When Joseph Patchett speaks about contemplation and St. John of the Cross it is like a breath of fresh air. He is direct and down to earth as he recounts his own remarkable conversion, sparked by a car accident and the writings of an Indian yogi that gave him a taste of mystical experience, and set him on the road to trying to live the contemplative life. And this is something he is still trying to do today as a married man with six children and a normal job, and as a Third Order Carmelite.
This is an inspiring story and a penetrating commentary on John of the Cross who appears, not as the exponent of some exotic theory, but as a practical guide for those called to the experience of union with God which St. John called infused contemplation.
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Hi, I’m Jim Arraj, and today we are going to meet Joseph Patchett, a man who has a deep knowledge of Christian mysticism and St. John of the Cross, and this is a knowledge that has come through his own conversion and his attempts to live out the contemplative life, working at a regular job and as a married man with six children. We visited him here in Manchester, Massachusetts north of Boston.
Joe: I was born in 1935, and Patchettland was out in the country and there were six of us children. I was the second child, and it was a very peaceful, quiet existence, nothing like we live today. When I was young my mother went to work during the day and my father stayed home. We lived on a ranch and we had a lot of time on the ranch. We used to play in the woods and run wild, so to speak. We didn’t have a lot of chores. As we got older we did have to help with the cows and we had more chores as we got older, but I don’t know, it was just a very peaceful existence, happy, no trauma, you know? Almost hard to describe unless you wrote a book about it because it was so unusual compared with today’s life. We didn’t have a lot of money. Mom used to make our shirts. We got one new pair of shoes a year to go to school. I didn’t like to go to school. I had to put those shoes on. We ran barefoot all summer. It was warm in California.
Starting in high school I can remember thinking that the people who knew what they wanted to do were the lucky people because they would achieve something. They had a goal and they would go after it. I never seemed to have one. I even went to college for a quarter to study mechanical engineering, but I just didn’t like it. I had no ambition. I liked to party, but I just didn’t have any ambition. I worked at various jobs, one of which was a fire-fighting job for the federal forestry, but that was seasonal. So, having tried a quarter of college, and having worked for the forestry for a season of eight months, I had nothing to do. I just decided to go in the Air Force, I don’t know why. I think my dad was relieved. He realized I was sort of floating, and he wondered what I was going to do with my life, too. And I liked flying or the idea of flying, but I didn’t go into pilot training or anything, I guess it was romantic, and I thought the Air Force would be a highly disciplined, idealistic group to be involved in, so I joined the Air Force for four years. It was an easy thing to do, being young and foolish.
In the Air Force it just seemed to me that people were aimless, and I was very disillusioned with the Air Force because it was not that idealistic, and there was not that much training and discipline required, and then the job became very humdrum. It was radar. I just had this urgency to do something with my life, to make some meaning out of my life. It was like I grew up the minute I left home. I began to grow up, and I began to look for something that is meaningful to dedicate my life to. And I began to read all sorts of things that had to do with unusual things in science. I don’t think you would call some of the reading... it was mystical types of things in the non-religious sense.
I was driving a friend of mine’s car, which was a big, old heavy Packard, and I was driving down a road in California that was a two-lane road, it was an old road. It was concrete, and it had just started to rain, and the first rain in California on an old road like that is slippery because there is oil and dust on the road, and it is starting to mix with the water. But I didn’t know that at the time, and I didn’t know that the rear tires on the car were bald, they were balonies. The speed limit was 55 and I was driving about that speed, and I stepped on the gas to pass. I wasn’t driving recklessly or anything, but as I turned back into my lane the car began to go sideways down the road. Now, it went completely sideways, and I tried to correct for it and took my foot off the gas, but it was like on ice, and I am sliding down the road like this sideways at 60 miles an hour, and sliding off the road gradually towards this huge tree, and I could see this tree coming up for me, like I said, at 60 miles an hour, and it is going to hit me right where I am sitting. So I laid down in the seat. I was calm enough, and I just laid down in the seat just before impact. The car sure enough did hit, folded in the car where I was sitting, hit me on the rump, broke some bones in my lower back, vertebrae, crushed them, and folded the car in. The car smashed against that tree, and apparently people coming from behind and in the other direction, they all saw me and they all missed me because I hit that tree and the car went across the highway and it didn’t tip over and landed in a ditch upright. Of course, I am lying in the seat, out of breath and I can’t breathe. All of a sudden people come over and get the other door open, and I remember one lady saying, “Oh, the poor man, the poor person.” Right after that an ambulance came by from the Air Force base right where I was stationed, and they stopped to see what was going on, and they found out I belonged to the base, and they said, “Well, we’ll take him on to base.” So they sort of lifted me out. I couldn’t bend, and they lifted me onto a stretcher, put me in the ambulance and took me to base where I laid there for it seems like about three days until finally they said, “Gee, he’s got a broken back. We’ve got to send him to the hospital.” You’ve heard about military doctors, at least in the ‘50s. Sure enough, I did have crushed vertebrae in the lower back, and the doctor said it was lucky I did not sever a spinal column.
