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Center for Action and Contemplation

Finding Our Charism

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Finding Our Charism
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied sermon.
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
Seeking the world’s gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
—Thomas Merton (1915-1968) [1]

When I read this passage from Merton’s poem, “The Quickening of St. John the Baptist,” I think of meditators. I think of what Christian contemplatives have taken upon themselves, “planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier,” doing something that, frankly and unfortunately, will never fill stadiums. To meditate daily is to have chosen, accepted, and surrendered to a vocation. We must think of it that way. It is a vocation that places us at the center of history and yet also at its very edge, because most people will see us as innocuous, pious, or maybe even self-centered. That poverty might well be our deepest charity, Merton seems to say. We are the miniscule moment that somehow hears, re-creates, allows, and passes on “the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror.”

Archimedes (c. 287—c. 212 BC), a Greek philosopher and mathematician, inspired the familiar aphorism, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the whole earth with a lever.” [2] Our fixed point—the place upon which we stand as our True Self—is steady, centered, poised, and rooted. To be contemplative, we have to have a slight distance from the world, to allow time for withdrawal from business as usual, for going into what Jesus calls “our private room” (Matthew 6:6). However, in order for this not to become escapism, we have to remain quite close to the world at the same time, loving it, feeling its pain and its joy as our pain and our joy. So the fulcrum, the balancing point for our lever, must be in the real world.

And what is our lever? I have talked and written a great deal about contemplation and True Self, but not as much about the lever, perhaps because there are so many delivery systems! As Paul so beautifully says, “Now there are varieties of spiritual gifts (charismaton), but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of ministries (diakonon), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities (energematon), but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

It seems to me that much of the proper work of the church and spirituality should be discerning and empowering people’s actual gifts. There doesn’t seem to be much discernment of gifts, even in seminaries, as to whether one really has a gift for Christian leadership, reconciling, healing, preaching, or counseling. (Most priests and pastors were ordained without ever having led a single person to love, to God, or to faith; and many do not seem to have a natural gift for this.) We seem to ordain people who want to be ordained! We can be educated or trained in offices and roles, but true spiritual gifts (charismata) are recognized, affirmed, and “called forth.” We do not create such people; we affirm and support what they are already doing on some level.

[1] Thomas Merton, “The Quickening of St. John the Baptist,” The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1977), 201.

[2] The Works of Archimedes, ed. Thomas Little Heath (Cambridge University Press: 1897), xx.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 6, 80-82.

Image credit: Automat (detail), 1927, Edward Hopper, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
—David Whyte
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