Writers as Contemplatives

I was reading tomorrow’s Gospel (Mt. 5:17-37) and an article about contemplation entitled Contemplation: A long loving look at the real, by Jesuit Father Walter Burghardt. I unexpectedly discovered  a connection between them, understanding one of Jesus’ sayings in a deeper and perhaps unusual way.

In Matthew 5:27-29, Jesus says how important our way of seeing is. Specifically, he says that how we look at someone is an important choice. Are we looking at someone for how we can use them for our own purposes or our own pleasure, or are we looking at them with genuinely loving eyes? The “sight” that Jesus is talking about is not just physical sight, but also our perspective.

Our viewpoint is important for our spiritual lives, our relationships, but also for our creativity. Father Burghardt’s inspiring article on contemplation is too good for me to quote–if you are a writer or creative artist or interested in contemplation at all, this is a fantastic article well worth reading in its entirety. The title actually gives his definition of contemplation–“a long, loving look at the real” — which he actually borrows from a Carmelite, William McNamara. It’s a beautiful definition, and also very true. To contemplate means, in a very real sense, to love what we are gazing upon; to see the true, the beautiful, the good, the One in everything and everyone around us. Even when we gaze on suffering, a gaze of love is compassionate.

How can we as writers and artists develop this loving, compassionate way of seeing?

Focus on the details, the specifics.

There is a saying, “God is in the details.” I also think that it is just as true to say, “Love is in the details.” As writers, we are told over and over again to be specific. Being specific makes us universal. Even God does it, and not just through creating the universe. God’s love is most astoundingly revealed in the Incarnation. Think of it: God taking on flesh–that particular human body; becoming the child of a particular woman–Mary, who was married to Joseph; living in the first century in that particular place–born in Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, preaching in Capernaum; saying those particular words (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”); suffering that particular, gruesome death for each of us, particular human beings…

Focusing on the details helps us to notice, to pay attention to what is really happening. Often, the details are revealed as a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Seek a new perspective.

Step away from the daily bustle, but also from the daily utilitarianism that focuses only on efficiency and getting things done. How can we step away? We can read the great contemplatives–ancient and contemporary. We can take in an art form that we love, that can transport us to somewhere else for a timeless moment. We can take an unexpected break in our routine, or try something new. Use our imaginations to stand in someone else’s shoes, or to imagine “what if?” The goal here is to step away from our own familiar thought patterns–especially the negative ones–so that we can be freed of their influence.

Create some inner space for yourself.

Do whatever it is that allows you to “hear” your own experience. For many writers who can’t write, it’s not that we don’t have any ideas. It’s that we have too many. So much is going on in our lives that we can’t process them all, we can’t even sort through our own reactions and feelings. Some concrete ways to do this? Turn off the phone for an hour or two; limit our media intake for a couple days; spend some time alone doing something we love; give ourselves the gift of silence; take a walk in the woods.At first, this inner space can be uncomfortable. The emptiness we feel can be hard to tolerate. But most likely, we aren’t really empty. We are simply removing the clutter and noise that prevent us from taking in and owning our own experiences. Even when it’s painful, it’s important to know what we are feeling and thinking. This is one moment when our faith can be so helpful to our writing and to our art. We can “stay” in the discomfort and naked honesty because we know that we are held and we are loved. Our gentle, compassionate gaze is simply mirroring God’s compassionate gaze upon us.

It’s difficult to live as a contemplative all the time. But as writers and artists, it is part of who we are and who we are called to be: to develop a contemplative gaze that helps us to understand and communicate the meaning of our experiences and ultimately, of the human experience.


One thought on “Writers as Contemplatives

  1. Sr. Marie Paul,
    Thanks for the great insights of today’s post. Love the picture of the flower coming through the concrete… Good to look at life through fresh eyes (and heart).


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