One of the concepts that help me to grow in the capacity of Christ in my heart is that of the Church. I use to think of the Church as being a body of rules and prescriptions that I had to believe in order to make it to heaven. Now, I just see that as a kickoff point for what is actually a quite sophisticated and ingenious way for Christ to take his command, “to love one another as I have loved you,” and make that real in each age for all races, for all genders, for all nationalities. What follows is an excerpt from my new book on The Art of Contemplative Practice: A Lay Cistercian reflects on a compendium of skills needed to move from self to God.
THE RANDOMNESS OF GOD IS GREATER THAN ALL THE INTENTIONS THAT HUMANS COULD CONCEIVE
During his lifetime, the era of Christ is characterized by God becoming human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Humans were just not going in the right direction in the Old Testament. They needed to be re-directed toward a more catholic approach to salvation, including everyone using the lessons found in the Christ Principle. Jesus came to save us from going in the wrong direction and giving us the WHAT about how to become adopted sons and daughters of the Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for us from before the physical universe existed. If Jesus is the WHAT, then the extension of his presence in the physical and mental universes is the HOW, or the practice of those Christ Principles, every day. The minefield through which all humans must pass is called Original Sin or how to control the human condition in each of us to rise up to our potential as adopted sons and daughters of the Father and not descend into our animality past, which is not our nature. In this context, Christ founded his Church, the gathering of those who try to make the Christ Principle as the center of their lives, to DO those activities that will enable them to fulfill their human potential. The unbroken link with Christ is the Church Triumphant (those who have died in the peace of Christ and now enjoy the heaven that they have discovered on earth), the Church Militant (those still living and struggling to have in them the mind of Christ Jesus each day with the energy of the Holy Spirit as Advocate), and finally, those who get a second chance at redemption or anyone God chooses to give another shot at loving others as Christ loved us, the Church Purgative or Penitential. The Church Universal is only made up of living human beings, ones who have varying degrees of awareness of how to love God with all their minds, with all their hearts, and with all their souls, and their neighbor as themselves. This multi-dimensional Church has three bodies but only one head, consistent with the Holy Trinity’s template (one divine nature with three distinct persons). This template is one that I use to look at one reality from three distinct universes of conditions, the physical universe, the mental universe (only humans were raised up to this level of existence), and the spiritual universe (only those Baptized with water and the Holy Spirit are raised up by God to be humans who are adopted by God to live forever.)
As an individual human being, far fetched as it may sound, you are the center of all reality. Don’t think of this center as being like the center of a bulls eye on a target, but rather the purpose of all reality from the time that time began to when you were born in original sin. Everything that is, the physical universe, the fact that humans have the ability to reason and make free choices, the insertion of God into the human situation to help us with WHAT we should do to be with God in heaven, and finally the foundation of the Church as mother to nourish me and protect me from the violence of the human condition, gives me a chance to live and fulfill my destiny as a human being.
As Erick Fromm writes so succinctly in his book, The Art of Loving, humans are not born with love, they must acquire it. Not all notions about love lead to authenticity. Some lead to the corruption of the human person. We must not only master human love, which is the purpose of being human but also master the art of loving others as Christ has loved us. Christ did not just come down and say, “Do this or that, then die, leaving us orphans. He showed us how to conquer our temptations and seek God each day. He also told his followers and through them those who would gather together to DO what he said, that He would be with us as we journey in our particular and unique paths to that final gathering in heaven. The Art of Contemplative Practice means doing those activities and behaviors that allow the presence of God to influence the way we treat others and respect ourselves. The Cistercian Way is how I have chosen to express this desire to be in the presence of Christ through Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Annoting of the Sick. I use this approach to spirituality because it is one which I am most familiar.
THE CHRIST PRINCIPLE IS ALL ABOUT JESUS BEING THE CENTER OF ALL REALITY. THE CHURCH IS ALL ABOUT WHAT CHRIST CAN DO FOR YOU NOW AS YOU SEEK GOD IN YOUR DAILY LIFE.
The Church is the occasion for the Holy Spirit to overshadow you with faith, hope, and love if you know what is going on. Liturgy is a collective way that the Body of Christ approaches God the Father through, with, and in Christ in unity with the Holy Spirit. The Church is “doing” what Christ left us to practice. The Church is there joined together with God’s DNA that contains the building blocks of contemplative practice moving through each successive age just for me to be able to say, “Jesus is Lord.”
As I try to live my purpose in life to seek God each day (Philippians 2:5), I use the following six questions as a focal point to help me stretch beyond what is comfortable so that I can find deeper meaning in three areas where it takes skill to move forward. These six questions form the core or bedrock of my contemplative practice.
THE SIX QUESTIONS EACH PERSON MUST ASK AND ANSWER BEFORE THEY DIE
MASTERY NOW AND FOREVER
When you are accepted by God as an adopted son or daughter, your journey to Forever is just beginning. Like everything we do as human beings, it takes work. When you ratify your Faith, you begin to pack your bag for life with God forever. Love in the spiritual universe is not automatic; you must learn how to love others as Christ loved us. The Church becomes the school of charity to help each individual and gatherings of individuals to love. I have chosen to express or make this love real while I live with the Rule of St. Benedict, specifically with the Cistercian approach to contemplative practice. This book assumes that contemplative practices and skills don’t automatically appear magically from some invisible force like love, contemplative practices, and skills. There is an art to contemplative practice, one that demands discipline and mastery. This mastery will never be fully reached in this lifetime of trying to love God with our whole mind, our whole heart, and with all our strength. It is the time that we take each day to seek God as life unfolds, using, in my case, Cistercian practices and charisms to make sense out of reality.
