Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Interview with a Lay Catholic Contemplative

Folks, I want to share with you an interview I conducted with a lay Catholic Contemplative Catholic person I know. The contemplative person asked me not to protect his/her anonymity for reasons that will be immediately stated. I hope you find the interview, if not edifying, at least informative.

Good morning! Please, state your name for the record.

You know, I would rather not.

Why not?

Well, because I don’t want to attract attention to myself at church or at my secular job and I want to avoid misunderstandings. My fellow parishioners, coworkers, and neighbors may not know how to react to a “mystic” in their midst. The increased attention may also tempt my vanity and Lord knows that I need to make a lot of progress cultivating the virtue of humility. So let’s leave my name out of it.

OK, I will respect that. So you are a “mystic”?

Well, I used that word because that’s both the theological technical word as well as the popular term to refer to my “thing”. But I also shy away from the word “mystic” because in our popular context it gives rise to misunderstandings. Like with the word “metaphysics,” the word “mystic” has been tied to New Age mumbo-jumbo and emptied of its rational contents. I would prefer “person of prayer” or “contemplative.” Then again, I would rather be called “a normal Christian” because this is the life we Christians are called to live, a life of prayer.

What do you mean by this connection between being a “normal Christian” and living a “life of prayer.”

I mean that all Christians are called to pray, and to pray with intensity, to engage with God in a constant conversation.

Isn’t that the exclusive job of “professional” contemplatives, such as cloistered men and women?

Without a doubt, at various times and places in the course of our Church’s history, there has been a de facto understanding that this is the case, that the contemplative life is meant solely for those who have been called and have been enabled by grace and circumstance to leave the secular world to dedicate themselves full-time to prayer. And yet, the first hermits, the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were themselves lay people who fled the world at a time in which men in holy orders were accreting political power and wealth. These lay people, once they became organized, laid the foundation of monasticism. In fact, to this day, monasticism remains fundamentally a lay phenomenon, populated by men and women who are not in holy orders.

Isn’t that exactly why is important to leave the world, to free oneself from its entanglements?

Oh, absolutely, the vocation for total dedication to the Lord in prayer and solitude is indispensable to the life of the Church. These men and women sustain the Church with their prayers and together form the inner engine keeping the Church alive. What I am also trying to say is that lay people who live in the world and lead active lives within it, and whose religious vows are the ones pronounced upon marriage – I am married – are also called to pray and grow in familiarity with the Lord. Most people fail to link marriage vows with religious vows and yet that’s what marriage vows are, religious vows. So, there is a radical equality between the single religious man and woman living their religious vows in celibate chastity and the married couple that vows to live their lives in marital chastity, that is, to express their sexual love exclusively with each other while remaining “celibate” to everyone else. Both kinds of “vowed” religious life need prayer to sustain them. The nature of the marriage vows do not compel married Catholics to withdraw from the world, but they can choose to do so if they feel so called.

I am happy to hear that since my wife and I are considering long term plans to do embrace an eremitic lifestyle. But, must there be an opposition between the consecrated, single religious celibate life and the married life?

To consider both kinds of life as mutually exclusive is to miss the point. It’s not a matter of “either/or” but “both/and.” The Church needs both kinds of life and each actor needs to have a constant, ongoing dialogue with the Lord. Only then will we be able to actualize the Reign of God until He comes in glory. Only then can we be instrument in the sanctification of the world and of all truly human, ennobling activities.

Let me change the subject. How do you “commune” with God?

Very imperfectly because of my own limitations and faults. I remain very much “a work in progress.”

OK, granted, but what I mean is, how do you encounter Him in prayer? Is there any place, thing, or “technique” that you use to talk to God?

My principal point of encounter with God is in Jesus Christ His Son, uniquely, personally, and substantially in the Holy Eucharist. The encounter is a personal one, as personal one as this dialogue is between you and me.

Many Catholics and most Protestants will find this claim hard to accept.

The more “mission-oriented” among my Protestant brethren constantly ask me if I know or have received “Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior,” and when I reply that not only I have, but that I eat Him every Sunday and that His indwelling becomes substantially, objectively real in my heart, in my soul, and in my natural senses, that doesn’t compute to them. They certainly understand that Jesus is close to the believer, but not that intimately close, and in such blatantly personal, material terms. Catholics, on the other hand, take His presence so much for granted that they conceive the reception of the Eucharist as “a right,” and many get up and join the communion line without a second thought, without asking themselves if they are prepared to receive Him, without the proper dispositions and in this manner they fail to discern His Real Presence and all that it entails. In both cases, but for different reasons, Protestants and Catholics miss the very Real Presence of Jesus Christ among us.

