Contemplation and Education

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
August 25, 2017

Most Arlington schools start up after Labor Day, and St. Agnes starts Monday.   “Back to school” has folks “back in town” from summer hurrahs, vacations and trips.  It’s back to the grind of schoolwork, school schedules and all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities that suite everyone from photographers to footballers.  Fresh starts are apprehensively fun, like the first day of climbing Mount Everest.   Come mid-October, the freshness will have worn off, and the grind will be felt.  For some students, a new school year might bring anxiety, especially for a “new kid on the block” or for those struggling to get their stride with friends or academics.  For a youngster starting at a new school, where he or she doesn’t know anyone, going to school can be daunting.  I’ve been there myself.    

In any event, being a school student or a school parent is largely a practical matter.  There are lots of hoops to jump through in order to pass.  I suppose that’s the non-idealistic side of life.   A school system, like a job or a marriage or even a priestly vocation, is like a river with a strong current.  Once you jump in, you’ve got to maneuver.  The beginning and the end get lost from sight.  You don’t have time to think about where the river is taking you, nor about the quaint tributaries whence it comes.  Only when you take a break and swim ashore, and sit down dripping wet on the banks, do you have the leisure to catch your breath and think about “where the river goes.”

The “river of school” empties into the ocean of a wide, rough and stormy world.  What comes out of the river are people destined to swim in that ocean for the rest of their earthly lives.  Floating through the delta into the broad seascape of life, young graduates often think they are the generation that will change the world.  In some sense, this might be true.  But not in ways foreseen.  Not even Isaiah understood his own prophecies. The only thing certain about history is its uncertainty.  However, experience shows that the world changes us more than we, as individuals, change it.  Nonetheless, the way each person navigates the ocean of life, and grows in the process, will have been affected by how he or she learned to navigate the river.   So, before our kids reach the river’s mouth – i.e. graduate – they should be allowed to swim to shore every now and then.

Christ the Teacher did this with his Apostles:  "Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).  We need to occasionally escape the fray and ask questions:  “What am I doing?”  “What is this all about?”   To be sure, it’s not about forcing quick answers (as students are often pressured to do).  We don’t seek answers to big questions simply by analysis or speculation (as students are often pressured to do).   It’s wise to leave some big questions “open” for a while. Openness to transcendent questions like “What is this all about?” or “Why am I – or we – doing this?” are best approached “on our knees.”    In other words, the art of prayer – mysticism you might say – opens our minds and hearts to insights that come from God’s grace.  I say “insights” because that’s the way God usually reveals something to us.  He enlightens or illuminates us with insights that give us joy, peace, love, courage and a sense of purpose and direction.  Sometimes these insights trouble us or challenge us.  We may run away from them for some time.  But God rarely delivers clear-cut, lickety-split answers.    That’s His Wisdom.

Today’s world needs Wisdom’s guidance more than professional competence.  On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1965, the Church’s Second Vatican Council made this hauntingly prophetic statement:

Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. By relentlessly employing his talents through the ages he has indeed made progress in the practical sciences and in technology and the liberal arts. In our times he has won superlative victories, especially in his probing of the material world and in subjecting it to himself. Still he has always searched for more penetrating truths, and finds them. For his intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable, though in consequence of sin that certitude is partly obscured and weakened.  The intellectual nature of the human person is perfected by wisdom and needs to be, for wisdom gently attracts the mind of man to a quest and a love for what is true and good. Steeped in wisdom, man passes through visible realities to those which are unseen.  Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized. For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser men are forthcoming. It should also be pointed out that many nations, poorer in economic goods, are quite rich in wisdom and can offer noteworthy advantages to others. It is, finally, through the gift of the Holy Spirit that man comes by faith to the contemplation and appreciation of the divine plan (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 15).  

The statement that “the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser men are forthcoming” is poignant. Though human effort and know-how have “won superlative victories” by “probing” and “subjecting” the material world, it all needs to be “perfected by wisdom” lest it lead to our “peril.”  Formal education rarely requires disciplined reflection on this question.  Nor this one:  “Steeped in wisdom, man passes through visible realities to those which are unseen.”  If we don’t reflect on these transcendental questions, we’ll be ill equipped for the ocean of life.  “Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages” in order to “humanize” our discoveries.    If we don’t, we’re in “peril.”   That’s a heavy assertion.  Perhaps we should “swim ashore” for a while and ask ourselves, “What are doing in this river?  Where is it taking us?   Where do we want to go?”    

Suppose in 2018, astronomers discover intelligent life floating within the gasses of the planet KELT-1b in the Galaxy Andromeda. They find a way to communicate with the species.   Contact is made.   And then, the KELTians ask us their first question: “How can we help you?”  We’ve been stumped.

We don’t know who we are, what we want, or what we’re doing.  We confuse human “progress” with human “development.”  They’re not the same thing.   We just assume that all “progress” is “development” because we don’t know much about “who” we are “developing.”  We can’t agree on what our own species is.  All breakthroughs in knowledge open up new possibilities (i.e. progress).   But a “possibility” may or may not be a good thing, especially if you don’t know who you are.  Just because we “can” do something doesn’t mean we “may” do it, “should” do it, or “ought” to do it.  The only way to know what we “may,” “should,” or “ought” to do is to first know what a human being is and, therefore, how to develop a human.  But we go on believing, in blind faith, that progress, like evolution, will necessarily make a better world.  History has given us no reason to believe this.  On the contrary.  “Progress” (and, yes, science) must be guided by a higher ethic.  And this requires Wisdom.  You might say it requires Philosophy, in Plato’s sense of the term:  The search for Truth that stands over and above opinion.


I could go on about this point, but I won’t.   I’ll just leap into one radical proposition:  Wisdom is the fruit of lots of silent prayer.  “We pray in words only that we may one day be free of words, 
and adore, praise, and love in silence that ‘Beauty which closes all lips’”
(Fr. Dom Paul Delatte, Commentary on The Rule of St. Benedict).   “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (St. Therese of Lisieux).  These experiences open us up to Wisdom.   Wisdom is not and cannot be the fruit of activism or busyness.  It’s the fruit of meditation and its sequel:  contemplation.

Here’s the hard part: it begins with cleansing the palate of the soul.  Repentance.  Confession of sins and renewal of life is essential.   Then, we can invoke the Source of Wisdom: the Holy Spirit.  With the aid of reading Psalms and Proverbs, the Spirit inspires us to meditate on Creation and Life.  Or, we may start off with some vocal prayers, that is, speaking to God in ways that awaken an inner sense of devotion or adoration.  

This leads to meditation.   We dwell on – or “chew on” – something revealed by God, such as an event in the Gospel, the wisdom of Holy Scripture, or the words of a saint. Meditation on God’s Word leads to affections – or willed acts of love – toward God.  Meditation moves from the “head” to the “heart” in an experience we call “affective prayer.”  From there, the Spirit may lead us to “prayer of simplicity,” which is a simple loving “gaze” on God’s felt presence.   This opens us up to “contemplation.”

Contemplation is purely mystical prayer.   It’s a pure act of the Holy Spirit within us, usually working through his Gifts of Wisdom and Understanding. It feels like a delightful invasion by God, putting body and soul in peaceful harmony.  It’s a divine favor.   Here’s an authenticity test: joy and freedom of spirit; disdain for sin; profound confidence in God; perseverance in suffering; selflessness; humility; poverty of spirit; growth in all virtues, especially Charity.  It leads to Wisdom.  It bears good fruit for ourselves and for others.   If we admit that we don’t know “who we are” or “what we want,” we can take that question to silent prayer.  Wisdom will “mix her wine” (Proverbs 9:2) and show us.