Where are the Scribes getting it wrong?
All the great religious traditions, from Hinduism to Christianity, teach that what makes our lives small is not our place in society, or our anonymity or our occupation. It is our selfishness, self-preoccupation, ego and search to emphasize ourselves. My life can become small and petty precisely because it’s centered on me and investing time, money, effort and energy into making myself look big.
Jesus knew this about the Scribes and He called them out on it:
In terms of the Scribes, inside the buzz of their social life, their recognition, their fame, their places of honor, it is likely that they felt nothing but their own obsessive restlessness and the smallness of their lives. They wanted to strive for much – but paradoxically, they got little in return
Contemplation works in the same paradoxical way:
- I am a mere finite, mortal being, yet I taste immortality and eternity.
- We are in solitude – and through this we connect ourselves most deeply to the entire world.
So what is contemplation? First let’s state what it is not.
- Contemplation is not some state of mind where we don’t think of anything.
- It is not blank, empty thoughts that bring us beyond our distractions.
- It is not thinking lofty, sublime and holy thoughts.
Thomas Merton defined contemplation as a state where we are present to what is actually going on inside our lives, right now – and to the timeless, eternal dimensions found inside of that. We are in solitude and contemplation when we are really aware “that we are drinking water – while we are drinking the water.”
Here’s how Merton, describes a graced moment of contemplation:
It is an awareness of being in an ordinary human mode, of being aware of one’s hunger and one’s sleep, one’s cold and warmth, of rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying.
In other words, it is being aware of, living in, being appreciative of, and being thankful for, the moment.
Why is contemplation important?
- We’re not paying attention.
- We allow circumstances over which we had no control, to control us instead of intentionally controlling the situation and our thoughts and attitudes and reactions and our decisions.
- We go astray and we get lost usually not through some big cataclysmic decision but by the cumulative effects of many, small decisions that we choose instinctively, without thinking, without any sense of contemplation, on a day to day basis.
Ok, where does contemplation lead?
“Contemplation” leads to call, the call, your call. “Vocation” is living out your call:
First with POWER – using the skills and ability that you have to complete the task. Have you been given specific gifts and talents that God wants to use so that “your greatest talents and greatest desires match God’s greatest need?”
Second, “vocation” is living out your call by fulfilling a MANDATE. You have been called and sent by an authority greater than your own. Sure, ultimately it’s God but God doesn’t speak to you in voices from the sky. God always speaks to you through the voices of other human beings.
When was the last time someone you really know, love and respect said to you, “You should do that.” Who do you go to in order to discern your life? Who do you consult in order to take that human voice you heard back to solitude and silence and contemplate what God might be saying to you through them?
Finally, “vocation” is living out your call within a JURISDICTION – an area or scope for which you are specifically responsible. This is seen and manifested, incorrectly, in parish life in two ways:
- People telling others what “they” should be doing. If that’s you, that’s not your jurisdiction. God did not put you in charge of “their” calendar.
- The other area is when people see something that needs to be done, but rather than engaging – they sit down.
Recently, at his homily in the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Pope Francis spoke about this when he said the following:
Most of you know the story of Saint Katharine Drexel, one of the great saints raised up by this local Church. When she spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope — he was a very wise Pope! — asked her pointedly: “What about you? What are you going to do?” Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church. “What about you?”
Pope Francis placed this within the context to two items. First Katherine Drexel was young. Second Katherine Drexel was a lay – woman. These should have rendered her less powerful, but that was not the case. The Holy Father continued:
One of the great challenges facing the Church in this generation is to foster (that call to mission and vocation) in all the faithful – not just the sisters, not just the priests, not just the professional church staff AND not just in the church or in the parish. All the baptized need to a sense of personal responsibility for the Church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world.
Our challenge today is to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions …
… BUT not without a sense of contemplation. Otherwise we just get caught up in misdirected, hyper-activity. Quoting St. Bernard of Clarveaux, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, said that too much activity can “lead to a hardness of heart.” A contemplative life provides the guidance to balance between too much and too little engagement. Jesuit Father Dennis Hamm, S.J. says that:
This means that we are to be prudent and “love ourselves” so that we can better love our neighbor. This means that we are to live a balanced life, take care of our health, labor for just wages for working women, and still put a little aside for retirement.
Look at the story of Elijah in today’s first reading. Elijah:
- Knows who he is.
- Understands his power and authority (and jurisdiction).
- What seems bold or even obnoxious is merely exercising his rightful, God-given authority and right.
- He trusts in God to provide.
- He steps out boldly in faith.
- He takes command of the situation.
- He takes care of others.
Through prayer, the prophet knows his call and vocation. This is the spirit of the true contemplative.
Audio version of the homily is here: