Prayer: this intimate dialogue with God in the desert of interior silence, in the absence of temporal tasks, this dialogue without which we have nothing to say to the world.
Tomás Morales Pérez SJ (1908–1994)
On 1 December 1916, Blessed Charles de Foucauld was shot dead at his small fort in the Sahara. Was he a martyr? If so, it was of charity, not directly for the faith, for though he was shot because of his presence to others (however difficultly entwined that was with his own country’s policies and the details of a world war), it was not because of any article of the faith, nor because of any direct animosity towards a group of human beings as such.
But what he was, was a model for the kind of life this blog promotes. Of course, he was human, with weaknesses, limitations, feelings, and even faults. But he was a model. He loved the Eucharist. He loved his neighbours. He had no formal apostolate, except perhaps one of translation, scholarly work, and “presence” to others (if these things can count as activities of a formal apostolate).
To a degree, his model of spirituality was in the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross – even before they were declared Doctors of the Universal Church. Over and over he read them. He knew with them that it is when we are most annihilated that we pray best and that it is love which makes prayer best.
His spirituality is known for its Trinitarian emphasis: on Jesus in others and in the pages of the Gospel, on the Father to whom his most famous prayer is addressed, on the Spirit known in the Veni Creator.
He believed in the value of silence and thought that earth was preparation for heaven, not only by what we do but by the time we spend, seemingly uselessly, with God. After all, the spirit was not made for noise but for taking things in; and if we want to give God to others, we must live in him ourselves; a spring can only give what it already has. He described the purification brought about by silence as a “desert” experience.
Above all, this man went on a journey of discovering what it means to see Jesus in others and to live a life of “Nazareth,” a quiet life that passes under the radar with and among people who may never have even heard the Gospel in its entirety (like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Nazareth). This involved standing up to injustices and taking clear positions on social justice. But it also involved a mere “being with” and a “togetherness,” a legitimate love and appreciation of the other. It was a spirituality of presence, even when the effects of presence seem fleeting. Such a “Nazareth” spirituality is accompanied by a respect, a great respect and preference, for the poor and abandoned. It involves poverty and humility of means; for Jesus did not use much or write large when he evangelized by his presence in Nazareth. It involves a recognition that the majority of people live their lives in Nazareth, not in the greatest acts of apostolate or at the highest heights of the world.
There is a general theme of how one can be a contemplative in the midst of action, though not hanging all one’s contemplation on the accomplishment of activity. It is a strange message to modern ears, but it is much needed. And it is one that, though he was himself a priest, Charles felt was relevant to laypeople.
Counting today (23 November) and 1 December itself, there are nine days left in the centennial year of the blessed’s death. For my part, I think this is a great time to get to know, and to love, Brother Charles better. At the very least and even if we do not focus our attention and thoughts on Charles, we could spend our time as he recommends:
To pray means to think lovingly about Jesus. Prayer is the soul’s attention that is concentrated on Jesus. The more you love Jesus, the better you pray.
We must pass by the desert and travel through it to receive the grace of God; it’s there that we empty ourselves, that we chase from ourselves all that is not God.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)
INFJs are conscientious and value-driven. They seek meaning in relationships, ideas, and events, with an eye toward better understanding themselves and others. Using their intuitive skills, they develop a clear and confident vision, which they then set out to execute, aiming to better the lives of others…
INFJs are quiet, private individuals who prefer to exercise their influence behind the scenes. Although very independent, INFJs are intensely interested in the well-being of others. INFJs prefer one-on-one relationships to large groups…
INFJs have a rich, vivid inner life, which they may be reluctant to share with those around them… Generally well-liked by their peers, they may often be considered close friends and confidants by most other types. However, they are guarded in expressing their own feelings, especially to new people, and so tend to establish close relationships slowly. INFJs tend to be easily hurt, though they may not reveal this except to their closest companions…
INFJs tend to be sensitive, quiet leaders with a great depth of personality. They are intricately and deeply woven, mysterious, and highly complex, often puzzling even to themselves. They have an orderly view toward the world, but are internally arranged in a complex way that only they can understand. Abstract in communicating, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities. With a natural affinity for art, INFJs tend to be creative and easily inspired. Yet they may also do well in the sciences, aided by their intuition.
