My spiritual director told me recently that contemplation is a long, loving look at the real. If God is Truth, then the more I can allow the truth to become a part of my life, the more I can gaze on reality with acceptance and love, the more truly I can be in relationship with God. As C.S. Lewis often prayed, “May it be the true I before the true Thou.” So many of our problems in the spiritual life can be traced back to a distaste for being the true I or for seeing and loving the true God.
A variety of circumstances have invited me into a truer relationship with the reality of death and the fragility of life. I am unable to ignore the real possibility that today could be my last day alive. And whether I die today or sixty years from now, I will die at some point. There will come a time when no one I love is still alive. Those whose memories and stories have sustained and nurtured me will fade away, like fog before the sun, as will I. The church that reverberates with my community’s chant will one day, in all likelihood, be silent. Nature will reclaim the gardens I tend, and the pieces I have knit will return to the earth from which they came.
I hear a good deal in the circles I move in about non-attachment and self-emptying as important, even essential elements, in the contemplative life. Until recently I didn’t really know what those terms meant. Facing into the reality of death, I have a more profound understanding of what Cynthia Bourgeault talks about in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening when she writes
The infallible way to […] reclaim your home in that sheltering kingdom is simply to freely release whatever you are holding onto—including, if it comes to this, life itself. The method of full, voluntary self-donation reconnects you instantly to the wellspring; in fact, it is the wellspring. The most daring gamble of Jesus’ trajectory of pure love may just be to show us that self-emptying is not the means to something else; the act is itself the full expression of its meaning and instantly brings into being ‘a new creation’: the integral wholeness of Love manifested in the particularity of a human heart.
Non-attachment means that I choose, voluntarily, not to cling to my own life, even or especially when I realize how beautiful and lovely that life is. I find myself saying over and over again, “Even this, Lord, even this extraordinary life you have given me, even this is yours.” To empty myself in this way is more painful than I would have imagined. To do so means entering into the awareness that I love my life more than I would ever have dreamed possible and that that extraordinary life is not, in the end, mine at all. Many of the great mystics say that you can never truly love something while you cling to it. True love only exists without attachment. I get that in a new way these days, and the understanding is at the very same moment profoundly beautiful and profoundly heartbreaking.
I realize these musings may seem morbid, but I don’t experience them that way. The more I live into the reality that my life and the life of those I love will end, the more deeply I fall in love with the world. As I gaze on the reality of death and impermanence, the world and the people I know and love seem lit by fire. Life is only lovelier for its fragility. The fact that it will all end someday is itself the seed of praise and wonder.
I am reminded, too, of the verse in the Rule of Benedict that says that a monk’s life ought to be a continuous Lent. That line has always conjured images of drudgery and voluntary hardship. What Benedict actually means, I think, is that, as the true I falls more and more deeply in love with the true God, my prayer also becomes simpler and more constant and spontaneous. Gratitude is the real foundation of asceticism. Prayer, self-denial, and service (the three pillars of Lent) arise spontaneously from the realization that my life was never mine to begin with, and that everything, absolutely everything, is the gift of God.
And so, I look on the wonder of my life. I praise God for it. And I open my hands and let it go.
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