Many people assume that contemplatives are ascetic and apart from the world. Thomas Merton, in his book The Inner Experience, highlights that the contemplative experience does not remove or isolate one from life but heightens one’s connection to it. He writes:
“The true contemplative is not less interested than others in normal life, not less concerned with what goes on in the world, but more interested, more concerned. The fact that he or she is a contemplative makes them capable of a greater interest and a deeper concern. The contemplative has the inestimable gift of appreciating at their real worth values that are permanent, authentically deep, human, truly spiritual and even divine. Their mission is to be a complete and whole person, with an instinctive and generous need to further the same wholeness in others, and in all humanity.”
From this perspective, contemplation is a natural springboard to action. The contemplative experience deepens connections to other people, to authentic values, and to then living these values – not in isolation but in solidarity. Contemplation fills the well, sustains the soul, and deepens our capacity to care. It is both restorative and generative.
For those engaged in work that challenges our capacities – and let’s be honest, almost all good and purposeful work does – a contemplative practice is not a luxury but a necessity, a vital part of staying connected to our humanity, deepening our spiritual understanding and, by extension, having the resources to venture forth and be of use.
Despite being a monk for most of his adult life, Merton remained deeply connected to the social issues of his day – and became a consciousness raising force by virtue of this engagement and his deep spiritual grounding as a monk and contemplative. The title of one of his books, Contemplation in a World of Action, reinforces the connection between contemplative practice and active engagement with the world. And in it Merton points out the dangers of action unmoored from wisdom:
“He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”
Fundamentally this is about right action, a hallmark of wisdom traditions and a core component of the Garrison Institute. We seek to create the space for contemplative reflection and development, and in doing so nurture the growth of wisdom that will then lead to right and impactful action. And in doing so we address one of the fundamental needs of our time.
Chris Marblo is the Executive Director of the Garrison Institute.