Contemplation in a world of reaction – by Ian Geary

contemplative-prayer‘There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.’  Thomas Merton

Political disorientation

2016 saw disorientating changes in the political realm. We may want to respond by being active.  However, paradoxically, prayer and contemplation might be a better place to start. A retreat might be more fruitful than going to a conference or a march; campaigning is good, but what if it is an actually an empty act? Or even an act of ‘violence’ as Thomas Merton, warns if we become subsumed by thoughtless and prayer less activism?

Political activity is a positively biblical thing, yet without from rest and reflection we can detach ourselves from the source of love and justice – and burn out.  

Doing nothing is an option

Some in the political world say ‘Doing nothing is not an option’. Well, actually doing nothing outwardly – for a time – is an option. The monastic lifestyle is not passive and other-worldly – many riches can be gleaned from contemplative disciplines and practices. They will become ever more important in our uncertain future.  

Silence, solitude and actively listening to those with whom we disagree don’t happen naturally in our culture. Yet, they are an essential spiritual disciplines. Let’s be contemplative and not instantly get sucked into 47 ways to change the world via the click of a mouse. Real change is harder than that.  

Contemplative disciplines

This passage from Job 11 speaks to our modern predicament. Job is exhorted by his friend ‘prepare your heart’ and ‘pray’.  We see the promise of the tremendous transformation and a new perspective that is rooted in a life of prayer.

“If only you would prepare your heart and lift up your hands to him in prayer! Get rid of your sins, and leave all iniquity behind you. Then your face will brighten with innocence. You will be strong and free of fear. You will forget your misery; it will be like water flowing away. Your life will be brighter than the noonday. Even darkness will be as bright as morning. Having hope will give you courage. You will be protected and will rest in safety. You will lie down unafraid, and many will look to you for help. But the wicked will be blinded. They will have no escape. Their only hope is death.” Job 11: 13-20 (Holy Bible, NLT)

These verses contain sound principles and clear promises:

  • We are urged to pray and repent (v13-14)
  • Visible manifestations of transformation and a new perspective are granted to the one who prays, repents and leaves the past behind (v15-19)
  • You will forget your misery’ (v16) you don’t need to be bound to the imminent i.e. the state of the Labour Party, Brexit, Trump. We care about our world, but without an encounter with God these things can stifle us.
  • Many will look to you for help’ (v19) we aren’t the only one God will bless, others can be blessed too.
  • This path of prayer not just a ‘nice to have’ it is the only path, as the alternative is destruction. (v20)

This passage reminds us to get our heart and devotion right. As a Christian I believe that lifting up our hands in prayer means that our heart remains attached to a holy goal. I want to cultivate good habits of the heart such as worship, prayer and solitude. If we don’t develop such spiritual disciplines, it will secular liturgies that will shape our desires.

A radically different view

This is no call to passivity.  The good news of Jesus calls us to action. Yet we must resist social and political activism detached from prayer and reflection. Just as Jesus retreated in solitude from the crowds to pray his Father, our action will bear fruit if it attends to the heart beat of the one who created us and loves us. 

So in 2017, let’s not get sucked into hyper-activity. Pay close attention to these verses in Job and orientate your life on a different track. Take a radically different view of what it means to be political.

Ian Geary works in public affairs, is a member of the Christians on the Left and lives in South East London with his wife and their three young children.

A longer version of this article is also available on R&R

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