Last week I was at a retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colo., reflecting with a group of folks from around the world on the future development of the contemplative lineage within the Christian tradition.
It was a fruitful time, and we were vividly aware that we were sharing deep conversations about prayer and the cultivation of an awareness of God’s presence in the midst of societal pressure, anger and violence. One of my 20 colleagues was from Charlottesville, Va., and we shared in her grief, confusion and anger.
The five days we had together were filled with prayerful reflection on the relationship between contemplation and action, on a posture of deep listening and an embodiment of compassion in the world. The core of the Christian faith orbits around these two poles, understood biblically as the command to love God and love our neighbor.
We “know” this is Christ’s call to us, but we struggle to live up to it, of course. It is also the deep truth that lies at the heart of all the world’s great faiths, so Christians share this holy call of contemplation and compassion with all our brothers and sisters. We should remember this.
One of the reasons the broader Christian world struggles with this call to contemplation and compassion is that we still persist in holding on to a narrow idea of what “salvation” looks like. For too long, we have grasped an Americanized version of Christianity that places our individual salvation and a perception that Jesus wants us to be wealthy, happy and fulfilled on the highest pedestal. Meanwhile, the biblical call for love of God and love of neighbor get token lip service.
I know there are texts that support individual salvation; you don’t have to show them to me. There are also many more texts that present an image of holistic community and compassion. I’m curious about why the individual-focused texts get all the tension. Might it have something to do with how those texts support our cultural assumptions rather than call us to a prophetic, imaginative practice of our faith?
We find ourselves in a frustrating position, to be sure. How can we live more deeply in our practice of faith? How can we give voice to our yearning for a closer relationship with Christ, for union with God in our world today?
While we were in Snowmass, we drew a great deal on the writings of Constance Fitzgerald, a Carmelite nun whose words were a balm for our souls. She speaks of finding oneself in an impasse, a moment or space where there seem to be no answers at the ready, where frustration and anger saturate our perspective.
Rather than finding such spaces devoid of hope, Fitzgerald offers that we can actually view these times as opportunities for our imagination to reorient our view toward grace and love.
In the book “Living with Apocalypse: Spiritual Resources for Social Compassion,” she argues that these spaces of impasse can actually be opportunities for us to recognize God’s in-breaking presence in our lives.
We are invited to believe that God is at work in our lives, to think theologically, to wonder what the Holy Spirit might be up to, to be curious about God’s movement.
Perhaps this image of moving from impasse to imagination is a helpful one for you. We can all use some spiritual help these days, and we would do well to lean into these conversations within our community.
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville.