Skip to main content

3. Contemplation – the active and passive process of transformation

By Br. Günter Benker, O.Carm.

As soon as we realize the fatal mistake of our human perception and begin to experience some­thing of the liberating power of contemplation we enter into a process in which we more and more have to give up our own judgments and perceptions in order to learn God’s way of seeing reality.

As liberating this process is, it is also painful, because all the security that came from our familiar ways of thinking and perceiving will be taken away from us. John of the Cross therefore calls this process an experience of dark night where we must only cling to pure and naked faith (e.g. 2 S 3,3f.; 4,2). Because feelings or thoughts may always deceive us, no matter whether they make us enthusiastic or anxious, we must, like St. Paul, hold on to a conscious and clear deci­sion, “to know nothing ... except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) and to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The spiritual life there­fore is not primarily a matter of feelings but of a conscious decision for a relationship offered to me by another, by God through Jesus Christ, the icon of the true God. He has already taken the initiative and he is waiting for my response.

As Carmelites we are invited to respond by contemplation, a mutual loving encounter with two dimensions like in any other loving relationship: the active dimension of “contemplating God” in order to get to know him better (usually called meditation) and the passive aspect of “letting God contemplate me” so that I may be fully known by him and at the same time gain a true knowl­edge of Him - not any longer by my own activity but by his personal and intimate revelation of his love. (In the spiritual and mystical tradition usually only this passive part of the process is described by contemplation). In all this process our heart and mind, our sensual and spiritual ca­pacities are being purified and transformed so that we become ever more aware of our true union with God and all creation which always was and is a reality but our split mind was not able to perceive: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

It is now necessary to reflect on some major challenges of this transforming process of contem­plation which, as we have seen, involves our active meditation in times of prayer and in the events of our daily life as well as our passive receptivity for God in all situations of our life which may lead into the true contemplative experience.

a) Unmasking our false gods and our false self

Right from the beginning of this process there is a crucial challenge that we have to face con­sciously in order to make progress on our spiritual journey: to distinguish the true God of life and love from the many different gods and idols of our wounded heart and split mind which we often unconsciously take for the true God, particular as they have the power to make us believe so in very subtle and convincing ways!

It is like in our relationships with other people and friends: how easily do we unconsciously pro­ject our fears, anxieties, needs, expectations and all our other previous experiences onto the other person so that we are not able to really get to know her as she really is. We make our own image of the other person and believe in it until we some day painfully realise that it is wrong. Exactly the same happens in our relationship with God. We always tend to project onto him the experi­ences of our past that shaped our perception of life; therefore our images of God often have traits of our parents or other people who played an important role in our life, for example teachers and priests. We then mistake the internalised messages of these people for the messages of the true God so that they hinder us to encounter him in a way that really transforms us in his likeness. Instead these messages, turned into the voices of the false gods, constantly tell us how we “should be”: more grateful, more efficient, more virtuous, less sinful, etc. - and if we are not liv­ing up to these claims we believe that we are not acceptable or even deserve punishment.

We can discover the wrong and destructive images of God, our self-made idols, for example with the help of a simple exercise. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and imagine that God him­self is approaching you. How do you perceive him approaching you, what feelings does his get­ting closer to you arouse? What is your first emotional reaction, what are your primary thoughts? We can also get some hints of our hidden and unconscious idols that block us from the encounter with the true God when we become aware of those situations in which we escape from prayer and meditation, from really entrusting our lives to him. Then it is important to try to get to the ground of our feelings inside by asking ourselves: What is keeping me away from God now? Why am I avoiding prayer and silence? What pressures, fears, constraints dwell within me and what false images of God do they evoke? What painful experiences of my life are the sources of these images? A good spiritual direction is of great help in this process of bringing to the level of consciousness all our unconscious images of God and to deprive them of their destructive power by confronting them with the true God who is the unconditional loving Abba revealed and incar­nated in Jesus Christ.

