Why We Need Contemplation

Ss. Teresa of Avila and Brigid of Kildare, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Macon, GA. Saint Teresa and Saint Brigid were two great contemplatives who were also engaged in making the world a better place.

Ss. Teresa of Ávila and Brigid of Kildare, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Macon, GA. Saint Teresa and Saint Brigid were two great contemplatives  engaged in making the world a better place.

I am troubled by the idea that it’s harder to be a child today than it was when I was young. Is that just my personal angst, the anxiety of someone moving rapidly through midlife? Or is there some truth to my worrisome intuition?

Well, consider the following sobering statements, all culled from recent articles on respectable news websites.

It is reported that one in three children is the victim of bullying at school, and with a growing number of young people online today, cyber bullying is enabling the terror to continue outside of school and into the night. (Source: Yahoo News)

One in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. The global market for child trafficking is more than $12 billion a year, with more than 1.2 million child victims. More than 100,000 children are currently involved in prostitution in the U.S. (Source: Wellspring Living)

The higher the level of income inequality in a county, the higher the reported rate of maltreatment of children tends to be. That is true no matter what the average family income happens to be. (Source: Journalist’s Resource)

In the United States alone, childhood lead poisoning costs an estimated $50-billion (U.S.) a year, while methylmercury toxicity alone costs $5-billion… The vast majority of the more than 80,000 industrial chemicals in widespread use in the U.S. have never been tested for their toxic effects on the developing fetus or child. The real impact on children’s health is just beginning to be uncovered. (Source: The Globe and Mail)

A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing. (Source: Alternet)

Some might argue that these statements are overblown. I’m not knowledgeable enough to be able to make a definitive statement for or against any of these statistics. But it seems to me that even if these statistics are exaggerated — which I have no reason to believe they are, but just for the sake of argument — even so, I think most reasonable people will agree that ours is a seriously toxic culture. And it seems to be getting worse, not better.

While we worry about the size of our television screen and how many gigabytes of space our electronic devices contain, our children and youth are suffering. We debate endlessly about how we perceive colors in a photograph of a dress on the Internet, while our kids are killing themselves or interacting with their peers through bullying and hostility.

What are we doing about this?

There’s a great slogan: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” It’s a call to action, of course. But it’s also about being a contemplative as much as about being an activist. The truth is simple: we live in outrageous times. We have so much work to do. Everyone of us has a part to play in healing our broken society, our broken culture, our broken way of life. Even if we aren’t political activists, we still need to be taking care of our family and our homes, to safeguard against the troubles we face.

But being outraged is only half the job. It’s just as important to be paying attention. And that’s where contemplation comes in.

Yes, we all need to work for a better world. This post is not about specific solutions to any of the above problems, but thankfully people of good will are already hard at work — and they need our support and engagement. But is that all we need to do? Or do we need to begin to create a better soul for our world? In other words, does the healing need to come from the inside out?

I think the answer is obvious. “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me,” sang Bono on the U2 song “Rejoice.” I think that song suffers from a wee bit of Irish pessimism, because if we change our inner worlds, then we are empowered to actually make a difference in the outer world as well.

This is why I believe that contemplation is essential for the future of humanity. Not by itself: contemplation without action can be a type of escape, so it’s important that our contemplative practice be embedded in healthy values and positive action — both at the personal and the societal level. We need contemplation to support the action we take to care for our immediate family and loved ones, and we also need contemplation to support the political, economic, and lifestyle choices that nurture our children, that help preserve our ecosystem, and that help to foster a just world. We need both contemplation and action. If contemplation without action is a form of escape, then likewise, action without contemplation can lead to burnout and hostility, even in the hearts of those who are working for positive change. When we lack contemplation, we more likely see those who disagree with us as our enemies rather than our loyal opposition. Action without contemplation runs the risk of being activity founded in anger or hate rather than love.

Everyone knows that when communism triumphed in Russia and China, it just created a new hell to replace the old. Our political and social activism must arise out of a deep inner conversion, and contemplation is a key to that interior transfiguration: one person, one spirit at a time. Likewise, our efforts to love our family and friends must arise out of that same inner transfiguration, or else we run the risk of polluting our most important relationships with the toxicity of our culture at large.

So why do we need contemplation, in a society where so many of us are suffering? Here are just a few answers to this question.

1. We need contemplation to remember who we really are. Our consumer/entertainment society dazzles us with things to buy and amusements to distract us, and we become so overwhelmed by stuff and fun that we forget our deepest identity. We forget our innate dignity as children of God, and our compassionate nature that refuses to accept the suffering of others. Contemplation is a way to short-circuit our cultural amnesia and re-calibrate our hearts to the love of God.

2. We need contemplation to safeguard against despair. The line between outrage and overwhelm is thin indeed, and it’s easy to find the challenges in our world today simply too much to bear. Taking time for silence, reflection, and cultivating inner peace is an important way to prevent burning out or freaking out over the enormity of our problems. Contemplation refreshes us and empowers us to face our tasks with hope and God-given strength.

3. We need contemplation to slow down and think clearly. Daily time given to silence is like a “reset” button for the mind. It cleanses the frenzy of over-stimulated thoughts and feelings, and opens up a spaciousness where we can consider how to most wisely and effectively respond to the work we need to do. This is true whether our task is changing the world or changing the diapers of our newborn. Both tasks are essential, of course, and both must be done with love if they are to be done well.

