Archive for January, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

January 24th, 2020

 The Peasant’s Alphabet 
Friday, January 24, 2020

Abba Poemen (340–450) taught that the right question in all circumstances was “Who am I?” [1] St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) would spend whole nights praying “Who are you, my most dear God, and who am I . . . ?” [2] It is through encountering the absolute safety of God that we discover our True Self, and in finding our truest self, we find a God who is always and forever larger than we expected. The truth of our identity, wrapped up in God, gives us a deep sense of radical okayness and yet humility about our fragility. What a paradox! 

Read these sayings and let them stir deeper questions and reflection. This is the power of these simple stories. 

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.” [3] 

Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” [4] 

Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, “Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.” [5] 

I hope this brief introduction to the Desert Fathers and Mothers has given you at least a taste of why their simple spirituality is so valuable for us today. If you are drawn to read more of their sayings, don’t be surprised if you are quickly offended by some of their seeming lower-stage thinking. Stay with them, in honesty and humility, and I’m sure they will teach you something of your own human nature and God’s benevolence. In their irrelevance to our world, these abbas and ammas end up being amazingly relevant, precisely because their frame of reference is so utterly different than ours. We all need radically different frames to recognize our own limitations. 

The practice of contemplation took root in these mystics under extreme circumstances—in the desert wilderness and at the height of the Roman Empire. Looking for God, first in cities and then far away from mainstream culture, they ultimately found God’s presence within themselves, once they got still enough to recognize it. For all their idiosyncratic teachings and practices, the desert mystics provide a common thread of love running through their stories. In the words of our own beloved teacher James Finley:  

In the freedom with which you freely choose to give yourself in love to the love that gives itself to you, in that reciprocity of love, your destiny is fulfilled, and God’s will for you is consummated. That all of life when you distill it out to its simplest terms, it has to do in the intimate always utterly personal way that each of us serendipitously stumbles upon this great truth. When everything is said and done, only love is real, only love endures. Outside of love, there is nothing, nothing at all. [6]  

Contemplation helps us reconnect with our source, which is love, and compels us to embody love in our actions.  

The World Carried Inside

January 23rd, 2020


The World Carried Inside 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

When so much of our world is focused on making us feel like human “doings” instead of human beings, moving into solitude and silence is both a gift and a burden. Once we have overcome the external pressure to perform, we are left with our own interiority.  The trouble—and the opportunity—in solitude is that there is no one around to blame for our moods and our difficulties. We are stuck with ourselves. The desert abbas and ammas faced the same dilemma.  

In the tradition of Moses and Jesus, the Christians who entered into the desert found a wild, fierce, unknown place where they encountered both “demons” and “angels” (Mark 1:13)—their own shadowy selves which contained both good and evil, gold and lead. My friend, wilderness theologian, and mystic Belden Lane helps clear away any romanticism we might associate with desert spirituality:  

The desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an [Abba] Anthony or Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was as likely to be carried out feet first as to be restored unchanged to the life one had left. . . . Amma Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive herself by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart. [1] 

A story from the Desert Fathers illustrates that even in the desert there is no escaping our own habitual responses:  

A brother was restless in the community and often moved to anger. So he said: “I will go and live somewhere by myself. And since I shall be able to talk or listen to no one, I shall be tranquil, and my passionate anger will cease.” He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. It happened suddenly to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fell. And this happened a third time. And in a rage he snatched up the jug and broke it. Returning to his right mind, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said: “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.” And he rose up, and went back. [2]  

I have experienced similar frustration more times than I care to count. It seems that wherever we go, there we are, warts and all. The gift and grace of contemplation is in receiving God’s gaze. Love sees our nakedness, accepts us unconditionally, and empowers us to change.  

A Practical Twofold Process

January 22nd, 2020


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

As in the early church, the desert Christians were deeply committed to Jesus’ teachings and lived practice. Their chosen solitude and silence were not anti-social but a way to become better at seeing clearly and at loving deeply. Withdrawal was for the sake of deeper encounter and presence. 

Speaking of the relationship between contemplation and action, Diana Butler Bass describes the natural flow from solitude to prayer to active love:  

For those who went to the desert, “come follow me” [Matthew 19:21] was not an escape; rather, it served as an alternative practice of engagement—the first step on the way toward becoming a new people, a universal community of God’s love. 

