Conversatio Divina

Coffee and Contemplation

Glandion Carney

My favorite definition of contemplation is “the act of viewing steadfastly and attentively—as a piece of art for its own sake.” When we leave an art museum, having contemplated great art, we see life differently. Viewing art steadfastly and attentively affects us.

When we contemplate the God of the universe, greater than ourselves and our lives, we are also changed—touched by God’s grace. But why do we need to contemplate God? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we either contemplate God, or we contemplate other issues, passions, or problems. We need God’s view of ourselves and of the world, or the distractions, temptations, and pressures of life will keep us from God, keep us self-centered and self-absorbed. Somewhere deep inside, we know our need to take time, sometimes several times a day, to focus on God and turn ourselves back in God’s direction, to ask for his mercy and guidance, for his view of the world.

Gazing on God, contemplating him, is a nice idea, something, as Christians, we would like to do, but it is not an easy discipline. In time, we may find that though we like the idea of contemplation and know our lives are enriched, blessed, and calmed by it, we don’t look forward to our devotional time. Contemplation becomes something we want to have done.

The early Christians who fled to the desert to escape the ease of life after Constantine faced this. It was a new foe, which they named the noonday temptation. We call it boredom—a major hindrance to spirituality in our contemporary world. We want to be entertained, amused, distracted from the realities of life that are tedious, burdensome, and boring. But we discover that when we face our realities and bring God into the mundane, we experience his blessing and his help in living truly Christian lives.

Gazing on God is a choice. The days I don’t choose properly are my most difficult days. Sometimes I choose to contemplate God morning, noon, and night, to regroup in his divine presence. I can have a great devotional hour in the morning, then drift. Then I need to reorient at noon. In general, though, I try to maintain a regular rhythm of conversations with God.

01.  God in the Routines: Celtic Christian Prayer

The early Celtic Christians handed down a prayer tradition of including God in everyday routines. Here is a short example:

 

Covering the Fire

Lord, preserve the fire
as Christ preserves us all.

Lord, may its warmth remain in our midst,
as Christ is always among us.

Lord may it rise to life in the morning
as we shall rise with Christ to eternal life.Robert Van de Weyer, Celtic Prayers (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 26.

 

We no longer kindle fires or milk cows or do many of the things reflected in Celtic prayers. But we can create prayer around contemporary life. I can look at the phone after conversing with a friend and ask God’s blessing on her day. I can look at a photograph of a past time and thank God for the person who is pictured there and pray for his well-being.

A modern Celtic prayer can encompass a ride on an escalator or a trip to the city:

 

Traveler’s Prayer

In our journeying this day,
Keep us, Father, in your way.

In seeking of a vision true,
Keep us, Savior, close to you,

In our desire to do your will,
Keep us, Spirit, guide us still

In our striving to be free,
Keep and help us, Blest Trinity.David Adam, “The City,” Power Lines: Celtic Prayers About Work (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000), 35.

 

A friend offered this practical and poetic prayer for a common daily routine:

As I brew this coffee to warm and waken my body,
Send your Spirit, oh Lord,

To warm and waken my soul.

 

We can see routines as sacred and value them as opportunities to turn our face once again to the Giver of Life, incorporating God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into them.

One Saturday, when Marian, my wife, and I had our grandchildren with us, the morning was already noisier than usual, the kids bouncing around earlier that we would have liked. Suddenly Marian screamed because the dog had bitten her. She ran into the bathroom, frightened and panicking. A little later, the toilet overflowed. I had to call a friend and reschedule a morning appointment so I could address the crisis. It was not a very contemplative beginning to the day.

But by the end of the day, the crisis had passed, and I had settled once again into the normal rhythm of life. Three things highlighted the day: the rescheduled conversation with my friend, a glass of wine with Marian out on our deck, and a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the day. The crisis, though it shattered the morning’s peace, did not destroy the day because there was a normal rhythm that I could quickly fall back on.  The structure of most of my day did not suffer. It upheld me. Since all of my life is not chaos, the chaos of a few hours could be handled, and life brought back to normal with the habitual rhythms.