4. We need contemplation to keep from demonizing our opponents. Jesus was blunt: “Love your enemies.” This doesn’t mean we ignore threats like ISIS, but it does mean our response to any adversaries needs to be grounded in respect for their God-given worth as human beings. So we seek to neutralize military threats, to rehabilitate criminals, and to work with political opponents in whatever way we can. This is profoundly counter-cultural. Read any political blog, left or right, and it’s obvious that our cultural tendency is to hate our opponents, not engage with them or seek reconciliation. But if we cannot figure out a way beyond political gridlock, the problems that really matter (see the quotes at the head of this post) will remain un-addressed. A contemplative stance recognizes that the common good matters more than abstract ideological purity, and so it can help us to find creative ways to work together for the benefit of all.

5. We need contemplation to help us find different solutions to the same old problems. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If mental illness, income inequality, environmental toxins, human trafficking, and child-t0-child violence are all on the rise, then we need to be doing some things differently — radically differently. Different doesn’t always mean new — perhaps what we need is a return to some old values (like civic duty, or valuing family before wealth). But maybe we do need some new ideas, new ways to teach values to our children or to instill such values in our economy and technology. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But one thing’s for sure: we need creative thought to deal with our challenges, both on a personal and a societal level. And such creativity can be fostered — and needs to be fostered — by restful silence.

6. We need contemplation for our own sake. Contemplative practice has been linked to health benefits, such as easing depression, helping to manage stress, and alleviation of pain. Contemplation doesn’t just feel good, it’s good for us. Taking good care of ourselves is essential if we want to make the world a better place.

7. We need contemplation for our children’s sake. Contemplation is not about making more money or improving our standard of living (at whatever cost). Rather, it is about fostering love and compassion and connectedness. Once basic human needs are met, there is no correlation between income level and level of happiness. If we want to do the best we can for our children, we need to balance our running the rat race with a heartful/mindful approach to life and love.

So why do we need contemplation? We need it because we live in a toxic, chaotic society, and many, perhaps most, of us lead toxic, chaotic lives — so whether we are trying just to manage our own little corner of the world, or trying to make a difference in society at large, we need contemplation to nurture us on the way. We need contemplation to reconnect with the place in our hearts that belongs to God. We need contemplation to keep us from despair in the face of all of life’s challenges, whether personal or political. We need contemplation to find joy and purpose amidst life’s many challenges. And we need contemplation to nurture faith in God, even with all the anger and hatred that seems so prevalent in today’s world.

Can you think of other reasons why we need contemplation? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts.

 

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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8 thoughts on “Why We Need Contemplation

  1. I heartily recommend we all read Stolen by Katarina Rosenblatt with Cec Murphy -She has experienced sex trafficking but with the help of Christian organizations was not only able to break away but to get her PhD with a dissertation in the area. She provides case histories and statistics in this work. This is worth reading.

  2. Carl, this reminds me of what Sr. Joan Chittister said on Super Soul Sunday. “If you contemplate God the answer to the contemplation of God is to do the will of God for other people. Thats where compassion comes in. To serve with passion, to serve with love. To have passion for what’s going on in front of you and you put those two things together, this contemplation of the will of God and the compassion that proves that you have touched the heart of God, and that is you as prayer. “

  3. Hi Carl,
    Thank you for your most inspiring writing on “Why we need Contemplation”. You truly have the charism of writing and knowledge. After a very stressful and challenging day in a toxic working environment, your beautiful piece helped me to refocus on what is important and what I need to do as a Christian in order to rise above the overwhelming tsunami’s of daily life – “contemplate”. Thank you and may you continue to inspire us with this wonderful gift you have been given. Every Blessing. Caroline

  4. Thank you, Carl, for this engaging post. I have been a pediatrician for 22 years and a contemplative for 1 year (after reading the Big Book of Christian Mysticism). From my professional stance, I agree with your assessment of the increased morbidities of childhood. I have treated more depression and anxiety in the past 3-4 years than I ever have in my career. Despite schools’ anti-bullying efforts and increased public awareness of child abuse, my colleagues and I continue to see many victims of these offenses. Many of these children will grow up to have more mental illness and dysfunctional families of their own. I am intrigued that you offer contemplation (combined with action) as an antidote to these medical and social disorders. I love your argument that the habit of turning away from the chatter of our culture and toward a space of inner peace and silence will help us find both the inner recharging and the creative solutions that will engender positive action. I pray that this is true and that I will be a part of it. Through my own contemplative practices, I am beginning to see these children and families in a new way–that I am, myself, connected to what they are going through. I am also beginning to get a sense that, through contemplation, God is preparing me for new responsibilities in these areas.

  5. Carl!

    I am a student of architecture (in Sweden) and I am currently writing my master thesis about space for contemplation. Can I ask you, where do you go seeking a contemplative state of mind? How does it look, smell, feel? Are you alone or together with loved ones?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Kristina, thanks for your message. Here are a few thoughts in response to your questions. First, contemplation is more than just a state of mind, it is an embodied way of life. Try to let go of the western tendency to cleave the mind and body into two! Contemplation is all about wholeness. As for where we go to embrace a contemplative way of life, the goal of course is to bring that embodied way of life everywhere! But having said that, certain places are conducive to fostering a contemplative life. I prefer silent places: cathedrals, monasteries, the wilderness. For the same reason I also enjoy visiting meditation centers (not necessarily Christian — a Shambhala Buddhist center just three miles from my house is one of my favorite places). Many Catholic Churches have Adoration Chapels that tend to be places of silence as well. Since contemplation is more than just mindfulness (it is prayer, a response to the love of God and a gesture of opening ourselves to the communion with God which God offers us), being in a place that is friendly to spirituality (such as churches, monasteries, etc.) is helpful as well. But of course, most of all I practice silent prayer in my own home, so I think we can say that anyplace is conducive to contemplation, as long as we are willing to be still and listen to the silence which is always within us. I hope this is helpful!