Consider these two interesting quotes. This one comes from Simon, who commented on my essay The Hidden Tradition of Christian Mysticism:
One of the dangers of Centering Prayer, as I see it, is that contemplation is being served up as some sort of fast food. MacContemplation, so to speak!
And this, from Ali at Meadowsweet & Myrrh, reflecting on the Northern Ireland retreat:
What is the connection between silent contemplation and peace? Is there one? … so far the lesson of this week seems to be that: silent contemplation leads to connecting with God (or merely feeling good?), which leads to being a good person, which naturally involves being peaceful. Several times various speakers have mentioned that they believe without God or religion, there could be no peace — but none of them have gone into the details of exactly why this is. Is it merely the same kind of tendency as thanking Jesus for your basketball win?
As I see it, these comments are not unrelated. They both point to the problem, perhaps the danger as Simon puts it, of reducing contemplative spirituality to a method or a technique. It becomes a spiritual quid pro quo: I clear my mind and attend to my breathing, and then God blesses me (with mystical enlightenment, or inner peace, or some other type of spiritual goodie). And as Simon so cleverly points out with his idea of “MacContemplation,” this utilitarian way of thinking about contemplation is embedded in our fast food culture’s demand for convenience and immediacy, even at the expense of quality or nurture.
I think a paradox lies at the heart of this issue. We human beings live and die in the stream of time, and so we cognitively organize our experience around concepts such as cause and effect, or growth and development. We teach our children that success is measured by how well we set and achieve goals. From the beginning, Christian spirituality has not been immune to this, with mystics as early as Origen of Alexandria (3rd century) “mapping” the spiritual life as a progression from purgation to illumination to union. Two of the greatest of Christian mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, do the same thing: Teresa uses the metaphor of moving through the mansions or rooms of the “Interior Castle” to describe spiritual growth, while John gives us the metaphors of the “Ascent of Mount Carmel” or the movement through the “Dark Night of the Soul” (which comes only after the “dark night of the senses”).
But if it is human nature to mentally organize our experience in terms of temporal progression or cause and effect, the other wing of this paradox is the truth of kairos time, rather than kronos time. Kronos is time as linear progression, time as measured by seconds and minutes and days and years and aeons. Kairos is the “present” or “opportune” moment: in which such abstract categories as past and future fall away. Contemplation is a true kairos experience: we engage in the practice not to “get somewhere,” but rather to “be here now.” Alan Watts used the example of a symphony: an orchestra does not play a symphony just to get to the last note, as if that were the whole point. Rather, each note has its own purpose and beauty. The symphony may play out in kronos because it is our nature to live in the stream of time, but its purpose is to invite is into the experience of kairos — moment by harmonious moment.
Contemplation functions the same way: we don’t relax into the silence in order to get somewhere so much as to simply be somewhere: here, now. So contemplation, strictly speaking, gets us nowhere (“now here” — get it?). Contemplation does not magically summon God to appear, the way Lucy Pevensie in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader inadvertently summons Aslan to appear when she performs a spell to make hidden things visible. Nor does contemplation necessarily make us feel good, or become more peaceful, or find resolution to all our subconscious “issues.” We may be tempted to see contemplation in all these ways, but that is simply an indictment of how utilitarian our way of thinking is.
Here’s how I responded to Ali’s comments:
I see contemplative practice as an important, and perhaps even necessary, component in an overall integral spirituality, which must also include cognitive development and the engagement with the shadow (both individually and collectively). In other words, contemplation must always be situated in the context of the values of peace and justice in order for it to foster peacemaking and justice work. It is possible to be a proficient contemplative but also hold values contrary to peace and justice, just as it is possible to have all the right values but be locked in a non-transformed, thoroughly dualistic/oppositional level of consciousness.
Just as contemplation does not make us “see” or “experience” God, but does in fact dispose us to an awareness of the Divine Presence, so too contemplation does not make us peaceful, but rather disposes us to embrace peace. A subtle, but important distinction.
I don’t know that I can respond to Simon’s concerns in such a way that would put his fears to rest. Frankly, I think to be concerned that centering prayer (or any other method of contemplation) could lead to fast food spirituality is a valid concern, and so having such a fear (in due proportion) is probably healthy. But this is an indictment not of centering prayer but rather of the human condition, and the spirit of our age. Centering prayer is easily abused by anyone who sees it as a shortcut to enlightenment, or as a substitute for the long, hard, unglamorous work of growth in holiness. But this is no reason to abandon centering prayer, as its critics seem to be saying. Rather, it is a reason to continue to drink deeply from the well of the wisdom of the mystics, and then try as best we can to apply that wisdom to our lives: not only to our prayer, but to every aspect of our journey.