The season of Advent began yesterday. The Latin word “Adventus” means “arrival.” It’s a time when we long for Christ’s coming once more into our world and prepare our hearts for his arrival. That preparation includes both personal and corporate spiritual practices as well as action in the form of service to others.
Since mid-March, I have been working out of the episcopal residence because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all of my meetings are conducted virtually. This has afforded me more time to spend in contemplation than I normally do. The solitude of daily walks teaches me about the importance of this time of slowing down, not being so frantic in my activity, and listening to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplation has become a way of entering into communion with the world by engaging in “a long, loving look at the real.” What is it to which God is calling us as disciples of Jesus Christ in a pandemic world? Is there a place for contemplation as well as action?
Jesuit priest Reverend Walter J. Burghardt was widely known as an advocate for social justice and Christian unity. In the winter of 1989, he wrote an article titled “Contemplation: A Long Loving Look at the Real.” Burghardt borrowed the phrase from a contemporary of his, William McNamara, a Carmelite contemplative.
Burghardt asserts that the practice of contemplation gained a bad reputation when what we seemed to need the most at the time were those committed to making the world a better place. Activists may claim that contemplation is withdrawal from the world and simply navel-gazing, which cannot save the world. On the other hand, contemplatives may claim action to be worthless if it is not grounded in spiritual practices.
In a world that demands quick results and where there is little tolerance for “wasting time with Jesus” without producing anything, how might you and I recover the practice of contemplation today as “a long loving look at the real?” Burghardt invites us to look at those four words.
“Long” means taking the time and attention that you need to devote to a Bible passage, a chapter in a book, a conversation you had earlier in the day, a meeting that you are leading, or the life you are living. In a world where distractions are everywhere, where do you find uninterrupted time and places to focus on your connection with God?
“Loving” is being kind to yourself and others as you contemplate and are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have come from a church meeting where there was a disagreement, or you have been asked to do something that might prompt others to respond in a negative way. In loving, we suspend judgment to hear the voice of God. Burghardt writes, “Contemplation calls forth love, oneness with the other. For contemplation is not study, not cold examination, not a computer, to contemplate is to be in love.”[i]
“Look” focuses solely on that which we are contemplating and remains open without the compulsion to “do” anything about it. Author Venita Hampton Wright writes, “I look with the expectation of a good outcome. No matter what I’m contemplating – a conversation, a problem I face, a dream I have, a task I’m discerning – I expect that the Holy Spirit is in the middle of it and will show me what I need to see and then equip me to respond in the best way.
“I look with the understanding that the world is flawed and that forgiveness is necessary every day if I am to move forward and grow spiritually. Today I might need to forgive someone else, or I might need to forgive myself. But I begin my contemplation expecting to bump up against something that calls for mercy and grace.”[ii]
And what is “the real”? If we are brutally honest, we know how easy it is to fool ourselves by refusing to admit reality.
- Real is refusing to close our eyes to the presence of sin, evil, and pain in our world.
- Real is acknowledging our own brokenness by clearing away the misconceptions in our lives that prevent us from flourishing and offering healing to others.
- Real is the gift of the Christ child, the embodiment of God’s unfathomable love for us.
- Real is COVID-19.
- Real is God’s gift of each other for support and encouragement in tough times.
- Real is the conviction that hope does not disappoint.
- Real is courageously walking into the desert of grief, uncertainty, and doubt, knowing that God goes before us.
- Real is Mary saying to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
- Real is our responsibility to combat racism, advocate for inclusivity in every corner of our world, and resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
- Real is churches creatively and continuously adapting their worship and ministries to reach new people.
- Real is believing that because God chose to gift us with God’s only son, each one of us has the potential to thrive and flourish by sharing and living out our faith boldly every moment of every day.
We, too, are God’s chosen ones. How will you be “real” during this Advent season? Where will you cast a long loving look at those who are walking in darkness? How will you embody compassion, hope, and grace in the midst of a pandemic that threatens every day to take away our joy? Will you take unhurried time for contemplation and prayer as our world and its people groan and struggle to heal, grow, and thrive?
During this Advent season, may God’s gift to you and your gift to others be the commitment to contemplation: taking a long, loving look at the real and then changing the world.
What is the relation of contemplation to action? Simply this.
He who attempts to act and do things for others or the world
without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity,
and the capacity to love
will not have anything to give others.
[i] Walter J. Burghardt, Contemplation; A Long Loving Look at the Real, p. 4.
[ii] Vinita Hampton Wright, A Long Loving Look at the Real, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/a-long-loving-look-at-the-real/.
[iii] Thomas Merton, ed. Lawrence Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: Essential Writings (Paulist Press: 1992), 375.