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Contemplation and Celtic Spirituality

The Irish word for contemplation — or contemplative prayer — is rinnfheitheamh. Yes, that’s a mouthful! I only have enough Irish to be dangerous, and the pronunciation of Irish depends on which of several dialects you’re speaking, but to the best of my knowledge the pronunciation is something like RINN-eh-hev.

So why such a big word, for such a simple concept? To answer that question, let’s take rinnfheitheamh apart.

Rinn means a point or a tip, as in the sharp point of a sword. Fheitheamh means “waiting.”

So a literal translation of rinnfheitheamh would be “at the edge of waiting.”

Which could easily be the most evocative and useful word for contemplation I’ve ever come across, in any language.

Remember, Celtic spirituality is the spirituality of the edge of the world. It’s the spirituality that stands on windswept rocky shores, gazing westward to the open, stormy sea. It acknowledges that “edge” place in our hearts where time meets eternity, where words fade off into silence, and where heaven silently gazes into the turmoil of earthly life.

And we are always invited to gaze back, to gaze out of the chaos and the tensions and the paradoxes of our lives, into the silence, into the deep waters of eternity.

So to be a contemplative is to enter a place where prayer is shaped by waiting. This is not unique to the Irish, or to the Celts. Indeed, waiting is a theme that crops up again and again in the Psalms. Jesus counseled his disciples to practice a spirituality of watchfulness, telling the story of the wise and foolish maidens as a cautionary tale about the importance of remaining mindful.

Monks and nuns of the Christian mystical tradition, beginning with the hermits of the desert and carrying on through the middle ages, made a spirituality of vigil the anchor of all their days, waking before dawn to chant, to pray, to keep vigil, to keep watch, to wait.

Indeed, my other favorite word for contemplation is a Hebrew word for silence, found only four times in the Hebrew scriptures, and always in the Psalms. That word is dûmiyyāh (דּוּמִיָּה), which means not only silence but a kind of repose, a kind of still waiting. We find it in Psalm 62, in the line “For God alone, my soul in silence waits.”

Perhaps the most enlightening usage of the word is in the first verse of Psalm 65, in a verse that often gets mistranslated in English — the Hebrew literally reads “Silence is praise to you, O God on Zion, to you our vow must be fulfilled.” But it’s not any silence which functions as a way of worshipping God — it’s the silence at the edge of waiting: the silence of contemplation.

The edge of contemplation is a sharp edge: an edge like the tip of a sword, the thin blade of the knife, an edge so sharp that it can effortlessly separate those things which need to be set apart. For a contemplative, this means setting apart the very words and daydreams and cluttery emotions that cloud our minds and hearts and distract us from the presence of God.

When we pray at the edge of waiting, silence becomes a surgical scalpel to carefully remove our attachments to transitory pleasures or addictive compulsions. The silence of waiting sets us free — but it doesn’t do so violently or instantaneously. That’s where the “waiting” part comes in.

We pray at the edge of waiting when we bring our patience into the silence, trusting that the roots and thorns of our graspings and our anxieties must be slowly and gently pruned away, measured by a process of unraveling that opens us up according to the leisure of eternity, not the relentless ticking of terrestrial time. And yet, this waiting, this silence, this edge of prayer is something we live into breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, instant by instant.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a medieval manual on the practice of contemplation, talks about the importance of remaining mindful through what he calls every “atom” of time, or “the least part of time” (we would probably say millisecond — There are units of time far smaller than milliseconds, including nanoseconds, picoseconds, femtoseconds, attoseconds, zeptoseconds, yoctoseconds, and the smallest unit of time anyone has been able to measure so far, the “Planck time.” But considering that it takes a thousand milliseconds to equal one second, I suspect for most of us that’s as small a unit of time that we need to worry about).

Such unrelenting attention, of course, is virtually impossible to maintain; it seems to be part of the human condition that we remain easily distracted and prone to a mind wandering off in an infinite variety of directions (indeed, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says that because of original sin, we cannot help but be easily distracted).

But if we are committed to praying at the edge of waiting, opening our hearts and minds to the silence that comes to us from eternity, we are at least signaling to God that we are available to respond to God’s call, whenever it may come.

In the meantime, we wait, and we breathe into the silence that we glimpse between the words of our thoughts. And then we become distracted, and then we return to attentively waiting. And such is the rhythm of contemplative prayer.

Sharp things are dangerous, so we might ask if the edge of contemplation has its own risks. Some have said that contemplation leaves us susceptible to the devil, but this is a misunderstanding. Temptation comes to us not through silence, but through words. So in a very real way, contemplation is one of the best safeguards against temptation.

But the danger that we find at the edge of waiting comes in a more subtle way. We can fall prey to the idea that our thoughts, our feelings, our distracted mind, is somehow the enemy of contemplation; and that idea leads to a desire to, as one teacher of mine put it, “meditate aggressively.”

Aggressive meditation happens when we try to force ourselves to be silent, we try to fight off any random thoughts or distractions that interfere with our effort to be still before the mystery of God. Even The Cloud of Unknowing uses some unfortunate language about “beating down” any thoughts or ideas that come between us and the silence of God.

This temptation beguiles us to use the sharp edge of waiting not as a delicate scalpel, but as a broadsword, hacking away at anything we think stands in the way of our desire for being still and knowing God. But it’s that desire — which is, itself, a distracting thought — that wields the blade, and our intention to contemplate God soon collapses under the mistaken notion that we are “failures” at contemplation, simply because we are unable to find silence for much longer than a few graced moments here and there.

If we can set down the sword, and be gentle with ourselves — in other words, return to the silence of waiting — then we soon discover that it is the Wild Goose who wields the scalpel, who invites us with a whisper into a place of stability and rest where we discover that the sharp edge of our prayer never cuts away anything, but rather simply opens up a space within us where we can receive the loving gaze of God, beholding the One who beholds us, compassionately, joyfully, delightfully, eternally.

For this is the secret of rinnfheitheamh — we are always waiting, we are always shaped by longing for the One who can never be held but whom we may behold. But the waiting itself is a satisfaction, only it is a satisfaction that, paradoxically, deepens the longing. As we move deeper into silence, we realize that the silence is always within us, even if it is covered over by the noise of our restless minds. And realizing that the silence is always there, we discover that the edge of waiting is the center of our hearts.

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