So now I am in the hospital recuperating, and after a couple of days they need to put a full half-body cast to keep my spine straight while it heals. There is no need for an operation, and they had to reset my back with the cast on, which caused more pain than the original. I was on medication for two or three days. That was quite severe pain. Anyway, then I was there in the hospital to recuperate, and I was mainly on my back and not move too much. Some friends from the base came, and the Master Sergeant brought his girlfriend who brought me some books to read. Now, I don’t know if he told her I was reading all these strange books about hypnosis and mysterious types of things, and scientific things, or what. I don’t know why she brought me these books, but they were rather unusual books. One was a book written by a Hindu priest, not a Christian priest, a Hindu, and he wrote the story of his life and the story of his coming to America. But the most striking thing about that book, or about that man was his trust in a living God who was the one true God, and he was a God of love. And this priest trusted this God so completely, it was like he had a personal relationship with him, and he trusted him to take care of him even in miraculous ways if necessary. As I read this book for some reason I was awed by the possibility of God, a living God who was a loving God, the one true God, and since he was a God of love, he was willing because of love to use his power to help anyone who would love him in return, and trust him. And the more I read this book, the more I was overwhelmed, really. I was getting more convinced, but I was overwhelmed with this possibility of a God of love. You would think that I would have known that God exists, that God is a God of love because I was born and raised a Christian. I went to church every Sunday with my folks as a child and as a young teenager, but I don’t remember ever knowing this, or believing it. But as I read this book I was becoming convinced and enamored by this God, and at some point while reading it I began to make personal acts of trust and belief, faith, in this same God. And as I did so, it was not an experience of I was just a human being making interior acts. As I did so, it was a living experience that happened where I would trust this God and he was there, and he would support that trust, like encouraging me. It was something that was more than just human, but it was so integrated to my humanity that I didn’t stop and say something is happening to me, something mystical, something extraordinary, I just started believing in this God and it was exciting, and it was real. And the more I believed the more I wanted to believe, and trust. It was as if the act of believing was also an act of love and worship. But anyway, that’s sort of looking back on it. At the moment I was just starting to believe, and as I believed I was entering into the reality of this God of love who, since he was God, he had infinite power. Since he was the God of love, he was willing to use this power to help us as he helped this priest who was not even a Christian. I guessed I sense that he would help me or anybody who would love him, and I was very much aware that since he was a God of love, that’s all he wanted, was love. How did I know it? I don’t know how I knew it. It was just inside of me. It was like a reciprocal thing. The more I would believe, the deeper it would happen, and I began to want to do this every moment. I guess you could say it was like I was making contact with God, this God, but I didn’t stop and say that at that time.
The first few days I just wanted to keep reading that book. It was quite a thick book, so it took a few days, but at the end of it I didn’t go back into the book as if I needed to go back and get something from it. At the end of the book I was ready to close the book, but I wanted to do this believing in God and being aware of him, and in that process I was like entering into him even though I was staying on the earth in the hospital bed. In my consciousness, in my awareness I was like somehow entering deeper into God. I wasn’t going up or away or anything, but in an interior way I was getting closer to God and I began to want to continue this motion of believing and loving. I didn’t call it loving then. It was like giving and trusting, that was everything. I wanted to keep doing this every moment, and I began not to want to talk to my roommate who was a very talkative young person. I didn’t want to read any more. I didn’t want to sleep anymore. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to do anything anymore but just continue this, I guess nowadays, you would call it a dialogue. In this act of believing I was giving my heart and my mind to this living God whose name I did not know other than he was the one true God and he was the God of love, and he was honest and truthful. I was giving my heart to him in trust, in belief, and he was giving himself back to strengthen that or affirm that that act is true. It is acceptable, and it is true, and it was a reciprocal ongoing thing. That’s how I would describe it. It was reciprocal. It wasn’t just me making acts, as I think most people think of making acts. We just make them but we never get anything back. There is no conscious experiential reciprocity, but what I went through at that time was a living experience, so exciting.
So I am in the hospital and recuperating, and I have all this time to read and more and more make these interior acts as I am reading this book. Each day I start the day reading on, and getting more caught up in the living trust rather than the actual experience of this Hindu priest, and I just want to do this more and more. I had a very talkative roommate, and he was very interesting and very intelligent, and had had a lot of experience, but I got to the point where I didn’t want to spend that much time listening to his stories because it was taking me away from this interior act which he could have no idea of what was going on. After being there for a couple of weeks I could get up and walk around, and I would walk down the hall and go down to the little library where there were magazines and books, and I would sit there. I would take magazines off the rack and look at them. They were magazines I was familiar with, but they were like from another world. I wasn’t interested anymore. I saw it all in a different light. I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Sort of like child’s play. Something was going on inside of me that was touching eternity, and it was far more beautiful than any magazine could ever display, or anything else that I knew of had ever existed in this world, so I would spend my time, not very long, there, I suppose time just to get away from my talkative roommate so I could sit there and pretend to read, but I didn’t read the magazines even. I just wanted to be in the presence of this God who was pure love and very friendly and gentle, and because he was God and unlimited power, that was not oppressive or threatening. He did not present himself to me or to any other creature in existence in a threatening way. It was not overwhelming in that sense. It was gentle, interior presence. So I was just loving this ability. All I had to do was raise my heart and mind to God, and he was like giving himself to me in that. Not tremendous each time, but each time a little bit, and then I would give myself completely, and he would give himself a little bit more.
This went on until I got out of the hospital. I had friends come and visit me. I was very happy. I don’t know if they said, “Gee, he seems awfully happy for being bound up in a body cast,” stuck away from work and doing all the things people do when they recuperate and feel enslaved, but I didn’t feel enslaved at all. I was having a great time, really, and I didn’t care whether I was there or somewhere else as long as I could do this interior act. I had friends come and visit me, and I even remember confessing my faults. All of a sudden I had an awareness of what I thought were sins or faults from my past life. I very readily asked forgiveness for everything that I could think of, and then they left and I was back to this inner act of giving myself wholly and trusting completely in God. And I wanted to do this every conscious minute of my life and I really didn’t want to take time out to eat or sleep, but I would get hungry and I would eat a little bit, and I got tired so I would pass out and sleep. But the minute I would wake up I would start in again making these acts of trust and giving myself totally to God. It wasn’t forcing it, it wasn’t forceful, it wasn’t artificially imposed, it was not something like we often try to do – I concentrate on this and I work on this and there is a certain amount of push. It wasn’t like that. It was always like spontaneous and easy and desirable and coming from within. I was able from within to do this.