[Their response to Jesus’] “Come follow me” was intimately bound up with the practice of prayer. For prayer connects us with God and others, “part of this enterprise of learning to love.” Prayer is much more than a technique, and early Christians left us no definitive how-to manual on prayer. Rather, the desert fathers and mothers believed that prayer was a disposition of wholeness, so that “prayer and our life must be all of a piece.” They approached prayer, as early church scholar Roberta Bondi notes, as a practical twofold process: first, of “thinking and reflecting,” or “pondering” what it means to love others; and second, as the “development and practice of loving ways of being.” [1] In other words, these ancients taught that prayer was participation in God’s love, the activity that takes us out of ourselves, away from the familiar, and conforms us to the path of Christ. [2] 

Through their solitude, the abbas and ammas learned to be sparing and intentional with their words and to preach more through their lifestyle than through sermons. There were few “doctrines” to prove at this time in Christianity, only an inner life to be experienced so the outer life might be changed. Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy.” [3] 

An old abba was asked what was necessary to do to be saved. He was sitting making rope. Without glancing up, he said, “You’re looking at it.” James Finley, a member of our Living School faculty, puts it this way: “This dance of infinite love is rhythmically playing itself out in the rhythms of our life standing up and sitting down, waking up and falling asleep. The rhythms of the day by day are the rhythms of love given to us as this inherently sacred nature of life itself.” [4] Just as so many of the mystics have taught, doing what you’re doing with care, presence, and intention is a form of prayer, the very way to transformation and wholeness. There is no trick, no magic formula to becoming one with Reality. There is only living and, as you know, this is much harder than it first seems.  

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

January 21st, 2020

The Prayer of Quiet
Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Desert Fathers and Mothers withdrew from cities to the desert to live freely, apart from the economic, cultural, and political structure of the Roman Empire. At first, the empire persecuted the church, but in 313 CE, Constantine gave Christianity a privileged status, not out of enlightenment or goodwill but in service of uniformity and control. The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew, as we should today, that empire would be an unreliable partner. They recognized that they had to find inner freedom from the system before they could return to it with true love, wisdom, and helpfulness. This is a useful dynamic for all of us who want to act on behalf of the world. If we stay immersed in culturally acceptable ways of thinking and doing, Christianity’s deep, transformative power is largely lost.  

So how do we find inner freedom? We can begin by noticing that whenever we suffer pain, the mind is always quick to identify with the negative aspects of things and replay them over and over again, wounding us deeply. This pattern must be recognized early and definitively. Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you’re in your mind, you’re hardly ever at peace, and when you’re at peace, you’re never only in your mind. The early Christian abbas and ammas knew this and first insisted on finding the inner silence necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was originally called the prayer of quiet and eventually referred to as contemplation. It is the core teaching in the early Christian period, but it has been emphasized much more in the Eastern Church than in the West. 

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward relates this story, one of the briefest but most popular of all the desert sayings: “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’” [1] But you don’t have to have a cell, and you don’t have to run away from the responsibilities of an active life, to experience solitude and silence. In another story, Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” [2]   

By solitude, the desert mystics didn’t mean mere privacy or protected space, although there is a need for that too. The desert mystics saw solitude, in Henri Nouwen’s words, as a “place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the [person] occurs.” [3] Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love. This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action.  

The Desert Mystics

January 20th, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The Desert Mystics
Monday, January 20, 2020

Though I deeply admire the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I must be completely honest with you. There is much about them that I do not find attractive or helpful. And it is important to share that here, or you might pick up one of the collections of their “sayings” and throw it out as unreal, dualistic, naïve, and pre-rational—all of which, I think, would be largely true. The desert mystics represent a level of human consciousness and historical development that we have collectively moved far beyond. And yet, I still admire and even need to learn from them! Let me use the desert abbas and ammas to illustrate an important point for understanding many historical personages and traditions (and even the Scriptures themselves). 

Contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber offers a helpful distinction between stages and states. [1] Your stage is your outer awareness. Your state is your inner aliveness. The goal is to be both holy and whole, saintly and wise. But your state and stage don’t always coincide; many of us are stronger in one area than another. 

