April 19, 2022

‘Everyday Contemplative’

By L. Roger Owens

Professor, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

You don’t have to be a monk or hermit to commit to contemplative praying and living, L. Roger Owens writes in this excerpt from his new book.

The other day a friend from graduate school called my office. She is now a pastor in nearby West Virginia, but I hadn’t seen her in years. She had a question she wanted to discuss and wondered if we could meet for lunch if she made the ninety-minute drive to the seminary where I teach. She told me over the phone that she knows people who have spiritual directors — guides in the life of prayer and life with God — with whom they meet once a month or so to help them find their way through the darkness and confusion that life often is. I assume they had told her the benefits of having such a soul friend: the zone of nonjudgment they create; the way they have no agenda for your life; the value of knowing a holy chat is scheduled monthly; the sheer gift of having a place where you can laugh or cry, ponder or rage without fear; the little light their presence can cast into the dimness of your soul. She’d started to wonder whether spiritual direction would be good for her, too.

“I’d like to talk to you about whether I might be a good candidate for spiritual direction,” she said. I agreed to chat over lunch. I looked forward to seeing an old friend. And the hands-down best Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh is just a mile away from the seminary. I love to take people there and recommend the pumpkin curry at a spice level not to exceed “four.” But it was winter, and she’d have a two-hour hilly drive and would need to check the forecast before embarking. So maybe I should have saved her the trouble of coming. Just knowing she was thinking about spiritual direction enough to wonder whether she was a good candidate, just by hearing how she had spoken with friends who were benefiting from this practice, and just by realizing she would be willing to brave the hills in the snow to have a conversation over an excellent curry dish, I had all the information I needed. “Yes,” I should have told her. “You are a good candidate for spiritual direction.”

Some folks might have the same question about contemplative praying and living: Am I a good candidate for that? If there are any doubts, it’s because we carry around in our minds stereotypical pictures of spiritual people, contemplative types who seem nothing like us: robed monks with sandaled feet and impossible haircuts who shuffle to prayer seven times a day, sometimes at hours when there’s some question whether even God is awake. Desert hermits who live in caves and have friends deliver to them a loaf of crusty bread once a week to sustain them through their extreme ascetic practices, perhaps splurging on a plate of simple vegetables on feast days. Famous gurus who trumpet through their books, their podcasts, and their Twitter accounts that they are genuine mystics, lost in a profound oneness with the All. No way am I a candidate for that kind of life, we think.

Or sometimes we read about contemplation, and it sounds so difficult, like a particular type of prayer that involves a lot of sitting and holding your hands just right and letting your vision go soft as you stare into a void — a kind of prayer you could only learn how to do if you signed up for a weeklong retreat, preferably at a facility on an idyllic island off the coast of Washington State. (There are a lot of contemplatives in the Pacific Northwest, right?) Odd people engaging in esoteric prayer on remote islands. Thanks, but no thanks. But what if the word contemplative doesn’t just name a narrowly defined kind of prayer — which it sometimes does — but also a possible approach to all prayer? What if the same word doesn’t denote a specific way of life — extreme, alone, with lots of somber sitting and eating simple vegetables — but can describe any life that seeks to be more open, available, and responsive to the One who is as present in an office cubicle as in a hermit’s cell? Sure, there are people living contemplatively in monasteries and convents (and people not living contemplatively there, too). There are also contemplatives working at library reference desks and delivering Amazon Prime packages, scrambling to complete tax returns in April and changing linens in hotel rooms. There are contemplatives talking about God from pulpits and contemplatives listening in the pews. And there are contemplatives in the colorful rooms beneath the sanctuary teaching the kids too young to endure preaching. Some of those kids are also contemplatives. In other words, most contemplatives are everyday contemplatives. When I look up the word everyday in the dictionary, I see it means “common” and “ordinary.” Like faded blue jeans in the dresser drawer. Like you and me. Maybe our pictures should be in the dictionary next to the word.

Parents and principals can live contemplatively. Doctors and lawyers can be attentive to the Divine. Custodians and dentists can be open to God. Hospital orderlies and nursing home residents all have the capability of opening and responding to the refrains of divine love being sung from the depth of every soul. Contemplatives are protesting with the Black Lives Matter movement. They are marching with the Poor People’s Campaign. Contemplatives might start by sitting in a La-Z-Boy, but they don’t stop there. Perhaps some of these folks, if they’ve been allowing themselves to learn this refrain of Love over a long period of time, walk just a little slower, make eye contact a little more often, listen more patiently as you answer their question, “How are you?” They seem to show up in their lives and in your life as their authentic, truest selves. But they don’t do so in a way that calls attention to themselves. More likely, it is in a way that gives greater attention to you. And they almost never announce that they have become contemplatives.

Thomas Merton writes that contemplative praying and living is a “response to a call: a call from [God] Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of [God].”

To live contemplatively means simply to approach life with openness, availability, and growing responsiveness to the God who speaks in everything, to the God who speaks from the depths of our very selves, to the God who spoke us into existence. If you were to Google the seminary where I teach, find my office phone number on the faculty page, and ring me to ask whether you’re a good candidate to be an everyday contemplative, I’d say three things.

First, I’d say, “Please call me ‘Roger.’”

Second, I’d ask, “How far away do you live, and what’s your opinion of pumpkin curry?”

Finally, I’d answer your question: “Yes, of course you are.”

 

From “Everyday Contemplative: The Way of Prayerful Living,” by L. Roger Owens. Copyright © 2022. Excerpted by permission of Upper Room Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

L. Roger Owens

Professor, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
L. Roger Owens is professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Owens and his wife, Ginger Thomas, previously served as co-pastors at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina. He received his Ph.D. in theology from Duke University where he was awarded a Lilly Fellowship for the Formation of a Learned Clergy. Before that he completed his M.Div. at Duke Divinity School.