So, it is not a matter of saying certain words or applying certain techniques.

Heavens, no! There’s no recitation of words, there’s no “technique” that can produce “contemplation.” Contemplation is a gift freely given by God. A person can’t presume to be “ready” for communion with God after saying a set number of prayers, rosaries, chaplets, novenas, or psalms; or after mastering certain psychosomatic techniques like quieting the breath and the mind. God is certainly not obligated to increase our consciousness of His indwelling merely because we think we are ready. What we can do is to be willing to engage Him in dialogue and to humiliate ourselves before Him, something that doesn’t come easy for most of us.

Then, there’s minimal discipline involved?

The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of order; an undisciplined prayer life, like a life of work and creativity, must include a healthy amount of discipline. The discipline start with a clear act of the commitment: one commits oneself to pray regularly. The best way to do this is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. In this way one will be praying with the Church. Commit yourself to pray at least Morning or Evening Prayer every day. If you can commit to both it would be even better. Pretty soon and with His help the practice will grow in you. You’ll learn to desire it and will find out that your day would become incomplete without those set prayer times. Use them as your “jumping board” to a deeper prayer life with God in worship, adoration, and petition.

Isn’t that time consuming?

Not at all; a person can pray the Morning or Evening prayer properly and with devotion in 10 or 15 minutes. Some people would find even that amount as excessive. I pity them, particularly those who watch TV or are in the Internet for hours at an end but can’t spare 30 minutes to talk with their Father and Creator every day. Take it from me, if I can do it, anyone can. I am nothing special in this regard.

Here’s a big question: have you heard the voice of God?

I’ve found that my ability to discern the will of God and in this sense to hear “His voice” has increased since my prayer life took off. His voice comes clearly through His Word, and through particular people and events He sends my way. A person who hasn’t learned to hear God’s voice in this way is ill-prepared to hear his voice at what I consider the next level.

Which is?

It’s short of an audible allocution. It consists of a very, very quiet “whisper” in one’s soul, easily overwhelmed by stray thoughts and one’s inner conversation and stream of consciousness. The main difficulty at this stage of one’s prayer life is to learn to discern between one’s voice and the chaotic cacophony inside one’s mind and the whispered sound of God’s voice in one’s innermost recesses. Like Scripture says, one must die to oneself. This is the stage I find myself in.

Does this “stage” you speak of correspond to the “ways” or “states” that traditional mystical theology talks about?

You speak of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. Look, I speak of my own state of soul with certain reticence and I am not going to dwell much on my own state except to say that these ways or states are not like the “staging” in say, a rocket launch. It’s incorrect to think that once a stage is spent it’s gone and one is done and fully on the next stage. The ways or states of the spiritual life often overlap with more or less strength, depending upon one’s inner dispositions and the measure of grace that God has granted to that particular soul. In my particular situation, I am between the purgative and illuminative way. The Lord may choose to concede me the grace to move forward fully to the next stages, or may make me dwell in this particular level for however long it pleases Him; there’s no guarantee that I will reach the final stage in this life. He has the final word on the issue.

Then, how is “progress” in the spiritual life to be measured?

The prayerful Christian is never the final arbiter of his or her “state”. Such a judgment belongs to one’s spiritual director. That’s why complete openness to one’s spiritual director is essential for growth in the spiritual life and that’s why is so important that one’s spiritual director should be a saintly priest. Receiving direction in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is invaluable and greatly strengthens one’s soul. Blessed are those who have found a saintly Spiritual Father to direct them, for they shall talk to God.

How do you respond to those who say that the mystical life – or any belief in a personal God – is a lot of “mumbo jumbo” and a product of changing brain states?

Belief in a personal God, and even more so, in the one revealed in Jesus Christ, is the definite departure point for a true and meaningful Christian prayer life. Convinced atheists and agnostics will always find a “reason” to deny God and to reduce all knowledge we may obtain of persons to certain brain states, neurotransmitter flows, and neurons firing this way or that. Yet, when atheists talk about their own interpersonal relationships, they don’t talk about brain states and such, they talk about love and friendships like everyone else. Personal relationships are irreducible: they can’t be deconstructed without emptying them of meaning. That’s how I “know” I am talking to God and that God talks to me. I have an irreducible personal relationship with him. To dismiss Christian contemplation is but a subjective phenomenon is to close oneself to the experience. It would be an attempt to lie to oneself. It’s an absurd, an insult to one’s intelligence which also is a gift from the Lord.

