We have arrived at that time of the year when planners like me make lists upon lists. Right now, I’ve got my final Thanksgiving list going along with my Christmas list, my general running “To Do” list, and a bunch of sub-lists!
The problem comes when the lists, planning, and general busy-ness become paramount. In 1962, playwright and author William Kerr, critical of the mindset that dominated American society at the time, wrote, “Only useful activity is valuable, meaningful, moral. Activity that is not clearly, concretely useful to oneself or to others is worthless, meaningless, immoral.” (The Decline of Pleasure 48) Kerr’s observations six decades ago are still startlingly true for American society today. We do pride ourselves on busy-ness and productivity. We often view activities that can’t be listed, tabulated in a graph, or quantified as wastes of time. Leisure is often an afterthought.
Yet is it really “immoral” if we can’t tabulate an activity? Is such activity really less valuable and less worthy of our time and attention? Is it less real? St. Ignatius would argue emphatically, “No,” because he had been given the special grace to see God at work in everything, including things that could not be quantified. On the banks of the Cardoner River, he had a mystical experience so profound that he was never able to describe it. He could only say that nothing in his life subsequent to that moment ever compared with it. In Rome, on his rooftop, he was brought to ecstasy as he gazed at the stars. To Ignatius, God was the ultimate reality—and spending time with God was well worth it.
Thirty years after The Decline of Pleasure was published, Jesuit Walter Burghardt noted that this philosophy of usefulness pointed out by Kerr was a major obstacle to the practice of contemplation. Contemplation is “a long, loving look at the real,” as Burghardt wrote in the essay of that title. (An Ignatian Spirituality Reader) Quoting Carmelite William McNamara, he explained that contemplation is a “pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” Furthermore, Burghardt noted that unless we “enter into this intuitive communion” with things or people, we can only know “about them;” we don’t “know them.” He wrote, “This real I look at. I do not analyze or argue it, describe or define it; I am one with it. I enter into it.” To contemplate is “to rest in the real…my entire being is alive, incredibly responsive…time is irrelevant.” The “real” of which Burghardt speaks is the essence of God that Ignatius sensed in all things.
As we celebrate the holidays this year, we might ask for the grace to enter into communion with the real. Invitations to this communion might be found in:
- times when we deeply feel part of a family or close-knit community
- joyous moments around the table when we are sharing lovingly prepared food
- moments of utter delight, such as seeing lights through the eyes of a child
- times when we feel oneness with our natural surroundings
- moments when we have an overwhelming sense of gratitude
- times when we feel particularly alive, free, and unencumbered
- moments when we are struck breathless by awe, such as looking at lights against the dark night, seeing sun glinting on the morning frost, or basking in the glow of the candlelight at the Christmas Vigil
When we are captivated by the real, we are often filled with wonder, awe, joy, fullness, gratitude, or a sense of oneness with the Divine within others or the natural world. A hallmark of such moments is that they bring the soul to praise. We might notice ourselves uttering quietly, “Wow, thank you, God!”
Within each moment is an invitation to more, an invitation to slow down and take that “long, loving look at the real.” This holiday season, take some time to be present and stay with these moments. Where will you find the “real” captivating you?
Thanks Rebecca. MAGIS and AMDG are well depicted in your soothing article.
Thank you Rebecca for this. Yes, we live in a society that prioritizes the “quantifiable”. Modern science only recognizes that which can be measured and weighed as being real. And our economic system prioritizes measurable ‘returns on investment’ and monetary returns on our work. And yet!…
As Christians, we recognize the greatest value, the pearl beyond price, in our relationship with Christ. And since Christ is infinite, that real-ationship* can’t be measured and quantified. And anyway, how could we possibly weigh prayer, or quantify grace? Indeed, as you write, we only “know” people and things themselves when we enter into them and respond with our whole being…not with our instruments.
*I decided to not correct this typo.
Thank you for reading and for sharing.
It’s a telling typo – that “real-ationship” is surely beyond quantification!
Wow, love this reflection, Rebecca!
Thank you for reading and for your kind words.
May you be captivated by the Real this Advent Season!
Your reflection this morning is so moving on this secular holiday of “Thanksgiving”.
You give voice to the true meaning of “communion” with the Creator and all creation.
My spouse and I had the joy of having Walter Burghardt S.J. to our home twenty years ago this Christmas where he was surrounded by six children under the age of nine. His gift to us, in addition to his presence, was a copy of his book “Still Proclaiming Your Wonders.” I think in light of your beautiful reflection, Walter would want me to share with you, your family and those who draw inspiration from the gift of the Ignatian Spirituality blog, his cover note which read “To Valerie and Rob and their 6 angels, with a warm prayer for rich laughter and profound joy- Walter. ” Thank you.
Thank you for sharing your lovely memory of Walter too!
Ah, that we could all live so unencumbered as to experience this “rich laughter” and “profound joy” in living! I love it.
One of Walter’s favorite phrases was “delight in life”. It was something he practiced every day and it was so visible in his eyes when he spoke. His eyes danced with aliveness, he was such a gift to the students who had the opportunity to spend time with him.
Thank you for sharing this lovely memory.
May we all remember to “delight in life!”
Thank you for a wonderful reflection. Your insights are so welcomed this busy time of the year.
I find that the moments when I allow myself to be immersed in the experience of the “real” … are the moment I am most awed, grateful and alive. These moments are true gifts not found by desire or design, but in allowing myself to being open, and allowing the “real” to unfold and transform my being step by step.
Thank you for reading and for your comments.
Yes! You have captured it so eloquently.
Monday pm just as dusk was descending- I had been doing chores for a few hours and when I finished I looked out the door and at the sky which was a glorious orange. I just had to get my boots and coat on and grab my phone so I could take a picture.
As I live near a park, I find God easily enough in the trees.
Wow. What beautiful noticings!