This is part of a series. If you’re just joining the conversation, begin with The Archbishop and the Community Theologian and then proceed to:
The last four posts have looked at a quote about contemplation from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Today we turn our attention to one of Archbishop Williams’ colleagues and theological contemporaries, Father Kenneth Leech, a community theologian and author of books on both social action and spiritual growth, who spent most of his ministry in the East End, home of some of London’s most economically disenfranchised neighborhoods. Leech is probably best known for his book on spiritual direction, Soul Friend, but he’s written a number of wonderful books, including The Social God, from which the quote I’m considering in this series is taken.
Like Williams, Leech considers how contemplation is not just a spiritual practice that occurs in a vacuum, but rather can only be fully understood in the context of the pressing moral, social and political issues of the day.
Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness.
Certainly we could add to this list: the emotional manipulation of the entertainment culture, the manufactured desires stimulated by the advertising culture, the ever-present specter of gun-related violence or terrorist attack, the mounting problems of climate change and species extinction related to human consumption of natural resources, the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a privileged few, while the many struggle for food or to meet basic needs. And I know we can certainly get caught up in quibbling over which issues are really “the most important” or even which political strategy is the most effective in dealing with this or that issue. But try, just for now, to restrain yourself from jumping into such a political analysis. Just for now, simply be mindful of the context in which contemplation occurs. We don’t always have to be in “fix-it” mode. Once in a while we need to just step back from the fray, take a deep breath, and clearly and insightfully look at the issues. This is precisely what Leech is inviting us to do.
I believe what he is saying can be boiled down to this: contemplation happens in the real world. It’s not an escape from the problems we face in life, whether personal or social/political. Rather, contemplation is the very means by which God empowers us to face those problems.
So let’s take a look at this idea.
It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems we face today, both as individuals and as societies. The environmental problems seem so vast, so huge, so nearly impossible to address. You could say the same about the unequal distribution of wealth. Or about drug use and gang activity among our youth. Or the problems of entrenched conflict in Syria, or Somalia, or the Sudan. Or the continuing specter of sectarian violence in Iraq or Northern Ireland. Any one of these problems is overwhelming. Put them all together and “overwhelming” just gets pushed to the nth degree.
The way human beings respond to stressful situations or conflict has been described as the “fight or flight” response. We either engage directly with the situation, seeking to impose our will on it to resolve the problem (“fight”) or we simply try to distance ourselves from it (“flight”). This isn’t rocket science. Kids learn early on to run away from bullies, not because they’re cowards, but because they’re smart enough to know when there’s no point in fighting back.
Historically, critics of monasticism (the traditional “home” of contemplation) have accused monks of being escapists — of choosing “flight” too quickly, abandoning the problems of society in order to hole themselves up in a desert cell or a remote cloister to ignore the real world while busying themselves with prayer and meditation.
Obviously, some people might choose the monastery as a place to escape: to escape their own personal problems, or to shirk their civic responsibilities. But my experience with monks and monasteries has taught me that most people who choose the cloister as a way of escape life’s problems simply won’t last as a monk. This is for a very simple reason: monasteries are filled with human beings, which means they have all the conflict, interpersonal challenges, and other dynamics that can be dysfunctional, just like any other social unit, from marriage to family to villages. The monks I know all say that in the cloister, our psychological quirks and compulsions and dysfunctions seem magnified, because of the commitment to stay in one place: to remain in the cloisters. Monks don’t just run down to the corner bar or to the cinema when they’ve had a bad day. They stay put and face their individual problems head on. And frankly, for those of us who want to deal with the social or political problems of the world today, that pretty much has to begin with dealing with our own internal stuff. Are you opposed to violence? What about the rage inside you? Have a problem with climate change — look at your own consumption habits. Worry about drug abuse? Maybe you need to start with your own addictions to sugar and caffeine and processed foods. The reality is, our big social problems are simply magnifications of our collective internal “stuff.”
I think it’s funny that some people think meditation, or contemplation, or even becoming a monk, are forms of escapism. Because in reality, the main forms of escapism in our society today is our addiction to television, or social media, or other forms of entertainment. But we don’t think it’s an “escape” to watch American Idol, whereas an hour a day of contemplative practice is “self-indulgent.”
Clearly, people who think that have never given meditative practice a serious try.
So if contemplation is not an escape, then what is it? Frankly, it’s a profoundly silent way to gaze directly at who we are, to see ourselves beneath the incessant chatter of our entertainment culture (and our own “inner entertainment” culture). Thus, contemplation calls us to gaze at our selves, lovingly, directly, uncompromisingly. Which means when we face our own inner noisiness, or distractibility, or inability to truly be present, contemplation simply pays attention to this. It considers it. It is not a form of criticism (whether or our self or of others), nor is it a tool for problem-solving. It’s really just practice in a new way of seeing. ”Simply seeing things in a new light — this is what contemplation is,” remarked Brian D. McLaren in his book A Generous Orthodoxy. He’s right. Then there’s Richard Rohr, who describes contemplation as “learning to see as the mystics see” in his book The Naked Now.
How do we see “as the mystics see”? Simple: contemplation is a way of seeing without judgment, without dividing that which we observe into this or that category. It’s a way of seeing not dualistically, but holistically.
This doesn’t mean that contemplation is about “anything goes.” Not hardly! But when we learn to look at everything (including our own inner chaos) through the eyes of love, we are relaxing into the ability to respond to that chaos with love rather than fear or anger. And that makes a huge difference, even when we do have to draw boundaries and set limits.
Furthermore, contemplation is restful. It’s not about “emptying the mind” like some critics complain. You can’t empty your mind any more than you can stop your heart beating! Rather, contemplation is about resting our attention on the silence that always exists between and beneath our chattering thoughts. So contemplation is gentle, tender, and restful. It’s like a miniature Sabbath.
Contemplation is the natural “breathing in” to complement and support the “breathing out” of social engagement. It’s not a way of avoiding the “real world,” any more than sleep is a way of avoiding life. We sleep to rest for the challenges of tomorrow. Likewise, in contemplation, we rest in the silent presence of God, to rejuvenate our souls so that we may face the “real world” challenges of life — even when the most challenging stuff is what we find inside ourselves.
Because in contemplation, “everything belongs,” the contemplative begins to see contemplation and action as united, two sides of the same coin. Rest and effort, meditation and action, contemplation and discernment: these are not opposites, but complementary dimensions of life. And contemplation helps us to recognize their essential unity.
So in a very real sense, contemplation is about as “real” as you can get — and a real tool to prepare us to face the real problems of life.
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