I got out of the hospital. I had to stay in the body cast for a couple of months. I had to take leave from the service. I had a month leave for recuperation, I had another month leave that was given to people who were going to be shipped overseas because I was going to be stationed overseas, so I had two month’s leave, and during this whole time, I mean it was great to have a paid vacation. I didn’t have to work. My friend was free and wanted to travel around. He was an older person and he had a car and he wanted to travel around and see places that he had been in the northwest, and a little farther to the Midwestern states, so I agreed to go with him, and we just traveled around. But inside of me the real trip was happening. I don’t like to use the term in the connotations it has from people taking trips starting in the ‘60s, but it was a different trip. It was wonderful. And basically it was always this simple act of, “I give you everything and I trust you completely,” which was one act. It wasn’t two. And as we spent this time, my friend knew something was going on, and I began to tell him. And as he was older and had a lot more experience with religions of the world, etc., he tried to put it in a religious context, but there was no way I could really describe to him or to anybody what was going on inside of me. And I liked to spend a lot of time just looking at things of nature. I remember in San Francisco sitting out on the edge of the bay of the harbor by the Golden Gate bridge and looking at the ocean, and rocks. Everything natural was so beautiful. It really was heavenly, and I loved to spend hours doing that. So I began to read the New Testament with a voracious appetite like I had gold in my hands, and I just knew that even though I didn’t understand, I would understand what God wanted me to understand, and I was of course learning about the Holy Spirit and about Jesus, and I was making acts of faith: I believe in Jesus. I believe who he says he is, the son of God. I believe the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit he sent, that he said he would send, and he would teach me. I sort of knew that by intuition, so I began to read the New Testament.
The experience was getting less intense than it had been of course those first few weeks in the hospital, and the first few weeks immediately following, but it still was like the basic thing in my heart that all I wanted to do in my consciousness. I just wanted to make these acts of completely trusting, and completely giving myself to the living God who was everything. I went to this church service, and I felt tears welling up in my eyes, saying to myself, this is all true. This is beautiful. God in the person of Jesus established churches, and it just struck me as being so wonderful that he came and gave his life for us. So I was starting to become aware of established religion, and before I was shipped overseas I went on my own one night to the local chapel which was quiet, no one there, of course, and I was born and raised in the Protestant church so naturally I went to the Protestant chapel. I didn’t know there was any other church, actually. The Episcopalian church I went to was a little bit more ornate Protestant service than I was familiar with. I went to this chapel that night. I remember there being a plain podium, I suppose, an altar with a book on it, and some lilies. I think maybe I was expecting to have some experience because by this time I was believing that Jesus did establish a church. Maybe I expected his presence there in a special way with this newfound faith. As I remember, it was just sort of nothing. I didn’t feel anything. There was nothing special other than the inner act. So I left. And my folks came to visit me before shipping overseas, and I told them some of the things going on, and I think they thought I was a little crazy. (laughs) How could you describe this? It is impossible. I don’t know what they thought. I think they did tell me later that they thought I was going a little off my rocker, but they were glad to see I was back on track.
Well, the next thing that happened was quite significant. I was going over to Okinawa, and in those days we had old airplanes with propeller-driven airplanes, a big 4-engine super conie, noisy, couldn’t hear yourself think in the plane, but that trip over to Hawaii up in the air was just beautiful. We landed in Hawaii for a short stop-over for fuel, and that was beautiful, and back in the plane, flying over the Pacific into the sun, and the sun was taking a long time to go beneath the horizon because we were flying into it. At that time, even though I was maybe not making explicit acts of trust at that moment, I was more or less living in this aura by this time, I would be living in this aura of living in the presence of the living God, at that moment, an undefined moment, but just at a moment, it was as though He left.
I could focus in a different way on the sun. I could see it in a different way like my senses came alive more definitely, and it was beautiful, but it was only natural beauty. I was so aware. I can’t tell you how I felt. I felt like a child who had been raised in love, and all of a sudden for no reason, no apparent reason, was abandoned by their parents. Analogously, like a child caught in war, and the parents are killed all of a sudden, and the child is left alone, crying, why did this happen? Why did my parents leave me? It was that kind of feeling even though, up there in the air flying along and it was beautiful, I was so aware that it was only natural. I was back on earth.
It was like an emptiness and a loss, and what happened? How could this happen? I never expected it to happen. I assumed that this new life I had been living was going to be until I died because there was no other life. This was life with God, Himself, and it was just beautiful, and this was what it was all about. This was why He made us. This was what true sonship was like. This was why Jesus came and took on our own flesh and our own nature, to immerse us in this life. Where did He go? Why did He leave? Externally you couldn’t say that anything was any different, but it shows how this inner dynamism, this inner reciprocal relationship, how deep it was and how real it was, and how it permeated my whole life in the short space of – I suppose this whole thing occurred in the space of two months – I think it was two or three months, total time.
So now I am up in the plane flying on to my new assignment in Okinawa in the Air Force, and I am going into darkness, analogously, a term used by the mystics, I was going into a state of spiritual emptiness and loss, and a certain kind of pain and loneliness, and wondering what happened, and I stayed in that during the process of arriving at the new base, and on the way the trip was still beautiful and exciting. We landed at Wake Island, we landed at Guam, all new stuff to me, and thinking about the history during the War and everything. It was all beautiful and interesting, but it just was not the same any more. Landing at Okinawa, going to our new base isolated up on the top of a mountain, starting my new assignment, it was all exciting, and it was all sort of empty, or more than sort of. It wasn’t hopeless. It was like deep, deep back I knew that this can’t go on. This God who I was putting my trust and faith in, and who I was developing a relationship with, I would say, was still there. I knew that intellectually. I knew it. The basis of this was not despair. It was just a loneliness, and wondering what happened, and what could I do to be back in the presence of God?
