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Carl McColman on Contemplation: A Revolutionary Spiritual Practice

“Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.” -former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams

In the silence of “being still and knowing God,” contemplation hones our awareness of the chaos within us (which fosters humility), and of the profound serenity and love that hides in the silence, also deep within us. In sharpening our awareness of our own chaos and the presence of grace and love that we could never earn on our own, contemplation also equips us to see “the signs of the times” — the chaos of our deranged, highly insane culture, and the hidden presence of Divine Love, of God who always calls us, individually and communally, out of the chaos and into beatitude.

Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness. It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the waste of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.” Kenneth Leech, author of Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World

 Is it possible to be a contemplative and yet somehow miss all of this? Of course. Contemplation is not a silver bullet, but an invitation. We are always free to turn down the invitation, to ignore the heightened vision and consciousness that God longs to give us. We really can turn contemplation into an exercise of navel-gazing, of resting in our interior silence as a way of escaping the challenges of our lives, or retreating from Love and its call into some sort of narcissistic self-absorption.



We need to be spiritual companions to one another, whether formally (as spiritual directors) or informally (as soul friends). We also need community. I know it’s challenging for many people drawn to the contemplative life to deal with the entrenched dualism and reward/punishment thinking that characterizes so much of institutional religion. And yet, even in such environments, we are called to be secret agents of Love. So whether you feel called to a traditional church community or a more emerging model of fellowship such as a house church, monastic oblate group, or other such configuration — make community a priority. We are not meant to fall in love with Love all alone. We need others along for the ride.

Yes, contemplation is revolutionary. So I invite you to join the revolution. You don’t have to sign-up with a political party or learn a secret handshake. All you need to do is pay attention to the hunger in your heart for God, and nurture that hunger by fostering both external and internal silence.

And then, enjoy the journey, for I guarantee it will take you to some surprising and unexpected places.

These notes are excerpted from Carl McColman’s blog A Contemplative Faith. Carl is leading our Contemplative Retreat for Men, Exploring the Monastic Experience May 5-9, and teaching our fall 2014 class The Still Small Voice is the Sound of Sheer Silence: Contemplation for Beginners.