More on the Fortress and the Beacon

Sometimes I’m a slow learner. My “fortress and beacon” analogy (see yesterday’s post) emerged out an email correspondence I’m having with a Catholic laywoman who is feeling called to the contemplative life, but also feels the tension with mainstream Catholics who are afraid of, or hostile to, contemplative and centering prayer, because of their alleged new age or eastern mystical characteristics (as I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I think such fears/hostility are groundless and based on misunderstandings, largely because of the fortress mentality).

So I came up with the fortress and the beacon as a way of unpacking how the church can be understood and experienced in different ways, as I wrote yesterday. My “duh!” experience came this morning when I realized that I have written about this tension previously: when I’ve explored what it means to be holy. As I’ve said in previous posts, holiness can take two forms: the quest for purity, and the quest for true hospitality. Purity is all about freedom from sin, complete submission to Divine Love, uncompromising commitment to upholding traditional church teachings. Hospitality is all about welcoming the stranger, caring for those who are wounded, broken, messy, and imperfect, and opening our doors and our hearts to whomever God sends our way, welcoming everyone — everyone — as if they were Christ himself.

Isn’t it obvious: holiness as purity is linked to the desire to enforce strong boundaries: the “mighty fortress” dimension of faith. Holiness as hospitality is linked to the desire to share God’s lavish love with everyone: the “luminous light” dimension of faith.

I believe in the universal call to holiness, which suggests that each of us are called to both purity and hospitality. We’re all called to embrace and uphold the healthy boundaries of our identity, and likewise and simultaneously to open those boundaries in the service of love. It’s a tricky calling. The fortress and the beacon subvert each other, and yet they need each other. Without the light, the fortress becomes so self-contained that it dies. But without the fortress, the light would soon be lost. It’s a tension we all have to live with, and figure out how best to play it out in our own lives.

Welcome to the contemplative life.

Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Julia Holloway

    Have been asked to a meeting of hermits at Camaldoli and very much pondering this same paradox. When I made my vows as a hermit the obedience part was to the Gospel. Which has me giving hospitality to the Roma, who had been slaves from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The difficult balance of a life withdrawn from external stimuli in concentration on God, and this other, the love of one’s neighbour, the stranger, the outsider, the feared and hated one, who turns out to be deeply religious (Romanian Orthodox), deeply centred on their family, desperately poor. But this is what Christ gave us as model, withdrawing in prayer on the mountains, then going about consoling and healing despite his poverty amidst so many in need. I think it was Eckhardt or Tauler who said that if one is in ecstasy in prayer to God and someone comes and asks for a drink of water, one must leave the ecstasy, the communion with God, and bring the drink, the water, to the neighbour – who is God. But for the present I have been forbidden to do this – by fortress others. This is in Italy where racism has become politically correct.

  • Rob Adams

    Ah, tension… I have finally begun to understand that tension is the best place to live. We can’t let ourselves become too comfortable anywhere, lest we either miss out on what God’s doing or miss an opportunity to love people where they are.

    Thanks for your insight as always, Carl!

  • Leslie

    I find living a life of faith is ALL about the tension, like walking the fine edge of the two-sided coin. The edge is where the seemingly opposite and irreconcilable is reconciled in God, a narrow way from which many stray. We humans like black and white and eschew gray. It’s murky and mysterious and confusing and demands thinking in new ways, something else we humans do not like to do. This edge is difficult to walk and sometimes quite painful but it’s where we need to walk if we’re to walk with God. Here’s to the edge.