The man in orange

As I often do on Mondays, I sat today in the domed reading room of the State Library. It’s one of my favourite places, full of ‘presence’, and one where reading and writing feel much more significant. Not long after my arrival, a young man walked by and sat just metres away. With a closely shaved head, he was dressed in the orange garb of a Buddhist monk. He looked out of place at first but after time I noticed he was not reading, writing or even gazing up at the architecture. In fact, for several hours he sat motionless, eyes closed, hands clasped loosely in his lap. He was meditating.

Though from a different religious tradition than my own, this young man is a contemplative in the traditional sense. His stillness—a well-rehearsed calm—was mesmerizing. In between my own activity, I watched him, partly intrigued, partly envious. As a natural introvert, there has always been something oddly attractive to me about a vocation like his.

Rudely, my aspirations were interrupted by the sound of my phone. A text message from my daughter: panicked questions and pressing needs. I quickly gathered my wits and belongings, glanced one final time at the motionless monk, and made my exit. The call to idyllic stillness would have to wait.

I have long thought that the disciplines of contemplation and the demands of family life are awkward companions. How does one nurture the inner stillness of the Spirit while living amidst the ebb and flow of household commitments? Is such a thing desirable, or even possible?

In her book Seasons of a Family’s Life, the Catholic theologian Wendy Wright argues that not only is it possible, it’s vital. In the sequal to her earlier Sacred Dwelling, Wright explores the means through which we can do so. As a spouse, mother, and busy academic, Wright does not come at this challenge romantically. She does so with her spiritual feet planted firmly on the ground. Following the lead of early Christian writers like Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, Wright contends that contemplation is not a means of escaping the world and the realities of daily life, but a way of perceiving it, a ‘listening awareness that allows the Word to take root where we are.’

Wright describes the experience of the monastic as primarily vertical and one-on-one: ‘it implies a going apart, a renunciation of the life of intimacy with spouse and children, a relinquishment of property and the burdens of caretaking; it implies a certain marginality, a view from the critical distance that silence and solitude and spacious time allows.’ In contrast, a spirituality of family life is intensely horizontal and has to be worked out in the in-betweeness of persons. In the end, it’s much more about ‘the busyness of tending and providing, about the stewarding of property; it allows for very little of the distanced perspective that silence and solitude offer.’  The challenge of contemplative spirituality in the home is cultivating an awareness of God in the midst of the everyday, not away from it. ’I have come to the conclusion,’ Wright says, ‘that the fundamental art of the spiritual life is the art of paying attention.’

Among the multiple things we need to pay attention to are these:

The sacred places of family life: In every family, Wright says, there are those concrete places in which we’ve experienced ‘the more’ in our lives and relationships. Perhaps it’s a dining room table, an annual vacation spot, a grandparent’s farm, a backyard or a graveside. The possibilities are numerous and rich with formative moments. Pay attention!

In the big and little stories of our lives: Stories frame, sustain and interpret our lives. The ‘big stories’ are provided in part by religious traditions or cultural and family heritage. The ‘little stories’ are those that we share in immediate families—the ones told around the dinner table, over and over, and often exaggerated as time passes. Together, Wright says, the big and little stories provide meaning and coherence to our lives. And in them we may well hear God’s presence. Pay attention!

In the contrasting disciplines of availability and Sabbath rest: The call of Christ is to surrender ourselves to the fact that family life is most fundamentally being present for and available to each other. It’s demanding, tiring and often costly. At the same time, the call of God is to a deep and periodic rest: a drawing of boundaries and a coming apart. Sounds great in theory, yet working out the balance is as challenging as it is important. Pay attention!

In the act of welcoming and letting go: Wright calls these two acts the twin dynamics of family spirituality. Family life is a constant movement between these two and learning to discern which is the call of God in a particular moment is one of the most consistent challenges. What do I embrace and what do I release? Pay attention!

In dwelling: If stability is a gift of parental care, then a spirituality of dwelling deserves more thought. Spirituality is not only about relinquishment and withdrawal, but living deeply into the places and tasks of our lives as they are. ‘If the spiritual life has often been imaged as journey, pilgrimage, or exile, a spirituality of family must balance this imagery with an attentive consideration of dwelling.’ Pay attention!

In the act of forgiveness: Wright describes it as the central dynamic of a healthy family life, and yet one of the most costly in our daily interactions. It’s in the daily acts of forgiveness we experience both the pain and the liberation of the gospel. Pay attention!

There is much more to Wright’s book than I’ve inferred here. As with her earlier book, it’s worth reading. Wright’s gift to people like me—those who will never wear orange and rarely sit motionless—is the reminder that the contemplative life is as much my calling as it is anyone else’s. It simply looks different.

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