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Posted October 15, 2007

Father, Please Keep Your
Contemplative Edge Razor Sharp!

Eugene Hemrick

From a book to be published by Gene Hemrick

After the death of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal McCarrick recalled one of the most memorable experiences of his life when being with him. As John Paul II entered a chapel, he fell to his knees in prayer.

“It was an awesome moment like no other I encountered,” recalls McCarrick. “The pope went into deep prayer and was all there with God. Sensing its solemnity, I slipped behind a pillar so as not to disturb the moment.”

Church commentators have often pointed to the pope’s physical fitness and Spartan Polish background as reasons for his being able to weather debilitating medical problems. But were these the principal reasons behind his strength, or was it the depth of contemplation he reached and the strength this generated?

What exactly is the contemplation of which we speak, and what are its unique strengths?

In front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., there’s a statute of a woman holding a child. Her head is bowed as if she is in pain. Actually, she is The Contemplation of Justice. If you look closely, the boy she is holding has the scales of justice in his hand.

The position of Contemplation’s head with eyes cast to the ground give us a concrete picture of contemplation being an exercise in which distractions are curtailed in order to give our interior life free reign.

Romano Guardini describes it as a “collected, total presence; a being ‘all there,’ receptive, alert, ready. . . .It is when the soul abandons the restlessness of purposeful activity.”

Pieper would concur and add that it’s gazing, i.e., submitting to that which we see and placing ourselves within its grasp. Interestingly, he states that contemplation is at the basis of leisure and truly celebrating life.

When I first pondered Guardini and Pieper on the notion of contemplation, I had difficulty envisioning “being all there,” “collected,” “gazing” and “receptivity.” What especially stumped me was understanding how contemplation and celebrating life complemented each other.

One afternoon I ambled down to our museums on the mall in Washington, D.C. and stumbled upon my answer. On exhibit was a large wall-size photo of an exquisite Jewish Synagogue in Detroit. Its interior was awesome: rich blues, golds, reds and the deep warmth of mahogany wood dazzled the eye. The more I gazed upon it, the more it drew me into it, united me with it, and energized me with its beauty.

As I walked home, I said to myself, “That was a rich experience. It made my day!” The more I pondered this, the more I realized that my happiest moments in life were similar to this experience. “Ah,” I thought, “this is what Pieper means by celebration!” I then began to look back over my life and suddenly realized that the most celebrated times in it have been heartfelt moments in which I shared ideas, hopes and dreams with dear friends. They were truly sacramental moments in which we became one and imbibed in the blissful intimacy of togetherness. I have to wonder if this ecstatic unity is what the Beatific Vision will be like? Will it be a total abandonment of restless activity that frees us to be one with God? Will we finally enjoy eternal calmness?

Interestingly, the Greek concept of calmness is closely related to contemplation. It means “the heat of the day,” creating the image of coming out of the pounding sun and getting away from that which wears on us. Here truth would say, Note well how calmness is one of the most beneficial results of contemplation: blissful peace devoid of anxiety, stress, and restlessness!

Most priest retreats I conduct have been in extremely beautiful settings. As idyllic and peaceful as they are, many priests fail to fully capitalize on them. Achieving true calmness, cultivating recollection and a sense of being all there with God is rarer than common. Perhaps the reason for this is that we usually begin a retreat on the heels of busy, frenzied activities? Or perhaps it’s because of the shortness of a retreat that doesn’t allow enough time to fully enter into it? Whatever the reasons, more often than not, we don’t truly celebrate our retreats. Having experienced this all too frequently causes me to wonder whether there should be some type of decompression exercise we employ before making a retreat to better dispose ourselves to its graces: perhaps making a day of recollection that is focused on lowering anxieties and the concerns of ministry prior to the retreat? It might be designed for getting into the mood Blessed Pope John XXIII cultivated before going to bed at night: “Lord, I have done all I can for the day. It is now time for you to take over. Good night.” We might paraphrase this prayer: “Lord, I’m not a one-person act. It’s time for your act.”

