As a monk in the world, I am always seeking support for this path. Yesterday I just started reading The Contemplative Heart by James Finley which is about how to live contemplatively in the world beyond the monastery and already in the first forty pages is a great deal of wisdom. Finley describes three aspects to contemplative living in the midst of busy lives and work which were articulated beautifully:
The first aspect is being as fully present as you can to the task at hand. When you are working on something be fully mindful to it as you engage it and do only one thing at a time. Multitasking only serves to increase anxiety. It means when I answer email that is what I do, with as much presence and awareness as possible. When I am writing this blog post, I bring my heart to this moment and task, and I release concern over the list of things to do which hovers in my awareness. In myown presence to the moment, even if the tasks seem burdensome, I begin to see the divine presence at all times. I start to live with a realization of the "inherent holiness of our daily obligations" as Finley describes it. In monastic terms it means honoring the work I do each day as supporting my livelihood.
The second aspect is taking full responsibility for my choices about how I commit my time and asking if there are places I am doing violence to myself by taking on more tasks. Do I feel like a victim to my responsibilities? Can I say no to something to create just a bit more spaciousness in my day? Or can I schedule my activities so that I am not rushing from one thing to another, and have some spaciousness in the midst of fullness?
The third aspect is about accepting life's messiness and recognizing and accepting as Finley writes "that no matter how hard we work at removing the impairments and compromises to contemplative living, the impairments and compromises stubbornly refuse to go their way and leave us in peace. There seems to be woven into life itself a thread of unamanageability that makes the task of daily living at times messy, uncertain, and almost more than we can bear."
I had a friend once who lived her life in a rush of frenetic activity. Her life seemed full of drama because she was always living out of anxiety that comes when our attention is spread across too many tasks and we want things to be other than they are. She often lamented that she wanted her "real life" to begin. Yet real life is here, right now, in this moment. If we wait until all of the perfect conditions have aligned we not only postpone the possibility of discovering the presence of the sacred in this moment, we will never begin because life will never offer us a smooth path. How many times have I begun a practice in earnest only to let it go when things became challenging or a crisis happened. The contemplative life isn't about living free of all worldy concerns but about plunging myself deeply into this life, bringing myself present to this moment in all of its beauty or discomfort, honoring each task as a holy doorway into awareness of God. It means I take full responsibility for the choices I make and slowly release that which I can so that I am not rushing from one thing to another and might even recognize the shimmering of the sacred in an unexpected moment.
The beauty of the monastic path is that it offers us a way to be with our everyday lives. I know I can sometimes romanticize the life inside the monastery as a contemplative haven, but I know from my own relationship to the Priory where I am an Oblate and in Finley's description of his time as a cloistered monk, that no matter where we live, we will always be pulled by multiple desires and responsibilities.
Starting today, how might you plunge yourself into the heart of your life right here and now? What small thing can you take off your plate and say no to so that you have more space for the fullness of a yes? What would it mean to embrace the messiness of life as the precise arena where the Spirit does her work?
Three other favorite books on contemplative living:
- Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird
- New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
- Radical Wisdom by Beverly Lanzatta
(Abbey of the Arts is a nonprofit, the links above take you to Amazon and we receive a small percentage of your purchase price if you order which goes toward a scholarship fund for programs.)