One of my favorite talks at this weekend’s Wild Goose Festival was Carl McColman, author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, who gently outlined five ways that contemplative prayer is subversive. Since contemplative prayer was the spiritual practice I crashed on most severely the year I flunked sainthood, and it’s also the practice we’re focusing on for June here at the blog, I figured I should go hear what he had to say. I was not disappointed.
First off, McColman had some helpful and beneficent thoughts on my (and others’) failures at contemplative prayer. I wish I’d had his book when I was trying the practice, which felt like a failure to me because it served to showcase my own shallowness, busy-ness, and inner demons. McColman said on Sunday that “if we are unsuccessful at contemplation and it makes us aware of the raging chaos inside of us, we are right where we are supposed to be.”
Bam! So the next time I try to sit down to attempt contemplative prayer, I’m going to remember that my raging chaos is just part of the process. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The bulk of McColman’s talk focused on five ways that contemplative prayer—which some of us tend to dismiss as a “nice” spiritual practice that’s strictly for the holy rollers—can actually change the world. At its heart, contemplative prayer is a subversive act because it challenges power structures and the violence of our hearts.
1) Avarice, greed, and consumerism.
In discussing this, McColman used the case study of Francis of Assisi, “the world’s first hippie,” who did the whole Rebellion Thing, the Naked-in-the-Town-Square Thing, and the Voluntary Poverty Thing. McColman said he can relate to Francis, but just to a point. It’s difficult in our culture to truly reject greed. McColman made his first promises to a Cistercian monastery five years ago, but he has “a long way to go” with overcoming consumerism. He recognizes a need to relate to the material things in life with an open hand, to be careful about what he really needs and be conscious of how his consumerism affects the world.
McColman quoted John Wesley, who said, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” In other words, be abundant, then give it away.
2) Anger and violence.
McColman taught that to enter into contemplative practice fosters compassion. If we truly obeyed the commandment to love our enemies, they would stop being our enemies.
[My notes take a break here because I was saying good-bye to someone from our group who had to leave early. I’m sorry. Basic point: violence bad; prayer good.]
3) Religious defensiveness.
This was a surprising and powerful point to me—essentially McColman was observing that contemplative prayer subverts human delusions that we have a strangehold on religious truth. His case study here was Thomas Merton. If you read Merton’s early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, he makes fun of the Quakers and several other religious groups. “But fortunately, God did not leave Merton thinking that Catholics had all the truth,” McColman says.
Merton had his moment in 1958 in Louisville, Kentucky on a busy street corner when he was able to glimpse people’s true divine nature shining like the sun. But this didn’t happen in a vacuum; by that point Merton had been practicing contemplative prayer daily for over a decade.
[Digression: There is a marker on that corner to this day. When I’m in Louisville on WJK business, I sometimes pass by it. In December I decided to try Merton’s experiment and focus on/pray for the people walking by. Unfortunately, I nearly got hit by a car doing this. Lesson: Be careful where you attempt any act of sacred contemplation.]
This quasi-mystical experience changed Thomas Merton. What we see over the last decade of his life (1958-1968) is that he was no longer a fundamentalist Catholic. He became involved with interfaith dialogue with Jews and Buddhists. Merton came to feel that his highest calling was not as a monk but as a human being—and it started with contemplative prayer.
4) Privilege and pride.
According to McColman, the subversion of our pride is dynamically linked to the subversion of our anger and violence. It’s our Namaste principle—learning to recognize Christ in each other. “It’s hard for me to imagine that I’m better than you when I see Christ in you,” he said.
But he cautioned that humility is not about acquiescence to systems of privilege. That’s the opposite of humility. It’s about honoring and exalting our own earthiness, since the word comes from humus, or dirt. Contemplative prayer helps with this by keeping us grounded.
5) Acedia and despair.
In his final point, McColman pointed to Kathleen Norris, using her marvelous book Acedia as a case study. Acedia is related to melancholy and to depression, but it’s not the same. There’s a weariness and a cynicism to acedia: “Why should I work to save the environment? Why should I care?”
Contemplation subverts acedia because it is about Sabbath time and “lubricates the process of stepping back.” We begin trusting the present moment. We recognize that we have been given gifts that are meant to be passed on to one another.
“Contemplation enables us to find rest and joy and meaning,” McColman said. “There is grace in that.”