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  • Writer's pictureBen Batalla

Consumption vs. Contemplation

In our present day, we have the opportunity to take in so many forms of beauty via the internet. We have multiple platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video for watching shows and movies. We have the ability to follow our favorite musicians and actors on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. With all of these platforms, we are given limitless opportunities to discover beauty. Our minds have the potential to take in countless hours of information and process an infinite number of images.


There are many beautiful discoveries online. There are movies that move us to tears. There are music performances that give us awe. There are stories and testimonies that speak to our hearts and stir up feelings of longing, nostalgia, or hope. There are articles that provoke us. There are podcasts that lift us up and give us the desire to change something about ourselves. But with the limitless access to these works of beauty, along with the unrestricted time and storage on our devices, we have the potential to consume thousands of these signs of beauty even in the span of one hour.


Despite this unlimited access, are we made to take in this much beauty all at once? Is the consumption of things that are even authentically beautiful in excessive quantities truly nourishing for our souls?

 

The Problem of Consumption


“The greatest menace to our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul.” ― Josef Pieper


To begin, I want to pay special attention to the beautiful things we consume. Many of us already know that there are forms of media and entertainment that are not good for us, that do not nourish our souls. There is pornography and gratuitous violence in movies. There are articles and news sites with hateful language and the degradation of human beings. But the focus of this reflection is on the consumption of beauty. I bring this up because I want to emphasize how media is truly a good and a gift! It draws us in, helps us to laugh with others, lifts our spirits, and it can bring people together. However, with all the instant access we have today, my focus is not only on what we consume, but how much we consume.


These goods of entertainment, when overconsumed, have the potential to numb us, to distract us from hearing the voice of God, and to prevent us from authentic conversion and renewal of our souls. When we flood our minds with too much beauty, we are unable to let the beauty resonate in our hearts and speak into our poverty. Beauty should always cause us to pause. It is a constant invitation to an encounter with the Divine! God unceasingly desires to speak to us through beautiful things, even through what we watch and read.


Christ reminds his followers, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” And St. Paul instructs us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray constantly”. When we take a step back and reflect back on all that we consumed in a particular day, whether it was a binge of a favorite TV show or reading dozens of reflections from our favorite Catholic subscriptions, we must sincerely ask ourselves if we invited the Lord at all into those moments. Did he draw us deeper? Did he shed light on his identity or ours?


An act of overconsumption can occur when we spend hours on Facebook scrolling through the newsfeed without taking time to digest a beautiful article or testimony that someone posts. It can look like a binge of episodes in the course of one hour. It can occur when we run a Spotify playlist as background music for when we study or drive. There is also a temptation to follow so many Catholic speakers online and to read the latest spiritual books. We are hungry for conversion. We are hungry for spiritual growth and knowledge of our Lord. This is beautiful! But again, are we inviting the Holy Spirit to direct us to what book we need to read in the particular season of our journey, what speaker we need to follow, or even what prayers we need to include in our routine? Consumption can lead to a distraction of what is truly important: the person of Jesus Christ and our relationship with him.


Lastly, how we consume can potentially reflect how we receive others. In overconsuming even beautiful things, we risk reducing the artist, i.e. the human being, to be something to be consumed as well. We reduce art to our daily dose of distraction, and we train ourselves to be worse listeners and people who are unable to be present to others. It is a subtle form of objectification, and it removes an opportunity of love for the person who shared his or her heart with us. Whether we realize it or not, overconsumption is a form of use and indirectly participates in the throwaway culture of society today. When we fail to reverence the art, the artist, and the Creator, we continue to feed into our culture’s cycle of use

 

The Call to Contemplation


“What distinguishes - in both senses of that word - contemplation is rather this: it is a knowing which is inspired by love. "Without love there would be no contemplation." Contemplation is a loving attainment of awareness. It is intuition of the beloved object.” ― Josef Pieper


When we allow beauty to penetrate our hearts, we have an opportunity to encounter the Lord in a profound way. With beauty, the Lord brings up the movements of our hearts: the longing, the sorrow, the suffering, the joy, the nostalgia. And he desires to speak into those movements and share in those expressions with us. Beauty is an opportunity for a deep intimacy with Jesus in our hearts. When we allow beauty to give us pause, we can hear Jesus gaze into us and say, “I am yours and you are mine.” And we can whisper those words back to him. This is the goal of all art we consume. This is the end of all the beauty that God has given us. This is contemplation.


When we allow ourselves to be fully present to something or someone, particularly in art and beauty, and when we are vulnerable and give permission to beauty to allow it to move us, the Lord can speak. And if we look to how the Lord spoke in Scripture, his words always have an effect. His words always transform. His words always bring newness out of oldness. His words create out of nothing. Imagine the loving gaze of Christ towards the blind man, the leper on the street, or the woman caught in adultery. Christ so perfectly contemplates us sinners, who are his masterpieces, and invites us into that same gaze to contemplate him. And then he can speak healing and restoration.


Contemplation always leads to gratitude. If we look back to Paul’s instruction from 1 Thessalonians, he concludes with, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” When we become aware of the abundance of gifts that God has given us, particularly in beautiful things, we can begin to experience how much God woos us with his love. He is a jealous God who wants to spend every second with us, and he uses beauty to knock on the door of our hearts so we can invite him in. When we practice contemplation in what we take in, especially art and media, rather than rejecting the invitation by overconsumption, we can condition our hearts to be in a constant state of receptivity from God.

