I am writing these words on a Monday morning following two mass shootings that occurred on the previous weekend — one in El Paso, TX, and the other in Dayton, OH. These two events left over thirty people dead and many others wounded, both physically and emotionally. Like many Americans, I am alarmed at what seems to be an escalation in mass violence. Statistically speaking, mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg of the many social problems facing our society today, including not only gun violence, but also racism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and widely divergent values in our country regarding how we respond to refugees, to immigration, to religious liberty, sexual and gender diversity, and reproductive rights.
I am not a politician, nor a political pundit. I write about mystical spirituality. Naturally, given the many social and political conflicts facing our world day, someone might ask this question: “why should I waste my time thinking about spirituality and mysticism, when there are crying issues of injustice and oppression and suffering, that require a political, rather than a mystical, response?”
It’s a fair question. To answer it, let me begin by suggesting that mysticism and spirituality are like vitamins or nutrients. If you are an athlete preparing for a triathlon, you need to spend time every day training. You need to be lifting weights, riding your bike, hitting the treadmill or the pool, day in and day out in order to reach and maintain your peak performance.
But you had better be eating properly as well. You don’t win a triathlon on doughnuts and potato chips. You need both a quality diet and an effective training regimen in order to prepare for your race.
Dealing with the many crises facing our world today requires us all to be engaged with the issues at hand. We need to be activists in some form — maybe not everyone is on the streets fighting for change, but there are other ways to be engaged: we need to be informed on the issues, we need to support organizations that advocate for change in a healthy and responsible way, we need to volunteer our time to alleviate the suffering of those who are hurt by current injustices. No one person can do it all, of course. But everyone ought to be doing something to alleviate suffering and to work for peace and justice, reconciliation and wellness.
So if I’m devoting X number of hours each week to political or social engagement, how can I justify spending an hour or two each day on practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, or liturgical prayer?
Perhaps the better question is this: given that these contemplative practices are like “mystical vitamins” necessary to maximize our spiritual health and wellness, how can anyone justify not doing these things?
For centuries now, critics of mystical spirituality have insisted that contemplative practice is a form of escapism, a navel-gazing activity that leads to narcissism and withdrawal, rather than to a renewed or healthier activism and engagement. And to be fair, plenty of mystics over the ages have called for withdrawal rather than engagement. That’s evident in Theravada Buddhism or in early Christian monasticism. But it’s not fair to attack mysticism because it can sometimes go off the rails. Any human activity has a shadow side. The proper response to escapist-mysticism is not to reject mysticism, but to reject escapism.
How can mystical spirituality help us to deal with our social and political challenges? Here are a few thoughts.
- Mysticism fosters humility and an ability to listen. The heart of contemplation is learning how to listen: to listen to the silence of God, to the chaos in our own hearts and minds, and to the subtle leadings of the Spirit in our lives. This same skill can be a necessary tool for anyone working for reconciliation or healing between conflicting parties.
- Mysticism reminds us that God created and loves everyone, not just the people on “our” side. In the midst of political conflict it is so easy to simply see our adversaries as “the enemy.” We want to defeat them, decisively. But this is the path that leads to violence and (on a national level) to war. Conflict is inevitable and it is necessary to fight for what is right. But if we strip our opponents of their humanity, we are no better than they are (and perhaps even worse). The Buddha taught that only love can overcome hate; Christ was equally blunt: “Love your enemies.” A mystical approach to politics always looks for creative solutions where the dignity and humanity of all involved parties must be safeguarded.
- Mystical practices teach us how to think creatively. Somebody once said that “You cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it,” which means that any real solution to the social or political problems of our time must involve a creative approach to new ways of thinking, of seeing, and of en-vision-ing. Contemplative practices — particularly meditation and contemplative prayer — are excellent tools for fostering the capacity to see and think from new perspectives. While the heart of such practices is spiritual — learning to see through the eyes of God and think with the mind of Christ — the skills, themselves, naturally can be applied to our down-to-earth problems that require political or social engagement.
- Mystical living helps to foster compassion, forgiveness, and healing. So many of the issues we are facing involve trauma. Whether it’s the physical trauma that gun violence or racial profiling engenders, or more subtle (but no less real) traumas associated with discrimination, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance, countless people suffer and are hurt because of our divided society. We need to learn how to love again, to forgive, and most important of all, to help those who suffer to heal. Mystical practice have been called a “School of Love.” This could just as easily be called a School of Compassion, or a School of Reconciliation, or a School of Service. However you approach it, the energy you invest into your contemplative practice will help you to be a better person dealing with the most mundane challenges of your life.
To conclude this post I’d like to refer to one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite authors — Kenneth Leech, the Anglican priest who was both a profound teacher of Christian mysticism and also a tireless activist working on behalf of homeless youth, victims of racism or religious discrimination, and those whose lives were shattered by addiction. Leech understood perhaps better than anyone else what true mysticism and true political activism need each other. I’ve written about this quote many times; if you’ve read it before, try to read it with fresh eyes, because the message is more urgent than ever. (This passage is taken from Leech’s book The Social God, and is also excerpted in Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech:
Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness. It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the waste of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.
A true contemplative — a true mystic — finds that his or her spiritual practice does not lead to escaping the world’s traumas, but actually impels the practitioner to become ever more engaged with the challenges of the world in which he or she lives. That will like different for every person, of course. Some of us are called to be political activists, marching in the streets. Others are called to do vital work behind the scenes. Some of us are fighters, some are healers, some are teachers. Some of us raise money for the cause and others write stirring letters to the editor. There’s no one “right” way to be an activist, just like there is no one “right” way to be a contemplative. But one thing is for sure: a true contemplative is called to love: to love God, to love neighbors as yourself, even to love your enemies. Out of this love, you will be called to act in some form or fashion. Pay attention — and respond to your call.