Part of what I get paid to do as a pastor is hang out with people. Now, there might be a more theologically formal set of words that describes this part of my work week, and a lot more going on than just leisure, but a good chunk of my time is spent sipping coffee or beer listening to peoples stories. I usually don’t have that much to say in terms of profound spiritual truths, but I’ve learned that I am not awful at listening and processing with people.
As I’ve hung out with folks and been let into their stories, I’ve noticed a couple things. The first is that we’re all scattered and spread thin, and we’re all longing for a life that goes deeper than the trappings of our modern consumeristic culture. The second is that we’re in desperate need of an antidote for our addiction to oversimplified us-verses-them binaries and judgement. Both of these tendencies result in our own shallowness and inability to move beyond knee jerk and reactionary living. We’re caught up an endless loop of external conflicts and surface layer trappings which are symptoms of a deeper ailment. We think we’ll fix ourselves and the world with more activity and consumption but maybe what we really need is internal transformation that expands our capacity towards empathy, compassion, and love.
For a while now I’ve been drawn to the monastics and contemplatives. I think part of the reason for this is because my natural disposition is just as shallow as everyone else. The monastics and contemplatives seem to move against this cultural current and offer us a different way. And so reading their prayers, listening to their wisdom, and learning their stories feels like the times in my life after I’ve indulged in too much junk food and finally get to eat something nourishing and healthy. They feel deep, restful, and true.
As foreign as monastic living might seem to us civilized and high-tech moderns, I believe their underlying impulse is something desperately needed in our times, namely the impulse to be internally or spiritually transformed. Their wisdom suggests that it’s only after we’ve been transformed on the inside that we’ll be able to engage a shallow world in deep and loving ways.
One of the most well known voices from this stream of humanity is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton who’s pictured above. Consider a couple of his thoughts and imagine a world in which this type of self-work and condition-less love might exist:
“I go to the hermitage to deepen my consciousness.”
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
Both of these quotes and the impulse behind them are as counter-cultural as Sid Vicious in 1977. Consciousness deepening and judgment free love? I can’t say I’ve heard those concepts anywhere lately, and they probably won’t sell products, but I think they are exactly what we need right now.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we all sell our possessions and move to monasteries, though maybe some of us should. What I’m suggesting is that our world needs the monastic impulse more than ever. We desperately need to reject the sound bite addicted, binary trapped consumerism of our current society and begin the work of internal transformation that increases our capacity to love our neighbors.
What would like if we could all spend a small portion of our day in contemplation and reflection around deepening ourselves and increasing our capacity to love?
What if we spent less time eating the fast food of social media feeds or cable news yelling-matches and started to feast on the deep and nourishing wisdom of the contemplatives and monastics?
Whether we’re activists or office workers, students or retirees, I’m convinced that our world desperately needs some of what folks like Merton had- the impulse to be transformed and deepened.
If you’d like to start a journey of hanging out with some of these folks, I’d recommend starting with Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen.
And if you’d like to integrate some of your social media with contemplative reflection, our church recently started a daily common prayer facebook group based on Christian liturgy that might be worth checking out.