Towards a more contemplative way of living
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Following in the footsteps of Father Henri J. M. Nouwen and Brother Roger of Taize
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‘'When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian' (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).
LIFE & SOUL 1: DAME MARIA BOULDING, OSB - AUTHOR & FORMER HERMIT
'I have been here at Stanbrook Abbey in England just over 58 years. I came in the
autumn of 1947. It’s very hard to say why I came really. I think for most monks
and nuns the reason you come is not the same as the reason you stay.
People come for all sorts of strange reasons really, attracted by something or
other, but you soon find out that whatever that something or other was is
not going to see you through a lifetime. So you have to re-think your motives
a good deal. So we have to do that and, in a very broad way. I suppose one can
say it’s a response to the love of God that one has known in one’s life somehow.
God makes himself known in every person’s life, every person somehow or
other. Some of us follow that love that calls in this monastic way. It’s only one
way among a myriad of others of living out the response to God in Christ,
living out our baptism. This is just one way but it’s a way that has been classic in
Christianity from the beginning and still does call many men and women today.
I’m quite sure of that the experience of God is woven into the fabric of everyday
life. I think perhaps we don’t recognise of it when it comes. I think it’s in all sorts
of ways – in beauty, in human relationships, in suffering, in moments of surprise
and all kinds of ways I think, the unexpected generosity of people sometimes,
all manner of things. They’re like touches of God in our life. I am quite sure of that.
Contemplative life is not confined to monasteries. People think it’s some peculiar thing that monks and nuns get up to.
It’s a normal fulfilment of Christian life when you live in Christ, pondering mysteries and a life of faith and prayer.
It’s everybody’s business not just monks and nuns. We are living in a kind of life which does facilitate it or should.
In the sense that it’s institutionalised in monasteries it is marginal, I think, and that’s okay because marginality has a function in any human set up I think. The prophets of Israel were a bit like that, like Jeremiah, standing a bit outside the ordinary run of human life at the time. But that was important. It was a sign intended by God to point to what he wanted to point to. That’s important and we perhaps have that role but at the same time we are at the heart of the mystical body. I certainly believe that. I think we’re all called by God in Christ and are much, much more closely related to one other, organically related as St Paul says. Equivalent he says. Much more closely than anything we can imagine - this closeness to Christ and to one another in Christ. Therefore there is a real sense that this life – the contemplative life – is right in the heart of the business. I couldn’t be here without it.
Contemplation is not floating around on Cloud Nine. Not at all. It’s hard slog much of the time. It’s the desert. But the desert is also something deep in the story of God’s people. The aloneness with God. The struggle. The barrenness. The poverty of all human means. Having nothing but God’s mercy and God’s will. That’s a very, very hard slog. It’s just slogging on in faith, in darkness, in the desert for much or even most of the time, But that’s classic. The desert is a definite part of the chosen people’s life and it’s always been in the Church as Jesus himself chose to go into the desert for a key period in his life.
There’s a real call or duty if you like to integrate spirituality and intellectual life. I keep thinking of that bit in the Gospel: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, thy whole soul and thy own mind and thy whole strength. The whole person including the mind. I think one might at a very stage be a bit schizophrenic about this, how to reconcile the scientific approach to theological matters or the scriptures with the traditional wisdom, the fathers, the church, the mystics, the mystical tradition. But that’s a stage. I think one has to grapple with that and find the way to integrate it in oneself. I believe in this very strongly because I think it’s part of the job of anyone who’s seriously living a life of prayer and who also has intellectual formation to make a unity in himself or herself. If occasion requires, they can help others to do the same. There’s an old monastic tag – contemplata traduea – to hand on the results or fruits of contemplation and that can mean many thing. One of the things it means to me is that if one can integrate these things in one self and meaningfully help others, speak to others about it, if required, that could be a modern form of this contemplata traduea ideal. That’s just a notion I have.
Searching and finding are all of a piece. God is supposed to have said to Pascal:’ You would not be seeking me unless you had already found me.’ I think this is very, very true for all of us. The idea of seeking God is a classic of course. St Benedict says it in the Rule about a newcomer is to be examined to see if he is really seeking God or seeking something else, some sort of other end. Basil Hume’s book which is much liked is called ‘Seeking God.’ It’s a lifelong search but at the same time you could not seeking unless you had in some way already found. God is infinitely beyond us, infinitely beyond us. We’ll never come to the end of God or think we’ve got him sorted out and taped. It’s not like that. Even in heaven, presumably, when we see Him face to face, I suppose we go on seeking. I don’t know. St Augustine ventures to say he thinks possibly we do so I’m in good company. But you seek and you find, and you find and you seek. And you never come to the end of God.