You can be a high–level thinker and be quite astute about psychology, theology, history, or philosophy (a high stage), but do it all from a perspective of individualism and arrogance about that very information (a low state)—because it is still all about “you.” Conversely, you could be quite unified within and with others, in a high state of loving consciousness, but be poorly informed, lacking in exposure and education to helpful and informative knowledge. 

Perhaps you know people who are compassionate and kind yet still reveal prejudicial attitudes. They may seem hypocritical but are simply at a high state and a low stage. Love will win out in them and goodness will flow through them, even if they don’t have the gift of teaching or of understanding complex or contradictory issues. They are holy but not whole, saintly but not “smart.” 

This describes many Desert Fathers and Mothers: having high states of union but by today’s standards low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. Enjoy them for their state, but do not hate them for their stage! Today we have large segments of the population with the opposite problem: high stages of intellectual exposure with very low levels of unitive consciousness—very smart but without awe, humility, or love, which the Desert Fathers and Mothers had in spades!  

Many of the desert sayings may sound naïve, simplistic, and even dangerous, but try to receive the simple wisdom of the desert mystics with an open heart and mind in the coming days and let it lead you to authentic joy. Perceive and enjoy their state of loving union; don’t dismiss them for living in a pre-rational society. Perhaps holding this tension compassionately for them will help us do the same for people in our own time.  

Contemplative Consciousness
Sunday, January 19, 2020

I’ve heard some concerns over the years that contemplation is a practice of “Eastern” meditation wrapped in a Christian disguise. Some Christians have even been taught that seeking union with God through silence makes room for the “devil” to get in. While understandable, these apprehensions are based on a lack of knowledge about Christian heritage. In addition to Jesus’ own practice of prayerful solitude, we also have the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Starting with Anthony the Great in 270 CE, thousands of Christians moved to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to form alternative Christian communities. These brave souls were on fire with love for Jesus and sought to become more like him through a disciplined rhythm of life and prayer.   

The desert mystics focused much more on the how than the what, which is very different from Christianity’s primary emphasis on beliefs and doctrines in recent centuries. The desert tradition offers a rich teaching of surrender, through contemplation, to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. Some have said that the Desert Fathers (abbas) and Mothers (ammas) are like the Zen Buddhist monks of Christianity. Their koan-like sayings cannot usually be understood with the rational, logical mind, which is perhaps why their teachings fell out of favor during the Enlightenment. 

Above all, the desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) helped modern Christianity recover an awareness of contemplative practice, in part inspired by his reading of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Merton wrote: “All through the Verba Seniorum [Latin for Words of the Elders] we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.” [1]  

The Desert Fathers and Mothers focused on these primary practices in their search for God: 1) leaving, to some extent, the systems of the world; 2) a degree of solitude to break from the maddening crowd; 3) times of silence to break from the maddening mind; and 4) “technologies” for controlling the compulsivity of mind and the emotions. All of this was for the sake of growing a person capable of love and community.   

Contemplation became a solid foundation for building a civilization and human community—not just in the wilderness centuries ago but in the world today. Contemplative consciousness labels things less easily and does not attach itself to one solitary definitive meaning. In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.  

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Summary: Sunday, January 12—Friday, January 17, 2020

In order to become truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach and learn ways to integrate needed engagement with a truly contemplative mind and heart. (Sunday)

The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God. (Monday)

Contemplation helps us discern what is truly important in the largest, most spacious frame of reality and to know what is ours to do in the face of “evil” and injustice. (Tuesday)

A contemplative lens is the only frame through which we can recognize and address the three sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Wednesday)

Jesus’ social program was a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. Jesus chose a very simple lifestyle which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which we can call the sin system. (Thursday)

God’s intention is never to shame the individual (which actually disempowers), but solidarity with and universal responsibility for the whole (which creates healthy people). (Friday)

Practice: All Senses Meditation

Our human senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching are five distinct ways of knowing or experiencing the same thing, but in very different “languages.” True spirituality always brings us back to the original bodily knowing that is unitive experience. We cannot do all our thinking with our minds! During times of stress, remembering how to come back to our bodies can be tremendously beneficial. The following practice from meditation teacher Lorin Roche helps us connect with each of our senses and encounter something through each. Roche explains:

What happens is that your primary perceptions, unsocialized, get a chance to come out without editing. This trains you to let yourself be surprised by perception, to let new and fresh perceptions emerge.

