Proclaimed a "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Pius XI in 1926, deemed informally as “patron of the afflicted,” nicknamed “God’s archives” in his time because of an encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures, Juan de la Cruz, or St. John of the Cross, stood at four feet eleven inches in height. Yet this little man became spiritual director to St. Teresa of Avila and one of the greatest Western contemplatives in the history of the church. But if you do not know the specifics of Juan’s life you might be tempted to cede him to an isolated category: mystic.
But Juan’s life defied categories. Juan, something of an architect, designed and planned monasteries—but he also built them, laying the bricks himself. He tilled the garden for the nuns. He composed dramas for the sisters to enact. He acted as spiritual director not only for Teresa but for the farmer down the road, for university professors, for the illiterate wives of shepherds. Even when withdrawn to the monastery, he created time to teach the children of the poor how to read and write. He even designed an aqueduct.
Yet for Juan, all the acts of love and justice were, as he repeated famously, nada when compared to the divine presence of God. As one writer describes The Ascent of Mount Carmel, there is a movement from “ideas about Christ to an inner more personal relationship, an interiorization and simplification in the way of communing and being one with him.” And Juan himself writes, “Only those who set aside their own knowledge and walk in God’s service like unlearned children receive wisdom from God.” And again, “A person must advance by unknowing rather than knowing.”
The truth is that St. John of the Cross was a contemplative in the strictest sense of the word, a true mystic, a man dedicated to seeking an awareness of the living and active presence of God, and he was also a man of action.
An objection arises on the subject of contemplation: whether or not the practice is actually obedient to God’s commands. “Love is an action word,” people protest, intimating that contemplation is not an action. “Contemplation does not feed the hungry, or give food to the poor,” they say. “What good,” they wonder, “does contemplation do in advancing the kingdom of God?” I think maybe the best way to ask the question is this: “Are Christians called, in some various degree, to contemplative practices?”
For St. John of the Cross, the answer was yes. And interestingly enough even he was accused of “being too calm in the midst of need.” The criticism of contemplative practice has long been the same. Two hundred years before Juan’s lifetime, the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote about similar complaints.
But I do not want to write a piece defending contemplatives. Rather, I want to write a piece about the virtues of contemplative practices for the ordinary layperson.
I am one of these people. I am married, so celibacy is out of the question. I live in the city and I am moving to a new city over the summer to teach medieval history to sophomores in high school, so solitude is out of the question. And I have a great too many material possessions; I live no life of poverty and abject self-denial. All the same, I believe I am called to in some way engage in contemplative practices.
Jesus himself withdrew into the desert for forty days. He fasted. In the Gospel of Luke the writer notes, “Jesus would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” The implication is that the practice was regular. In Mark 3 he withdraws to the sea. In Matthew 14, after hearing the news of John the Baptist, Jesus responds in this way: “Now when he heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” And this anecdote in the first chapter of Mark:
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.”
This happens over and over in the gospels, and I don’t think the writers noted the habit by accident. This is why Jesus withdrew to solitude, why he prayed in desolate places: to commune with God.
Lately I have been reading copious pages written by and about the great English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. I am slowly making my way through his many books, which are not just travel writing but true and total dives into history, cultural study, and natural wonder. I read the biography recently published about Paddy, as he was almost exclusively known, by Artemis Cooper. My knowledge of Fermor’s life—not only his writing tendencies but his personal habits, his likes and dislikes, his mannerisms, the impressions he left on others—is extensive.
In no way, however, do I have a relationship with Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is one thing to know about someone; it is quite another thing to know someone.
One may possess all the systematic theological knowledge the world has to offer and yet have no personal relationship with God. One may memorize all the Scriptures—much as the Pharisees did—and entirely miss the point. The opposite can of course sometimes be true. Take the thief next to Christ, for example. Presumably he knew very little to nothing about the Scriptures. He clearly did not regard the law as he should. But in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, his heart melted into humility.
The way to get to know someone is to spend time with her, and the best way to spend time with God is in prayer.
I remember, growing up, being taught an acronym for prayer: ACTS, standing for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Certainly all these types of discursive prayer are important, but there was nothing about contemplation, or meditation, nothing even about listening.
That is why I have fallen in love with contemplative prayer, as halfhearted as my own practice is. For the first time in my life, I am listening. By God’s grace I spend time each day doing nothing, and although I am still short with my wife, still impatient with others, and although my sanctification is no smooth or perfectly linear process, my heart is slowly softening, because I am spending time naked and silent before God, simply listening and saying nothing.
There are many types of contemplative prayer: Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, the Imaginative Prayer of Ignatius, and many others. Often someone will say to me, “I can’t concentrate for that long,” or else, “I don’t have the time.” I tend to believe that these sorts of responses mean that a light contemplative practice is exactly what the person needs, because I hear these echoes in my own head daily, these own feeble protests, and I have found that the quiet is exactly what I need.