Action and Contemplation: Part 3
Sunday, January 19, 2020
I’ve heard some concerns over the years that contemplation is a practice of “Eastern” meditation wrapped in a Christian disguise. Some Christians have even been taught that seeking union with God through silence makes room for the “devil” to get in. While understandable, these apprehensions are based on a lack of knowledge about Christian heritage. In addition to Jesus’ own practice of prayerful solitude, we also have the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Starting with Anthony the Great in 270 CE, thousands of Christians moved to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to form alternative Christian communities. These brave souls were on fire with love for Jesus and sought to become more like him through a disciplined rhythm of life and prayer.
The desert mystics focused much more on the how than the what, which is very different from Christianity’s primary emphasis on beliefs and doctrines in recent centuries. The desert tradition offers a rich teaching of surrender, through contemplation, to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. Some have said that the Desert Fathers (abbas) and Mothers (ammas) are like the Zen Buddhist monks of Christianity. Their koan-like sayings cannot usually be understood with the rational, logical mind, which is perhaps why their teachings fell out of favor during the Enlightenment.
Above all, the desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) helped modern Christianity recover an awareness of contemplative practice, in part inspired by his reading of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Merton wrote: “All through the Verba Seniorum [Latin for Words of the Elders] we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.” 
The Desert Fathers and Mothers focused on these primary practices in their search for God: 1) leaving, to some extent, the systems of the world; 2) a degree of solitude to break from the maddening crowd; 3) times of silence to break from the maddening mind; and 4) “technologies” for controlling the compulsivity of mind and the emotions. All of this was for the sake of growing a person capable of love and community.
Contemplation became a solid foundation for building a civilization and human community—not just in the wilderness centuries ago but in the world today. Contemplative consciousness labels things less easily and does not attach itself to one solitary definitive meaning. In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.
 The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1960), 17.