Monday, May 25, 2009

Contemplation: Abiding in Love

Like many other Nebraskans, I have this year’s vegetable garden planted and spend a little time most days checking on it and weeding, watering, or doing whatever else needs to be done. My garden is small by Nebraska standards: two little rectangles in my yard, along with a few tomato and pepper plants tucked away in containers and odd spots in flower beds. Apart from watering during dry spells, daily maintenance isn’t really necessary, but, like most gardeners, I like to watch the garden grow. What I really do much of the time that I’m “working in the garden” is looking. Some May days the sun’s light and warmth make young plants grow so that the change is evident from one hour to the next.

The looking, though, isn’t confined to my little garden. The longer, warmer days of May give us good opportunity to look at both the plants and animals we live among. In our little piece of Nebraska this spring, I’ve watched baby squirrels figuring out how to climb up and down a tree, a mother rabbit carrying mouthfuls of grass clippings that were mulch for my garden but are now a nest for her babies, and many birds raising their young. And there is more to see: stars, clouds, rainstorms, lightning.

This week I started reading Radical Amazement: Contemplative Lessons from Black Holes, Supernovas, and Other Wonders of the Universe by Judy Cannato. In the book’s introduction, Judy Cannato talks about contemplation as “a long loving look at what is real” (p. 12). This involves both an attitude of compassion and mercy rather than disapproval, and the ability to discern what is real from things that superficially mimic the real. Finding joy in looking at the world around us is living contemplatively.

When we think about these things in light of our recent Sunday Gospel readings from John 15, we see another dimension of Christ’s invitation to abide in his love. Jesus explains that we are the branches of the vine that is Christ; we are fruitful only if we stay connected to Christ, only if we live our lives rooted in Christ’s love. We will abide in Christ’s love, he says, if we obey his commandments; the commandment he gives is that we love one another.

That love for one another involves a “loving look”, looking at one another with compassion rather than disapproval. The way to stay connected to Christ, the way to be rooted in Christ’s love, is to cultivate gratitude, openness, and love in our hearts. The way to abide in Christ’s love is to learn how to look contemplatively, with compassion and mercy.

Looking at everything in the world in this way helps us to experience our connectedness to one another and to all of creation. We are indeed branches connected to a single vine; if we experience ourselves – either as individual persons or as a species -- as independent of everything else, we have lost sight of reality. The science about pollution of our air and water and about global warming bears this out; everything is interconnected, and when we live as if our actions had no consequences for anyone or anything else, we put our own lives in danger.

A friend reminded me today of something E.B. White said in an interview with Israel Shenker in 1969: "If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." The world teaches us this false dichotomy between saving and savoring, between action and contemplation. It’s not only a false choice, but a dangerous way to think about the world.

The vine parable reminds us that we won’t succeed in improving or saving the world unless we take the time to enjoy or savor it; our work won’t be fruitful unless it is rooted in love, and love requires the loving look, the deep knowing, that is contemplation. Savoring the extra hours of looking at the wonders around us this time of year is in the long run one of the most productive things we can do! Enjoy!