Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them… - Numbers 11:29
If there is one thing that terrifies the American people, it is stillness. I do not mean to bash America by making this remark. Despite the post-modern faddism that still dominates American universities, it seems to me that not only the Christian tradition but also the Classical and Romantic traditions (we could just say “Western Civilization”) stand a better chance of being preserved in America than they do in the academies and salons of Paris and Berlin. Even so, I don’t believe that America – in the broadest sense – is an environment particularly conducive to that form of stillness (the opposite of the addict’s numbed inertia) that is the center of faith and devotion.
Considering that the thousand-plus pages of the shrill atheistic tractate, Atlas Shrugged, are rather insanely over-popular among business-minded young people, we can take the views of its author, Ayn Rand, as representative of American materialism as a whole: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life,” she writes. “Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.” Such an idealization of American frantic-ness is certainly a world apart from the orthodox Christian worldview, which holds that our own buzzing, frenzied little existences are contingent upon God, the great still Center that moves everything but is not itself moved. Rand and her acolytes would affirm that the little asteroids circling the sun are truly determining their own trajectories, unfettered by the law of gravity. They proudly oppose themselves to that revelation offered to the Psalmist, in Psalm 46: 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (One wishes this could be inscribed over the entrance to every hedge-fund in America, if only to cause tremblings of brief disquiet.)
This aversion to stillness is one of the most common attitudes in our country. And its basis is simple: the fear of death and of what comes after death. We fritter away our lives with the complexity of our actions in order to ignore how limited we are, in space and in time. “Time must have a stop” – but we can ignore that fact if we keep our attention on time for as long as possible, avoiding the eternal stillness from which it emerged and to which it is headed. But this is to behave as if you could “kill time without injuring eternity.” This cosmic neglect will not be without its effects and God is, we are informed, “not mocked.” T.S. Eliot writes, “Except, for the still point, / There would be no dance.” But, in America, we are confronted with the inevitable spiritual frustration of a world that is all dance and no still-point. Who then will acquaint us with our origin, and give us a few hints about the axis around which our confused motions fumble? Our intellectual atmosphere badly requires the orthodox idea of “the contemplative life,” offered as a necessary support and balance to the active life.
In America, spiritual geniuses – those who grew deeply acquainted with stillness – have not emerged in a traditional Christian context. They, often enough, took the form of Post-Protestant seers like Emerson – towering geniuses who appeared outside of any recognizable religious organization. The lives of Melville, Faulkner, and Robert Frost all exhibited this pattern; T.S. Eliot might be the lone exception, and he moved to Britain as soon as he could. As such, the communal buffering that is necessary to perpetuate a life of contemplative solitude – to leave a space open for stillness – has been notably absent. In America, most people have needed to pursue Emerson’s command to “acquaint thyself firsthand with divinity” on their own, with neither friend nor guide. This is the central problem that concerns me, and I do not mean to blame the Churches or their followers for neglecting this important problem. The spiritual climate of America is itself responsible. But the question remains: how do we create an island of stillness in society that will then invest the ongoing American dance with meaning and soul?
A modern-day student of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, once wrote: “It is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use.” When a monk or nun – Catholic or Eastern Orthodox – engages in the contemplative life, it is true that his or her attention is divested from the love of self and the love of other created beings and is re-directed entirely to the love of God. But this is important not only in and of itself, as Pieper observes. It is important because it reminds us that we and all our fellow mortal creatures only matter insofar as we are grounded in the deep creative Will of the One Who made us. The contemplative is the only person who recognizes this fact directly, by attempting to contemplate the Source at its root; the rest of us express our recognition by loving those other beings and things that come from this Source. Yet, when the love of money, women, men, family, animals, and whatever else you wish to suggest is detached from the love of its Source (God), it becomes destructive.
“Love me because I am a child of God, love me unconditionally for God’s Own sake,” is the only rational plea – not the thousand other pleas that we hear everyday. We are trapped in a maelstrom of cries for love and attention, not least of all our own. But these cries only avail when they go back to the Source. We wouldn’t be able to use our attachments to persons and things correctly if our real attachment was not to God Himself. Consequently, we need the example of contemplatives – a class of people whom Dante places in a higher sphere of heaven even than the holy warriors and the theologians – to remind us of our own origin, and of the origin of our human affections in a higher divine love and affection. The American pragmatist’s cry of “What use is this starry-eyed mystic to me?” is an eternally mistaken one. The contemplative is infinitely useful to God, and is, therefore, universally useful.
