“More than all else, keep watch over your heart, since here are the wellsprings of life” (Proverbs 4:23). What a remarkable text from Proverbs, a text we heard at our Morning Prayer on Thursday. There is a paradox in this selection because the very next verse reads: “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (4:24). Turning to the gospel, we have Jesus who says: “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” (Mk 7:20-21a). My dear sisters we are given a paradox, a paradox which takes the shape of a cross…yes, a cross, which we are asked to shoulder if we want Life, Life in abundance! On the one hand the heart is the source of life; on the other hand from the heart also comes forth devious and crooked speech, along with an array of things that defile and profane, destroy even the beauty of life entrusted to us.
So what are to do? We can quickly observe such darkness in others and especially now in our world where for example such devious and crooked speech seems to be the norm. But how observant are we of our own hearts? In John’s gospel for this Sunday Jesus is saying ‘work for food that lasts’ (6:27). Fr. Russ Terra in his homily spoke of the ongoing spiritual work that is so essential for bringing forth life and that carries the grace to transform what defiles and profanes.
Along with the essential inner work of self-knowledge and conversion, I put forth the main reason why this monastery exists and why we each found our way here. We are part of an Order whose nature and purpose is “wholly ordered to contemplation” (CST 2). What does it mean that the focus of our lives together, that the use of our time and energy is to be ordered to contemplation? John Main describes meditation and contemplation in this pithy way: “‘The word meditation comes from the Latin meditarewhich breaks down into the roots stare in medio—to remain in the center. The word contemplation suggests the same. The word contemplation does not mean looking at anything—God or anyone else. Contemplation is being in the temple with God. The temple is your own heart, the depths of your own being’” (quoted in Prayer In the Cave of the Heart, Cyprian Consiglio, p.50). Our prayer practice: lectio, silent prayer, the Divine Office and Mass, these are to help us as we do our daily activities ‘to remain in the center’, to be in the temple of the heart with God. The fruit of contemplative prayer is that it slowly changes us from within; it shifts our consciousness from a predominately ego-oriented one to a God-centered awareness. Such cultivated awareness helps us to observe, to see what fills the heart and not get taken by it. The silence, the healing silence, which is the silence of God, awaits us beneath this emotional content that arises unbidden. Dwelling even for a moment in this silence in prayer can help us as we engage in our outer activities and relationships.
In the gospels we hear often that Jesus goes off ‘to a lonely place to pray’. In this lonely quiet space he nurtures his connection to his Abba and he attends to his heart. We hear such questions in the gospels as ‘where does he get all this wisdom? (Mt 13:54)’ and we see how with such cunning he cuts through hypocrisy; we see how he accesses wisdom and the power to heal. Where do you think he got the knowledge to say that it is from the human heart that evil intentions come? All these things were part of a profound listening, the fruit of his prayer, the fruit of maintaining his connection with his Abba: the Father and Jesus are one…but this relationship was not automatic: it was maintained through prayer. He went to a lonely place to pray, or in the midst of his ministry, when tested, he bent down into the silence and wrote in the sand and then stood up and spoke words of truth to the hypocrisy of those challenging him (Jn 8:1-11). What am I getting to by referring to these statements? Prayer, especially contemplative silent prayer, where we hear the silent voice of the Spirit, where we dwell in that secret room with Christ, we are given eyes that are clearer, a heart ready to forgive, a perspective that is Christ like and not dominated by pettiness or harsh judgments towards one another. When we have to discern something, or when we are in a conflict with another…the first place to go is that silent room, that inner temple where God is waiting. Prayer as Sr. Ruth Burrows has said is not primarily something we do but what God does within us (The Essence of Prayer, p.1). And so it is: we enter the silence of that inner chamber and let God act, purifying, transforming, healing…