Contemplative Living: The Influence of Major Themes on My Life
by James Murphy
Our module on Contemplative Living opened with the prayer of the Apostle Paul for the Ephesians, that we might be able “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” No greater goal than this could be stated for contemplative living. I hope to grow toward that goal, and this paper I shall address two primary means to do so, which are developing a Rule of Life and rebuilding the foundation of Sabbath. In addition, I will discuss personal obstacles to developing that contemplative way of life – that life where I “know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
Developing my Rule of Life
Like most Christians, I have always had some kind of “rule of life,” even though I haven’t called it that. From early on, I have held the “quiet time” in highest esteem, with both positive and negative results. I have consistently practiced the discipline of prayer, with the Pslams being the mainstay of my prayer approach for the past several years. I have regularly fasted, although not often or for extended periods of time. I have practiced corporate disciplines of worship through attending church nearly every Sunday of my life, as well as through involvement in a weekly home group for nearly every one of my past thirty-six years. In the midst of all this discipline – private or public – I have continued to grapple with the tension between discipline and desire, continuity and spontaneity.
With this as a backdrop, I was greatly refreshed – and continue to be – by the trellis metaphor for developing a rule of life. I have done enough gardening to know the importance of a trellis for certain plants, but it doesn’t even take a gardener to recognize the difference between a trellis and a plant. No matter how well constructed, how functional or how important, the trellis is still not the plant, but is only a support for the plant. I have always know that distinction when it comes to how I think of spiritual disciplines, but for some reason it became glaringly obvious to me as we discussed this in our SoulStream session, with Jeff showing us a photo of a trellised branch of a Camellia tree. This trellis metaphor has inspired me to take a fresh look at disciplines, and to see them not as the essence of my life in God, but as the supportive framework for that life. With this trellis in mind, I will explain my Rule of Life.
I state of my life’s vocation this way: I live to love God and to let God love me and through me. In living out this vocation, it is especially important to me to exemplify the values of integrity, attentiveness, interdependence, and integration. By integrity I mean being true to what I believe — having my exterior and interior lives in alignment. This is paying attention to me. Attentiveness is living a life of noticing to other people and life around me. Interdependence is helping and being helped, cultivating a healthy awareness of my need for others, and their need for me. Integration is being aware of God’s active presence as seen through each of my values of integrity, attentiveness, and interdependence. I pay attention first and foremost to God, but with the recognition that paying attention to him means seeing him in me, in others, and in the world around me.
I will seek to embody these values in the following practices:
1. I will cultivate integrity through consistent journaling for self-reflection, but self-reflection which is not self-condemnation.
2. I will cultivate attentiveness through silent listening prayer for 30 minutes each morning before getting out of bed – between my first and second alarm.
3. I will cultivate attentiveness through listening to scripture more days than not, for long enough to be unrushed.
4. I will cultivate attentiveness to other people by responding promptly to phone calls, emails, and requests for conversations or get-togethers.
5. I will cultivate a spirit of interdependence by looking for opportunities to ask my wife, Peggy, for help. Once a month I will ask her how I’m doing in this regard, in the context of a “Marital Examen.”
6. I will cultivate a spirit of interdependence through developing an intentional spiritual friendship with Jim.
7. I will cultivate a life of integration through working toward a weekly Sabbath day. I will do this twice a month, with a plan to increase it to one day a week by June of 2008.
I believe this Rule is simple enough so that I’m not overwhelmed with a to-do list, specific enough to support areas of needed personal growth, and spacious enough to provide freedom as that growth develops. I will now comment more specifically on one element of my Rule – keeping Sabbath.
Rebuilding the Foundation of Sabbath
In ‘Wisdom Distilled from the Daily’, Joan Chittister asserts, “The fact is that it is our souls, not our bodies, that are tired.” I can attest to the truth of that statement. As a fifty-four year old who has been pastoring in the same church for over twenty-two years, I find myself consistently inwardly tired. This soul-tiredness shows itself in an attitude of lethargic victimization (“I’m helpless to do this or that”) in my personal, marital, and vocational life. This tiredness is akin to depression, and is frequently my rationalization for not following through with intentions that I believe are placed in my heart by God’s Spirit. I am focusing on this theme of Sabbath, because I believe it is a key ingredient that can contribute to my ability to cultivate a contemplative life. Without it, I fear I might simply give in to an “I’m too tired to do anything” syndrome, and make little progress in contemplative living.
I have a good personal history when it comes to Sabbath-keeping. For several years I religiously kept one day per week as a day uniquely set aside for spending time with God. I had a routine for that day, and found it to be consistently life-giving. I maintained this discipline with minimal community support, since this practice hasn’t been widespread in the church that I’m a part of. I notice, though, that little by little this practice has dropped off. On a “day off” I’m torn between home and garden projects, spending time with my family (growing with grandchildren), and finishing up work I didn’t get done at the office. Week by week, I make choices for good things, but when these choices lead to the development of a Sabbathless life, those choices need to be examined.
Abraham Heschel says: “The Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience — our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” In the past year my pastoral responsibilities have increased significantly, and my awareness of God’s presence has indeed been menaced by “agitations and vicissitudes.” I don’t expect these factors to diminish as I cultivate the practice of Sabbath, but I do expect that I will hear a new melody that will sustain me during discordant days. It is critical that “I am willing to be stopped” and “consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, and true.”(Wayne Muller). Lord, play for me that Sabbath Song. I want to stop and listen.
Personal Obstacles to Developing a Contemplative Way of Life
SoulStream presents an attractive picture of the contemplative life, a picture which is clearly seen in the handout contrasting compulsive living with contemplative living. Contemplative living is open ended and free flowing, accepting and serene, and is marked by self awareness, self acceptance and self love. The contemplative person longs for God, knows true joy, lives from the heart, and acts in love. Who wouldn’t yearn for such a life?
I find, however, that I must face certain personal obstacles as I proceed down the contemplative path. I tend to be anxious rather than serene, negatively self absorbed rather than positively self aware, and frequently living with self-disgust rather than self acceptance. I recognize these realities, and know that my quest for contemplative living with all its benefits is one which will also have its battles. I must especially address my inclination toward emotional distance which keeps me from intimacy with God and others.
I express an unhealthy autonomy toward God and people by keeping my distance, by living like “you can’t make me happy and you can’t make me sad. I’m my own emotional being, apart from you.” I know that this stand-offish orientation is a direct affront to the development of a contemplative way of life, where we experience an “ever growing deeper loving union with God” (class handout). For me, this becomes a chicken and egg question: Which comes first, dealing with this autonomy or moving toward contemplative living? Actually, it’s probably neither. I must move forward, trusting that God will help me become increasingly open to intimacy with him and others. Some of this openness will come as I endeavor to live out my Rule of Life and as I experience God’s embrace through Sabbath. Some might come through seeking psychological help for this problem which has plagued me. Some openness will come as I continue to be pliable to God’s formative work through my spiritual director. However and whenever that openness to intimacy comes, it will be through the grace of God.
I have commented on my intentions regarding a Rule of Life and Sabbath, and I’ve recognized obstacles to following through with these intentions. I know that it is only grace that will enable me to overcome obstacles and follow through. Therefore, I close with these words on the grace of God, from one of our class handouts: “The contemplative way of life is a gift from God. It is by God’s grace that I experience the unfailing tender love that is always flowing toward and in me. It is by God’s grace that I find waking in me a desire to respond to that great love….It is all grace.”
Lord, I look forward to receiving this grace, and growing in this way of contemplative living.