The contemplative life is not just necessary – the only possible help, really – to any person who desires a closer relationship with God in this life. It is necessary to the community. Without a St. Bernard of Clairvaux or St. Francis of Assisi – a person whose social message is informed by years spent working to eliminate his or her fallen self-hood and replace it with Christ – any efforts toward “social justice” and charity are likely to become corrupted, sooner rather than later. An Indian spiritual teacher once very wisely (and somewhat satirically, I believe) put out advertisements in a local newspaper reading: “Wanted: reformers, not of others, but of themselves.” The crucial axiom this sage had realized – as crucial for Christendom as it is for the Indian sphere-of-order – was that self-reform is the necessary pre-condition for communal reform. But, also, the radical self-reform of the Christian saint and the Indian Yogi can occur with the greatest amount of relative ease in a community that buffers and supports that sort of enterprise.
In the end, it may be true that the life of contemplation will develop more fruitfully in America than elsewhere. France in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was notoriously the most decadent and pleasure-seeking nation in Europe – but, in reaction, its monastic and mystical tradition became preeminently significant. It does strike me that the materialism of America forces many Americans into contemplation, brutalizing them in that direction. We see that so many of our brilliant writers and thinkers – Thoreau, for instance – sought freedom in an essentially religious sojourn in solitude. Yet this sojourn often lacks the protection necessary to perpetuate it; it lacks the comforting structure, which only religious communal orders can provide. When the American-Trappist author Thomas Merton wanted to practice mystical contemplation, he needed to adopt the practices of a further “field-of-action” – that of Zen Buddhism. This can no doubt be put down to the fact that American Christianity has let its own mystical and individualistic side – sheltered by the buffering support of a wider social religion – fall into near total atrophy.
The dominant form of individualism in America is materialistic Randian individualism; the spiritual individualism of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa has been crowded out. Traditional religions dominate the social sphere, but how far into the personal life do they penetrate? I know some people – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and from other religions – who are deeply devoted in their private and public lives. But they seem to me to be great and somewhat lonely exceptions. We always hear the communal benefits of religion trumpeted, but communal life only matters insofar as it can be reminded of its own function as a vehicle towards the vision of God. That vision is lost without the help of those individuals (contemplatives and mystics) who experience it in this life. When religion becomes only a matter of bake-sales, without a route for the future contemplative, it dries out fast.
There have, in recent years, been attempts to reform and revise this tradition in Catholicism and Protestantism – and I fervently hope these will continue. Eastern Orthodoxy, with its practice of the Hesychasm – the repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” – has retained a form of mystical contemplation with an honored pedigree and with the benefit of many sages and spiritual geniuses who, through the ages, have shed light on its proper practice. It is not, perhaps, a coincidence that Eastern Orthodoxy is among the smallest of all American denominations. Overall, the situation is grim enough, but by no means incurable. Already, there are signs that a great many people have become wearied by the senselessness of wandering in a world of time divorced from eternity. They have become aware of their disconnection and basic alone-ness, cut off from their Origin. They can react to this with disillusionment and bitterness, sarcasm and irony. Such reactions are only natural at first, but for some, this will remain their fundamental attitude until death – a worse fate, even, than remaining unaware of one’s fragmented nature.
Yet, culled from their ranks, many will surely be awakened to an awareness of Eternity. This task will be fostered by those who can use the active life to support the contemplative life, to establish places and times within everyday life where people (especially young people) can go to acquaint themselves with stillness, and strive toward the uncaused Cause. And if a group of people can be seduced to a moment’s contemplation within the active life, an even smaller group just may arise who will become supreme contemplatives, experts in selflessness. These are the figures we most desperately require. They will emerge from the matrix of our own collective strivings, from those of us who can, as T.S. Eliot said, seek to see where time and eternity intersect. It may be difficult, seemingly impossible, to strive toward this renewal, knowing that the end result will be that only a few of us will ever really come to life. But St. Francois de Sales wrote, “They put statues in palaces simply to please the prince’s eyes. Be content to be that in the presence of God: He will bring the statue to life when He pleases.”