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Along the Way
Contemplation...in a world of action?
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I'm a member of a discussion group devoted to the works and thought of Thomas Merton. The group is organized through an electronic bulletin board on the Internet and involves people from all over the world. It includes scholars at several universities in North America and Great Britain, as well as monks, nurses, businessmen, students, and Third Order members. It is a very diverse group with about the only unifying elements being a love of contemplative prayer and an admiration for the works of Thomas Merton.

A recent theme which emerged in the discussions is called "Contemplation in a World of Confusion." The theme is a variation on the title of a book Merton wrote in the early sixties, "Contemplation in a World of Action." Merton's book wrestled with the apparent conflict between a life devoted to prayer and contemplation and life in the modern world where the only thing that counts is what one does. As one works through the book, it is clear that Merton does not see contemplation and action as opposites. Rather, he sees contemplation as the way to give action depth and action as a means of giving expression to contemplation. Merton is a classic example. He devoted himself to a life of contemplative prayer. The fruit of that prayer is found in his writings which have influenced the spirituality of several generations and which strongly influenced the civil rights movement in the States. Action and contemplation are complements of each other, not opposites.

Merton assumed a world in his book where action had meaning. Action brought clear results. One might debate the value of the results or the intensity with which one threw himself into the "rat race" but action had a positive value. Contemplative prayer was related to action, giving it direction and keeping the individual rooted in reality, not becoming so caught up in action as to lose sight of the goal or to betray his integrity.

The world of the nineties is different from the fifties and sixties when Merton did most of his work on "Contemplation in a World of Action." We live in a world where one can not assume that everyone has similar values. Indeed, it is a world where the goals we struggled to reach have been reached. Yet, instead of Eden, the world seems more chaotic than ever.

The civil rights movement produced significant improvements for many who were oppressed. In the US there are Afro-American mayors, congressman, senators, and even presidential candidates. In South Africa, the long time bastion of segregation, the president is now a black African. Yet, it is also true that those who the civil rights movement was meant to help are still the poorest people in their nations and those most victimized by crime.

The twentieth century was characterized by the struggle between western democracy and communism. Except for the decade given over the rise and fall of Nazism, we have lived in a world where there was constant tension between the two world powers. America and its allies were arrayed on one side of the wall and Russia along with all of its satellites on the other. At the beginning of this last decade of the century communism fell. Our goal was reached but instead of a world of nations living in happy cooperation with one another we have near chaos. The pressure of being on one side of the fence or the other is gone. As a result everyone is for himself. Every individual has a cause for which he or she is willing to kill.

The technology, which shapes our lives, has changed as well. Merton wrote his books and carried on a voluminous correspondence using an ancient manual typewriter in a makeshift office. He was isolated from many of the events that shaped the world of his day. The isolation meant that he was not on the front lines of these events but it gave him the freedom and distance to think, pray and write. What he wrote helped everyone else to understand these events not only in their immediate consequences but in what they said about the state of the world and the direction we were headed as a people. There is no distance today. CNN, cable TV, computerized information services and the Internet make us part of everything. We can see the rotting bodies on the side of the road in Rwanda. A bombing in London or Argentina makes us uncomfortable, as if the violence occurred in a nearby neighborhood.

If contemplation needs distance from the flow of events to be fruitful, how can anyone contemplate today? If action itself seems of questionable value today in the face of such overwhelming and complex events that shape our world society, how can contemplative prayer be of much value?

For someone journeying "along the way" in the sixties, a key question was 'How can contemplative prayer give direction to our action?'. Journeying along the way in the nineties we are faced with the question of how contemplative prayer can help us make sense of the confusion which swirls around us. Indeed, how is contemplative prayer possible in the midst of this confusion?

The Roman philosopher Livy once wrote of the terrible decline in the Empire from the days of the Republic and how vice was now out pacing virtue in the lives of most Roman citizens. He foresaw the impending downfall of the Empire in the terrible changes that seemed to have overcome the Empire. Livy was not the only one to write of such concerns. We have the commentary of an Egyptian scribe who two thousand years earlier complained that the youth of his day had lost all respect for their elders and had given themselves over to crime and self-indulgence. Thus, when we begin to talk about all of the changes that have ravaged the society, we must do so with a grain of salt. The one thing that seems not to change is the human urge to resist and to complain about change. Real change however, is rare.

