Friday, June 3, 2011

Contemplative Life

From the vast continents of ordinary life, the contemplative variety appears quite close to what here I call the borderzone—the edge of a flat earth, as it were, where the great chasm of eternity suddenly appears. Contemplatives? They are religious—and not merely nuns or monks or priests or bishops or abbots and abbesses. Such people, to the extent they live an active life, are not living the contemplative (or so it’s said). And certainly not laymen. And least of all the married.

But concepts like that, concepts like the contemplative life, do sprout near the borderzone—and not just within Catholicism—and if we look at them closely, they turn out to mean something other than they signal to the uninterested public. The concept of jihad comes to mind; by that we understand anything from Holy War to terrorism, but to the pious at the core of Islam, the word means spiritual struggle. All right. If you think me a propagandist for Al Qaida, that’ll be my jihad to live down. Or let us take the Buddhist concept of nirvana, defined as extinction, disappearance, the state of being blown-out, like a candle. The Online Etymology dictionary helpfully Latinizes the word as de-spiration—all life sucked out of you. And that is the “pearl of great price” the Buddhists seek? Nothingness? Well, “contemplative life” and “nirvana” are similar in this sense: to most people they suggest something negative, to others something of the greatest value. But to get the second meaning, one has to unfold the concept.

Perhaps the simplest way to approach this is to call contemplative life soul life or inner life. Now the problem is that a certain special way of seeing reality hides beneath these phrases. That way is a hierarchical conception of our dual nature in which the physical, hormonal, outer, and social are at the lower and a corresponding spiritual, empathic, intuitive, and communal are the higher level. And then the contemplative life is minimally defined as one where more of our being takes place inwardly, in the soul, than takes place outwardly, in the body, in the world. It’s as simple as that; but it is difficult because it takes gradual development even to tease these two realms apart enough to recognize that they each have a separate and real existence.

Let me illustrate this by examining words like mental (often associated with contemplation) and emotional (linked to the physical). By mental people mean conceptual, intellectual. By emotional they mean the heat we feel in the chest from anger or joy: the breath increases; you feel it, it moves you. The contemplation of an infinite regress or the square root of minus-one do not, by contrast, have any emotional toning (except for Brigitte, who invariably expresses her disgust!) Now let’s proceed to sort these concepts out.

First of all the mental is much more than merely concept juggling. It includes within it what we call consciousness, the definition of which I leave to those foolhardy enough to try and inevitably to fail. It includes the mysterious will—which is something other than reflexive action. It includes imagination, a faculty I do not (like Aquinas) associate with the lower realm. It does include intellect—which we do not find in the body-machine. It also includes the experience of being drawn toward some and repelled from other things—visible and invisible. Empathy and apathy: the real sources of emotion. That the body should immediately respond when we feel these things by mirroring the soul’s movements by hormonal discharges (hence the heat and the breathing) merely confirms the close linkage between soul and body, not that emotions are physical. The few that genuinely are are also merely reflexes we have in common with all animals. Thus I am absolutely sure that a disembodied soul will have emotions—and that emotions are not, repeat not, grounded in the sensorium.

The reader who nods reading this will do so from experience—thus because his or her inner life has developed its autonomy enough to have noted these two realms, their hierarchical relationship, and their potential independence. For someone like that, the suggestion that the contemplative life is real, outside of temples and cloisters too, will not be surprising—even if she or he is more accustomed to think of it as the creative life.

No comments:

Post a Comment