If there is anything characteristic of modern life, it is our unending sense of busy-ness. I find myself stating far too often that ‘I have been so busy lately,’ and most of those I talk to can easily commiserate. We fashion our lives around the things we do and the tasks we must complete, a system in which efficiency can easily become the measure of man.
Of course, we tend to imagine that our busy-ness has some measure of importance, and we rationalize our ceaseless activity by ushering many of our decisions under the category of the practical; what difference does something make, unless it has some measure of utility?
The insidious nature of our constant movement is that we can begin to see anything without utility as not worthwhile, and if we are far enough gone we feel so uncomfortable with just existing that we don’t know what to do with ourselves unless we are stretched to the limit.
Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to pursue a robust spirituality under these kinds of conditions. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying. We have parceled up the scriptures into sound bytes, crafted reading plans to get through the whole of it, and even created best practices that specify amounts of time we should be spending in prayer or in study or in doing something.
But like trying to stuff a square peg into a circular whole, after enough force you begin to lose the corners and end up with only a badly mangled smoothed down square. There are simply some aspects of the spiritual life that must remain antithetical to being busy, and in the end one or the other has to give.
Over the past few months I have been doing some more reading, and nearly every book I have perused is about Trinitarian theology. I must admit that I am strongly interested in the subject, even though that hasn’t always been the case. But one thing I have noticed about the Trinity is that there seems to be this perception- even among (and perhaps especially among) Christians- that the Trinitarian dogmas, whatever their veracity, are not terribly practical.
To be sure, this is an attitude I used to share. And there is some truth to it, I suppose, for such an esoteric doctrine seems to have little utilitarian import. In my training in pastoral ministry our sermons needed to have some kind of practical application, because we love practical applications. You know, something concrete you can do, some solid steps to take to do something.
But over the course of my readings of Christian spirituality throughout its history, the notion that doctrine or homiletics needs to have utility as a primary concern is not only foreign, but would probably have earned some well deserved confusion. Utility and practicality are somewhat modern constructs, as earlier ages had a different hierarchy of values.
I was reading through St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, and in the course of his arguing for the consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father (surely not practical doctrines!) he hit upon this notion of utility, and how there was a higher and better path- that of contemplation.
When moderns think of contemplation they tend to think about thinking about something, which while somewhat true nevertheless carries with it the modern connotation of boredom. After all, if you’re just sitting there thinking about something you’re not really doing anything, and we can’t have that, now can we?
But contemplation within the historic Christian contemplative tradition is no mere passive thinking; it is more akin to taking in a work of art and being so enraptured by it that one feels as if one has union with the artist’s conception; it is, in some sense, to be overtaken by beauty, so much so that any activity, rather than adding to the experience, would actually detract since doing so would admit that the object of affection does not satisfy the desires of the one desiring. It is in this sense that contemplation is in some way to rest in the object of one’s affection, to attain it and have union with it to such an extent that one’s desire is satisfied and longings fulfilled.
St. Augustine turns his attention to the story in the Gospels of Mary and Martha when Jesus comes into their house. As will be remembered, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet in contemplation while Martha is up and about, doing the work of entertaining and keeping the house. When she sees Mary lost in contemplation- being oh so impractical- she complains to Jesus that her sister is not helping her. But Jesus’ response is instructive:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38 NIV)
In truth, many of us would probably be inclined to take Martha’s side, and even if we didn’t say so our actions would no doubt prove it true. And that is not to say that doing things is bad or out of place; rather, it is a good which will one day give way to something better, as St. Augustine explains:
There was Martha her sister, busy doing what had to be done—activity which though good and useful is going to end one day and give place to rest. She, meanwhile, was already taking her rest in the word of the Lord. So when Martha complained that her sister was not helping her, the Lord replied Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her (Lk 10:38). He did not call what Martha was doing a bad part, but this which shall not be taken away he called the best part. For the part which is played in ministering to need will be taken away when need comes to an end, and in fact the reward of good works that are going to come to an end is a rest that will endure. (De Trinitate p 83)
Mary’s contemplation of Jesus demonstrates that contemplation is actually quite practical, for if something is a great good than it is worth doing, even if it is not exactly ‘doing’ as we usually consider ‘doing.’ Martha’s actions were good as well, but the utilitarian things that we must do as a part of this life are not ends in themselves but are rather, as St. Augustine reminds us, simply a preparation for the greater good of contemplation.
Contemplation, after all, is a union with God, and since union with God is something for which we were created and which is our final end, contemplation of God is the actual purpose of our existence. And while in this life contemplation can take a lot of work, it is in the end a form of rest, for in it we attain the vision and contemplation of God for which we are made and destined. In fact, the state of the blessed in heaven is termed the Beatific Vision for this very reason, as St. Augustine continues:
In that contemplation, then, God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28), because nothing further will be desired of him; to be illumined and rejoiced by him will be enough. (ibid.)
In this life we can only glimpse God through a glass darkly, as St. Paul says, but beyond this vale of tears we will eventually see God face to face. In this mortal coil we long for many things, and our appetites and desires are always left unfulfilled, unseated no matter how much we gorge ourselves on the pleasures of this life. This aching emptiness inside of us will be satisfied by nothing less than God himself, and when the scales of our eyes finally fall away we will see the vision we have been squinting to see for so long.
To be free from the longing, to be liberated from the gnawing desire for what we cannot attain in this life could be nothing less than eternal rest itself. Moderns may be terrified by the idea of the Beatific Vision and eternal rest simply because it gives our starved spirits a sense of boredom, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the eyes in a dark cave must strain and squint to see the tiniest gleam of light, so finally weakling out into the illumination of the all encompassing sun is a relief, for now the eyes can finally take in the beauty of the world in all its color and life as they were meant to do.
In this light, the seemingly impractical Trinitarian dogmas are seen as anything but. After all, this revelation affords us a glimpse, howsoever slight, into the very inner life of God himself, which is a foretaste of the Beatific Vision in all its unending delight. To think and contemplate upon such a mystery is thus to begin to ascend to the heights for which we were created, to partake in some slight sense of the joy to be exulted in when we find the object of beauty which will so enrapture us that we will desire nothing else, for we will possess God insofar as he possesses us.
So work hard like Martha, but make sure to simply delight in Jesus like Mary, for all our striving is meant to eventually give way to rest, as Jesus promised in the context of divulging the Trinitarian mystery:
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:27-29 NIV)