Shaker tradition has a saying that puts the idea of contemplation as simply as it can be put: “Hearts to God, hands to work.” That is how Shakers lived. We need only to look at a Shaker chair for proof that they understood contemplation. “Hearts to God” means attention to the guiding vision. “Hands to work” means making that vision a reality. The inseparable splicing of vision and action makes contemplation what it is. In love’s world of prayer, the vision is a deep awareness of belonging; the action puts the consequences of that belonging into practice. Love’s action is an expression of thanksgiving for the insights of love’s vision. This is what the Romans called “gratias agere,” not merely thanking, but acting out one’s gratefulness. With a heart turned to God, love sees: I belong. With hands turned to work, love acts accordingly.
The Romans had a word for love, which expressed precisely that attitude. It is the Latin word pietas. We could translate it as “family affection,” an attitude that springs from a sense of belonging and expresses itself in acting accordingly. Pietas is, in the first place, the attitude of the pater familias. The family belongs to the father from whom it receives its name. Pietas gives rights and duties to the pius pater. But pietas is an attitude shared by every member of the household and relating each to each. Husband and wife may love one another with passion and desire, but the bond that holds them most strongly and most deeply together is pietas. So is the love of brothers and sisters for each and the love between children and parents. But pietas extends also to servants and slaves, to anyone who belongs to the household. As a household they are related to the ancestors of the family and to the guardian spirits, the lares, by the same pietas that embraces the household pets, the farm animals, the land, the tools, the furniture, and other heirlooms. We have no concept like that in English.
If we could put the vigor of the Latin pietas into our words “pity” and “piety,” which derive from it, our concepts of compassion and devotion would surely be enriched. They hinge on the notion of belonging. We cannot revive a word at will. But we must recover the sense of belonging that coined the word pietas.
How wide is the reach of our belonging? Can we stretch it to the furthest reaches of God’s household?
It is fascinating to trace the process by which archaic societies make a stranger welcome. It teaches us much about love, about belonging, and about gratitude. An outsider is strange in the sense of being unfamiliar, of not belonging to the family. But what is unfamiliar is strange also in the sense of being suspicious. The stranger is suspect of being an enemy. Being aware of this suspicion, a stranger with good intentions will carry gifts. They are not a price to be paid but a free present. Will they be accepted? If so, the give-and-take of gratitude forges a bond of mutual belonging. The one who was a stranger is now a guest. And guests belong to the household. In their regard the bond of pietas has a special sacredness. When we become aware that every stranger is gift, strangers need no longer go through a gift-giving ritual to be accepted. We will welcome them, and this hospitality of the heart will be a celebration of the bond that unites giver and receiver in thanksgiving.
When we lift our hearts to God, whom we call “Our Father in heaven,” we see that we belong to a household that embraces all creatures, the Earth Household in Gary Snyder’s powerful poetic term. And if we put our hands to work in service of that Earth Household, this contemplative matching of vision by action will spread God’s peace “on earth as it is in heaven.” The crucial question is: How big is our family? How wide is the reach of our belonging? Can we stretch it to the furthest reaches of God’s household? Will our care and concern stretch to embrace all members of this Earth Household — humans, animals, plants, whom we now still consider strange? The survival of all of us may well depend on our answer.
Peace is the fruit of love. The “yes” to our belonging to God’s great household is the seed from which peace unfolds. D.H. Lawrence suggests this in a poem which he entitled “PAX,” the Latin word for “peace.” There is a close link between the Roman concepts of pax and pietas. This poem hinges on the link between the two.
All that matters is to be at one with the living God
To be a creature in the house of the God of Life.
Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the
Sleeping on the hearth of the living world,
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
as of a master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.
When we read this poem aloud, it has the power of an incantation. Its repetitions seem to put us under a spell — not a spell that binds us, but a freeing spell. “At one…at peace, in peace and at one…at home.” This incantation makes us relax. It makes us settle down into “a deep calm in the heart.” It is like a homecoming to “the house of life,” to “the house of the living,” to “the house of the God of life,” where we belong, where we are truly at home. In all their calm, these lines are alive with dynamic power. They have fire in them. Even the yawning of the cat is a “yawning before the fire.” The yawning of any self-respecting cat is part of a whole ritual of stretching and arching that is full of vitality. When we yawn not with boredom or fatigue but with “a deep calm in the heart,” it is a “yawning before the fire of life.” “Life” is a key word in this poem. Five times “life” and “living” are repeated. The calm of true peace is not a dead silence but the live stillness of a bright burning flame.
