Why Contemplation is Revolutionary

Why Contemplation is Revolutionary September 27, 2013
Kenneth Leech (photo credit: Jacqueline Schmitt).

In September and October 2013 I wrote a series of blog posts called “Why Contemplation is Revolutionary” that explores the spiritual wisdom of two contemporary spiritual authors, Kenneth Leech and Rowan Williams. I hope to release this series as an ebook in the near future. Please visit my web site to sign up for my email list, and I’ll let you know when the ebook is available.

I’ve posted both of the following quotes in this blog before, but they are such wonderful quotes that I find myself going back to them again and again. Last night I taught a class on contemplative spirituality at an Episcopal Church in Gainesville, GA, and I used the first of these two quotes. It’s from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the occasion of his addressing the Catholic Synod of Bishops in Rome: the first time an Anglican Archbishop ever gave such an address. The Archbishop used this historic occasion to make the following comment about contemplation:

Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

This next quote about contemplation, perhaps my all-time favorite single quote on the subject, comes from one of my true heroes: Anglican priest, community theologian, and spiritual writer Kenneth Leech, from his book The Social God (also excerpted in Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech):

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. It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the waste of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. 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.

What can we learn from these two Anglican theologians — one of whom inhabited the central corridors of the church’s power, the other of whom lived out his ministry in some of the grittiest neighborhoods in London’s economically challenged east end?

Here are just a few thoughts, a way to summarize these two splendid quotes from two of the most interesting (and authentically contemplative) theologians alive today. I’d love to hear if you have any more insights into what these two are saying.

  1. Contemplation is the key to Christian prayer, liturgy, art and ethics;
  2. It is also the key to a renewed humanity;
  3. And it is an answer (if not “the” answer) to the way in which our culture idolizes money, advertising, and entertainment;
  4. Contemplative practice teaches us how to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.
  5. Therefore, it is a deeply revolutionary matter.
  6. Contemplation does not happen in a bubble or a vacuum; it is not an escape from the world’s problems, but rather a strategy for addressing those problems.
  7. Because we live in a toxic culture, we should expect that contemplation reveals to us the toxicity within our own hearts, minds, and spirits;
  8. Contemplation is not, therefore, a tool for achieving inner peace (even though at times it can be a deeply serene practice); rather, it will bring us face to face with all the ways in which we lack true peace and equipoise.
  9. Because contemplation is training in a new way of seeing, contemplative practice helps us to see the problems in our lives (and our world) more clearly.
  10. 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.

So both the Archbishop and the community theologian bring us to the same place in the end: a recognition that contemplative prayer and practice is ultimately such a profound force for both inner and outer change that it is truly revolutionary. But not revolutionary in a Marxist, Leninist or Maoist sense; rather, revolutionary in a Jesus of Nazareth sense.

Viva la revolución!

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  • I’m an artist. I discovered early on in my career that contemplation (though I might not have used that term, if any) is a major part of the creative process. There are technical and mechanical aspects, as well, but contemplation, pretty much as you’ve described it, is essential. I’ve also found that looking at art requires the same thoughtful—or thought-less—approach.

  • This was beautiful!I start my day with 2 1-2 hours of silence and another 45 minutes of meditation at a local abbey.Tomorrow {at the same abbey}they are having a meditation workshop from 9 till 4!

    Peace and blessings,


  • I like what you write because you express the truth clearly and simply. You must be a happy man. However, since I’m sure you don’t have time to study art like artists do, your description of it is understandably colored by convention. The social and political undertones, for instance, while widely discussed and taken very seriously are usually quite misleading and generally reflect back whatever the viewer thinks. Sometimes the actual message is the opposite of appearances. If you look at a few entries ( they are very brief) on my site, Every Painter Paints Himself (www.EPPH.org), you will see that all art from at least the Middle Ages onwards is, on its most fundamental level, a depiction of the artist’s mind as God’s mind, the pure Mind or simply Man’s Mind. This is as true of Giotto as of Picasso, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. They do this – as you do – by turning inwards. And, though I don’t write about it, the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams believes that early homo sapiens imposed the pattern of his mind on his environment and turned awe-inspiring caverns deep underground into a 3-D representation of the neolithic mind complete with mental images on the wall. You may know that R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz showed how the Holy of Holies in Egyptian temples are representations of the pharaonic mind. And Michelangelo did the same in the Sistine Chapel which he turned into a 3-D representation of his own mind purified. I discovered the latter long before reading Lewis-Williams or Schaller.

