"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Contemplation Is All About Touching!

Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges) by James Tissot between 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum, New York

henever we bid goodbye to a friend who is moving away to some far off place we do not simply say goodbye. I personally would like to say "Keep in touch!" I reflected on this expression and I can see it is the most fitting expression especially for people who deeply care for each other. If someone tells another person to “keep in touch,” it means to maintain contact with that person, especially at intervals in order to remain up to date with each other's lives. How do we keep in touch? by writing to each other, by sending the latest pictures, etc. In other words, even if the two are miles apart, they continue to touch each other's lives.

I started with this because the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead was born to keep in touch as a Divine Family with us. Hans Urs von Balthasar talks about a split in theology between God as an object for academic inquiry and God as a personal being for contemplation, when “spiritual men were turned away from a theology that was overlaid and overloaded with secular philosophy” (von Balthasar, Word and Redemption, p. 57). Von Balthasar describes this method or path of contemplative theology as a constant return to the center, a return marked both by faith and academic rigor, a return to the original simplicity, Jesus Christ Himself (von Balthasar, Word and Redemption, p. 57). He came to physically touch us, our physical bodies, lives, souls, hearts, filling our hungers, longings, pains and joys.

Secondly, a word about contemplation. Contemplation is keeping in touch. It is not a conceptual inquiry. It is not something that we make out as this thing or that. Contemplation is something that happens or that comes to us from the "Wholly Other" and it starts with a physical form and physical touch. It is a supernatural event. Yes, God's physical touch happens within contemplation supernaturally. One must never close a contemplation without being touched by Jesus. “Nothing in the Church,” von Balthasar writes, “not even the Church herself—can lay claim to an autonomous form that would compete with the Christ-form or even replace it. Nor is it as if through the sacraments a ‘formless’ grace, so to speak... The fundamental figure of grace is Jesus Christ himself, and all sacramental forms are grounded in his form in a most concrete sense.”

There is a big difference between persons who pray and persons who just think or theologize. Those who think are floating in their thoughts and those who pray are more grounded and in touch. Between the two the more satisfied and feeling complete are those who pray because they feel the tender touch of Jesus himself who is communicating a message.

Contemplation must not get stuck in the intellect (SpEx 3) for “gnosis puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). All the seeing and hearing must result in a “touching” (1 Jn 1:1) (SpEx 125), a “getting [near]” to God (SpEx 20); the one praying must be totally taken up with what the divine Person’s are “doing” (SpEx 108)... no excuse for staying so long at the intellectual level that love suffers, or even that the basic attitude of adoration disappears, and one is lost in speculation and the smoke of gnosticism! (von Balthasar, Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, p. 41).

Third and final point, why is touch so relevant in God's plan of saving all of us? Because it is the only means that our God can become personal and truly a God of love.

The last teaching of Jesus to his disciples before his passion and death was the washing of the feet in John’s gospel, which is still very much related to the anointing at Bethany in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John and a similar anointing of an unnamed sinful woman in Luke’s gospel (cf. Lk 7:36-50). Like John the Baptist, the woman prepared the way for the last act of Jesus that he wanted his disciples to remember. The woman with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil became a mirror for Jesus. Jesus saw himself through this woman who bathed his feet with her tears and revered them with her endless kisses. “For this reason, I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47). Jesus did a similar gesture of washing the feet of his beloved disciples not out of being forgiven. He knew that his disciples will desert and betray him. But the lavish giving on the part of the woman who was forgiven made Jesus realize for himself who he is as unending love, agape. Just like the woman who poured lavishly and overflowingly, Jesus, as unending love, sees and contemplates how he would lavishly pour out all the love unceasingly even to those who would deny or betray him. Benedict XVI says “It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice” (Deus Caritas Est 10). When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he was doing what the woman preached regarding love, through her tears and kisses, to those men in Bethany. After Jesus had washed their feet, he said, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (cf. Jn 13:14-15). For “love ought to manifest itself more in deeds than in words.” But let us not forget that, first, there has to be love. Simply put “they do not love who do not show their love” (Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona). Amen. Fr JM Manzano SJ