I completed my first radar shift, which I remember was a night shift so that we got off at midnight, and I went down to – we had a little library room in our barracks, and in that library room the priest from the large Air Force base had put a lot of literature, he or somebody had put a lot of literature. I found out later, I didn’t know it at the time, I just went down and sat down sort of in the sense of emptiness, and I want to say despair, but it wasn’t that heavy. It was just lost, and this feeling of darkness and searching. It didn’t help anymore to read the Scriptures as it had helped. The Scriptures had been so wonderful up to this point, but reading the Scriptures didn’t help. No warmth, no consolation came back, no presence. So I was sitting there in this library, leaning back, sort of in a hopeless way, leafing through the books with my fingers, and I pull out this book, and it says, The Imitation of Christ. So, that’s good. The Scriptures weren’t doing anything, I’ll try anything. I opened The Imitation of Christ. Well. This man started talking about things that were – some life started coming back. I said, “Oh, my goodness,” I was there for the whole night because what this man talked about I said he could not have learned this except from God, the God that I knew, had known, and of course some of this warmth, pabulum, for a starving child was coming back. And in this book he was talking about things I had never heard of, the Eucharist, communion that was actually God, Himself, in His body and blood. What a fantastic idea. I had never heard this in my life, but this man of holiness was talking about this as if it was part of his religion, his denomination. And the Mass. I had never heard of the Mass, and Confession, Penance. I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about, these were all new things to me, and I said, “Wow, this is really some religion,” but I read back to see that the author lived back in the 1300s, which is centuries away, a long time ago. I sort of was very enamored that this man had this holiness that allowed him to speak such wisdom as he spoke in that book, but it was a little sad that he lived in a religion that was so old. Maybe it wasn’t around any more.
So I went to sleep exhausted and got up in time to go back to work in the afternoon shift, and did my shift, and after work went back down to the reading room. Since I had had such a good experience the night before just picking out different books, I went to the same section, and I tried it again. I leafed through, I fingered through some more books there, and I am pulling them out. I pulled out one, The Story of a Soul. Hmm. Sounds good. I open it up, start reading. Again, this person is really talking about things that really come from holiness and from the living God. I knew this time it was a woman, and she was living in the same kind of context as the author who wrote this other book, which I now know is a monastic context, but I never knew about monks and cloistered sisters when I read this book, but this sister was a young person, she was writing about these holy things, and she was especially talking about Communion as being the actual living God, Jesus, by a miraculous transformation, existing whole and entire in this bread, and her devotion and her faith were such that I could see it was true. I got even more excited when I read when she lived – late 1800s! I said, “Wow, now this is getting close.” Maybe this religion is still here. Maybe it is still around. My idea was denominations, they come and go, and there are hundreds of them. I didn’t have an idea that Jesus established a church which He said was going to remain until the end of the world because He was going to protect it. Now I am really getting excited. My heart is pounding, you know, because reading these books of holiness was a process of seeing that there existed in the concrete what I had experienced in my heart over an extended period of time, and then of course for unknown reasons I lost for a few days, and I was devastated in a way, but now that I am finding something like this in the concrete, this is very hopeful. There are other people over a period of centuries who have experienced these kinds of things and have written about them, and if there are these two, there are probably more. It was very exciting.
I looked around the library and I found a magazine, I think it was The Sign magazine, and from that I got the idea that this church was still here. It has the Eucharist, has the Mass, has saints. I found out these people were saints. They called them saints. So it was after that that I said to my friend, what about this Catholic Church? Are there any around? Do you know anything about them? And he mentioned it to John Hawkins, and John Hawkins said to me, “I hear you are interested in becoming a Catholic.” Well, I never did form those words in my mind before, but the minute he said that, something clicked, I guess. I said, “Yeah.” (laughs) He said, “OK. I’ll introduce you to the priest when we get down to the main base,” and I said, “OK.” A little bit of fear and trepidation, but I said, “OK, let’s do it,” which he did. We went to the chaplain, Fr. Rooter, I think was his name. I said, “Hi, Father,” and we were introduced. I said, “My name is Joe Patchett, I am living up there in the radar site, and I want to become a Catholic.” He told me later, he said, “Wow, what am I going to do? I have a convert on my hands here, and I don’t know how I am ever going to instruct him up in that radar site,” but he said, “OK.” He gave me book, and then another one, and then he started looking, and said here’s another one. And pretty soon he had a pile of books that high.
Two months the father came to our site. He said, “Joe, I came to see how it is going. How is it going?” And we talked for a while, and at the end of our talk he said, “I think you are ready.” “Wow. All ready so soon? Fantastic. If you say I’m ready, OK.” So we made a date that I should receive conditional baptism because I didn’t know if I had been baptized or just christened in my church, so I was to receive conditional baptism. First I needed to go to confession because I was older, and then I could receive Eucharist. So we made the date. I went down to the main base. Actually the Confession was a lot easier than I thought. “Oh my goodness, I’ve got all these years of sin that I have to confess.” I had never been to Confession, and I didn’t know. I thought this was going to take hours, too. It was a piece of cake. The father would say, “Now this is the first commandment,” and he would repeat it, and ask, “Now did you ever worship false gods that you know of?” I said, “No.” He just went down the list. He would ask me questions, and I would say yes or no, and how many times. It was a piece of cake. It was great. Then I received First Communion. I was learning about faith from all the reading, but I suppose I expected maybe when I received Communion heaven and earth would open up for a moment. After that experience I think it was natural to expect something fantastic, and instead it was just the gentle, peaceful presence of the Lord, but not the same as that really dynamic conversion experience, but it was just a gentle, presence of the Lord, and it was wonderful.
Well, very soon after my entrance into the Catholic Church I began to read more books available written by Catholics, and one of the first I read was The Seven Story Mountain, which was the story of the conversion of a person about my same age. So that was very interesting to me, Thomas Merton, and from there I read other books that were in existence that he had written, and in these books, one of them, I don’t know which book it was, Ascent to Truth perhaps, he mentioned St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and something of what they said. And as I remember, when I read about those saints and what they said, I was so overwhelmed. I think my heart beat so hard, I was so excited that I cannot really describe in words how excited I was. I think my hands became sweaty as I held those books and I read about that, that existence of what John of the Cross was calling contemplation. To me that was just a word, but it was describing this inner reality of God touching us and our response to him, and he was describing it in such a solid way that one of the first things I was impressed with was this kind of life, this dynamic relationship, very intimate dynamic relationship with God can be an ongoing thing. It is not going to be a conversion experience that is going to stop and then I am going to be back, or any of us are just going to be back in our old humanity.
