Let the Earth Keep Silence
Is Contemplation Boring?
"This article is boring."
I don't know of any writer who wants to get this type of feedback from a reader. It certainly isn't the kind of comment that makes my day. But when someone recently made such a declaration on a piece I wrote last month, it caught my attention precisely because it's a question I ponder myself. Not so much about my skill as a writer (hey, some people will love my work, and others won't), but rather about the nature of my topic. In short: is contemplation boring?
Think about it. The heart of contemplation is spending time in silence, for heaven's sake. Where's the drama, the sturm und drang, in that? Granted, when I give myself to contemplative prayer, I have to struggle with my distractions, my unruly thoughts, and my tendency to let my mind wander. Now there is an edge-of-your-seat conflict.
While my colleagues here at Patheos are taking their various stands while dissecting current events, theological controversies, partisan politics, and issues like the ongoing rancor between traditionalists and progressives on all sorts of hot-button church issues, I'm off in the corner, talking about medieval mystics and monastics and encouraging everybody to rise above dualistic, oppositional thinking and embrace the inclusionary, "everything belongs" mindset of the contemplative path.
So I must admit defeat, and note that my snarky critic is right: my recent article is boring, because, well, contemplation is boring. And while it is a continual temptation to "sex it up" a little, maybe by making the case for a link between contemplation and a specific theological/political stance, I keep remembering that by its very nature, contemplative spirituality undermines our human tendency to draw lines and take sides. Not that contemplation is wimpy or lacks conviction, but rather that it refuses to let oppositional dynamics have the final say. Worldly politics looks at the opponent and tries to figure out ways to beat him or her down (before he or she does it to you). Alas, the behavior of so many Christians when dealing with church conflicts seems virtually indistinguishable from that worldly way of doing things. Contemplation comes along and says, "Hey, my opponent is made in the image and likeness of God, and the more silent I am, the more obvious it is to me. I can't try to beat this person—I have to figure out a way for us to reconcile."
It's a great spiritual truth. But it makes for a boring narrative.
The more I thought about this, though, the more I began to play with the pun right in front of my eyes. Contemplation is boring because the subtle emptiness of silence (even silence obscured by distracted, wandering thoughts) has a way of "boring" in to us, of drilling down below the normal noise and chatter of what Cynthia Bourgeault calls the "egoic operating system," in other words, the normal awareness of ordinary waking consciousness. The brain is a thought generator, just like the heart is an organic pump and the stomach a digestion tool. This is to say, as long as we have functioning brains, our consciousness will be shaped by the thoughts we think. But beneath, between, and beyond those thoughts is silence: expansive, luminous, serene, nonjudgmental, unitive, non-oppositional silence.
The purpose behind contemplative prayer is to "bore" through the scattered, distracted, wandering thoughts of the brain, opening our awareness out into the spaciousness that is always there as a sort of backdrop to our mental chatter, but that we normally simply ignore. Incidentally, a common misconception about contemplative practices like centering prayer is that they are intended to "empty the mind." But it is no more possible to fully arrest thoughts than it is to stop the heart beating, and even if we could simply "turn off the mind," what would be left is not emptiness so much as spacious silence -- a subtle but crucial difference. For it is in that spacious silence that we are capable of discerning a mysterious presence, what we Christians identify as the presence of God (who, being omnipresent, is always here, always there, but the question is, do we behold God's presence or not?).
So contemplative silence really is boring—at least, if we do it right. It bores down beneath all the psychic defenses we normally employ to distract ourselves from the presence of God in our lives. Because, well, if we can distract ourselves from God's presence, we can persist in the illusion that we are actually in control of our lives, are managing our conflicts just fine, and are fully justified in the ways we judge, reject, and try to defeat others. That in turn allows us to keep seeing our adversaries, competitors, and opponents as people we need to beat rather than as those with whom we need to work for reconciliation (even while remaining true to our values and convictions).
So I guess the next time someone tells me my work is boring, I ought to take it as a compliment. Maybe this means I won't be writing any Oscar-worthy screenplays any time soon, but if I'm being faithful to the subversive humility of true contemplation, that's good enough for me.
Carl McColman is a Lay Cistercian, a blogger (www.anamchara.com) and the author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.