paul writes, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12: 10) that we can accept failure as merely a milestone on the journey of spiritual progress. But how can we arrive at a genuine understanding of this paradox without a contemplative attitude, one that does not prejudge the value of an encounter with what stands before us or a sudden awareness of what sits inside us?
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
(John 10: 10 )
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Philip Simmons’ promising literary career was just taking flight when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Adjusting to this harsh reality was very difficult but he chose to claim each moment of life by writing about his experience and agreeing to allow scenes to be filmed for a full year at his home in New Hampshire with his wife and young children. His book is called Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. The feature documentary, The Man who Learned to Fall, debuted in Montreal in 1994. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation to a group of therapists by its producer, Gary Beitel.
Part of the process of accepting loss for Simmons was a conviction that there is a silver lining to every cloud. He described a boyhood leap from rocks high above a pool of emerald clear water ten feet deep: “My eyes are focused downward on the water rushing toward my feet, and I am happy, terrified, alive…we are all falling—all of us—falling. We are all, now, in the moment, in the midst of that descent…If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life.”
The genius of his book is in the word “learning.” It suggests two things. We can learn lessons from falling that help us to get up again, and we can learn how to fall as stuntmen and sportsmen to lessen the risk of serious injury from subsequent falls. We can avoid some falls but we cannot avoid them all. Pain, grief and loss are as much part of the human landscape as joy and growth. We learn to adjust our life strategies. Sometimes we even have to adjust our goals.
Like debilitating illness, growing older can feel like defeat, like losing the battle to live abundantly. We cannot achieve as much, as fast or sometimes even as well. We seem less productive, at least by the standard that the modern world measures success. We feel obliged to impress others with contributions that are valued in economic terms but cannot. Paradoxically, falling can be the direction of failure or of deepening. There is a richness to be discovered in what lies below the superficialities of modernity.
Falling is also an image that is used by Richard Rohr in his latest book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As Rohr points out in the dust jacket notes, “Climbing, achieving, and performing will not serve us as we grow older…eventually we need to see ourselves in a different and more life-giving way. This message of ‘falling down’ is the most resisted and counterintuitive of messages in the world’s religions, including and most especially Christianity.”
The key to understanding the message of Christianity in regard to falling upward is the theological mystery surrounding the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to achieve unfathomable joy, Jesus had to endure unspeakable suffering. While his story may be more dramatic than ours, it is not irrelevant to ours. Some suffering in the human experience is not only inevitable, it is necessary. Carl Jung called this “legitimate suffering.” The evangelist Matthew referred to it with paradoxical wit: “Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it. Anyone who loses his life will find it.”
Let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God let us also fall with grace, to grace.
(Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall)
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Contemplative prayer doesn’t allow us to dwell in weakness or failure, or remain mired in negativity. Rather, it urges us to recognize that set-backs are real but that they do not define us unless we let them. All situations contain seeds of hope and joy. The contemplative mind sees and nurtures these seeds as the vital gifts of life that are unique to such situations. The contemplative attitude is one of abundance.
The contemplative eye is a healthy one, free from the infection of regret and anxiety, the blindness of ignorance, the myopia of fear, and the cataracts of defeatism. It allows light and shadow to reach the soul without judgement and reveal truth unblemished. The contemplative heart embraces light with joy and shadow with the consolation of deeper understanding. The contemplative spirit is alert to truth and love, which are to be found in proportions equal to freedom from fear and falseness. Contemplative prayer expects and finds grace in all situations.
As the prologue to John’s Gospel reads, “A light shines in the darkness, a light that darkness cannot overcome.” Contemplative prayer seeks and finds that light, no matter how faint it appears to be at first. Then, as it draws nearer, the light grows larger and larger until it fills all the dark spaces outside and inside. Sadly, most of us do not know this light; we do not trust that it exists or that it has the power to overcome the darkness.
Light is life. Shadows merely frame it. But like all frames, they can also serve to emphasize beauty, and to attract our gaze and awe. The light that darkness cannot overcome is blinding to those who seek bling instead. In time, the dazzle of human artifices diminishes and finally is extinguished by the despair of certain disappointment. Aging gracefully, accepting defeat graciously, and bearing adversity generously are what provide the discernment that is needed to recognize the true light that grows and endures, and satisfies our deepest yearning.
Contemplative prayer welcomes success spontaneously but soberly. It also examines failure with humility and care. The lessons of failure are practical and should never become pathological. Failure must never impair hope or injure confidence that is rooted in healthy self-understanding. Nor should it ever be permitted to undermine faith in God, in others or in our true and higher self. When others disappoint us, we must move forward with prudence and perseverance. When we disappoint ourselves, we must continue to advance with optimism.
But because set-backs on the journey of life often arrest movement that may have come from an unconscious drive or reckless will, they should be regarded as privileged moments to deepen our awareness of internal and external dynamics as well as the inter-dependencies between ourselves and others; between ourselves and God; and between sometimes conflicted parts of our personality. In the complex operation of the human body, mind and spirit, things may have fallen out of alignment. It is never too late to deal with the conditions that led to failure—lovingly, judiciously and prayerfully.
It takes courage to confess and confront weakness without averting to denial or shrinking into shame or regret. It takes wisdom to stand in the gap between paralysis and growth. Sometimes, it takes the reassuring accompaniment of a friend, a spiritual director or a therapist to take that stand and hold that ground, and then to move forward freely.
How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world…This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours)
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May life’s ordeals be understood not as limitations but as opportunities for growth and grace. May deeper wisdom and joy be the reward for a courageous journey toward the distant horizon—beyond your zone of comfort. May God bless you richly for your trust that it is true: Jesus became man so that you might live abundantly.
Crib and Cross