Contemplative Responses to the World – Reflection Two

Two Levels Of Contemplative Response

Just as there are two core themes in our contemplative response to the world, there are also two major dimensions in which we live these responses.

As human beings in relationship with each other and as part of the connected web of all things we experience our contemplative responses to the world both at the level of personal and interpersonal relationships and at the level of structural groupings of societal groupings and power. These levels can be distinguished for the sake of discussion, but they are inextricably linked in real life.

The Level of Personal and Interpersonal Relationships

The examples offered in the previous reflection illustrate how we respond contemplatively with delight at the beauty of life as well as with sorrow at the breakage in life. They illustrate how we experience life personally and interpersonally. They are very close, very immediate and therefore very easy for us to notice.

These are the experiences that we are most aware of. They seem within our reach. They are small enough to offer a personal response, even though the tragedy might be big. It is a direct response to actual people we know or encounter. The recent story by Rod Janz about meeting a street person is beautifully laced with both weeping and dancing. This is a very powerful expression of the foundational truth that contemplative transformation leads to compassionate living. We learn to offer joy and sorrow rather than advice or expectations. We do not have to solve it! We can simply share it compassionately.

The Level of Systemic Structures and Institutions

There is at least one other level of response to the deep joy and the deep wounds in the beauty of God’s life within creation. It is at the level of systemic structures and institutions. Society is configured not only in interpersonal relationships, such as a SoulCare group. It is also configured around various groupings of power such as a city municipality or the economic structure of society. We are necessarily part of these structures. And the way we respond to them is the foundational truth that contemplative transformation leads to compassionate living.

First of all, we can have great joy and dancing when something tremendously freeing and just happens. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a wonderful example. That speech brings out the mystical ecstasy to think that somehow the Spirit has moved to bring a deep healing justice in a painful history within the social institutions and structures of the U.S. Another example at this institutional level was the great movement within the Roman Catholic Church known as Vatican II. It was not just a personal or interpersonal experience. It was a vast triumph within a terribly unjust religious system.

We can also see that there are terrible rips within the fabric of creation itself. We hear about it on the news and, if we look at the terrible wounds of ruined landscapes or plastic debris, we weep. We weep for the impact on individuals such as the effects of the BP disaster in the Gulf. But we also weep, if we pay attention, to the corrupted systems and institutional structures that allow this kind of disaster to happen.

So our dancing and our weeping is the mystical (contemplative) response to life both at the personal and the structural level of society! We dare not choose one or the other because they are both intertwined. Here is a funny but poignant statement that my daughter, Julie, recently posted on her facebook page. I will set it in context and then offer the quote.

Context: The adage goes, “Give a starving person a fish and she will eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and she will eat for a lifetime.” But now there is a very insightful continuation of that old saying.

Quote: “Teaching someone to fish so they can eat for a lifetime is great and all, but we also need to ask, ‘who owns the lake, why only certain people get the opportunity to fish it, and how the lake ended up so polluted?’”

We can offer help to a street person. It is beautiful! We can help her get housing so that she can have an address when applying for a job. That, too, is beautiful! This is the dance of our contemplative living at the personal level of our experience. But there is more to the story than that. Our contemplative experience leads us to dance and weep and act in the face of the structural realities of our communities, our nation, and the world around us.

Well, so much for now. I would like to continue this later, but wanted to get this much out to you while we are still thinking of these things. I really hope that we can own both levels of our response. It will take some gracious and caring movement on our part to embrace both without being overwhelmed, but I truly believe it is possible! God bless.

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