Next Saturday I have been invited to speak about Christian contemplation to a group that I have belonged to for a couple of years that practices mediation. The group is made up people from various works of life and while most have had some association with Buddhism, there are a few of us who also draw or practice and inspiration from the wells of the Christian tradition. Christian contemplation is a very big topic and I am certainly no expert in the field, but I am deeply committed to a Christian practice that is nourished by those who call themselves contemplatives. And of course the practice of prayer, meditation and contemplation is central to most, if not all religions because of its value in living a reflective and centred life.
For the group meeting next Saturday, I decided to begin my exploration of Christian contemplation with the 13th century German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart. And as providence would have it, he is the forerunner to the medieval spiritual- religious movement called, The Friends of God, who take their name from the passage in Johns gospel that was read earlier. For me Meister Eckhart and his way of being in the world, has significant relevance for us the 21st century. While in his own day he had a large following among the people, the officials in the Church were often very unhappy with his creative interpretations of the Christian message.
God and Me
It was Eckhart who said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough." His message and the sermons he preached were shaped by a sense of intimacy which he had with God. He said he was more interested in loving God than he was about knowing God. And he was a theologian who moved beyond a "belief" based religion to what youn might call and "experiential" faith or religion. And this is where the rub came and where the religious gatekeepers got nervous, he didnt just talk about God befriending us - humanity, he spoke of us being friends with God. Now thats a whole different way of look at life and faith. For the religious hierarchy he was beginning to suggest that we were in a relationship with the divine that had equality status.
Now his language was a bit philosophical but when he wrote, "The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God as if he stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge. The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me," you can imagine how that challenged the 13th century view that God was up there and we are down here and that we meet only on Gods terms.
Within a century or two there were groups that were called themselves the Friends of God and they found their inspiration in this sense that the Spirit God, the presence of God was here with us and not distant or removed. It was like being with a friend and while that may cause us some problems when we consider a God of creativity, power and transcendence, for Eckhart and the Friends of God it was intimacy with this loving presence that gave them the reason for being.
Relationship or Religion
This passage in Johns gospel, which follows last weeks story of the vine and branches, continues the theme of familiarity, intimacy and relationship. As a young person in my church youth group, I remember our youth leader, Peter Cartell, telling us that, "Christianity is a relationship and not a religion." In fact it is both and sadly, we have often seen too much religion and not enough relationship. The author of Johns gospel wants us to see that for Jesus the way to the sacred, the way to the divine, to God is through a familial relationship rather than say, through a sacrificial ritual, or a moral code, or a set of right beliefs. From the gospels we get a clear picture that for Jesus his "religion" to call it that, was the way of the heart. And it was from the heart, from the centre of being, that every thought and action flows.
Again Meister Eckhart believed that it was what we call contemplation that shaped the heart and prepared the person for lifes activities. He wrote:
What we take in by contemplation, we pour out in love What we plant in the soil of contemplation we shall reap in the harvest of action. (paraphrased)
As we saw last week Johns message the essential quality of being a "Christian" is to "abide" in Christ, to remain connected to the vine; to be rooted in the ground of being. And now John gives a shape to the abiding/remaining and it is to abide in love:
As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Fathers commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.
Thats what contemplation is about. It is being in the presence of and being present to. In this case it is remaining in love . being present to those experiences of loving that shape and reshape us. Now if you are worry about keeping Gods commandments, as the passage says, If you keep my commandments, dont go to the 10 commandments written in the Book of Deuteronomy, just read a little further in Johns gospel And this is my commandment, love one another as I have loved you " Thats great we are all off the hook. We dont have to obey those pesky rules in the Old Testament. All we have to do is the simple and straight forward task of loving each other.
I remember a story of a woman who voted against hanging the 10 commandments on the wall of her church. She said, "I dont think we should give any of those young people ideas that they havent thought of yet!" I suspect she was underestimating the imaginations of the young people. I suppose I am saying that the ethic of Jesus teaching was that of love and love not just direct to God but live out in human relationships.
Richard Foster in his book Freedom of Simplicity commented on this love of one another when he wrote:
In the period following the Apostolic Age, there was an exuberant caring and sharing on the part of Christians that was unique in antiquity. Julian the apostate, an enemy of Christianity, admitted that "the godless Galileans [non worshippers of the Roman Gods] fed not only their (poor) but ours also." Tertullian wrote that the Christians deeds of love were so noble that the pagan world confessed in astonishment, See how they love one another. Exactly what is it that these Christians did which elicited such a response from their enemies?
This remarkable passage in Johns gospel can take us on an intimate journey into the very heart of the divine. The words here must have sent a quake through the religious moralists of the day. It would have shaken those whose view of God and people was that of master and slave; boss and employee and even shepherd and sheep:
No one has greater love than to give up ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I dont call you servants any longer, because servants dont know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.
This passage, first directed to the disciples of Jesus, becomes for us an access into that intimate relationship with the mystery we call God. Again to quote Meister Eckhart:
Whoever possesses God in their being in a divine manner, then God shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God's image that they see.
To be a friend of God is to see life as God sees it and to see that all of life and every experience of life vibrants with the pulse of Gods presence. And it is a simple and as complex as loving those around you.