Contemplation and Peace

Contemplation and Peace June 15, 2016

Path-to-PeaceA Facebook friend shared with me that she has been “thinking about contemplative prayer as a resource for peacemaking or for community building.” Especially given the horrors in Orlando this past weekend, perhaps this is something we all need to be thinking about. Is contemplative prayer a meaningful tool for fostering reconciliation? Can it foster peace — not only inner peace, but peace in the world as well?

I don’t have any scientific data to help provide any kind of definitive answers to these questions. So my thoughts here arise from my knowledge of the Christian contemplative tradition, along with my own experience as a practitioner of silent prayer. So please read this post in the spirit in which it is written: as a contribution to an ongoing conversation, and not any effort to be a definitive statement about this or that.

On a purely physical level mindfulness practices (like meditation, body scanning, or simple yoga) are generally accepted to help lower blood pressure, foster relaxation, and even alleviate symptoms such as pain or depression — so it is tempting to say that contemplative practices such as centering prayer or lectio divina must have similar benefits. And it is certainly my experience that contemplation can lead to a sense of profound well-being.

But speaking from the perspective of the contemplative tradition, such “wellness” benefits are not the main purpose of contemplation. If they occur, great. But that’s not the point.

The point behind contemplation (at least from within the Christian tradition) is to wait upon, and more fully respond to, the love of God. It is not meant to be a technology of relaxation, or a strategy for personal growth or inner healing. Yes, all of those things can accompany a sustained contemplative practice — but they are ancillary blessings, not the main point.

Kenneth Leech talked about how contemplatives explore the “waste” of their own being — suggesting that Christian contemplation might not be very “peaceful” or “relaxing” at all! When we enter silence, we often encounter the unruly and chaotic nature of our distracted minds. This can be profoundly humbling, when we realize that we do not have inner peace, or peace of mind, nor do we have any strategies to effective create or foster such peace. And if we don’t have inner peace, how can we help to create “outer” peace?

For a Christian, this leads to a place of humility and trust. We recognize that peace (whether internal or external) is a grace. It is not something we achieve on our own, but rather something that we receive from the loving heart of God. Contemplation, as a type of prayer of adoration, helps us to create the space in our hearts to receive this grace — and also that peace is never a purely private matter (I can’t be peaceful if the world around me is consumed in violence); therefore in contemplation we not only dispose ourselves to receive the grace of God’s peace, but we also make ourselves available to give that peace to others (which is the essence of peacemaking).

Again, speaking as a practitioner of Christian contemplation, the act of silent prayer needs to be embedded in an understanding that is shaped by the words and values of our faith tradition. It is not enough merely to meditate — my devotion to silence needs to be grounded in the wisdom of Christ (and Christ’s lovers, the mystics). Out of that wisdom do I learn the values essential to both peacemaking and community-building: love your neighbors; love your enemies; take care of the least of these, our brothers and sisters; turn the other cheek; forgive one another, again and again if necessary. And so forth. The wisdom of Christ must illuminate the silence of contemplation. Just as a healthy marriage requires more than just physical intimacy: it also requires the emotional intimacy that can only come through shared words (“I love you,” “I forgive you,” and so forth); so too in order for contemplation to lead us to true reconciliation and true peace (both inner and outer), it must be anchored in the words of eternal life: the words of love, and justice, and forgiveness, and mercy, that come to us through the wisdom teachings of Jesus.

Friends, we live in chaotic times indeed, and many people misconstrue the words of Jesus, turning them into weapons of judgment and exclusion. One of the gifts of contemplative prayer is that it helps us to see the words of Christ as they actually are, not as they have been misinterpreted by others. It’s a symbiotic connection: the words of Christ give silence meaning, and silence offers us the space and the freedom to encounter the words of Christ as they actually are.

In these times filled with suffering and fear, let us pray for peace. For healing. For true community, anchored in mercy and forgiveness. Let us continually share Christ’s words of life with one another, and then let us take refuge in silence, where we pray with wordless adoration, beholding the face of Love, who loved us first.

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