February 6, 2011

Theological Contemplation, Deep Prayer and the Christian Life

The early Dominicans counted as one of the nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic the practice of sacred study or what could be called, theological contemplation.   For St. Dominic, study of the truths of the faith is described as an intense conversation as between friends, and exchange of profound questions and beautiful answers with the Lord.  He needed this time with the Lord because he knew that only God himself could sustain him in all the work that was entrusted to him.   Meditation on some revealed truth from the Scriptures or as presented by one of the Fathers of the Church would raise his mind to the heights of contemplation where he would find new strength and refreshment, or else find himself pierced to the heart and humbled before the Lord's great love.  He was certain of the Lord's presence in this, convinced that this was an intimate and deeply personal exchange.  This is because he would understand this pursuit of truth as part of a dialogue with the Lord, the unfolding mystery of his ongoing, daily encounter with Christ risen from the dead.  Theological contemplation, seeking to understand and know the Lord in a manner open to an encounter with Him, helped St. Dominic remain firmly in the service of the Lord, and for those who yearn to enter deeply into the silence of God, it is among the most beautiful practices recommended by the saints.

This kind of study is not merely an intellectual pursuit - it is aimed at the heart.  In fact, the battle for the heart is waged in the mind.   If we want to encounter the Lord in a life giving way in our hearts, how we think about God, how we understand our lives, and how we order our priorities must be completely surrendered to the Him.   The surrender takes place through an ongoing conversation.  He works gradually and patiently to lead us into deeper life integrity.  This loving surrender to Christ is what St. Paul calls the renewal our minds, a spiritual way of thinking that allows us to live a transformed life, a life offered to God.  To help us have such an encounter with the Lord, the great teachers of prayer in the West discuss three kinds of theological contemplation: they tell us to think about the life of Christ revealed in the Scriptures, to think about the presence of Christ in our own lives, and finally to seek the Lord by considering the truths of the faith revealed by Christ.

When St. Teresa or St. Catherine of Siena tells us to think about the life of Christ, they want us to focus on the tremendous love He reveals in everything He did.  Everything He said and did has been preserved in the memory of the Church, especially in the Holy Gospels, so that we might know Him intimately in our hearts.   The gaze of love on the face of Christ, even at the scourging at the pillar, is a gaze He wants to share with each of us Teresa of Avila suggests.   When Catherine of Siena describes Christ suffering on the Cross as the bridge to the Father's love she invites us to a mindfulness of the Lord can be uncomfortable, even very difficult.  This is because as we behold his love we are invited and even challenged to go beyond our own indifference, to move from living with a divided heart into a whole-dearted existence for the Lord.  Such love is the only way to respond to the love offered to us in Christ.  To this end, John of the Cross recommends we study Jesus as a model for own lives - that Christ's total dedication to the Glory of the Father is an inner attitude every follower of the Lord should strive to take on.

The saints also encourage us to go through all our memories and seek the presence of God, especially in those painful memories where He seems absent.   In this effort, we humbly ask the Lord to show us how He was present to us when we cannot see it ourselves.  Catherine of Siena, on this point, insists that self-knowledge is essential if we are to make any progress in serving the Living God.  St. Augustine breaks into prayer throughout his Confessions as he shares his memories of the merciful Lord at work in his life even when he was furthest away from God.  St. Teresa also encourages this practice as a way of remaining recollected and keeping our hearts open to the mysterious presence of Christ when we strive to pray.  She herself experienced in her own search for the presence of Christ in her life a deep stirring of devotion, contrition over sin and a source of strength which opened her to even deeper life-changing encounters with Jesus.

Finally, during times of silence, it is also good to think about the teachings of our faith revealed by the Lord, like the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation, or the Gift of the Holy Spirit.  Looking deeply into the writings of St. Paul or into the life of Abraham or David is also very fruitful.  There are so many beautiful connections between the truths that have been revealed by Christ through the apostles in both the Old Testament and the New that one could devote a whole lifetime to finding them and never exhaust what God has made known about Himself.  Sometimes, as we marvel at these connections, we experience a deep awareness of the Lord's presence which draws us into a beautiful silence. Resting in such silence, attentive to the Lord and His great love, this is adoration - a deep prayer of the heart in which our whole being bows before the glory of his majesty, and in doing so realizes more deeply its true identity and purpose.

Theological contemplation, as a way of deep prayer, takes up all these practices in a manner that is open to the life-changing presence of God. Such contemplation helps us experience the Word of God as something more than merely informative.  When we raise up our minds to the Lord like Dominic and the other great saints, God's Word is performative - it leads to action, to conversion, to authentic love.   When this happens, our friendship with the Lord deepens and we find within us new capacities to serve Him and those He entrusts to us in ever deeper and more beautiful ways.