“The Ascension and Contemplation” (6/2/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Someone said to me recently, Sometimes prayer is just about being…right? Sometimes it’s just about being. But no, it’s not. Sometimes it’s just about being with the Lord, being with the Lord. That orientation toward the Lord is essential, however simplified prayer may become.
Contemplation is Christological through and through. From the beginning of contemplation to the heights of contemplation, Christ is at the center of Christian prayer. Both objectively and subjectively, Christ is at the center. Objectively, the mystery of Jesus Christ is the object of our meditation and reflection. We might simply rest in the God who is Love, but we have gotten there through Christ. As we go deeper, we go deeper into the mystery of Christ and his Paschal Mystery, plumbing the depths of the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. That’s the objective side.
On the subjective side, the experiential side, Christ too is at the center of our contemplation. For our prayers are made in Jesus Christ. He prays in us and draws us into his own prayer. Jesus draws us into his own loving gaze upon the Father. He draws us and directs us to the Father. Even if things get very simplified, we share in the Son’s interior demeanor, attitude, or stance toward the Father. We are given the Spirit of his Sonship, so we too cry out “Abba, Father!” This awareness of being adopted son and daughters in the only begotten Son Jesus always remains in Christian contemplation. The experience of prayer, the subjective side of contemplation, is also marked by Christ, from the beginning to the end.
This solemnity of the Ascension is a feast for Christian contemplatives. For in the Ascension, the Son of God, with his sacred humanity, returns to the Father. He does not leave his humanity on earth as he ascends into heaven. Rather Christ’s sacred humanity is raised up and placed, in a new way, into God’s intimate life. Humanity now has new access to the intimate life of the blessed Trinity. Christ, in his sacred humanity, creates a “space” for our humanity within the Trinity’s glorious life. His sacred humanity carves out a space for us within the life of the Trinity.
The 1st Eucharistic Prayer expresses this basic reality beautifully. It follows Hebrews in speaking of Christ as Angelos, capital “A” Angelos, or Messenger. It says, “In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty.” Jesus bears our prayers upward into the very midst of the divine majesty, the glorious life of the Trinity. Through Jesus, we enter into the divine majesty of the life of the Trinity. The surely effects our prayer.
Our 2nd Reading from Ephesians shows us how this is the case. It relates the Ascension and the Mystery of Christ to our life of contemplation. It opens the way for us to ponder how contemplation is Christological through and through. St Paul says, “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened.” This is what happens in contemplation, the eyes of our hearts are enlightened and we are given a Spirit of wisdom and revelation unto the knowledge of God. The light of Christ draws us further into God than we could attain on our own. St Athanasius says, “When you are enlightened, it is Christ who enlightens you; for He is the Light of the world” (ltr to Serapion).
And what about this light? Is it just a formless light? No, not at all; it’s a Christic light, stamped by Christ and tending toward the mystery of Christ. In our 2nd Reading, St Paul continues to explain what the eyes of our hearts are enlightened for: namely, that we may know what is “the hope of our calling,” “what are the glorious riches of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power at work in us who believe.” This same power is at work in us that was at work “in Christ when [God the Father] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
In contemplation, the eyes of our hearts are enlightened that we may know the full mystery of Christ and his Paschal Mystery. And more than this, the same power at work in Christ rising from the dead and ascending beyond every rule and authority and dominion is at work in us, elevating us with Christ to God the Father. This means power for a transformed life and, in prayer, a reaching out to God beyond our human capacities.
So the very dynamic at work in Christ’s life, the very dynamic at work in the mystery of Christ, enters into us, so the same dynamic is at work in our own interior life. We are to be made another Christ, not just in an external imitation of Him, but rather our very interior life is marked by the same dynamic of the mystery of Christ: a surrender to death and a rising to new life and being elevated to God the Father’s right hand, now in faith, hope, and love, so that a new light breaks into our soul. The eyes of our hearts are enlightened and we are given a Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God, a knowledge that surpasses all we could attain on our own.
So what might this look like? The very dynamic at work in Christ’s life, what might this dynamic look like as it enters into our interior life? How is our subjective experience in prayer marked by the mystery of Christ? How does our prayer participate in the life of Christ? Here are a few examples and possibilities. The experience of the subtle light of contemplation we have been pondering is a share in Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The Christian East emphasizes this. Put in simple terms, while in prayer on the Mount with Jesus, light begins to break through the surface appearance of things, so we see things with a new depth or in a new light. Put differently, contemplation is an afterglow of Christ’s Transfiguration.
Or for another example. The experience in prayer of littleness and simplicity re-lives something of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus. Letting out cries of simple childlike joy and trust, “Abba, Father!” is a share in the same dynamic which was at work in the soul of the baby Jesus in the arms of our blessed Mother.
Or for another example. The feeling of solitude in prayer, apart from all created things, plays out again Jesus’ own retreat to the mountain to pray in seclusion, alone with the Father in the depths of intimacy.
Or for another example. The sense in prayer of a confidence in a final victory and resolution may be a result of the Victory of Christ’s Resurrection holding sway over us.
Finally, the sense in prayer that our minds and hearts are raised to things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, that our life is hidden with Christ in God, is a playing out of Christ’s Ascension in our own life.
The Catechism opens a door for us to consider all of Jesus’ words and actions in terms of His own prayer when it states, “His words and works are the visible manifestation of his prayer in secret.” Paragraph 2602. “[Jesus’] words and works are the visible manifestation of his prayer in secret.” And Jesus re-lives and re-works these mysteries in our souls as well.
In the Ascension, the Lord Jesus brings the whole of his human life into the glorious life of the Trinity. He creates a space for us and carves out a share in his own heavenly life. Since Jesus’ own human life is brought into the midst of this heavenly life, it means, vice-versa, that his heavenly life is brought into the midst of our human life. Thanks be to God. Amen.