Editor's Introduction: This article is part two of a three part series by Jeff Imbach, a founding member of Soulstream. Soulstream is a dispersed contemplative community that offers training in spiritual direction and 'living from the heart.'
CONTEMPLATIVE RESPONSES TO OUR WORLD
How Do We Integrate Our Contemplative Action Both At The Level Of Interpersonal Relationship And At The Level Of The Larger Institutions of Society?
Thank you so much for your wonderful responses (both to me separately and to all the partners). They have been very honest and so true to our real experience. Many expressed fear that facing into the systemic and structural evil of our world will destroy us. Steve put it well in his response, “I tend to feel overwhelmed with the vastness and impossibility and will rationalize my way out of involvement. I easily excuse myself from involvement and getting caught in the heaviness of burdens that seem beyond my reach of attentiveness and action”
When we move toward attending to our responses to the world of systemic power we need to look at ourselves with a deep compassion. This journey is not easy. It is like looking at our false selves for the first time. We would rather look somewhere else, maybe anywhere else! It is important to allow the Spirit to lead us and care for us in this journey and not get down on ourselves.
1. Fear of Being Overwhelmed
First of all anybody, with any kind of heart at all, has to feel like they are being torn apart by the kind of evil in things such as human trafficking. The magnitude of the scope and the horror of such evil would easily crush anyone. We are very sensitized to the helplessness of children, and that kind of evil fills us with crushing horror that makes us wonder if we can survive.
We are right to feel that we might be overwhelmed. Jesus, in the garden faced evil with fear and sweat drops of blood. He wished and prayed that it could be averted. To look at structural evil is like being crucified with Jesus. As the Soul of Christ Prayer says, “On each of our dyings shed your light and your love.” Perhaps this fear is to be honoured. Perhaps it is the Spirit in us seeking to keep us from losing ourselves in the quagmire and keep us stable and strong, not allowing us to get involved beyond healthy limits.
Once we respect that fear and the Spirit’s movement in us, I believe it is also important for us to discern the differences in the voices that would caution us or hold us back. We need to discern between the voice of the Spirit inviting us to care for ourselves and the voices of discouragement and despair that come from the Evil One. This is one of places where we desperately need community. We need help in discerning what is of the Spirit to caution us and what is of the Evil One to discourage us. Steve ended his response with these words, “I don't believe we can stand for or effect change without being supported in community. Responding in our dancing and weeping is truly communal when it comes to the level of Structures and Institutions.”
If I may, I would like to ask a further question. Is it O.K. for us to face the fear of being overwhelmed? After all, the Mystery of the Good is as overwhelming as the Mystery of Evil! It is not by accident that when angels reveal themselves to humans their first comment always is, “Fear not!” God wouldn’t let Moses look at the face of God. T.S. Eliot says, “humankind cannot bear much reality.” And Rilke opens the Duino Elegies with these astounding words:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
It seems to me that we are in front of immensity whether it is immensity of Good or Evil. And immensity is, in itself, fearful. Could it be that we might deepen our contemplative awareness and posture by learning to stand in front of these immensities with the fundamental trust in the Spirit within us? Again, we need regular, conscious encouragement from the community to stand in the face of immensity, whether Good or Evil, and just be open to what God wants for us.
2. Fear of Soul-Crushing Guilt
Secondly, I personally find that the implacable power of systemic evil pushes me into a kind of soul-destroying guilt. I flame with guilt that I am doing too little and that surely I could do more if only I were more committed. And then I revert to the diminishing guilt that nothing I can do will seem to make any difference anyway. I won’t be able to effect the change I would want to see happen. I am caught between being either unwilling or ineffective.
This guilt pushes my shame buttons. There are people all over the place that seem to do way more than I do. Surely I must be defective or completely hardhearted if this is all I can manage.
I need compassion here. I need to care kindly for the part of me that gets crushed by this kind of guilt and shame. It is actually the good gift within that I have a deep sense of compassion and longing for justice. I do not want to crush it out. But somewhere I seem to be invited to ask the question, “Do I need to be completely annihilated by my shame and guilt?” Or another question, “Is it necessary for me to avoid facing into systemic evil and the damage it does just so that I don’t have to face my shame?”
It feels to me that I am invited to face the evil of the world even if I have nothing to offer that I know of. I think that right here is a very important turning point for us all in our contemplative journey. Are we willing to commit ourselves to a life-orientation that says YES to the good we see in the world even if we discover it present in the people we do not expect to offer goodness and beauty. And are we willing to commit ourselves to a life-orientation that says NO to all evil, especially the ones that are so destructive.
The Spirit seems to prompt me to ask, “Can I stand in the face of structural evil even if all I have to offer is my presence of saying NO and that is all I can do?” I believe that I am invited to this kind of commitment to a worldview that names reality for what it is even if I do not know what to do with it. I feel I am invited to commit myself wholeheartedly to this as a life-orientation regardless of how it works out.
Here again we need the support of fellow community members. We need help to hear ourselves when we fall prey to guilt and shame and to be encouraged not to stay there. We need encouragement to stand with Jesus and trust in his care. We need hope. We need discernment. And we need others who will stand with us openly – before the world – in that committed life-orientation that says YES to goodness and beauty and NO to the evil that is committed against this the presence of God in others and in creation.
3. Fear Of Loss
Finally, there is another fear that we might rather not admit to. It is the fear of losing what we have gained throughout life by dint of hard work all our lives. What if we commit ourselves to this contemplative posture and we are labeled as weird or threatening? What if we make choices that push us further and further until we lose everything, either because we just get carried away or someone else takes it from us?
Again it is a valid and important fear. I hope we can see by now that we do not need to dismiss the fear as bad. We really need to be caring and sensitive and not just think we are beyond such thoughts. Maybe it is the Spirit saying, “You need to pay attention to this and see whether you are truly cooperating with My presence or whether you are off on your own.”
Actually, when we open these questions up, we come to a deeper question, “What image of God might I carrying around that makes me think that God would treat me like that?” I know that God is an untamable lion, but God is still good! God might even lead us eventually to some significant choices, that at the moment seem unthinkable. But if that were the case, it would be with a deep invitation to choose life and we see a life-giving orientation that would make it all worthwhile. But until such a significant choice is before us, can we trust that the Spirit will lead us now, tenderly, especially when this is such an unknown and fearful experience? We are invited to live in the present moment, not the moment that we imagine for the future. So it might be possible to hold the fear, not be dominated by it, and trust that the Spirit is guiding us toward life in a deeply loving way.
As I look back at what has emerged in this reflection. I am amazed at the significant gift of contemplative transformation this whole business brings to us. All along we are invited to face our fears, to allow freedom to come, to let go of control, and to do it all in the presence of others who want to be faithful to the contemplative path. Rather than see it as something to be avoided, perhaps it is possible to see it as something deeply and wonderfully deepening in our contemplative journey.
I am excited to be part of a community for whom resisting the powers of evil is not just an unspoken assumption. I trust that a contemplative posture of saying YES to beauty in all its vast Mystery and saying NO to the vast structural evil will be characteristic of our community. We need to encourage each other often to that life commitment!
Our mission is: We offer contemplative experience with Christ leading to inner freedom and loving service! And, God willing, we are coming to own more consciously and more publically that our mission includes both loving service to those fellow human beings we encounter, and also loving service in standing in the face of systemic evil and together saying NO!!!!