The thought appears strange at first. The world around us seems to be unhinged. It is not the lack of change that plagues us but its overabundance. Certainly technology has introduced new toys in recent years. The size and composition of the population is different today from what it was ten or fifteen years ago. These changes however are neutral. They become problems as a result of how we perceive and react to them. Our perceptions and reactions arise from our desires, fears, hopes, and values. It is these elements of our personality that shape us. Introducing change to such basic parts of our personality is painful. It requires both calling into question who we are right now and being open to what ever is necessary to allow internal change to occur. The result is a new way of seeing oneself and the world, as well as a new way of living in the world. We resist true change even as we might welcome the newest model sports car or the latest "super-fast-multi-media-user friendly" computer. Real change is painful and demands a terrible cost.

I grew up and went to school through college in Rochester, New York. The city is pleasant enough. It has an abundance of universities and cultural resources. It is corporate headquarters for Kodak and Xerox, with an emphasis on high tech industry and sensitivity to the environment. Rochester is a medium size city, the population in the general area reaching just short of one million people. I left this city in 1973 to join Peace Corps, beginning the Micronesian period of my life that continued for the next twenty-five years.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I spent one year in Chuuk and a year in Saipan. The year in Chuuk was one of the most difficult years in my life. I mean nothing against Chuuk, having come to appreciate the island very much in the years that followed. However, that first year was terribly difficult for me. The difficulty was not in the island or its people but in me.

Everything that had been stable and secure in my life was turned upside down that year. I was far distant from my brother, sister, and parents for the first time in my life. It was my first experience in a different culture. It was my first experience where I was forced to communicate in a different language. It was my first experience in a community whose basic values and view of the world were significantly different from those in which I was raised. It was the first time in my life where I was without the distractions of television, libraries, pop radio and similar technological and urban conveniences. The job I was brought to Chuuk to do was non-existent. I spent the year there "making do", helping out with youth programs because there was a need and it was close to my training. This left me with more free time than I had experienced since I was in kindergarten and was the first time in as many years that I could not link my sense of identity to what I did.

Before long I was struggling through a sense of uselessness. I felt cut off and betrayed by everything that had been important to me. I called into question friendships, values, my faith, my self-confidence. Strangely, in the depth of my pain that year, I began to notice the pain of others. I found friendship with others who were struggling with their own fears and hopes. I found a faith that was different from my childhood faith and even fundamentally different from the compromise faith I pieced together in college. This was a faith discovered only after it had been lost. This was a faith that began with the agnostic's tentative prayer, "If you are there God, help me!" This was a faith that helped me to cherish power of the crucified Christ, rather than the supposed glory of false messiahs and easy answers.

The year in Chuuk resulted in some very basic changes in me. Many of the questions I struggled with remained unanswered but the struggle had made me a different person. I looked much the same but I saw the world differently. What had seemed so important back in Rochester now seemed foolish. My values had changed. My understanding of myself had changed. Indeed, when I returned to Rochester a year later for a few months, I found it difficult to relate to people there because there were such differences between us.

Christ's call to follow him, the message of his sermons, and the beatitudes all speak to us of the need for this fundamental change in our lives. Theologians refer to this as "metanoia", a Greek word that refers to a new way of seeing things. The early Christians shared the Good News of salvation in two ways; evangelization and catechesis. Evangelization was meant to introduce the non-believer to the message of Christ, to call the person to metanoia. Catechesis was meant to teach the believer who had undergone such a fundamental change in his life to live out the implications of that change. In a world where a majority of people call themselves Christian because they were born into the faith, the importance of change, of metanoia, can easily be lost. We are still called to be changed creatures, to see the world anew through the eyes of Christ.

Change is a sign of life. The plant or animal that does not grow and change is dead. It is the same in the spiritual life. Change, metanoia, is a sign of life. It is not a once and for all event but a process that involves stops and starts, having our eyes opened to new understandings and a more committed living of the Good News again and again. Change is good, if it is real change toward a clearer perception of reality and a more vital living of the Gospel.

Confusion and a sense of helplessness is not the result of true change but the refusal to change. It is this resistance to growth, to life, to metanoia that is the source of what is most distressing in society.

Psychologists tell us that much of our behavior is motivated by a desire for pleasure. We seek what will make us feel good. To a certain extent this is fine. Our bodies are designed to perceive things that are good for us as pleasurable. We need food to survive. We perceive eating healthy food as pleasurable. We need to sleep to allow our bodies to repair damage and to rest. We find it pleasurable to relax when we are tired. It is necessary to reproduce, if humanity is to continue. We find dating, courtship and other rituals and acts related to reproduction to be pleasurable. We need companionship and cooperation if we are to survive in a hostile environment, as we are social beings. We find friendship, working together and social activities to be enjoyable.

