J. Randall Ory
01 - How I Became a Contemplative
Updated: May 14, 2020
It all started…, well, how does anything start. It begins before we even realize it. Like a tiny pebble tossed in a lake, the ripples can reverberate through the water long after the pebble has hit the bottom. The moment I knew I was a contemplative was preceded by so many others leading up to that moment. But at least I can start with that moment, and work from there backwards, and forwards.
I remember it well. I was working in Houston Texas at the Children’s Hospital installing a massive system of LED lights along the outside concourse. Besides running my own small construction company, I also install LED and neon lighting in commercial settings with my brother-in-law. This particular job was a long, two-week undertaking, and one of the most grueling jobs I’ve ever done. We were a two-man crew, working off a lift installing lights in the ceiling, which meant we were constantly working over our heads. We were also required to work at night in order to stay out of the daily traffic of patients and staff. Needless to say, it was a tiring two weeks, and it was all I could do to survive. I was working nights, sleeping mornings, and spending my afternoons riding my bike and reading a Thomas Merton book. “What book” you ask? If you guessed that it was a book about contemplation, you’d be right. I was reading Merton’s book, “New Seeds of Contemplation.” But don’t think I became a contemplative by reading a book. That’s not how it works. Reading about the contemplative life simply confirmed what was already happening. And what was already happening, you ask, good question.
I grew up in church, and heard all my early life about being a good Christian. But in my twenties, I realized something profound. All my time in the house of the Christian Religion had only taught me theories about following Christ and knowing God. So, in a moment of clarity, I decided to leave that house and go looking for God, the real God that Christianity said was out there in the world, but which I had yet to experience for myself. It was that leaving, and going, that eventually led me to that two-week experience in Houston, nearly twenty years later. The twenty years in between were spent seeking real experiences of God, which is pretty much what a contemplative does, since we’re on the subject. But I didn’t know that for a long time. For a long time I was just trying to lean into the promises of the Christian religion, that Jesus was actually real, and that He wanted to live life with me, in a real and present way. And I’m not trying to criticize my own Christian upbringing. I’ve come to see just how hard it can be to take the theories of Christianity and really trying to live them out, especially when it comes to contact with a God that seems pretty unreachable at times. If I didn’t tell you there was a lot of frustration, doubt, and struggle in that journey, I wouldn’t be telling you the truth. But the one thing that kept me going was that I believed God was there, and that I could experience Him/Her myself. I don’t know why that belief never faltered in me, but it didn’t, and that’s how I came to be a contemplative.
If I didn’t already make it clear, a contemplative is someone who seeks to know God experientially. There are other words for that, of course, and other traditions which include the same basic idea and pursuit. It’s what every religion calls a mystic; someone who seeks, through contemplation, meditation, and mindfulness to know God. Knowing God also helps us know ourselves. The two go hand in hand. The idea is that, in learning to know and live under the reality of God, we will also by default come to know ourselves as well. Does that sound crazy? Maybe even absurd? But doesn’t it also affirm what we all know deep down, that we are not truly who we want to be, and that there is some kind of growth/journey that needs to take place in order to become who we truly are. And if there is that becoming, then there is also the idea that we start out not being fully who we are meant to be. It’s what the Christian religion calls the fall or "sin", but don’t get stuck in those words. The important truth is that we all must grow up, outgrow some things, and become more ourselves, somehow. You can think of it in lots of ways, including as a kind of personal evolution of the human spirit or soul. You don’t have to attach any religious language to it at all. Deep down, we all know that we want to be more, to be better. We don’t always know how to do that, or even what the end goal looks like, and that’s where contemplation comes into play. The end goal, for the contemplative, is getting back into contact with the life force of creation, in order to understand the original intent behind the created world. You can call that force God, Karma, Allah, Nirvana, Jehovah, The Spirit in the Sky, and many other things. The names don’t matter as much as the thing itself. That’s what contemplation teaches, and why it transcends the squabbles of petty religion and brings mystics from all traditions together in ways that transcend differing forms. Does that make sense? For contemplatives and mystics, the methods of coming to know God don’t matter as much as coming to know God. While many get stuck arguing over the right words describe God, mystics rise above all that to a space beyond words where knowing God becomes possible, and the relative language once used to describe God becomes unimportant and unnecessary. When you know the thing itself, what that is called becomes much less important. But describing it is not lost all together. That is why I’m sitting here doing just that. I’m attempting to tell you what it means to be a contemplative, because it's changed my life, and it can change yours too.
Sometimes the words we use can be helpful in this process. Sometimes they can be harmful, preventing the very thing they're attempting to do. I love how Jesus often called out the religious leaders of His day for this very thing. His strongest rebuke was against the Jewish religious teachers for using Judaism to promote their own power while keeping others from knowing God. A personal God, not personal power, was the point of Judaism. The Christian religion has had the same problems throughout its history as well, in case you were wondering. The danger of religion is fostering a relationship with words and rituals instead of a relationship with God. What many religious practitioners actually have is contact with forms and places in place of contact with God. Contemplation begins when we simply wake up to the idea that all we have are words and rituals, and that God is still out there somewhere beyond it all, waiting for us to let go and start moving towards Him/Her. That has been my journey.
I would say that most religious people are agnostic in practice, though without really knowing it. They rely on a religious institution to facilitate their relationship with God, while living life apart from God. I lived that way too, so I know. That's what I woke up to in my twenties, which put me on this path of becoming a contemplative. A contemplative is someone who recognizes the limitations of religious systems, and seeks to know the God they point to. These systems can be helpful, in as much as they inform us about the path and the objective. But they can also be harmful, when they become the objective instead of God. I’ve had to sort through my own religion in order to sort out the good from the bad. I never threw out Christianity as whole. I just began throwing out the things which weren’t in line with a true following of Christ, who stated clearly that His goal was to bring all people back into a relationship with God. Jesus taught that every person had the opportunity to know God. It’s what he called abiding, or communion. It's also what he called Oneness. It’s a kind of connection with God that is deeper than human connection. We live with other humans side by side. With God, Jesus said, we can actually live inside each other. This is what contemplatives call mystical union. That may sound strange, but it just means that we learn to live life in cooperation with God, directed by the divine like a parent teaching their child how to live. We can participate with God in a way that helps us know who we are, and how to live well. This is not just a generic kind of goodness. It’s actually tailored to each one of us, individually. God wants to speak to us in our every day lives, revealing in the process who we are and what we were made to do. A contemplative is someone who has entered into this process with God. It starts with the realization that we need direct contact with God. It continues by seeking that contact in a sustained, consistent way. It ends by actually achieving that contact, which is only the beginning of another journey. That journey is the rest of life lived with God. Sound crazy!! It does to me too, but I’m happy to say that I’ve become a crazy, contemplative mystic. How do I know? I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. But I feel like I’ve not done a very good job.
As you can begin to see, being a contemplative is not easy or simple, to live or explain. When I read Merton's book about the contemplative life, that week in Houston, it merely confirmed the twenty year journey I’d already been on. Towards the end of the book, I clearly heard God tell me, “you are a contemplative.” And that’s what makes a contemplative, not only that God confirms it, but that you are able to hear when he/she does. And if you haven’t guessed it already, getting to that place takes a long time and a lot of struggle. But the main thing I want you to know, for now, is that it’s possible. I also want to spend some time helping you understand how to know God as a contemplative. That’s why I’m starting this whole venture. I realize this is just an introduction. Or maybe an introduction to the introduction. There’s a lot more to say, and a lot more to know. I hope you’ll stay with me as I attempt to make this more clear. Are you are contemplative? Do you want to be? There's only one way to find out.