 

Consuming the Greatest Masterpiece


“Beauty is not so much a fulfillment as rather a promise. In other words, by absorbing beauty with the right disposition, we experience, not gratification, satisfaction, and enjoyment but the arousal of an expectation; we are oriented toward something ‘not-yet-here’. He who submits properly to the encounter with beauty will be given the sight and taste not of a fulfillment but of a promise--a promise that, in our bodily existence, can never be fulfilled” ― Josef Pieper


Even in the source and summit of our Catholic faith, the Mass, Christ gives us the opportunity to consume him! The infinite, almighty God, who performed miracles and rose from the dead, allows himself in all humility to be chewed by those who sin against him, to be gnawed at by the mouths of his enemies. But, Christ desires so much in that intimate union when we become one with him, in that special sacrament when he says “I am yours and you are mine.” He desires for us to taste the sweetness of his gift, to cherish this moment of beautiful sacrifice. St. Angela of Foligno says, "If we but paused for a moment to consider attentively what takes place in this Sacrament, I am sure that the thought of Christ's love for us would transform the coldness of our hearts into a fire of love and gratitude."


The Eucharist is the most beautiful work of art on earth. It is God as a perpetual self-gift to us. It is a sign of his sacrifice and a reminder of our chosenness. And like all beautiful masterpieces, Jesus is inviting us to contemplate him, not just consume him. Behind all beauty is our Creator, God the Father. Behind all beauty is an opportunity to contemplate him!

 

A Resolution Towards Restoration


Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)


As we continue to discover beauty online and in social media, let us make a resolution to make all encounters with beauty a prayer. First, let us reverence the art, the artist, and thus the Creator by limiting what we view. Instead of flooding our minds with countless images, shows, and songs, choose just a few during the day, and be intentional in being present to it. Give the art, the artist, and the Creator your undivided attention. And let God speak into your heart.


Challenge


“The restoration of man’s inner eyes can hardly be expected in this day and age — unless, first of all, one were willing and determined simply to exclude from one’s realm of life all those inane and contrived but titillating illusions incessantly generated by the entertainment industry.” ― Josef Pieper

  1. Listen to only one podcast a day, even if you have a long commute. Spend the rest of your time, whether you are in the car or jogging, in silence. And meditate on what the Lord was speaking to you through the podcast. Silence is essential in contemplation!

  2. Limit what you watch to what is inspiring, causes you to reflect, or gives you true joy and laughter that is not at the degradation of another person. (Art that involves suffering, violence, or provokes a visceral reaction can still be taken in. But use prudence when making decisions about entertainment.) Avoid degrading reality TV, nonsensical violence, and pornography. Cut out music that glorifies the hookup culture and unrealistic portrayals of love. If it is not true, good, or beautiful, it is not transcendent, and it is not of God. Therefore, it is not what we were made for, so do not bother consuming it.

  3. Help create a culture of reverence for art, the artist, and the Creator. Before you watch a movie, attend a performance, or go to a museum, say a prayer of thanksgiving for the artist, even if you are watching something remotely. Intentionally invite your friends to go on a hike, attend an open-mic night, or watch a beautiful movie. And avoid capturing the moment with your phone. Be present to the art, and actively engage in it. The artists who strive in sharing authentic beauty should be welcomed with active listening and presence, not for what they do, but for their vulnerability in sharing the inner depths of their hearts, even for art that is not as serious or thought-provoking.

To encounter beauty is to encounter God the Father, so acknowledge that you are on holy ground before him. And when we can behold another with reverence and gratitude, we can create a culture of authentic love, which is the call of every disciple of Christ. For you are also God’s most beautiful work of art, and you are worthy of all reverence and love.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Think about everything that you take in daily. Think about what media, images, and literature you consume. Which of these leads you to a greater knowledge of God and yourself? Which of these are consumed to satiate a need to escape, to create a sense of numbness, to distract you from what causes you anxiety and stress, to relieve a sense of boredom?

  2. What is preventing you from removing these things from your life in order to experience true rest and recreation in God? Is it fear of experiencing anxiety or pain? Is it a belief that without these things you will be bored and stressed? Is it a lack of trust that God can actually fulfill you in beautiful art and in his Word? Is it a fear of not being able to engage with friends in discussing the newest fads or the latest pop cultural phenomenon?

  3. What about these forms of entertainment or images are attractive to you? What is the good in these TV shows or media that entices you? And where can you find a more authentic and nourishing form of that goodness elsewhere?

  4. With the good art that you take in on a daily basis, do you think that you are consuming too much beauty? Are you leaving enough room for silence and reflection of the art that you consume?

  5. Invite the Holy Spirit to come into your heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring up the things that you are holding on to. Gently name each show, movie, music artist, or social media platform. And ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to surrender these at the foot of the Cross. Surrender each item. And ask Jesus to give to you what you are truly seeking in these forms of entertainment. Ask for a word, a direction. Ask him to put a name to what you are searching for in these shows. And receive his word with a resolution to seek only what Jesus has shared with you.














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