This is the final 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.
We’ve made our way through the quotations from Archbishop Rowan Williams and community theologian Kenneth Leech. We’ve looked at contemplation as a means for transformation. In the silence of “being still and knowing God,” contemplation hones our awareness of the chaos within us (which fosters humility), but also of the profound serenity and love that hides in the silence, also deep within us. And yet in sharpening our awareness of our own chaos and the presence of grace and love that we could never earn on our own, contemplation also equips us to see “the signs of the times” — the chaos of our deranged, highly insane culture, and the hidden presence of Divine Love, of God who always calls us, individually and communally, out of the chaos and into beatitude.
Is it possible to be a contemplative and yet somehow miss all of this? Of course. Contemplation is not a silver bullet, but an invitation. We are always free to turn down the invitation, to ignore the heightened vision and consciousness that God longs to give us. We really can turn contemplation into an exercise of navel-gazing, of resting in our interior silence as a way of escaping the challenges of our lives, or retreating from Love and its call into some sort of narcissistic self-absorption.
But my guess is that when we avoid the invitation that contemplation offers us, we are probably not going to be contemplative for very long. The fact of the matter is, contemplation is hard work. It does bring joy, but it also brings us face to face with our own woundedness, our own sin and addiction and abuse. If we are drawn to contemplation only because we want a “feel-good” experience of God, we might get what we want (although probably what we “experience” will be a product of our imagination, consciously or subconsciously), but it won’t last. Sooner or later, the silence will reveal the terrors within us. I’ve known people who, when facing that chaos, tried to externalize it — they assumed that the devil was attacking them, and they retreated from contemplative practice and became fiercely opposed to it. This is a great spiritual tragedy, and it arises from the lack of widely-available competent spiritual guidance in the church today. Those of us who seek to embrace the contemplative life, have, I believe, an obligation both to seek out competent guidance for ourselves, but also, as we mature, to be available to accompany others on their journey.
So there are ways we can abuse or misuse contemplation: by attempting to make it an experiential search for God-as-comfort, or by engaging in a narcissistic project of ego-enhancement (“aren’t I special? I’m such an advanced mystic!”) rather than the radical, it-feels-like-dying surrender that contemplation fully embraced will eventually require of us. But thankfully, God is a God of love and grace, so even those who misuse or abuse contemplative practice often will, in spite of themselves, tumble headlong into the arms of the Divine Mystery.
Once that happens, then radical things ensue. We see the world differently. We see ourselves differently. We see the principalities and powers, the insanity of Hollywood and Wall Street and Madison Avenue, all differently. And in that new way of seeing, we discern a new path for us, and nothing is ever the same. We have become revolutionaries of Love. And that, I believe, is our highest calling and our most magnificent destiny.
As I said a few paragraphs above, we need to support one another on this life-altering spiritual path. We need to be spiritual companions to one another, whether formally (as spiritual directors) or informally (as soul friends). We also need community. I know it’s challenging for many people drawn to the contemplative life to deal with the entrenched dualism and reward/punishment thinking that characterizes so much of institutional religion. And yet, even in such environments, we are called to be secret agents of Love. So whether you feel called to a traditional church community or a more emerging model of fellowship such as a house church, monastic oblate group, or other such configuration — make community a priority. We are not meant to fall in love with Love all alone. We need others along for the ride.
Indeed, I have long felt that prayer needs to happen in four venues or settings:
- The mystical silence of private prayer and contemplation (go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret);
- The intimacy of spiritual companionship, direction, or friendship (where two or three are gathered, Christ is present);
- The fellowship of a faith community, whether large or small (for we are the Body of Christ); and finally,
- The context of the world at large, where we “pray” by loving and serving others, advocating for peace and justice, and embodying the fruit of the spirit as much as we can, always by the grace of God.
I believe the contemplative life needs all four of these dimensions of prayer. It seems to me that many “religious” people ignore the first two settings, while many “spiritual” people ignore the last two. Yet how powerful a spiritual life could be if we can only integrate all of these settings of prayer into our lives?
Yes, contemplation is revolutionary. So I invite you to join the revolution. You don’t have to sign up with a political party or learn a secret handshake. All you need to do is pay attention to the hunger in your heart for God, and nurture that hunger by fostering both external and internal silence.
And then, enjoy the journey, for I guarantee it will take you to some surprising and unexpected places.