What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.—Meister Eckhart
The story is told, in our family, of when I was a very small child and loved to play with the crèche or Nativity scene that came out every Christmas, when the tree was decorated. I liked to play ‘Mary’. I would get my baby doll, drape a blanket over my head, kneel and hold my baby for quite some time. I don’t quite remember all that, although I do remember loving to play with the Nativity figures, and I do remember playing ‘Mary’. As the story goes, I was likely to sit and worship my Baby Jesus for quite some time.
I was raised in what was then a typical American Protestant family, and the game I played was an outgrowth of the world I lived in. But, I thought of this play of mine when I felt the impulse to write something about the different paths seekers may take, when they dedicate themselves to a spiritual life. They may lean toward being activists, as seems increasingly common in this world, or they may seek a more contemplative path. In recent years, I have found myself taking the latter, and I wonder if my early play showed what would later become a pivotal inclination in my life.
I found my spiritual teacher when I was only 16 years old. By the time I was eighteen, I was practicing meditation. By my twenties, I was teaching it, and eventually I began guiding people on contemplative retreats and doing my best to help them fulfill their own wishes for illumination and enlightenment. I have no doubt that I did all of this very badly and still do, but it is interesting to me that I really never wanted anything else by way of a ‘career’. Eventually, I did take a side road to seek academic degrees in Psychology and even became a psychotherapist and instructor of Psychology. Because I had already been following a contemplative path, I always leaned toward the more transpersonal theories, and clients would sometimes tell me that they felt I was more a teacher than a therapist to them.
When I was in my 50s, I developed a severe arthritic autoimmune disease, which I still have. It resulted in several surgeries and painful infection. I lived through months of pain, multiple therapies and probably nearly died, although one doesn’t think about that while going through it. I could say that this process led me to a reexamination of my life, which until then had been a rather confused mix of these differing inclinations. And it also had been accompanied by considerable ego-based resistance to what my inner self was calling me to do. It was at this point, when I couldn’t do much else that I began to realise that I was going to have to face myself and seek a redirection in my life. Thus, I began an intense contemplative practice that I already knew, having begun to learn from my teacher at that early age, but this was different: I had taken numerous silent, personal retreats over the years, always in wonderful and distant places, but now I began a ‘home-based retreat’, one that was to go on for several years. I was married, a mother and I had a few clients and students at that point. But now I craved a solitary, mostly silent life. That is what I did. Fortunately, I had the support of my beloved family, and I continued to ‘be with them’ in between my contemplative periods, but I practiced meditation and read sacred books for most of every day. I was contained and guided by a dear friend of many years who supported me in my intent. I felt endlessly blessed in my endeavor, which continues today.
Recently, I was talking to a good friend who is a brilliant writer and passionate activist for various environmental concerns. Our conversation on that topic didn’t go very far, but it reminded me of an ongoing concern I had during my solitary process of recent years. There was a part of me that felt guilty, while I was living a mostly silent, solitary existence immersed in my evolving, most sacred ideal. All around me, members of my own spiritual community were working hard to accomplish great things: committees were formed, newsletters were written and causes were taken up and wholeheartedly supported. But, all I wanted to do was pray and meditate. I knew, of course, that there have historically been thousands of those who took the path of solitude in all the major religious schools. Hildegard of Bingen, for example, spent almost all of her youth and much of her adult life literally ‘walled off’ as an Anchorite, providing the foundation of intense prayer for a monastery of more active (male) monks and priests. There are rishis and shamans and Chassids and contemplatives of most religious persuasions, who dedicate their lives to prayer and meditation. They are traditionally believed to provide an unseen support to the universe, a support that keeps it wobbling along somehow when it might otherwise send itself into a Hell more awful than the one it already creates for itself. The concept of the contemplative life is just that: silence, prayer and solitude create a spiritual powerhouse that some believe to be more important by far than more active work: My smallest work in the inner plane is worth more than all I do in the outer world. – Inayat Khan.
Part of Mother Theresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, is an order of those who are ‘sick and suffering’, people who are unable to act in the world, and therefore offer their suffering for the more active workers, supporting them subtly while they do their work in the world. Which one of us can say whose work is more important? Perhaps a joint effort between action and contemplation is needed.
In recent years, I listened to a talk given to a group of young Muslim students by a well- known professor of religious studies. Jocularly, he laughed at those he referred to as his ‘American Sufi friends’ who, he said, didn’t seem to realise that the world was in flames. He said that when he pointed out to these American Sufis the terrible atrocities that were being committed against humankind, they were likely to say “Oh! How terrible, I’ll light incense and burn a candle and say a dhikr.”
“Yes,” he said, “…and?” But they thought that was enough, He deemed their lack of social activism untenable. Obviously, I don’t know all the circumstances of this discussion, or why he said what he did. I found myself feeling rather indignant, because my life was dedicated to just that: invoking the divine reality in the cause of healing and growth and illumination for the totality of humankind. I had come to feel that my solitary process, like that of all those who had chosen it. It was at least as powerful as the formation of yet another committee or the planning of a seminar or the staging of a protest march for social justice or otherwise helping the downtrodden of this perilous world.
Our life of contemplation shall retain the following characteristics:
- Missionary: by going out physically or in spirit in search of souls all over the universe.
- Contemplative: by gathering the whole universe at the very center of our hearts where the Lord of the universe abides, and allowing the pure water of divine grace to flow plentifully and unceasingly from the source itself, on the whole of his creation.
- Universal: by praying and contemplating with all and for all, especially with and for the spiritually poorest of the poor. — Mother Theresa
We want to believe that our work in this world is guided by an inner impulse that is the unfolding of our greater selves. We want (well, I certainly want) to believe that what we are doing is the right thing for us to do. If one takes the path of activism, then one may possibly be able to discern more palpable results for one’s efforts. Having taken this path myself for a great part of my life, I can attest to this, although as a human service professional, I can also remember the thankless times of brutally hard work that seemed to bear little result. Contemplative work, and it is work, is carried out in hiding, and while it might seem that those who do it have things a bit easier — we might say that kneeling in a chilly monastery is easier than marching through a dangerous neighborhood or staying up all night licking stamps and folding flyers—but I do not find it to be so. My own inner work is carried out in my little hermitage, my ‘monastery of one’. While I feel deeply and constantly guided by those, who have gone before me, it is a continuous learning process to try to engage with my inner life in a way that truly makes a difference. I do not know where my current impulse will lead me. I do not know whether I will remain in this solitary, introverted mode permanently. It could be said that it is unnecessary to make this an either/or decision. It is certainly true that to balance activism with contemplation, what is often referred to as ‘Engaged Buddhism’, is generally a more healthy way to live. A solitary path is not for everyone. The Sojourners, which started as an intentional, Evangelical Christian group involved with social activism in their community, stresses the importance of a path encompassing both contemplation and action.
Perhaps we need our silent ones, those who remain still, who watch and pray, those who notice and remain silent, even those who, such as myself, are not quite good enough at remaining silent, yet! We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls. — Mother Theresa
I sit in my rocking chair on my back porch, watching the row of giant Cypress trees that edge our property, swaying shoulder to shoulder in the wind. I try my very best to listen and act on the sounds of the world that I hear. And that old Nativity set is in my mother’s cabinet that I brought back home when she died. But, some of the figures are missing now. I ask myself why that might be. But Mary is there and Baby Jesus and at least two of the Wise Men, the Zoroastrians, who followed the Light as far as they could…
Pix and Text by Author