Failure: An invitation to contemplative living
FULLNESS AND FAILURE MAY APPEAR to be opposites, but in life’s rich pattern can one experience fullness without being aware of failure? Until I failed, I took my successes for granted, rarely paused for thought, was busy about many things, and, although prayer was an important part of my life, my understanding of it was about to change. It was only when life fell apart that I discovered some of its deeper meanings and found a need to be what I now call “contemplative.” I had received much information about “God,” but I had not met the Holy One. When I did come face to face with my own “burning bush,” it became natural to spend time quietly in God’s presence. Since my life may be the only bible some people read, I hope I can be present to others in a way that points to someone greater than I as being the source of the strength, peace, or faithfulness that I show.
Monika Hellwig describes the contemplative attitude in the following words:
The essence of a contemplative attitude seems to be vulnerability-allowing persons, things and events to be, to happen, allowing them their full resonance in one’s experience, looking at them without blinking, touching them and allowing them to touch us without flinching. It is a matter of engaging in action, allowing it to talk back to us and listening to what is said. It is a constant willingness to be taken by surprise.3
How one reaches this position will vary. For some it may be the gradual growth in prayer described by the great Carmelite saints. However, I know people who have run, walked, spent time with nature, sat zazen, or prayed in many different ways. Whatever one does, it is not to avoid facing reality but in order to find it:
Wholeness does not consist in removing a present source of travail; it demands a complete transformation of the person’s attitude to life, which in turn is an outward sign of a transfigured personality.4
We all have struggled with personal failure. Some we can easily chalk up to experience and put behind us. But when we fail in relationships, particularly in marriage, the effect can be “life threatening.” Recovering from this injury to our personhood may take many years. As I have tried to come to terms with the breakdown of my marriage, articulating the experience has taken time. The trite solutions that were offered to me did nothing to assuage my guilt or restore my broken spirit. Instead, they forced me to move toward the center of my being to find there a rock, a solid foundation on which to rebuild. I needed to find peace in the midst of chaos and strength to meet unexpected challenges, and to learn to live again under circumstances that were once unbearable. In the early days, a friend asked me if I wanted to be bitter or better. To be better, I turned to prayer, to meditation, and to quietly pondering the situation. From hesitant beginnings has come a way “to be.” Although I write from the perspective of failure in marriage, my observations tell me that those who lose their jobs or fail in other ways can identify with my experience.
Moving into Failure and Not Around It
Western society has a very low tolerance of failure, and the remedies it offers are largely unsatisfactory. The damaged marriage is ended and a new relationship begun as a balm for the dejected spirit, as father or mother for the fatherless and motherless. Only a few seem willing to confront the feelings, the meanings, and the possibilities that come with failure. For myself, coming to terms with failure was only partly a matter of intellectual understanding. Exploring it and touching it in the deepest way has been the very source of restoration. I was offered much advice in an effort to make things better, and, while some of it must have been useful, I now remember very little of it. What has helped me most has been a consistent and patient “sitting with” the situation, without struggling in my mind with ideas but just allowing myself to be in the presence of the Holy One. What began as a short-term goal-to get through the day-has become a way of living in the present, letting go of the past, and leaving the future where it belongs-in the hands of the Holy One.
Dietmar Mieth says that human beings have three nonphysical needs: the need for successful personal relationships, the need for social recognition, and the need for meaning in life.5 The situation of wife and mother met all three needs for me. When my marriage broke down, my whole world of reference, my way of meaningful existence, was lost. Society tends to define us by what we “do,” and, although not all our “doing” may collapse at the same time, failure in a major area of life destroys more than that part of it. If “this area” has gone wrong, then maybe everything else is wrong, and I have just not realized it yet. This is not a question of the ego or about selfconfidence; it strikes at the very essence of being.
The Existential Nature of Failure
Dietmar Meth states,
Failure is irreversible. The characteristics of failure are irreversibility and irrevocability. Crises can be surmounted, problems can be solved. But when we speak of failure we mean something that is irrevocable, even if we know that not everything fails with the failure of personal relationships or a failure of social recognition or a failure to find an answer to the question of meanings
Behind the word “failure” are hidden many emotions that do not yield easily to rational thinking. Feelings of anger, resentment, fear, and rejection are mixed with lethargy and distaste for living, along with so many new things to cope with and so much less time to do it all in. Contrast this with Thomas Merton’s view of contemplation:
Fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.7
The disturbance of my equilibrium was at times so frightening that I knew I had to find other ways to “be” in the situation. I became unafraid to look outside my Catholic Christian tradition for assistance and wished I had found sooner what Thich Nhat Hanh had to say about anger:
The Buddhist attitude is to take care of anger. We don’t suppress it. We don’t run away from it. We just breathe and hold our anger in our arms with utmost tenderness. Becoming angry at your anger only doubles it and makes you suffer more …. The Buddhist practice is to go back to breathing and recognize your anger as anger.8
Each of the emotions that threaten to swamp one in the middle of great pain or suffering is addressed partly by thinking things out, asking advice, and getting help. When the house finally goes quiet at night, however, will one choose to fill it with the noise of TV or radio, or find a way to embrace the silence?
A strong notion of rejection may exist for both the one who is left and the one who does the leaving, for she or he may have felt rejected long before walking out of the door. Rejection within the relationship may be followed by rejection outside it as other people find it too difficult to support one in the throes of failure. This disease may be catching. They may feel torn loyalties, and so the lesser experiences of failure, which like the aftershocks of an earthquake, increase the initial devastation.
For the Catholic facing separation and divorce, the fear may be that the Church and thus the Holy One will also reject one. Although I personally have encountered only compassion, the teaching of the Church that marriage is until death compounded my feeling of failure. I had not lived in the USA for very long. Coming from Ireland where there was no divorce at the time, I kept my situation secret for several months through fear of losing my position in ministry,
Is God Merciful?