Easter has underpinned everything. I was clothed – received the habit – in Easter week 1948, made my first vows in Easter week 1949 and made my life vows in Easter week 1952. I have always felt this was like a gift from God that everything about my vocation has been obviously tied up into the paschal mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection. But it’s not just me. This is the main thing of the church’s life of every Christian’s life. I just feel it’s been stamped on mine in a special way.
The liturgy, the whole cycle, the repetitive celebration of Christ’s mysteries of redemption, from his birth, through to his public life, suffering, death, resurrection, glorification, sending of the Spirit. This unfolds in a sequence through the year. Because this mostly developed in the northern hemisphere it sings along with our natural cycles. The darkness of Advent and Christmas because it’s the darkest time when the birth of the light, the sun is reborn, and the days just begin to get longer after Christmas though you don’t notice it at first but you do by about the middle of January, and then of course Lent and Easter are in the spring when nature’s bursting out again in new life, life coming out of what seemed like death, and then into Pentecost and the fullness of summer, and harvest. It makes one appreciate the natural things that are following this, chiming in with it, keeping in tune with it in a special way. But I have also found that living this life for me is much more able to enjoy simple things. I have terrific pleasure out of the changing colours of the trees in autumn or the appearance of certain buds in the spring or looking at the first snowdrops which gets earlier and earlier. It used to February, now it’s January and even back in December because we get warmer and warmer which I don’t like. I love animals and they give me immense joy if I get in touch with them in any way, birds or whatever. This becomes more intense or fresh somehow as I get older and live life longer.
One makes mistakes the whole time, not only at the beginning either as a novice. You fall flat on your face over and over and over again. This is quite normal. One of things about community life is that we kind of carry each other in some kind of way. St Benedict talks near the end of the Rule about bearing one another’s weaknesses and there is a real sense that there is room to make mistakes and fail. That’s all right within the community. It’s the context in which one can. That’s great. This is not peculiar to monastics, of course, it’s everywhere, in families and all sorts of things. A loving environment is an environment in which you can make mistakes and learn from them.
Everything in our culture, the way it’s developed the last couple of hundred years, is so much geared to success, success in business, success in marriage, success in all sorts of enterprises. Failure is being written off. You’ve failed and that’s it. If you haven’t made it to the top by the time you’re 43 or whatever, then you’re a failure. This is so sad. There is room in Christian life for failing. The reason for that is, of course, that Jesus himself in a certain sense – in a certain sense I repeat that – did fail. If he was looking for a marvellous career of preaching and healing and teaching and more and more people coming to know the good news, it was cut very short. It was in the flower of youth more or less or early manhood. He failed and all his little band that he was gathering so carefully and preparing so carefully for their jobs all took to their heels and went. He was left alone. He had fallen apart in a terrible way. We tend to read the story backwards because we know about Easter and we think that’s all right because he was going to rise again on Easter Sunday But from his end as man it can’t have looked like that. In his human mind he must have felt that he failed. It was a terrible disaster at one sense at one level but the whole point of the story is that disaster, failure, was in God’s infinite plan the way in which he was going to redeem our failed world and did, of course, has, does. So failure can be used very constructively and creatively in human life if we unite it with the Cross.
There’s a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about the mess we make of the world and how we smear it, spoil it and make it dirty. There’s always this freshness, deep down thing, the Holy Spirit. Certainly we’re promised a new heaven and a new earth whatever that may mean. Scripture says so but we don’t know what it means. But we can think about it this way I think: Christ’s risen body, Christ’s risen human body and human mind are like the explosive, radioactive nucleus of the new world, the new creation, that all creation is already being redeemed in Him and will in the end be glorious in Him. All creation. Paul talks about it all groaning in travail and giving birth. We haven’t seen that new birth as yet but we see little bits of it I think. Teilhard de Chardin was like a prophet in some sort of way. I think he saw a great deal and did understand a lot about this creation of the new world and not only as some unimaginable distant thing but something we can contribute to now by our lives and our work and the way we honour beauty and so on.
The scriptures have been almost entirely my main spiritual influence. I’ve read other things but nothing comes anywhere near the scriptures for me. I’ve loved them and lived on them all these years and still do.
I think Stanbrook Abbey has meant for me generosity of spirit. There is a kind of breadth, kindness and generosity and outlook on people, acceptance of people, giving them space to be themselves, a lot of humour, and a kind of zest for life which is very marked, a kind of burst of creative energy all over the place which is very delightful.'
Dame Maria died in 2009. Her books include 'The Coming of God', 'The Gateway of Hope' and 'Gateway to Resurrection'.