This exercise also lets you practice giving speech to your immediate perceptions. Since childhood, you may not have had a chance to speak freely without editing first.

Set aside ten or so minutes to “play” with all your senses following Roche’s simple guide:

  1. Sit or stand anywhere you like and let yourself get settled for a minute. Do any settling-down movements you want. Stretch or yawn. Then notice the ebb and flow of your breathing.
  2. Begin to speak softly saying, “Now I am aware of seeing. . . .” Continue by saying whatever comes to mind that is visual, whether it is in the outer world or a mental image. The sentence can be said very slowly. Go on like this for a minute or so, just speaking the sentence, “Now I am aware of seeing. . . .”
  3. When you get to the word seeing, say whatever image your mind or eyes are on at that exact moment. As in, “I am aware of seeing the rain.”
  4. Switch to another sensory mode, “Now I am aware of smelling . . .” and say whatever you are smelling.
  5. Continue this way, starting each sentence with “Now I am aware of . . .” and then choosing another sense. Improvise off your immediate perceptions. . . .

Move through the senses in any order you wish:

Now I am aware of seeing. . . .

Now I am aware of smelling. . . .

Now I am aware of hearing. . . .

Now I am aware of tasting. . . .

Now I am aware of touching. . . .

Now I am aware of moving (fast, slow, being still, etc.). . . . [1]

Love at the Center

January 17th, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Love at the Center
Friday, January 17, 2020

When we named the Center for Action and Contemplation, I hoped our rather long name would itself keep us honest and force us toward balance and ongoing integration beyond the first generation. However, over the last thirty-five years, I have witnessed how many of us attach to contemplation or action for the wrong reasons. Introverts use contemplation to affirm quiet time; those with the luxury of free time sometimes use it for navel-gazing. On the other hand, some activists see our call to action as an affirmation of their particular agenda and not much else. Neither is the delicate balance and art that we hope to affirm.

By contemplation, we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of the world. Action, as we are using the word, means a decisive commitment toward involvement and engagement in the social order. Issues will not be resolved by mere reflection, discussion, or even prayer, nor will they be resolved only by protests, boycotts, or even, unfortunately by voting the “right” way. Rather, God “works together with” all those who love (see Romans 8:28).

Though “Love” is not in our Center’s name, I hope that it is the driving force behind all we do, just as it was for Jesus who knew God’s love intimately and fully, and for the early church who proclaimed that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). In our vision statement, we profess both our hoped-for role for CAC’s future and the energy that drives us:

Amidst a time of planetary change and disruption, we envision a recovery of our deep connection to each other and our world, led by Christian and other spiritual movements that are freeing leaders and communities to overcome dehumanizing systems of oppression and cooperate in the transforming work of Love.

We never could have become the organization that so many of you trust if we didn’t continually return to Love as our source. It is where we rest in times of anxiety, find strength in times of trouble, discover joy in good times and solace in bad ones. “Love never fails” to help us grow, question, and forgive—both ourselves and others.

The only way out and through—for either side of any dualism, including that between action and contemplation—is a kind of universal forgiveness of Reality for being what it is; it thus becomes the bonding glue of grace which heals all the separations which law, religion, or logic can never finally or fully restore.

We are all on this journey together and we are all in need of liberation (which might be a better word than salvation). God’s intention is never to shame the individual (which actually disempowers), but solidarity with and universal responsibility for the whole (which creates healthy people). That is an act of radical solidarity that few Christians seem to enjoy but to which the CAC is committed to fostering.

