some thoughts on contemplation

I’ll make my curmudgeonly confession: I am over the word “contemplation.” If I never hear it again, that’s fine with me.

The word used to have a specific, even technical meaning within the context of Christian spirituality. Now it’s a trendy hashtag. It signals to readers, skeptics, and the spiritually curious that this Christianity is not like that Christianity. This Christianity is politically progressive, at home with metaphor, and engaged in deeper matters of the heart and spirit than fundamentalism.

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a simple lesson

Two weeks ago I returned from California. The pit of my stomach clenched in anxiety and dread nearly the entire trip home. I got back to the monastery about 6pm and went straight to my room and closed the door. I didn’t want to see anyone, because I thought I might burst into tears.

It was an unusual experience for me. Never before have I felt sad to return home.

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I’ll just have a rest

I’ve been teaching and writing about prayer and the spiritual life for about five years now. It’s such a short time really. And as it goes on, I realize more and more that I know very little about prayer, God, or the spiritual life.

Just before Holy Week, I had the great pleasure of joining Martin Smith’s Compassiontide retreat. In the presence of this mature, authentic teacher, I could see my own immaturity even more clearly. I don’t say all this to put myself down, or to compare myself unfavorably, at 35, to a man who has been praying, writing, teaching, and living the Christian life for a long time. I say it because it’s true. Moreover, it’s a truth I find immensely comforting and hopeful, short-circuiting, as it does, my spiritual ambition, greed, and self-importance.

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fatherlove

We put my father’s ashes in the columbarium two days before my 35th birthday.

Dad would have laughed to see a small crowd of monks gathered around, saying prayers for him, commending his remains to their final rest until the Last Great Day.

I don’t know that he even believed in a Last Great Day. Like any Irish boy from Bayonne, he’d been raised Catholic. It didn’t stick. He was your typical free spirit—untethered and unmoored. He never went in much for obligation, never wanted to be tied down.

A week before he died, I got a text from his sister telling me he was fading. I was in Ireland, having led a knitting retreat for 20 women from all over the world. My dad was in Portland, dying of metastatic cancer so diffuse within him by the time they caught it that they couldn’t figure out where it started. Judy never called or texted. I knew it was important, so I called immediately.

My dad’s voice was breathy and heavy.

“Son, do you think Jesus forgives me?”

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give me Jesus

This last week was a challenge. Walking with a friend, I tried to explain away the difficulty of the week in terms of my schedule. It’s true that my days were more fully booked than I’m now used to or prefer. But the week’s challenge really arose from the traffic between my ears.

It was one of those weeks where my habitual faultlines began to show on the surface. I kept getting caught up in my own inner patterns. I could see it all as it was happening, but I couldn’t manage to escape the tentacles of my mental and spiritual habits. Even my sleep became a challenge, so that at the end of days spent wrestling with myself, I couldn’t get the rest I really needed.

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hidden with Christ in God

After reading a draft of my memoir a few weeks ago, one of my brothers asked if I intended to publish it. My first response was an immediate “of course!” What’s the point of writing if no one is going to see it? I set my quick response aside, though, and decided to take his question seriously.

I initially wrote this book three years ago. I couldn’t manage to finish it, so I set it aside. I only came back to it a few months ago, because I felt God calling me to do so. I’ve finished this second draft as a matter of faithfulness. If I’m to continue it that way, then I have to be honest that, though God may have called me to write it, I’m not at all clear that God is calling me to publish it. Hence taking seriously my brother’s question.

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a little life

I have just finished writing a book. To be more accurate, I have finished a rough draft of a book. It’s a spiritual memoir that traces the the thread of early losses, the way they hollowed me, and the way God entered my hollowness and pulled me into monastic life.

I’ve now written this book twice. The first time I wrote it as a therapeutic experience. I needed to see the loss, to feel its contours, to know that it was real. Then my father died. During his last year, my heart opened to him wider than I thought possible. The need to judge him disappeared, and I found I had, without my even knowing it, learned to love. I wrote the book the second time to tell that story.

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