Contemplation in a Consumer Society (Why Contemplation is Revolutionary, Part Two)

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

This is the second part of a series. If you’re just joining the conversation, begin with The Archbishop and the Community Theologian and then proceed to Why Contemplation is Revolutionary (Part One).

Today we’re looking at the second of ten points drawn from quotations on contemplation from Archbishop Rowan Williams and Father Kenneth Leech. Today’s point, quoting the archbishop directly: contemplation is “the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.”

Wow, that’s a lot to consider. Let’s break it down.

Contemplation is:

  • the key to the essence of a renewed humanity (a little wordy there, Archbishop; let’s just say “the key to a renewed humanity”);
  • such humanity will be able to see the world, and those who live in it, with freedom;
  • such freedom means freedom from self-orientation;
  • and freedom from consumerist habits;
  • and from how such habits distort the way we see things.

If I’m reading this correctly, Williams appears to be saying that contemplation frees us from the spell of consumerism. And such liberation can renew humanity. It’s a bold claim. But I think the archbishop is right. And I think “exhibit A” in supporting his claim is none other than St. Francis of Assisi. 

St. Francis has been called western society’s first “drop-out.” Perhaps that sounds like an insult, but back in the 1960s when people like Timothy Leary were encouraging folks to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Dropping out, therefore, was a response to the excesses of society, after having one’s consciousness raised so that one became away of social problems. Since Timothy Leary was an advocate for LSD, his idea of “turning on” involved the ingestion of psychedelics. But for St. Francis (and indeed for all contemplatives before or since), the “turning on” comes not from a drug, but from God.

It’s a legendary story of how St. Francis, after his conversion and commitment to Christ, renounced his comfortable lifestyle as a merchant’s son in early 13th-century Italy, even (according to legend) going so far as to strip of the luxurious clothes he received from his father, while making his case to the bishop of Assisi. In response to the call of God, Francis gave up everything — to the clothes on his back — to follow Christ. He embraced a life of voluntary poverty which has inspired countless others, including the current pope.

Make no mistake: Christianity does not suggest that money, or mercantilism, are in themselves evil. But “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:10), which is to say that it is far too easy to be lulled into a kind of hypnotic state where the accumulation of wealth, the pleasures of being a consumer, and the fear that drives our human desire for security (which money or belongings cannot give us, but we think that they can) all begin to matter more to us than God, or family and friends, or caring for those in need. In his book Everything Must Change, Brian D. McLaren offers clear insight into the problems of wealth: those who have it begin to invest in ways of protecting themselves from those who don’t, while seeking to accumulate more, even at the expense of the environment. So wealth, violence, and environmental degradation are interconnected. And the message of Jesus Christ: a message of love before money, of forgiveness before self-protection, of stewardship before consumerism — stands against the excesses of consumerism.

And contemplation — as a tool for deep listening for the “sound of sheer silence,” the call of God to transform our hearts and minds, our eyes and bodies, into the Body of Christ himself (I Corinthians 12:27) — is, so Archbishop Rowan Williams asserts, the key to being liberated from the enslaving tendencies of consumerism.

Why is this: because contemplation is training in the gentle art of living silently, simply, and calmly in the presence of the God who loves us, the God who is Love Divine. And the more centered we become in the love of God, the less we are in thrall to money or things. It’s as if contemplation is the lubrication that enables us to slip out of the shackles that a life of attachment to money and acquisition represents.

I can only speak of my experience, of course, and after years of practicing Christian meditation and almost a decade of formation as a Lay Cistercian, I am very much unfinished in my freedom. I still have many attachments, and still make so many choices driven by my habits of consumption and my fear of not-having-enough (whether enough money, or time, or comfort, or books, or entertainment, or whatever it is that gets me). But I can see where my attachments are less than they once were, and how I have slowly, but recognizably, been learning to value people over money, God over things, relationship over self-protection, forgiveness over pleasure, and the silence of contemplation over the noise of the marketplace.

I think many non-contemplatives see the kind of voluntary simplicity and austerity that many contemplative monastics and solitaries have embraced, and have wondered if contemplation is somehow a form of self-punishment, of self-denial. But contemplatives themselves do not see it that way. The simplicity is not a punishment, but rather a liberation. As Williams said, it’s about freedom. First of all, the radical freedom to be one’s own authentic self. But beyond there, the freedom to relate to others (and to the earth) with integrity, simplicity, and honor.

How, then, does this freedom, this liberation, lead to a renewed humanity? One person at a time. As I’ve said before, contemplation is revolutionary not in a Marxist or Maoist sense, but rather in a Christian sense. This is not a top-down institution of “revolutionary” fervor, but a bottom-up emergence of freedom that can change each person, one soul at a time — but in doing so, can set into motion new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of forming relationships that literally could renew the entire human family. And that is truly an exciting thought.

Next up: how contemplation is an answer (if not “the” answer) to the way in which our culture idolizes money, advertising, and entertainment.


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