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On Two Levels

Recently, I was writing a paper on becoming a contemplative.  Sometimes I smile when I type that word, contemplative, or even say it.  As far as I know, I never heard the word while I was growing up a Quaker.  No doubt, I heard people say something like, “Let me contemplate that.”  I know that phrase meant nothing more than “let me think this thing over.”  To contemplate meant to think hard about something or be careful when you think something over.  I suspect I was in graduate school when I began to hear about it in the sense in which I use it today.
   
Thomas Merton is probably the most well-known contemplative with which I deal.  In fact, the group of monks he joined in Kentucky are known as a contemplative group of monks.  Their whole goal is to learn to be with God as contemplatives.  Without getting technical, let me use three short sentences from Merton to indicate what being contemplative means.  Merton says, contemplation “is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being.”  I decided if that is what contemplation means, then I want to be a contemplative.
   
To become contemplative means to learn to live life at a deeper level than our ordinary superficial lives.  Probably the first step in becoming contemplative is realizing that most of us are living too much of our lives on the surface.  Frequently we call surface living our “routine.”  We get up and go to work (unless we are sick or retired).  All too often, our lives are outwardly focused---focused on getting the work done or on emails or Facebook or something like that.  Our lives are not lived with much introspection or reflection.  Every tomorrow is much like today.  It’s not bad; it just is not contemplative.
   
To be contemplative means we know that deeper source.  For some of us, that deeper source might be God, in which case we probably capitalize Source.  This deeper Source is the place spiritual wonder originates.  It is the place where we come to know the sacredness of life, as Merton puts it.  To go there and to know ourselves at that deeper level elicits from us a sense of gratitude.  We want to say “Thank you” and “Amen.”  To become a contemplative means we learn to live from that Source, rather than make an occasional visit there.
   
To learn to live from the Source reminds me of words from my favorite Quaker writer, Thomas Kelly.  In his classic book, A Testament of Devotion, he has a little section on this theme of two levels. Allow me to quote that section and then offer a little commentary.  Kelly says, “The possibility of this experience of Divine Presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life---this is this is the central message of Friends.  Once discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, and we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the Eternal.  The world of time is no longer the sole reality of which we are aware.  A second Reality hovers, quickens, quivers, stirs, energizes us, breaks in upon us and in love embraces us, together with all things, within Himself.  We live our lives at two levels simultaneously, the level of time and the level of the Timeless."
   
I think Kelly offers in these words how Quakers understand living contemplatively.  This is the language with which I grew up.  Spirituality---and contemplation---is experiential.  It is not just a bunch of ideas or fancy theology.  Of course, it may include ideas and necessarily becomes theological.  But it is primarily an experience.  Spirituality is the experience of the Divine Presence.  And fortunately, it is not a one-time event.  Spirituality is the contemplative learning to live within that Presence.  It means having that Divine Presence inform our lives and form our actions.
   
As Kelly suggests, the contemplative learns to live on two levels.  One level is our ordinary life.  Kelly calls this living “merely in time.”  To live merely in time does not have to be superficial, but is often is.  And to live from this level usually leaves us wishing for more to life.  We suspect life is richer than this, but we are not there yet.  We long to experience life at a deeper level.  And when we are gifted with that experience, a new level opens to us.
   
Kelly calls the chance to live at this second level the opportunity to “live also in the Eternal.”  It does not mean we cease to live in time---at our normal sense of time.  But we also know life at this deeper level, where we are in touch with and shaped by our experience of the Divine Presence.  This deeper level brings the meaning and purpose that thrills us with our life.  The great thing about this sense of life is we are content and grateful.  Life at this level does not leave us wanting more.  We already have everything we could possible want.  That is hard to imagine, but it is not only possible to all, but it is available.
   
We don’t have to invent this kind of life.  We have resources like Merton, Kelly and a host of folks alive and willing to show us how to live on two levels.  It does not require a high IQ nor significant money to make the purchase.  It will ask us to be open, to grow and to begin to see our lives in a different way.  It is a process.  I am on the way.  I still feel like I am in kindergarten, but at least I am in school!
   
Life is possible on two levels.  

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