I must have seen that this contemplation is an extension of the very relationship that I at first took for granted would be the basic relationship we have with God. I assumed that everybody who was Christian would have this very deep experience of God that I had during my conversion years, but going through that period of darkness and then that period of starting to learn what faith is and trying to live in faith and coming to a new Catholic Christian, I suppose I was looking at the possibility that we live for a time with human consciousness only, but when I began to look at the possibility of contemplation, I am sure instinctively I said, “This is that touch of that life, or I have had a touch of this life, and I want to live this life.” And I couldn’t really see what other kind of life there would be to live as a Christian. It was like an inner attraction, I would say. I didn’t say explicitly, “Oh, I am called to be a contemplative, or I am called to be a monk,” or anything like that. That never came to me at that time. It was just an inner attraction.
Because of that experience, I think I expected to have experiences like that again, maybe even deeper. Perhaps at first I expected contemplation to be like that, a continuation of that experience. And so often, more often than not, the literature that you read on contemplation can give you that impression. It is an altered state of existence. It is an experience of God where you see God alive in nature and beyond. I probably from having come to God through this tremendous experience expected to experience God again.
Like I say, after all, the literature encourages you in that direction. And I must honestly say that God treated me like a child, and gave me some experiences from time to time, sometimes moments that were so deep that I could relate to what St. John of the Cross was saying and Teresa of Avila, moments that they described that are moments of contemplative prayer which only served to fuel me and encourage me on towards contemplation.
I suppose because of the experience I was hoping to someday live in an altered state of consciousness perpetually. (laughs) You know? I mean, if you’ve been to heaven, who wouldn’t want to go back and stay there? I understand that from that experience. I understand St. Paul saying, “For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain.” You know? “And I don’t know which I want,” he says, “because I know I’m doing a lot of good here, but I’d really rather be with Christ.” I understand that from the experience, and when John of the Cross talks at length about what it is like to live in the state of union, transforming union, he has a lot to say on that. I could relate to that as one looking, and say, “Yes, I believe. I see that it is possible.” I would like to do it, and I could relate to it as something very real. As John says, it is the most wonderful thing that could happen to mankind, to any human being. It is the highest state of man. I could relate to it that way, but I couldn’t relate to it and say I’ve been there and I’m just waiting to get back. I couldn’t say that. I knew that that is a different state than my conversion experience, but that was a taste of it, a very real taste. It wasn’t an artificial taste. It was a real taste, so naturally that affected my whole outlook as it would anybody that I can think of.
I did what most people who have tried for any length of time to live a contemplative life wherever they were, have done. I tried everything. (laughs) I tried so many things you wouldn’t believe it. I’d hate to catalog them all. Anything and everything. Let’s see. What have I actually tried to do? I tried to go to a monastic community, but I felt clearly God wasn’t calling me, so I wouldn’t go if God wasn’t called me, but I would have gone. I would have tried. I would have been happy to be a Camaldolese monk. I would have been happy as a lark because then all I would have to do is seek contemplation, right? (laughs) I mean, to me that’s the best of all worlds to be a Camaldolese monk. But I did go into religious life, thinking that was my calling. While I was in religious life luckily the founder of our Order was a man who though very active, a St. Paul type of missionary person, his spirituality was very conducive to contemplation if you understand it rightly, and as I lived out the religious life I was always trying to be a contemplative although I never sat down and said I want to be a contemplative, or I didn’t say, “God, please grant me contemplative prayer at this moment,” but I was always in that attitude of trying to be quiet and be a contemplative. I began to read with more hope and very definite intention John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila while I was in religious life, especially Teresa of Avila. I depended on her. She was so practical and helpful for me in the first few years of religious life in novitiate. And John of the Cross was difficult to absorb so I would set him aside except I would read “The Canticle of Canticles” and “The Living Flame of Love” to see where I’m going – give me hope for the journey, right? Even though people would say, “You shouldn’t read that stuff. You are just a novice, and you might go off the deep end.” But to me it was like taking a little taste of the cake before you could eat the whole thing, you know, to give me some strength and inspiration of where I was going. But I would in a practical way read the beginning parts of John of the Cross, but it was very tough to take, so I would read Teresa of Avila, and for quite a few years I did that in religious life.
Then towards the end of religious life things in a way became chaotic. It was the beginning of the Vatican Council and all sorts of changes began to occur. It was very exciting, all these new things, but for me, being a convert and seeing all the fantastic beauty that had existed in the church up until this point now, for 1900 years, that was 99% of the wonderful, beautiful substance that I wanted. Wisdom was there. So I couldn’t get that excited about all the new stuff that everybody seemed to be excited about. In a lot of ways I had the opposite reaction. While everybody was running here and there to do all this new wonderful stuff, I was looking more into, this is what I really want. I want this wisdom that John of the Cross talks about, that my own founder, St. Louis de Montfort, talks about. This is what I want. I began to pray more and more in religious life, and spend time, hours and hours and hours that maybe other people were spending studying, or recreation, I would spend just praying. I literally stayed in my closet. Literally. I don’t know why, but I just wanted this, and I read John of the Cross, and by this time I had received the gift of his completed works, and I was wearing that book out. So I did that with a very lively hope.
It took several years for me to find out, because I resisted it very greatly, but when I found out I was not called to religious life, I think at the same time I suffered an inner despair which I never acknowledged or put a name on. I think I despaired of contemplation, and the goal of union that John says is the natural goal of contemplation. I mean, that’s why people become contemplatives is to become in union with God, to have an intimate relationship with God. I think I despaired of that without, like I said, putting a name on it. But deep down inside, in that murky area of the psyche, I think I despaired of it, and didn’t actively seek the spiritual life in my first years of marriage. As I look back, it was a kind of despair. Well, that’s not very good faith, I know, but that’s what happened. Rationally if someone had said to me, “Are you despairing of the spiritual life?” – I still was a Christian, a Catholic Christian, I still went to Mass and so forth, did the basics – but I might have said on the surface, “Well, you know, I still want the same things I ever wanted,” but deep down inside I think I despaired of contemplation and the goal of contemplation. And so in a way that was a devastating period. It had a tremendous effect on my marriage, but then, on the other hand, being caught up in all the beauties and wonders of marriage and children takes a lot of your time and attention.
