A talk I heard at a Catholic “Mothers Group” a few months ago has been slowly filtering through my brain until it was drawn to the surface again by a comment Michael made to me the other night. Gabriel has been getting increasingly wiggly when we sit down to have dinner, and rather than sit calmly on our laps and play with a toy, he insists on standing precariously on our legs (a feat for which he still needs support), leaning over the table, and burrowing his face into the toy/napkin/shiny object with which he is currently enthralled. Not only does this make it impossible for the person holding him to eat, it also has the pleasant effect of forcing out any lingering burps and spit-ups which might be floating around in his stomach. Suffice it to say, meals of late have not been the peaceful, idyllic family moments one might hope they would be. Reflecting on Gabriel’s behavior, Michael commented that we’re going to have to figure out a way to teach Gabriel to be still, to be silent, to contemplate, in age-appropriate ways, of course, and not necessarily at dinnertime, but certainly in the context of prayer time and church visits.
All this brought back to me a quote the speaker at the Mothers Group shared with us from Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture: "The greatest menace to our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul." Since the topic was the music and media that we expose our children to, he commented that he himself did not own a television, as he wished to keep his family away from the empty stimuli that it provides. Perhaps inevitably a mother asked, “What about VeggieTales? Or educational TV? That’s okay, right?” The speaker replied that although VeggieTales may have a moral message, and Christian content which is good, the vehicle for this content is still “tawdry, empty stimuli”–in other words, the method of delivery is also problematic. Full of loud sounds, raucous singing, quick scenes, silly humor, etc, VeggieTales is not quite designed to build a child’s capacity for contemplation; rather, it may contribute to the short-attention-span disease which plagues so many children today, which is not only detrimental to their ability to learn but also more importantly to their ability to pray and thus to relate to God.
His point certainly got me thinking. In the context of the talk, “contemplation” doesn’t mean floating-off-into-a-sea-of-mental-nothingness for relaxation purposes. It means consciously, lovingly, putting oneself into the presence of the God who gave and continues to give us life. This is, in effect, what prayer should be, which is basically a “dress rehearsal” for what heaven’s going to be all about. Eternal, joyful adoration of God along with the whole communion of saints and hopefully everyone we’ve loved here on earth. And the only way we can even begin to contemplate in such a manner is if the “receptivity” of our soul is fine-tuned. I can only imagine that one whose soul is “receptive” would, among other things, be able appreciate beauty in all its forms, particularly in the created world, would be highly sensitive to (and responsive to) the joys and sufferings of other people, and would be open to discerning God’s will for them through Scripture as well as the events of their lives.
It seems avoiding television may be one way to nurture Gabriel’s ability to contemplate and be still. (For us that is pretty much a no-brainer since we don’t have a TV.) I’ve spent time thinking more about other ways to do this, I’ve realized that teaching him this will require learning how to do it myself–to allow for silence in our day to day lives and resist the temptation to fill every moment with words, narration, music, movement, and other forms of stimulation. We’ve spent long moments looking at the squirrels scurrying through the courtyard, feeling the texture of different objects around the house, and quietly playing with toys. For myself I’ve tried to spend less time Googling and more time reading worthwhile books; less time talking and more time listening (in daily conversations and in prayer); less time adjusting things around the house and more time dwelling in it. It seems like a big jump from a rather everyday “secular” things to the much more profound matter of how our souls are formed and how we relate to God. But that’s the way life works–in reality, nothing is “secular” if that word is used to mean not pertaining to our relationship with God.