    What is astonishing is that few viewers except artists ever see this and the latter keep silent. Perhaps the easiest demonstration of the depth of misunderstanding among the cognoscenti are the great portraits of Western art. I show, for instance, how five celebrated portraits of Napoleon each resemble the artist who painted it as do portraits of America’s Founding Fathers and virtually all British and French monarchs since the Renaissance including the latest, Pietro Annigoni’s and Lucian Freud’s two portraits of Elizabeth II. In addition, in the Mona Lisa, Raphael’s La Fornarina and La Gravida, Parmigianino’s Anthea, Titian’s La Bella and other important female portraits, the identities of the sitters remain unknown for a good reason. They never existed. They all resemble the artist, representing the feminine faculty, fertile and creative, in the artist’s androgynous or non-gendered mind.

    So you strike a chord in a secular Jew and I read your site religiously.

    • Carl McColman

      I see what you are saying, and while as a theist I accept at least the language of God as transcendent, certainly to be an artist is to be in the business of (re)creating the world, which begins, as you point out, in the artist’s own consciousness. Hopefully a contemplative view of art makes this more transparent both to the artist and to those who appreciate the artist’s work.

  • Lillian Lewis

    Dear Carl,

    I like the way you do this blog, including the Celtic meandering that greets me each time…also, check out Robert Sardello’s SILENCE. you will like it. All Shall Be Well, yes, Lil Lewis

    • Carl McColman

      Here’s some serendipity: I just ordered a copy of Sardello’s Silence: the Mystery of Wholeness yesterday. You are not the first to have recommended it.

  • [“Finally, how does contemplation provide the key to ethics? One important difference between seeing things through “ordinary” eyes of humanity, and the contemplative way of beholding as God’s eye would see, is the difference between being caught in what has been called “oppositional” reality — where conflict, discord, or behavior are seen in terms of division, such as right-vs.-wrong, good-vs.-evil, acceptable-vs.-unacceptable — and non-oppositional or nondual awareness…”]

    As I’ve shared before, Jeanne de Salzman writes eloquently on some of these issues. You may or may not have seen this on my (personal) Facebook page, but I think these paragraphs speak to the ethical side of the equation:

    “This ordinary “I,” our ego, is always preoccupied with what pleases or displeases it—what “I” like or what “I” dislike—in a perpetual closing that becomes fixed. It desires, fights, defends itself, compares and judges all the time. It wants to be the first, to be admired and to make its force, its power, felt. This “I” is a center of possession in which all the experiences inscribed in our memory are accumulated. And it is from this center that I wish “to do”— to change, to have more, to improve. I want to become this, to acquire that. This “I” always wants to possess more. With ambition, avidity, it always has to become something better. Why does the “I” have this exaggerated need to be something, to make sure of it, and to express this at every moment? It has a fear of being nothing. Is not identification, at its core, based on fear?


    “When the mind is freer and truly quiet, there is a sense of insecurity, but within it there is complete security because the ordinary “I” is absent. My mind is no longer moved by the wish “to do” on the part of my “I,” by its demands, by its ambitions, even for my own inner growth. In this tranquility all the responses, reactions and movements of this “I” are left behind. My mind is at rest, stilled by the vision of what is. An order is established that I cannot institute myself but to which I need actively to submit. I feel a kind of respect, and suddenly I see that it is trust. I have confidence in this order, in this law, more than in myself. I entrust myself to it with my whole being” (from “119. The affirmation of myself”).

    ~ The Reality of Being: The Fourth way of Gurdieff — by Jeanne de Salzmann


    In contemplative awareness, we abide in Christ:

    “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I Am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from [the Divine presence that “I Am”] you can do nothing” (John 15:3-5) [paraphrased].

    When we truly abide in Christ, we have effectively exchanged our will for God’s will. It is only when we die in this way– our life being hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) –that the joy of our salvation is truly realized and we become obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17; cf. Hebrews 8:10). Reminiscent of the verses in John 15, quoted above, it is at this point that we begin to

    “bear fruit for God . . . not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:4,6).