Tag Archives: Contemplation

I’m Dreaming of a Contemplative Christmas

Together with “exciting” and “joyful”, “stressful” is a word that is associated with the days leading up to Christmas and with the Christmas season itself. Increased rush hour traffic, shopping lists and parties to squeeze into tight budgets and schedules, tasks lists in the preparation of the Christmas dinner, caroling rehearsals, and year-end work to wrap up in the office all pile up at this time of the year. One is tempted to ask, “Is Christmas worth it?”

The antidote to all this stress of the season is to readjust one’s idea of a perfect Christmas, and to aspire for a contemplative one: one spent lovingly gazing at the Holy Family in Bethlehem, and reflecting on what must have been the sentiments of Mary, Joseph, and the adoring shepherds and Wise Men.

Given that the frenzied holiday environment is not conducive to contemplation, a contemplative Christmas does not just happen. It must be deliberately pursued. Here are some suggestions to achieve a contemplative Christmas:

1. Do not skip Advent. The point of this penitential, yet hopeful, season is to prepare for Christmas through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Sacrament of Penance is a great way to spiritually prepare oneself for Christmas during the Advent season.

2. Schedule pious practices scattered throughout the day: spiritual reading, praying the rosary, fifteen- or thirty-minute periods of silent prayer, daily Mass if possible, and other pious practices one likes.

3. Convert Christmas preparations into prayer. For example, while choosing, buying, and wrapping Christmas gifts, one can pray for the recipients. The same thing can be done while writing Christmas cards, shopping for and cooking the Christmas dinner, or taking the family out to see the city Christmas light displays.

4. Offer up the inconveniences of the holiday season. There will always be reasons, big or small, to complain about the holiday season. Perhaps it is the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one, or perhaps the holiday season aggravates certain family issues, or one is suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Perhaps on some days, the increased rush hour traffic just gets to one’s nerves. Perhaps one is an introvert for whom the thought of attending just one more party is a trial. Fortunately, all these inconveniences borne with a smile can be pleasing gifts to the Christ Child.

5. In relation to the previous suggestion, think of what the Holy Family had to go through. Thinking about Mary and Joseph having had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem with the available roads and transportation at that time, and with Mary about to deliver a baby, helps one to put on a serene smile as one endures rush hour traffic from work to that obligatory party with one’s relatives.

These suggestions will not eliminate holiday stress. But they are tried and true ways to convert the holiday frenzy into true, meaningful, joy that comes from contemplating the Holy Family at Bethlehem. Regardless of what one must endure during the holiday season, a contemplative Christmas is always a happy Christmas.

Veritas and Vocation

dominican order crest

Veritas: this is the latin word for “truth.” It is also among the mottoes of my order, the seemingly simplest motto of the Order of Preachers. On the surface, it is the easiest, in that it is the only of the mottoes without an explicit action behind it: yet it is ultimately the most important, and indeed the most demanding thing.

Indeed, the other two mottoes taken by the Dominicans would seem to exist as subordinate clauses of “veritas.” The second motto, “To praise, to bless, and to preach” implies the existence of some content of one’s preaching—and if that content is to be be a blessing to anyone, or to be worthy praise, then it must be grounded first in truth. And what would we contemplate [1], and which fruits would there be which ought to be passed on, if it is not truth that we reflect upon nor is reflected by us?

Dominicans 800Years
Established 1215. Source.

All three of the mottoes of the Order of Preachers are tied in some way to the order’s charism, which in turn is tied to the order’s reason for being. Among various religious orders (and congregations, etc) within the Church, each has some special charism or gift which the order’s members are especially called to develop, and which is tied to the Church’s mission or to some aspect of her character. Thus, there are the contemplative orders which have built the great monasteries of the world; or the Franciscans (or Sisters of Divine Mercy, for that matter) who focus upon being or serving the poor; or the Salesians who teach and otherwise serve children, or the Jesuits who arose to become missionaries for the Church with special obedience to the pope [2]. For the Dominicans, the special charism is to preach.

Saint Francis meeting Saint Dominic. Source.

