A Parent’s take on the Contemplative Life
To be a parent is to be a participant in the contemplative experience. This is true despite one’s capacity to recognize. A parent is engaged in a lifelong act of self giving. Of pouring oneself out for the needs of another. Contemplative prayer is a means to the same end. Although, the other in this context is often less tangible. In silence, one achieves over a very long time an emptying of ideas. And over a longer period an emptying of oneself. A parent deeply understands the act of Kenosis. In the early stages of contemplative prayer, one fears this self loss, but this is not the case with parenthood. A parent is so wrapped in her beloved that she never grasps her oblation until long after her child has obscured the very concept of sacrificial love.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.” These are undoubtedly words that a man who spent a lifetime in reflection understood as truth, and they resonate deeply in parenthood from a child’s first breath. Kenosis, self emptying, is an act of systematically letting go of what one considers necessary to align with the Divine Will. Parenthood, another form of self emptying, is another lifelong act of letting go. In the early stages, one hopes to lose herself forever in her beloved’s chubby cheeks and toothless smile only to wake up one day convinced that parenthood will never be better than the wagon rides with her toddler. And from every moment that seems to be the best, comes another. A mother must also contend with letting go of certain wants for her child’s needs. She, who has altered plans to go see the movie dad wants to see but the youngest caught a stomach bug and thwarted the rare date night is a parent who deeply acknowledges the principle of Kenosis. Parenthood is intuitively sacrificial. On the other hand, the contemplative life is a willful act of self sacrifice.
This sacrificial love is accessible throughout the human experience, and it is a cornerstone for parents and contemplatives alike. It’s monumental importance is evident as the only act of love that results in the giver’s capacity to love more. For the mystic, one powerful incarnation of concrete love is when he identifies his oneness with his environment, or recognizes Christ within whom he interacts. For the parent, it’s tangible when she understands her exponential capacity to love her children because of who they are. In good choices and bad, in reward and discipline, the mother is lost in her self givenness. She sees her child as simultaneously her and a wholly other individual. Indeed, the experience of interconnectedness is unavoidable for both of life’s paths.
The object with which one loves is where the life of the parent is infinitely less difficult. A mother, who may question the purpose of her sacrifice must look no further than the eyes of her, simultaneously one but uniquely other, child to remember. The mystic may go months or even years living on Manna in the desert in anticipation of an act from her beloved. In the case of Blessed Mother Teresa, she lived in this state for sixty eight years. Of course, her extreme aridity is very rare, but this sense of isolation is a normal occurrence in the interior life. As Job lamented, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” and so too does the contemplative occasionally lament.
In the end, sacrifice is a powerful tool that opens the heart to love. And the common thread of Kenosis for the mom and the mystic begins with emptiness for the other’s sake and can end in it’s full definition of oneness with the Divine Will. Though the contemplative seeks the beloved without first knowing while the parent first finds the beloved then seeks the best way to know. Both paths reveal the elemental components of discipline and sacrifice which, over time, transforms the lover to better accommodate the needs of the beloved. And both paths open the heart and mind to the reality that our life is not exclusively ours, but a shared existence. That we are at once ourselves and our ancestors. That we are all unique individuals while still a part of one Body.