The Morning Call, Sept. 13, 2014
Three of many experiences have helped me discover the prayer known as contemplation.
At a traffic light, years ago, I sensed the backseat passenger in a car on my left looking my way. He buzzed his window down and leaned toward me. I buzzed my window down and looked toward him.
“I feel like I should be asking you if you have any Grey Poupon,” he said. I returned his smile, acknowledging his allusion to the 1985 TV commercial. He continued, “But we’re looking for Route 22.”
Common ground at that moment was a whimsical commercial for mustard. How little it takes. Were it not for traffic and schedules, we might have entered into conversation. Perhaps the beginning of a good relationship.
You may think I have made this next incident up. Not so.
Until my 2009 retirement, I drove to work for some 25 years from Whitehall to Bethlehem. MacArthur Road to Route 22 East to the Spur Route across the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to the office of the Bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem.
One day, at a point where I should have merged onto 22 East to make it to Diocesan House in time for Morning Prayer, I continued south on MacArthur to Dunkin’ Donuts. I told myself I needed coffee and a donut more than Morning Prayer.
As I sat at the counter previewing my day, a car crashed through the plate glass wall. I spun on my stool and touched its hood. No one was hurt. Not the driver, not I, not those who continued to drink coffee with me until the police came and ushered us out. Later that day, I found in my jacket pocket a handful of pebbles from the tempered glass.
Finally, many years ago, I arranged for the installation of a large, movable satellite dish on the bell tower of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Morning Call took photos. The published photo had been taken at an opportune moment. As the crane had lifted the dish three-quarters of the way, the cross at the peak of the facade of the church was clearly visible through the dish.
For years, those experiences became my prayer on my drive to work. I considered first connection, relationships. Then, mortality. Finally, as I began to cross the bridge where traffic slows and the Cathedral Church comes into view, I looked for the cross and the satellite dish.
The cross, you know, is a window into the heart of God, far beyond the limited imagination of any of us.
The satellite dish, barely visible from the bridge, seemed to me to search heaven and earth for the many other media of God’s self-disclosure where God is still speaking. Where will God show up today? Is God counting on me to show up, to mediate God’s love.
The goal of prayer, Father Richard Rohr writes in his most recent book, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, is not to manipulate God or change God’s mind but “to give you access to God and to allow you to listen to God and to actually hear God, if that does not seem presumptuous. But mostly, prayer is to allow you to experience the indwelling Presence yourself. You are finally not praying, but prayer is happening through you, and you are just the allower and enjoyer.”
Consider your experience. Allow your experience to pray.
Rohr suggests elsewhere in this book that the ancient, the traditional understanding of prayer was contemplation. Only when “saying prayers,” in public or private, became the common way did prayer as contemplation become something rare, only for the “holy.”
All of us have had experience we can contemplate. In our experience, we can dwell with God. We will discover there true prayer.
[Canon Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org, a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]