City Lights

The 20th century has been a time of epic violence—more than 125 million people died violently in the past 100 years. Perhaps it is out of this terrible carnage and suffering that a new level of deep prayer has welled up in ordinary people.

Traditionally, spirituality and contemplation have been for monasteries and convents, for monks and nuns. Yet Jesus was not a monk. He never lived in a monastery. He chose to live in the midst of people. He wept over his city. He wept with those who grieved. Jesus was a contemplative in the midst of the poor. He dared invite us, "Follow me."

Does a Statue Carve Itself?
We do not make contemplatives of ourselves any more than a statue carves itself out of stone. We are drawn into contemplation little by little as we learn to listen more deeply, become more attentive, and grow more sensitive to the Spirit's prayer abiding and moving within us. Contemplation is not just a way of praying but a way of being. It is a way of seeing, touching, hoping, believing, responding, living.

A contemplative believes that eternal life is to know the one true God. A contemplative knows the Beatitudes are the path of contemplation and is ready to be counted among the poor, the crippled, the lame, and all the discards of society. The contemplative asks, "Do I welcome each person as God would welcome this one?"

The presence of Jesus in us is a compelling force and power. This is the ultimate God-shock—that we are in Christ, that he is in us. Paul, in his letters, uses this expression more than 100 times. He is not speaking figuratively but declaring a mystical contact and identification with Christ. There abounds an awareness, an experience in faith of Jesus' words—even in our own time.

The contemplative is always waiting, expecting, anticipating, looking for God to "break through" the bent, broken, and bruised aspects of our life, our cities, our society, our world—and the truly contemplative among us are never disappointed. They know that the Mystery continues to unceasingly break over us, into us, in never-ending waves of life and love. It was amazing to me as pastor of an inner city parish that it was often those who had so little, who had suffered the most, who had so little reason to believe—they were the very ones who had the greatest faith. They had entered the heart of the psalmist and prayed his words with a depth and intensity I could only envy.

Contemplatives are neither passive nor inert. They are not distant from the real and tangible sufferings of all those around them. Yet they have lost the illusion of their own self-importance and are willing to walk the way of the cross at the many stations throughout every urban area. They faithfully stand at the foot of the cross of those who are being crucified by the devastating ailments of our society. For many years I have seen an invisible network of people who recognize that God has made a covenant of friendship with them for the poor, people drawn so deeply into contemplation they are compelled to go, discover, and mutually share the hidden Christ with the so-called broken and marginal of our world.

Into the Heart of the City.
Contemplatives have been a gift to the church and to the world in every day and age, and our time is no different. The anawin of the Beatitudes will always be with us. Elijah, in near despair, lamented that not one had remained faithful in all of Israel. The Lord revealed that he had kept 7,000 true to his name. Jewish tradition carries the story of the "lamed vow," the 36 just people who held the world together by their prayer, suffering, and love. Our world continues to be held together by the faith, hope, and love of these remnant faithful. They are the hidden roots of the church, the taproot that energizes the more visible branches and fruit of the vine.

Early Christians went out into the desert to do battle with their own inner demons, hoping to discover God in the midst of their struggles. Today, we are called to go into our cities to fight against its violence, its illusions, its addictions, its loneliness, its poverty, and its pain.

Contemplatives go into the heart of the city without illusions. They go not with expectations for successfully changing the city or even necessarily making a concrete difference for those who are snared by its suffering. They live and work in the midst of the city in order to more tangibly embrace the noise, the pollution, the hurts, the people of the city in their prayer. They live in solidarity with the people of the city in order to offer them a place of rest, silence, hospitality, welcome, and healing. The urban contemplative knows that "where sin abounds, grace more abounds" and desires to stand present to the reality of God at work among his people.

I once asked the question, "What is the prayer that leads to action for justice?" Someone replied, "I do not know about a prayer that leads to action for justice, but I would be afraid of any action for justice not rooted in prayer." Urban contemplatives' lives are steeped in the reality of the Christ's death and resurrection and therefore, though saddened and grieved by injustice and suffering, are not overcome nor overwhelmed by it. They are people of hope, of faith. Like the woman with a hemorrhage, they pray, "If I just touch him I will be healed." So they keep touching him with their prayer, knowing that silently unseen, healing power goes out from him.

