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I Used to Be a Contemplative

I haven’t been getting a lot of down time lately. In the last few weeks I’ve started a new full-time job, and we’ve welcomed our son George into the world.

It’s a lot. This is probably the most intense and full my life has ever been. My days are full of wonderful work out in the city, and my nights are packed with family. Everything is exciting and new right now, though I sort of wish we could have spaced all of this excitement out over a few months rather than a couple of weeks!

This experience has me thinking about what it means to live a life of prayer. You see, despite my penchant for action and activity, I’ve lived a pretty contemplative life so far. I’m used to spending a dedicated portion of my day in prayer, religious study, and generally focused on ministry.

All of a sudden, though, all of my routines have gone out the window. I’m scrambling to adapt to a whole new rhythm of life. These days, I’m mumbling a prayer over my breakfast cereal as I get ready for work. I’m listening to Christian rock (God help me) on the commute across town. I’m making sure I show up at New Community Church on Sunday mornings, just so there’s somewhere I’ve got a spiritual anchor during the week.

I know things won’t be like this forever. I’ll settle into my new job. We’ll eventually be able to sleep through the night as our boy grows a little older. I’ll find my prayerful routines again. But right now, I can barely see straight.

All this makes me wonder, what was the basis of my contemplative lifestyle all this time? Is time for prayer a monastic privilege? Does attentiveness to God require some sort of special circumstance, beyond the reach of most ordinary mortals who have to balance work and family? 

I’ve never believed that before, and I don’t believe it now. But I’m getting a new perspective on how truly challenging it can be to stay focused on God in the midst of full-time life. It’s no coincidence that Jesus called his disciples away from their families and 9-to-5 routines when he invited them to become his friends and confidants.

But I’m clear that’s not the path I’m being called to right now. On the contrary, at this stage in my life, I believe God is inviting me into the full-time experience of being a father, husband, and working professional. 

I know that so many of you have the experience of walking this path. How did you do it? Have you been able to maintain a life of prayer and attention to God in the midst of all of your work and family responsibilities? What does it look like to be a disciple and a worker, a parent and a friend of Jesus?

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  • charlesburchfield

    I think it is dif for everyone. I am I you are you. There may be a pattern imposed over one caused by trauma that keeps one living in fear and bordom. There may be what I have come to understand as ‘introjects’ that are ppl one has identified w, accepted as authority and one has been compelled to follow under threat of becomming marginalized or cast out from ones family & community. Employers, preachers, teachers, media, agents of governing political institutions all have that potential to hold one’s spirit captive and traped by fear of making changes so that one can individuate & have the freedom to become personally connected to the living god, yielded & molded by christs example and influence.

  • Rene Lape

    Hi Micah, Believe me I know what you are going through right now, but God will be just as much a part of it as “He” was in your former work. He is “incarnate” and the “life” he offers is one that involves work, service, wife, children, community. For me that is the great Quaker part of my faith. It’s faith on the ground, not in the head or in the sacrament. And you will not stop rooting yourself every day in Christ. You don’t need to say a prayer for that – it’s in every moment you want to live in the life He offers you. “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless . . . there the dance is . . . and there is only the dance.”

  • Even monks, like Brother Lawrence, have emphasized the importance of prayer within the things one is doing. This doesn’t mean set aside times are not good, but it provides a way to live contemplatively even when it is hard to set aside times. However, it is not easy to get into the rhythm of the busyness and. But for new parents, it may be more sensible to try to develop that kind of rhythm than the discipline of a set aside time, which may need to be put on hold as long as you have a child that doesn’t have a reasonably predictable sleep pattern.

    Any disruption of previous patterns can pose a challenge. I made a major change a year ago, moving into a retirement community. I don’t have a job and I don’t have a baby, but I really have not yet truly settled into a new rhythm of life. It’s hard!

    • It’s good to know I’m not the only one struggling with this! Transitions can be tough!

      • I also want to note that sometimes we put contemplation and prayer into too narrow a box. When you look with awe upon George and what God has formed using you and Faith, that is really a form of contemplation. I think parents have a lot of moments of union with God that they may fail to recognize as such.

