Keep Calm and Contemplate On


“Keep Calm and Carry On”: It’s our culture’s latest mantra. The phrase applies in all kinds of contexts—political, social, economic. Oppressed by government? Keep calm and carry on. Hurting from a break-up? Keep calm and carry on. Out of a job? Keep calm and carry on.

Though it’s been popularized in myriad forms (personally I prefer “Keep Calm and Pet Cats”), it’s worth considering what this slogan really means, and whether we should embrace its message.

Maxims like this one are a response to anxiety. In fact, “Keep Calm and Carry On” was initially a propaganda poster during World War II, to be displayed publicly only if the Germans invaded Britain. Since that never happened, the posters with their now-iconic image disappeared until someone rediscovered one in 2000, and put it in the public domain.

It’s easy, and sometimes necessary, to take consolation in phrases like “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Who hasn’t drawn inspiration and courage from a line of music, poetry, or prose that encourages us to do, not think?  But we know too that this attitude has its limits: Bottling up frustrations and sorrows for too long—shoving them to the back of our minds while we follow our hectic schedules day in and day out—erodes our potential, and need, for interior peace.

Christians especially know that we are made for inner calm and happiness, because they believe that we are each designed to have a deeply personal, intimate, and loving relationship with God. Crucial to building this relationship is an effort to engage our contemplative abilities.

The story of Mary and Martha in the Gospels perfectly illustrates what I mean: Jesus visits the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany, where Martha runs around anxiously trying to make Jesus feel at home. Mary sits happily at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha, frustrated and stressed, calls out, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” To which Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

These sisters represent the two halves of human inclination: activity and contemplation. Because we, like God, can create, we have an urge to do, to move, to build. Yet at the same time, our rational nature—the reason we can say we are made in God’s image and likeness—pulls our intellect toward the things that transcend our material being, like God himself.

Thus Jesus does not say that Mary’s listening is the only thing we should do—he says it is the better thing to do. This is because he knows that while the practical demands of daily life require our care and attention, contemplation will bring us closer to him, to his infinite love for us: our final goal.

So, it’s worth remembering, especially as the end of Lent approaches, that “carrying on” can’t alleviate our fears and worries in the long run. Maintaining our calm requires time for quiet reflection in daily life: a time to articulate our concerns mentally. This could include spending five to ten minutes each day speaking to God about our struggles and hopes. Even better, the conversation with God could flow from reading and thinking about Scripture, where we can really get to know Jesus’ humanity.

A final point: Setting aside time for reflection is never easy, but our culture makes it harder. We are pushed toward forms of recreation that go hand in hand with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality. Facebook, Twitter, TV shows, even reading for fun—though they seem like relaxing activities to do by ourselves, these can prevent us from really being alone with ourselves and God. If anything, these outlets, usually reserved for our resting time, can wear us down more if we never pull the plug. Resisting some of these many opportunities to avoid interior silence is a great foundation for becoming a contemplative in active life.

[Image of Martha and Mary Courtesy of Wikipedia]

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