 

Every single person who is on a spiritual journey has to undergo this process of purifying his images of God. We must go through the same process undertaken by humankind as a whole. We can verify this by studying how the understanding of God progressed from primitive nature wor­ship over polytheistic ideas to the revelation of the one true God who only through Jesus Christ could be recognised unambiguously as pure love without any dualism or division. The Bible tells us of this long process which goes on in each one of us. As Carmelites we cannot offer a better service to humanity than to consciously enter this process of transforming our false and destruc­tive images of God which correspond to our wrong self-images in consequence of the original sin of escaping our createdness in order to be like God who knows good and evil. By committing ourselves to the process of contemplation and by encouraging it in others we contribute to the spreading of the kingdom of God which is not “divided against itself” (Mt 12:25) but united and unifying, for it is a kingdom of love. If our perception is going to be transformed and healed in this process we learn to see that there is no other reality than love, except in the illusions of our split mind.

This process of transformation requires our active and untiring effort to unmask our dualistic thinking and feeling by confronting it with the only true God who is neither a comfortable stop­gap fulfilling our selfish wishes, nor a weak and sweet caricature to whom we can escape from our painful reality and misery by repressing and neglecting it, nor a narrow-minded book-keeper or punishing judge asking of us moral perfection and sinlessness. The genuine biblical message tells us that the true God is “compassionate and gracious, ... he does not treat us as our sins de­serve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps 103:8,10). God faces our sinful reality not in order to punish but to heal us for he knows that the cause of all our misery is the separation imag­ined by our split mind which cannot perceive and believe that the only reality which really exists is love. To face this love of God is painful for us, not only because of our inner division, which does not allow us to believe in such a love, but also because of our false self with its deeply rooted pride that we should be as perfect as our idols are demanding. We avoid God’s love - al­though it is what we are really longing for - because it takes away the illusions, doubtful securi­ties and selfmade thought-systems of our false self and asks us for pure trust, which is the most difficult thing for human beings who have been brought up in a world of mistrust and anxiety. And yet our salvation which is already a reality can only become effective if we accept God’s love which is here and now available for us.

The only way to experience the true God and our true self is through a process of “metanoia” which leads us to change our split mind and to accept the kingdom of God by turning upside down our ingrained convictions. Before Jesus was able to witness to this kingdom he - having become a human being like us - had to go through a process of transformation himself in order to learn who God really is. According to the synoptic gospels Jesus began his public life after his baptism at which he had the overwhelming experience of being the beloved Son of God. This experience was questioned, purified and deepened during his temptation in the desert - a trans­forming process in which he learned to refuse the deceiving insinuations of the false gods of a dualistic world-view. Only after this desert-process could he proclaim that the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled and God’s kingdom is already present, giving freedom to the prisoners, sight to the blind and release to the oppressed. According to Luke, Jesus stopped the quotation of Isaiah after the proclamation of the year of God’s favour omitting the mention of the vengeance of the Lord - a significant act of demonstrating the unambiguity of his Abba who is nothing but love (cf. Lk 4:16-21 and Is 61:1-2). There is no other reality, so that Jesus consequently realised that there is no other godlike power anymore: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk 10:18).

b) Accepting the reality of God’s love and of our true self

 

Once and for all Jesus overcame our split human mind. He constantly tried to unmask and heal our dualistic thinking of God and of reality. We, however, who are not used to the principles of God’s kingdom, turn his teaching very easily into moralistic stories so that it corresponds to our way of perception. But he does not give up to shake us awake: “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” (Mk 8:8). Contemplation therefore means allowing him to transform our wrong perception and thinking by his words and deeds, so that the understanding of God’s true being and kingdom can grow in us like the mustard seed or the yeast (cf. Mt 13:31-33). Time and again the gospels tell us that there is no division and split in God, that “he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good” and that he “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45), that he is present even in what appears to our judgmental categories to be wrong. Jesus’ love for the outsiders, the sinners, the unclean and little ones, his parables of the Prodigal Son, of the workers in the vine­yard, of the good Samaritan, of the lost sheep - only to mention some of them - show us very clearly that in the kingdom of God there is no judgmental logic but only love, which is far be­yond our logic for it never judges but only sets free and heals.

