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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Contemplation and Joyful Expectation

Advent is a beautiful season for mental or contemplative prayer. The season is about keeping vigil with joyful expectation for the coming of the Lord. This is the same movement of heart that one takes into contemplative prayer. Even in purely natural contemplation, the contemplative gaze which is not yet prayer, we gaze on what we see with our senses or else the light of reason in expectant wonder. Something has drawn us -- even if we are not sure what it is that discloses its beauty. All that is, including being itself, evokes wonder and mystery: a dazzling sunrise kissing snow covered peaks, a night sky showered in the brilliance of starlight, the wild crash of surf against a rugged shore, the parched silence of hot sand in a isolated desert, the lonely eyes of a hungry beggar on a cold busy street. Our hearts are drawn into the splendor of the truth, even in its most earthy manifestations, because the truth enriches the spirit that has the courage and patience to embrace it -- even if the truth also challenges the heart to something more. While this purely natural gaze helps many cope with life, in that grace-filled contemplation that becomes prayer, natural wonders - like angelic messengers - can also open hearts to divine splendor. For the Word of the Father spoken into Creation echos in and through all that is. God's justice, mercy, goodness and grandeur resound all the time, and contemplative prayer is that tender openness of heart that catches these hidden harmonies. He, the Word, calls to our hearts through both the most sublime and most gritty things, and this even in what might seem to be the most banal or even the most painful of moments. His call has the form of an invitation and moves us to search for Him -- and this especially when fierce trials threaten those we love. Sweet Truth is manifest in every joy that delights our being -- for every real joy promises something more: in the same moment elation grabs us, we also know a kind of holy sorrow. And just when such sorrow seems most crushing, the most beautiful cause for joy discloses its secret to us in some new way. And so a cycle of deeper sorrows and deeper joys draws us beyond ourselves and into an ineffable mystery of divine mercy. The contemplative lives exposed to this blessed paradox of joy and sorrow. The attentive soul realizes we live still deprived of that for which we were summoned into existence. No matter how free we believe we are of hardship or trial, the absence of what ought to be haunts us. Without the truth about who we are and the great purpose entrusted to our care, we live but a dying life, a shadow of what we were meant to be. This is a truth that we must suffer if we are to be free and live life to the full. The contemplative suffers this truth in the deepest center of the soul. What is it we were created to live, to know and to love? The fullness of beatitude God has fashioned us to know contains yet to be discovered joys. These discoveries can be anticipated in this life by prayer, if only momentarily, even to the point of jubilation. But no matter the extent or intensity of such passing graces, they are given only as a pledge of future glory, of something more that this life is not big enough to hold. We can trust what is pledged nonetheless because the One who makes this promise knows the joy of the Father and knows what He yearns for us to know: a contemplative looks into the most difficult misery with these same resurrected eyes of hope. The Bread of Life has chosen to manifest Himself not as much in the mansions of our achievements and the strongholds of our riches but instead in the manger of our poverty, our inadequacies, our voids, our failures. This is the ground wheat and crushed grapes the Lamb of God has come to transform and offer to the Father. In our weakness His power is made perfect -- so the Visible Image of the Invisible God comes as a helpless baby full of trust and abandonment to rest deep in our lowliness. So we contemplate Him more not in what satisfies but in what does not satisfy, not in what comforts but in what does not comfort, not in what we understand but in what we do not understand. And in this darkness, the magi followed their star -- and so do we when in this we joyfully watch for Christ.

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