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Only one evangelist, Luke, talks about the Ascension as a separate dimension of the life of Christ. Only Luke, in Acts, dates it “on the fortieth day.” That the Resurrection proved Jesus’ identity with God the other evangelists took for granted. They link the Ascension to Easter itself. But Luke has another lesson in mind. Jewish students studied with a rabbi “forty days,” a symbolic number meaning the amount of time it took them to learn the master’s teachings well enough to be able to repeat them. To Luke, then, the time after we experience the Resurrection may have less to do with Jesus than it does with us, with the centering of our minds and hearts on the world and the work at hand. To acknowledge the Resurrection, to be raised to a new understanding of Jesus ourselves, in other words, requires the fashioning of a life of contemplative awareness.

The last line of Luke’s Gospel reads, “They returned to Jerusalem (after he was ‘taken up to heaven’) with great joy and they were continually in the temple praising God.” Jesus is gone but not gone. Jesus has left them but not left them at all. They remember the Jesus of history, yes, but they live now immersed in the Christ of faith. Their minds and souls are raised to new awareness, to new insight, to new consciousness of the power of God among them. They have learned the teachings and are about to live them out themselves. They become contemplatives, those who plunge themselves into the quest for the mind of God, those who seek to see the world as God sees the world, those who see more to the world than simply the world.

The contemplative life, the mystical moment, lies shrouded under centuries of confusion, misunderstanding, misnomers, and inventions. Even the spiritual life itself was defined in steps ranging from the purgative—the withdrawal from the material accoutrements of life in favor of a more spiritual existence, to the unitive—that point of spiritual development where there existed perfect union with God. The process was charted. As a result, the spiritual life became the domain of professionals who retired to cloisters where, the thinking was, only God could gain entrance. There, completely centered on the spiritual life as opposed to “the life of the world,” a person became “contemplative.” No other way.

There is a serious problem with that spirituality. It counts most of the world out, in the first place, and in the second place, it completely discounts Jesus himself. The truth is that the Jesus who raised our hearts and minds to heaven, who told us that he himself was the Way, lived a life totally involved in the world around him, totally attuned to the heart of God, completely consumed by the will of God for the world.

The point is that contemplatives are not professional religious types. “Contemplative” and “cloister” are not synonyms. Cloister is at best only one of many vehicles to contemplation, needed by some, irrelevant to others who see the face of Jesus in the poor, the rejected, the starving, the beaten, and love it dearly. To call only one of these “the contemplative life,” is to overlook the contemplative dimension of all life—the life of the mother who feels the presence of God while bathing her baby; the life of the man who feels God’s breaking heart when he sees young soldiers walking by; the lives of old people who have spent all their lives doing good so that the reign of God could finally come, the lives of young people who offer themselves up for the love of another.

To the contemplative, the entire world is sacramental. Everything speaks of God. Everything unveils God to us. Here in the struggles of marriage and unemployment, of dissension and jealousies, of rejection and the broken shards of trust, the contemplative sees the Jesus who showed the way beyond the crucifixion to the Ascension, beyond suffering to the glory of wholeness.

—from In Search of Belief, (Liguori/Triumph) by Joan Chittister