Contemplation and Activism

Beverly Lanzetta Meditations, Study

What is the relationship between contemplation and activism?  How can the spiritual dimensions of dialogue contribute to finding solutions to worldwide suffering, combat religiously motivated violence, or alleviate the hunger in a child’s belly?

Thomas Merton—the American Trappist monk and writer—asked himself similar questions.  In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton traces the process that eventually converts him from the trappings and high life of New York City to a cloistered monastery centered on Christ in the hills of Kentucky.  This tension between action and contemplation figures predominantly in Merton’s writings and is resolved  after years of internal debate in his mature recognition that contemplation is at the center of radical social transformation.  Early on Merton moves away from a literary and academic career, working at Friendship House in Harlem under the direction of Catherine de Hueck Doherty.  Initially drawn to religious social work, he might have continued in that direction had he not gone on retreat at Gethsemani Abbey.  Later, when the question of social activism again pressed on him in the monastery, he sustained an extraordinary correspondence with the prominent theologian Rosemary Reuther, who was critical of the ascetic strain associated with monks.  Yet within the walls of the monastic enclosure Merton practiced an unconventional activism that drew from the well of the human spirit.  He gave himself to the study of other religions, secular philosophies, and political critiques all within in the context of a silence that mends the illusory divide between solitude and service.

Wide open to the spirit, Merton pursued monastic conversation wherever and with whomever he could.  He understood that monasticism was not the special preserve of vowed monks but the archetype of solitude present in the deep self.  By whichever name—intermonastic, interspirituality, or intercontemplative—dialogue is based on the mature exchange of religious experiences.  Rooted in the techniques of spiritual enlightenment (prayer, meditation, and self-emptiness), participants find that by sharing practical experiences and learning from each other’s mystical traditions they uncover a new spiritual path for humanity.  The dialogue of contemplatives draws not only on the primary roots that nourish and bind together our religious heritages, but also supports the growth of new branches on the mother tree of human spirituality.

Lanzetta, Beverly. Emerging Heart: Global Spirituality and the Sacred, p 92, 96-97.