Father Abraham and the Cost of Contemplative Experience
I was angry and I didn’t know why. Trying to enter into the Genesis scripture this week set it off.
I wanted to approach this story of Abraham and Isaac in Mary Cosby’s way of looking at Scripture: She would make the point that she wanted the actual Bible she held in her hands to be flexible. And she always said the Bible is not a manual for morality but a mirror for identity.
But In trying to find a mirror of identity with Abraham I have encountered some serious doubt.
Doubt is a new experience for me and I don’t like it. I’ve been steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian gospels and letters since I was 18. I’ve always been able to embrace all of it. I have always loved the stories about Abraham and Sarah. It was a glimpse into the lives of people who lived 4,000 years ago and who were just like us. Especially their welcome of the three strangers at the oaks of Mamre and Sarah’s laughing in the tent. That particular Scripture in Catholic tradition is called the icon of the Trinity. I loved that.
So it was a shock when suddenly it made no sense that in the 21st century we are reading about the horrible action of a desert nomad who lived 4,000 years ago. Out of the blue I became outraged by the agreement of priests and scholars for centuries that Abraham’s near sacrifice of his only son was an action instigated by God and approved by God. To see Father Abraham this way has been deeply unsettling to me.
What is going on here and why am I angry? Under the anger I feel fear. Here I am at the end of my life, about to enter into the ultimate unknown and now I begin to doubt? I’ve had years and years to do this work and I don’t even know if I have time to finish it. Why now? One of my deepest fears is that I might no longer be called to the church that has saved me, molded me, and held me most of my adult life. Where in the world would I go?
My faith, which was such a comfort, has become a major struggle. I have been faithful to the disciplines of my mission group for years and years and lately I have found it difficult to enter as deeply into silence as I am used to. I still practice centering prayer every day and I believe it’s what’s holding me together even though it’s full of distractions and isn’t very fulfilling.
The separation from family and friends isn’t helping. Zoom is a further irritation. It isn’t comforting at all to me and I miss everybody. The world I knew is collapsing and there is a mad man in charge of our country. People are yelling at one another and there is no dependable governance. Just when I am losing energy and capacity, we face the greatest demands of our lives and I can do so little to help.
As I was writing this I searched through Merton on doubt and here is what I found: Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.
Well, shoot, I wish I’d read that before I started out on the contemplative path. I might have taken a less troublesome route. But here I am.
“Many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding…” those are words that describe my feelings, feelings much deeper than anger or doubt. The words seem to be an opening into understanding this conflict and it seems pretty clear that the way forward will require knowledge of and acceptance of what I encounter in myself.
I really don’t want to rage, rage before I enter that good night. I really want to go gently. So
surely this unsettledness can’t be the end of things for me. I want to trust that the deep inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience leads through the anguish and doubt to Julian’s confidence that “all manner of thing shall be well.” And I know I shouldn’t jump to the comfort of Julian’s words too quickly. Dante famously made this journey and toward the end of the Paradiso he wrote, “I saw within its depth how it conceives all things in a single volume bound by Love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves. He was talking about the goodness of God.
So I am committed to the struggle of transforming this anger, fear and doubt as long as it takes and I hope I get through it to the ultimate Light before I have to enter that deep unknowing.
I will continue to pray for our nation’s healing, for our church’s continued well being, for the missions we support, for the disciplines we embrace and for each beloved member. And I will continue to muddle through and maybe increase centering prayer, which is clearly the way through doubt and unknowing.
Thank you for listening. It has been therapeutic just to say all these things out loud. I hope you will understand and receive me as I am. And I sure hope I get to have some fun in the midst of all this seriousness. Yogi Berra said, “Ya gotta take it with a grin of salt.” I want to do that too.