Now, during that time, sort of like I guess an expression of despair, which was one of these heavy, depressing, painful despairs, I got to drinking wine. It was like an outer symbol of the inner thing that was lost, being happy and high. Right? The wine of the vine and not the wine of the spirit. I finally went to excess where I had to stop and change my lifestyle. Now the period between getting married and seeing that I had to stop and change my lifestyle was about, I’d say, five years, and at that midpoint I began to say, “I have to put the spiritual life first. That’s all there is.” I didn’t at that point immediately start saying I’m going to be a contemplative. I was too far away from it at that point. But the path back towards desiring to be a contemplative, now I’m married and in the world, there’s no question or even thought of monastic life or anything like that, but I said as many people were saying since the age of renewal, contemplation must be possible for the layman. Contemplation is for the layman. That was a loud voice in the renewal, and still is a loud voice.
So I began to try to lead a spiritual life again, and experience the wine of the spirit instead of the wine of the vine, become sober and be more faithful. I began reading John of the Cross again, and I began reading The True Devotion to Mary, the spirituality of our Order, and rededicating myself to God and to Our Blessed Mother. This was a step-by-step slow process that went on for the next five years.
I began to gain a real, definite, practical hope for the first time in my life of living the contemplative life as described by John of the Cross, and I began to read John of the Cross in my spare moments, and devour him. And I began to see things that I had read many times over the years before that I had never seen before. And it was amidst times of darkness and anxiety and trial and a certain kind of suffering that this came about. The troubles of a very active ministry was the context where I could for the first time solidly, definitely, look at John of the Cross and say, “This is practical. I can do this with God’s help.”
Contemplation is essentially indescribable. That’s very important to realize from the beginning. Because of that, anybody who talks about contemplation is in a real way going to always talk around it and about it, and that’s the best we can do because contemplation in itself is God, himself, in his inner being touching us in our inner being. You might say soul to soul, spirit to spirit. It has no form. That’s why you can’t describe it. It is God, himself. John of the Cross uses crystal clear analogies, like he gives the analogy of a light. It is like a ray of light striking the soul. It is the pure love of God touching the soul, and of course if you understand that the soul of man is an integral reality of intellect, will, the spiritual soul, anything that touches the soul is going to have some effect on the mind, the spiritual intellect, the will and the memory.
But anyway, he describes it as a ray of light, the pure love of God being poured forth into the soul of man. The mystical tradition, the Catholic church, uses the term infusion, infused love poured in. It is an immediately contact with God, initiated by him. It is divine, so you cannot initiate it. It is beyond human nature to initiate it, only to receive it.
Some people will describe contemplation in such general terms that they will say everybody is a contemplative, and there is truth to that when you describe contemplation as being divine love that is infused into the heart and soul of man because we know that divine love is infused into our soul even at baptism, and then it increases as we live the Christian life, in that sense. But in the sense that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila describe, not even half of people who are sincere, intent, totally dedicated, consecrated to God, completely intent on loving God above all things, seeking perfection in all terms, not even half of those are called by God to contemplation. And they have to be called because God is the initiator. You cannot initiate contemplation, yourself. You will hear people talk about contemplation as though you could, like, at one point John has the description, well, this beautiful light which is God is living in us all the time. All we need to do is get rid of the impediments and it will shine forth through us into our faculties, etc. He has an expression like that, which if you take that in the universal interpretation, you would say, yes, and therefore we can all become contemplatives if we just get rid of the impediments, or attachments, etc. This light will shine forth and we will become contemplatives. But John does not give it that kind of universal interpretation. He says in his overall descriptions and works and his intention, he affirms what he says, that not all are called by God to contemplation, not even half, and nobody knows why except God. God alone knows why.
Now if you want to find somebody who you think is a contemplative you can find quite a few people. They seem very contemplative, but if you go ask them, most of the time they will say, “No, I don’t think so,” even though they might really be. If you ask some people who are knowledgeable about what contemplation is, “Are there many contemplatives?” they will say, “Yes, I think there are.” At the same time they will often admit, “But they don’t know it.” And neither does the rest of the world. They suspect it. So are there a lot? I think there are, but can I point them out, no. I can’t even point to myself and say for sure, “Yeah, you’re a contemplative.” I wish I could in a way. I did have one person say to me, once, “I’m a contemplative, and I’ve been through the dark night of sense,” – this person was familiar with John of the Cross and had been through the dark night of spirit – “and I am a contemplative.” It is the only person I have ever met that would say that to me. (laughs) But I could not affirm or deny that they actually were. I hope there are many. I suspect there are many.
You ask God for this gift, and you do everything you can to prepare for it. John of the Cross has quite an explicit asceticism, and Teresa of Avila complements that. She gives advice as to what to do as far as preparing yourself to be a contemplative, but much of their advice could be taken, too, for just how do you live a good Christian life. How do you seek union with God whether you are called to be a contemplative or not? That advice could be used. But anyway, you do that. You try to prepare yourself. You try to get rid of the things in your life that are impediments, and you try to open yourself to the gift and be totally dedicated and committed to God. And to me that means committed to his church, after the example of the saints and the teaching of the church, seeing in that an act of faith in Jesus, himself, who is embodied in the church and his authority, too, so I do that, too. I think many people do. I think that many people who do the same thing. They are totally committed to the church, not because of external, human authority, but because of internal faith where they are saying, “This is Jesus embodied, this is his church. He is teaching us, and so I need to be faithful.”
Teresa describes contemplative prayer, using the really neat analogy of the person who goes to the well to get water. In those days you had to dip the bucket down and crank it up, and carry it back and pour it in its receptacle. And I relate to that having been raised on the farm before we had electricity and we had to go pump the water. We had to pump it in a bucket and somebody always had that chore, and it becomes a chore, especially in the cold mornings and late at night when you are tired and you have to go get the water, and that’s what they had to do in Teresa’s day. While she’s talking from the experience of religious life, they are praying every day, they are trying to get – you could say they are trying to get close to the Lord and experience his love and devotion. And they have different ways of doing it and experiencing it through their reading and their meditation, and the saints are calling that active effort, like the person who has to go get the water.