Another good means for preparing for a retreat might be to commit more deeply to the daily prayer we pray before the sign of peace at mass:

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy keep us free from sin
and protect us from all anxiety
as we wait in joyful hope
for the coming of our Savior
Jesus Christ.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote, “We seem so frightened of being alone that we never let it happen. . . .We choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen. It is simply there to fill the vacuum. When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place.”

Whether we are conscious of it or not, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to making a wholesome retreat, and for that matter being more recollected, calm and focused priests, is due to being part of a wired society that has conditioned us to embrace hyper-activity. As beneficial as are cell phones, e-mails and faxes, they are forever corralling our attention and heightening our need for titillation, making us like children who get so wound up we can’t settle down and rest.

The technological advances of being in instant communication also plays to a false notion we’re indispensable, and that a priest can be excused for not being “all there” for God if he is “all there” for the needs of his people. As wonderful as is our electronic age, it presents us with an enormous challenge: how to control and govern it? In mimicking our society, we run the risk of diminishing an essential pillar of ministry: the stillness generated by contemplation and its powers in helping us truly celebrate the mysteries of God and of our ministry.

I am always mystified by priests who are constantly calling parishioners or receiving calls from them while on retreat; who leave to take care of something they booked before going on it, or who rush off before it ends. What is most disturbing is the way we mirror society and forsake the unique contemplative side of our priesthood we are supposed to mirror. St. Paul was ever so correct in using the image of a well-trained athlete as an example of the discipline we need to gain the winner’s crown. Here truth would ask: in order to keep our contemplative edge in the midst of a highly stimulated society, are we cultivating the asceticism needed to practice stillness, focus, and the blessed art of abandoning restless activity?

Some years ago, a meeting on what types of formation are best for seminarians was held at Saint Meinrad’s Benedictine Monastery. During it, a discussion ensued about the value of seminarians being trained in a contemplative atmosphere verses being formed by the real world in which they will minister. In attendance was Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg who told participants at the meeting, “The men of religion will find the world soon enough, for it beats insistently upon everybody. The question remains: what will they bring to the world out of the transforming power of their faith? . . . .”

“We are talking very much today of bringing religion into the world, but after that glittering proposition is stated I hear little agreement on what the message to be brought ought to be. I sat at St. Meinrad and wondered whether it would not be better for at least some men to make it their vocation to keep examining this world of ours while remaining strongly rooted in a community of worship and contemplation. . . .”

“Religion and the world are, by their very nature, in tension. The urges to contemplation and action are the reflections of this tension in the lives of men. Precisely because we are all so busy in action, or in feeling guilty that we are not active enough, St. Meinrad reminded me that Moses was not always in the midst of affairs in the camp of the Jews. He was most useful to them and most transforming of them after he had ascended Mount Sinai and was alone with God for 40 days.”

The comments of Rabbi Hertzberg call into question the value we place on our contemplative side. Here truth would raise the hypothetical question: what would happen if we were required to make a two-week retreat instead of a one-week retreat, or even more so, a thirty-day retreat? Would we truly become a sounder, stronger priesthood better prepared to handle the complexities of our age? Or would the discipline needed to be still, focused and free of restlessness in these retreats result in adding to our restlessness? Living in a non contemplative environment as we do, how do we cultivate the meddle needed to truly become contemplative?

Silence was the hallmark of our seminary life at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. Some of us loved it, while others were driven out the seminary by it. Those who left were terrific men, but they just weren’t made for ascetical contemplation and the silent time our seminary training required. Here truth would again ask: What means must we create in order to harness the enormous powers of contemplation? What more do we need to accomplish to balance our hyper activity existence with the quieter world of meditation, contemplation and prayer?

To help us answer these questions, let’s look at those enormous powers of contemplation to learn exactly why we are so adamant about pledging ourselves to it.

While competing in the Chicago triathlon I experienced one of the most awesome powers of contemplation. The most frightening event in a triathlon is the mile swim that begins the race. It’s very nerve-racking because you compete with about fifty other swimmers who are constantly bumping into you or swimming over you in deep waters.

What made this particular triathlon especially frightening were the cold water temperatures and its roughness. One minute I would see swimmers around me, and the next moment they were lost to sight in high swells.

During our swim, a number of swimmers panicked and began calling to the lifeguards to be rescued. I remember panic hitting me and feeling its unnerving effect. I thought to myself, “This is how people drown in a matter of minutes.”