While there is nothing wrong in enjoying the good things in life and prudently trusting the wisdom of our bodies, we must be careful. Our bodies seek pleasure but too much of a good thing can hurt us. Too much food can give us indigestion and make us fat. Too much rest can weaken us. When sexual activity is free to find expression in marriage, is a powerful bond that contributes to a relationship that can unite two people for a lifetime. When allowed to run uncontrolled simply seeking pleasure where ever it can be found, it destroys relationships, inhibits psychological and spiritual growth, as well as spread disease.

There are times when a lesser good, such as having our appetites filled, must be controlled in order to realize a greater good. At a physical level, controlling our intake of food runs against our natural desire for food. However, it may be necessary to limit our food intake to bring our weight down for the long-term benefit of our health. We rebel against such limitations and controls for our desires are strong, especially if we have given into them for years. The Church Fathers and theologians called this tendency to seek pleasure and rebel against healthy discipline as concupiscence.

Once a person has discovered a way to meet his appetites, there is resistance to change because any change threatens our pleasure. Our attitude is "Why take a chance on ruining a good thing!" This resistance operates on our will just as inertia operates at a physical level. It keeps us from moving in a new direction. It is a drag on our good intentions.

We have seen in the Sunday readings for the past few weeks how Jesus began to teach his followers about the Eucharist. This introduced something radically new into Jesus' public teaching. Jesus was presenting himself as essential to eternal life. Jesus was speaking in strange metaphors that were difficult to understand and would not be made clear to his followers for some time. He was demanding something new of his followers -- faith. Even though making the changes were the price of the greatest good, eternal life, people could not overcome their concupiscence. They followed Jesus because they wanted to be entertained, because they were curious, because Jesus healed them and fed them. Their appetites were being met. A whole new relationship with Jesus was required if they were to take his new teaching seriously. That relationship might not meet their immediate physical needs. That relationship may require sacrifice in order to attain a greater good. Concupiscence kept those people from seeking the greatest good and tricked them into following a side road leading nowhere because it was the easier path, the path that did not threaten their possessions or their appetites.

One of the causes of the confusion and problems that we face is our unwillingness to change. This may seem strange in the face of so many changes in the community and world around us. Yet, much of the chaos in the world arises directly from a refusal to change the direction of our lives. We "go with the flow." We allow ourselves to become pawns of a society that knows no greater good than satisfying its appetites. Environmental problems are the direct result of fulfilling our appetites without thought for others or the future. The same is true for crime, drug abuse, child abuse and any of the other abuses that are so common in society. The role of religion in society has declined because it calls for change which few are willing to make. Religion is a voice of higher values to which our appetites are not willing to submit. The change around us is dizzying but superficial, simply providing new ways to enslave us to our appetites. As long as immediate pleasure is our highest criteria for making our choices each day, we stubbornly are refusing God's call to follow in his way.

Applying the laws of physics of our spiritual life, concupiscence is inertia. It resists change. We excuse ourselves from sanctity by imagining that holiness is the result of some superhuman effort well beyond our capabilities. With false humility, we mumble something to the effect that we are only human and sinners of long standing. We wish we could be saints but we are not able. We can't even keep the simplest commandments very well. Instead of trying, we give up. As a result, we get no place.

Scientists suggest that the space engine of the future will not be rocket ships but ion ships. A steady stream of ions that can be found throughout the solar system will propel these ships through space. Somewhat like sailing ships the stream of ions will produce a very slight thrust. In space you don't need much thrust, a little will do. The ion engine is attractive because it can remain on throughout the flight providing a constant thrust. Rocket engines only provide a strong thrust at the beginning of the flight and coast for the rest of the trip, needing the balance of the fuel for the landing and return trip. While the ion space ship may move slowly at the beginning, the constant thrust builds up during the flight. As the momentum builds the ship gains speed, so that several months into the trip the ion engine is moving the ship much faster than a rocket engine ever could. A great distance is covered at tremendous speed through one small push of the engine adding to the momentum built by other small pushes of the same engine.

Aquinas, Newman, deSales, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Liseaux, and most other spiritual giants suggest that the same idea applies to sanctity. Very few people find sanctity through great feats of faith and charity. Sanctity begins at the level of small, simple acts of kindness. Each act stands independently but also contributes to building habits of virtue. Virtue becomes second nature to us only after practicing virtue many times in small matters. As the habit of virtue is built, that virtue becomes part of us. Eventually we act in virtue without thinking about it. We do good simply because it needs done. Habit can help us build virtue silently almost imperceptibly until it has become a part of us.

