The Activist as Contemplative
Cliff hanging and the warrior-monk
by Rev. Steven Bonsey
The vocations of social activism and contemplative prayer would seem to have little in common, as little as the life of the archetypal warrior would have with that of the archetypal monk. The one is outwardly engaged, the other inwardly; the one is assertive in its disciplines, the other receptive.
And yet, I believe that the two vocations have something to offer each other. In particular, I believe that the practice of contemplative prayer as handed down in the ancient Western Christian monastic tradition, as well as other inner disciplines from that tradition, have the potential to greatly enhance the life and work of the social activist today.
What follows is the first in a series of articles for Anchor on what I believe to be the wisdom and the benefit of that practice and those disciplines. I hope to present a portrait of the activist as contemplative—the warrior as monk.
There is a story that I tell often in my work as a pastor because it sums up everything that I know about the spiritual life. I tell it in sermons, in counseling, and in spiritual direction, but mostly I tell it to myself.
A hiker is taking a solitary walk in the mountains when he slips and falls down the face of a cliff. Somehow on the way down he catches hold of a branch, and he clings to it for dear life. He hangs there with no way to climb back up, no help for miles around, and a sheer drop to certain death below.
After a while, he lifts his face to the heavens and says, “I have never been a praying man, but if there is anyone up there, I need you now!”
A voice answers him and says, “Let go.”
He looks down for a time and then looks back up to heaven and says, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Like so many others, I have faced challenging situations in life and have taken hold of anything that could save me in the moment. In particular, through childhood and adolescence, facing situations that seemed overwhelming at the time, I took hold of any coping method that could get me through.
So far, so good, but then I continued to cling to those methods over the years. I clung for dear life, even when it became clear that these methods no longer served me. In fact, it became clear that they were impeding my growth as a person. I knew that I had to let them go. I also knew in my bones that letting go would just kill me.
The first great “branch” I let go of in my adult life was my addiction to a substance. I had reached the point where addiction had made my life unmanageable and hardly worth living. Even so, the idea of letting go, of giving up my solace, filled me with terror. I knew that I would not be okay without it.
I was afraid, and I was angry—angry at myself and anyone and everything, but also angry at God. I had been trying for years to fix myself, and it had driven me to despair. I needed a God who would fix me and fix the whole situation of my life. But “let go” was the last thing that I needed to hear from any heavenly voice. And yet there was no one else up there. I was desperate, and I had no choice. I had to let go.
There have been many other lettings-go in my life since that day. I feel as if I have been peeling the proverbial onion, where releasing one attachment just opens the way to dealing with the next, deeper layer of life-denying dependency.
For example, once I was clean and sober I found that I am compulsive at work, clinging to the approval and praise I receive for performance. If I let go of my perfectionism, I feel certain that I will fall into the abyss of mediocrity. I will be no one.
I also discovered that I play games with people that love me in order to get from them the affection I crave. If I let go of my manipulations, I am certain that I will fall into the abyss of abandonment. I will be alone.
Similarly, I noticed that I have struck a bargain with God. I am convinced that if I hold fast to certain beliefs, rituals, and rules, and if I champion certain just social causes, then God will save me, by which I mean that, along with any good I manage to do, I will feel good about myself, the world will see me as a great guy, and I will advance in honor and prestige. If I let go of these moral and religious performances, I am certain that I will be condemned to the abyss of meaninglessness. I will know that my life is pointless.
At every deeper level of my psyche I find attachments that bind me up and prevent me from growing and experiencing greater freedom, peace and joy. But these attachments are all twisted up with things that make me who I am and make my life worthwhile, at least in my own eyes.
My religious convictions, my moral commitments, my dreams for my life and hopes for serving the world—these are values that I hold dear. But what is the difference between a value that I hold dear and an attachment that I cling to? What happens when one comes to look like the other?
With every attachment, I feel more certain that absolutely everything—my life, my family, the church, the world!—depends upon my hanging on, trying harder, being stronger and smarter, and getting it right.
This way of thinking works for me until it doesn’t. I keep it up until I can’t. Then the drama sets in. One moment I am walking a path on solid ground, the next I am hanging from a branch, weak with exhaustion and despair, trembling with terror and rage. The many cliff-hangers of my life have been my teachers.
Yes, I have to let go. The savior from on high that I am looking for does not exist. I will not be rescued. My life and the world around me will not become as they should be in my eyes. Neither I nor the situation will be fixed. I am powerless in my clinging. My rage is justified.
Yes, when I let go, I will fall to my death. Life as I have known it will come to an end. There will be pain and sorrow. Something precious will be lost. Something that I rely on for safety, consolation, or strength will be taken. I will be left defenseless, powerless, and bereft. My terror is justified.
Again and again, because I have had no other choice, in fear and trembling, I have let go. I have fallen to the rocks below, and I have fallen through them.
I don’t know how else to put it. I have come to so many ends and found that it isn’t over. Below those rocks, there is death, loss and solitude; there is silence; there is Nothing. And in that Nothing, Something wells up. There is Life, not survival but something new. A wonderful surprise.
This looks like nothing special. I get through a day clean and sober when once I knew that I couldn’t. At work, I leave my desk at the end of the day, knowing what’s done and what isn’t and letting that be. In my relationships, I let people love me in the way that they want to, even when I’m sure that they won’t. I lose my religion over and over, but my faith becomes stronger. I don’t do what I must do for the world, but I do what I can, and somehow it suffices for the moment.
That is my witness, hard won through a lot of psychic drama. Lately, the roller coaster has evened out a bit. I don’t need to reach a point of exhaustion or despair before I surrender. I take the initiative. I surrender on a daily basis.
For about twenty minutes every morning and evening, I sit still in the prayer of inner silence. I let go of whatever comes up. The rage and terror still show up, and I welcome them. I let them flow from me. I notice whatever branch I am hanging on to, and I release it. I fall into silence. I drink from the fountain that flows in darkness.
In the articles that will follow this one, I will not dwell in detail on any particular technique of this mode of “letting go” in prayer.* I believe that practices like these, which involve the intentional release of thoughts and emotion as well as the intentional turning, again and again, toward inner silence, are common in the mystical streams of many religious traditions (and outside of them as well).
I will share, however, how the practice of this mode of prayer can benefit the life and work of anyone who works to address the evils of the world, particularly those who befriend and serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the oppressed.
Such work presents grave challenges and boundless demands as well as rich rewards. But too often the challenges become dispiriting and the demands exhausting. What is more, the struggle with injustice as it is embedded in our social systems inevitably stirs up painful memories within. Old wounds are touched and old defenses are mobilized in ways that do not suit well to the present moment.
At worst, the darkness we grapple with in the world calls out whatever darkness lies within us. We may come to imitate unconsciously the violence that we oppose, at great cost to ourselves, those who love us, and those at whose side we labor.
For me, the exercise of letting go I have shared here, when practiced along with other regimens of self-care, yields a measure of serenity in the midst of struggle, healing for inner wounds, and growth in wisdom and compassion. I think that this can be good for all of us activists and for the people in the world who we desire to serve. §
* My own practice involves a technique developed in the Christian tradition known as centering prayer. My recommended reading on centering prayer is Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault.
The Reverend Steven Bonsey has worked as a parish priest and campus minister for the Episcopal Church. He studies with Cynthia Bourgeault and serves as Chaplain for the Leadership Development Initiative (diomassleads.org).