Monday, February 20, 2012


Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. I was watching him this morning being interviewed by Soledad O'Brien on Starting Point, and she asked him about what it was like. At some point he said something like (and I'm paraphrasing here) - "well, you know, you couldn't just contemplate it all in general. There was too much stuff going on, things we needed to attend to." He went on to say there were some surprises, like he had to take over the controls even though they'd expected to be on auto-pilot most of the time, and there were these "lightening bug" like sensations that they had not anticipated which were cool but a little surprising. Soledad responded (again I am paraphrasing): "surprising no doubt isn't what you are looking for when it's your first time doing something you've so carefully prepared for!"

It's all pretty fascinating to me, but the part that really struck me was Glenn's comment that "you can't just contemplate it all generally." That applies to Christian contemplation and really all prayer, I think. Sometimes people talk about prayer in sweeping generalities. We want to contemplate vague spiritual truths. I find in my own life, however, that prayer takes me deeper and deeper into particularity. Contemplation is an invitation to find God in the details.

This is why I find poetry to be such a help in my prayer life and why I think that poets have so much to teach the Church, whether or not they consider themselves to be "religious." Poets, like astronauts, don't deal in vague generalities. They deal with what is. I think of that great line from Mary Oliver's poem, "The Summer Day" when she asks:
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
the one who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down...
Prayer and contemplation are not about sweeping generalaties. They invite us to contemplate this grasshopper, this one right here.

In the same way, Ash Wednesday does not invite us to ponder death in general, but our own wild and precious lives--these lives that we are living today. Or not living today as the case may be.

My prayer is that my contemplation in this Lenten season will not be general, but specific, and focused on the world around me: the ways that God is breaking in here and now in this time and this place, into the unique moment I find myself in that will never come in the same way again. My hope is that I will continue to learn to pray in ways that draw me into the specific joys and messes of this world, God's world: in Syria, in the lives of the people among whom I serve, in life and in death and all that unfolds in between.

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