not my sister, not my brother but it is me, O Lord...

So many of us in the United States live such insular lives - myself included. In my small, quiet neck of the woods, it is relatively easy to remain aloof from the wounds of war, terrorism, violence, race hatred, sexual exploitation and misery. Add to this that I am an older, middle class, straight white guy with way too much education and the security of my isolation becomes a documentable fact. The accident of my birth, race and gender allows me the choice of hiding away from the ugly suffering of reality so that I might remain mostly at peace.

That's what some people think contemplative prayer is - hiding away from reality in aloof privilege - gazing at something selfish rather than sharing in solidarity the brokenness all around us. Bullshit. Contemplation is one of the only ways to engage the world's problems without making them worse. Thomas Merton is wise when he writes:

Prayers and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and against war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society

In other words, the true contemplative has learned three heart-breaking and humble truths:

+ Whatever happens "out there" is first born "in here." In our hearts - in our souls - in our minds and habits. Those who are unable or unwilling to sit in this sobering silence too often rush to judgment and then scramble into action. More often not, like President Bush after September 11th, they make things worse not better. Contemplatives accept the tragedy and brokenness of the world within them as the first step towards peace-making. . 

+ Only as we sit and own our sins and wounds will God's loving grace and presence heal us from the inside out. We cannot make peace all by ourselves. Just look at how we live our lives all by ourselves: they are a mess. Like the alcoholic, we can't fix the mess by doing what we've always done. We need a love greater than ourselves. A grace stronger than shame, fear and hatred. And once we taste that blessing, once we know God's love to be true, then we can move towards acts of compassion and justice albeit filled with fear and trembling.

+ A true contemplative, however, not only asks for wisdom and healing for the sins within, but also asks for a broken heart. "Create in me a clean heart, O Lord," the Psalmist prays, so that I might feel the reality of those who suffer. So that I might ask, "What more can I do to bring a little mercy into this anguish?" Creative introspective prayer and silence is how we grasp a little bit of light that can be shared in hope.

Merton continues:

It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for men (sic.) When a country has to be rebuilt after war, the passions and energies of war are no longer enough. There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.

I know that, once again, my heart was broken watching the news about Paris. Given my profound affection for Montreal, I feel an unspoken affinity with that great city. I am not ashamed to say that I quickly added this symbol to my Facebook as a small sign of solidarity.
But all day long my prayer has been pushing me to wrestle with the magnitude of my own isolation and privilege. That's what contemplation does: it demands that you become connected to the sorrow of creation. One of my spiritual directors said: We are called to take a long, loving look at the world. As I did today, I found myself drawn to these words that offer the larger, more authentic and truly sacred perspective.

Mother Teresa used to say that the only way for us to feel true compassion is for our hearts to be broken. Apparently, they must be broken over and over again. I don't blame God. I don't blame Islam. Or immigrants or Republicans or Democrats or Christians or Jews. Rather, like the old Baptist hymn tells us:  It's not my sister, not my brother but it's... me O Lord standin' in the need of prayer. 

Quiet, creative, introspective silence is the only place that I might hear the still, small voice of God calling me into solidarity in the midst of all the suffering. (Check this out for the way other people of contemplative traditions across the world are reaching out to one another:


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