Monastic Strategies: Being Contemplative in the City

Monastic Strategies: Being Contemplative in the City March 14, 2019

Being Contemplative in the City

Some of us believe it is impossible to be contemplative in the city.

We assume we need to head out of town and away from other people to really be contemplative. Does contemplative mean to travel into the country, to the mountains or the desert, into the woods or to the beach? Many of us are convinced we need to get as far as possible from other people to be contemplative.

Getting away from other people and our typical routines might help us listen to sacred stillness. We want to leave distractions behind and feel the best way to do that is to physically leave.

I appreciate how attractive wild places can be. It takes me hours to drive to the monastery where I am an Oblate. While my trip begins in the city, I leave it behind to head up the Pacific coast to Big Sur.

It is easy for us to believe spiritual life lives in wild, remote places.

I believe, though, I am called to be contemplative in the city.

Contemplative practices are not fragile. We do not need to protect them from other people.

It may seem more pleasant for us to practice contemplation in a bucolic setting, but it is not necessary. We can be just as contemplative in the city as we can in the country.

Being contemplative in the city is about not paying attention to what distracts us. We may feel more distracted downtown than we do in the country, but it is not necessarily the case.

When we close our eyes and take deep breaths we can pay attention to sacred stillness in the city.

Most of what distracts me from my contemplative practices comes from within me, not from the city around me.

A Contemplative in the City

I was not born contemplative, nor was I born in a large city.

I was taught from an early age it was more valuable to know things than to learn things. Learning was just a step on the path toward knowing while knowing was the goal of learning. It was far better to know the right answer than to be in the process of learning. Learning means we have not yet arrived at knowing.

Knowing was also more fun than learning. Learning requires patience, practice, and being open to new insights. Learning means we try new things and make mistakes, which just reinforces we do not already know the right answer.

People do not do well in school by learning, they do well by knowing the right answers.

The significant thing about knowing the answer is we have successfully completed learning. We no longer need to be open to new ideas when we already know the answers.

Moving from place to place, for school and for work, I searched for answers.

Eventually I realized my answers were not always right. I came to appreciate asking good questions more than having the right answers.

My seeking drew me to larger cities and to monastic life. I was received as a lay Oblate at a Benedictine monastery and hermitage in Big Sur, California.

I follow a rule of life which includes spiritual practices like regular prayer, reading, stillness, and solitude. At least once each year I leave the city where I live to spend time at the monastery.

I recognize a balance in seeking spiritual life in the everyday. The life of the city draws me more deeply into contemplative life, which draws me more deeply into city life.

The challenge for me is being contemplative in the city.

Becoming Contemplative in the City

The pattern and structure of monastic life gives us a framework to become contemplative in the city.

Everyday life in the city has a rhythm which is different from monastic life at the hermitage. Our daily and weekly schedules are not the same. We incorporate contemplative practices into our lives in our own ways.

It is important for us to take time each day to listen to sacred stillness. Our approach to everyday life is shaped by how we choose to become contemplative in the city.

Practices shape how we perceive our experiences. Becoming contemplative in the city is about how we live the situations we experience. As we become more open to spiritual life within us and around us we perceive everyday life in new ways.

Becoming contemplative in the city is not limited to sitting in stillness on a bench in the park all day. When I walk in the city each day I see people differently.

Being contemplative in the city is not simply a matter of slowing down, though that helps us pay attention. We practice listening and being open to the life around us.

Living As a Contemplative in the City

There is no magic formula or set of rules for living as a contemplative in the city. Some of us follow contemplative practices intended to help us take time to listen and pay attention. Our practices do not ensure we will live as a contemplative in the city.

Our first step is taking time to set aside what distracts us. It is easy for us to get caught up in the entertainments and attractions which cities offer us. We pay so much attention to the work and money, the expectations and other people which distract us. Some of us become so wrapped up in everyday life we are too exhausted to even think about anything else.

We are immersed in so many people and so many things to do we lose track of anything of depth. It takes us so much effort to skim along the surface of life. Becoming contemplative in the city seems like more work than we can do.

Being contemplative in the city means we pay attention to spiritual life within us and all around us.

How will we practice being contemplative in the city today?

When will we see ourselves as living as a contemplative in the city this week?

[Image by  Gareth1953]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is, and his email address is

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