Streaming sunlight bathes a lovely Windsor armchair in the corner of my office. On the chair, a warm comforter softens the space. Completing the picture is a lovely green philodendron plant, a gift from a friend. (Missing is a candle which Motherhouse rules wisely forbid.) This is a contemplative possibility.
Arrayed along the wall are a bookcase, a file cabinet featuring a speaker phone, and a computer desk dominated by a computer and printer. Across the room is a writing desk with all the instruments for old-fashioned communication – pens, paper, Rolodex and calendar. This is a contemplative possibility.
Adorning the wall is a seascape, picturing the breathtaking Peconic Bay on the east end of Long Island, the waters of my childhood. A gift from my brothers and sisters on the occasion of my golden jubilee, it runs deep into the bottom of family memories. This is a contemplative possibility.
On a panel is a large colorful picture illustrating the exhibition, Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America. It recalls the Catholic sisters who helped to shape the history and culture of the United States. It evokes memories of the committee in which I served and memories of sisters and designers who brought this enterprise to life. It evokes images of cherished friends. This is a contemplative possibility
How does one relate the quiet space of the sunlit chair with the frenetic world of the computer, the old-fashioned world of the writing desk, the fundamental world of family and community? I remember Jessica Powers’ description of prayer, “Prayer is a mystic entering into secret places full of light. It is a passage through the night.”
Throughout the morning I might rush past a number of critical issues leaping out of the computer, asking for my help. Issues of hunger, immigration and war confront me. I look within myself for a world larger than the one I knew on Peconic Bay. I look for a heart more generous than the one that bought the file cabinet 20 years ago. I seek a stillpoint as I try to contemplate, to appreciate a hungry world, to decide what I can and cannot do.
The phone rings with a call from old friends in Kentucky. I take the call and sit in the sunlit chair. This is no time for efficient succinct responses. This is the time to savor the relationship, to treasure the moment, to forget the agenda whatever it is. When the conversation is finished, if I am not in my administrator mode, I will contemplate friendship for a brief moment. I will gaze on the picture of Women & Spirit. I will be grateful.
During the afternoon I send an agenda to a committee which I chair. Guess what! I left someone off the agenda, someone who is in hard place right now. Guess what! Central time is not practiced in San Francisco. Should I just wrap myself in the comforter, sit in the chair and look at the ever-present snow? It is an attractive possibility, but contemplation is not passivity. Revise that agenda. Apologize to the world. Stay the course, even if the course is not saving the free world, just the editing a document on the computer.
A tentative knock on my door. A knock is always a question. The person knocking wants to talk for an extended period. We set a date at a supermarket site for coffee. After the visitor leaves, I am not in the sunlit chair, but I think long thoughts. I do not have the wisdom for this one. My contemplative self tells me, “You do not need answers. Listen for once.”
At a book club meeting someone told me of an old acquaintance who has just undergone heart surgery. We have lost touch, but I remember her fondly. I start toward the computer, but suddenly I stop. My 1950s culture asserts itself. This situation demands paper and ink. A text message will not do. It will not do. Is this contemplation or my antediluvian self, loving and struggling with the technological world?
As I prepare to facilitate a meeting for a religious community, I turn to my bookcase and reach instinctively for the texts of Peter Senge and Edgar Schein. I read a few chapters from John Adams’ Transforming Work and Transforming Leadership. I wonder why I failed to save some other books that would be helpful. Why did I engage in that ruthless purge of books? How do I, how do we, make decisions? On the other hand, how blessed I am for my choice to work with these good women, with this community.
At the end of the day, I might just return to the chair, not so sunlit now, and ponder the events of the day, wondering, “Where is God here?” With Joe Wise I might ask,
Lord, teach us to pray.
It’s been a long and cold December kind of day.
Lord, teach us to pray.
We still believe that we can find a better way.
Teach us to pray.
We lose the way.
Teach us to pray.
God, teach us to pray, teach us to contemplate in and out of the office, in the light and in the dark, in the work and in the relationships, in the large world and in the cozy spaces. Give us that sunlit chair wherever we are.
[Sr. Helen Maher Garvey, BVM, is an organizational consultant for religious congregations. Presently she serves on the Board of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company. She held the position of Director of the Office of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Lexington for 10 years and served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) from 1986 to 1989.]