CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: WRITING WITH ST. AUGUSTINE

Many contemplatives and other figures from history have seen writing as a spiritual discipline and even an act of obedience. One such figure is St. Augustine. In his spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, Augustine tells God (and us) the reason for setting down his story. Why write? Augustine says it is to excite love toward the divine. In these passages, he is addressing God himself:

Why then do I set before you an ordered account of so many things? It is certainly not through me that you know them. But I am stirring up love for you in myself and in those who read this, so that we may all say ‘Great is the Lord and highly worthy to be praised’ (Ps 47:1). I have already affirmed this and will say it again: I tell my story for love of your love.

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See, the long story I have told to the best of my ability and will responds to your prior will that I should make confession to you, my Lord God.

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Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a theologian, bishop, and Church Father who greatly influenced western Christianity. Read more about him.

For reflection: Why do you write?

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: TALKING TO JESUS WITH IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA

In 1548, Ignatius of Loyola published one of the most popular devotional books in Christian history – the Spiritual Exercises. This book is a compilation of meditations, prayers, and other practices. In one of the Exercises, we find a way to prayerfully meditate on the cross of Christ. It seems especially appropriate for Holy Week.

In the first Exercise of his book, Ignatius introduces the idea of a colloquy, which, he says, is made “in the way one friend speaks to another . . . now begging a favor, now accusing oneself of some misdeed, now telling one’s concerns and asking counsel about them.”

Ignatius suggests this colloquy, or conversation, with Christ:

Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him in a colloquy: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins?

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In a similar way, reflect on yourself and ask: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?

Ignatius says that as you gaze on Christ, you should “speak out whatever comes to your mind.”

End the colloquy by saying the Lord’s Prayer.

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Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) was a Spanish priest, theologian, spiritual director, and founder of the Jesuit order. Read more.

Read the Spiritual Exercises here.

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: GREGORY THE GREAT ON “RESTING IN GOD”

You may have heard that St. Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) defined contemplation as “resting in God.” Indeed, this quote is posted on the home page of The Contemplative Writer! This snippet is a condensed version of what St. Gregory really said, and I thought we should take a look at the full statement. It’s a wonderfully nuanced description of just what “resting in God” really means:

But the contemplative life is: to retain indeed with all one’s mind the love of God and neighbor, but to rest from all exterior action, and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing anything, but having spurned all cares, may be aglow to see the face of its Creator; so that it already knows how to bear with sorrow the burden of the corruptible flesh, and with all its desires to seek to join the hymn-singing choirs of angels, to mingle with the heavenly citizens, and to rejoice at its everlasting incorruption in the sight of God. (Source)

Note that for Gregory, resting in God means:

  • Cleaving to our Maker
  • Being aglow to see the Creator
  • Bearing the burdens of the flesh
  • Desiring heaven

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Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) was pope of the Catholic Church from 590 to 604. He was a contemplative, a missionary, a reformer, and a physician of souls. Read more here.

Reflection: How are prayer and contemplation like rest for you?

Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton on Advent

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

In addition to writing a best-selling autobiography (The Seven Storey Mountain) and numerous books on the spiritual life, Thomas Merton was also a poet. He saw a link between contemplation and poetry and once said, “No Christian poetry worthy of the name has been written by anyone who was not in some degree a contemplative.”

Among Merton’s poetry are some beautiful verses for Advent and Christmas. Enjoy the poem below as you journey through the season.

Advent

Charm with your stainlessness these winter nights,
Skies, and be perfect!

Fly, vivider in the fiery dark, you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

Read this and other verses in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton.

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

 

Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

In several of his written works, Thomas Merton explores the idea of the spiritual life as a journey. While we may like to envision our path as being clearly laid out and free of obstruction, Merton realizes that in reality we’re often groping in the dark. He highlights one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith—we travel, sometimes blindly, to a destination that we already possess. His reflections on life’s journey offer hope as we take the road to Bethlehem this Advent season.

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“In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived. We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light. But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!” (The Seven Storey Mountain)

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“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude)

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Reflection: Where am I on my journey with God today?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

 

Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, a beloved modern contemplative, and a prolific writer. He left us many books and essays on the spiritual life. When I read Merton, I’m especially struck by the way he confronts and even embraces the difficulties of living the Christian life. Following Jesus is not easy, and Merton knows this. His frank admission of his struggles ministers to us in our own.