A Quiet Refusal

January 16th, 2020


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Because Jesus did not directly attack the religious and institutional systems of his time until his final action against the money changers in the temple [1], his primary social justice critique and action are a disappointment to most radicals and social activists. Jesus’ social program, as far as I can see, was a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. Once we have been told this, we see it everywhere in the four Gospels. Jesus chose a very simple lifestyle which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which we can call the sin system. (Note that the word “sin” is often used to describe individual wrongdoing, but I’m using it in a much more corporate way, as I believe Jesus and Paul did.) Here are a few examples:

The city of Sepphoris was the Roman regional capital of Galilee and the center for most money, jobs, and power in the region where Jesus lived. It was just nine miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Yet there is no record that Jesus ever went there, nor is it mentioned once in the New Testament, even though he and his father, Joseph, were carpenters or “workmen” and Jesus traveled through many other cities much farther away. He also seems to have avoided the money system as much as possible by using “a common purse” (John 12:6, 13:29)—voluntary “communism,” we might say. Go ahead and hate me!

Jesus healed the poor woman whose doctors made her spend all she had “while she only grew worse” (Mark 5:26). His three-year ministry was, in effect, offering free healing and healthcare for any who wanted it (Jew and non-Jew, worthy and unworthy). He consistently treated women with a dignity and equality that was almost unknown in a patriarchal culture. He never married, which could be interpreted as a critique of the idealized family consisting of father, mother, and children (which became the justification for both Catholic priests’ celibacy and the vocation of single life). He clearly respected eunuchs, which would have been the generic term for nonbinary or trans- genders (see Matthew 19:12), probably inspired by the universalism of Isaiah 56:4-5. Then, at the end of his life, he surrendered to the punitive systems of both empire and religion by letting them judge, torture, and murder him. Jesus was finally a full victim of the systems that he refused to worship. Is this not a much more coherent explanation of why Jesus died?

What can we learn from Jesus’ life about how we might address the systems of inequity and oppression in our own cultures? One lesson seems to me that we have to “start local.” Jesus doesn’t begin in Jerusalem or head off to Rome to take on empire. Rather he starts in his own hometown, among his own people, helping those who are hurting and naming those who are responsible without a hint of self-righteousness. He simply goes around doing what he knows to be right, which he surely discovered during his long periods of solitude and silence (a form of contemplation) on the outskirts of town, and others begin to join him.

Radical Solidarity

January 15th, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Radical Solidarity
Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A contemplative lens is the only frame through which we can recognize and address the three sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. When we remain in egoic consciousness, evil (especially in its first hidden forms that look so much like goodness), will take over unchallenged. This is exactly what Brazilian archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara (1909–1999) said many years ago when he talked about the “spiral of violence”: institutional violence provokes a violent response, which in turn is met with “necessary” repression, [1] and then the same pattern repeats, each level growing more and more violent without really resolving the underlying problem (or evil).

The spiral feeds upon itself. The individual zealot tries to rise above “the rotten, decadent system,” [2] as Dorothy Day called it, by attempting solutions that usually attack the symptoms. That attempt may make the individual and the state feel moral, but it rarely touches the underlying causes. Think of the policies that led the United States to build a wall at the border instead of honestly asking why people want to come to begin with. Why was a wall terrible in Berlin but salvific in Juarez, San Diego, and the present state of Israel? We criminalize the actions of desperate individuals, but rarely question the global economic systems and untouchable corporations that keep such unequal circumstances in place for their own gain.

Frankly, addressing root causes and taking appropriate action require a lot more work and spiritual intelligence. Our egos will always be on the lookout for a quick fix and immediate satisfaction, which too often leads to a deeply flawed solution. But the gift of contemplative practice is the ability to remain humble and hold the tension between the rightness and wrongness on each side of the issue until the Spirit moves in and offers us a wiser course of action.

Câmara saw how many righteous cures were worse than the disease itself (for example, communism as a response to poverty, fascism as a desire for social order, prohibition as a solution to alcohol abuse, or our current inability to tackle the issue of immigration in an intelligent way). Non-contemplative “cures,” which lack love and holistic wisdom, never address the underlying violence which most people have already agreed not to see. We support the evil of the system and then pretend to hate this same evil in individuals.

This lack of recognition of the root causes of evil is the source of much of the moral powerlessness of most Christian nations, institutions, and individuals. Because we thought we had God on our side, we believed all the things we did were good or even God-blessed! But many people now recognize that isn’t true and never has been, which leads me to believe we are more than ready for authentic and effective contemplative action.

