Our nearly sixteen-year-old dog, Hobbes, has been going through a rough patch of aging for the past two months. I know she will die, just as I will, but the process is fraught with stress and uncertainty, save the final outcome. She refuses her normal food, prompting Wade and me to improvise meals that are inviting yet bland enough not to upset her system. Her intestinal discomfort and its manifestations have led to disruption of our daytime schedules and our night’s sleep, as well as requiring energy in cleaning up everything from bedding to floors, so all three of us are very fatigued.
We have become practicing if not exactly believing Buddhists: Hobbes moves very slowly these days, mindfully taking each step, as in a walking meditation. Wade and I mindfully attend every morsel of food she either takes or rejects, as well as being mindful of her other bodily functions or lack thereof.
An ultrasound has revealed a mass on the liver, probably cancer, but she is too old to safely survive surgery (assuming we could afford it). The morning I write this, she steadfastly refuses even to taste her freshly cooked morning meal.
That’s the background of sitting down for our morning prayers (Hobbes likes to join me on the deck.) and reading more of Julian of Norwich’s contemplation of Jesus and God. I will soon have a post finished that does Julian justice, but today I became the rebellious reformer. Today it felt like her devotion is misplaced: Jesus does not need us to contemplate him, nor does God or the Trinity. There are people and species and ecosystems in my New York Times who are the ones in real need of our devotion. Them and our poor dog, which I immediately feel guilty comparing.
So I pulled out my John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition. I know, he wasn’t exactly a progressive in most people’s eyes, but he seems more progressive than most conservatives these days. I wanted to remind myself of the Reformers’ reservations about contemplation.
Thomas Aquinas asserted, “[A human being's] ultimate felicity consists only in the contemplation of God.”
But Calvinist theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote:
To call the vision [a human being’s] greatest good is to make contemplation, however prepared for by activity and however issuing in action, the final end of life; to put the sovereignty of God in the first place is to make obedient activity superior to contemplation, however much of theoria is necessary to action. The principle of vision suggests that the perfection of the object seen is loved above all else; the principle of the kingdom indicates that the reality and power of the being commanding obedience are primarily regarded.
In other words, “Faith without works is dead.” Or, more bluntly, do we contemplate our navels and do nothing to help the world?
Julian, however, might take issue with this view of contemplation. Her idea seems to be that we become what we contemplate, that we are “oned” with God, a transformation that leads us to compassionate action. Such action then is not mere obedience; rather, it comes as a heartfelt expression of who we are, oned with God. Talk about at-one-ment!
I can’t see how compassion comes from obedience; it must come from transformation in the presence of absolute, all-embracing love.
Hobbes and Wade and I are cases in point: we have tamed and transformed the beast in one another by our love, loyalty, and actions. That’s what spiritual community is all about.
“What the world needs now…” is contemplation of the God of love.
I’ll be in New York City this weekend, June 5-7 at Fort Washington Collegiate Church leading two Saturday workshops, “Sex & the Body of Christ,” and “Coming Out as Sacrament,” and preaching on “Your Will Be Done” from the Lord’s Prayer during the 10:45 Sunday morning worship. For details, click here.
Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.