“Blessedness is no superficial joy or indolent repose,
but the opening vision of the Divine glory, the growing
insight into the mysteries of the fulfillment
of the Divine counsels.”
~ Origen, On First Principles ii:10.
paths and definitions
In this recent narrative exploration of the interior way, I’ve acknowledged the contemplative path as the avenue in my midst that is not barricaded from my reach. The first essay addresses the sustenance of the spirit, beginning with the contemplative path, as taught and lived by monastic communities. The second essay celebrates reading and the study of the written word as inspiring strength. Now we come to the most essential of ingredients...
Setting words to subjects as elusive and dauntingly personal as contemplation and prayer has challenged thinkers and practitioners through untold centuries. In my own ways, I suppose I have also been contributing to the ocean of words. As words go, I’ve long appreciated the French expression l’oraison, which covers the essential ground for those responding with their lives to a spiritual vocation. The Latin root, oratio, meaning “prayer,” does not suffice to define what l’oraison encompasses. In the simplest terms, this means a life-perspective that is immersed in reverent conscientiousness.
The Carmelite tradition, often looking to its own historic contemplatives St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, frequently uses the term l’oraison. Soeur Marie-Laetitia refers to the personal call to live with one’s whole heart, “giving way to the Presence of the One who lives and prays within you.” To speak of mystery in what might appear to be arcane terms is surely not the intention; monastic teachers tend toward an assuring, plain-spoken style. In her book, Découvrir l’Oraison, Sr. Marie-Laetitia uses terms such as vivre pleinement, vraiment, intensément (living fully, truly, intensely), and that (translated) “too often we are living at the superficial surface of our being,” and “contemplation is an attentiveness to the Spirit, which is a matter of willingness and determination.” That seems pedestrian enough. But then she says contemplative life is “essentially situated in the domain of the unseen... in the face of the incomprehensible, we want to understand.” Contemplation is “not an intellectual work,” wrote another contemporary Carmelite, Pierre-Marie Salingardes; in the same essay he referred to l’orasion as a “schooling of affection and compassion.”
As every discipline has a practice, the applied life of l’oraison begins and lives in the current of silent reflection. In uninterrupted quiet times, thoughts can be reigned in, and the mind cleared. Being a clean (or clean enough) slate, it becomes possible to listen beneath and within the “surface” referred to by Sr. Marie-Laetitia. Quakers describe this regathering as “centering down.” Contemplation is more than something one “does” when an occasion arises. An anonymous monastic once wrote, “we make the time to be there for God.” In that recollective quiet, a soul can “enter” the interior environment of l’oraison. We express our longings and ask, perhaps, for greater understanding, or a more forgiving attitude. Another aspect is to slowly absorb a few words- or a text- and taste its meaning. The spirit of this practice is really that of dialogue. Not a desolate experience, but one of union.
My own oraison comprises journal writing- even if the entries are fragments of sentences. The journal provides a place, as well, for reflections about readings. Lengths of time for quiet meditations vary with my scattered work schedule- but I manage to devote parts of early-mornings and lunch hours to contemplate and commune. This is merely a portion within the general context of l’oraison and journeying through life. Interior prayer is astonishingly accessible. Contemplation is transcendent of place, and does not require special words or intermediaries. It is as direct and proximate as a person’s own thoughts. Thinking and writing curve and dovetail easily into intentions and gratitude. The contemplative spirit does not separate prayer as an “activity” differentiated from ordinary thought processes. Prayer is an appeal, as much as a recognition (of things, of my limitations, of God’s magnitude). It isn’t even really an isolated “action,” as though I were to say, “at 2:30, I am going make sure to breathe, so that I’ll have a dose of oxygen.” All means of inspiration are integrated. After some time, distance, and experience, contemplation becomes quite involuntary and extemporaneous.
Once embarked upon the interior way, the commitment must be whole-hearted. Without a sustained, all-in attitude, contemplation too easily becomes extraneous and stagnant, instead of being as life-giving as its definition. It would be like cutting off the water supply from its wellspring. As the gospel passage declares, we would be unfit for the realm of the Divine if we continue looking backwards while setting our shoulders to plow forward. Simplest ways seem to demand the most discipline. Being committed to contemplation is much like my commitment to learning. The latter requires study, as faith requires the lifeline of prayer. Despite much of the cultural formalism that tends to moor prayer down, it’s really not a “religious” matter. The less fettered, the better, and the more dynamic. Having a sense of direction is far more consequential. Religiosity may be viewed as a scaffold, but it is not the building- neither are formulae. All if this is transcended by longing and perseverance. But in the context of l’oraison, this is not a one-way communication. Reaching up for a rope turns out to be the rope lowered within reach. A person’s seeking is not possible without help. Life in the Spirit invites a direct rapport with the forces of creation. In God: Creator, Word, and Spirit of New Life- the Logos is Christ who speaks directly to the human condition, and is the compelling Mentor to all that would be disciples. The frisson of taking up the yoke and beginning the pursuit invariably leads through wilderness temptations of unknown depths and durations. Along the trial roads are places of respite and validation. But it’s all very unpredictable, and thus l’oraison throughout these paces becomes even more vital. We cannot perceive vastness from inside hiding places.