However, there is a downside to habit. We can be seduced into habits of vice almost behind our backs and not realize it until we have become slaves to the habit. Habit works quietly. Cheat a customer out of a few pennies, he won't notice it! Pocket a few dollars, she won't miss it. Borrow a few hundred dollars from the company account, the company won't miss it! Before we realize, the bad habit has us committing felonies. Just as it is easier to practice virtue with each new act of virtue, each new sin makes it easier for us to continue to sin. We find ourselves trapped, habits of sin are so strongly established that it feels impossible to turn away. The only way to overcome habits of sin is to oppose them with virtue and breaking the momentum of the bad habit with God's help and by avoiding the sin one day at a time.

This series began with a question about contemplative prayer and its relevance to a world marked by confusion. We discovered that change is necessary for spiritual growth. However, most people to not want to change and carefully avoid anything that can produce change. We don't want our pleasures threatened. This avoidance of real change is a spiritual inertia. We can begin the process of change and growth with very small steps in the right direction. We build up spiritual momentum through the simple practice of virtue. Little acts of kindness join together after a while and produce a mighty force. Still, the question remains how is contemplative prayer relevant to a very confused world?

Contemplation is the experience of God's presence in our life. This is not merely an intellectual awareness that God is every place and that God holds us in existence. It is living a relationship with God that is direct. When we are angry at God we confront God with our anger. When we fail to understand why our lives are moving in a particular direction, we come with our incomprehension before God. When we are overcome with emotion that emotion is shared with God When we are at peace, we rest in God. Contemplation is seeing everything as it truly is because we see all things through the eyes of God.

Contemplation is a gift. It is a grace given to us by God. It can be an overpowering and seductive grace if we experience its power when we are young. It is seductive grace because it allows us a glimpse of truth, an experience of love that haunts us and will not let us go. It draws us to virtue because we know that virtue is the ordinary means of our changing and growth. It is the ordinary means by which we are prepared for living always in the experience of God's presence. Virtue does not force God to be present in our lives. God is already present in our lives. Virtue is the ordinary means for removing the scales that cover our eyes. Contemplation is the state of existence when there are no scales covering our eyes and we experience reality as it is; God's gracious presence.

Contemplation is defined most simply as the practice of the presence of God. More than any particular form of prayer, contemplation is the awareness that God is present in our lives right now. Such awareness is not a piece of data we tuck away in the back of our minds, like our sub-conscious awareness of the variations in temperature or even our awareness that it is day and not night by the intensity of light in our environment. Rather, the awareness of God's presence makes the moment sacred, rich in meaning and possibilities.

Author Richard Thomas tells a story of a rancher and his son. The son had been away with the other young men on a cattle drive bringing well over a thousand head of cattle to market. Upon his return, the father came out to greet the young man. The father had nothing but praise for his son. Yet, the son was so concerned that he had lost six of the cattle on the drive that he spent much of the evening trying to explain his failure to his father. The father tried to get his son to talk about something else, as the father explained several times to his son that the loss of six cattle on a cattle drive with over a thousand head is of little consequence. The son was so focused on the lost cattle that he could not hear his father's words. The father simply wanted to be with his son, as the young man had been away several weeks on the cattle drive. Finally, the father suggested that they spend the next day checking the fences on the far side of the ranch. It would be a good day's ride by horseback and a good opportunity for them to relax and spend some time together. The young man seemed uncomfortable at the suggestion. The father could see the boy mentally check the condition of the fences to ensure that there would be no cause for embarrassment if they did check the fences the next day. At the end of the evening they tentatively agreed to spend the next day together on the ranch.

The father was up with the rooster and headed down to the kitchen. He burst into the room with a smile and filled with energy. He looked around for his son, who should have been there if they were going to get an early start. The cook informed the father that he just missed his son who was on his way into town. The cook explained that the son wanted to go into town and make an insurance claim on the six cattle lost on the drive before he did anything else. He had asked the cook to let the father know and that he would be back as soon as possible, no later than noon. The father listened to the message, let out a sigh, and sat down to his coffee and pancakes with a sad frown on his face.

