This is part of a series on “Why Contemplation is Revolutionary.” If you want to start at the beginning, follow this link: The Archbishop and the Community Theologian.
When we struggle with contemplative practice — facing our own inner chaos, turmoil, and darkness — we participate in the passion of Christ, which is a deeply revolutionary matter.
Here’s what Kenneth Leech has to say:
The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. In this series we’ve considered how contemplation is revolutionary because of its counter-cultural stance, inviting us to pray — and see — through the eyes and heart of God. “Teach me to love the way you love,” goes the prayer of the abbot at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Teach me to love the way you love, Jesus. And to see the way you see. And this will revolutionize how we see not only religious matters like liturgy and Christian ethics, but also the landscape of the world as a whole, the world of art, business, entertainment, finance, and politics. “Contemplation has a context,” asserts Leech, and that context is the world we find ourselves in today: the world of a shut-down government and Miley Cyrus, of Breaking Bad and Gravity, of Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow, of dying bees and melting icecaps, of mass shootings and declining church attendance.
But, in this crazy chaotic world, how does contemplation help us to see with the eyes of God, or love with the heart of Christ? As Kenneth Leech points out, it is because contemplation entails sharing in the passion of Christ.
And what does that mean? Thankfully, it doesn’t mean we all have to be crucified. But it does mean we have to die to our selves.
You see, here is a paradox. On the surface, contemplation looks like navel-gazing (a term of contempt used by its critics). We sit in silence, we gently notice our bodies, our posture, our breath, our thoughts and the space between our thoughts. In all this gentleness, it looks pretty self-absorbed, right?
Well, not exactly. The contemplative seeks self-knowledge, but not self-absorption or self-obsession. Self-absorption or self-obsession are a product of our hearts and minds, of anxiety or fear that leads to self-reflective emotional or mental activity. But contemplation invites us into the spacious silence below and beyond our thoughts and feelings. We come to know ourselves not in order to pay attention to ourselves, but to pay attention to God. Essentially in contemplative prayer, we give our bodies, our breath, our posture, our mind and heart, our mental static and emotional affect, all to God. We have to know ourselves simply in order to know what it is we are giving away (and yes, that’s a humbling process, for in contemplation we come face-to-face with our “demons” or shadow: our addictions, our compulsions, our rage and fear and jealousy and cynicism, our capacity for violence or abuse or sin. As we saw in a previous post in this series, contemplation heightens our awareness not only of the chaos in the world, but also the chaos of the world within. And yet, seeing such chaos is not about obsessing over it — but about humbly offering it to God, to the Deep Silence, to the source of Love in our hearts and in the cosmos.
And to make that offering requires a type of spiritual dying — dying to self. Letting go of the chaos of our thoughts and feelings, and resting in the silence. Letting go of our need to be in control, our need to manage all the details of our lives. We simply surrender, into the silence, into the mystery, into God. And doing so is how we participate, or share, in the passion of Christ.
So every time I settle into time for contemplative silence, and pay more attention to the wordless spaciousness within me instead of the chatter of my thoughts or the drama of my emotions, I am in a very small way “dying to self.” And that is a way of resonating with the cosmos-altering death of Christ on the cross.
Leech goes on to see this sharing in the passion as having two specific characteristics:
- identification with the pain of the world;
- despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.
In the silence of contemplation, in the struggle against our inner chaos, in the dying-to-self, we are invited to identify with all those who suffer: all who are sick or dying, who are grieving or depressed, who suffer because of poverty or economic injustice, who are in the thrall of addiction or imprisoned by the strictures of their own privilege. The point behind the passion of Christ is God’s radical love for, acceptance of, and solidarity with, all who suffer. Contemplation, as we have already seen, is not an escape from the pain and suffering of the world, but paradoxically a means of heightening our own awareness of such pain. And the more we know it, and see it (through the loving eyes of God), the more we are impelled to respond. And this leads us to Leech’s final, brilliant point: contemplation makes us subversive of the “principalities and powers” — the existing systems of power, privilege and oppression that characterize the world in which we live. Contemplation not only makes us aware of the problems in our time, but impels us to “despoil” (plunder) the power from those who wield it unjustly, so that we might become agents of God’s love, peace, joy, justice, and transforming power.
This does not mean that every contemplative will suddenly enter politics or rise to the top of the business world (although wouldn’t that be nice). The contemplative despoiling of the principalities and powers generally follow the same model of Christ himself, who took on the Roman Empire from the vantage point of being a small-town spiritual teacher in a backwater province. In other words, he despoiled the principalities and powers of his age, not by exercising a similar power in a confrontational and dualistic way, but precisely by not wielding such power, but instead living a life of authenticity, freedom and love that could not be touched by those principalities and powers (not even when they executed him). That’s how Jesus despoiled the principalities and powers of his time, and that’s what we are called to do also. To be secret agents of love, compassion, and forgiveness, not so that we can lead armies, but so that we can make a radical, loving difference in our little corner of the world.
And that’s why contemplation is revolutionary.