Bigger Than Personal Moral Failure

January 14th, 2020


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Contemplation helps us discern what is truly important in the largest, most spacious frame of reality and to know what is ours to do in the face of “evil” and injustice. As a confessor, I know for a fact that many people beat their breasts about trivial things while not spotting the real evils that are likely poisoning their hearts and minds and countries. I have often said that hearing most (though not all!) Catholic confessions is like being stoned to death with marshmallows. We trained people to feel guilty about certain “sins” but allowed them to neglect the evils that are all around us and ignored.

Early Catholic moral theology taught that there were three major sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. My moral theology professor always added emphatically: “In that order!” Yet, up to now, most Christians have placed almost all of our attention on the secondary “flesh” level. We have had little education in or recognition of what Paul meant by “the principalities of the world” and even less understanding of what he meant by “the ruler who dominates the very air” (Ephesians 6:12). The world and the devil basically got off scot-free for most of Christian history while individual humans carried the majority of the blame. Just look at poor Eve! The implications have been massively destructive, both for the individual and for society, leading to many twentieth-century catastrophes that often took place in Christian countries.

When we are made to feel individually responsible for “the sin of the world” (John 1:29), we become overwhelmed by too-muchness, which will paralyze us and keep us from working to improve things that we can improve, further increasing our shame. It is a vicious cycle, one that most of us are probably familiar with. I believe contemplation is one of the only things that can free us from it. Contemplation draws us deeper into the mystery that we are a part of the problem, but not all of it, and that our actions are essential to solving it, though they may not seem to be doing anything at all. Perhaps this is what it means to “act in good faith!”

Both Jesus and Paul passed on to their disciples a collective and historical understanding of the nature of sin and evil, against which individuals still had to resist but in which they were usually complicit. Jesus and the prophets judged the city, nation, or group of people first, then the individual. This is no longer the starting point for many people, which leaves us morally impotent. We do not reproach our towns, our own religion, or our nation, though Jesus did so regularly (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:10-16).

My hope is that this recognition of Jesus’ and Paul’s emphasis on the collective nature of evil will increase both personal responsibility and human solidarity, instead of wasting time on feeling bad about ourselves, which helps nobody.

Dancing Polarities

January 13th, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Dancing Polarities
Monday, January 13, 2020

The words action and contemplation aptly describe the two dancing polarities of our lives. In classic Christian philosophy, Thomas Aquinas and many others stated that the highest form of spiritual maturity is not action or contemplation, but the ability to integrate the two into one life stance—to be service-oriented contemplatives or contemplative activists. By temperament we all tend to come at it from one side or the other.

Full integration doesn’t happen without a lot of mistakes and practice and prayer. And invariably, as we go through life, we will swing on a pendulum back and forth between the two. During one period we may be more active or more contemplative than at another time.

It does concern me how often all kinds of inner work are called contemplation, but they do not lead us to a full contemplative stance. We shouldn’t confuse insight-gathering and introspection with contemplative spirituality. Contemplation is about letting go of what is false and incomplete much more than it is about collecting what is new, no matter how true, therapeutic, or helpful it is. In other words, if personal growth is still our focus, I do not think we are contemplative yet. True transformation demands that we shed ourselves as the central reference point. Jesus said, “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain,” and it will not bear much fruit (John 12:24).  Self-help and personal growth are not of themselves the open field of grace where we move beyond self-preoccupation.

An exalted self-image of “I am a spiritual person” is far too appealing to the ego. I am afraid it’s not uncommon in the religious world for “innerness” to become disguised narcissism and overly self-serving. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) even warned against confusing an introverted personality with being a contemplative. [1] They are two different things. The introvert finds solitude quite comfortable, while the mystic and hermit use solitude to discomfort themselves.

Having said that, I’ll point out the other side of the problem. Too much activism without enough inner work, insight, or examination of conscience inevitably leads to violence—to the self, to the project at hand, and invariably to others. If too much inner focus risks narcissism and individualism, too much outer focus risks superficiality, negativity (passing for love of justice), and various messiah complexes. Those on the right can lack love, and those on the left can lack love—they just wear two different disguises. We need both inner communion and outer service to be “Jesus” in the world! The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God. The need to be right is not love.

Ours to Do
Sunday, January 12, 2020

I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation more than thirty years ago because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years, I met many activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love except in their own minds. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, to look good, to defeat the other side, and to maintain a superior self-image.