Regarding his internal struggles and contradictions, Merton writes:

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“I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.” (A Thomas Merton Reader)

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“Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings . . . All life tends to grow like this, in mystery inscaped with paradox and contradiction, yet centered, in its very heart, on the divine mercy . . . and the realization of the ‘new life’ that is in us who believe, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. “ (A Thomas Merton Reader)

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Such paradoxes define the life of faith. About each person’s struggle with both internal and external darkness, Merton says:

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“Those who continue to struggle are at peace. If God wills, they can pacify the world.  For he[/she] who accepts the struggle in the name of Christ is delivered from its power by the victory of Christ.” (A Thomas Merton Reader)

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Read more about Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Reflection

How willing am I to embrace and learn from the contradictions and struggles in my spiritual life?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Contemplative Profiles: Evelyn Underhill

Week Three: United in Praise

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

We belong to different denominations and often have different approaches to prayer and worship. Yet God’s truth unites us. In her book, Worship, Evelyn Underhill describes the various streams of Christianity coming together to praise the God who became incarnate in time and space:

“The monk or nun rising to recite the Night Office that the Church’s praise of God may never cease, and the Quaker waiting in silent assurance on the Spirit given at Pentecost; the ritualist, ordering with care every detail of a complicated ceremonial that God may be glorified thereby, and the old woman content to boil her potatoes in the same sacred intention; the Catholic burning a candle before the symbolic image of the Sacred Heart or confidently seeking the same Divine Presence in the tabernacle, and the Methodist or Lutheran pouring out his devotion in hymns to the Name of Jesus; the Orthodox bowed down in speechless adoration at the culminating moment of the Divine Mysteries, and the Salvationist marching to drum and tambourine behind the banner of the Cross – all these are here at one. Their worship is conditioned by a concrete fact; the stooping down of the Absolute to disclose Himself within the narrow human radius, the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos within time.”

Many practices, one praise. What a beautiful picture of God’s diverse people becoming one in response to the gift of his son!

For Reflection

How can I use my distinctive faith tradition to pray to and worship God this week?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.

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“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)

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“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)

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“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)

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Reflection

How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Contemplative Profiles: Evelyn Underhill

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

Lately I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of the modern contemplatives and mystics. One of these is the Anglo-Catholic writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941). Underhill offered scholarly studies on great mystics from the past — she called them giants and heroes. At the same time, she insisted that the life of prayer and contemplation belongs to every ordinary person. No heroism necessary.

Underhill also believed that contemplation belongs to every era — eras of conflict and eras of peace. One of her early books, Practical Mysticism (free on Kindle!), was released at the beginning of World War I. Underhill almost postponed its publication out of concern that its subject matter would seem inapplicable or, even worse, selfish and otherworldly. But she decided that there was no better time to nourish the spiritual life.

We, too, live in times of turmoil and conflict. As Christians, we’re acutely aware of the world’s brokenness. This month we’ll explore what, according to Underhill, Christian contemplation offers us in troubled (as well as more peaceful) times.

I’ll leave you with some quotes from Practical Mysticism on the applicability of contemplation for every Christian.

For those who embrace it, the contemplative life “will teach them to see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness. It will educate them in a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism; it will confer on them an unconquerable hope . . .”

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“Though it is likely that the accusation will annoy you, you are already in fact a potential contemplative: for this act, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is proper to all . . .  is, indeed, the characteristic human activity.”

Read more about Underhill in the Fuller Studio.

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Contemplative Profiles: Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux is best known for his books On Loving God and The Steps to Humility and Pride, as well as his many sermons. His writings are full of scripture references and move readers toward a deeper experience of God’s love.

This article in Christian History offers the following commentary of Bernard and his legacy:

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Loving God for the sake of what he has done for us is, however, less than perfect. The next step is to love God for God’s sake alone. Simply because God is, we love him. Most of us would stop here; if we ever reached the point where we loved God for God’s sake alone, we would consider ourselves to have arrived at love of God. But Bernard does not stop here.

The final step is love of ourselves for God’s sake. While this is not the main point of the treatise, it is profoundly significant. One of the characteristics of Bernard’s spirituality is the movement from fear to confidence, from false self-esteem to healthy self-esteem.

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We cannot take ourselves too seriously, since we took our first steps in this process by a candid, honest, genuine self-awareness and sorrow for our sins. Yet neither can we denigrate ourselves because the process of repentance and self-discovery is made possible by, and makes possible, the healing of the sin-ravaged image and likeness of God as it is bathed in the compassion and mercy of God. It is out of this mercy, love, and compassion of God that we can confidently know who we are, and offer back to God the love he has shown us. It overflows in love and service to those around us, who, like ourselves, carry that image of God indelibly imprinted on their innermost spirit.

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Read more…