For some unknown reason I was able to go within myself, become recollected and all there. Once into this contemplative mood, I focused on relaxing, and not fighting the water, but just letting go. Suddenly an inner calmness, and new vigor enveloped me. It was astonishing how I had lost all my nerve and felt powerless one moment, and the next moment I was at full strength. Until that incident, I never fully realized the awesome powers contemplation contains for helping us regain the robust energies needed to overcome our worst enemy: fear.

It goes without saying that this wholesome strength is especially needed in today’s priesthood, and that we need to develop creative ways for generating it. It’s disconcerting to witness priests and bishops who are constantly on the go and who outwardly don’t seem to have a recollected, receptive bone in their body. Why feel so concerned about this hyperactive phenomenon when it’s a normal way of life for most Americans? Why not accept the fact that today’s hyperactive ministry, like ministry in the past, has a number of nervous fritzes in it?

The reason is because far too many priests, bishops, and for that matter, Americans in general, have fallen victim to the debilitation this causes. Too many are falling by the way side. One look at those in institutes like the St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Springs, confirms this. These victims have not as yet reached epidemic levels. If, however, we aren’t more vigilant, dioceses could see the present rate of debilitated priests and bishops increase dramatically. Our pressure-cooked society is under much more pressure than past generations experienced.

In addition to providing therapy for various psychological and physical illnesses, St. Luke’s Institute has a web sight which documents mental and physical infirmities, and also, injurious habits that can lead to trouble. Without sounding simplistic, as unique and puzzling as are each of these infirmities, I believe they can be summed up in one sentence: they reflect people who have literally lost the art of celebrating life. Their powers of focusing, entering more fully into life, coping with restless activities, and achieving the calmness and rest needed to heal have been weakened to the point of being useless, or they have completed deserted them.

I would hypothesize that a good number of priests who take a leave of absence, whether for physical, psychological or spiritual reasons have to a great degree lost their ability to celebrate their priesthood. This is not to fault them. Some suffer genetic or physical afflictions over which they have no control. Others may be suffering from childhood and similar psychological traumas. And then, some just weren’t made for the priesthood. Although I would not venture to say how many, I believe there are priests who would still be active had they taken fuller advantage of the strength that comes from our spiritual tradition of prayer, meditation and contemplation. We not only know of the strength they give us, but medical research confirms they contain enormous powers for psychosomatic well-being.

In The Promise of Virtue, I have a chapter on silence. When I began writing it, I remember taking a bike ride and thinking to myself. “I really don’t know it! After years of practicing silence in the seminary and throughout my whole life, I still feel inadequate in writing on it.” Later the thought occurred, “Start with what you are most familiar: the life of Christ and what this says about silence.” This led me to reexamine the trial of Christ before Pilate. In that trial, the one thing that stands out most is that Christ is very silent. In fact, one scripture scholar told me that some scripture scholars feel Christ never uttered a word.

My reflections on Christ’s trial started with his being arrested, scourged, mocked and then led to Pilot for trial.

“Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.”

Christ finds himself bound like a common prisoner, being derided by the very persons who should have been the first to comprehend who he was.

This is irony at its worst, and when we are victims of it, we want to shout to the heavens for justice. But Christ does not shout, he hardly murmurs a word and humbly stands before Pilate who asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

The question is legitimate and Christ answers, “You say so.”

This disturbs the chief priests and elders who are out to misconstrue his words and actions in order to condemn him.

Christ is not so much hurt by their false accusations as he is in seeing how their jealousy has eaten away at the very dignity they received from his Father. They are men possessed on killing him who have lost possession of who they are.

Then Pilate says to him, “Don’t you hear how many things they are accusing you of?” But he does not answer Pilate one word, and the governor is greatly amazed.

But why be amazed? Could it be that Pilate senses in Christ a patient man who reflects the scriptural saying, “Through patience a man possesses his soul?” Does Christ’s stillness cause Pilate to realize he is in the presence of one greater than himself and those who accuse Christ? Is the force of Christ’s silence so powerful that Pilate cannot but be amazed by its magnitude? I believe we can truly say “yes” to each of these questions.

