Contemplation and Knowing

Woe to you lawyers! You have taken the key of knowledge. You do not enter yourselves, and you close out those trying to enter.

Luke 11: 52

Jesus’ charge against the “lawyers,” the “scholars of the law,” is that they are not only mired in their own ignorance but that they also exert effort to keep others from knowing and understanding the truth. What Jesus is speaking of is a phenomenon known to any who study and work in any academic setting. Places ostensibly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the truth far too often become constricted worlds of petty competition and arrogant self-assertion. Instead of actually leading out of students their unique access to the truth, teachers far too often seek to make themselves and their understanding the standard of the truth.

If this caricature is a bit extreme, it is still recognizable as illustrating how seriously each of us takes our own perspective as the summit of understanding. Such intellectual arrogance is not limited merely to academic settings. It is our tendency to take our own point of view far too seriously that accounts for the great difficulty we have in discovering alone and together new directions for our lives and new responses to the situations that confront us. It is our largely unconscious pride and arrogance that stifles our individual and communal search for the truth.

Some years ago, I was part of a Congregational committee on formation. Typically there is little that most of us dread more than committee meetings. Yet, the experience of almost all of us in that group was one of deepened life, growth and insight. Our consistent experience as a group was that the outcomes of our sessions would be a direction or a result that none of us could have anticipated in advance. The buoyancy and life we felt as a result was due to the shared experience of coming as a group to an insight and a shared direction that was unknown to any one of us before we had come together. It was one of those rare life experiences where the outcome was not the product of any person’s bias or agenda or previous understanding, but was rather something truly new that emerged from the shared discernment of the entire group. This was a true experience of what Pope Francis calls “the culture of encounter.”

Such an experience can only happen when no member of the group is actively impeding it. It requires at once a willingness on the part of each member to offer to all the others whatever current insight and understanding he or she has, and, at the same time, a detachment from any pre-ordained result. It is a generosity of spirit, to offer all one has to offer, but then to let it go and to attentively listen in openness of mind and spirit to what each of the other members of the group offers. Letting go of what we are sure we know allows us to hear what others say in a much more receptive and discerning way. It allows us to be affected in mind and heart by the differing insights of the others.

As there is no good teaching without allowing oneself to enter into a true inter-formation with one’s students, truly open group discernment is impossible without a willingness not only to give form to the group but to receive form from it. If we are listening competitively and constantly preparing our rebuttal to what others say, we shall never hear the truth at the depth of their utterances.

So, what is it about these “scholars of the law” who do not behave at all like real students or teachers, and what is it about us when we behave like them. Why would any of us “take the key of knowledge” so that we don’t enter into knowledge ourselves and also keep others from entering?  Our entire intellectual tradition is constantly reminding us that the truly wise person is one who realizes how little she or he actually knows. All we grasp and understand is but a grain of sand in the mystery that is the universe. Within the past couple of days, astronomers have, for the first time, been able to witness the collision of two neutron stars from 130 million light years away. That is, what was just witnessed occurred 130 million years ago. Such an experience is a humbling and powerful reminder of how little of our world and universe and beyond our very limited intelligence can begin to understand. This reality is not only beyond the realm of our common understanding but also, potentially, frightening.

We lock ourselves and others out of the realm of knowledge because to come to the truth requires that we reckon with death and mystery. The ultimate goal of all that we learn, of all the ways that we develop, of all that we come to know and have in life is what Adrian van Kaam calls “appreciative abandonment to the Mystery.” In light of the colliding of stars that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago, what is the significance of our assertion of power and wealth?  What is the truth of our absolutized doctrine and dogma?  What is our paltry claim to absolute truth?

Jesus tells us: “If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 31-2). To make the word our home means to become at home in the Mystery. It is to live, not  in the constricted world of endless, meaningless, and banal repetition, but rather to “touch” and then to abandon ourselves in appreciation and trust to the Mystery of all that is. It is to receive our very minute place in that Mystery with trust, gratitude and love.

It is by contemplation and abandonment that we come to know our true place. Yet, so often we prefer the constricted lives we create with our own minds. We would want to support our own sense of reality by taking the key of knowledge so that others will not discover and so remind us of a truth that is greater than ours. It is in contemplation that we open our small and vulnerable selves to things as they are, to that world that always seems to be too much for us. Our so-called “activist” side likes to ridicule meditation and contemplation as passive and withdrawn from what we call reality because we lack the courage to enter a world that is beyond our domination. Yet, it is only by abandoning ourselves in trust to the Mystery that we can come to know, in the deepest sense, its truth.

It is precisely this fear of entering a world that we cannot manage and control that makes shared or group discernment so difficult. Most often we are unaware that when we are engaged in working together we are trying to hold for ourselves the key of knowledge. We fear that if we give all that we have over to the group and enter into a place with an unknown outcome, that we shall merely lose ourselves in the process, that all we hold dear and truly believe will come to naught. It is this holding on that inhibits the possibility of the Mystery’s, the Spirit’s bringing forth new life.

If we can abandon our thoughts, our convictions, and ourselves to the Mystery with trust and appreciation, we may discover what some of us did those years ago when, to our amazement, what emerged from the work of all of us was so different and so much more than what any single one of us had previously thought and grasped. There is more than a little of the “lawyer” or “the scholar of the law” in each of us. The more we can quiet the fears that lead to our intellectual arrogance, the more we can become servants of the Mystery in our lives and the more discerningly we shall work together.

The contemplative’s experience also brings a knowledge of the right ordering of things, justice. In knowing justice, the contemplative thus knows much about God, for God is Justice itself. The contemplative kiss thus conveys knowledge of the moral order of things, the possession of which brings the contemplative wisdom.

There is another place, from which God, the just judge watches secretly and strictly over his rational creatures, whether reprobate or unmoved. . . . Do not be surprised that I have assigned the beginning of wisdom precisely to this place and not to the first. For there [in that first place] we  hear our mistress, Wisdom, teaching all things as if in a lecture hall; here we receive her within us. There we are indeed instructed, but here we are affected. The instruction makes us learned; affective experience makes us wise.

John R. Sommerfeldt, Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Life of the Mind, p. 25

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