How Contemplation Saved My Life: Preaching Notes for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Vocation Preaching
Read: Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, & Matthew 5:1-12a
"Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God."
I think the perfect exposition of this passage from First Corinthians can be found in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. In that story, the main character, Fanny Price, has the seeming misfortune of being born into a very poor family. Things are so bad that Fanny is eventually sent to live with her wealthy relatives at Mansfield Park.
Even before Fanny arrives, her aunts and uncle are busy evaluating her, and they conclude, that since she comes from a poor family, Fanny must be (in the words of St. Paul), foolish, weak, lowly,--in short, someone to be considered as nothing. Accordingly, the family marginalizes Fanny, giving her a cold attic for a bedroom and making her do chores like a servant--thus, treating her like the second class person they consider her to be.
It is not until the end of the novel, when all of the other characters have proven how morally weak they really are through bad habits and very bad decisions that the family at Mansfield Park is able to realize that Fanny Price is the only one among them who is truly good. Her example of virtuous living--in particular, her show of prudence--puts the rest of them to shame, “reducing to nothing those who thought they were something.” Not surprisingly, it is Fanny who sets about healing the family after it has been humbled by scandal, helping it to be what it ought to have been from the beginning.
I mention Mansfield Park not just as a way to explain St. Paul’s words, but because I think my life has several parallels to that of Fanny Price. My father left my family when I was about four years old. Having only one source of income, my family was somewhat poor. The stress of the breakup of her marriage and the demands of raising three kids alone was difficult for my mother, so she needed the help of family. Eventually, I was sent to live with my grandparents and an aunt and uncle. Although I was treated much better than Fanny was, I did sometimes feel like just another mouth to feed. To try and please others, I sought to be quiet and out of the way, which was the beginning of my experiences of contemplation. When I got older, and started proving myself by doing very well in academics, my family started to take notice of me. My deep religiosity marked me as something special, too.
It seems to me that Fanny Price and I share similar difficulties, but we also share the same saving grace—that is, the habit of Contemplation. What is contemplation? It’s the ability that people have to be still, to cultivate silence, to ponder important questions, and to listen to and to even look at God. These are not academic terms, or rigid rules,--contemplation really is just an experience of God that happens when one is open.
Readers of Mansfield Park get a glimpse of Fanny’s contemplative life** when she comments on the beauty of a starry night. She says:
“Here’s harmony! Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry can only attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.” (chapter 11)
These are the words of a contemplative. You can tell, because in one thought, Fanny connects several things together: the beauty and bigness of nature, the problem of evil in the world, and the human need to be “carried more out of themselves”. Being “carried out of oneself” is the end result of contemplation. It is what allows a person to realize the connection between the self, nature, other people, and God. And, as Fanny implies, it leads to the moral life: the life of beatitude described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, contemplation facilitates a life centered on the love of God and the love of neighbor, because it grants the contemplative person the proper perspective on life.
I would argue that contemplation saved Fanny’s life, and it saved mine, not merely because it taught me how to live the virtuous life, but because the experience of God had in contemplation refuted those negative messages I sometimes received from others and the world. The experience of God absolutely denies the idea that any of us is foolish, is weak, is lowly, or is nothing. Rather, God claims us as his beloved, his darling, his spouse. Indeed, in contemplative prayer, Jesus has told me more than once that his love for me is not tame. His is a passionate love,--a love that he is willing to suffer for. This, he has already proven through the Cross.
I tell you all this as a way of explaining how it was that a poor, little Pentecostal boy from Covington, KY grew up to be a Catholic and a Dominican cooperator brother. Nothing is as central to my journey of faith and to my vocation as a Dominican as contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer not only saved my life, it has taught me what life is really all about, which is: abandoning oneself to God, going where he wants you to go, doing what he wants you to do. Everything is secondary to walking with God, but you can only walk with God if you allow him to be with you and speak to you.
Given all that I have said, it should come as no surprise that I ended up joining the Dominican Order of Preachers, a religious order rooted in the contemplative way of life. I am here* this weekend to invite any young men and women who are discerning God’s calling for them to consider looking at the Dominicans. For the young men, in particular, I invite them to come learn more about us at the Come and See weekend the Central Province is hosting in St. Louis, MO the last weekend of February. This three day event is the perfect way to get a feel for what life as a religious brother is all about.
All that said, it’s important for all of us here to know that the contemplative life is not a special calling for the chosen few. Contemplation is part of the vocation we all share as baptized Christians, because, as I said earlier, contemplation is the way that we come to see God. And by seeing him, we know him. By knowing him, we love him. And by loving him, we come to be just like him. The very thing we were always intended to be.
Br. Paul Byrd, OP
*This preaching was delivered at St. Paul's Catholic Community, Bloomington, Indiana (parish for Indiana University)
**Read more about Fanny Price and contemplation in chapter five of Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.