Here we are in the middle of Lent, and spring is showing forth.
This is a surprise this year. Usually in Florida spring is present without much awareness of when it arrived. When the winter is mild, the transition from winter to spring is so seamless that it is hardly noticeable. With the colder winter this year, the coming of spring is more of an event.
We are fortunate that our Lent coincides with the arrival of spring because it is easier for us to go outside and experience contemplation of God through the creation.
Contemplation is a form of prayer which has been neglected within Protestant Christianity. We Protestants are preoccupied with what the ancient church called "the active life." Did not Martin Luther teach us that our duty is our "vocation" or calling from God? That was a valuable contribution, and its greatest gift was to teach us not to value monkish seclusion over the Christian life of the ordinary human being. Yet this emphasis on 'the active life" has obscured in our Protestant tradition the value of what the ancient church called "the contemplative life." If we really value the Christian life of the ordinary person, then we should teach that all of us are entitled to have both an active life and a contemplative life.
The "saints," those persons who possessed a special consciousness of the presence of God and dedicated themselves to cultivating the practice of this presence, instruct us by their example and writings that there are many levels of contemplation. Most of us are not called to the highest levels where human beings experience a consciousness of the divine presence sometimes called "mystical." The one level accessible to all of us is contemplation of God through God's creation.
Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware describes this kind of contemplation as "appreciating the 'thusness' or 'thisness' of particular things, persons and moments. We are to see each stone, each leaf, each blade of grass. each frog, each human face, for what it truly is, in all the distinctness and intensity of its specific being. As the prophet Zechariah warns us, we are not to 'despise the day of small things' (4:10). 'True mysticism,' says Olivier Clement, 'is to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.' No existing thing is paltry or despicable, for as God's handiwork each has its unique place in the created world. Sin alone is mean and trivial, as are most of the products of a fallen and sinful technology; but sin...is not a real thing [since all created things are good, sin or evil as such is not a 'thing,' not an existent being or substance,,,,but the twisting and misappropriation of what is good], and the products of sinfulness, despite their apparent solidity and destructive power, partake likewise of the same unreality" (The Orthodox Way, SVS Press,1979, p. 159). Ware says that the beginning of contemplation through creation is to stop, look, and listen so that we may begin to "see nature in God" (Ibid., p. 158).
In his novel Nickel Mountain, John Gardner describes a moment when Henry Soames is listening to his mother-in-law play hymns on her piano as he sat by the window looking at African violets and holding his young son. Suddenly, "it would come to him that the whole thing might be true. In whisp'ring grass I hear him pass. Maybe he'd been wrong; maybe they'd discovered the same thing he'd discovered, and differed from him only in trying to talk about it: a vision of dust succinct with spirit, God inside wasps, oak trees, people, chickens walking in the yard" (New Directions, 2007, p. 303).
Lent is an intensive time. If you are practicing some form of fasting ( I am doing without meat), then the way becomes a little difficult mid-way through the season. And this Lent is not easy because of the sourness of the country in this time of economic recession. Yet spring comes and makes it easy. You are pulled outside by the warmth, the sunshine, and the birds and flowers. Then you remember why we are giving something up; it is to be free to contemplate and pray to God. Then you can receive all of those powerful images from the Scriptures which will be read as the season of Lent comes to its climax during Holy Week. Christ is crucified on a tree! How we misuse the good creation, and how we need the grace revealed in Christ's redemptive suffering in order to be restored to our right place in God's creation!
I think we all need some time for contemplation through the creation. We are cooped up inside our institutions and preocuppied with the work of our own hands. Even those of us who are clergy forget what the church is as we can become preoccupied with institution-keeping as an end unto itself. And -what a gift!--here comes spring to make it all easy for us.