The order was actually founded at about the same time as the Franciscans, which was during the height of one of the “great” heresies to plague the Church. Saints Dominic de Guzman and Francis of Assisi established their respective orders in part to combat the laxity (and yes, even corruption) which was rampant in the Church at the time—but also to fight the Cathar heresy which was gaining traction in response to this. This particular heresy had a few forms (a common occurrence among heresies) and factions (the most notable being the Albigenses), and indeed appeared as a re-packaging of an older heresy (another common occurrence) known as Manichaenism.

The old Manichaens taught against the flesh in general, and forbid any number of earthly pleasures to their followers. According to these, man possesses a good spirit which is corrupted by being imprisoned in sinful flesh: a distortion of the traditional Christian view, and (as again is common for heresies) one which could even find some support in the Bible, if only certain passages are read out of context [3]. Certain foods were considered especially to be bad (in particular meat), as was sexual intercourse (which could lead to reproduction and thus the imprisonment of yet another soul in a material body). The new Manichaens resuscitated this old heresy and took it further, perhaps indeed to its logical conclusions, forbidding marriage and especially procreation, and indeed encouraging many of its members to “purify” themselves to the point of starvation. Although the new Manichaenism was extreme in its deprivations, it attracted many new followers because of the apparent holiness-in-poverty of its adherents [4], and because of the apparent Biblical support of its message, and the skill at oratory of those who proclaimed it.

Cathars rejected the material world. This also meant rejecting the sacraments established by Christ and continued by His Church for the salvation of souls. Source.

Saint Dominic recognized it as a threat not only to the Church but to civilization and indeed to mankind [5]. He also recognized that the Church of his day was ill-equipped to combat this latest threat, both because of the apparent wealth of her prelates and because of the poor training of many of her priests. They were often poor preachers, not only because they were poorly educated and poorly formed for their vocations, but because they were often weighted down by the worldly concerns of their offices. Their preaching often overlooked the Gospels, and because they  became too focused on their worldly trappings, they often overlooked the importance of preaching Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Therefore, Saint Dominic found that he had to combat two different problems. The first was that of the actual heresy which had sprung up; and the second was the worldly and even sinful tendencies of many in the Church (including clergy) which made this heresy seem so attractive [6]. This he did by using the vehicle of a new order dedicated especially to preaching, one whose members took as vows the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience [7]. The order was dedicated to preaching truth, but also to spending time in contemplation to reflect upon the truth, to understand it, to internalize it, and indeed to discern truth from falsehood (or half-truth). It takes especially seriously two important passages about the truth, namely John 14:6 and John 8:32. The former has Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the light,” and the latter has Him telling his disciples, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

Jesus is God’s definitive revelation of Himself to us (CCC 73), and apart from Him there is no revelation which is “the truth” [8]. This was indeed the answer to the Manichees (both old and new). They condemned meat, but Christ multiplied fish on a few occasions (Mark 6:31-44 and Mark 8:1-9), to say nothing of eating lamb [9]. The Cathars condemned marriage, but He praised it—and even (through St. Paul) spoke against condemning it (1 Timothy 4:3). The Albigensians rejected the flesh, the body—but He resurrected it, and indeed went so far as to offer proof that His body was risen (John 2:24-27, Luke 24:36-43), to say nothing of teaching (through His apostles) that we are His body (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church.

Seal of the Order of Preachers. Image source.

We are constantly teaching others about ourselves (and by extension, our beliefs). We are all in a sense “preaching” something as long as we are observed by others, as any parent whose loose lips let slip the wrong word might assure. We all give our testimonies, if not in words then in actions or even attitudes.

If we are to preach Truth, then we must first come to know it (Him). To some extent, we do this through studying: there is some “head knowledge” involved, after all. Truth is the intelligibility of reality, of existence, and so we therefore must employ and form and strengthen our intellects to know the truth. There are some obvious points of departure for this endeavor, foremost written and Oral Tradition (e.g. Scriptures, the creeds, the Liturgy, etc.) and the Church’s magisterial teachings in her Catechisms and councils. We can be further helped in understanding these through the interpretations of the Fathers and the commentaries of the Doctors and the teachings other saints and pontiffs.

