“Can we have a contemplative life, and still live in Washington DC? or San Antonio? Austin? Dallas? Houston? San Angelo? Or how about Los Angeles or San Francisco, or Sacramento or Shafter?” Almost always we have thought it impossible.
From the desert fathers and mothers in the early centuries of Anno Domini on through the escapes to Big Sur for its high-priced Buddhism in our own day, we imagine it impossible to be people with an interior life that can account for the complexity and challenge of our exterior lives. The world seems too much to us. To live in it, but not be of it, seems beyond our ability.
Can we pray and work at the same time— ora et labora?
St. Benedict began a long tradition of reflection on this almost 1500 years ago. Discouraged by the cultural implosion of his own day— the decline and fall of the Roman Empire —he took up a life of disciplines that would keep his heart while he cared for the world. The hallmark of this Benedictine tradition was “ora et labora,” a life where praying and working were held together, to be done as one life.
They stumbled in their own way, from what I can read, and no one since then has figured it out with final clarity. We keep stumbling, longing for more coherent lives, where what we confess to believe looks like the way we actually live, where our deepest hearts are seamlessly worked out in the responsibilities and relationships of our lives.
For the last couple of days we have been working away at this, one more time in more place, in a retreat called, “A Contemplative Life for the Rest of Life,” here at a place known far and wide as “a thin place,” where heaven and earth meet in a remarkable way. In fact to find one’s way in requires the willingness to enter the waters of the Rio Frio, and I don’t know what else to call it other than a sacramental experience, a baptizing of one’s imagination, where the eyes of the heart are opened to see in a new way— at least if one has eyes to see.
Born of a struggle in the heart of Howard E. Butt of the HEB Grocery Company in Texas, he wanted a place to work away at this very question, and because of hopes and resources that were his, he brought the Laity Lodge into being along the banks of the Rio Frio Canyon 60 years ago, and for generations now it has opened its doors with an unusual hospitality.
And now I have taken up this question, asked one more time, reflecting on the complexity of its challenge, offering the insights of Augustine of Hippo and John Bunyan, of Margaret Magdalene and Alexander Schmemann, of William Wilberforce and Abraham Kuyper, and of Leo Tolstoy too, each someone with a rare wisdom about the meaning of life in the world.
To see seamlessly is the hope, perhaps even to see sacramentally, where we have eyes to see where heaven and earth meet— where ora et labora become one —right in the middle of our ordinary lives, lived as they must be in ordinary places. At the end of the day none of us can live at Laity Lodge for the rest of life, as much as we might wish otherwise. If we are going to have contemplative lives that serve the world, they will have to be lived in the Washington DCs, the Austins and the Shafters of this world— at least that has to be true for most of us most of the time.
May it be so.