Reflections on Openness, Contemplation, and Love

Today’s post is by Tom Adams

I was eager to attend the Gerald May Seminar on the Compassion of the Mystics with Bernard McGinn. Since embracing the practice of centering prayer a couple of years ago, my interest in love and how love grows has been front and center. I figured compassion and love were cousins and that this would be a great day of exploring how I and we relate to the “Other,” Big Spirit, God however named and how that relationship deepens love and the desire to love.

Not surprisingly, my notion of what and how that learning would happen was much different from what happened. The big take away was the reminder that God is unknowable and therefore unpredictable. Dr. McGinn smiled as he acknowledged the frustration of desiring to be with God and to know God and the impossibility of that desire. It seems I cannot predict how God will show up at any given time and certainly cannot fully know God. That was quite evident at this workshop!

While a surprise to me, I suspect it was not a surprise to all that God was moving in a lot of different ways throughout the seminar. I was very focused on the word “compassion” in the title of the seminar.  I was expecting a direct conversation on the link between being present to God and compassion for others.

In writing for children, new writers are challenged to show and not tell. As adult writers for children, we may want to explain our wisdom directly. Learning is experiential, so showing makes it more real. This was a show, don’t tell seminar!

As I reflected on why I did not hear the word compassion that often on Saturday, I realized what I heard was the fruits of being with God in loving actions. And that by most definitions is compassion. In one summary comment, Dr. McGinn suggested that contemplation and mysticism are interchangeable terms. They happen not just in graced moments, but in the content of our life. He suggested that contemplation takes over our whole being—inner and outer—and influences our love and conscious decisions.

The seminar was rich in details about a host of mystics.  In my search for the link to compassion, I realized that every example of a mystic was a person who took actions that widened the circle of love and compassion in their day.

Theresa of Avila was for me the most powerful example. Described by Dr. McGinn as a “mediocre nun” for twenty years, before being “compelled” by her deepening relation with God to lead the reformation of the Carmelites. John of the Cross, in his imprisonment, reached deep in his darkness and feeling of separation from God to write his love song, The Spiritual Canticle.

I was struck by how it took time, often decades, for this deepening desire for God to take fruit in action as well as how oppression, darkness and feeling separate from God often was the catalyst for deepening faith and hope. This faith and hope led to deepening compassion. I felt confirmed in my own slow journey and spiritual growth spurts in dark times by these reflections.

The May seminar reinforced for me the futility of believing there is some set of practices and ways of being that guarantee success in the spiritual life. Because we cannot know God, we cannot know where our own path with God will lead. If we cannot know our own path, it is indeed a misguided notion to presume we have any knowledge about someone else’s path.

At lunch, I was part of a lively discussion about whether recovering alcoholics ought to rely more on God and less on AA meetings. It wasn’t said exactly that way but it was a message I had heard before and as a long-time Twelve Step member, it stirred some feelings. Ultimately each person makes their own peace with God and their personal crosses or separating habits.

As I reflected on this discussion, I realized the same compassion I desired for the recovering alcoholic’s recovery path is due others on their journey with and towards God. I have no idea what someone else needs or how he or she can best experience oneness with some power beyond us all. There is no magical practice. There is a desire and openness to exploring how to best respond to this desire. And in accepting the universal availability and many faces of love, I grow in compassion. Saturday’s seminar was rich with lessons on how “every day contemplation” is a proven path for deepening that desire to love. Openness and attentiveness to God’s stirrings is full of surprises and ultimately a growing compassion for self and others.

Want to listen to Bernard McGinn’s Friday night lecture? Tune in to “The Compassion of the Mystics” from this year’s Gerald May Seminar: Click here to access audio.

November 11, 2018 by Tom Adams
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