Taking a ‘long, loving look at the real’
(Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt once described contemplation as taking a “long, loving look at the real”)
This practice has become more possible for some during lockdown when there’s time to stop and do just that. The tree that greets me each time I look from my window invites me to stop and look ‘at the real’.
Yes, there are plants at its base – bark and birds, and depending on the season, leaves on its branches. But if I look long enough and gaze more lovingly, I notice its ‘tree-ness’: its strong presence and at-one-ness with nature. Not just the moss and lichen on its bark but those microscopic, white, underground threads that connect with other shrubs and trees – that ‘wood-wide web’ as it’s been described – which, although unseen, is there. I sense its power and the wonder of its being and that fills me with that same sense – wonder – at what I can see and touch, and at what is hidden from sight. And, if I want to deepen that, I begin to find words to express what I feel. I can ‘talk to the tree’ and sense its gratitude; and I can give thanks to the One who enabled its being.
It is the great trunk I initially see, a body telling of age, strength, stability, and silence, like an ancient abbey that has stood in the same place for centuries. Through the seasons of the year and the seasons of humankind – of peace and plenty, war and loss – it is there. Then, beginning to raise my eyes, I see its majestic crown; boughs raising themselves to the skies like arms which must be uplifted. Branches which reach up and up because that’s what the tree needs to do – to stretch out to the light. The highest like long, slender, spidery fingers emerging from hands connected to the heart; shoots moving in the breeze whose leaves breathe oxygen and take in carbon dioxide and connect with the deepest roots hidden beneath the earth. High branches straining to heaven, like incense curling from the censor, prayerful desires giving out (and taking in) that the tree might live and, in doing so, give life.
But it roots, too, though hidden are vital for its life.
And we, of course, are like trees. Crowned with our spectacular life, needing to give for our own sake and the sake of all, as well as take. Take but, more importantly, be rooted in deep darkness where we are fed. Does Western, ‘advanced’, society value and feed roots? Are we encouraged to nurture that life which cannot be seen so that, at times such as this when we can feel so alone, our hidden roots connect with all so we can be nourished meaning, as the psalmist said, that all the trees of the wood can shout for joy (Ps. 96.12)?
What is Contemplative Prayer?
Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty. One has begun to know the meaning of contemplation when one intuitively and spontaneously seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way. The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know, rather not enjoy than enjoy, rather not have proof that God loves him.’ (Thomas Merton ‘The Climate of Monastic Prayer’, p121)