Are Contemplatives Privileged?

Christ of the Breadlines

For some time now, I’ve noticed how gatherings of contemplatives often seem to consist largely of individuals who are well educated and/or affluent. As much as I love exploring the contemplative dimension of Christianity, I worry that only those folks who seem to enjoy a lion’s share of our society’s abundance appear to be pursuing the spirituality of silence. Is this just a projection of my own socio-political angst — or am I on to something here, some sort of blind spot within the contemplative community? This is a question that hovers in the background of the latest installment of my Patheos column, Let the Earth Keep Silence. Click here to read the column.

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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.

  • Janet Gardiner

    No question that the gift of contemplative living is not given to everyone. My sense though is that lack of commitment to silence, meditation, introspection, and prayer is not about education, economic status or class but about a soul calling. Within the homeless shelters and prisons are very soulful people who create their own inner silence, connect to the divine, and live transformed lives despite their external circumstances. The noisiest, dirtiest, scariest external places seem to attract the power of spirit in ways that my upper middle class parish parlor with the oriental rugs cannot. Namaste’.

    • Carl McColman

      Certainly, the grace of contemplation may be granted even to those in the most uncongenial of circumstances. I just hope that the knowledge of this does not lessen the zeal of those of us who are blessed with education or affluence to work tirelessly to create a more just and humane society — in other words, a society where everyone who receives the call to contemplation will have access not only to education and social support, but also to places of deep, restful silence.

  • Marcello

    Yes, they are! It’s the “birds of a feather” principle: the educated, affluent and privileged will congregate and create their own culture. Those with different backgrounds will create a different culture. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since those cultures probably fulfill a need for those particular populations. It *is* a bad thing, however, when those cultures create an arrogant sense of superiority and exclusion. I grew up with a faith that leaned towards the contemplative. Some of my friends — mostly those from less privileged backgrounds — grew up with churches that are much more noisy and rambunctious. Who’s to say that one is better than the other? God can holler and God can whisper, as long as we’re listening we’ll hear His voice.

  • Bob Martin

    Affluence makes it easier to find and meet with like-minded people, contemplative or those with some other interest. It is good that those who have or want silence at their core are meeting, forming groups, teaching others. Those who are willing and able to help bring the possibility of silence to those who seek it and a way to grow within and into silence for those of us whose lives are already silent are key. Thanks.

  • Jane

    As we follow the contemplative way we may get to a stage in which we are no longer fed. It happens that just as all temporal things , in the beginning, lose their hold over us, so too in the spiritual realm. This is painful. The soul is not to cling – the risen refuses to be held. We can’t possess God. Living in the nothingness we come to rely not on what we have but on something we don’t fully appreciate but rather learn to trust. this enables the going out and being ‘lost’ in order to be fully there for others. We lose our life – not the material one for that happened a long time ago but the spiritual one we’d also constructed. But what a relief not to keep seeking what we already are! We once through we were spirituall rich and now we see we are poor! Life is then abundant!

    • Al Jordan

      So true, Jane.

      I find great power in those verses from Isaiah that say, “In returning and rest is our salvation (wholeness); in quietness and trust is our strength.” The operative words for me are returning, rest, trust.

      Letting go and opening. Just being aware that we are in Divine Presence. Sort of Ignatian, I guess.

  • Gordon Atkinson

    Perhaps this is the trend. But the only real question is how welcoming a single group of contemplatives is.

    If a group of people gather in silence, welcoming all comers with open arms and cheerful hearts, then they as a people are doing a righteous thing with their hospitality. And this whether or not anyone who is like unto them shows up.

    I guess I’m saying that the trend is interesting, but not a burden any individual person or community should carry, other than to perhaps increase their own commitment to inclusion and hospitality.

  • Laura

    Sometimes it is possible to help the contemplative way grow in unexpected places and ways. For instance, twelve step programs can actually be portals to contemplative prayer; there are some eleventh step meetings out there that begin with a sustained period of silent contemplative time where one follows the breath. I know these meetings, which begin with the Prayer of Saint Francis (otherwise known as the eleventh step prayer), can introduce contemplative prayer to people who otherwise might not have encountered it.

    Jane, your comment resonated for me very much. I do think it can be counterproductive for me to cling to specific feelings generated in contemplative time. In my very limited experience, I have found this to be true.

    Carl, thank you for writing this; I enjoyed reading it very much.