“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives he one who sent me.”
We often speak of “contemplation” as if it is some kind of personal spiritual achievement. There is often about our way of speaking of contemplative action the sense that it is a way of doing things and being present that projects into the world a sense of our own peace, kindness, attentiveness, or social awareness. There is little wonder that in an age of taken-for-granted self-actualization and self-help that we would speak of becoming contemplative as another means of enhancing our personalities.
Today, however, Jesus reminds us that discipleship is not a case of bringing to word and deed and to our life and ministry our best possible selves but rather to be a bearer of his life and love, and so of God’s life and love. It is actually a case of losing ourselves, of dying to ourselves so that the life of the Other, that is truly our own deepest life, may live through us.
Shakespeare’s King Lear tells his daughter Cordelia, who refuses to affect more than she truly owes to and feels for him, that “nothing will come of nothing.” For Lear, as for us most of the time, life is a transaction — one gives in order to get. This is in large part the mode of human activity. We give in order to receive. We flatter in order to be flattered. We attend to another in order not to be left alone and to be gratified. What we call the spiritual life (which is really the true and deeper life), however, is very different. As John of the Cross writes: “On the way to the mountain, nothing, nothing, nothing. And at the top of the mountain, still nothing.” The possibility of true discipleship, a discipleship that is contemplation in action arises as a person ceases trying to be something and someone and, as Thomas Merton writes, “seeks to possess nothing because one needs nothing.”
Recently I was asked to compile a brief autobiographical statement in preparation for a workshop that I am soon to be offering. As I pondered what to put in such a statement, including my educational and professional/ministerial background, I realized that I was attempting to communicate that “I” was somebody. In some ways, in determining what to include, I stepped out of myself and tried to look at myself with the eye of a reader of this statement, hoping that another would, in some way or other, be impressed by a detail that they read. At that moment, I realized that this entire exercise was an illusion. Underneath the degrees and works there was nothing, but somehow, in that nothing was real life. Although I did conform to the convention and completed the brief statement, I thought it would have been better to identify myself with the familiar poem of Emily Dickinson.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
The “nothing” of the contemplative tradition is, of course, very different from that sense of being “nothing” that is the self-depreciation that haunts so many of us throughout our lives. Becoming “nothing” that the love of God may serve the world through us is far different from the self-loathing that would have us be anyone other than ourselves. To be a disciple is to be an instrument of God’s peace, by fine-tuning the unique image of God that lies within us. The sense of nothingness comes from the realization that everything we call and make of that image is not its reality. It is not our graduate degrees, or the awards or recognitions we’ve received, or the positions of power and influence we have held. It is rather something so far beyond all that, so unrecognizable to our social and mental constructions of reality, that to them it appears to be nothing.
No sense of self-actualization or what we often call self-esteem even approaches the significance of who we are. When we come to another as the Christ form we truly are, we bring no less than the love of God to them. When our false sense of self, our depreciated self, is in the way, we bring them only our own limited and needy self. Contemplation in action is the gift and presence of God. We are a capacity for God, what St.Thomas calls a vacancy for God. To become a contemplative in our outreach to the world, we must go, as St. John of the Cross says, “by the way of dispossession.” Our work is to become that vacancy for God so that whoever receives us may receive Jesus and the One who sent him.
The contemplative does not set out to achieve a kind of intuitive mastery of history, or of humanity’s spirit, or of the things of God. The contemplative seeks the center of his or her own living truth, and there all that one needs to perceive of these other mysteries is granted to one at the moment when it is needed. If one needs nothing, nothing is granted. And if nothing is granted, nothing is desired. The wisdom of the contemplative is, then, not the wisdom of a person who needs to possess knowledge and learning (though one may be a learned person). It is the wisdom of one who has forgotten oneself and forgotten wisdom, and who seeks to possess nothing because one needs nothing. All that the contemplative needs comes from God, even before he or she begins to need it.
. . .
To praise the contemplative life is not to reject every other form of life, but to seek a solid foundation for every other human striving. Without the silence and recollection of the interior life, a person loses contact with one’s real sources of energy, clarity, and peace. When one tries to be one’s own god and insists on keeping one’s hands on everything, remembering everything and controlling everything, one drives oneself to ruin. For when a person thinks oneself powerful, then at every moment one is in desperate need: he or she is in need of knowledge, strength, control, and one depends on countless instruments. But when a person remembers the unfailing power of God and realizes that because one is the child of God this power already belongs to one, then one does not have to t think anymore about the things one needs. For what one needs will be given when one needs it, and in this sense, God will think and act for the contemplative.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 152