Imagine that the world’s religious leaders announced a contest that Five Tickets would be randomly distributed in places of worship the world over this weekend. These very special five people would receive an all-expense-paid trip ticket to tour and the greatest mystical revelation that has been kept secret for centuries. The leaders of the major faiths have been given a revelation to select five people to gather together, and present them at a time and chosen the place, to experience a revelation of the secrets of the universe, man’s creation, and God. Not even they know the revelation, but each has received identical directions to offer the contest to humanity. A random drawing in places of worship this weekend. And one of these five people would be chosen for a very special prize at the end of a week of staying in this secret place.
I imagine the places of worship would be filled this weekend with believers, atheist, agnostics, and media types, cynics, and just those that are curious. The winners are selected already – but by the direction is given already if they are not in the service this weekend, alternates will take their place. By Sunday at 3 P.M. the world will know the five selected for this spiritual journey, or if by the absence of the first selected, who won entry as an alternate. By next Sunday the five will have a further revelation for the world, especially the one who wins the special prize.
Yes, this is the story of Charlie and Willie Wonkers Chocolate Factory. Willie Wonker only called five and only one, after careful vetting for character flaws, would remain to the end – Charlie Bucket. The bible tells us a similar moral fable; only it is lived out in history with real trials of men being chosen by God to receive revelation and then tested by the trial of human experience and perseverance required to live a holy life.
Alas, don’t hang me on the stake for using the word “fable.” Within our faith, we use the phrase “parables,” and in our theological lens, the great thinkers and leaders of the church sort out what is deemed historically accurate versus reality versus literary devices. All I have to say on the matter is “all is not what it seems” on the surface, and thorough inquiry and discernment are required for any serious interpretation of the bible to hold reasonable certainty of true understanding. We must not forget we are over two thousand years away from the lifetime of the historical Jesus Christ and the bible and the Gospels are the “living word,” not a dead historical text. And yet, as some interpretations and revelations may provide new insight, certain fundamental truths remain unalterable and unchangeable in time.
Invitation to seek God:
But let us return to the invitation to the Chocolate Factory and the invitation to know God. How are they different?
- We each are given a golden ticket – if we are open to finding it. Once found, it comes with great responsibility, and each person’s ticket comes with individualized direction, expectation, and calling for action. This ticket is existentially inside all of us and can be found, if we are open to God’s presence, through contemplative prayer as defined by God, and specifically prescribed for you. No two tickets are alike. Your calling is distinct and special. No one can tell you what God has inscribed in your soul for revelation and direction. Willie Wonker gave away five tickets – God gives everyone a ticket to use or not use.
- No one is absent of character flaws when viewed through the lens of God’s perfection. We bring them to the table as an intrinsic part of our nature, and while we seek perfection, we pray for God’s mercy and grace in light of our many imperfections. Willie Wonker expelled 4 of the 5 ticket holders. God will not expel you if you seek him out with true humility and ask his mercy.
- We have a rich spiritual and theological tradition in Christianity the provides us both the tangible word of God (Gospels) and the existential mystical experiences of our rich contemplatives (Saints, Martyrs, Theologians). The first provides us grounding and teachings that we can hang our coats on, a foundation of morality and spiritual direction that gives us form and definition. The latter keeps us humble by blowing away our sense of truly knowing the Godhead and being able to claim we are the sole owners of what is the proper way of holiness and oneness with God.
- Wilie Wonkers land is a tale of humankind’s morality and teaches very basic shared values. The bible’s tale is infinite in meaning and interpretation and is momentary and timeless simultaneously.
- Our words and experiences cannot define the Kingdom of Heaven, the definition of Sin, and the infinity of the word Love with any certainty. We have glimpses and scents of each from our subjective experiences and from what has been granted us by the summation of our intellectual capacities, human experiences, spiritual traditions, the word of God, and divine graces. Our language is simply insufficient.
- Our Science, although profound to our sense of our wisdom is inadequate. In our narcissism, we claim greatness by visiting the moon and yet we 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty, 22000 children die every day due to poverty, and we are rapidly destroying the only home we have despite our science informing us we are doing so. If only we had to just make chocolate.
However, we remain hungry for these eternal truths are coded into our being, into our innermost depths. If we are not attuned to them, we may go down the path of human folly trying to fill this void with synthetic human accomplishments or pleasurable distractions. These things are not bad in and of themselves and are quite necessary for the betterment of humankind, but they are not divine and cannot fill the spiritual depths found in our souls. To attempt to do so is to simultaneously corrupt the value of our accomplishments and pleasures and take us, farther, away from spiritual truth.
So, what is the Golden Ticket to knowing God, and where can I find it? For Catholic, the way is clear, and the form and practices of religious beliefs are codified in the sacraments and church traditions. Let me pause here and enter into heresy! It is not enough that we are steeped in Church rituals, traditions, and practices. History has taught us that our church and its leaders can be fallible. I will not detail our shared historical errors here, for they are well documented and common ammunition for the anti-Catholic crowd that feeds on believer’s moral failings, whether clergy or not. I will focus on the power and mystery of contemplative prayer. This is where we take individual responsibility for testing our thoughts, beliefs, and actions against the God standard.
Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, and Mysticism:
Assuming a well-founded base of spiritual development and a sincere desire to live a holy life, seeking contemplation of the mystical saintly order is perhaps pure folly. For most, I fear it is a form of spiritual grandiosity dialectically opposed to the humility required to be truly present with God.
A candidate for contemplation prayer is anyone with the desire to know God more deeply. A candidate for the contemplative prayer of the mystical variety, however, is not attainable for everyone. It is to use a medical term, contra-indicated and dangerous to recommend or guide one to pursue it if there is not ample evidence of proper preparation and a true calling by God to do so.
Yes, as elitist as this sounds, one cannot be a contemplative mystic and truly transcend the human experience without an invitation. How many of us on reading this phrase might secretly agree with this premise for everyone else – but believe we can achieve this lofty goal by sheer determination and will-power. We are, after all, generally good people seeking to live a holy life – or we would not be reading a spiritually oriented blog. How could God not choose to grace us with spiritual consolations if we place ourselves selflessly at his mercy?
How horrible that I start with what most of us are not and never will be! I start here to celebrate our imperfections, not as points of pride, but as a starting point of humility and pursuit of perfection that we will never achieve. Who among us can follow in the path of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and others? Even amongst these, there is controversy and hidden danger of falling into spiritual distortions. I am drawn to St. Ignatius and Ignatian Spirituality. Of course, the original contemplative is Jesus Christ. Think of Jesus Christ preparation for his ministry and going into the desert or the many times he went off to pray with or without his disciples.
What I realize for myself is that I need the prayer of many different styles in my everyday life as I require high maintenance to strive for living a truly spiritual life in our secular world. Jesus Christ provided us a very simple guide on how to pray in the Gospel of Luke and Matthew when he provided us the Lord’s prayer. Prayer, however, is not simply a recitation of rote words. It is an on-going conversation that requires time, patience, and discernment. Almost all prayer involves elements of contemplative prayer. Freeman defines Contemplative prayer as involving the following elements:
- Interiority: going into “our inner room” (Mt 6:6)
- Silence: prayer is about brevity, simplicity, and trust
- Calmness: freedom from anxiety and obsession with material things
- Mindfulness: focusing on God’s Kingdom before all else
- Presentness: living in present moment, free from fear of the future[i]
And yet we cannot force the outcome, we can only put our physical body and soul in a place where we can be open and receptive to God’s grace:
We all probably already are contemplative prayers! Many of us practice Lectio-Divina prayer. This involves scripture reading, followed by meditation and prayer – sort of a guided meditation allowing the spiritual imagination to find space and time to be present with God. A smaller number of us may even get to experience intensive contemplative retreats where we can spend enormous amounts of time in perfect silence and adoration of God. Even with these intense spiritual excursions, few of us have contemplative, mystical experiences that compare say to St. Theresa of Lisieux. And most of us are not called to go live in a hermitage and spend our lives totally in prayer and adoration to God.
That being said, I truly believe Catholicism today is missing interior ownership of seeking the mystical life to guide our “civilian life” is all our secular affairs. How many Catholics have read the “Cloud of the Unknowing.” And how many Catholics could integrate this anonymous work into their faith without becoming lost in its anchorless mysticism?
Cloud of the Unknowing:
One could easily misinterpret the work as being fundamentally Buddhist as the writer speaks about the emptying of oneself. They would be wrong as the emptying of oneself is merely a process of coming to acknowledge we are nothing without God. I loved the visual in this work of sending intrusive thoughts to the Cloud of Unknowing beneath my feet and setting my gaze on the “Dark Cloud of Unknowing” as I set aside time to contemplate one word (Sin or Love). How could I pray in this formless way without having a firm foundation and understanding of what it is I am praying to and seeking to join?
Our rich early Christian contemplative writers and even modern-day authors have a treasure chest of spiritual knowledge acquired from innumerable hours of reading, listening, thinking, praying, confessing, and receiving spiritual direction. And yet we should still strive to grasp the “Fallen Nature of man versus the Glory of God.” And yet again, all our striving is for not without divine activity intervening and providing us grace and mercy in all our actions.
Perhaps even furthering this depressive thought is that no matter how far we go with cleansing our sinful lives and living by holy virtues – “suffering will plague us unto death” and we will “never have complete security on earth.” How would this work as a sales pitch for Christianity! This classic Christian writing said just that in the 14th century.
Ah, secretly I want to be elevated in God’s graces, receiving constant consolations and graces, and perhaps even be called to a solitary life of prayer and adoration – even to the point of a vow of poverty and singular purpose in life. And then God whispers in my ear, “you do not know what you are asking,” and I quickly agree as I think of the lives of the great saints and martyrs. Yet I can still seek to pray and strive to be with God:
But I am not off the hook of his calling. I am not a Christian mystic of the saintly variety, but I am called to contemplative prayer. This contemplative prayer is where I am to discern the intent of my every thought and action and realign them when they come up short of divine expectations. And often this involves facing responsibilities and task I would rather not volunteer to do. There simply is no end here on earth to injustices that require righting, service that requires workers, and suffering that requires prayers. Contemplation and Action are intimately intertwined in my life – but the moment they are separated, it is not long before everything is unraveled for me and faith hangs in the balance.
But sometimes we don’t have to go far to begin.
This blog entry was interrupted by Saturday mass, and the Responsorial Psalm was simply stated: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The second reading deserves some contemplation as well.