My goal for 2019 is to become ever more contemplative.
This year I’ve found myself turning inward rather than outward. I want to become continually, progressively converted. I want my heart changed.
I’ve realized that, as the old spiritual has it, “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
I’m drawn, then, toward the practice of Christian contemplation.
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The contemplative lifestyle harkens back to the faith’s earliest centuries. Traditionally, it involved entering a cloister and devoting oneself entirely to prayer and seclusion from the outside world — as well as to mortification of the flesh, hard work, virginity, poverty and obedience to a higher religious authority.
I’m not suited for a contemplation that formalized or severe. I’m not intentionally trying to abase myself; I doubt I’d be any good at that. I’m too old for hard work. It’s too late for virginity. I tried poverty and didn’t like it. I don’t take orders well from other preachers.
My contemplative pursuits are less demanding.
They do involve forms of seclusion and prayer, at least.
For instance, just due to my circumstances, I already spent big chunks of time alone. My wife works in Lexington and is gone most days. My grandkids now live an hour away. Most of my parishioners have day jobs or are otherwise occupied.
So I have an awful lot of time to myself, which is fine. I’ve rarely had a problem with keeping my own company. I like to read. I like to drive around country roads and think. I like to watch old movies. I like to go target shooting. I like to play a game called Word Wipe online. Occasionally I even do something productive, such as study for a sermon or write a newspaper column or visit the sick.
But in 2018 I’ve increasingly felt an urge to use that quiet time to develop spiritually.
I’m entering the last phase of my life on earth. I want to know God better before I leave here. I want to understand myself better as well. I want to become a kinder, less irritated and less irritating Christian.
Among other things, I’ve been trying to learn to pray without ceasing, as St. Paul suggested. To that end, I’m turning my thousand ordinary daily actions into acts of prayer.
Often I don’t succeed. I’m maybe up to a 40-60 split of prayer vs. my habitual cussing or obliviousness or boredom.
But to the extent I do practice a prayerful mindset, every act I perform becomes transformed — which is to say I’m aware God is present with me in that act and intimately involved with it.
Daily chores — gassing up the car, depositing my paycheck at the bank, loading the dishwasher — become supplications.
I devote myself, and thus those deeds, to God. I seek his quiet leadership. I remain conscious of the divine even in the mundane. I choose to be grateful.
I’m not ridiculous about it. You shouldn’t think I pray, “Dear Lord, Almighty God, should I empty this dishwasher or not empty it? Give me a vision!”
I doubt God cares two snaps about the dishwasher. (My wife, though, cares a great deal.)
But as I’m putting away the dishes, I try to be, in that moment, there with the Lord.
I remind myself, “The Lord lives even in this simple task. Maybe he’s helping me become a more thoughtful husband. Maybe he just likes clean dishes.”
When I manage to hold onto this attitude, I find I no longer separate the “godly” from the “fleshly.” They meld. They, and therefore (I hope) I, become inseparable from the God who is present with me and with everyone, everywhere.
In Jesus’ phrase, I find I’m in him and he’s in me.
This idea sometimes helps even when I’m not secluded, when I’m rubbing shoulders with hoi polloi. It’s creating in me a welcome self-mortification despite myself. I’m not trying to flog my fallen nature into submission. But it’s slowly yielding anyway, a consequence I didn’t foresee.
If someone speaks to me rudely, I’m less likely to take offense than I used to be.
When I’m aware of God in that moment, God’s spirit seems to whisper, “It’s not worth losing your peace over. That guy’s having a bad day. Smile and wish him my blessings and go merrily along your way.”
And I do.
Or sometimes I do.
As I said, if I were to put a number on it, I’m probably up to having this sublime awareness 40 percent of the time. Which is an improvement.
My hope for 2019 is that the Lord and I will increase that percentage.