Why contemplation is not just for contemplatives
Years ago I had the great fun of travelling across Canada with two fellow recording artists – Steve Bell and Bob Bennett – in a concert series dubbed The Living Room Tour. Each night we performed in a songwriter’s round, taking turns offering songs, backing each other up and delighting in each other’s work.
One night during a tour stop in Kelowna, Steve introduced a song called "Pleasing to You." He described the way he’d been reading Psalm 19 during a sun-kissed morning in his home in a rural area outside Winnipeg.
"The house was quiet," he explained. "As I looked out the eastern window, the birds were singing, the deer were afoot, and I even caught a glimpse of the magnificent red fox that would sometimes shimmer by. Soon a song began to well up within me."
The audience was leaning in, transfixed by the picture Steve was so expertly painting. I, on the other hand, was feeling something other than a song welling up within me. I was thinking of my own home, filled as it was in those days with the joyful and not-so-joyful sounds of my two very young and active children. I was trying to remember the last time I had spent even five minutes in reflective silence.
"Steve," I interrupted, "can I just say … how very nice for you!" The audience instantly caught the note of sarcasm in my voice and erupted in laughter. There was a swell of (mostly feminine) cheering. Years later, Steve would tell me that sudden burst of perspective was one of his favourite moments of the tour.
My own kids are teenagers now, and though life is still busy, it’s easier to find pockets of quiet than it used to be. I’ve come to deeply appreciate the critical importance of setting apart time for prayer and stillness. So it was with great enthusiasm I recently found myself extolling the virtues of a contemplative life to a classroom full of adult students while co-teaching a summer course at Regent College.
But even as I was making the case for the value of sustained, attentive silence, I noticed flickers of exasperation cross more than a few faces – young moms, harried dads, overworked business leaders and even exhausted ministers. I knew instantly what they were thinking. How very nice for you!
Is a contemplative life – a life of loving attention to God – only available to folks who enjoy the luxury of expendable time?
As I review the various seasons of my own life – most of them, to some extent, demanding – I find myself drawing two conclusions.
First, it really has been critically important to find, on a regular basis, at least some small measure of time to spend intentionally synching my heart with God’s. As Richard Foster pointed out, we can only live up to our responsibilities when we have "response-ability" – the capacity to respond to whatever life throws at us with appropriate patience, wisdom and grace. Such response-ability typically requires rhythms of deep and intentional connection with our Creator.
Finding the necessary time requires creativity, intentionality and more than a little help from our friends. But it’s possible, through subversively simple tweaks like getting up a bit earlier to talk over the coming day with God, turning the radio off to foster stillness on a commute, or negotiating with family or coworkers to allow for the occasional mini-retreat from normal routines.
Second, while carving out time for quiet contemplation has been essential, it’s been equally important to attend to the movement of God in even the noisiest parts of my life. It is one (beautiful) thing to catch a glimpse of God in a sundrenched countryside. But it’s another (equally beautiful) thing to find Him in a messy kitchen or a pressure-filled boardroom.
One of the great fruits of times of stillness, in fact, should be an increased capacity to recognize God in the times of anything-but-stillness.
Years ago, watching the sun come up, my friend Steve read, "The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul" (Psalm 19:7). Tonight, working long past sunset, I read those same words, and I know they are true.
Carolyn Arends (www.CarolynArends.com) is a recording artist, author and director of education for Renovaré. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/GoWithGod.