Let all humanity be silent before the Lord!
For he is awaking and is coming from his holy dwelling.
Zechariah 2: 17
Any reflection on our current world, or for that matter on all of human history, cannot escape the recognition that left to our own devices human beings will inevitably descend into varying degrees of madness. From war and violence, to greed and the deprivation of others to which it leads, to the diffusion and wasting of our own unique and sacred lives, the evidence is apparent of what we wreak on ourselves and the world when we hurry and strain and push in service of our own drives for gratification and ambition. To sit before the creche during these last weeks of Advent and to ponder the promise of the Lord’s coming is to experience, to a significant degree, a sense of absence and even vacuousness that pervades our daily lives of hurry and compulsion. Yet, it is not God who is asleep and absent, but rather ourselves — asleep in our very willfulness and absent in the noise of our dissociative chatter.
The preamble to the Description of the Xaverian Charism reads in part:
We unite ourselves to God through an integrated life of both contemplation and service. Through the Xaverian Way we are awakened by the Spirit of God to our own graced potential and freely offer that giftedness in service to the gospel.
We speak often of the integrated or “non-dichotomized” life of contemplation and action, yet perhaps too often we think of that integration as an achievement of ours. We can sense it as our successful effort to “yoke together” two dimensions of our lives by the efforts of our own will and ego. Yet the preamble tells us, rather, that this integration occurs when “we are awakened by the Spirit of God to our own graced potential and freely offer that giftedness in service to the gospel.” God is always “awaking” in us and “coming from his holy dwelling” within us. Our task is first and foremost to “be silent before the Lord.” There will be no contemplative action in us until God awakens in us, and to know the life of God in us requires of us first to fall totally silent.
It is not up to us to “integrate” our lives; our life in God, which is the true depth of our life, is always and already integrated. “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things. But only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10: 41-2) What is required of us is to silence all in us that is not our life in God. In the Letter to the Colossians we read: “. . . for you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3) The depth of the silence to which we are called, if God is to come to life and so to service in us, is a “death” to all we take to be our actual lives. If “our own graced potential” is to be awakened and the life of God is to come into the world in and through us, we must first cease to be all that is not that life.
The call to the deep silence that allows the Lord to awaken within us and come to us requires that we silence, first of all, what comes from without, and then we learn to silence even the “noise” of our own thoughts and feelings. It is not easy to silence the demands of the world and of the others adequately for us to begin, as Thomas Merton writes, to learn “to be at home” with our “own thoughts.” The thoughts that are truly our own are often hidden quite deeply within us. As Martin Heidegger wrote: “The contemporary person is in flight from thinking.” (Discourse on Thinking, p. 45) We must first pass through the noise of those thoughts and words created by the formative impact on us of our cultures and families, of the world around us. With the advent of our technologies of mass communication, it is apparent how decreasingly original are our language and thought. We speak to each other in the exact terms of the media we consume. There seems to be, in both the political and ecclesial worlds, only the clashing of ideologies which we repeat merely in the words we consume, as if they were our own. True conversation and communication arise only out of the silence that allows us to be “awakened by the Spirit of God to our own graced potential. . . .” In a world in which so much talk and so much noise pervades our environment, the need for poetry has never been greater. We need to learn to ask ourselves what we ourselves really experience and think. Perhaps every day’s effort to live contemplatively should begin with each of us composing a daily haiku.
Yet, for God to awaken in us, we must then learn to silence even our own thoughts and feelings. We must “create a clearing” so that the “still small voice” within us can make itself heard above the clamor of our own bodily impulses and functional ambitions. There is within us, in the unique and sacred place in us where God dwells, what Thomas Merton calls “a unified and intuitive vision of reality.” This truly exists in each of us. This is the Christ form of our soul, the Buddha within us. It is not something to be attained; it is a life to be awakened and realized. Although we usually see “only a reflection as in a mirror,” (1 Cor: 13:12), the life we are in God is able to personally grasp the truth of things and what it is that is asked of us. This is what it means to act contemplatively.
It is not up to us to bring God into the world. It is up to us to awaken to and to recognize the omnipresent life and love of God in the world. If we do not first fall silent enough that we might begin to awaken to the coming of God in our world, then all our activity will only further disguise it. We may well be being asked not to do more, but rather to do less so that we can be available for the “one thing necessary.”
Recently it was pointed out to me how much we all want to leave our mark on the world. In our early formation in religious life, we heard of the desert fathers and mothers who would make baskets during the day and take them apart in the evening. As young people, we thought this to be ridiculous. Yet in Tibetan Buddhism there is a comparable practice, that of the “sand mandala.” Monks will create a beautiful and highly labor intensive mandala in sand which, upon completion, they will dismantle and then release the sand back into nature. Our own “graced potential” is, in fact, acting in service to God’s work and will in the world. Contemplative action is so truly our own that it ceases to be ours. It is, at once, service to the now and to eternity. Our action is contemplative when it is released back into God’s world, not leaving “our own” mark, but rather doing “the will of the One who sent” us. (John 6: 38)
In active contemplation, a person becomes able to live within him or herself. That person learns to be at home with one’s own thoughts. One becomes to a greater and greater degree independent of exterior supports One’s mind is pacified not by passive dependence on things outside oneself—diversions, entertainments, conversations, business—but by its own constructive activity. That is to say, that such a person derives inner satisfaction from spiritual creativeness: thinking one’s own thoughts, reaching one’s own conclusions, looking at one’s own life and directing it in accordance with one’s own inner truth, discovered in meditation and under the eyes of God. This person derives strength not from what one gets out of things and people, but from giving oneself to life and to others. This person discovers the secret of life in the creative energy of love—not love as a sentimental or sensual indulgence, but as a profound and a self-oblative expression of freedom.
Active contemplation is nourished by meditation and reading and, as we shall see, by the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. But before reading, meditation, and worship turn into contemplation, they must merge into a unified and intuitive vision of reality. . . .
This means that the contemplative intuition of reality is a perception of value: a perception which is not intellectual or speculative, but practical and experiential. It is not just a matter of observation, but of realization. It is not something abstract and general, but concrete and particular It is a personal grasp of the existential meaning and value of reality.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, pp. 59-60