We all belong together. We can all live together in peace, as soon as we follow our deepest longing and come home to our heart.
“All that matters,” absolutely all, “is to be at one with the living God.” And “the God of life” is present in “the house of life” as “the fire of life.’ (Placed at the beginning, middle, and end of the poem, these three phrases are given prominence.) Fire is often an image of love. But here it is not the raging and consuming fire of passion. It is the calm, life-giving fire on the hearth that makes everyone in the house feel welcome and at home. How are we, then, “to be at one with the living God,” if this is all that matters? By allowing that hearth fire to warm us to the bone; by letting that warmth make us feel at home; by simply being “at home, at home in the house of the living.” There is no split between heaven and earth in a world warmed by love.” The house of life “is” the house of the God of life. God’s presence in the Earth Household is
as of a master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.
The image of the pater familias gives meaning to these lines and protects them at the same time from a pantheistic misunderstanding. The world is no more one with God than the household is one “with the master of the house, with the mistress.” No more, but no less either. It is not a matter of being one, but “at one,” through that love which only the notion of pietas can begin to convey. Yet, what reverence it inspires to be aware of this at-one-ness. If we think of the Earth Household as our heavenly Father’s “own and greater being,” this will make us look at every pebble, every burr, every wood louse with reverence — and act accordingly. It will cause love to take its likes and dislikes as lightly as true faith takes its beliefs and true hope its hopes. After all, what difference should likes and dislikes make when “all that matters is to be at one with the living God”? Those we like and those we dislike are equally “at home in the house of the living.” We all belong together. We can all live together in peace, as soon as we follow our deepest longing and come home to our heart.
Here, once more, we touch upon the mystery of the heart. The heart is home. “It all depends on what you mean by home.” And one of the characters in Robert Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man” answers:
Home is the place where, when you have to go
They have to take you in.
The other one replies:
I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.
On both counts the heart is home. In both sense, the heart is where we belong. We belong there as to our proper place, no matter how estranged we have become. And when we are there we belong, because what makes home into home is that each belongs to all and all to each.
“Home is where one starts from,” says T.S. Eliot. And this is one way of saying that love is not only the end, but the beginning of all. What we find, when we find our heart (and remember, gratefulness is the key), is God’s own life within us. It has been going on from “before always,” as C.S. Lewis likes to put it. Faith, Hope and Love are ways in which we explore the life of the Triune God. In Faith we live by every word in which the eternal Word is spelled out in nature and history. In Hope, we let ourselves down into the Silence of the Father, from where the Word comes forth and to where it comes home. In Love we begin to understand, in the Spirit of God’s self-understanding, that Word and Silence belong together in action. We come to understand that Belonging is a name of the Triune God. Our heart is rooted in that ultimate belonging. We do not have to earn this, nor do we have to deserve it. It is gratis — pure grace, pure gift. We need only enter into this fullness through gratefulness.
But this gratefulness itself is simply one way of experiencing the life of the Triune God within us. This life springs forth from the Father, the fountain and wellspring of divinity, the ultimate Giver. The total self-gift of the Father is the Son. The Son receives everything from the Father and becomes the turning point in this divine tide of giving. For in the Holy Spirit the Son returns the Father’s ultimate giving as ultimate thanksgiving. The Triune God is Giver, Gift, and Thanksgiving. This movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit back to its Source is what St. Gregory of Nyssa called “the Round Dance of the Blessed Trinity.” This is how God prays: by dancing. It is one great celebration of belonging by giving and thanksgiving. We can begin to join that dance in our heart right now through gratefulness. What else could be called life in fullness?
Reprinted from Family Festivals, Vol. 4, No.4, August/September 1985; taken from the concluding portion of the chapter on love in Brother David’s book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.