In response to an old blog post of mine, Between Shambhala and the Catholic Church, one reader tweeted the following:
These questions are too big for twitter, but — Does contemplative practice bring unique gifts/experience to "saving the burning building," beyond protecting us and teaching us how to tell the truth? And how does it do these things?
— Our Lady of Constant Reproach (@met_annoy_a) April 26, 2020
Maybe those questions were big for Twitter, but I appreciate you asking them. Let me reflect on them here.
Does contemplative practice bring uniques gifts/experiences, beyond protecting us and teaching us how to tell the truth?
What does a contemplative practice do — not only for those who engage in the practice, but for all people?
Since this question is being asked in response to my previous blog post — about my decision to remain a Catholic even though I am heartbroken at the church’s ongoing struggle with its history of abuse — I’m going to answer it from this angle: how does being a contemplative help me (or anyone) function in an organization/institution (religious or otherwise), and how does it benefit the organization, even beyond those who are contemplative practitioners?
Put another way: if I engage in contemplative prayer as a Christian, how does it benefit me, but then how does it benefit all Christians (whether they are contemplative or not), and how does it benefit all people (regardless of religious identity, whether they are contemplative or not)?
It’s a great question, so let’s explore.
- How does being a contemplative help me to function in organizations — even dysfunctional organizations? Every informed, honest person knows that the Catholic Church (and many other religious bodies as well, like Shambhala Buddhism) has made terrible choices at the institutional level, choices that hurt some of the most vulnerable members of society. I completely understand why so many people must in good conscience leave such a dysfunctional system. Those of us who stay, stay not because of the church’s dysfunction, but in spite of it. We remain, in part, because we hope that good people can influence the organization in good ways. In other words, desire all its toxicity, we believe there’s something worth saving in the organization.So how does contemplation help me to do this? Just a few thoughts, off the top of my head. Contemplation keeps me anchored in God’s silence and God’s love. That anchor allows me to understand that my loyalty to the church only makes sense in the light of my higher/deeper loyalty to God. In other words, I remain a Catholic as part of my commitment to God. Contemplation teaches me to value everyone — not just people who think like me, talk like me or look like me. The deeper I go in contemplation, the more I recognize that we are all one family, all one tribe. This recognition helps me to serve those in need, to challenge those who are unjust, to support those who are doing good work. Finally, contemplation helps me to stay connected to God’s love and God’s joy. This is essential, especially when dealing with human conflict, human brokenness, and human sin. Pay too much attention to human sin and it’s easy to become angry, vengeful, and judgmental. This is why political revolutionaries so often end up being just as oppressive as the people they overthrew. Only by remaining anchored in Divine love, Divine compassion, Divine mercy, and Divine forgiveness, can we hope to meet human brokenness — in others, or in ourselves — with Divine love rather than human hate.
- How does being a contemplative help others — even extending to those beyond my tribe or organization? I am convinced that prayer changes things, even if the only “thing” it changes is the consciousness and heart of the person who is praying. Even that solely-interior change can be enough, a “butterfly effect” that can eventually change the world. God gave all of us free will, so there’s no magic at play here, as if logging enough hours in silence will necessarily change other peoples’ hearts and minds. But I do believe logging enough hours in silence will change my heart and mind enough that this, in turn, will change how I deal with others, and all of our relationships will begin to have an impact on other peoples’ hearts and souls — and the process continues from there.Contemplation changes the world slowly. This drives many people mad, people who are angry or passionate and who insist that we need radical change now. Of course we need radical change now: we have needed radical change now for centuries. But when such change is sourced out of hearts and minds that belong to ideological anger rather than contemplative compassion, the end-result is predictably the same: a shift in the balance of power, but always somebody with more power hurting somebody else with less.
The reality is, contemplative change is radical, and it is happening right now: only in very slow and non-dramatic ways. The more of us who commit to such change, the more hope there is that such change will be systemic, sustainable, and truly anchored in love.
How does contemplative practice do these things?
If the first question wanted more insight into the theory (or theology) of contemplative practice, this second question is more praxis-oriented — in other words, how do we engage in contemplative practice in such a way that it achieves its full potential?
First, I think it’s important to point out an essential distinction. Contemplation does nothing in itself: it is the Holy Spirit who “does these things” — who changes our hearts from narcissism to compassion, who changes our minds from judgment to forgiveness, who changes organizations from wielding toxic power to embracing humble service.
So the question really should be, “How does the Holy Spirit do these things?” Through the hearts of contemplatives who, by tending to silence, are actively opening our hearts and minds to be guided and led by that very Spirit, the Spirit of love and mercy and compassion.
Contemplative practice is the practice of self-emptying (kenosis) and self-forgetting (humility). Most of us are very imperfect in both of these gestures. But the Holy Spirit has a long track record in working with imperfect beings. We enter into silence and pray silently because we know this is a gesture of consent, a willingness to relinquish control and invite the Spirit in to do the work that only the Spirit can do, at a level deeper than the threshold of our conscious awareness.
As Thomas Merton said, “you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”
Of courses, we are still responsible for what we do know: we know to behave compassionately and kindly, to forgive seventy times seventy times (in other words, without limit), to struggle for justice and peace and fairness and the protection of those in need while calling to account those who wield power inequitably. But it is because we are immersed in the silence of contemplation that we have any hope of doing any of this with a measure of God’s grace in our hearts.
Contemplation is not a panacea, it is not a cure-all. It is simply a way of praying that its long-term practitioners report help the individual to slow be more and more conformed to the image and likeness of God in their hearts; and therefore, because it changes us as individuals, it can also (by grace) make a difference in our social structures and institutions.
We pray because we love God. We love God because God first loved us. We struggle for justice or fairness or a more equitable society because we love our neighbors, and we love them because God loves them — and because God first loved us. Love, really, is at the heart of all things. And contemplation, as a gesture of praying that relaxes the mind and opens the heart, is simply a way of making ourselves available to more fully receive the graciously given love that can change us and change the world.
It’s that simple.