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?