They might have had the answer, but they were not themselves the answer. In fact, they were usually part of the problem. Most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and other great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and awakening of soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because they have not yet faced the shadow side of power. We actually need fewer reformations and more transformations.

The same dualism often masquerades in a new form which only looks like enlightenment. We are all easily allured by the next new thing until we discover that it’s also run by unenlightened people who in fact do not love God/Reality but themselves. They do not love the truth but the illusion of control. The need to be in power, to have control, and to say someone else is wrong is not enlightenment. Such unenlightened leaders do not want true freedom for everybody but only for their own new ideas. My great disappointment with many untransformed liberals is that they often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can neither let go of their own need for change and control, nor can they stand still in a patient, humble way as people of deep faith can. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Too many conservatives, on the other hand, idolize anything that appears to have lasted, but then stop asking the question, “Is this actually bearing any fruit?” It is the perennial battle between idealism and pragmatism.

In order to become truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach and learn ways to integrate needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. I’m convinced that once we learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, personal politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to tell you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias toward the bottom (not the top, which is far too defended and idealized), you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do almost naturally.  And what you do not need to do at all!

Summary: Sunday, January 5—Friday, January 11, 2020

We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey. (Sunday)

In contemplative practice, the Holy Spirit frees us from taking sides and allows us to remain content in the partial darkness of every situation long enough to let it teach, broaden, and enrich us. (Monday)

Silence surrounds every “I know” with a humble and patient “I don’t know.” It protects the autonomy and dignity of events, persons, animals, and all created things. (Tuesday)

Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking.  (Wednesday)

A regular practice of contemplation helps us trust that silence will uphold us, receive our mistakes, and give us the courage to learn and grow. (Thursday)

Action doesn’t mean busyness or “do-goodism.” It may not even mean activism, but it does mean serious engagement with the suffering of the world, beyond our own in-groups and affinities. (Friday)

Practice: A Prayer for Our Cities

Jesus never told us to separate ourselves from the world. That’s why St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers would not be monks. The Franciscan friars were a totally new religious movement, living in the middle of cities, right with the people, refusing to separate themselves. Francis didn’t hate or avoid the world. He said we had to find a way interiorly to love and have compassion for the world. “The whole world is our cloister,” he taught us. [1]

Our friends at Mile High Ministries in Denver, Colorado, have written a beautiful prayer adapted from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People that we would like to share as inspiration for the beginning of this year’s meditations on Action and Contemplation. We invite you to use place names specific to your location and read responsively in a group, though it may also be prayed alone. No matter the setting, allow the ground of silence to hold these sacred words until they birth compassionate action in the world.

Loving God, you have set us in families and clans, in cities and neighborhoods.

Our common life began in a garden, but our destiny lies in the city.

You have placed us in Denver. This is our home.

Your creativity is on display here through the work of human hearts and hands.

We pray for Denver today—for the East Side, West Side, North and South.

For Montebello, Sun Valley, Green Valley, and all two miles of Colfax.

We pray for our poorest neighbors and for powerful people in banks and offices downtown.

We pray for people from the ’hood and the barrio and for the new urbanites.

We pray for Denver’s sisters: Aurora, Arvada, Cherry Hills, Lakewood, Thornton, Highlands Ranch, and others.

And for Albuquerque and Cheyenne, Jerusalem and Nairobi, Kunming and Cuernavaca—and a thousand other cities connected to our own.

In all our neighborhoods this day there will be crime and callous moneymaking; there will be powerful people unable or unwilling to see the vulnerable who are their neighbors.

There will also be beautiful acts of compassion and creativity in all these places—forgiveness and generosity; neighbors working together for a more just community.

Help us see this place as something other than a battleground between us and them, where our imaginations are limited by win/lose propositions and endless rivalry.

Show us a deeper reality, God: Show us your playground, and invite us to play.

Like the city of your dreams, make this a city where those who were once poor enjoy the fruits of their labor;

A place where children are no longer doomed to misfortune, but play safely in the streets under the watchful eyes of healthy old men and women;

A place where former rivals and natural enemies work and play together in peace;

And where all people enjoy communion with you. We pray in the name of the one who wept over the city. Amen. [2]