I believe it is vital that we recover sacramental presence and contemplative practice in today’s a noisy and neurotic world. That is where I’m going in this essay, but if you will indulge me I’m going to a curcuitous route to my destination. I will lead up to it with some comments about the Aristotelian middle way, the influence of temperament upon our preferred way of life, the importance of seasons of life, the value of historical consciousness, and the contemplative “reading” of history. So here goes.
Which is primary, changing the individual or changing the systems in which people live? I remember having this perennial debate years ago with my dear departed friend, Bill Olsen, an organizer and organizational consultant, God rest his soul. In our friendly debates I defended the Aristotelian middle way, holding that the two approaches — changing individuals or changing systems — are not mutually incompatible. At the same time I argued that most people are naturally constituted in such a way that they tend toward one polarity or the other, that is, to being contemplatives or activists. I still believe this is true.
My own constitutional tendency is toward the way of contemplation because I really have little choice. I admire organizers and activists who are committed to being creative and courageous change agents in the world. The world needs principled and pragmatic organizers and activists who seek to make a difference through changing the social systems, laws and policies of the society in which we live. At the same time, the world also needs individuals who contribute to the Ecology of Being through cultivating sacramental presence and contemplative practice, combined with humane knowledge and cultural literacy. This will sound like a marriage of monastic spirituality and renaissance humanism, and I suppose it is. I could just as easily say that the world needs individuals who dialectically integrate in their own persons the utilitarian, urbanized, rational and scientific values of the Enlightenment and the transcendental, rustic, poetic and aesthetic of Romanticism. It is the tension between opposite tendencies within our individual persons and our collective society that constitutes the dynamic of creative complexity that thrives “on the edge of chaos.”
There are seasons in our lives. In my younger years I fashioned my self more as an active change-agent and was preoccupied with the challenge of leadership. I still think that leadership matters, and that one can lead from the center as well as from the margin. But as I’ve grown older a deeper strata of my character has continued to reveal itself to me. It has always been there but now it will not be denied. More than anything else I seek a soulful and spirited life of sacramental presence and contemplative practice. I don’t expect others to understand this impulse unless it has called to them as well. For me this sacramental and contemplative impulse is combined with the “right-brain” sensibilities of the Humanistic Renaissance, the German and English Romantic Movements and the American Transcendentalist Movement. Of course I am also grateful for the legacy of the Enlightenment — the age of reason, science, discovery and democracy. And life as we know it today would be impossible without the new technologies that have open the way to global communication and global travel. What I’m saying is that one does not need to be a nostalgic and regressive Luddite in order to locate one’s center of gravity in the integral wisdom and spiritual practice in an earlier age than the 21st Century. Because our scientific breakthroughs and technological advances are so spectacular it is easy to succumb to “chronological snobbery,” to assume that people didn’t know much about what it means to be a human being until we “moderns” and “post-moderns” came along to show the way out of “the dark ages” of the primordial, ancient and medieval past.
Recently I’ve been reading Thomas Cahill’s “hinges of history” series of books that include How the Irish Saved Civilization, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (ancient Greece), The Gift of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Mysteries of the Middle Ages and, most recently, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. I would guess that Cahill’s next book will cover the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Tracing the steps of history in its paradoxical “grandeur and misery” provides abundant material for both critical reflection and contemplative insight.
I’ve detected that there are some fundamental differences in the ways in which historians, theologians, philosophers, literati, artists, scientists, psychologists, sociologies, economists, ecologists, as well as political and military historians approach their hermeneutical readings and interpretations. They have different interests and concerns, and they each place their own intellectual discipline at the center of inquiry.
It is instructive to read multiple accounts of different periods of human history. Jacques Barzun’s From “Dawn to Decadence” covers some of the same ground as Thomas Cahill. Each man has his own implicit and explicit world view, and it is in their particular telling of the story of the history that they also tell us something about themselves. Again, what we find is that there is no view from nowhere. Each historian sees the world from a particular angle, placing different elements in the foreground or back ground, depending upon those elements they choose to highlight. Just as there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors, there is great benefit in reading multiple historians who know the same “facts of history” but assemble and interpret them in different ways and with different emphasis. In the course of their writing they will reveal to us what is the relative breadth and depth of their knowledge not only of historical events and the persons, forces, ideas and values that have influenced the shape of the past, but also how they themselves attempt to make sense of the strangeness of history.
I find myself approaching the reading of history as a spiritual exercise in contemplative practice. Historical knowledge can be views as merely brute facts that are devoid of any meaning at all, just “one damn thing after another.” That too is an interpretation. But history may be much more. It may reveal to us the contours of nature and the dynamics of the human mind. It may even reveal to us amidst its obvious contradictions and absurdities, conflicts and cataclysms rare moments of epiphany and insight, illumination and breakthrough. There may even be moments in time when “the veil between the worlds” is thin and permeable, as the Celts put it. We may encounter remarkable individuals who seem to tower as giants among men, seeing further and knowing more than their contemporaries. In the reading of history we tend to find what we are looking for, and of course much more. I am always on the lookout for rare men and women of sacramental presence and contemplative practice who bring sanity and serenity to a noisy and neurotic world. In my view they have always been “our last best hope” for building a better world.