Being a “contemplative in the marketplace” means living with a balance of prayer and action, as Jesus did. Scripture repeatedly calls us to become “Christ-like.” This doesn’t mean trying to replicate a life lived in a very different time and place but, as I’ve heard it put recently, to “live the life Jesus would live if he were you.”
When Jesus revealed who he really was to his closest friends, he “shone like the sun” and was identified by his Father as “the Beloved” (Matthew 16:1, 5). Becoming “Christ-like” is about this too; for Christians, this is where the ability to lay down your life comes from. And some among us see this especially clearly: when Thomas Merton had his famous vision at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, he suddenly realized that the people around him were all “shining like the sun.”
In The Sacred Gaze, I explore the implications of this in a chapter on “Active Contemplation”:
Who would you be in the world if you knew you were shining like the sun? If at some critical and very public moment in your life the heavens had opened and God had said to all assembled, ‘This one is my beloved,’ how would your life be different now? Or put it this way: What kinds of things would you do if God revealed to you that after you die, they’re going to put the word ‘Saint’ before your name and give you a day on the calendar, that people are going to write and read your biography and visit the places that have been important to you? If you knew you were that kind of person, what would you be willing and able to do? Is there any reason not to do those things now?
I have a great advantage here, as I have already appeared in stained glass, courtesy of my ex-husband who’s a gifted artist. Okay, so it’s a nude in stained glass, more nipples than nimbus, but this is probably the only chance I’ll get so I’m going with it.
It’s a pity that more of us don’t have our biographies written, especially while we’re still alive. Biographers take the life they’re writing with utmost seriousness: they look for the formative experiences, the turning points. They search for patterns, for significance, for what the person’s life was about, what was the legacy left behind.
I’d like to challenge you to a thought experiment: Imagine that you are going to be officially recognized as a saint one day, and think about what kind of sense your biographer would make of your life. What is its meaning, its message? What have been the key moments along the way? You might find it helpful to map out the “stations” of your life, as the key moments of Christ’s passion are mapped in the Stations of the Cross. Or you might imagine how you would be portrayed in an icon. Saints are often depicted with objects, or “attributes,” that convey their identity and their story. What would your attributes be?
This may seem like an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but really it’s just taking the goal of becoming Christ-like seriously. If we knew who we were, who knows what we might do?