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Center for Action and Contemplation
The Seven Stories: Part One
The Seven Stories: Part One

From Isolation to Contemplation

Friday, February 2, 2024

Gareth Higgins explores how our tendency to isolate ourselves springs from a genuine need for the inner work of contemplation:

The isolation story is ultimately a story of separation: separation from each other, separation from God and goodness, separation from the earth and the ecosystem of which we are a part. It’s a story of separation even from ourselves.…

Jesus came to subvert all stories of violence and harm, not to repeat them. Instead of advocating escapist stories of isolation [like John the Baptist and the Essenes], he sent his followers into the world to be agents of positive change like salt, light, and yeast. But even Jesus needed peace and quiet sometimes, and this reveals the legitimate need that the story of isolation answers…. It’s not the need to completely withdraw from community, and it’s not that we shouldn’t participate in groups that have boundaries. What the story of isolation answers (poorly) is the need of the inner life for contemplation.

There is a universal need for finding a space inside and tending it through practices of contemplation that can enable us to become what we might call strong peace…. Some peace is as strong as a block of marble. We might become strong peace through contemplation even in the face of roaring traffic, of people on a city street, or the bombardment of headline news on our screens….

Instead of withdrawing from the world, whether as individuals or groups or nations, we are called to be fully immersed in the places we are. Learning to discern light and shadow, bringing what we have and asking for what we need. Our contemplative practices are always ways of being more alive in the world and more active for the common good.… When we exchange isolation for contemplation, we discover it’s not where you live or with whom you live, but how you live. Instead of a lonely, separatist, isolationist life, we can become the contemplative life of the party or the most hospitable hermit. [1]

Author and translator Carmen Acevedo Butcher shares how contemplation disrupts unhelpful stories that run through her mind:

One of the things that contemplation does for me is what Meister Eckhart calls Gelassenheit. [2] [It allows me] to let go of my own stories. We all have these stories going through our minds … these different aspects of ourselves that are always having an inner conversation. When I practice contemplation, whether it’s walking down the street … or just returning to love, somehow, I’m letting go of my stories for the moment. There comes a quiet where I can hear again what Beatrice Bruteau calls that “radicaloptimism.” [3] What I love about contemplation is that it’s kind of like that record scratch … where everything stops and you go, wait, what am I doing? Who am I? Why am I just participating in this blather inside … when I could sink into this real love that is who I am and who everyone is? [4]

[1] Adapted from Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins, “Isolation Stories,” Learning How to See, season 5, ep. 5 (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2023), podcast. Available as MP3 audio and pdf transcript. For further resources, see The Seventh Story and The Porch Community.

[2] James Finley, in “Meister Eckhart: Dialogue 1,” of CAC’s podcast Turning to the Mystics (season 7), explained Gelassenheit this way:Eckhart is saying we can choose to live this way—in an empty-handed, open process of constantly letting go of everything as having the final say in who we are. We acknowledge it [the trait, the preference, the condition], but we know it doesn’t have the final say in who we are. The more we continue in that way, we are in this Gelassenheit, which means being released from everything that hinders.”

[3] Beatrice Bruteau, Radical Optimism: Rooting Ourselves in Reality (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1993).

[4] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, and Mike Petrow, Stories That Heal, Stories That Wound, Center for Action and Contemplation, September 28, 2023, online gathering. Recording unavailable.

Image credit and inspiration:  Kevin Erdvig, Untitled (detail), United States, 2018, photograph, public domain. Click here to enlarge image.

So much depends on the stories we tell: what stories will we choose to pass on?

Story from Our Community:  

In the midst of our shared sense of international breakdown and a dwindling church community, I find hope in the steady, visionary realism of Father Richard and the CAC team. Receiving the Daily Meditations each day offers my family and friends a generous reassurance and encouragement for which we share a sense of gratitude. I’m writing to offer heartfelt thanks from a quiet corner of the west of England. —Keith J.

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