Many years ago I was telling my spiritual director that I found it easiest to pray in a beautiful garden, and I was warming to my sense of myself as a contemplative. The wise Dominican asked with disarming candour: “But are you in the garden, or is the garden in you?” It took a long time even to realise what the question meant.
I remember another similarly disarming question at the very beginning of my adult search for God. I was an undergraduate and took myself to a Benedictine monastery for a few days’ retreat in Lent. I was captivated by the silence, prayer and retreat from the world, swept up in the chant and the romance of monastic life. What I did not realise was that I was attracted to it as something that would make it less painful to be what I thought I was – something I needed for my religious amour-propre.
Thus many searches for God begin, but one can only search for God because he has already found you. What must happen is that someone else must put a belt around you and lead you where you would rather not go. It is not the intensity of the search, but of the willingness to be led that is ultimately the measure of vocation. Vocation is not finding the garden in you, it is finding yourself in the garden.
Perhaps the wise abbot sensed this. Anyway, I remember being rather discombobulated by his direct manner. As I emoted about the spiritual life he looked at me carefully and asked: “Is God real to you?” It was like a torpedo below the waterline of all my high-sounding talk about my attraction to the monastic life versus secular priesthood, the script I was busy constructing of an encounter with the living God in which I remained firmly the star.
The best answer I could manage was: “I think so.” In the moment of asking I doubted it, or rather I realised suddenly that so much of what I thought was God wasn’t actually God. It was the paraphernalia of God, of
religion. (In fact, the moment wasn’t too confounding, for soon there came another answer from deep inside: “He’s real to me in the Blessed Sacrament.” There – perhaps because, as Aquinas put it, “Sight, touch and taste in thee are each deceivèd” – I couldn’t confuse feeling for the reality. I realised that
I had been given something to work with.)
All of this came to mind when I visited the Grand Canyon at the end of my trip to America. What’s the connection? One may grasp what one might call the paraphernalia of the Grand Canyon. It was formed by billions of years of imperceptibly slow change, of almost every possible kind of geological activity: sediment layering, tectonic plates shifting, glaciers melting and rivers carving a gorge a mile and a half deep into solid rock. These are processes that can be mapped and understood, but the result overwhelms the sum and the mind of man. Its astonishing, ancient beauty can only be contemplated – that is, it must act on you, overwhelm your mind with its four-billion-year-old scale, stillness and silence which is in constant change. Spontaneously, the words of the psalmist rose from my heart at the breathtaking sight: “Before the mountains or the hills were brought forth, you are God, without beginning or end.” Contemplation always involves knowledge of one’s true scale, of a reality that dwarfs the ego.
As if this were not enough, as the sun set, the sky above came alive with stars. I have never seen so many or so clearly. They were like the lights of some vast celestial city calling, a million million points of light and security like some distant homeland, like the medieval fantasy that the stars were rents in the sky through which one could see the light of heaven. To count them I must be eternal, like God.
The psalmist said: “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you have made, what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” And the answer comes back that in Jesus Christ the Father has united himself to the heart of every person in such a way that the vastness of the universe becomes an image not of alienation, but of the vastness of a love that was there before the hills were set in order. This love causes even rocks to exude a soft beauty which seems like the desire of the Eternal Hills for the Heart of their maker.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (27/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: Andrew M Brown says all baptisms should have a touch of The Godfather, Mary Kenny on the wisdom of Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife and Colin Brazier says we should breed like rabbits. Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!