  • Robin Mohr

    For years! I did everything in my life in short snatches. I slept in short snatches, I ate in short snatches, I talked to people in short snatches, I prayed in short snatches. Because everything I did was interrupted by people whose needs were immediate. It got better. (Actually, it got worse when the babies started to walk, before it got better, but those long, hard days are basically over now.) You have new things to be grateful for and new things to worry about, and all of that can be a form of prayer. Like Bill says below about monks, prayer can take many forms, and sometimes it takes creativity just to recognize the new forms that your prayer will take, and creativity is hard without enough sleep. Even Thomas Kelly makes allowances for the spiritual life when there is sickness in the house or when the children are very small.

    • Thanks, Robin. I, too, was remembering that line from Kelly’s Testament of Devotion!

  • Marshall Massey

    As I recall, the commandment in the Old Testament, as reaffirmed by Jesus in the Gospels, is simply to *love* the Lord with all our mind and heart and strength. It is not a commandment to keep our attention on Him all the time. This is one of the ways in which Gospel Christianity is different from Hinduism, where what one does with the attention is the yoga and the key to salvation.

    Love is a state of being, an orientation of our goals and affections and dependencies, that can continue to exist even when our attention needs to be on some practicality or other. Love determines our choices in a way that attention does not, drawing them to a life that revolves around God. Love is furthermore an emulation of God who is Love, an emulation that makes us more and more like Him.

    To rely on love for our salvation, when our attention must be given to practicalities, is an act of trust. Or of faith, if you like that word better.

    • I found this extremely helpful. I think that I’ve often been taught an eastern form of “mindfulness” – which is certainly not a bad thing! – but you’re right that the kind of love we are called to in the gospel is distinct from mindfulness and attention.

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    Sometimes one needs to accept that “good enough” is “good enough.” Assuming the intention is to love G*d and to love your neighbor as yourself, approximation is as close as anyone can get, since only G*d is Perfect. Prayer is NOT the repetition of set words but the underlying current of that intention of love and service.

    • Thanks, Barbara. A good reminder.

    • Frank Caruthers

      Lecto divina.

  • Daniel Wilcox

    Many years ago I read Brother Lawrence’s powerful little book, as well as Foxe’s Journal, etc., and tried to put them in daily practice–but in a hectic life with lovable little children and a very stressful career that contemplation seldom happened for me.
    I would leave with prayer in my heart, sometimes on my lips as I drove to work and got to work, but then 9 or 10 hours would flash by like a heavily loaded jet, and I would wake back up, thinking, “Wait a minute, I again got lost in the hectic details.

    Now at almost 70 years of age, there are other challenges, elderly parents in crisis, loss off dreams and hopes…

    In a certain sense, I’ve come to the conclusion there is no spiritual bullet (horrible metaphor for a peacemaker:-( that solves life’s stressful times.

    But intending, even if not successful did make a difference.

    And maybe real spiritual life isn’t about only “attaining” even in a contemplative sense, but in being thankful and doing the best we can:-)

  • Philana Danceforth

    Hi, Micah! I surely understand what you’re going through, as wife and mother of four — now grown — children. In search of a meaningful relationship with GOD there were a few things I found transformative in my own walk. As a young woman I read, “In His Steps” (the original), by Charles M. Sheldon, and also, “The Practice of the Presence of GOD”, by Brother Lawrence. They have never left me. A few years later I read 1 Thess. 5:16-18 with entirely new eyes, and began to meditate on these verses; in fact, the entire chapter could be viewed as lessons in living! “Rejoice always.” But what if I’m grumpy?? “Pray without ceasing.” How on earth is one to accomplish that?! “Give thanks in all circumstances”. Is that a clue or a joke?
    In this life, there are things we must do. And, as temples of the living GOD (hallelujah!), we do them with His constant companionship — amazing thought! That alone brings me up short: am I embarrassed and shamed to have spoken abruptly in His presence? Do I handle annoyances and irritations as though He is with/observing me? Have I walked past a soul, unobservant? In what manner did Jesus accomplish His tasks? This is my calling, and yours 🙂
    Transition is tough. But if you step back for a broader perspective, it’s simply a different path than the one you were on the day before. How does your life change if you take a different route to the grocery store?
    Only if we are deliberate in our walk, choosing mindfulness, can we begin to walk and live as Jesus did, in our world. When we do that, the details become much less significant than the moments. That’s my experience. And all these years later, I still haven’t mastered it — so you won’t be alone in your journey 🙂
    Grace and peace to you!