The Better Part


The missionary of the Third Millennium must be a contemplative. This is especially true in the Asian context because of the Eastern tradition of Yoga and Zen. Yet, Christian contemplation is essentially different because it is always a personal encounter with the personal God of the Bible and Jesus is the way to God in the Holy Spirit. It is in contemplation that prayer becomes love.




“But the Lord answered: “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).


Certainly, Jesus did not despise Martha’s service since service is love in action and Jesus had stated that the “Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” Yet, when we finish serving, what else is there to do?  We continue loving. Love never ends. Prayer is love, especially contemplation: it is the better part that Mary chose when, looking and listening, she focused her heart on Jesus. 



“The true missionary of this Third Millennium is the saint,” writes Saint John Paul II in his letter Redemptoris Missio (90, 91). The Pope continues: “The missionary must be a ‘contemplative in action.’ He finds answer to problems in the light of God’s Word and in personal and community prayer. My contact with the representatives of the non-Christian spiritual tradition, particularly those of Asia, has confirmed my view that the future of mission depends, to a great extent, on contemplation. Unless the missionary is a contemplative, he cannot proclaim Christ in a credible way. He is a witness to the experience of God, and must be able to say with the Apostles: “That which we have looked upon … concerning the word of life … we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1: 1-3). 

Contemplation is experience. It is, therefore, something truly personal. Study can help, while advice and example can foster contemplation, but only experience can make contemplatives of us. The commitment to experience contemplation is a lifelong commitment and, at the same time, a gift. We must struggle to become contemplative as if it depended only on us; we must expect it in faith because we know that, eventually, it is a gift from God. 

The mystery of God can be compared to a limitless horizon. The more we go up, the more the horizon expands; and the more we try to approach its borders, the more they go far from us. The same is true of the mystery of God: the more we enter into its knowledge, the more we experience that it is inexhaustible. Only the pure of heart can see God: the simple, those with a pure heart. If God is in front of us as a limitless horizon, our life appears as a continuous journey towards God.

Even purity of heart, as any other Christian virtue, is never a totally reached perfection; if you think you have got it, you lose the purity of heart and you can no longer see God. You will deceive yourself like the man in the Song of Songs who wanted to purchase love: “Were a man to offer all the wealth of his house to buy love, contempt is all he would purchase” (Song of Songs 8: 7).



The call to contemplation assumes a special quality in the Asian context because of the presence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Fr. William Johnston, S.J. spent most of his life in Japan and, as a scholar of spirituality, was enthusiastic about learning from the tradition of the great Eastern religions. The dialogue with Zen Buddhism became his lifelong commitment. 

He writes: “Christians might not only avail themselves of the riches of Oriental meditation but they should become leaders in a movement of which Christ would be the center – a meditation movement which would humbly learn from Zen. I have told Japanese Christians – and I believe it is true – that they have an important role to play in the development of Christianity. Their vocation is to renew meditation within the Church (because of their Zen tradition) and interpret it to the West.”

The best example of the truth of this vision is the life experience of a Japanese Dominican priest, Fr. Shigeto Oshjda who died at Takamori in November 2003. He was a follower of Buddhism and a Zen practitioner when he met Christ through the witness of a German friend during the war. Fr. Oshida shared his spiritual journey: how, following the noble silence of Zen, he had easily believed in the Man who died on the cross proclaiming universal forgiveness. “Forgiveness is silence within silence,” explains Fr. Oshida. “To keep silence is to enter the womb of God. Christ is in the heart of Zen.” 



The following quotations give us a feeling of the call to contemplation as the most profound human and Christian experience: “There is nothing more powerful on earth than purity and prayer” (Teillard De Chardin). “Human beings have a noble task: that of prayer and love. To pray and to love: that is their happiness on earth” (The Curate of Ars). “We are put on earth for a little while, that we may learn to bear the beams of love” (William Blake). “Every person is alone in the heart of the earth, pierced by a ray of the sun, and it is soon evening” (Salvatore Quasimodo).

To be a contemplative is a vocation for all of us who struggle for human and spiritual maturity. Contemplation is a gift and a conquest. Contemplation is something to be desired and experienced through different paths that bring us to intimacy with God, the Father, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. 



The center of the whole Christian message is the commandment of love: we were born to love. This is the sense of our life: to answer the love God has towards us. What can, however, happen when we don’t love ourselves? Psychology has its specific contribution: it is possible to have a relationship of respect and reciprocity with other people only when we accept ourselves, respect ourselves, and basically love ourselves. Self- acceptance is a necessary condition for the journey to contemplation. Let our prayer be: “Lord, take me as I am and make me as You want me to be.”



This is the Ignatian way of becoming contemplatives. At the end of his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius invites us to contemplation to gain Divine Love, which is a call to grow in contemplating God present in all things. It is a vision of God’s immanent and loving presence in all realities so that we may always live, “planted in love and built on love” (Ephesians 3:18).

Let us recognize the degrees of God’s presence in everything that surrounds us and respond to them in love. First degree: God wishes to be present to us in His gifts. Therefore, let us not take anything for granted. Let our response be gratitude and thanksgiving. Second degree: God wishes to be present to us in the beauty and goodness of each gift. Let our response be reverence and sobriety. Third degree: God is at work in the heart of the world: “My Father goes on working and so do I,” says Jesus (John 5:17). Response: let us give our loyal service to the building of God’s kingdom. Praise, reverence and service to God: this is where love becomes contemplation.



Our baptismal and religious consecration makes us God’s exclusive possession: “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm” (Song of Songs 8:6). Consecration will become contemplation when our love becomes tenderness: sensitivity, youthfulness, vulnerability, affection, benevolence, care, compassion, devotion. These are not simply human qualities but spiritual qualities: gifts of the Spirit, born of faith.

Tenderness is also fruit of compassion; virginity of the heart is also silence, loneliness and standing alone in faith. This happens when we become aware that what we have given up in our consecration will never be there: the unending poverty; the long loneliness; when we break down, we fall, we experience rebellion, fragility, the weight of evil, sin; when we experience the silence of God and the apparent inutility of our efforts. To stand in front of God in naked faith is contemplation.



Jesus said: “I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father.” (John 15:15) To experience Jesus’ friendship is contemplation. To see Jesus in the face of our friends is contemplation. To experience joy in wholesome friendship is contemplation. Really, the affectionate pursuit of contemplative prayer is a bounty and a refuge for every sensitive and mature follower of Jesus, the better part that will not be taken from us. 


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