We listen to the story and shake our heads at the thick headedness of the young man. He was so obsessed with his minor failing that he failed to see his father's joy and pride upon his return. He failed to see or hear how much his father loved him and wanted to be with him because he was so focused on doing things that he thought would please his father. In the end, he brought sorrow to his father by refusing to spend time with the man. He tried so hard to please his father according to his measure of success that he failed in the most important way to please the father, by simply spending time with him.

Contemplation is spending time with our Father. We can do it by sitting quietly in a dark chapel. He can also practice contemplation while washing the dishes, cutting the lawn, walking, or doing a wide variety of other activities. Contemplation does not require that we sit motionless. It does require that we turn our hearts and minds to God, aware of his presence all around us and in us.

Contemplation can occur in this chaotic and confusing world. We need not withdraw from the world to be a contemplative, though some people do. We can remain in the world bringing our awareness of God's living presence to all that we do and experience. It may be that as we realize God's presence in our lives the world is less confusing. It may be that as we become a more contemplative people, others will find the world less confusing as well. We are not bringing a particular philosophy or political ideology to bear on the chaotic world situation that brings peace. Rather, the contemplative quality of our lives brings God's presence to bear on the world and it is God who is the source of peace. It is God who dispels the dark clouds of confusion and chaos.

Spirituality is about finding meaning in this world with all its tensions and craziness in light of our encounter with Christ. Another way of thinking about it is the image I use in this column, that of a journey. The goal of our journey is union with God. How we get there is found in all of the twists and turns of our experience.

FfFFor better or worse technology is a part of our lives. It can be a help or hindrance on our journey. Recently I discovered several ways in which computers have become part of the spiritual journey for some people. I am intrigued and wanted to share the ideas with you.

An Associated Press article describes how various contemplative religious orders have undertaken contracts with governments and corporations to do data entry work for them. The corporations need data bases created and a vast amount of data entered. Governments often have tax rolls that need computerized or library holdings that must be entered in databases. Brokers working with the monasteries negotiate contracts with the businesses and governments and assign the data entry work to the monasteries. While very "high tech", the work is viewed as an electronic version of the ancient scriptoria.

In the Middle Ages monks and nuns would support the monastery by hand copying manuscripts on contract. Since the printing press had not yet been invented, this was the only way to publish books. This was an important contribution by monks to the survival of civilization. They would spend much of their day in the scriptoria of their monasteries copying the manuscripts, breaking for prayer and meals. The data entry work harkens back to the traditions of the middle ages and is an interesting modern twist on an ancient tradition.

We hear talk of an information superhighway and the world shrinking as a result of the ability to keep in communication with one another via computers and electronic mail. This process has mage great strides in recent years, even though it is still in its infant stages. One expression of this process however is of interest for our spiritual journey. Disucssion groups are communities of people whose common bond is being on the same email list. The discussion groups revolve around some shared interest that is discussed by the members via email.

I am a member of the Genesee Lay Contemplative Associates, a "third order" group affiliated with the Cistercian/Trappist Abbey of the Genesee. The group has been in existence since the early 90s. Until recently the involvement of the members as a community has been limited to regular mail and annual retreats at the Abbey. Not long ago the group took advantage of egroups.com (later acquired by Yahoo) and started an on-line discussion group for those who had computer access. In a short period of time a real sense of community has developed as a result of the frequent sharing and encouragement that the members offer to one another. This is not the first such group I have joined. During the mid-nineties I joined another group called Merton-L. This group was dedicated to a better understanding of prayer, contemplation, and contemplative community. I discovered a vital community of people deeply committed to a contemplative spirituality. It was an interesting mix of people. Some were monks and nuns, there were a fair number of academics members from theology faculties at colleges, there were clergy, students, and housewives. Yet, there was always a strong sense of community and faith in the conversation and interactions that these people enjoyed via their computers. This community comprised people from many parts of the world, yet it functioned as a faith sharing, praying, and mutually supporting community.

We are used to religious communities that we can see and that have a particular location in space. Perhaps with the emergence of the computer age we will see the beginning of new forms spirituality that are lived out around the world with the only address being an electronic mail address. Indeed, electronic mail may be a way for contemporary faith communities to keep in touch more effectively if their members are spread out.

While many people may find a discussion of the use of computers a bit afield from spirituality, it seems most appropriate to me. It is easy to get bogged down in the controversies of the day and to wonder if the Holy Spirit has given up on us. Discovering such an ingenious and potentially dramatic use of computers as a means of promoting contemplative faith communities reminds me that the Holy Spirit is out there working in the background. The Holy Spirit is making good use of every means available and is laying the groundwork for the future of the church around us, if we will only stop to look.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.