An unknown author tells the story of the Pencil Maker who took aside a pencil before putting it into the box. “There are five things you need to know before I send you out into the world,” he told the pencil. “Always remember them and you will be the best pencil you can be.”
“One: You will do many great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in Someone’s hand.”
“Two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, but you’ll need it to become a better pencil.”
“Three: You will be able to correct any mistakes that you make.”
“Four: The most important part of you will always be what’s inside.”
“Five: On the surface on which you are used, you must leave your mark. No matter the condition, you must continue to write.”
The pencil understood and promised to remember. It went into the box with purpose in its heart.
Of course the story is a metaphor of our relationship with God, our creator. The story illustrates a fundamental truth that Saint Augustine, the 4th century African church father, taught when he said, “God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.”
Humans realize their potential in relation to God. In contemporary terms, we are hardwired to be in a relationship with God. For Augustine, it is in relation to the Ultimate Good (God) who is the only Real Being (God) that we garner the virtues to avoid falling over the precipice of death and nothingness. Indeed each of us is the pencil, who needs to be held by Someone (Spirit), and it is in being held by Someone that we achieve our ultimate purpose in life.
Practice of Christian Contemplation
This story certainly bespeaks our ultimate purpose in life: to be in a relationship with God in whom we find our rest. The story also works as a primer when introducing contemplation. Contemplation, apophatic in nature because it uses neither words, symbols nor images, invites us to experience the love of God who is always near. Many Christians suffer under the illusion that God does not care a whit about them. They somehow have the notion that God has bigger fish to fry in the universe, more important things with which to be concerned than us lowly, mud people. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Just as you have access to the world through your smart phone in the palm of your hand, so you have access to God. One hundred people in a room with smart phones would have full access to the internet, and by extension the world. And so it is with God. With God, you have all of God all the time. God is not a zero-sum game; God is not finite. Saint Paul said it best when he said that in God we live, move and have our being. Father Thomas Keating, known as one of the architects of centering prayer, says that God is ever-present—so much so that it is impossible to get away from him. Wherever you go, God is there.
First, note that when you do contemplation, you are resting yourself in Someone’s hand, the Holy Spirit’s hand, whose hand and total presence you received when you were baptized. Water comprehended by God’s word was applied to your body when you were baptized. The Spirit made you a temple of the Holy Spirit, wherein the Spirit resides. You got all the Holy Spirit as did all other Christians who were born from above of the Father’s will. In contemplation, you rest in this Spirit who is with you all the days that you traverse this vale of tears.
Second, just like the pencil during contemplation you may experience a painful sharpening, a refining. As you sit quietly, the matters of the heart come up. This may be fear-provoking to some, for we do all we can to ignore our pain, to pretend as if it does not exist. Yet, it always comes out in other ways, sometimes embarrassing ways. I recall a woman at her husband’s funeral. Though at times she felt like crying at the funeral, she refused to do so. As she related, that was a sign of a lack of faith. She feigned a happy, calm exterior because she was confident where her husband was going. There was no need for tears, only celebration. We all marveled at her stoicism during the service. But, when we arrived at the grave site and assembled for the final rites, and when the pastor said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection from the dead. . .” the woman came undone: throwing herself over the casket, she cried a river of tears. Fully absorbed in her pain and grief and losing control, she cast aside the stoic pretense of herself. Had she been real, and expressed her grief and emotions at the funeral instead of repressing them, she would not have been caught off-guard and embarrassed by these repressed emotions. Contemplation gives you a time and space to deal with repressed feelings and pain. Welcome the painful sharpening in contemplation.
When you sit in contemplation for 20 minutes, all kinds of feelings crop up. Let them come. If you feel like crying, cry. When you feel anger, do not push it away. Let all feelings run their course; the trick, however, is not to fixate on them. You see them coming; you feel them coming; then you let them go. Frankly, there are two challenges to contemplation. One is sitting in silence for 20 minutes without moving. The other is dealing with the feelings that your psyche will inevitably bring up. You can never be free of thoughts and feelings. You can look at them and then ignore them. When you do this enough, the thoughts and feelings that haunt you will no longer do so. You can see your thoughts, feel them, and then ignore them in favor of experiencing God’s love in that 20 – minute session, in that space and time.