To perhaps a greater extent, we come to know the truth through prayer, because beyond the “head knowledge” there is also some “heart knowledge,” which we gain through relationship with Christ and with His Church. In particular, meditative and contemplative prayer is important to the order of preachers: time spent contemplating the crucifix, from which St. Thomas Aquinas could justly claim to have learned more than all the books ever written; time spent contemplating the Eucharist; and time spent reflecting on the words of Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and even the lives of the saints.

Thus, preaching may be thought of as a sort of contraction of “prayer” and “teaching.” Hence, to contemplate and to pass on the fruits of contemplation. Indeed, this joining of prayer to teaching in preaching has been with the Order of Preachers since its founding: before he established the Friars to go out and preach, St. Dominic established the sisters to pray for them.

A Dominican cross. Image source.

What is especially present in the prayer behind the preaching is that in preaching we will be serving truth, and indeed the Truth. Therefore, while we may in our contemplation reflect upon the truths revealed and entrusted to us, and while we may ask God for the wisdom, the understanding, and the knowledge to preach truly—it is equally important, above all, for us to ask for humility.

We must remember above all that all truth is God’s truth, and not our own. “Your truth” and “my truth” are not nearly so interesting as the Truth, and while we ought to internalize truth, it is not ours in the sense that we cannot own it as a private possession. When we contemplate on some revealed or reasoned knowledge, and then that contemplation bears fruit, we must share that fruit with others. Moreover, these fruits of contemplation ought to be shared freely, and they ought, indeed, to be shared

[1] The third motto of the Order of Preachers—commonly called Dominicans—is “To contemplate and then pass on the fruits of contemplation.”

[2] At least in theory

[3] “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41), for example.

[4] It also gave encouragement to seize and despoil the land of those who would not embrace it

[5] But I repeat myself.

[6] Sadly, this is also an all-too-common occurrence.

[7] The Dominicans are not unique in doing this. Also, the lay members are not required to take these vows—but of course, we generally obey them in the form of trying to live within our means, living generally chastely within the bound of our state in life, and being obedient to the Magisterial authority of the Church.

[8] Even the revelations of the Old testament which predated Him point forward to Him. And the various other revelations about (for example) Mary and the Saints and the Church, or Man and the World and Sin, are still “about” Christ and hence God in some way.

[9] This much is implicit by reading about what the Jews were to eat for passover (Exodus 12:1-28), that Christ participated in passover (Luke 22 7-23). To say nothing of His own references to our need to eat of His flesh and Drink of His blood (John 6:53-59).

On Sloth and Wonder

Every Christian shares in the universal call to partake in the Beatific Vision.  His baptism gives him this vocation.  The Gospel calls all men to be contemplatives.

Sloth and dissipation distort modern connotations of leisure, which formerly meant contemplation in rest.  The Greeks called leisure schole, whence we derive “school.”  School provides the place where teachers invite students to contemplate, to enjoy, to wonder.  It trains the heart to love aright.

We can take this meditative disposition into all of life.  A person who enjoys a sunset for its own sake participates in contemplation.  A parent delighting in the mere sight of his child partakes of wonder.  This principle helps to distinguish between drinking to get drunk and loving the taste of wine.  One tends toward gluttony, the other toward a love of beauty.  Rest for Christians should aim not at amusement but at musing.

The vision of beauty has elements of both fear and joy in it.  James S. Taylor writes of “the precise moment suspended between wonder (fear) and possession (joy), for the be-hold is to possess, to hold with the cognitive sense of the sensory-emotional response of near-simultaneous, fear-joy: the sensation of one’s heart leaping up in the chest” (Poetic Knowledge, 50).  He speaks of a knowledge which sees the essence of a thing and delights in its existence.  This vision of the world draws the gazer into union with the things which he sees and loves.  When the wonderer glimpses the gratuitousness of the universe, the fact that God did not have to create, but He did, his soul leaps in appreciation.  The one who muses walks a fine line between poetry and philosophy, as Josef Pieper observes: “The philosopher, [Aquinas] . . . says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel” (qtd. in Poetic Knowledge, 79).  The eyes of the poet-philosopher see the world “as a vibrant arena of visible and invisible reality” (35).  Through faith we glimpse the spiritual meaning of the material world.

