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Monday, April 9, 2018

The Contemplative Mind



It was an ordinary weekday Mass.  There were about 20-30 people in attendance, most of whom, I’m guessing, were on their lunch break.  In the front pew there sat a mother with a young boy.  As I walked past them on my way to the altar, the young boy’s face grew mesmerized as he looked at my vestments.  “Wow mommy,” he said, as I got closer, “check out his clothes!”  I laughed to myself and winked at him as I walked by.  

The Mass proceeded as usual.  After I read the Gospel, I began to give a short homily.  “Mommy, who is that man in the painting?” the young boy cried out.  Everyone, including myself, smiled and we all shared a brief moment of laughter.  The painting this boy was inquiring about was an image of St. Francis praying in a cave, hanging on the wall directly to the left from their pew.  Despite everyone’s good sense of humor at what had occurred, the boy’s mother appeared mortified.

Immediately after Mass she came running towards me.  “Father, I’m so sorry my son interrupted your homily,” she said, with a panicked look on her face.  I introduced myself and assured her there was nothing to apologize for.  I looked down at the boy.  He was staring wide-eyed at the painting in the sacristy of the Last Supper.  I bent down and asked him, “What do you think of that painting?”  “Wow,” he said.  Smiling back at him I said, “Yes, I agree.”

Jesus says in the Gospel,  “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Children approach life more as a mystery than as a problem that needs to be solved.  They are usually curious and receptive to reality in all its wonder.  They are keenly aware that there is more beyond what they can perceive.  Hence, the reason I believe, children are the happiest group of people.  Unlike us adults, they are not stuck in their minds.  They live on the level of what I like to call, a “contemplative mind.”  

For most of us adults, however, reality is only what our thoughts and senses perceive.  In the face of tragedy, for example, many people will conclude there is no God.  What their minds and senses are faced with appears to contradict this possibility.  How could a loving God allow this, they ask?  Their logic is consistent; however, it is limited by their own minds, or what I like to call our “thinking minds.”    

St. Paul writes, “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal(2 Corinthians 4:18).  What St. Paul is contrasting here, I believe, is the difference between the thinking mind and the contemplative mind.  The first, he reminds us, is limited, while the second peers into eternity.    

As long as we live in this world our thinking minds serve a necessary function: they remind us of the extraordinary gap that exists between what our minds can comprehend and what actually exists.  After Job has asked God a series of questions from his thinking mind, God responds, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)  This response, though humbling, is not meant to discredit Job’s questions, but to remind him that he stands before the Eternal and Infinite One, and not a finite creature like himself created from the dust of the earth.    

Shortly after I entered religious life at age 23, a wise monk told me, “God is like the air, completely available, yet once we try to grasp at it, it is gone.”  At the time, I was not able to understand his point because I was convinced I understood God.  Many years later, I can honestly say that I still do not understand completely, but thankfully, there are children to remind me that I don’t have to.