Third, you sit in love, for God is love in Christ Jesus. Your sins are forgiven in him. He thereby brings you into relationship with his Father. In Christ, you can erase the mistakes that you make. You can let go and let God. Guilt may crop up during contemplation; let it go. During contemplation, you may get distracted by the cares of everyday life. When you feel yourself being carried off by a guilty or anxious thought, let it go and return to the intention of sitting in the silence, in the love of God. Your only intention during contemplation is to experience God’s love in Christ Jesus in the Holy Spirit. When your mind takes you on flights of fancy, just return to the intention of basking in God’s love.
Fourth, contemplation reminds you that what is inside you is what is most important about you. What is inside you is your regenerated spirit where the Holy Spirit is housed. It shall never pass away. It is your true self in Christ Jesus that does not lie or deceive you. It speaks lovingly. Unlike the false self, it does not chastise or condemn you about past mistakes. It whispers peacefully, affirming and validating.
Fifth, the fruit of contemplation is often discovered in what you do after contemplation and how you live. The fruit of contemplation will be peace, love and joy in all that you do. The Pencil Maker told the pencil in the story, “On the surface on which you are used, you must leave your mark. No matter the condition, you must continue to write.” In all circumstances of life, you want the mark that you leave to be characterized by the peace, love and joy that contemplation yields.
A Method of Christian Contemplation
15 to 20 minutes of measured breathing without moving your body will go a long way in getting you to rest in God’s love. If you are starting the practice of contemplation for the first time, start simply. Find a place where you can be alone and where you can sit in a comfortable chair. Set the timer on your smart phone to 15 or 20 minutes. Sit in the chair with your feet flatly on the ground and the palms of your hands turned down in your lap. Once you get comfortable, stay in this position for the duration of the session. Do not move. Without moving the rest of your body, slowly and methodically inhale and exhale full, measured breaths that expand your diaphragm. Fill your lungs without hyperventilating. Where you sense tension in your body, mentally tell that part of your body to relax.
After sensing your body at rest, now listen to the sounds about you: the birds chirping, the rustling of trees, or children at play. Pay more attention to the sounds than the thoughts in your head. In fact, ignore the thoughts as you focus on the intention of being present in the moment, in the now. Once again, you can never get rid of thoughts, so do not fight them. But, you can ignore them.
Some people have the idea that contemplation is emptying your mind and giving it over to the demonic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contemplation is not about flights of fancy, or astro projecting yourself around the universe. During contemplation, you are not looking for spiritual or theological insight; even those thoughts should be ignored. Contemplation invites you to be keenly aware yourself in the moment in which you are. Contemplation is about awareness of yourself in the space and time that God has given you.
When you find yourself caught up in the tyranny of the past or the future, return to the sounds that you hear while breathing deeply. In time, you may develop a sacred word. Your sacred word could be spirit, love, peace, or Jesus–whatever puts you in the center of God’s love. You will become so adept at using your sacred word that when you find yourself in moments of anxiety outside your designated time for contemplation, that word will bring into that anxious moment the peace, love and joy that you experience during contemplation. Your sacred word encapsulates your intention of resting in God’s love. When your thoughts or feelings carry you away, mentally say your sacred word to yourself. You may have to say that word to yourself as many times as you get caught up in a thought or feeling.
Your sacred word will become special to you, as it puts you in mind of God’s goodness and love. Commit yourself daily to this practice. Contemplation is an apophatic, spiritual practice that invites you to sit and rest in God’s loving presence. On its face it sounds easy. Like most good things in life that are good for you, it is challenging and takes discipline to maintain, but the long-term benefits are life changing.
A caution: westerners, a.k.a modern thinkers, will expect tangible and immediate results from a 20 – minute session. They will be tempted to judge contemplation’s effectiveness by what occurs during a session. The real fruits of contemplation will be realized in your everyday life after your time spent in contemplation. Slowly, imperceptibly, you find yourself responding and reacting differently to your life. Situations that would typically cause anxiety and stress will lose their tyranny, as you create a buffer zone where you can interpret situations and thus see life differently—a perspective from your true self in Christ. All this to say, don’t judge the progress of early efforts by what you feel during a specific session.
Contemplation is a holistic process. It is not merely a spiritual practice that is limited to a specific time and day in a ritualized form. It is a mindset that is created by your full engagement with your true self in Christ. In contemplation, you learn to be with that true self. After contemplation, you take that self with you into the world.
For Further Reading:
Keating, Thomas. Intimacy with God. New York: Crossroad, 1994.
Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Crossroads, 1992.
Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. New York: Continuum, 2002.
McGinn, Bernard. The Foundations of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.
McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.
McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1998
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Image Books, 1990.