Taking a Broad View of Contemplation

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 9, 2016

Psalm 145:1-9 CEB; Reading from Mother Teresa’s, A Gift for God

Today’s sermon is actually a sequel and further development of one of the points of last Sunday’s sermon which dealt with two characteristics of classical Christianity – contemplation and compassion.  To give a quick recap, last week I quoted contemporary Christian writer Brian McLaren, who suggests in his new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that Christians should “rediscover their faith . . . as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion.”

Well, I have given a number of sermons on the topic of compassion over the years.  Compassion in my view is the defining characteristic of the spirit and ministry of Jesus and should be the defining characteristic and life goal of every Christian.  But I have touched on the subject of contemplation much less frequently, if at all.

I suggested last week that perhaps if we here at the United Church have room for improvement, it might be in providing more opportunities for contemplation, but broadly defined – prayer, study, meditation, spirituality, and in other ways that nourish the soul.  And the two keywords in my suggestion were contemplation and broadly; seeking to expand our perception of and appreciation for contemplation in various venues, so as to make it accessible and rewarding to all of us.

Now, I realize that spiritual contemplation properly speaking is a narrow field of Christian practice followed by a small percentage of the faithful over the centuries.  And I must offer a disclaimer: I am no expert on the subject of contemplation by any means; I would never pretend to be.  I am just a student who has much to learn on the subject like some of the rest of you.

But many who lived contemplative lives did so as hermits, in isolated places, out of the mainstream of society.  For instance, during the third and fourth centuries, there were those who are known today as the Desert Fathers who moved to the deserts of Egypt so as to live solitary, contemplative lives.  The Desert Fathers sought to grow spiritually and know God; they sought to center their lives on charity, hospitality, and compassion.  Many of the reflections of these faithful were collected and have come down to us as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

As indicated with the Desert Fathers, one of the primary venues for the contemplative life was monasticism.  One of the many monks who gave his life to contemplation was Brother Lawrence.  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Parisian monk.  And from him we get the Christian classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.  Brother Lawrence learned to practice the contemplative life when he was assigned to work in the monastery kitchen washing pots and pans.  It is said that “for some fifteen years [he] ‘found great ease in doing things’ there.”  Later Lawrence was later given the task of cobbling shoes, and in this task he also “found delight.”

A late 13th and early 14th-century contemplative was Meister Eckhart who spoke of the “little spark of God” concealed within humanity and preached to the common people about “the unity of God and man.”  Other fairly well-known persons who lived contemplative lives were Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.  More contemporary contemplatives were Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, more recently known at St. Teresa.

True to the spirit of the contemplative life, each of these persons I have mentioned sought to see or know or come to a vivid awareness of God.  Each one gave time to deep consideration of things spiritual, but also spiritual experience and not just rational thought.  As we have read from the writings Mother Teresa left us, “We need to find God and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence. . . We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

At the same time, many who are known for having lived contemplative lives did so while going about daily life.  I have already noted Brother Lawrence who was contemplative, but also spent much time in the monastery kitchen and then later as a cobbler of shoes.

Meister Eckhart was an active theologian and philosopher.  Thomas Merton was an active writer of some 70 books, as well as a social activist.  Mother Teresa – now St. Teresa – was founder and leader of the Missionaries of Charity and gave her life to ministering to the poor, sick and dying.

Well, the point I am trying to make is one can, but doesn’t have to, move to an isolated monastery in the desert in order to live a contemplative life.  I want to contend that one can live a contemplative life while going about his or her everyday life in the world.

And so, we have arrived at the crux of the sermon: Could it be that one can be contemplative – broadly speaking – as we engage in those activities that nourish our souls?  I am referring to such activities as music, writing, reading, painting, pottery making, quilting, photography, woodworking, cooking, hiking, even gardening.  I contend that if we make them so, each of these activities and more can be conducive to contemplation in the broad sense of the term.  But we have to be intentional in making them so.  Such activities can be opportunities for spiritual contemplation, meditation, prayer even.

To cite just one example from our offering of activities here at the United Church, our Prayer Shawl Group is a perfect example of an activity that seeks to combine the art of knitting or crocheting with prayer and meditation.  The original intent of the Prayer Shawl movement was to combine the making of shawls for the sick and others needing encouragement with prayers for whomever the recipient will be as the shawl is made.  So when the shawl is given to someone, it is not just an article of clothing made of yarn; it is a visual and tangible embodiment of the many hours of love, concern, and prayerful thought that went into its making.  Such was the original intent of the Prayer Shawl Ministry.

On a personal note, it has been no secret that for me visiting our national parks and standing in awe of Nature’s majesties proves to be a religious experience.  I, in the spirit of today’s psalmist who said, “I will contemplate your wondrous works,” find myself in contemplation in the world of creation.  And then nature photography becomes a contemplative exercise for me as well.

But many of you have your own interests and activities which lead you to lose yourself in the experience, and give you opportunity to contemplate and think deeply about God, religion, life, faith, spirituality, and so on.  I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever but that contemplative Brother Lawrence had some deep religious thoughts and insights while he was washing pots and pans and cobbling shoes.  If Brother Lawrence could have a deep, contemplative thought while cobbling a brother’s shoe, why can’t I be in contemplative thought while standing before Half Dome or the General Sherman giant sequoia tree, or watching an orange-pink sunrise, or building a piece of furniture in my woodshop?

And by the same token, why can’t you be in deep contemplative thought while making a prayer shawl or Chrismon’s ornament, or playing the piano, or reading or writing poetry, or painting a picture, making a piece of pottery, quilting, taking a nature photograph, cooking, gardening, hiking, or something else?

So my ultimate aim in today’s sermon is really threefold: First, to celebrate activities that we are already engaged in that are conducive to contemplation and meditation; second, to raise awareness of the importance of the contemplative life; and third, to encourage us as a congregation to consider additional ways to enhance and increase opportunities for contemplation in our common life.

The truth is, none of us is likely to move to the desert or mountaintop so as to pursue a solitary life dedicated solely to contemplation.  But I don’t believe God expects that of us either.  The good news is that some of the greatest Christian saints the world has ever known were contemplative and produced profound spiritual insights while they were also deeply engaged in real life in the world.  That being the case, it seems to me that you and I could enjoy some contemplative living as well.  And our lives – and our church – would be so much richer for doing so.  May it be so.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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