I’d like to begin by challenging you. It’s an easy task for some, a difficult exercise for most. But I want you to access your thoughts for a moment and locate a specific memory, a core memory, a memory that is likely closed to you now, but one that can be unlocked.
If you need to close your eyes, do it.
If you need to close your ears, do it.
If you need to leave your body altogether so that only your soul navigates the complex whereabouts of your spiritual state, do it.
The memory I’m asking you to seek is the one where you became so utterly convinced of God’s existence that you could do nothing but surrender your life to Him. The one where every one of your senses was heightened to the reality of His metaphysics, where every form of sense knowledge connected with God in a unity that went beyond the moment and the cosmos. The memory where time and space no longer mattered, only love and perfect adoration.
Take a moment to locate that memory.
I find it rather hilarious that I am preaching on recollection and contemplation to you today as I am a man concerned with many worldly things. 99% of the time my mind is occupied with how to appease my spouse, how to keep my children fed, and the various goings-on of being a father to seven young children (and a teacher to 80+ students) whose needs supersede my own. Car rides, laundry, dirty dishes and even dirtier diapers cloud my mind from the things of God for most of my awake hours (and some of my (quote, unquote) “sleeping” hours, too).
In truth, 99% of the time I’d describe myself as Von Hildebrand’s non-example of transformation in Christ: “His infatuation with activity prevents him from understanding, even the necessity of a basic renewal.”
But then, there’s that 1%.
That 1% when I unlock that core memory of union with God.
It happens at random mostly–when it’s quiet in the morning and I’m washing dishes as ninja-like as possible so as not to wake my sleeping tribe. Sometimes, it’s at 3am as I cradle my child who simply needed a banana to fill her tummy before she drifted back to sleep. Sometimes it’s on those silent car rides when I haphazardly recite the rosary on my fingers because I forgot to bring my actual rosary with me and somehow, some way, God snaps my brain back to Him like a rubber-band bracelet pulled and thwacked against my skin.
That 1%, then, initiates within me a process of change.
The process is simple, just as God is simple, and it is consists of three very basic steps. So simple are these steps that we utilize them to control the flow of traffic on our streets– one need only to look to a traffic light to gain spiritual insight!
Yield, stop, and go
Recollect, contemplate, and love.
The first step, recollection, is the yellow light of our spiritual lives. When I was a kid, riding in the back seat of my grandmother’s Buick on a trip to the candy store, I asked her what the yellow light on the traffic light meant. She, a cheeky livewire in her own right, told me that it meant “Hurry up!” Then she proceeded to hit the gas and I contemplated whether the candy was worth it.
In the spiritual life, especially for those of us in the west, we tend to want to “hurry up.” We don’t like recollection because we don’t want to stop for anything. We want action. We want noise. We want to cure boredom, not get lost in it.
But recollection catches up with all of us, eventually, be it in this life or the next.
The benefits of recollection are no secret. The world even knows it. In order to fly Peter Pan requires pixie dust, a grace from the superior mystical being of Tinkerbell, but what else? Happy thoughts– a focused stream of joy by which the boy disconnects from the natural world and rises to the heavens.
The practice of Christian recollection is no different– God calls us from the world in which we live, as Von Hildebrand tells us, “to withdraw, as far as the center of my consciousness is concerned, from my actual life, emerging towards the world of genuine and ultimate things which I now see ordered in the perspective of eternity, located as it were in their topos uranios (celestial place).” 124
This disconnect, this detachment of what I see in my sense reality is the via by which God calls us into something deeper, a metaphysical portal of sorts by which we not only see our world, but contemplate its deeper truths. In a sense, we exist in a quasi-fantasy world where both heaven and earth exist in one overlapping setting whose crux is found in Jesus Christ.
Then comes step number two– contemplation. If recollection is the yield sign of our spiritual lives, contemplation is the full stop.
There is a popular saying that goes “Money makes the world go round.” This is false. Contemplation makes the world go round, and we owe a great debt to the sacrifice of men and women religious, especially those in cloisters, whose constant sacrifice of prayer and fasting for souls they have never met have done more to create peace in the world than the Red Cross, Peace Corps, Catholic Relief Services, the UN, and every other philanthropy organization–religious and non-religious– to ever exist combined. These secluded men and women are living saints. They, and their connection with Our Lord in their contemplative state, make the world go round.
How do we know this to be true? Because Jesus told us.
When Martha was busy doing good things for the Lord, she bickered to Jesus on the fact that Mary wasn’t “doing” enough to help her. Jesus replied that Mary had chosen the better part, for she chose contemplation.
You and I struggle with this from time to time, too. We see a “good” in our lives and pursue it for its truth, beauty, and goodness thinking it has something to do with God. We exercise because it’s good to exercise. We study because it’s good to study. We eat healthy and pray for others because it’s good to do those things. But, we rarely arrive at contemplation in any of the things we do because we, like Martha, are so concerned with the ACT that we forget the WHY. We put the cart before the horse, and in doing an act of goodwill without proper contemplation, we lose the horse entirely, namely God, and push the cart with our own powers causing us to become exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually, and any other word with a negative connotation that ends in -ly.
Von Hildebrand tells us that our nature is so ordained for action that we cannot live actively without sustaining spiritual injury, which is why our transformation in Christ is a constant building up and tearing down of our sense of self. We topple our priorities because we too often believe that this corporal life is the one we must tend to most urgently. Our senses tell us as much–
You’re hungry, you must eat.
You’re thirsty, you must drink.
Your bills are due soon, you must work.
Your spouse is sad, you must make him/her happy.
Your work is never done.
We’re a lot of Marthas.
We run red lights. We “go faster” through the yellow ones.
There are three states in which the soul manifests the Lord’s Kingdom on earth, but only one that’s necessary.
First, there’s the soul of progress, she who pursues a future of unattainable peace through constant action, for as our Lord said, “you will always have the poor with you.” These are the Marthas.
The second state is that of reflection on the past, he who reconstructs the fallen epochs of tradition in false hopes that they will remedy the world’s current, and ever evolving, imperfections. These are the Scribes and the Pharisees.
The third state differs from the the other two because it is ever present, ever new. It is the contemplative present, a spiritual state that doesn’t seek to fix nor aim for nostalgia, but contents itself in the fullness God’s presence with, and within us. It is said that virtue lies in the middle, and somewhere between social justice warrior and traditional Church militant there’s a contemplative soul who is keeping the world together. These are the Marys.
In heaven, all of our being will be contemplation, which is why when we make the request in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are essentially begging the Father to make us contemplatives.
99% of the time, we are the Marthas, the Scribes, and the Pharisees.
But that 1%…
That 1% of our lives that we are able to join with our Dominican brother and sisters in study, our Carmelite brothers and sisters in prayer, our Franciscan brothers and sisters in sacrifice, our Benedictine brothers and sisters in work?
That 1% is when we make the world go round.