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Contemplative Living as Justice-Making

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.”(Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton)

I first read this quote several years ago in, of all places, a Yoga Journal article on the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. It blew me away because I had never before even considered that the busyness of my life might be a form of violence in which I participate. Merton is not writing this to corporate culture, but to peace activists and other well-meaning folks in the church trying to do good things, too many good things.

While I have always been drawn to the contemplative life, I have never quite looked at busyness in the same way again. I work a lot with people in ministry, mostly training them to use the arts and contemplation in their work and for prayer and self-care. I am shocked when I teach classes in seminaries and see students stretched so far by school demands that there is really no time and space to integrate all the shifts happening in their understanding or to create life-giving patterns for future ministry. It saddens me because seminary is the place where healthy habits and practices for ministry can be set in place. I wish there was more emphasis on self-care and a recognition of the violence we do to ourselves when we, as Merton says, commit to too many projects and demands. Church culture is just as busy as the corporate world and demands just as much time and energy, and in the name of doing good work, we keep going.

And yet faith communities have an opportunity, no, a responsibility, to be a witness to the world of a genuine alternative way of being. One that doesn’t invest our value solely in what we do and achieve. A way of being that embraces the humility to know when we have reached our limits, and when we need to say no for the sake of greater life.

Merton’s insight into the violent nature of our doing and busyness led me to an epiphany about the contemplative life. So much has been written about the balance between contemplation and action and how contemplative prayer can renew us to continue the hard path towards justice. To be sure this is all true, but what I began to see was the contemplative life itself as a path of justice, a witness to the world of a way of being that releases the bonds of compulsive doing and resists the violence that busyness can unleash on our bodies, our relationships, our communities.

Indeed, there are so many good things we could do in the world, but investing our energy in the multitude of goods that exist is an enemy of the best, the way that God calls us most deeply to follow. A way that emerges out of who we are and that honors both our gifts and our limitations. Maturity in the spiritual life means knowing what we are both called to do and what we are called not to do. Self-care means good stewardship of the gifts we have been given and the body that is the vessel that offers them.

Creativity is essential to the world, to imagine new possibilities. Yet, so many of us lead lives that are so full, there is barely room for God’s newness to erupt in us, or for us to even recognize those stirrings when they happen.

For every single thing we say “yes” to, we say “no” to something else, whether consciously or unconsciously. What are the yes’s of your life and what are the things that have gotten pushed aside because of them? What is the violence you do to yourself? How might your life witness to a way of being in the world that embodies wholeness? What would happen if we lived as though God’s Kingdom were already alive within us, if we only gave it a little space to grow?

~Christine Valters Paintner

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4 Responses

  1. I once wrote that we make a false distinction between contemplation and action. Contemplation is itself our most original action, that for which, for Whom we were made. What a great site, I’m glad to have found it.

  2. Welcome Mystical Seeker, For me, contemplation IS full participation in the world, but with the spaciousness to really see the holy beneath the surface of all things, and like you said, all of our activities. I think we may have very different understandings of what contemplative living means. I believe that the deeper we go inward to discover the God who dwells within us, the more we discover how deeply we are connected to each other and all of creation, and begin to act on that with responsibility for the suffering of others. I think what Merton is getting at–and while he was a monk, he was most certainly NOT someone who lived a life of withdrawal, but very active engagement– he is warning against the violence our own busyness can cause, and how we perpetuate a culture that believes our identity is tied up entirely with what we do and achieve. If anything, the people I sit with are overly involved and feeling pulled in too many directions. I believe that are doing should come out of a deep sense of our being. We need to honor both the limits of our bodies and our energy as well as our profound potential. It is a matter of wise discernment.

  3. I have always believed that we reveal the God that lives within us not by withdrawal from the world, but by participation in it. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to participate in all the aspects of live that grind us down or oppress us. But to me it does mean that we have to partipate in the world. For that reason, I guess I’ve never been a fan of monasticism. Some of this attitude comes from my Quaker background, which was always tried to blend mysticism with action. To me this represented the best expression of mysticism–working for social justice by participation in the world. But it isn’t just social justice activism that pertains here; I think that just by doing our jobs, interacting with our neighbors, going to work, buying food in the grocery store–all of these actions can be mystically charged activities that reveal the divine spark within us.