experience and the invisible
Describing the boundless with the limitations of written language has challenged practitioners since the advent of narrative writing. But we do continue, somehow undaunted, knowing we are not alone. The important thing is to know the topic by first-hand experience. Dirt roads, sidewalks, and expressways dissolve into mystery, considering the Searcher of hearts. “Contemplation is essentially situated in the domain of the invisible,” wrote Sr. Marie-Laetitia, adding “l’oraison is the ground beyond our senses, and we more easily sense that which we can see. We face the incomprehensible, and we desire to understand.” Paradoxically, the unknowing can be less discouraging than the seen, and the absence of answers must not derail the prayers. Contemplation is surely not entirely of the individual’s will. We experience, as the Carmelite sister observed, “the Presence of the One living in us and praying in us.” For my very humble part, I’ve come to notice more recently, alongside how reflexively I’ll take notes while reading, how I also need no provocation to pray. Of course, in times of duress, prayer is at the front of my thoughts. It’s the first thing in my consciousness when I wake, bringing to mind the Mosaic meditate upon these words at home, on the road, wearing them in your thinking and doing.
Abstract as it may sound, the going forth into spiritual realms is much more solid than it sounds. All those petitioning words and emotions go somewhere. That is indeed blind faith, and a surrendering of holding on to the known and seen as the sum of all that is. It is a major stride to ascent to the acceptance that what we see is not all that is. In the context of contemplation, it means a loosened grip, giving over the struggles and even what appear to be their solutions. A wise friend made the daring suggestion of “offering one’s oppression” as a gift to God. This brings to mind the words of Marthe Robin, foundress of the Foyers de Charité, who was known to say, “Your life will be worth the sum of your prayer [ton oraison].”
the visible and the active
Lived experience may blend into contemplative reflection, turning toward the invisible. Conversely, the formless unseen may prompt the visibly tangible. The written word represents this, as we compose our insights and observations. From the long history of autobiographical writing is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written at the end of the 4th century. He even wrote about the action of writing poetry, within which he observed: “These things I then knew not, nor did I mark them; and they on every side beat about mine eyes, yet I did not see them.” Confessions is a large and kaleidoscopic work, by a complex and brilliant author. His philosophical analysis of life manifests as a work of prayer and thanksgiving.
Some sixteen-hundred twenty years after St. Augustine’s words, I inadvertently overheard an extraordinary conversation. I was in a crowded bookstore in Boston, and from the next aisle came the voice of an older man teaching a younger man to read. They were in the Judaica aisle; the younger man was learning to pronounce the words of the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew. The prayer is one of remembrance and praise, and it is also said when remembering the departed. Kaddish (which means holiness) is the ancient basis for the Lord’s Prayer taught to the disciples in the gospel. Since these two men were not speaking in hushed tones, it was easy to listen from where I was. Evidently, they had been complete strangers to each other. The younger man introduced himself as a military veteran to the older man, and called himself “damaged goods,” and that he was mourning someone who had been close to him. The older man helped the young veteran pronounce some more words. They repeated each other. By this time, I could see them both- the elder finally handing the book to the younger, wishing him “health and healing.” This was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in a shop. Such lived experiences are part of l’oraison.
As the interior way is unconfined, contemplation physically manifests in the exterior. L’oraison is not removed from practical living; indeed, the one needs the other. In his book, Contemplation in a World of Action, Thomas Merton wrote, “the contemplative experience is in touch with what is most basic in human existence.” We become able to “join things together in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them.” From my vantage point, still very much in the weeds of the temporal, there remains the effort to direct myself to encouragement and being creative. Along the way, I’m able to encourage others toward creativity and inspiration. While there are hardly any successes to claim, and so many unfulfilled projects, perhaps in the context of contemplation these are not things to dwell upon. Perhaps the greater strides are in the unseen and hopeful motions exemplified as l’oraison. In his journal, Struggle and Contemplation, Brother Roger of Taizé remarked about the day he submitted his manuscript for his book Festival to be published. “Have I managed to say what I intended? No. Then why write? Because a boundary always remains, beyond which we are left alone with ourselves, whether we be writing or speaking.” A truly hopeful motion, whether visible or not, is what can transcend that boundary.
* Note: The black & white images in this essay were made and printed by me, when I was 19 years old.