St Thomas Aquinas 2

When we make “linking earth to heaven” the goal of our thoughts, we transcend time (40).  Taylor points to “the time lost in childhood play; the time that seems to vanish when lovers are together, alone; the hours that have simply slipped away during a meal where there was wine and lively conversation” (76).  When we approach life from a place of rest and gratitude, we will be able to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of everyday life.  Taylor observes that “we learn to love what is beautiful and in this way know also the true and the good” (75).  Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  Where charity and love are, God is there.

The Ship of Joy

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. – John 15:11

Joy is like an old ship that was headed for some adventure, but sunk instead like a slow rock under the heaviness of life, waiting to be unearthed.

Divers, plunging in on the breath of prayer, found my ship a while ago, full of Spanish gold.The treasure laden ship has started to rise to the surface on the current of contemplation. But I am reluctant to let it. I have just enough of the joy currency to coast.

I don’t really want to strike it rich. If I throw my money around everyone will think I am one of those annoying nouveau riche Christians. And they will either roll their eyes or expect way too much of me. They won’t realize of course that the money is not mine, I inherited it a while back.

The marine trust fund has been discovered, but it could disappear underwater again at any time. So, instead of facing the constant fear of sinking, I simply keep my hand on the ship of joy, watching as it bobs underwater, struggling to surface.

Too much joy after all is just not something most people can handle. It causes unrealistic expectations and I am deathly afraid of smiling for the rest of my life. Joy and sanctity are so intertwined. Too much sanctity, now that is even scarier than the never ending smile. So I have decided to keep this joy boat under wraps.

It seems proper.

After all, like most people, I prefer to waver just above average in the sanctity business – just enough so people will admire me but no more. With anything more than slightly above mediocre comes the hassle of consistency. God knows, it’s the consistency that makes a saint. And then the adventure is all over from there.

Or is it?

I forgot it’s the ship of joy that carries us on the adventure in the first place.

Catholic Culture: Spiritual Reading

According to reports, and I’m sure that those of us who are actually at World Youth Day can back this up, il Papa Benedetto has announced that he will declare St. John of Avila a Doctor of the Church. My thoughts, of course, immediately went to another Doctor of the Church from Avila: St. Teresa. I have been reading Interior Castle by St. Teresa and I am a fan. This announcement by His Holiness got me to thinking about the place of Spiritual Reading in our daily lives, but not only our personal lives but also in our Catholic Cultural Experience. When people think of World Youth Day, they often think of a) a Festival b) Charismatic Expression c) Music c) Action d) Youth Ministry etc. Although the reality may be a lot different, these are the perceptions from the outside. It is a Party. But I think the Pope has challenged us to see it as more (I’ve never actually been, which is why I say the reality is probably a lot different from the perception). He has introduced the idea of Spiritual Reading into the otherwise pretty enthusiastic atmosphere. Spiritual Reading has always been important to the life of Catholics which is why the Church provides us with especially good sources…the Doctors of the Church. In designating another Doctor, the Pope is emphasizing the importance of this practice. Of course the primary source of reading for Catholics is Sacred Scripture, but there are also secondary sources for spiritual enrichment. I myself have found these particularly edifying having a philosophical and intellectual bent.

I think that B16 is calling us to reclaim the contemplative aspect of our spiritual lives. We are a generation of action and oftentimes we forget to slow down in our desire to spread the word. This is an admirable attitude but with almost all attitudes, it can not keep itself up without nourishment. This attitude of Catholic Action is strengthened by the contemplation of truth through reading. And this is something that can be done on our own time without having to travel halfway around the world to see the Pope.

Now, I’m going to be in Rome all of next year for study abroad and so I will probably see the Pope quite frequently. However, as much as I am inspired by being in the Eternal City with the Heart of the Church mere minutes away, in order to truly grow in relationship with Christ and in order to grow a Catholic Culture, I will need to take a breather: silent prayer and contemplation on the Word of God and the words of his saints