Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Horizon

"Man is a horizon between an interior world of mystery... and the exterior world of the senses."

Hans urs von Balthasar writing about Alois Gugler in 'The Glory of the Lord' vol I, pp. 95-6.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Ordinary, everyday wonders

Heading south this morning from Lampeter to Carmarthen I found myself passing from the ragged end of winter into the earliest days of spring. At the beginning of the journey I was surrounded by bare hedgerows and leafless trees, edged around meadows of grey-green grass that have seen too many overcast skies. But just twenty miles or so south the trees were budding, and the fields were a lush and verdant green - an impossibly saturated green, it seemed to my eyes, which had become so used to the browns and yellows of parched Colorado. Life is bursting out of the ground! And now I'm seeing the arrival of spring with fresh eyes, after five years away. How easy it is to miss the ordinary miracles and everyday wonders right in front of us, until something jolts us enough to gain a new perspective.

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Friday, 19 April 2013

Business meetings: Building a better mousetrap

Last night I chaired our church's annual general meeting (which, for historic reasons, rejoices in the peculiar name of the "Easter Vestry"). Everything went smoothly and there were no serious causes for concern. But it was also pretty much like so many other business meetings I've sat through in the past, for churches, charities, community organisations, and commercial projects. Plugging through the agenda from one end to the other to get the business done. Very functional.

As a task completing exercise it does work, and often works well. But last night, as usual, there was precious little stillness, or beauty, or even presence. By that last I mean that, although there were plenty of us there, the business largely plodded along without particular reference to the remarkable and wonderful individuals gathered together to do it. It could have been any AGM in any church in the land. Which is perhaps why the whole thing felt so flat and dull, lacking in any creative spark.

So I'm thinking that before next year it would be interesting - and fun! - to build a better mousetrap. To dream up a more creative and contemplative approach to these business meetings. Something with more reflectivity, more personality, and certainly more open to the presence of God and the folks attending. Thinking cap on...

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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Why Contemplatives need great confidence

"The floods are risen, O Lord," writes the Psalmist, "the floods have lift up their voice; the floods lift up their waves. The waves of the sea are mighty, and and rage horribly; but yet the Lord, who dwelleth on high, is mightier." (From Psalm 93, one of the psalms for Evening Prayer on the eighteenth day of the month in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

For the ancient Hebrews, who were more an agricultural than a seagoing people, the ever-shifting and restless ocean became an evocative symbol of chaos, of the life-denying powers that strive against all God's good purposes in creation. It's no accident that the Bible opens with a description of God creating the cosmos not ex nihilo, as later theology would picture it, but through a confrontation with the vast watery abyss.

But it's also no accident that creation proceeds without conflict. God simply speaks, expresses the Word that stands at the head of creation, and it is so. The Bible knows of no dualism between evenly matched forces of good and evil. The waves are mighty, but the Lord dwelling on high is inexpressibly mightier.

The contemplative places great confidence in this. How else could we think that an appropriate response to the horrors and pain of this world could be to fix our loving attention on God alone? If God is not supremely able to speak a word of life over these turbulent waters, then our silence and stillness are nothing but empty comfort and an abdication of responsibility. But (while not absolving ourselves of the call to loving action) our prayer is above all an act of trust. His presence brings more healing than ours ever can; hence the actor contemplation, of being present to his presence, is a world changing activity. Contemplation evokes the moment of new creation.

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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What is a "Contemplarium"?

The Latin word contemplatio (from which we derive English words like contemplation and contemplative) has an interesting background. It's an expansion of the word templum which originally meant "to stretch out"; when people wanted to mark the boundaries of a sacred enclosure they would "stretch out" boundaries around it, perhaps ropes, fencing, or animal hides. The Old Testament tabernacle, for example, was surrounded by an encosure of fine linens and leathers (see Exodus 25). Over time, the word became attached to the structure itself: a temple.

Contemplatio, therefore, implied an act of coming within the sacred enclosure - entering the holy courts. Within the Christian tradition it was picked up to translate the Greek word theoria, which had become a technical term in Platonic philosophy for attentiveness to an object in itself, a "gazing upon" something, which was intended to complement the process of reasoning and analysis about an object. Analysis was the function of human reason, while contemplation was the function of the intellect - yes, we tend to overlap those two terms now, which is one of the reasons we find the concept of contemplatio difficult to understand.

I love all the undertones that contemplatio draws together. Coming within the sacred courts, setting oneself aside for a time, to gaze attentively upon God and (perhaps) to stretch oneself into God. Sounds like a great description of contemplation to me.

But we contemplatives need places. Physical places of beauty, silence, spaciousness, stillness, and holiness within which contemplation can be more readily practiced and learned (so we can better contemplate God in the harder places - the wastelands, the city, the hearts of others). But also social spaces, communities of the lovers of God. We need a Contemplarium - a "contemplative place" - the way a fish needs an aquarium - a "water-place"; we need a space where we can breathe the fresh contemplative air together. We need chapels and churches and prayer corners. We need hermitages in the woods and sacred places in the hills. We need monasteries and religious societies and gatherings. We need soul friends and spiritual directors. Contemplaria.

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Beauty is the word that shall be our first

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another ...
In a world without beauty - even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it - in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it; in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil ...
In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone ...
And if this is how the transcendentals fare because one of them has been banished, what will happen with Being itself? ... What remains is then a mere lump of existence which, even if it claims for itself the freedom proper to spirits, nevertheless remains totally dark and incomprehensible even to itself. The witness borne by Being becomes untrustworthy for the person who can no longer read the language of beauty.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol i, pp.18-19
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