People often and always tell me, in bits and pieces, this is me. Now, what does it have to do with this blog about being contemplative in the mud?
Well, for one, whatever the higher causes of anything in the blog, material conditions include me; and I, like everyone else, have a personality.
So, whatever you read from me, I recommend you take it with this filter in mind: an INFJ wrote this. It goes without saying that, whatever the material is, God can use it. God can use any and all material. God, in his great providence, can use any and all “personality types” on any test invented by a human being to test natural, acquired, habitual, and dormant tendencies. No problem. God is God. But if you’re going to read a blog, it doesn’t hurt to know the person who wrote it. It may crystallize some questions about my choices of phrase and my emphases. In this case, the author is an INFJ. He delves into the layers of the interior life (“Where does contemplation go when our head is busy?”; “What’s the difference between meditation and contemplation?”; “What links action and contemplation?”); he looks at others emotionally and intuitively (“See Jesus in everyone”); he looks for long, slow relationships of depth (a bit like the Holy Family at “Nazareth”?); he writes poems, he takes photographs; he gathers a limited group of authors and reads everything they’ve ever written or said; he confuses extroverts and introverts both, by being people-oriented in communication but introverted in preference. Anything and everything I say is truly, genuinely filtered through the layers of who I am. If you read this blog, please read knowing this. I’m only human. ^^
Why else would I bother telling you this?
Because I haven’t always been – or acted – INFJ. No, that’s changed. Before my conversion experiences and my growth and a greater psychological understanding of myself, I tended to act more INTP. Why would I do that? Well, it wasn’t a deliberate choice. It just happened. It really is not “OK”, culturally speaking, to be an INFJ male. Actually, I’ve travelled the globe. In no culture is it “OK” to be an INFJ male. Of course, individually, people love you if they, for whatever reason, get close; you might be the only INFJ male someone’s ever met . Fascinating! Socially, it’s not at all easy or “OK” to be an INFJ male; the pressures against introverted but feeling-communicating men are very strong. Men are “supposed” to be neither, especially the last, and especially not both. To survive, INFJs usually have to develop really strong coping mechanisms. Did I? Well, yes. Hello, I’m an engineer. Hello, I have a PhD. Hello, I can navigate you through philosophers like nobody else. Hello, my INTP-behaving past. In other words, I have a strongly developed introverted thinking function (called Ti) alongside the preferred introverted intuition and extraverted feeling functions that INFJs have. However, I didn’t used to think my Ti sat alongside a so-called INFJ personality. Who would? Men “aren’t” INFJ. (Although one certainly wonders about my friend in heaven Marcel Văn, even John of the Cross and Jacques Maritain.)
It was with lots of reliance on contemplation and intuitions and things that Saint Francis called “feelings” of the higher part (or “supreme point”) of the soul, but in an analogical sense to feelings normally so-called, that I drifted more towards acting as an INFJ type. It’s also partly an influence of Charles de Foucauld and the direction to “see Jesus in everyone we meet”. It’s also partly a confidence in the Gifts and inspirations of the Holy Spirit, leaving me much happier to judge and live with, than to perceive.
Oh, and I became a lot weaker through suffering certain things. Yup, weakness moved me, too.
In other words, the realities of the spiritual life and of contemplation developed my personality along the lines that were already there. I didn’t fight the spiritual truths. Thus, I didn’t end up fighting the psychological truths of this little subjective me. There is one God. You can’t fight him in one thing and follow him in another – at least not very well. Instead of focusing on my tertiary introverted thinking function (engineer, PhD, philosophy) and trying to not appear “feeling-y” and “unmanly”, I ended up saying, “Yes, OK; introverted thinking is actually a tertiary function for me. I’m much happier as INFJ.” Of course, now I also have a pretty impressive Ti function on top of my INFJ. Loads of fun and I can dip into a lot of things. ~_^
What am I saying?
