Contemplative life is open to all. Application of contemplative principles plus moral behavior equals the sum total of being. In the old days people thought this equation was understood and only open to religious. Thomas Merton was chastised for teaching the sacred geometry of being to the everyday churchgoer. He taught us the basic math of religious understanding. He would be followed by mystics like Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Ron Rolheiser Cynthia Bourgeault, Ruth Burrows and James Finley.
Jim Finley, Brother Finbar, was a novice under the spiritual direction of Fr. Thomas Merton. I had the honor of learning from Jim on the first and third Thursdays of the month when I attended St. Monica Church in Santa Monica, California. I also had classes with him when I was studying spiritual direction at St. Mary’s in Los Angeles.
I recently heard a story from a podcast where the host talked about her struggles being a mom. She called herself a “frustrated student” and was living a contemplative life. In a satsang, a spiritual question and answer period with a teacher like Jim, she asked, “Where’s the icon of the mystic mom with a baby on the hip, screaming kid on the floor, burning food in the oven and a laptop on the side? I get up early and it’s still so hard for me to sit in silence. How do I find God in this distraction?”
Finley said, “You be you, and I’ll be God.” He gently told her, “Bri, it means the world to me that you want to get up early and spend this time with me. I just can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate it and what it means to me.” Finley plays the role like Olivier playing Othello. “I love you so much I just can’t bear it. You’re so precious to me that I just can’t stand it, so what I do is, I rush into the body of your children, and I wake them up. I want to know what it feels like to be held by you.”
Finley tells the story of how Thomas Merton told him, “Come to me every week and tell me one thing that happened in the pig barn.” God is found in the ordinary life. Merton knew this implicitly. Finley makes that manifest in his teaching. He looks behind appearances with a mystic’s microscope and points to the presence of God on the slide. He’s developed a poetic language that invites the audience to bathe in his mellifluous soothing calm and nourish themselves on the richness of heartfelt insight.
The language of the heart is a mystic’s math. There is something there that people immediately connect with, a vibratory attunement to that which is holy and complete. One may not understand the full measure of a statement, but the essence of its meaning resonates profoundly. Teachers like Finley offer the language to listeners to understand the complexities of mystics throughout the ages.
Those first and third Thursdays fed me in ways I couldn’t imagine. Jim would sit at the table while people sat around him and he would talk about mystics for fifteen or twenty minutes. He would then have everyone exit the hall, turn out the lights and we would re-enter the hall bowing in full recognition that a sacred ritual was about to take place. Together as a group we would stand until everyone was present. Finley would clap his hands and the meditation would commence.
Silence for fifteen minutes. Jim rang a “singing bowl” that Buddhists use for meditation. We stood, separating ourselves and giving ourselves enough space to do a circumambulation.
Circumambulation is a contemplative mindful walk. The adherent walks as slowly as possible, taking baby steps putting one foot in front of the other as slowly as possible. It takes about ten minutes to walk across the length of the room. That’s how slowly one walks. It’s a great meditation because one has to be mindful of the space in front of you and making sure you are not moving too slowly for others. Once the meditation is complete, there is another “sit for about ten minutes.
The meditation ends with Psalm 46: 10 “Be still and know that I am God,” and reciting of an “Our Father” with a litany of saints. For those interested, he would take questions regarding the experience or anything they heard during the evening.
The world is opening up to the spirit in profound ways. When you discipline the mind and heart to listen in silence to the fullness of being, something sacred rises to the top. The troubles of the day that have been stirred up settle like sedentary dirt swirled in a glass of water. Once whipped into a frenzy and left to be, the dirt settles and rests at the bottom and the clarity of the water can be seen at the top.
We work out the elementary ideas expressed in being. We are the sum total of the energy we take in from the world. How we address using that energy is significant. Where we place that energy and apply it meaningfully makes all the difference in the world.