Contemplative Activism: The Sacred Path of Resistance

October 1st, 2019
This article is featured in the Intentional Spirituality (Nov/Dec/Jan 2019-20) issue of Circuit Rider

The work of ministry is a work of constantly pouring oneself out to bring about healing and redemption in the world. This is the path that Jesus demonstrated throughout his personal ministry, and it is the central message of the sacrament of the eucharist. As we remember Jesus’ broken body and life poured out for our salvation, we recommit ourselves to following in that same path, breaking open our bodies and pouring out our lives in service to the world.

But what happens when we’ve poured ourselves out a bit too much? What happens when our well runs dry?

It seems like there is a new crisis to face every single day. Whether the political divisions in our nation, the planet-wide threats that humanity faces, or personal conflict within our churches, there is no short supply of places where the healing touch of Christ is desperately needed.

In this era, Christians are being more compelled to take action, to make our professed faith tangible and visible in the world through subversive acts of love and through faithful resistance to injustice wherever we see it. We have become quicker to protest, to write sermons that call for repentance and lamentation, and to organize support for those in need. This not only feels like the manifestation of our calling as disciples of Christ, but it feels necessary. If not us, who will speak up? Who will act?

While we feel this impulse almost every day, the reality is that many of us are personally running on fumes. This weariness can give birth to complacency, and complacency, when it’s fully developed, gives birth to burnout. We know we have entered burnout when our faith begins to vanish, when our drive to shine the light of Christ is supplanted with a sense of hopelessness. By the time we reach burn-out, we will have already pushed our bodies, our minds, and our spirits to their limits. The damage can be irreversible.

This is why so many people leave ministry and faith altogether: They give it their best shot—they push themselves to do more for God, to tirelessly work for justice in their community, to make sure that everyone they encounter knows of the love of God. They do this because they know it’s what the world desperately needs, and the gospel is the very message this world needs in this moment. They push and push until there is literally nothing left within them—no energy and no faith.

But there is an alternative to action-induced burnout; there is a path that runs deep in the Christian tradition but has often been disregarded as irrelevant. It is the path of contemplation. Contemplation, simply put, is the ability to disconnect from the stimuli surrounding us and rest in the presence of God. Contemplation itself can take many forms: some practice meditation, others centering prayer, others go on long walks or hikes, and others engage in creative activities such as singing or painting. Whatever form contemplation takes, it’s the purposeful pulling away from the urgency of the world and allowing ourselves to rest in the only thing that is actually real and lasting: the presence of our Creator.

In an era of action, it’s hard to understand why contemplation is important. On the surface, it can seem selfish or privileged to escape from the suffering of the world and drift off into some ethereal realm in our minds. But the truth is, we were created for contemplation. We were created to spend time in the presence of God. This place of spiritual tarrying in the present moment is the way that God has wired us to be refueled and recharged so that we can engage in the action our world desperately needs.

Jesus himself understood the rhythm of action and contemplation. Read through the Gospel accounts and you will see that Jesus was intentional to spend time doing tangible ministry in the world, and then intentional to disconnect and rest in God’s presence. Jesus so valued contemplation that oftentimes onlookers perceived his contemplative practice as selfish. Just look at the action of the disciples in Luke 8:22-25 who wake Jesus out rest in order for him to save them from a storm. Jesus was resting when everyone else was acting. And Jesus rebukes the disciples, saying “Where is your faith?”

You see, it takes faith to make time for contemplation in the midst of conflict. It takes faith that God is at work, even when you’re not. It takes faith to know that if you do not take time to remain connected to the Source of your action, you will eventually find yourself crashing and burning—losing your faith, your passion, and your ability to make change in the world for the better.

Our own spiritual nourishment is the very engine that powers effective, thoughtful action in the world. In this way, contemplation is an act of resistance. By prioritizing the filling up of our own wells, by resisting the constant pull to react and choosing to simply “be” in the presence of God and the present moment, we are engaging in sacred resistance against the forces of injustice in the world whose chief desire is that we grow weary in doing what is right. Regular periods of intentional contemplation, then, become the secret weapon for long-term sustainability of any disciple of Christ. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would take “Days of Silence” where he would regularly clear his schedule and rest in God’s presence. Thomas Merton wrote that Mahatma Gandhi’s “spirit of non-violence sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself.”

This unity, this connection between the Divine and the self, must be more than just a concept that we believe in, but a reality we are committed to experiencing. Because only from that experience of the peace and connection to God will we have the strength and resolve to press on in the face of the greatest challenges and trials that are to come.

So, take time for contemplation. Block it out in your calendar. Invest in your connection to the Spirit, the very connection that drove you to walk the path of discipleship in the first place. The deeper you go into relationship with God, the more generative your actions of justice will be in the world.

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