Editor's Introduction - This article represents part 1 of a 3-part series by Jeff Imbach, a founding member of Soulstream, a dispersed contemplative community that offers training in spiritual direction and 'living from the heart.' This series was addressed to the Soulstream partners and Clarion has asked permission to post them on Clarion for the broader public.
CONTEMPLATIVE RESPONSES TO OUR WORLD
Question: How Do We Integrate Our Contemplative Action Both At The Level Of Interpersonal Relationship And At The Level Of The Larger Institutions of Society?
Our SoulStream community is growing very beautifully in our desire to link our contemplative posture with very practical responses to life around us. It has been hugely important to focus on opening our hearts to receive the love of God so richly present in our lives. We have come to realize that it is not only in the good times but also in times of great suffering that our hearts are opened up in this way – sometimes even broken open into God as the Jewish tradition says! It seems now that, by a wonderful grace of the Spirit among us, we are hungry to deepen our contemplative posture and practice in our responses to the world in which we find ourselves. As we say in Living From The Heart, the fourth pillar of the Way of the Heart is, “Contemplative Transformation Leads to Compassionate Living”
In this reflection I will attempt to bring two themes of our contemplative responses to the world into a unified perspective. It is not easy and we may all have resistances somewhere along the way, but if this reflection can spark more conversation and deepened trust in God then the stumbling words will have been well worth while.
In recent SoulStream conversations we have talked about dancing and weeping in the face of our present world situation. The imagery comes from Dorothee Soelle’s book, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. It is a great image to help us process the whole spectrum of responses. Let’s look at both sides of the image.
I think we are all aware that there is a deep contemplative response to the beauty and interconnectedness and joy in the goodness of God’s life present in creation. We know this response as gratitude, or awe, or joy, or ecstasy for the ways in which our world is so filled with goodness and beauty.
We have all had experiences like that: during a walk in the park, the wedding of two dear friends, or a time when we got so caught up in some wonderful activity that we lost track of time passing and even of where we were! Let’s call these our contemplative response of dancing! We are swept up in joy at the goodness of God’s presence. God is alive and creating a web of interconnection in all things. “Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). And we get glimpses of that beauty that fill our hearts with joy.
It is true – we might not be fully attuned to these moments. We might take them for granted or pass by them so quickly we hardly even notice. Or we might trivialize them as something less than a contemplative or mystical experience. But we can name and cherish them if we take time to do so. And this is what a contemplative and receptive posture is helping us to grow into – noticing, receiving, and praising!
Weeping In Sorrow For The Tearing And Destruction Of The Connection Of God’s Presence Within Creation.
The other reality we all know only too well is that joy and ecstasy aren’t the only responses to the world. We experience times of tragedy or sorrow in the lives of those around us. We reach out to a person who is sick and needs to be taken to a doctor appointment and are with her as she hears the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Our children experience marriage breakdown and we are helpless in the face of it.
The fabric of life has been deeply torn and we cannot help but weep. Our contemplative and receptive posture that helps us see the fabric of God’s presence in creation also deepens our sensitivity to this reality of breakage. We are filled with grief as much at the tearing of the fabric of life as we are filled with joy at the beauty of the web of life that we experience. And that is a genuine contemplative response to life as we experience it.
Two Levels Of Contemplative Joy and Weeping
As human beings in relationship with each other and as part of the connected web of all things we experience our contemplative responses to the world in two important levels. These levels can be distinguished for the sake of discussion, but they are inextricably linked in real life
1. The Level of Personal And Interpersonal Relationships
The examples cited above illustrate how we respond contemplatively with delight at the beauty as well as with sorrow at the breakage in life. They illustrate how we experience life personally and interpersonally. It is very close, very immediate and therefore very easy for us to notice and also to respond.
These are the experiences that we are most aware of. They seem within our reach. They are small enough to offer a personal response to, even though the tragedy might be big. It is a direct response to actual people we know or meet up with. The recent story by Rod Janz about meeting a street person is beautifully laced with both weeping and dancing. This is a very powerful expression of the foundational truth that contemplative transformation leads to compassionate living. We learn to offer joy and sorrow rather than advice or expectations. We do not have to solve it! We can simply share it compassionately.
2. The Level of Systemic Structures and Institutions
There is at least one other level of response to the deep joy and the deep wounds in the beauty of God’s life within creation. It is at the level of systemic structures and institutions. Society is configured not only in interpersonal relationships but within whole groupings of people and various groupings of power. We are necessarily part of these structures and our life in them is part of the way we respond to them is found in the foundational truth that contemplative transformation leads to compassionate living.
First of all, we can have great joy and dancing when something tremendously freeing and just happens. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a wonderful example. That speech brings out the mystical ecstasy to think that somehow the Spirit has moved to bring a deep healing justice in a painful history within the social institutions and structures of the U.S. Another example at this institutional level was the great movement within the Roman Catholic Church known as Vatican II. It was not just a personal or interpersonal experience, it was a vast triumph within a terribly unjust religious system.
It is, perhaps, easier to see that there are also terrible rips within the fabric of creation in the ways human communities are structured. We hear about it on the news and if we look at the terrible wounds to creation itself, we weep. We weep for the impact on individuals such as the effects of the BP disaster in the Gulf. But we also weep, if we pay attention, to the corrupted systems and institutional structures that allow this kind of disaster to happen.
So our dancing and our weeping is the mystical (contemplative) response to life both at the personal and the structural level of society! We dare not choose one or the other because they are both intertwined. Here is a funny but poignant statement that my daughter, Julie, recently posted on her facebook page. I will set it in context and then offer the quote.
Context: The adage goes, “Give a starving person a fish and she will eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and she will eat for a lifetime.” But now there is a very insightful continuation of that old saying.
Quote: “Teaching someone to fish so they can eat for a lifetime is great and all, but we also need to ask, ‘who owns the lake, why only certain people get the opportunity to fish it, and how the lake ended up so polluted?’”
We can offer help to a street person. It is beautiful! We can help him get housing so that he can have an address when applying for a job. That too is beautiful! This is the dance of our contemplative living at the personal level of our experience. But there is more to the story than that. Our contemplative experience leads us to dance and weep and act in the face of the structural issues that have so much impact on the personal experience of us and the people we are in contact with.
Well, so much for now. I would like to continue this later, but wanted to get this much out to you while we are still thinking of these things. I really hope that we can own both levels of our response. It will take some gracious and caring movement on our part to embrace both without being overwhelmed, but I truly believe it is possible! God bless.