Have you ever been driving and suddenly realize you don’t remember driving the past few minutes? You think, where was I? Or, maybe you have been hearing someone but not really listening to them, your mind being preoccupied with something totally different? It seems that there are times when it is difficult for our minds to be in the here and now. We tend to get lost in thought, daydream, or just plain get distracted on a regular basis. It can feel like we’re somewhere else, not fully awake to the moment. Spiritual authors of all kinds are quick to tell us that we sleepwalk through life.
God uses many experiences in life to rouse us from this sleep. God intends to wake us up so we pay attention to the great gift being offered to us: the divine life. Such is the case with today’s feast of the Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” means a showing. Mary and Joseph show the Christ child to the Magi who have been seeking him out by following a star. The story symbolizes God using Jesus Christ as the great awakening. Christ is God saying to all humanity – as represented by the Magi – “Get up! Wake up! It’s morning and time to get out of bed!” Sometimes God employs an annoying coworker, or a beggar on the side of the road, or a simple desire to be quiet and pray. All are epiphanies, God trying to grab our attention with varying degrees of obviousness.
Through various epiphanies God wakes us up from our dreamlike state to face reality. However, we resist. We have a propensity not to be so enamored with reality. We prefer fantasy. We find it easier to live automatically and not needing to pay attention to what’s going on. Reality can be hard to accept. Our illusions seem so much more comforting and entertaining. Sleepwalking through life allows us to manage reality so not too much gets in and we can go about the business of our day. Still, we miss out on the joy of divine life right here and now.
Epiphany is the feast that calls all Christians to become contemplatives. This is no esoteric thing, however. Being contemplative simply means being awake to reality. The contemplative accepts The Reality: God. The contemplative simply opens up to God and lets God be the center of life. The contemplative journey, then, is a matter of awakening to the God who is within us and all things. We are already one with God but we have not yet fully integrated this deepest dimension of our identity with the rest of our lives. We think we’re separate from God. So, we need to allow our oneness with the mystery of God to become radically and insuppressibly real for us. We do this through a practice of meditation or, as the ancients called it, contemplative prayer.
Contemplative prayer has to do with awakening to the incomprehensible mystery of God within us, one with us. It is rising from the sleepiness of self-preoccupation, and even from self as the fixed point of reference. God becomes the reference for everything in life, not one’s own ego with all its opinions, hurts, and its skewed view of reality. Rather than living in ego, the contemplative lives in God, and God just Is. So, the one practicing contemplative prayer does so by just being, by simply accepting The One Who Is. Just to be is to be in Reality as It Is.
What often gets in the way of seeing reality is what goes on between our ears, which is our thinking. We cannot think our way into an intimate relationship with God. Because God is mystery, God escapes our thinking. Thinking can be a portal into God, but it often becomes the only way we approach God. When we think about God, we end up experiencing God as some “thing” out there, in the far-off heavens above. Thoughts about God make God appear, as St. Theophan the Recluse says, “outside you.” Contemplative prayer has to do with knowing God within you as well as beyond you. Theophan is but one of a horde of holy people who testify that thinking about God is a difficulty if you want to be one with God. He and others suggest unknowing: communing with God beyond the thinking mind in a loving state of interior silence. That is contemplative prayer.
Meister Eckhart offers another metaphor: “The sun never stops shining; but if there is a cloud or mist between us and the sun, we are not aware that it is shining.” Just so, we are always already one with God but often not aware of it because we are so preoccupied with our self-talk. Christmas, the feast of the incarnation, means God is always already one with you! God is one with each of us, here and now, closer than we could possibly imagine. Still, we don’t perceive the truth because of all our interior noise, just as clouds block out sunlight. Being a contemplative just means waiting for the clouds to disappear so as to enjoy the sun. We just be and eventually the clouds, all our inner noise, disappear. In this way we awaken to the divine life within and are transformed. Through contemplative prayer we change, and the difference is like the difference between being asleep and being awake. It is a wholly new consciousness, which is free of the traps of fantasy and able to enjoy That Which Is.