All of a sudden something happens in their prayer where they don’t have to do all this effort. You don’t have to go get the water. God brings the water to you in the bucket, pours it out. (laughs) All of a sudden you just be quiet, and the Lord is there and he is absorbing, maybe in a very mild way at first, very gentle, but he is absorbing your mind and your will. Or sometimes he is just absorbing your will, and you know it. Your will is gone with him – it seems funny to say at first that the will can be separated from your intellect, or that there are levels in the intellect, and one part can be distracted and floating here and there like it is used to, and still the will is absorbed by God. But that can happen in this prayer of contemplation, and the saints describe that. So the analogy that now God brings you the water and pours it is a good analogy.
John has another description of the prayer of quiet, but it is absorption. You are absorbed by God. You may not know what is going on, but you know whatever is going on is very good, and you just want to stay there and be there with God for as long as it takes. Sometimes time disappears. Your consciousness of time is only a few minutes, and a half hour or an hour disappears, just like that. And you know when you become conscious of time again that something wonderful was happening, but you don’t know exactly what. You just know it was peaceful, and God was the cause of it. You know an evil spirit was not the cause of it. Some people have experiences of false prayer because they are trying so hard, and the deceptive spirit sees that, and God allows him to take over, and they are going into sort of a thing where they feel they are absorbed in, a sort of rosy feeling, and they might stay for a half hour in this, and there is a certain amount of conscious effort in it, but afterwards it is not peaceful and they are upset and they are more egotistic and agitated. If they have time and grace to reflect on it, they realize that was not God, even though the externals of it if they know about being absorbed in prayer, they might have thought, “Oh, I am absorbed in prayer now,” and they really focus their attention on it.
Now some people pray simply. They have come to the point where they pray simply over long periods of their life and they take for granted that that is the way to pray. If you were to ask them, they would say, “Well, I did all the words and the meditation. I just like to be quiet now.” There is the one man in the Curia of Ars story goes, “I just sit there and look at God and God looks at me.” Probably a contemplative prayer. You meet a lot of people that probably pray simply. It’s probably contemplative prayer because contemplative prayer of itself is obscure and not perceptible to our senses, but we go by our senses, so how do we know anything about it? It’s not conceptual. It doesn’t come through concepts. So that’s why I say there is no description possible for it. But as it intensifies different affects happen to us, and then we identify, and we say that probably it was contemplation.
Contemplation in its essence is mysterious. We just know from the masters, and thank God he gave us those masters, to speak clearly. He gave them the insight and the ability to speak clearly of what it is, masters that were doctors of the church now like John and Teresa, and they do speak clearly. I don’t think that God gives us, most of us, or anybody who is a contemplative, he gives them that clear knowledge. Maybe in a moment here and a moment there, but the rest of the time he leaves them in obscurity, and John describes a reason for that, so they can live in the merit of faith and increase in faith because that is like the pearl of great price. The greater is their faith, the greater is their union with God. It is intimately linked with love, divine love and faith. They always grow together in this life.
So that’s one of the reasons, at least, you can see that God would keep people who are contemplatives in obscurity about their contemplation. Plus, like I say, it is naturally obscure by nature. Contemplation is obscure. Now as contemplation intensifies it causes actual pain. At that point the pain is of such a nature that people need support and help from a good director who knows what is happening, or from other people around who are contemplatives and who can be supportive. If they don’t have this support they are very tempted to slow down or stop. In Teresa of Avila’s case, every time she would go to pray she would be attacked by all sorts of terrible pings and noises, and temptations, “What are you doing? This is stupid. You are wasting your time.” Or maybe more sensible things. She would be attacked so she would give up prayer. “I don’t want to do that because, good heavens, all the trouble it is causing me.” Right? That happens to contemplatives in that when the contemplation that God is giving intensifies, it is such a bright light, it brings to light all their faults, and they feel more horrible about themselves than they ever did in their whole life. And they say, “Something must be wrong. I must be doing something wrong or I wouldn’t be having all these horrible experiences.” They want to stop and go backwards, and for that reason John of the Cross goes to great lengths to describe this so that people won’t go back. They won’t go backwards. At the very moment they are becoming more intensive contemplatives, they think just the opposite and they want to quit.
But I think the most enduring, substantial sign is that you want to be a contemplative, and of course by that I mean you just don’t want it once and then you forget it. You want it the first day, and the second day, and the third day, and you even do things to increase that desire. And after going through all the troubles that you go through that happen to you through the normal course of life, you still want to be a contemplative, and that want is not only in the intentional realm, most people who really want something do all they can about it. If all they do is read, or talk to somebody, or spend a little snatch of time here and there just being quiet and saying, “Oh, God, I wish I could be a contemplative,” but it’s the desire. Where did that desire come from, that enduring, persevering desire? That was a gift of God.
I tend to say I would not want to put any limitations on the way God calls people because it seems to be so diverse anyway. You meet people from all different experiences, and how they come to contemplation, the desire of it, it seems to be different in every case. I do think, though, that if somebody keeps trying, which is going to include, now, they are doing their best to lead a Christian life, they will have experiences that will encourage them to continue on.
It is interesting that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing advises people to pursue this contemplative life only after they have pursued what he calls the active life, which means, as I understand it, they have done their best to lead a good Christian life, acquire the virtues, do the active works of a Christian, not necessarily be a missionary or in ministry, but led a good Christian life in whatever their vocation is, and they have done that for some time where they become mature Christians. And I think the reason why he advises that is that he knows that once the contemplative grace comes, now you’ve got to understand what I am saying, but it could destroy you. You know? (laughs) It could really destroy you if you don’t have maturity. You read John of the Cross as far as the darkness comes, you could understand that, “Oh, yeah, wow. What if this happens to me, is that what contemplation is?” So good solid...
On the other hand, I think that the grace of divine love, of itself, causes the virtues to increase, and maturity to happen, and strengthens you in every way, and John will describe that in his treatment of beginners. He will say divine love does cause humility, but then you will have these faults, and you’ve got to work on them.