In saying yes, we are also saying yes to the self possession Christ mirrored through his practice of prayer and contemplation. Whenever he could, he escaped the crowds to contemplate and pray. One very inspiring way to read the gospels is through the eyes of Christ in contemplation and the recollectiveness it creates. As quiet as these settings seem, he is never alone. It is through contemplation that he unites with his father and finds his strength. Ultimately, this is behind the glory of Christ.

The enormous strength of self possession that contemplation generates is reason alone to repeatedly emphasize its need for today’s priesthood. Truth would tell us: nothing is more important! Nothing must substitute for it or take priority over it! It must be our hallmark because only those of who can be silent can speak wisely to our new millennium age!

What does contemplation require in terms of time? Are we supposed to become monks? If this is the expectation, it’s impractical because we aren’t monks. Most of us are secular priests who don’t have a community to support a monastic lifestyle.

As true as this may be, it’s equally true we must possess a contemplative side to our priesthood to be a real priest. To accomplish this, we need to be visionary in devising new revolutionary ways of being contemplative in the midst of our hurried, overstimulated society.

When we speak of a revolutionary age of priestly contemplation, it may be interpreted as if a new monastic movement is being advocated in which we find imaginative ways of reconnecting with and utilizing monasticism. If such an opportunity comes our way, all the more power to us for capitalizing on it! However, more often than not, this is not convenient. Hence, we need to create models of “fitting contemplation” that correspond with the reality of our times. What do we mean by “fitting contemplation?”

On our website, The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, we asked, “How do you maintain your spiritual life amidst a busy daily schedule.” The answers we received from priests reflect the precise ingenuity we need in creating “fitting contemplation.” Take, for example, the response, “To the specifics regarding sustaining ingredients to a priestly spirituality . . . don't forget PLACES. For example, my car is an important place for me to go to pray. No phones. No interruptions. My car is important. Do priests have other holy/common places? I'm an old English teacher. Your examples list persons & things [that help our spirituality]. But a noun like "spirituality" could use a PLACE in translation, too.”

In another response, we were told, “I tried to tell my associate that the 40 minute trips to Queen of Heaven Cemetery wouldn't be so bad if he used his car like a chapel. I do . . . at least sometimes . . .

One priest pointed to the exercise of attending mass rather than celebrating it as a way of refreshing his spiritual life. “Another category [for maintaining my spiritual life] is the preaching I hear when on vacation. Most often, I am incognito when on vacation. The preacher doesn't know he has a "trained" ear in his congregation. More often than not, I hear something worth hearing when I go to Mass on vacation. I have almost come to expect it. Maybe because I listen to it fresh, I often find vacation homilies better than I expected myself to give.”

A runner told us, “Running alone has a unique stillness about it, especially if you are running through a wooded area. For me, it is the perfect place to collect myself and contemplate God’s plan for me. It is my chapel.”

As for myself, I recently found the train an excellent place to be alone and to contemplate. I frequently take the Metroliner from Washington, D.C. to New York. On that train, they now have quiet cars. Rolling through the countryside and just gazing out the window in silence affords me the perfect setting for contemplation.

There’s no end to the creative methods we can employ for keeping our contemplative edge. They abound, and all we need to do is to find them. For example, I recently happened upon the method of Timeshifting, which is an excellent help in evaluating that which detracts us from our keeping our contemplative edge. It encourages us to concentrate on our rhythms. If we are moving too quickly, the goal of Timeshifting is to realize this and counter it with slowing down.

Timeshifting is an excellent means for fostering contemplation in that it encourages us to create rituals that can help us shift from a time-hurried-distracted rhythm to a time-serenity rhythm needed for contemplation.

This method is just one of numerous imaginative methods waiting to be tested as a means for keeping our contemplative edge sharp.

In listening to our discussion on the contemplative edge, truth would observe: Note the powers you have at your disposal when you pray, meditate and contemplate! Note, too, how easy it is to find the time and means for contemplation when you desire it. New methods for keeping your contemplative edge sharp are waiting for your testing. The priesthood has yet to design a spirituality that fits new millennium priests, especially secular priests. Why not be the first to create this spirituality?