One of my concerns about conversion is the “one time is enough” syndrome. We are saved by the blood of Christ in His sacrifice on the cross, so we just get on the conveyor belt to behave, do what we want, then get off in Heaven. What is lacking in this approach is an appreciation of Original Sin and of humility and obedience needed to take up our cross daily and follow Christ as we meet Him each day. Being a follower of the Master is work, a daily battle against the ever-encroaching effects of Original Sin on our belief. Another of my concerns is that we don’t teach our members how to move from self to God each day, only an intellectual encounter with keeping the rules and obeying what the Church says is true. Don’t mistake that last statement as abandoning the role of the Church through the ages. “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.” I am saying that Christ gives us the WHAT and WHY to have in us the mind of Christ Jesus, but show us HOW. The Church should be the instrument or help us with good works to move from self to God. Refer to St. Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 4. https://christdesert.org/prayer/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-4-the-tools-for-good-works/ Don’t forget that these good works are not ends in themselves but are only tools that lead us to increase Christ in our hearts. Christ is the terminus of all that we do, not the Church. Our reformation must be to increase God’s capacity (capacitas dei) in us by using the help and prayers not just of me, but in union with all those gathered together in one faith, one, lord, one baptism. The local Church becomes the occasion where I meet Christ. The church is a gathering of believers who help me and, together with me, move more and more towards the love Christ expressed for us by dying on the cross for our sins.
The context in which all of us practice these sixteen skills we call The Church. I love the analogy of the Church Universal as Mother. A mother protects her children from harm and ensures that they are fed and their wounds and bruises are soothed. A mother knows the failures and faults of her children but is always there with them as they get up from their foibles and fallacies. A mother is a moral compass for their children to admonish them when they need it all the while expressing unconditional love. The Church Universal is about sustaining how to love Christ through our heritage and authority from the Apostles. As an individual who has a limited lifetime to learn how to love as Christ loved us, I am the Church particular to transform first myself and then, through me, to those I meet in my brief lifetime. The Church can be compared to a mother who patiently nourishes me (and all me’s that ever lived) with how to love fiercely and make sense out of the spiritual universe, which is the opposite of what the world has an assumption about the purpose of life. Each of us has the ability to reason and the choice to do whatever we choose. Some of these choices are authentic, and some are destructive. The purpose of the Church Universal is to help me get to heaven. (Baltimore Catechism, Question Number Six)
The Art of Contemplation is a way to look at reality that uses help from God to nudge us in the right direction so we can open our hearts to the heart of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
ASSUMPTIONS DRIVE THE BUS
Behind anything we believe are multiple assumptions about what is true. Both you and I will have a different take on reality because we are unique. I like the saying:
Some assumptions I have in writing about The Art of Contemplative Practice.
I wrote all of my books as love letters from me to you, the result of my Lectio Divina meditations and contemplative thoughts that came from the Holy Spirit to me. I don’t speak for the Holy Spirit, only tune in to his television channel and watch whatever is presented. In that sense, I am a Scribe.
The Art of Contemplation is about my knowing what to choose to love as Christ loved us and doing the practices and receive the charisms to place myself in the presence of God through Christ using the energy of the Holy Spirit to help me. All of this is not about me, but about how I can make room for Christ in my heart.
I offer you sixteen different skills that I use to move from self to God. These skills are those that allow me to sit on a park bench in the dead of winter and approach God by keeping my mouth shut (God always approaches me, although I don’t always feel His presence). I don’t always practice them perfectly, but I do practice them daily in some form.
THREE LEVELS OF MAKING ROOM FOR GOD
There are three levels of awareness of what it means to love that I wish to master before I die. It will take me a lifetime of trying to approach God by having in me the mind of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5) Trying is a prayer in itself.
LEVEL ONE: Mastery of what it means to love in the secular world (RE: Erick Fromm’s, The Art of Loving. https://amzn.to/2XiMonP) Physical and Mental Universes
LEVEL TWO: Mastery of what it means to love others as Christ loves us. (RE: Learning to Love https://amzn.to/385zlfw) Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Universes aid in the Formation of Contemplative Practice. Continue to practice the sixteen skills of the Art of Contemplative Practice until you die.
LEVEL THREE: Mastery of the School of Love (RE: Developing A School of Love, https://amzn.to/3pOblUj) Spiritual Transformation from Self to God each day. Becoming what you read in Scripture.
I use the following sixteen skills to help me master the three different levels of spiritual awareness. Spiritual awareness in contemplative practice as a Lay Cistercian means that I try to grow in my capacity to have Christ in me. It is seeking God daily, with no reservations, with no agendas, with no expectations. With Christ as my center and the Christ Principle in my life, I don’t have to worry about what I am to eat or drink or what I am to wear, or what situations happen to me that day. Christ is there. It is the time I take to try to make room for Christ in my heart that is most meaningful, not just its attainment.
ASSUMPTIONS FOR THESE CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE SKILLS
There are sixteen skills that I propose as the core habits to acquiring what St. Benedict calls the Tools of Good Works (Chapter 4 of his Rule). Skills are about HOW to do contemplation. Contemplation is about using Meditation to move deeper into an abandonment of thoughts so that you focus on being present to Christ and listening with the “ear of the heart.” My new book will be a “How-to” book on contemplative practices that I use.