The Contemplative Path Original Post January 20, 2010
(Installment Started December 11, 2009)
“Radical Amazement seeks to foster the contemplative way, for that is what will save us, that is what will transform us.” ~ Judy Cannato, “Radical Amazement”
Trevor and I went out to walk tonight about an hour after sunset. It was a beautiful clear night and I decided to get out before the forecast low temperatures could hang icicles on my nose. Thankfully the bone-chilling winds of the last few nights had died down, saving me from the biting nip of the cold.
Both of us preferred a brisk pace to ward off the brisk temperatures. The moon had yet to peek over the eastern horizon in the early evening sky, so we didn’t venture onto the dark narrow paths in the woods. There is no better way to find stumps, roots and rocks than to walk a dark trail. Instead, we walked about half way down the wide Valley Trail, crunching along its crushed rock with each noisy step.
When we stopped to turn around, I was struck by the sudden quiet. There was no breeze winnowing through the trees, no creaking of branches. All we could hear in the anechoic woods was an occasional, muffled bark sifting down the valley. The silence penetrated to my core.
We stood still for a long moment taking in the scene. It was dark so the woods were only vague, muted shapes with black veins of trunks, branches and twigs curving their way up into the deep indigo sky. The stars of the early evening shone brightly, decorating the dark limbs with the twinkling lights of the early Christmas season. Trevor’s head snapped from point to point with his ears cocked upward, as though he was hearing something. But all was calm.
In quiet moments like these, the woods seem to have a hypnotic effect. An intuitive, timeless sense of beauty wells up from the many different faces of this living wood. The quiet is calming and assuring, with its sense of peace coursing through my body. After contemplating the creative breath of God blown into the cosmos, coalescing over eons into this specific, life-giving place, the active, working, conscious mind of the day turns to the serene reception of the quiet beauty of the woods and the expanded sense of my own belonging. Here and now.
It is a psychic massage awaiting the wade into the deeper waters of intuition and a fuller immersion in the enduring peace of this natural place. The Sacred Quiet touches me and settles in harmony with my intuitive self, much as a quiet snowfall blankets and smoothes a mottled field.
It was too cold to linger very long on this calming path but, as we headed back to the warmth of home and hearth, it inspired my reflection on these contemplative moments that I’ve described in Woods Walking.
In spite of being from a large, active family, I always seemed able to find quiet moments of solitude, whether at rest, or even, at times, in the midst of repetitive activities when mind becomes observant and reflective within a process. There has always been an inviting inner sense, a siren that stirred my curiosity–to be aware and to probe.
At times there seems to be a gnawing void of unknown, a perceived potential, an open space of unanswered questions that is sensed and yearns for attention and exploration. It is the logical lattice of natural law that unfolds before me. It is analogous to peering across an open body of water and wondering what the far shore might hold.
“The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.”
There are both active and passive moments of depth of sense. Some are centered in thought or spirit — lifted mind, while some can extend to a physical sensation, like adrenaline coursing through the body.
Active contemplation or prayer over something awe-inspiring can lead to moments of deeper and deeper awareness. From letting my mind wander out amongst the stars on a clear night to seeking out grand vistas from hills, dunes, or even from the lofty perch of flight. And, instead of a quiet mind passively awaiting a fuller encounter, a very active pursuit of a logical, philosophical, theological or metaphysical trail can lead to a sudden, quiet realization. Almost like summiting a peak–the strenuous climb ends with that first, awe-inspiring look over a limitless vista.
Sometimes such active, contemplative paths yield a Sweet Affirmation, a sense that can only be described as external to self. One such event was concurrent with contemplation of my personal genealogy, where the specific memories of parents and relations were considered and enjoyed. But I pursued them back past those relations, beyond those I’d known, hidden behind the veil of time, yet necessarily present in a lineal history in my own literal line of contingency–the continuous line of life, living, loving and struggle. It is the ancestral continuum and passage from life to life. My own seeking that knows people were there and are there in the legacy of the Risen Body.
As I moved from specific memories to contemplation of those souls, I was met with a sudden Sweet Affirmation–a wispy chorus of “Yes” perceived at the core of my being. And there were many present in that brief touch across time; faces unseen yet presence felt.