I’m saying, quite simply, that God has a plan. And contemplation fits into it. For an illustration, look at two of the best-known examples of contemplatives – one cloistered, the other contemplative in the midst of the world’s comings and goings – Saint Teresa and Blessed Charles of Jesus. Both Teresa of Ávila and Charles de Foucauld acted as rather of extremely extroverted: the former occupying herself with “vanities”, “frivolous” things, a “reputation” on the edge; the latter, notoriously party-loving individuals in his youth. They would not have been marked as “introverted”. Yet, they developed a great interior sense and perhaps even a recognition of an “Introverted” “personality type”. Were they, in their younger days, acting as extroverts? Was it a show? Was it an overcompensation? Well, they certainly seemed at home in Carmel and in the Sahara – not locations famed to favour extraversion. This is where they seemed to find God’s plan for the development of their personalities. Don’t you think so? Blessed Charles seems very torn inside until he settles down with his neighbours to a quiet, mutually giving, mutually receiving life. Saint Teresa liked to go out “like any other girl” (note the social pressure), but eventually, once inside Carmel, even the presence of her family members wears her down and intrudes on her preferred introversion. Weren’t they really discovering God’s plan for themselves?
Not because God does not want “Extroverted” personalities. (In fact, if God wants things to get done in this world, he probably wants lots of “Extroverted” personalities.) But simply because he had a different plan for that person. Psychologically speaking, each person has preferred cognitive functions and has to develop others. Some of us don’t even want to admit to our preferred functions; male INFJs are a notorious example. Others of us refuse to develop our non-preferred, tertiary functions; this harms others.
But all journey towards one God.
All have contemplation, if they are in grace, in the “supreme point” of the soul (as Francis de Sales calls it), where God’s “residence” is, a “point which is above all the rest of the soul and independent of all natural disposition.” The difference is, some just look at this act more, some less, some do other things more, other things less. This does not necessarily entail loving more or loving less. But it certainly does entail describing those realities more or less.
The realities of Christian contemplation – which, perhaps, it is easier for an INFJ with strongly developed Ti to write about and help others to see – are fully true. They are not particular truths of a particular personality. They’re truths expressed by particular personalities. But they are divine truths, not merely human ones. And these realities of Christian contemplation fully apply to breaking psychological stories apart so as to piece them together, with divine stitches and bandages. The value of contemplation isn’t merely psychological. But it can and does overflow into psychology; it can help sort psychology out.
The whole of God’s plan involves many different people, knit together as and being knit together into one Body. But not one of those people can say, “I am this personality type, and I have nothing to develop. Leave me alone.” For God may move us, challenge us, stretch us, and even make us suffer to make the Body stronger. The only way to belong more fully to the Body is to do more fully God’s will. And that may pull against our nature for a time, or for a time and a half or more.
Now, why would anyone believe all that fluff about different people, all with emotional and interlinking needs, united into one Body and all part of one plan?
Well, I’m a Christian, a contemplative, and an INFJ with a good deal of Ti. If anyone would know and be able to express it in writing, you’d think it would be someone with those tendencies. ~_^
Which comes first: love of God or love of neighbour?
The saints have put the question in various ways. For example, Saint Bernard says,
It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.
But if we are to love our neighbours as we ought, we must have regard to God also: for it is only in God that we can pay that debt of love aright. Now a man cannot love his neighbour in God, except he love God Himself; wherefore we must love God first, in order to love our neighbours in Him.
It is true and easily seen, that from the point of view of the value of the love in ourselves and the ultimate, final focus, we must love God “first”.
However, what about first in time? Not first in value, but first in time. Saint Bernard’s own words tend to give credibility to this: he suggests that “once” we have “tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is”, “it will not be difficult to fulfil the command touching love to our neighbours”.
If we interpret “first love God” here to mean a kind of chronology or storytelling time, then that squares with the life stories of Charles de Foucauld, as well as Catherine of Siena and Clement Hofbauer. They, for example, had definite itineraries towards predominantly learning to love God in himself first, then later learning to love God in his children. There are distinct periods in the lives of these saints where anyone can notice a divine intimacy prior to an apostolic, neighbour-focused exteriority. This is not to say that they experienced any disconnect of discontinuity between the two loves. In fact, the love of God and love if neighbour pertain to one and the same commandment: “And this command we have from God, that he who loves God, loves also his brother” (1 Jn 4:21). As one love grows, the other must also.
But it does still remain true that the saints, without imposing any rigid boxes, do tend to sketch the idea, the path, the trajectory, the itinerary, or the story, that we will typically first learn to better love God – in whatever ways and by whatever paths are appropriate to our state and to God’s Providence – and that this will overflow into our interactions with our neighbours. In the beginning, it is actually harder to love our neighbours, because we contemplate less. We see less. We see less of Jesus in our neighbours. But that sight, which is itself a gift that comes only by knowing Jesus, makes the love of neighbour accelerate. It becomes less hard to love our neighbour when we explicitly love God more.
True, love of neighbour makes love of God accelerate, too. Any serious, dangerous lack of the virtues must be meted out, destroyed, and alienated from our hearts. But the saints seem to insist – without actively insisting – on a rather more common approach to heaven. We may end up learning, or thinking that we are learning, to love God first.
Seeing Jesus in others and contemplating on the road do not mean we can legitimately dispense with silence. We need silence. We need time alone with God – in the quiet.
The fact is, we’re useless without having anything to give others. We have nothing to give if we ourselves are not holy. If we have not been made little enough to welcome God in the best and highest parts of ourselves, then what good is our presence in the world?
If we don’t make time for God to work on us in silence, we will only ever get so far as making noise and accomplishing good with an admixture of force, when we ourselves should be a kind of calm, diffusing goodness without commotion and appearance, in the insanity of the world.
Silent time with God – going to our room and shutting the door, without distractions of any sort, even mobile or internet – accomplishes first a recharging of our physical self, to which our heart and spirit are intimately connected; second, it lets God pull us farther out of ourselves into him. For the second goal to predominate, it is necessary to admit that contemplation, in the sense of suffering divine things, is the greatest good that can be attained in silence.
Meditation is not contemplation. Any number of spiritual exercises does not make contemplation. Contemplation is an infusion of love by God. Meditation is a means to that end.
To sit with Jesus – in the Blessed Sacrament or in the Gospel or in some other way – and say, “Jesus, I love you,” thinking about what each word means and meaning it. This is meditation leading into contemplation, and to it our use of these other good things is ordered. (When everything else passes away, love will remain.) However, even when we love, we may not feel like it. The feelings come and go. Indeed, sometimes God takes them away to help us to grow; it is a “dark night”.
Silence is hard to find. The world, even in generally useful distractions, is noisy.
But we need to find that silence. How often? It depends on the person, the life, and God’s initiative. But we all need to find that silence.
What are some practical steps towards making time for silence?
The guidebook of the Charles de Foucauld Lay Fraternity makes these suggestions and others like them:
- Set a “Desert” day for silence. Fix the date of the “Desert” day in your diary and keep to it. Remember: A “Desert” day is not a holiday!
- Where do I want to spend my “Desert” day? In the open countryside? In a church? In my room?
- What is the timing of my “Desert” day? How much time is available? Only the morning/afternoon?
- Do I spend the “Desert” day alone or together with somebody else? Make arrangements beforehand.
- What do I need? Something to eat… writing materials… a Bible… raincoat…
- What is the subject matter I want to reflect upon?
- When the day comes… Avoid all distractions. Start as soon as possible; do not forget available time is precious.
- Become conscious of your body and its signals, and of nature.
- Become aware of the simple things of life (breath, calmness, to be able to smile, to reflect, to dwell on something…).
- Permit inner questioning and nonconformity.
- Be aware of restlessness but don’t permit it to disturb you.
- Reflect on a Gospel reading, a prayer or some special subject.
- The sense of a “Desert” day is to visit yourself so as to be able again to meet other people. Don’t forget this if it helps you to remember the goal!
- Keep to your resolution concerning times of prayer… Try to abandon yourself to the presence of God.
- Make an evaluation at the end of the day (What happened to me? What was good, or not so good? Is there anything I would like to do afterwards?). It will probably be helpful to write your thoughts down.
- On reaching home, realize that this and not the “Desert” is the place of your vocation.
Are there any other suggestions that help you?