Consequently Jesus warns us not to judge in the sense of condemning (cf. Lk 7:36) for by doing so we remain imprisoned in our destructive inner division, which is the source of all suffering. Judging others and ourselves makes us incapable of accepting the unconditional love of God, which alone makes us able of loving others and ourselves as He loves us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands con­demned” (Jn 3:16-18). He only stands condemned because he does not want to give up the wrong perception of his split and judgmental mind and therefore cannot see that in the true real­ity of love and unity there can be no condemnation at all. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

God has given us everything (cf. John of the Cross, 2 S 22, 3.5.7; Dichos 26). Salvation has al­ready taken place, the kingdom of God is in and around us - we just have to give up our idola­trous prejudices and our split perception in order to believe that in him we already “have redemp­tion, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14). “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Eph 3:12).

Contemplation is nothing else than accepting this reality and getting more and more used to think and to perceive in terms of the kingdom, that is with the eyes of our merciful loving God. Our active contribution consists precisely of reminding ourselves continually, day and night, at home and on the road (cf. Dtn 6:7) of the presence of God’s love in order to entrust ourselves totally to him and his mercy - just as we are, beyond all virtue and moral or religious performance in ad­vance. If we open ourselves faithfully to the reality of the true God we will eventually experience his transforming action, already proclaimed by Ezekiel: “I will cleanse you ... from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ez 36:25-26), so that the false gods in us together with their false claims and promises can be removed and with them our false self with its judging mentality, guilt feelings and egocentricity. This is a painful and long process. Even when the mind begins to understand something of God’s love it takes long to convince and trans­form the human heart which from its first beat onwards was so often hurt and expected too much of by the limited, divided and calculating love of others. To adapt ourselves to the principles of God’s reality we have to give up the security of our dualistic thinking which is so familiar to us, so much so that we feel that we are losing our footing. In these circumstances we are tempted to give up and to return into our old world of compensation, separation and judgement. The more we progress, we will discover in ourselves deeper levels of mistrust that try to prevent us from total surrender. In these dark nights we can do nothing but persevere by holding on to God’s promises. With the grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit we must trust only in the unwavering love of the true God even if we are not able to feel it but on the contrary are tempted to doubt it.

 

If - with God’s help - we are faithful in rejecting all doubts, God and his love can gain more and more ground in us and with him our true self. We begin to really accept that we are loved as im­perfect as we may perceive ourselves, as created human beings, who are nothing by themselves but everything by God’s grace. Thérèse puts it this way: “Perfection seems easy to me for I real­ise that it is enough to recognise my nothingness and to fall into the arms of God like a child” (Letter 226), and in another place she writes: “Perfection means to accept perfectly one’s own imperfection”. By taking this to heart we learn to expect nothing from ourselves but everything from him, and we begin to experience that everything is possible for those who trust in him (cf. Mk 9:23). Now we allow God to look on us, to contemplate us, to love us, to accept us just as we are. This alone will heal us profoundly and open our heart for a deep knowledge of God, of our­selves, of other people and of all creation so that we eventually become “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5: 17-19). By accepting our true self, recon­ciled and united with God, “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator“ (Col 3:10), we overcome our inner division so that we are able to experience already something of “the new earth ... there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). In God’s kingdom already present within us there is no division and therefore no more differences, “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:28), „but Christ is all, and is in all“ (Col 3:11). Only by being trans­formed to this reality can we truly bear fruit for the kingdom of God by what we are and what we do - for now we are open to receive and to share God’s all embracing love with everyone we meet. We find ourselves more and more in accordance with the will of God, so that our efforts for fraternity and service will be the proof of the authenticity of our contemplation.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."