Contemplation is the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of his — Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours
Since I moved to Ohio, I've had very few mornings where my cat, Kylar, hasn't woken me up by 6am, usually by way of rediscovering himself in the mirror and, thinking this is not himself, attacking, only to bounce back and be sorely disappointed that a fight is not about to ensue. Some mornings, I've lied there in a feeble attempt to go back to sleep. Yesterday morning, given the raging headache I had, I got up, made a cup of tea, grabbed my two Merton devotional books (Book of Hours and A Year with Thomas Merton), and sat down in my wingback. I love the latter of the two because I often feel transported back to rural Kentucky where Merton spent his monastic life. However, the former, Book of Hours, is unique. It takes various writings of Merton and uses them as a way to attend to the Liturgy of the Hours, the devotional life of many monastics. It's meant to lead you to a quiet place, forcing you to sit down and slow down, and breathe.
So I sat down with it yesterday morning, for the first time in several months, and began to read. I'd been feeling a strong sense of isolation since moving here to Cleveland, knowing only my boss, cohort members, and one other friend. I live with my cat, so there is little in-person conversation that happens when I'm at home. I've been feeling homesick, lonely, but I also know that this time, this year of transition and discernment, has the possibility of being fruitful and healing, a chance to reconnect with myself and with God, hopefully in ways that I've longed for but been unable to in so long. And I know that, for that to happen, some things need to change.
...but we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo. It is a deep resonance in the inmost center of our spirit in which our very life loses its separate voice and re-sounds with the majesty and the mercy of the Hidden and Living One. He answers himself in us and this answer is divine life, divine creativity, making all things new...
In a world where we face the pressures of expectation and performance, of duties, tasks and responsibilities, it is increasingly hard to slow down. Just last weekend, after my furniture finally arrived, I felt an immense pressure to get it all assembled as quickly and completely as possible. Seeing unpacked boxes around my house made me feel anxious and unsettled, verging on incomplete. If my house wasn't in order then neither was I. As a result, I ended up working ceaselessly to put it all together. Three days later, while I had a newly furnished apartment, if you'd asked me to talk about the time I spent putting it together, I could not have said much. I couldn't recall. It was as if the time between opening the first box and throwing the last box into the dumpster had vanished, disappeared altogether.
One of these things is my connection to my habit energies. It's a term I learned when studying basic precepts of Buddhism. I'll let Thich Nhat Hanh describe it...
There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, "Where are you going?" and the first man replies, "I don't know! Ask the horse!" This is also our story. We are riding a horse, and we don't know where we are going, and we can't stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others — Heart of the Buddha's Teachings
There are times where my habit energy leads me to compulsive behavior, especially when it is responding to various internal crises such as loneliness, isolation, or depression. In those times, my actions often feel incongruent with my personhood, taking me somewhere I don't really want to go. Other times, habit energy is as simple as taking the bus to work and not really paying attention to the ride — to the bumps, the smells, the sounds, or even my own thoughts while on the bus. I sit there, comatose, disconnected from my surroundings, from myself even. And as I get older and as my experience with chaplaincy pushes me to a deeper level of self-awareness, I realize this is not how I want to go through life, powerless to some invisible force coercing me to move at a pace and in a direction opposite where and how quickly I want to go.
It is one thing to feel disconnected from myself or from the people around me. It is another to feel disconnected from the Divine, from the One who supposedly called me into this crazy line of work called ministry despite my own experience of brokenness, fallenness, and sheer unworthiness. Yet something from Merton's morning office yesterday cut right to the quick, slicing through my own insecurity and feelings of being lost and wandering...
We ourselves become His echo and His answer. It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer. And all is summed up in one awareness—not a proposition, but an experience:
The fact is that the Divine, the Holy, is within me, within us all, constantly reaching inwards and outwards simultaneously, seeking to connect us to ourselves and to the world around us. When we succumb to our habit energies, that frantic horse taking us from one place to the next, stealing away our breath and our intentions, that sense of connection becomes harder to experience. But when we take the reins, when we take control of our habit energies, we regain the chance to slow down or even stop for a moment. We are afforded the opportunity to listen to ourselves and to God within us. Sometimes what we hear isn't pretty, but there is always the chance for growth, for redemption, for restoration, for wholeness. Untamed habit energies can rip us apart, stomping all over us. Contemplation, however, helps us come back to ourselves and to that inner voice of love that we so often shut down and shut up.
So take a moment, sit down, get comfortable, and listen. What is your spirit saying? What is being echoed back within you?
photo credit: Skip via Flickr