Does the Holy One also reject? Jewish and Christian teaching says “No.” David is still favored despite committing murder and adultery; Peter is the foundation of the Church in spite of denying Jesus three times. Reading in Scripture about still being chosen will not be enough to reassure one that he or she is still acceptable. One needs to hear it from another person and from the gentle voice of the Holy One heard in the depths of one’s being.
The wisdom of the Church also offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the process of annulment to bring healing to those who have failed. I believe it, however, to be the process of quietly staying attentive to one’s feelings, being honest about them no matter how terrible and destructive they may seem, that ultimately makes the sacrament or annulment healing in actuality.
If a broken marriage is a failure, then is a successful one simply one that lasts? Brokenness must awaken us to the real needs within marriage. Do the many individual experiences of failure teach the Church something about the need for better marriage preparation and for support along the way? It will be argued that good preparation and support are available but too many people do not find what they want or need in time to prevent disaster. We have not taught people that asking for help is not failure but possibly the beginning of real success. The more aware I have become of the pain involved in failure, the more I feel a need to speak out, to challenge the Church to listen to the pain and help define good marriage and nurture it. What is the nature of marriage as intended by the Holy One? The answers will not come simply from academic exercises but from a deep listening to the Spirit within people’s experiences.
From our earliest years we hear “you should” and “you ought,” and to these we add “if only.” These oft repeated phrases place a burden of guilt on our shoulders that can compound the sense of failure. What the contemplative being brings to bear on the situation is a dose of honesty and reality. Hindsight will not alter things but accepting responsibility for what is mine in the situation -allowing that circumstances played their part and that I did not fail alone-can help to free me from guilt. At long last I can say that I was the best wife that I could be given the situation and have hope that new relationships need not be subject to the same pitfalls. I may never receive forgiveness from my marriage partner and I may never be aware of the full extent of my responsibility, but I can be content to leave the apportioning of guilt and blame to the realm of mystery. The wisdom of the serenity prayer says,
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
Failure causes us pain and suffering, and we have to deal with it in some way. Western society urges us to get as far away from suffering as possible, while some suggest that we see it as God’s testing ground that helps us to become better people. There is ample evidence that not everyone survives the test. Mental breakdown and suicide are common and may be the ultimate failure from which there is no recovery. Suffering is not good in and of itself, but the contemplative person may put suffering to good use. To bear it as a burden that weighs one down or to try to get rid of it by ignoring it or stuffing it inside will cause harm. The alternative is to integrate it and learn to accept it as part of life, neither seeking it nor rejecting it when it occurs. Acceptance of what is happening in a positive way is both a grace and freedom. It doesn’t happen quickly; it cannot be acquired by willing it to be so. It is the fruit of quiet time spent in the presence of the Holy One.
“Why” -The Question That Won’t Go Away
When one sits on the dung heap of failure, the biggest question faced is “Why?” It will not matter how many times one asks it, nor in how many different ways it is phrased, because ultimately there will be no satisfactory answer that will enable one to pack the failure away in a box and be done with it. Even the partial solutions that help one to come to terms with the situation come more from compassionate listening to one’s heart than from repeatedly going over and over the events of the past. If one can lovingly bring the past into focus without assigning blame to oneself or the other, there is hope and possibility of befriending both, for both hurt. In doing this for myself, the goal was merely to survive. However, coming to a place where I can hold the broken pieces reverently and treasure them in gratitude is a more wholesome and holy place to be.
The contemplative is not freed from the path of action. It is the person who develops the capacity to be patient with “what is” who gains the insight to see what needs to be changed and receives the courage to work for liberation. After living apart for three years, I filed for divorce because to describe myself as “married” had become a lie. I value marriage as a sacred union and “divorced” at that time was an honest statement about my marriage. In the years since, there has been an ongoing challenge to forgive the difficulties encountered in the process. Also, when children are involved, the relationship with a former spouse is rarely completely severed. Action without contemplation would have been more an angry, vengeful reaction than an attempt to enable both to live with the reality that a spiritual bond had not happened between us.
I am not the person I was. Failure was an invitation to live a more contemplative life. Prayer that reveals God’s love for me and for each person continues to provide the foundation for ministry and for all of my life. What I have learned has become important as I try to share faith with parishioners and catechumens and remain faithful to my vocation to become the clearest image of the Holy One that I can. After all, the name Veronica means “true image.”
1. Quoted in Nathan Mitchell, “Symbols Are Actions, Not Objects: New Directions for an Old Problem,” Living Worship, 1977.
2. The Jerusalem Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
3. Quoted in Padraic O’Hare, The Way of Faithfulness (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1993), p. 6.
4. Israel, Martin, The Pain that Heals (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981), p. 171.
5. Meth, Dietmar, “The Ethic of Failure and Beginning Again,” in Coping with Failure, ed. Greinacher & Mette (London and Philadelphia: Concilium, SMC Press/Trinity Press International, 1990).
6. Ibid., p. 46.
7. Quoted in Padraic O’Hare, “The Way of Faithfulness,” p. 2.
8. Thich Naht Hanh, “Seeding the Unconscious: New Views on Buddhism and Psychotherapy,” Common Boundary (Nov/Dec, 1989), p. 19.
Veronica Word, a British native and the mother of five young adults, has lived and worked in the UK, Ireland, and for the last thirteen years in the USA. She has been involved in adult education and faith sharing for the last twenty years and is currently Pastoral Associate at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Kansas City, Missouri. She works with others seeking healing after divorce and does some spiritual direction. She earned a Master’s degree in Theology at St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont.
Copyright Spiritual Life Winter 2002
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