Do everything you can to be faithful to God in your Christian life. Cut out all impediments. Give up all attachments that you have seen are an impediment as best you can. And on the positive side you will start doing everything you can to be faithful if you are not yet doing it like you will pray on a regular basis. You will pray the prayers of the church. You will go to Mass, you know? Confession. You will do all the basic things. At the same time you will nourish this desire for contemplation by reading the masters according to your own ability. Some people could not even begin to read John of the Cross. They just could not. Forget it. But they might be very inspired by reading the example of St. Therese the Little Flower, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, The Cloud of Unknowing. It is very simply written, but they would do reading. They might if they have the availability, they might go talk to contemplative nuns, the Carmelite nuns, or the Trappistines or they might talk to someone they’ve heard among the priesthood or religious life who they heard was contemplative.
I don’t know. I imagine there are a lot of things other people will say you can do for contemplation, but mainly it is a gift of God. I think the main thing is to ask him and dispose yourself for it. A lot of people will get the idea that it is being quiet. I have to be quiet. I have to be away. And then once they are away they will try to be quiet in their senses and their faculties by in a way holding their breath. “I’ve got to hold my breath.” It is a natural thing, but we all do that at times. But that is not going to gain you contemplation.
I think that one of the first things they’ve got to overcome is to say, “God is not going to give me the grace to be a contemplative because if he was, why would he have me living in this world? It’s chaotic. Gotta go to work every day. It is very mundane. I’m just a cog in the wheel. No one would miss me. Why do I have to be here? I want to be a contemplative.” That’s one of the first things that you have to overcome is that you may not be able to know God’s plan as far as... You may have to overcome the thing that if God wanted me to be a contemplative he would have put me in a monastery, and therefore I am not called. You have to get over that, that God will grant you this most marvelous gift that he has that I know of of contemplation if you want it. OK?
Now, practical things. You have to nourish that desire as best you can like reading and doing the basic things of Christian living, being faithful to Christian living, but you have to take the snatches of time that are necessary to pray, and included in that is the meditative spiritual reading. You have to take that time. Now, you might not find much time. I know people who find it nearly impossible to take a half hour a day of mental prayer. They have a half hour a day of Vespers and Lauds, Vespers in the morning and Lauds in the evening, 15 minutes per time, and that’s the only time they can get. Or if they are in the right context they get away during lunch hour to Mass, but they can’t get that half hour just to be quiet and do their mental prayer. Active people. I don’t think that’s uncommon.
I am of such a disposition and my work habits are such that I often can get my half hour in, but what if you are tired? I work the night shift. What if you’re tired and exhausted and you have other things to do? It can be difficult. Or if you force it in a way. Say, “I don’t care. Everything just has to drop. I’m going to take my half hour just to be with God because I want to be a contemplative.” You might take the half hour and you might fall asleep. (laughs) And you might say, “Gee, if I hadn’t taken a half hour I could have gotten this work done.” You just have to do it on a regular, disciplined basis. The discipline of it is to do it on a regular basis. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is to not get discouraged that God will not grant you this marvelous wonderful gift. He will always encourage you, too. So you just have to do it. Now, it is interesting that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing gives a practical description of how to be a contemplative, and he will say, “Now you might think from what I have said that this takes a long time.” He says, “It doesn’t take a long time. It takes only an instant.” Now, that’s interesting, because what he is talking about is contemplation. God infuses this. The God who lives outside of time and is not bound by time, he infuses something infinite just like that. (snaps his fingers) So it doesn’t take time like you think. And you talk to people and you see that they do experience these things like out of the blue. It might be during lunch break at work, or it might be when they are exhausted at night and they are thinking of going to bed, or it could be any crazy time. All of a sudden, it happens, you know, and that’s encouraging. And they ought to say at that point, “That was contemplation. That was contemplative.” Or they will just know it without even saying it, but sometimes you have to tell yourself to encourage yourself to keep trying.
The best way that I know of, the most important thing if you can take it, is to consecrate yourself to the Blessed Virgin, consecrate yourself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, consecrate yourself as completely and entirely as you can. A good example of how complete this can be is The True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. Or a condensed work of the same message called The Secret of Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. This is the best, most perfect way anybody that I know of can obtain contemplation because she holds this gift, as all the gifts of the redemptive gifts of the body of Christ, figuratively, in her hands to give to whom she wills, when she wills, as much as she wills. Like I say, this might sound strange and be hard to take, but if you can take it, this is the best way.
Very really you must understand that this is not something anybody can do. There is a whole thrust of effort out there of people who are going about it as though there is something you can do – centering prayer – and spend these hours, and be passive, and quiet the senses, and concentrate on this, and use this Eastern method of Zen, and it will bring you to this other consciousness, and that’s contemplation, and so forth and so on. There is a whole ton of stuff like that. I would say, “No. None of it.” I mean, you can do those things because they are good and healthy, and it can be the context that since it is good, it makes it easier for God to infuse this gift, but in itself, no, there is nothing you can do. God grants this gift when he wants to, and how he wants to, and how much he wants to. Ask him. Try to be as best disposed as you can. Use the discipline of the basic Christian life of commitment. Go as far as you can with it. But ask him. Continue to desire it. God loves a person of desires, like David. “David, you are a man of desires. I am going to grant your heart’s desires.” Do that.
The second thing, be aware of the obvious, that God is everywhere all the time. He is present, loving us all the time. He wants to love us. He wants to grant us this gift. That’s why he gave the desire. When we start to be contemplatives, all of heaven rejoices. All the angels and saints rejoice the moment somebody becomes a contemplative. And the moment they overcome all their faults and enter into betrothal, all of heaven rejoices again, (laughs) because the grace of union that comes from contemplation is so great that one moment of it is worth more for the salvation of the whole world, and for the benefit of the whole church, than anything you have ever done all your life no matter how much it was, no matter how heroic and sacrificial and blood-letting, this one moment of divine union through contemplation is worth more. And that’s why all of heaven rejoices. You have to realize that’s true, and go for it. Why, you’ve got the greatest person on your side wanting you to go for it, which is God, himself.
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