Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

My Photo
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Only Necessary Thing

For a third consecutive day, I turn my mind to prayer and contemplation. I do this because prayer is quite simply, "the only necessary thing" (Lk 10:42). But I also wish to post this in tribute to the many religious sisters and brothers whose contemplative vocation is at the very heart of the Church.

A Dominican motto, derived from St Thomas Aquinas is "Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere", 'To contemplate and to hand on to others the fruit of contemplation'. It is the inspiration for this blog and it is my conviction that this motto not only encapsulates the Dominican vocation but indeed spells out the priorities in Christian life: prayer comes before and sustains action. This balance of prayer and preaching is found in the description of St Dominic as a man who was at all times either "speaking to God or speaking about God". Thus the early Dominican, Humbert of Romans wrote: "Since human effort can achieve nothing without the help of God, the most important thing of all for the preacher is that he should have recourse to prayer" (Treatise on the Formation of Preachers, I, vii, 96).

In relation to this, I wish to highlight the view of St Albert the Great that "theology is closer to prayer than to study". I recall telling my Spiritual Director that I read Von Balthasar and other theological texts as a form of prayer and contemplation. I'm not sure he understood where I was coming from, but I'm glad St Albert does! It is a shame that too much of modern theology is speculative and self-indulgent, caressing the intellectual hubris of the theologian and antagonistic to the Magisterial Tradition. And yet, authentic Christian theology reflects the beauty of the whole Christ - the Lord and His Holy Church. Indeed, this is the core of Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics and his lifelong yearning for a prayer-filled theology centred on the glory of Christ and his revelation. He noted that the Church's first theologians were primarily saints, men and women of prayer, people of the Church, and he lamented the eclipse of this essential quality of theology.

Therefore, our Holy Father rightly notes that "a church without theology impoverishes and blinds, while a churchless theology melts away into caprice" (From 'The Nature and Misson of Theology', p48). Moreover, fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP notes: "The test of good theology is that it overflows into praise and worship and happiness and true inner freedom" (From 'A City Set on a Hilltop...', Letter of 29 April 2001).

This is not to suggest that the theologians who find themselves at odds with the Church do not pray. However, the school of prayer is the Liturgy. If one has been schooled to pray at the altar of one's own feelings, emotions, reactions and opinions, then perhaps one has been poorly taught... In today's Gospel, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he directed their attention first to the Father who is in heaven, He who is both intimate but wholly Other. He taught us to pray that God's will is done, not ours. So too, the Liturgy brings these petitions into reality, placing the service and worship of God before self; subordinating one's own will and ideas to the revelation that comes from God in his Church.

So Von Balthasar wrote: "Liturgy is the Church's sacred service of prayer in the presence of God. Here, in an ultimate, pure selflessness, it seeks for nothing but God's glorification through worship, praise and thanksgiving... In this sacred service the Church fixes its gaze on God; its service is spiritual, marked by insight and understanding (Rom 12:1). It contemplates God's truth and opens itself to his word... the contemplative act is built into the liturgy..." (From 'Prayer' , pp108-109).

The Liturgy is the school of prayer and what we learn in school needs to be practiced in our lives, outside of school, as it were. Liturgical, contemplative prayer should permeate our lives and infuse the way we pray and indeed foster a desire to pray. Thus, fr Vincent de Couesnongle, OP, previous Master of the Order of Preachers said in 1983: "A real Christian life, and how much more a religious and Dominican one, should feel the vital need for interior and silent prayer. This should be our spiritual breathing...".

Fr Henri Nouwen picks up on this analogy of prayer with breathing and he writes vividly: "Those who live prayerfully are constantly ready to receive the breath of God and to let their lives be renewed and expanded. Those who never pray, on the contrary, are like children with asthma: because they are short of breath, the whole world shrivels up before them. They creep into a corner gasping for air and are virtually in agony. But those who pray open themselves to God and can breathe freely again." (From 'With Open Hands')

It is a sad reality that even Dominicans, in their zeal to preach the Gospel and to labour in the vineyard of the Lord, often neglect to pray. This is nothing new. Even St Raymond of Penafort complained: "I am hardly ever able to reach or, to be quite honest, even to see from afar, the tranquillity of contemplation." Time seems to fly away and there seem to be pressing demands on every side. But what can be more pressing than prayer? How is it that some do not feel the aching need to pray? Or perhaps they do but simply cannot find the strength to tear themselves away from the people who clamour for their attention. It was with sadness that, during my time in the Philippines, I listened to a friar lament his inability to find the time to pray and contemplate theology because he was so excessively busy and occupied with pastoral demands. It seemed to me, there was a real pain that he felt and some may call this the poverty of time, a sacrifice that the clergy make. However, I am certain that God does not ask the clergy to make such a sacrifice nor require such poverty. Clearly, what the Lord wants first is our flourishing and this is impossible without prayer. Indeed, God is seeking us out, waiting for us to converse with him in prayer.

As Von Balthasar writes: "Prayer is a conversation in which God's word has the initiative and we, for the moment can be nothing more than listeners. The essential thing is for us to hear God's word and discover from it how to respond to him... Harassed by life, exhausted, we look about us for somewhere to be quiet, to be genuine, a place of refreshment... but we fail to look for him where he is waiting for us, where he is to be found: in his Son, who is his Word." (op. cit., pp15-16)

The solution is clear: we have to go to Christ in prayer because prayer is the only necessary thing. Once prayer is viewed as something that we have to do, for our spiritual health, we will surely set aside time to do it. After all, one is not expected to forego food, exercise, sleep or air in order to minister to the needy! Why then should one forego prayer which is just as essential for a balanced and healthy Christian life? Coming back to our motto, the work of preaching and mission is entirely dependent on the work of prayer; prayer forms its basis and core. And how can it be otherwise, for in prayer is found Jesus Christ in whom we "live and move and have our being" (cf Preface of Sundays in Ordinary Time VI). He is the very reason for all we do and without prayer, we lose sight of him.

To those who still complain they have no time to pray, my advice is simple: Pray that time may be found in which to pray and ask for the grace to desire prayer more earnestly!

But let the last word go to St Richard of Chichester, whose Memorial the English Church celebrates today. He beautifully sums up the contemplative quest:

"O Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly, day by day. Amen."
For more medieval wisdom, contemplation and icons, check out The Illuminated Middle Ages.


Post a Comment

<< Home