I have to wonder about “unintentional contemplation.” Parker Palmer, the great Quaker writer and leader of contemplative life suggested that even a busy life “provides moments of unintentional contemplation….in feelings of disillusionment, pain, dislocation, and unbidden solitude.”
I was surprised with the idea that the discomforts of our lives also give rise to contemplation. I’m rather a romantic. I like to think of green pastures and still waters enhancing my spiritual thinking, my prayer. I often imagine meadows on Mt. Rainier or the steady waves lapping at a rocky beach in Puget Sound to find the depth I seek. But I guess it’s also true that sudden, unexpected silence startles before it comforts. And when I am in pain, I am not fit to be with until I recognize, name, and do something about it. In this sense pain drives me inward which, I must admit, is a contemplative state. If I am thrust into a moment of reverie or loss, I certainly stop what I’m doing to breathe deeply, to plumb the image that prompts the memory, and to give thanks. When projects go well, relationships are rich and opportunities beckon us forward, we feel able to take on the world. But when progress falters, when we’re felled by a virus (worse: cancer) or a sprained ankle (while running for our health), when we are cut off from comfort, and when we feel abandoned, who among us welcomes the “contemplation?” Aren’t such moments, simply, ones we’d rather suppress? How likely is it we’ll accept the call to peaceful prayer?
I believe right now all of us are trying to cope with feelings too painful either to express or to withhold in this nation’s political rancor, the all-too-real videos of refugees streaming out of war, hunger and loss in the Middle East, the delicacy of diplomacy among our neighbor nations. I try to “fast” from the news but am fascinated by it, looking for a break in the fighting, for fragile and tentative interventions, for champions to rescue thousands of innocents caught in political infighting, flight, suffering and death.
Anne Lamott promises, “Grace…eventually.” Still I ask, when?!
I wrestle with darkness more and more. I cannot understand (or perhaps I mean accept) the hatred, hunger, displacement, and slaughter that assault far too many peoples of the world. Pernicious racism, the hoarding of money, exclusion and elimination of the have-nots, the flagrant displays of the haves. Is this simply the current state of development of humankind?
I have been reading the WW II diaries of Etty Hillesum. She reveals a curious and unexpected desire to welcome–I don’t know a better word for it–the horror moving closer and closer to her friends and family in Amsterdam and then their evacuation to a German “transit” camp near the German border.
The latest news is that all Jews will be transported out of Holland….the English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone….And even if we stay alive, we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I don’t think life is meaningless. And God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him! [Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life 1996]
Hillesum, called a “Western Mystic,” writes that every situation, good or bad, can enrich us with new insights; what matters is “not whether we preserve our lives at any cost, but how we preserve them….If we have nothing to offer a desolate postwar world…if we fail to draw new meaning from the deep wells of our distress and despair, then it will not be enough.” Thus, pain and fear elicit her compassion and grief rather than anger and more hate.
I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter.
One person, one meeting, one step at a time. We cannot bring peace without embracing it ourselves. And so I breathe in war, pain and loss, and breathe out peace, love, joy and laughter. Joy and laughter…eventually.
Rev. Cathy Fransson keeps regular spiritual direction appointments.