I have used a phrase in Woods Walking #3, “innate, intentional communication” to describe such an encounter. Innate because the sense is so intimate, so personal, so real, so deep; intentional because there is a non-verbal sense of what is intended, through emotion or direction, yet its meaning is intuitive and clear.
Another method of active contemplation that I “happened into” during my years as a student of philosophy at Xavier is what W. Norris Clarke, S.J. refers to as an active “drilling down in detail” on any given thing. An example is the causal consideration given to the metaphysics of a fork, as described in Woods Walking #2.1 This endeavor ultimately leads to that most fundamental, personal encounter with the fact of “being,” the most fundamental observation about our forks that is shared with all other aspects of reality, physical or spiritual–that “it is.” With adequate consideration, this leads to an encounter, a quiet moment of intuitive possession of this core reality, a possession that is beyond words and transcendent.
At some point, one encounters the raw fact of existence versus non-existence, whether personal (had “I” not been conceived) or, more radically, the stark, absolute concept of being versus non-being. Thankfully, moments of “I am” confirm our unified fact of existence!
Of course, our very personal intention, our perception, of our personal existence leads to that moment of Descartian realization, “I think, therefore I am.” “Cogito ergo sum.” As Fr. Clarke’s interview, “A Taste of Existence” suggests, encountering our intimate fact of existence leads to an innate feeling of joy, of belonging and of participation in a greater whole. It defines us personally: that I am, and we are, the human flower of the Breath of God into the cosmos, intended for the Communion of the One Body.
For me, that encountered sense of “belonging” leads to the sublime sense of Peace that I’ve described on quiet evenings. Fr. Clarke described it in “A Taste of Existence” as “blown mind,” that is, an expansion of one’s awareness to embrace our unique personal place within Creation, and that all of this “is Gift for us,” as is the intent of our Creator.
There is an utter humility, a boundless joy and a profound gratefulness found in acknowledgment of the Grace of this Gift.
We know it, we experience it at specific times and specific places, yet that moment, that realization of “I am” is timeless in its sense of encounter of the enduring, unconditional Love and Belonging from and with our Creator.
“To deliver oneself up,
to hand oneself over,
entrust oneself completely to the silence
of a wide landscape of woods and hills,
or sea and desert; to sit still while
… the sun comes up over the land
and fills its silences with light.
…few are willing to belong completely
to such silence, to let it soak into their bones,
to breathe nothing but silence, to feed
on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life
into a living and vigilant silence.”
~ Thomas Merton
from Thoughts in Solitude
Passive moments of contemplation and deep intuition can be described as a sweet surprise, moments when we sense something that is at once larger than and outside of ourselves and may be beyond words, yet there is a sense of truth and familiarity that is all consuming, even overwhelming. From the realization—the raw perception—that we are truly loved, to the sudden glimpse of a grand vista, such “rush” moments touch us to the core with an undeniable intuitive sense that points to our own intimate personal roots in our human family, the nature that surrounds and enables us, and even our roots within Being and its “Prime Mover.”
Passive moments of deep intuition can occur even within repetitive activities. What athletes refer to as “the zone,” can be experienced as a deep, consuming awareness of what one’s body is doing reflexively, from bicycle riding to distance running and even, for me, as the pilot of an airplane–when the connectedness of awareness to mind to body to machine melt into the instantaneous appreciation of the seamless process of control and direction and the consuming, immediate unity of the moment. Such moments are intimately self-aware, reflective, yet distinctly “out of time.” For me, it is as though my awareness suddenly reaches down to the tips of my fingers and toes, embracing the totality of the moment. It is “being in the moment” without external distraction. And this is a passive encounter that happens almost without warning, yet with quite a pleasant glow.
I will close this installment with an appropriate link to APOD, titled “The Known Universe.” http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap100120.html It is a wonderful short video that draws on the original, insightful, empirical, illumination of Carl Sagan and can serve as an inspiring source of active spiritual contemplation.
I Corinthians 12: 4-11: http://bible.cc/1_corinthians/12-4.htm
Copyright © 2010 Rudolph Siegel
Read more at Woods Walking #9: