Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Contemplation II

For the past year or more, I have been attending a contemplative prayer group in San Jose, directed by Fr. Kevin Joyce. It is a considerable drive (nearly an hour one way) but well worth the time and effort. I take a friend with me from our local Old Mission prayer group, so the to-and-fro time is pleasantly passed.

Last year, when Fr. Kevin was at Santa Clara University, there were only a handful of us. This year, though, he has become parish priest at St. Lucy's in Campbell, and that has yielded an attendance at times of 60-100 people. Once, there were so many of us, we had to use the church instead of one of the religious education rooms. What amazes me is Fr. Kevin's ability to create silence and reverence in such a large group of people. He combines prayer itself with study. (Yes, it is possible to be contemplative in a very large group; after all, God, who is stranger than we can possibly imagine and whom we are not required, fortunately, to understand fully, is quite able to interact with individuals individually throughout the whole world simultaneously. Now, there's something that is very difficult to get a human mind wrapped around!) What we study with Fr. Kevin are the mystics and the history of mysticism. All of this has been very educational for me, yet there is much I still do not understand, seemingly really important things that, in my personal experience, stray from the historical path as we know it.

Perhaps it might help to understand my mindset if I were to share that the very first spiritual book I read (even before getting involved in Bible reading and study) was a one-volume combined set of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling. I loved those two books, the second even more than the first. I carried the volume with me. I read and re-read it. It explained so much of what had been happening to me. It also let me know that it was okay not to understand everything; in fact, that there was no need to seek to understand everything. For someone with a Ph.D., not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. For someone with a flair for foreign languages -- I have studied 17, but I can communicate in (or at least understand) a far larger number than that, my life's focus having been on understanding foreign cultures, foreign words, foreign behaviors -- not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. As a former teacher, where my goal was to teach others to understand, not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. Having been raised in the West, where the emphasis is on reason (maybe even I should write that with a capital R, since we seem to worship Reason), not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. So, it was very difficult for me to push aside my attachment to logic and accept the idea that it is okay not to understand. I carried around The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling as a security blanket for more than a year after my conversion. They are still my favorite spiritual books, especially the latter, although I have now read many more and realize that I probably chose those among the most difficult as my entré to spiritual reading. (The volume just fell under my hand, as the Russians say, so it could be that the books chose me and not the other way around.)

In any event, the experiences that led me to conversion and those that followed me during the immediate weeks and months after conversion reflected in the most minute detail those experiences described in The Book of Privy Counseling. Over time, I have come to realize that my experiences are not common among my peers (at least, the local ones) in the 21st century, and I have begun seeking out others who do have them. (Actually, that search prompted this blog site.) With time, I have been rewarded in that search, finding others who share those experiences and a priest, my beloved Fr. Barry (unfortunately, recently transferred to an assignment 100 miles away), who can help me interpret what I consider unusual experiences but which he, at the age of 82, has seen more than once. (There is no question in my mind that God plunked me down at Old Mission Church in part precisely because I would need Fr. Barry.)

Now, back to Fr. Kevin. As a mechanism for initiating a contemplative state, Fr. Keving taught us the Jesus prayer. Up until that time, I had not used (or needed) any "mantra" for connecting to God. It just happened. God made it happen. In The Cloud of Unknowing and especially in The Book of Privy Counseling, the unknown author (I love the fact that the author is also "unknown") tells that the old mystics, the Egyptian desert fathers, would sometimes repeat "God," "Lord," or a similar word to initiate contemplation, so I understood why Fr. Kevin taught us the Jesus prayer. However, for me it felt odd because I had never needed to call. (My friend, Omar, poet of spiritual and philosophical verse in Arabic and English, professor of political science, and Sufi mystic, has repeatedly told me, "God spoils you." Usually, he is referring to some problem that God has whisked away, but in the case of contemplation, I think God also spoils me. In any moment of quiet, there I have nearly always found God in an overwhelmingly present way.)

However "odd" it might have been for me personally, I dutifully followed Fr. Kevin's instructions the next morning, which I began with some time in contemplation as I begin every morning. Contemplation is less a choice for me than something that just happens seemingly often without deliberate volition. So, I began the Jesus prayer and was immediately startled (locutions never fail to startle me) by the words, "Why do you call me? I am here."

Oh, my, yes, I know that God is with me. I feel it throughout the day from morning to night -- more deeply when I take time for prayer or contemplation, but always at least peripherally in my senses as a comfortable companion and guide, except for those times that I focus intently on some activity that excludes God. (Sometimes, admittedly, I exclude God deliberately, at least subconsciously so, because I want to do what I am doing and don't want to think that maybe God would want me to do something else or do it differently -- that kind of behavior keeps me going to confession!)

So, following the locution that morning, I am back to being confused. If I know that God is with me, if I can feel His presence in every fiber of my being and the expansive atmosphere around me, why, indeed, do I need to call Him? Well, there's a question for Fr. Kevin after our next meeting, with whom I have not before sought personal contact because he lives too far away for me to "drop by." I could bring up the question during our sessions but cannot bring myself to share publicly with a group of 60 people, most of whom I do not know or barely know. I hope that Fr. Kevin will not be mobbed by people (my country girl origins make me instinctively shy away from crowds) or have to serve Mass after our next meeting since the last four months have been that way, and the last four months I have remained in a state of confusion. On the other hand, confusion is becoming a comfortable state for me -- I don't know whether that is good or bad; it just is.

So, folks, what do you think? Any answers or thoughts for me before May 2, which is the next time I will see Fr. Kevin?


  1. Elizabeth,
    Cloud of Unknowing was one of the first classics that I read and I thought it was aptly titled. I don't have any answers for you but your post made me laugh. It painted a funny mental picture in my head especially when Jesus answered you so quickly :) It's true, He is with us. Personally, repeating sacred words puts me to sleep, I use them to help with my insomnia. My thought is:
    Mantras or sacred words are unnecessary, love is what matters. Like you, it seems to me that God initiates everything whenever He decides to. I think we are just supposed to accept it with open hearts. You didn't have to call Him the first time, did you? We have an open phoneline with Him anyway, He dwells right inside us. That's why it made me laugh when He said, "I am here".

  2. That has been my experience, too, Mary: it is never up to me, it is always up to God. I wonder if the Egyptian Abbas used a "mantra" (I definitely do not think that this is the proper word but I don't know a better one) to ready themselves for God, i.e. empty themselves so that there was room for God. I think we sometimes get so "full" of ourselves that we leave little to no room for God.