Buddhism is a very popular substitute for Christianity nowadays. It has a robust moral core and a demanding contemplative discipline. It has proven attractive to many who look for a “spiritual” alternative to Christianity without the trappings of Christianity. Could you comment on that?

Yes, I can. But this will take some elaboration. The core claim of Christianity derives from the one in Judaism: that the source of creation is Personal: “I am that I am” the Lord told Moses. His very Name (“YHWH,” commonly pronounced “Yahweh”) points to this reality. The Bible designates Moses as the first receiver of this revelation. We may speculate that Moses, having received the traditional belief in One God from the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saw his understanding completed through his own contemplation of the mystery until God, in his utter freedom, revealed Himself to Moses in that Name. Moses’ contemplative journey sets an example for all of us: as all the external noise and internal cacophony quieted in Moses, he was able to hear but one voice, the One that then said “I AM.”

It is known that Buddhism denies the existence of any substantive personal core in human beings, or behind the cosmos. Their disciplines to quiet the senses and the mind conform to a relentless teaching insisting on the depersonalization of the adept’s consciousness and on its ability to become a detached observer of manifold perceptions and mental states, each one independently analyzed as to its origin, duration, and end, and labeled as such. Buddhist teachers also stress that the “Devas” (or “gods” in Hindu religion) are also subjected to this tight law of causality and the Buddhist adept is trained to observe their chatter and learn to dismiss it as part of the contingent nature of things. I posit that Buddhist contemplatives reject the existence of one personal God because they can’t tell His voice apart from their own voices; the voice of God that Moses heard would be for a Buddhist practitioner just another subjective mental state to be detached from in order to avoid suffering or dukkha.

So you are saying that, when confronted with the voice of God, Buddhist practitioners basically chose to deny the objective existence of the voice of God within and with it the relevance of a personal God.

Pretty much, yeah. They choose consciously and pretty much for the same reasons that a Western atheist denies the existence of God: any claim made in this respect is merely subjective, ultimately illusory, and the product of deluded mental states held by people attached to a wrong view of reality. This is also why so many Western agnostics and atheists embrace Buddhism because Buddhism allows them to be “spiritual” without turning to God. But, unlike Western skeptics, Buddhists don’t arrive to their convictions by mere theoretical formulations; they claim a direct insight into the nature of reality, one in which the willful denial of the existence, importance, relevance and dismissal of a personal God is central to their method. The differences between Buddhism and Christianity and between their schools of “contemplation” are as deep as they are fundamental: an honest Christian can’t be a Buddhist and an honest Buddhist can’t be a Christian. One affirms “I AM” while the other one affirms “everything is emptiness and emptiness is all.” God, being the gentleman that He is, bows before the insistent effort on the part of the Buddhist adept to dismiss Him from his inner sanctum once and for all, and so He leaves. In this tragic sense, the Buddhist contemplative experience as one without God corresponds to their claim. God remains quiet on their soul, but He never really leaves, thankfully. He awaits patiently the invitation to come back in and talk.

Wow. Well, we’re almost to the end. Any readings you want to suggest to Vivificat’s readers before we finish?

Yes, I think that reading various classical and modern authors on the issue of asceticism, prayer and contemplation is necessary to achieve a right balance and manage expectations. St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, is a good starting point for anyone willing to deepen their Catholic prayer life. The Three Ages of the Interior Life, by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange offers an in-depth analysis on the interior life and valuable for his insistence that the contemplative life is a call open to every Christian and not only to vowed, cloistered monastics. Ralph Martin’s book, The Fulfillment of All Desire, has also been very helpful to me due to its simple language and its synthetic approach, as well as various works by the late American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton – his warts and all. There are many others I may suggest, but these will have to do for now.

This all sounds extraordinary.

And it shouldn’t be. An intimate dealing between one’s soul and God in Christ should be considered the norm and an everyday occurrence. What is really abnormal is that so many do not possess, wish, or can be bothered to even consider relating to the Lord in this way. They are the ones who are strange and abnormal.

Thank you for being with us.

Thank you for having me and thank you to your readers.