Let the Earth Keep Silence
A Contemplative Revolution
We rightly recoil from Nazism not only for its racism and violence, but because it was a totalitarian system of government; such systems inevitably create more problems than they solve. So the solution to our current quagmire is not to impose some sort of top-down measure of control. And this is where contemplation comes in. For like the French freedom fighters of WWII, contemplation represents a way to disengage from the toxicity of our current world order, not in terms of supporting violent revolution, but in an opposite move: by embracing a revolution of humility and love. We cannot beat the greedy, violent, unjust enemy-that-is-us with weapons or military might. Only by "dropping out" of the system can we hope to overcome it with a new way of living. What is this new way? A way of reconciliation rather than violence, of shared resources rather than enforced inequity, a way of simply and quietly living rather than getting caught up in the ever-increasing frenzy of acquisition and competition. Such values are the fruit of contemplation. They are the values that monasteries embody, if imperfectly. They are the values of resistance.
Of course, no one can fully extricate himself from "the system." Even monks and nuns have to eat, and provide for their shelter, healthcare costs, and future needs. So just as the members of the French resistance had to know how to deal with the Germans, so we who embrace the contemplative life still have to function in the world shaped by power and privilege. The trick is to live according to contemplative values without alienating the people in our lives who, after all, we are called to love and serve. Some of us will continue to earn significant income; others will participate in the military or law enforcement; still others will work within a church that too often seems to collaborate with worldly, rather than heavenly, values. But as members of the contemplative resistance, how we function in our violent/greedy world will be transformed.
The first Christian monks, during the age of the Desert Hermits, understood their austere lives as a form of resistance against the evils of the Roman Empire. Likewise, the first Cistercian monastery began as a form of protest against the corruption of religious life in the middle ages. Today, all contemplatives—not just monks and nuns—are likewise called into the splendor of God's silence, not for the purpose of mere personal enlightenment, but as a way of engaging with the most toxic elements of the world in which we live—seeking to transform that world through prayer and compassion.
Carl McColman is a Lay Cistercian, a blogger (www.anamchara.com) and the author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.