(Painting from a Ruysch Still Life)
Contemplation (and a Rose)
It was through the back alley that I was walking, that alley that is lined with overhanging trees and wild growth that smells (in morning dew) of okra and cut grasses and rot. It is cliche to say that it was a rose, but it was a rose--a pink one on a bush that was meant to be kept (and indeed was mostly kept) on the far side of a wooden fence, but which had dangled a little arm of itself through one of the cracks in its search for the light, finding enough to bother blooming; the pink on the bloom was an outgrowth of a deeper white, and the flower was small--as with any real rose more in touch with its wild self--and very fragrant. I let the smoke from my pipe waft up a moment and simply looked at it. Shall I say again what a cliche it was? The creator deals in cliches, I suppose. It really was a rose that, for the first time, my eyes met in something approaching sincere contemplation.
We talk very little about this now--contemplation. I was never taught about it--to say nothing about being taught it--and then we are products of what our minds are fed more than we would wish to admit. In a sense, it eludes definition--contemplation does--because the act of contemplating necessitates the collapse of words and mental rubrics, the abandonment of description and narration, and no truly wordless moment can ever be described except in regards to what it lacks. Yet, to describe it is something that great thinkers have sought to do more than once, and I have learned from them--had been learning something from them before standing in front of the rose. Joseph Pieper, somewhere in Leisure: the Basis of Culture, observes that when faced with a thing such as a rose, a human being makes a choice between attempting to measure and describe the thing--thus imposing a kind of human order and comprehension--and simply contemplating it, which is to let it be what it is--to let it face the viewer and be itself without the mind trying to bend or capture it in any way.
Contemplation is in this: in letting things be--in letting them speak on terms wholly undefined by the viewer. It is to an encounter (with object or person) what listening is to a symphony, or what listening is to the symphony of good conversation, or what listening is to the symphony of good silence. It is passive but never anaesthetized, quiet but never really silent, soft but backed by the essential and most concrete foundation of the human self. Contemplation is a cool drink when one is thirsty but not parched, the water both lush and rich and yet beautifully tasteless. It is to sit back and let the world dance its dance, or perform its part, with no hope of remembering it later, of reporting back to those waiting at home who have not seen--there is no impulse, in contemplation, to capture either for the purpose of preservation or of sharing. It is, therefore, an unmercenary act, a kind of defeated moment, white-flagged, yet in the certain knowledge that mercy will be shown--is being shown--to the vanquished and therefore utterly peaceful soul.
This, at least, is contemplation in the face of another created thing--person or animal or object (like a rose). In the face of the Lord it is much the same, though its results as described in the great mystical tradition of Christianity from the desert fathers to the hesychasts is all the more profound. For to sit before God and let Him be as He will be is to encounter Him with a force far past description. It is enough to stop the heart when we stand in front of a flower without script or expectation, and to let what it is really enter the deep part of the soul. To stand before that flower's creator in the same pose would destroy most of us--we may approach it, perhaps, as Moses seeing the back parts of God, but He is too merciful to let us make the mistake of complete openness before we are prepared. Still, in the tastes of it--of the little draughts that we may take into ourselves in this life--it is no surprise to see the magnificent and powerful results so often reported by sainted mystics; the creator, ten dimensions or more beyond us, has found His creature with its guard down, so rises the beautiful fear of the Lord, so comes the Light.
For the moment, though, I was thinking not of God the creator, but of the thing that He had made--the rose in front of me in the humid morning alley. I am a man of my culture, to be sure--trained to measure, think about natural history and scientific evaluation. I am also a writer, primed to consider the verses or lines I might write in description of this little rose (here are some!). I am also a married man and a father, eager to take home slices of beauty to my family in words or pictures or by simply picking the flower itself. But for the moment I was standing there with none of that in my mind. And there, out as though from the rose itself, flowed a kind of oxygenated peace, stripped of anxieties and hurry--a simple peace that could not and cannot be held onto (that being its very point, really), nor described, nor photographed (as we are so terribly wont to do in our present age), nor dried and preserved and kept. There, joy for the taking, but only for a moment--presence and reality, firmness and nearness and truth, but only if we are willing to let them slide away. There, Christ, but only if He is willing to die. There, I stand something like the the bewildered women at the tomb, but only if I am willing to watch Him do so first.
And, by Grace, for just a few seconds...did?
Rare the moments, common the rose--how seldom do we accept anything on terms other than our own. This loss was much of what darkened Eve in eating of the fruit too soon. Ah, but the new Eve....
The moment was over, though, by then. The rose was a countable thing once more, described as pink and white, described as small, memorable, something to build a short essay upon. And so it was as it had been a few second before--nothing (to me) but a little decoration to the alley on which I live and walk; it ceased to be an object of real and brilliant creation; it was now uncontemplated again. I lifted my pipe to my lips and continued on my way.