Urban contemplatives acknowledge the presence of the sacred in all they meet. By their very presence they witness to the value, the untold respect, and reverence due each human person no matter how marginalized, destitute, or abandoned they are. The urban contemplative understands that God is not found in isolation but in the midst of the suffering of God's people. The urban contemplative realizes that the reason they are called into the heart of the city is because it is there they themselves will be transformed. The violence and fear in the city desperately need to be counterbalanced by a power greater than destruction. That hidden power and presence is what the contemplative brings to the city.

Avoiding the Silence of Our Inner Selves.
It is difficult to be an urban contemplative because one is forced ultimately to recognize that the enormous poverty and terrible wounds one encounters are merely reflections of one's own poverty and wounds. One can rage at the terrible injustices. One can angrily clamor against the systems of oppression. One can blame the victims themselves. All of these, at times, seem to be justified and legitimate expressions against the sources of what is so appallingly wrong. Yet fidelity to contemplative prayer inevitably reveals that often one's anger is really directed toward one's own "shadow self."

Our society offers us so many illusions, so many distractions, so many ways to avoid encountering ourselves. It is so easy to pretend that we are the way we appear to others—our dress, our education, our intelligence, our status, our profession, our job, our home, our car. It is so easy to avoid the silence of our inner selves. It is always a temptation to circumvent those times we have for solitude by turning on the TV, the CD, the radio, or by becoming captivated by the current news, gossip, or sports event.

The contemplative who lives in the midst of the city is forced to become "real." The city and its people are reminders of our own deep poverty and complete dependence on God's infinite mercy. The gift of the city is the gift of becoming poor with those who are poor, being free to be nothing with those who are nothing, knowing our vulnerabilities with those who are most vulnerable. Who of us really wants to receive this gift?

Becoming an urban contemplative is a call to live radically the gospel of Jesus in a very hidden way. It is becoming countercultural. It is saying with one's life that all that our society proclaims to be of value, to be sought after, to be the measure of success is not true. It is to be a fool for Christ. And who of us wants to be foolish? Being an urban contemplative only happens through the grace of God. It is a transformative process. It is taking Jesus' words seriously and acting on them, "Leave all that you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me." After 2000 years, how many of us have taken him at his Word? And who of us wants to do so?

Stepping Out of the Externals.
One assumes that daily fidelity to prayer is basic to becoming an urban contemplative. Yet prayer in itself is not enough. One must begin to build relationships with those who live and minister in the city, relationships that go beyond offering mere assistance or a handout. It isn't easy to become a member of an inner-city congregation and build community among others who differ from one's self in ethnicity, economic status, social experience. One needs to become transparent, to lose one's self, to step out of the externals that tend to cling to us and through which we identify who we are.

A friend of mine, "Jack," has been a nurse for more than 20 years, most of it working with AIDS patients. I asked him, "How do you continue to do what you are doing?" "Faith," he said. "God has gifted me. It doesn't seem to be fair to have been given so much. Each day is such a gift, with new people that I meet and enjoy. To me nothing seems to be hard work because I experience the goodness of people."

Jack's conversion point was his three-year Peace Corps experience in Niger. "The Sahara Desert, two different languages, the Muslim culture—values and lifestyle totally different. All that I was disappeared. I had to learn everything new. I had to learn who I was. The people there responded to me, to the heart and essence of me. All of the external cultural things were not important. I could not fall into any cultural traps or American standards. I found myself free to be totally me and held to no one else's expectations. I learned to go inside myself and to know that I was okay. This faith and freedom I carry now to my patients, many who are very sick. I see the value of each person and affirm their goodness. Somehow I know that I bond with each person and they experience someone more than myself."

When this article appeared, Father Edward J. Farrell was writer-in-residence at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.

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