Those habits can include, two or three days a week, sitting down with coffee and joining a conversation that has been going on forever among the three persons of the Holy Trinity. They have been submitting themselves to one another in love forever. As we enter the conversation through contemplative prayer, the Holy Trinity, without ceasing ongoing conversation or activity, turns attention to us. The invitation to join that conversation comes to me from John 15:15, where Jesus calls his disciples friends, not servants. I am a friend of Christ and of his Father. At the end of the chapter, in verse 26, Jesus promises the coming of the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, completing the Trinity. To assist me as I join the divine conversation, I place Rublyev’s famous icon of the Trinity in front of me and accept the invitation of Christ the Son to join with the Father and the Holy Spirit in prayer. Then, focused on the Three/the One, I begin to gaze on Him, committing my day to Him.

I am no expert on this subject, just a Christian brother, a fellow traveler, for whom contemplative prayer is still rather new. I see more and more clearly the murkiness and duplicity of my own soul, and still desire to resolve my condition. That also is the work of the Trinity, a result of a human being entering into the divine conversation. When I am most aware of my weakness, I can only breathe the ancient prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Incrementally, old things are changing; my inner person is being renewed, and I am being converted as I have these conversations over and over.

At this point in my life, I’m grateful that my prayers no longer focus on God fixing me, though I still need renewal. Rather, I long to join Him in His redemptive work in the world. I ask Him to teach me to pray for the powerless, the broken, and the persecuted. I am no longer content with just fixing myself.

02.  Active and Passive

Contemplative prayer, as I see it, can be either passive or active. In the active mode, we journal, possibly use a prayer list, read a particular book, use a prayer book, and concentrate as we listen for the Holy Spirit to speak to us.

In a more passive mode, we simply allow the Holy Spirit to bring thoughts and observations to us. We can sit on a park bench, take a walk, or sip coffee in Starbucks. If we are waiting for God in any of these circumstances, as we wait, he can impress us to pray for a homeless person who wanders into the shop and be thankful for our own blessings; to feel the breeze or sun on our face and acknowledge the creator who is responsible; to smile at the antics of a young child and recognize the image of God in him, and reflect on the original Image. We need those passive times. But the active, intentional times are what keep us on track and allow us to recover after a chaotic morning.

One of my friends was born in Nigeria of missionary parents. She described to me how hard life sometimes was on the stations where her family lived. At one point, there was hardly enough food and water, and her father had to dig six wells on the compound. Long after they had resumed life in the United States, he would sometimes comment wistfully about how, in Africa, the end of the day was really the end of the day. No electric lights, no radio or television. The day was over, and it was quiet. He missed that. She also remembers getting up early and finding Mom and Dad on their knees praying before beginning another day (a habit they continued until their deaths).

Loving the beginning and end of the day, the time to be with God comes as we practice contemplation. The discipline of intentionally accepting from Him a new day and committing it to Him, of accepting the end of work and activity at day’s end and commending it to God, and of consciously yielding ourselves to his care as we sleep may at times seem tedious and boring. But as we make the commitment to gaze on him morning, noon, and night, trusting that as we are faithful, we will grow in our relationship with the Holy Trinity, we may come to delight in our conversations with Him, discovering there is nothing or no one better to look at and think about.

Gazing on God is a choice. The days I don’t choose properly are my most difficult days. Sometimes I choose to contemplate God morning, noon and night, to regroup in his divine presence. I can have a great devotional hour in the morning, then drift. Then I need to reorient at noon. In general, though, I try to maintain a regular rhythm of conversations with God.

Contemplative prayer needs to be practiced and to become a practice. Only then will it bring the serenity to our lives that we crave, and, with the help of the other disciplines and sacraments, make us into the image of Christ. Contemplation can and should occur in routines of daily life. To illustrate this point, I’ll close with a practical and contemplative poem from my dear friend Richard Foster:

 

A Prayer at Coffee Time

Somehow, Jesus, I like praying with a cup of coffee in my hands.
I guess the warmth of the cup settles me and speaks to the warmth of your love.
I hold the cup against my cheek and listen, hushed and still.
I blow on the coffee and drink.
O Spirit of God, blow across my life and let me drink in your great Life.
Amen.

 

Often, I will allow the coffee to determine the length of my prayer time. When the coffee is gone, I am ready to turn my attention to the tasks of the day.Richard Foster, Prayers from the Heart. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 44.

Footnotes

Glandion Carney: With a diverse background in ministry, Glandion Carney felt compelled to start Centrepoint: A Community for Spiritual Formation in 1995. Presently he serves as senior chaplain for the Christian Legal Society and consults with groups seeking to be more intentional about spiritual formation. He has coauthored four books and written three, including Heaven Within These Walls and Missing Peace. Glandion and Marion live in Birmingham, Alabama.