Lent is a good time to pause and take a hard look at the way we spend our time. It’s not easy to practice extra spiritual discipline for 40 days, but it’s an invaluable opportunity to ponder the meaning of our existence.
The monk Thomas Merton wrote, “There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life.” Quoting him in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard says that, for her, the lack of contemplative ambition means “making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys.”
Thinking about the grand questions is always on the back-burner because it can seem impractical to always be seeking the grace at the edges of each moment. It’s also unsettling because it recognizes the wildness and danger lurking around every corner.
Annie Dillard is an interesting case study because she found herself, as she would have said, “squeaking through gaps in the soil where the creeks and winds pour down.” All this wildness that was so inspiring for her contemplation? The events of her book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and took place in her normal, everyday suburb in Virginia.
You might say it’s naive to practice contemplation in the suburbs — after all, that sort of thing is for monks on mountaintops and artists in urban lofts. But I say not only is it possible, it’s a necessary component to happiness. Contemplation slows us down so we can behold the presence of God beneath all the workaday distractions around us. If we aren’t placed on this earth to seek out the meaning of existence, then why are we here?
Here are six helpful tips, partly inspired by Dillard’s book, about how to be a suburban contemplative:
Cultivate a healthy simplicity
When I take my children for walks through our neighborhood, they find blue robins’ eggs, watch ants luxuriate at syrupy Popsicle drippings, and pick up every rock they see because it might be a diamond. Dillard writes about how she used to hide pennies along sidewalks because they were treasure for others to find. It takes a healthy, childlike simplicity for us to notice that all sorts of treasures are at our feet. If we simply stop to look and contemplate, the beauty of the world becomes a mirror by which we see more clearly how graced the world really is.
Accept your life
It’s all too easy to let obligations to family and work become an excuse to ignore contemplation. For instance, I can easily put together a litany of complaints: The kids are too loud, my job is exhausting, I live in a noisy neighborhood, someone needs to clean the house and make dinner, I don’t have enough time for a spiritual retreat. It doesn’t need to be that complicated, though. Sit in your backyard and look at a tree. It’s a tree like millions of other trees, but it becomes special simply by holding your gaze. It’s a unique miracle, just like your life.
Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” So much is going on all around whether we notice or not. Don’t miss it.
Cultivate a rich interior life
I used to live on Cape Cod near the ocean; natural beauty was all around. I appreciated it, but it’s only now I realize how lucky I was to spend part of my life there. Even the most inspiring surroundings can become ordinary without an interior life. By contrast, even the most mundane surroundings can blaze forth in glory with it. Squirrels and ants are every bit as interesting as grizzly bears and elephants, and a suburban front porch every bit as conducive to contemplation as is a Cape Cod beach.
Don’t go it alone
The marvelous result about being in the midst of an ordinary life is that we are surrounded by people, and people are never ordinary. The source of contemplation is love, so the more we surround ourselves people we love, the more our own souls will expand to hold them.
Maintain a critical distance
An excellent, practical aid to contemplation is spending a few moments reviewing the day. not just recalling what happened, but also what each event meant. How was God present in my life today? Where did I see grace? At the end of the day take every fragmentary moment, both the good and the bad, and hand them over to God.
This is how we begin to see that our lives are not a jumble of chores and errands, but a tapestry weaved into a continuous whole. Each of us is valuable and we are placed exactly where we should be. Whatever the surroundings or circumstances, whether we’re in the suburbs, the city, or the countryside, there is always an inner mystery to contemplate.
We Need to Constantly Contemplate the Mystery of Mercy