Compassionate Contemplatives


Photo by Turelio, 1986/CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently read these thoughts, quoted below, of Mother Theresa of Calcutta about the meaning of contemplation. Although controversial in some eyes, she was loved by most of the planet because of her passionate care for the poorest and most derelict and abandoned members of society. Members of her still thriving order are recognisable the world over. I often see them sitting in small groups of two or three at the back of the room or church, when I am giving a talk or leading a meditation. Quiet, observant, listening, in their white sari-like habits lined with a little blue border.

Whenever I see them I remember my meetings with Mother Theresa, the talks I gave to her sisters and the retreat she asked me to give to her contemplative sisters who live in a simple community close to Calcutta railways station. She was totally unconcerned by her celebrity. If she had a fault it was her intense concentration on her work and its expansion and the force with which she drew others into it in accordance with her plans. I felt it myself and it was hard to resist.  But I noticed too how totally, freely, she let go of the ego when she felt the force of a direction other than her own.  When I last saw her, at the funeral of the priest who had been her close friend and companion for many years, she told me with enthusiasm that he would now be praying fulltime in heaven for her intention of getting a house for her sisters in China.

She understood meditation intuitively and deeply. For her sisters, she said, the most important times of the day were the hours of silence at the beginning and end  of the day. In between they were to be unconditionally and boundlessly committed to the service of the poorest, on the streets, in the soup-kitchens, in the homes for the dying. But without these two pillars of contemplation each day their work would not be God’s work. She recognised in John Main’s teaching a reliable source of practical wisdom and authority that her sisters could draw on to nourish and deepen their contemplative prayer.

The Missionaries of Charity show a very special kind of vocation, as are all forms of consecrated and monastic life. But they testify to a healthy and demanding understanding of contemplation relevant and necessary to every walk of life. “Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard,” she says. True contemplatives are often hard-talkers and usually outspoken, like Thomas Merton who irritated his fellow monks when he told them they were not living a real contemplative life but were more like ‘introverts saying prayers all day’.

In our digital, media-saturated, individualistic culture, pathological introversion is a chronic danger. It is the symptom of a life-draining self-centredness like the dementors in Harry Potter. Behind it is an often undiagnosed narcissism, that manifests (as we can see today) in the highest corridors of power. It seeks, sucks attention rather than giving it. It is fascinated by images of the self rather than living the direct experience of the self that takes the attention off ourselves.

Outward forms of life – working with street poverty or living in a  monastery – do not in themselves produce a contemplative life. Each person in the unique solitude of their calling need to discover the sources and resources of contemplation for themselves. What is common to all, however, is the wisdom that urges us to adopt a contemplative practice – one that converts introversion into interiority. And this shows us that contemplation is no more and no less than being in the present, seeing things as they really are and relating to reality from the real centre of our being – a relation that is proven by the quality of our love and our spirit of kindness.

Meditating twice a day, morning and evening, is as universal a practical wisdom for living this as we can find anywhere.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) 

We have been called to love the world. And God loved the world so much that he gave Jesus to it (Jn 3,16). Today, he loves the world so much that he gives you and me to the world to be his love, his compassion and his presence through our lives of prayer, sacrifice and self-surrender. The response that God is waiting for from you is to become a contemplative, to be a contemplative.

Let us take Jesus at his word and we will be contemplatives at the heart of the world, because if we have faith then we are his permanent presence. In contemplation the soul draws directly from God’s heart the graces that the active life has been entrusted to distribute. Our very existence is to be intimately bound to the living Christ within us. If we do not live in God’s presence, we cannot keep going.

What is contemplation? It is to live the life of Jesus. That is how I understand it. To love Jesus; living his life at the heart of our own; living our own at the heart of his… Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard but in allowing Jesus to live his Passion, his love and his humility in us, to pray with us, to be with us and to make holy through us. Our lives and our contemplation are one. It’s not a question of doing but of being. In fact it is about the complete happiness of our spirit through the Holy Spirit who breathes God’s fullness into us and send us out into all creation as his own, personal message of love (Mk 16,15).

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