Being ourselves through each other:

A blog for the Church Urban Fund

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Chris Whittington shares some thoughts on contemplative prayer and a radical re-framing of relationships.

“If we have no peace” Mother Teresa once said, “it’s because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” Most of us, I think, recognise a simple truth in these striking words.

I’d like to share some brief thoughts on how contemplative prayer (the practice of silence and stillness, sometimes called silent prayer or meditation) can help clear a space to encounter how intimately we are connected and belong to each other, in our own experience. It is this experience which transfigures and reframes how we understand our relationships and progressively illuminates and informs how we inhabit them. Whatever we might understand “prayer” or “spiritual life” or “spirituality” to mean, it can never be separate from ordinary life, lived together. Ultimately, prayer is always about relationship.

There are many reasons why we might find it difficult to see the simple truth of how things are or become forgetful of it.

We might have spent much of our lives deeply immersed in a certain way of looking at the world, like these two fish in a short story told by the novelist David Foster Wallace:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them at says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’[1]

We are interdependent beings who flourish (individually, socially, corporately) when we live and organise ourselves in ways that reflect and embody this. And we have a problem with this. Using the parable of the vine to illustrate the point, you might say that the vine leaves prefer to imagine they are in some way separate from the vine which gives them life and apart from which they could not exist.

But it is not in any way surprising that so many of us, to one degree or another, would look upon the world and other people in it like this. Many aspects of our culture and education system promote a strongly individualistic anthropology. We are encouraged to view others as if they are largely or entirely separate from us, to live at a conceptual distance from each other. And so, it is no great surprise that we frequently organise our lives and places of work in ways which reflect this, which encourage rivalry and competition over collaboration and friendship. A conceptual distance can all too easily become an emotional distance and a then a moral distance

Standing against this is a radically different way of understanding how we are related to each other: a collaborative anthropology. From this perspective, we and all things arise within and through a network of relationships and anything we encounter in the world (anything we can grasp with mind or hand) is not separate and self-subsisting in the way we routinely imagine things to be. We and all things are understood to be contingent, composite, the result of numerous causes and conditions coming together each instant,[2] even (and this can come as quite a shock to us) what we commonly refer to as “the self” is understood to be received from those around us, born in and from relationship. We are “we-centric”[3], collaborations in action, part of an interrelated, interdependent whole. Which means that our actions have a direct effect, beneficial or otherwise, on this whole.

I hope most of us would agree that moving from an individualistic anthropology to a collaborative anthropology would be a good thing. But it’s not enough. The apostles did not transform their world and its cultural systems by means of a more attractive conceptual framework, or (without wishing to deny a certain value to them) through clever strap lines, marketing or strategic development plans. They transformed the world because they were transformed in Christ. They offered a new way of life, a new way of seeing and being, rooted in the experience of encounter. And it is this experience which gives rise to what we might call a contemplative anthropology, rooted in knowing that we belong to each other — knowing we are one with the vine.

To know this in our own experience is the most extraordinary basis for joy and wonder and gratefulness for the gift of life. But it is also the greatest basis for harmony between us. To the branch that knows it is one with the vine, all talk of separateness and difference becomes slightly silly beyond a certain point. To discover we are one with the vine is to discover that the person next to me and all creation is one with the vine. It is to encounter the simple, encompassing truth of how things are.

How does this simple, encompassing truth register in our consciousness? For St. Teresa of Avila, it is “like rain falling from the sky onto a river or pool. There is nothing but water. It’s impossible to divide the sky water from the land water. When a little stream enters the sea, who could separate out its waters again?”[4]

There are many ways that contemplative prayer can help us in our relationships with others. One important way is how, in learning to be present with God without wanting to do anything or receive anything, we learn to be simply present-with and present-for those around us.

It is very understandable that we want to help those around us, to alleviate suffering. There is so much that needs to be done. But sometimes our strong desire to make a difference and be of use can hinder this. Our own ideas and plans can cloud our minds and make us less capable of seeing and listening. We can miss what others might really need from us.

Through the simple practice of silence and stillness, Christ guides us into the quiet spaciousness of God’s love so we can become ourselves, and, as we become ourselves, increasingly share the love we have received by allowing space for others to be themselves. We allow God to love us and love through us. We become places where the Kingdom happens.

Writing on the spacious letting-be of love, the Dominican, Herbert McCabe, taught that, “What you give someone when you give them love is the gift of yourself. And what does that mean? It means you give them space. You give them a place where they can be themselves. To give someone love is to give her herself, to give him himself, to let him be. What gives us elbow room, what gives us space to grow and become ourselves, is the love that comes to us from another. Love is a space in which to expand, and it is always a gift. In this sense we receive ourselves from the hands of others.

Of course, this is true in innumerable ways — we have to be born of others, for a start — but our growth, our personal development, also takes place in the space that others provide by their love. It is a space we cannot just take for granted but which, in another sense, we can only take for granted to us by someone who loves us. To give love is to give the precious space of nothing, space. To give love is to let be. The power of God is pre-eminently the power to let things be.”[5]

Contemplative prayer teaches us to be present without any agenda and let things be. We rest from thinking about God, and allow ourselves to be with him. We rest from thinking about our life, and allow ourselves to fully inhabit our life together. We learn to be present-with and present-for those around us in simple solidarity, however their life is for them at that moment.

Our tradition has placed a gift in our hands, a deceptively simple practice that can help create a space of freedom and opportunity, so we may better see those around us, their needs, their mysterious beauty and dignity, to build community in the light of the truth that undermines all that we think separates us.

Chris Whittington is the founder of the School of Contemplative Life. He was introduced to meditation and contemplative life at the age of 19 during a period of formation at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey, after which he studied at the Dalai Lama’s monastery in India. Chris regularly delivers talks, workshops and retreats across the UK and has introduced contemplative practices to the leaders and staff of hundreds of schools and not-for-profit organisations.

Chris is also a trustee of Thrive Together Birmingham and Head of Education Law at Anthony Collins Solicitors.

[1] David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion About Living a Compassionate Life, New York: Little, Brown and Company 2009, p.3–4.

[2] For an excellent analysis of being and contingency from various philosophical, religious and contemplative perspectives, see David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’ (Yale University Press, 2013).

[3] See Vittorio Gallese, ‘The Two Sides of Mimises: Mimietic Theory, Embodied Simulation and Social Identification’, in Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press 2011).

[4] See ‘The Interior Castle, St, Teresa of Avila’, translated by Miribai Starr, p. 270.

[5] Herbert McCabe, God Matters, p.108, Bloomsbury Publishing.

School of Contemplative Life
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