Action and Contemplation: Part Three: Weekly Summary

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

Summary: Sunday, January 19—Friday, January 25, 2020

The desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. (Sunday) 

This describes many Desert Fathers and Mothers: high states of union but low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. (Monday) 

The desert mystics saw solitude, in Henri Nouwen’s words, as a “place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” (Tuesday) 

Just as so many of the mystics have taught us, doing what you’re doing with care, presence, and intention is a form of prayer, the very way to transformation and wholeness. (Wednesday) 

Even in the desert there is no escaping our own habitual responses. (Thursday) 

In the freedom with which you freely choose to give yourself in love to the love that gives itself to you, in that reciprocity of love, your destiny is fulfilled, and God’s will for you is consummatedJames Finley (Friday) 

 

Practice: Growing in the Wilderness 

If the desert is a place of renewal, transformation, and freedom, and if the heat and isolation served as a nurturing incubator for monastic movements, one wonders if a desert experience is necessary to reclaim this legacy?—Barbara Holmes [1]   

Life in the desert is not easy. It does not offer moderate temperatures to please the human desire for comfort nor abundant water to quench inevitable thirst. The caves that offer shelter likely don’t provide a soft place to lay tired bodies. And yet, the desert abbas and ammas sought out these conditions, believing they would find new and abundant lifeeven where life seemed impossibleWe invite you to take a few breaths and to slowly and contemplatively read this passage from Howard Thurman’sMeditations of the Heart, in which he describes an encounter in another kind of mountain wilderness.  

It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down; as a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that theywerebranches. For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! It is as if the tree had said, “I am destined to reach for the skies and embrace in my arms the wind, the rain, the snow and the sun, singing my song of joy to all the heavens. But this I cannot do. I have taken root beyond the timber line, and yet I do not want to die; I must not die. I shall make a careful survey of my situation and work out a method, a way of life, that will yield growth and development for me despite the contradictions under which I must eke out my days. In the end I may not look like the other trees, I may not be what all that is within me cries out to be. But I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.” I wonder if I dare to act even as the tree acts. I wonder! I wonder! Do you? [2]

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes,  Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 10-12. 

[2] Howard Thurman,Meditations of the Heart(Beacon Press1999), 123-124. 

For Further Study:
Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Harper One: 2010) 

James Finley and Richard RohrIntimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download 

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998) 

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1960) 

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, rev. ed. (Cistercian Publications: 1984, ©1975) 

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE 
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr 
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