Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Kitchen Contemplative

I've always kinda wanted to be a mystic. And by that, I just mean the minute I read Teresa of Avila with her castle of the soul, or St. John of the Cross traversing his dark night in search of the Beloved, I want to be like them. Their limitless passion to know their God is something I want to bubble up in my own hungry heart. So when I came across a scene in a novel last week in which this old, saintly man is at prayer in his cloister, the hunger was wakened anew. The picture was vivid in my head; the old man bent, eyes closed,  heart on some epic journey only to be made in silence. For one hour, two, he prayed, sought, and rose with other worlds in his eyes. Up I looked from the pages of my book with a long, frayed sigh. How lovely. And how infernally frustrating. I cannot imagine, right now, a day in my life when I would have an hour so free of people's needs, writing to be done, errands to be run, and travel accomplished, that I could sink, thoughtless, into such spontaneous mysticism. Several hours of absolute, uninterrupted solitude? Maybe once the book is written and my family is out of town for a month and I give up teaching any classes or meeting with any friends and abandon the online world altogether. I yearn to love God with all the focus of my soul but I fight hard for the early morning hour of devotion as it is. Once I leave the cloister of my room in the fresh light of youngest day, I am caught in the merry, overrun river of my life and swept along until dusk.

And I am glad to be so. This is the thing; I have chosen this life in which people are central, in which my family is a present part of most days, in which friendships are cultivated, and words are pursued, and the whole of life is lived in an air of hospitality. Of course I carve out times of silence, but I heartily believe this life to be God-driven, a story he leads me to craft and brighten with every ounce of passion I possess.

But in reading passages like the one I found in my novel, I can feel abruptly that I am profoundly deficient because I can never attain those long, mystical hours of prayer. And fear rises up; am I holy enough? Can I ever be the God-lover I hope to be if I don't abandon the busy life I both love and bear as a my sacred work? Does God want me to pray, or to love all the people around me? Silence or song, active or quiet, which life will I choose, and more, which is best? The old tension rose as I read that novel scene and stayed with me for a week.

And then, I met a little girl; we found each other through a project at church and she changed my view of contemplation. We spent an hour or so together one evening a week and I was in charge of her during that time. I loved her, honestly, on the instant. Children spark swift affection. But she was a reserved little thing. She studied me out of eyes that held back their laughter. No smile or secret would she risk until she could be sure of me. She rarely talked, or even laughed; a keen, blue-eyed little glance was the most she offered. I was determined to win her friendship and saw what my work must be. I was gentle, slow. I asked no hugs and certainly no chattiness from my hushed little friend. But I did watch her face. I caught the shyness that straightened her tongue, saw the keen way in which she studied, appraised the adults around her. I noticed her fear of loud noises and stood near her when I knew they would come. I smiled at her when something tickled us both, always trying to catch her eyes, but other than that, kept my distance.

One joyous evening, she slipped her hand unbidden in mine. Startled, I squeezed back, and peered down into the piquant face turned up to me with the slightest of mischievous grins. Her heart was open to mine. From that instant, we were once-a-week pals who giggled and whispered; she hugged me freely and laughed in her soft, abandoned little way and I saw the buoyant spirit that simmered beneath that reserve. I was undone by the full trust she gave me once my patient, hushed affection had its way. And one night, as we bowed to pray at evening's end and her hand once again slipped in mine, I realized something about love and prayer and what it means to find God through them.

Love is contemplation.

Love is prayer. Love is the mystic impulse turned active, a sort of reverse contemplation in which the whole of myself is concentrated on the Beloved, in and for the sake of another. Love is a focus of self and thought in which that fervent love of God that marks saints and mystics is turned outward in a powerful flow to the people around us. I don't mean that we love people instead of God. Rather, it's as if God contemplates other people through us. As if the light of eternity stands behind us, reaching out to the world through our hands, our words, our eyes. The work for us is the same as that of prayer; to be single-hearted in our attention, pure-willed in our love.

In order to see the spirit of my little girl pal as God made it, as it beat beneath her skin and hovered in her eyes, I had to give her the attentiveness of prayerful love. My own voice had to be hushed so that I could hear her quiet, catch her thought, learn the hope and fear that hovered in her silence. With every soul I would love, the work is the same; it is silence, watchfulness, it is prayer. It's also tea served and phone calls made and long conversations right when you meant to have your own quiet time with God. Most of all, it is a willed, affectionate focus of self and soul.

Those who have loved me best in my life have taken on that long, hard study of my soul. They looked long enough upon me to know the spirit that ached, the heart that sang just beneath my skin and the dart of my eyes. They offered more than a blustery affection, they offered the long work of conversation, of memories shared, of times with me when I was in tears, or fear, or even laughter. I was their contemplation, yet it was as if God contemplated me through them, as if the Love empowering their hearts was a gaze fixed upon me through their eyes.

Perhaps, in the end, there are two sorts of contemplation. One, the kind we know best, a secluded setting of one heart upon the Beauty that beats, beats, beats at the heart of all things. I am not in the least discounting the discipline of that work. God will call some to a solitary life, and they will give the great sacrifices required for inward, contemplative prayer and it will be a holy thing.

But my own calling to a boisterous and peopled life is no less holy. I needed to know that. I needed to embrace the fact that active love is no less a sacred work than contemplative love. That I may be a saint, may have a single-hearted, soul-honed will to know God amidst the bustle of errands and laughter, cookies in the oven, friends at the door, and deadlines in a hover nearby.

What counts is the given love, the self offered to God for prayer... or people.  My altar may be a kitchen table, my prayer may voice itself as meals cooked, heads rubbed, and words scratched out. But I'm as mystic as they come because it is love that drives my going out and my coming in. Love behind me, burning like the sun into the people I meet. Love before me, staring out at me from another's eyes. The goal of contemplation is to fully know the heart of God. To love his people is to do just that.