Contemplative Resistance by Esther Nelson


I recently arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, after driving across much of the country from Richmond, Virginia. It’s the second summer I’ve driven this distance (2,000 miles) so I varied my route a bit from last year, stopping at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, for a short visit. This is the place the popular and prolific monk, Thomas Merton, also known as Brother Louis, called home for twenty-seven years (1941-1968) . (Merton was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan in Bangkok while attending a conference—December 1968.)

The grounds are verdant, well-kept, and peaceful. Visitors are free to wend their way along various paths on the property, attend any (and all) of the services held in the church, and watch a film on (male) monastic life (running continuously) in the visitors’ center. The gift shop sells books (many authored by Merton), fruit cake and fudge made by the monks at the Abbey, and an array of “stuff.” Accommodations for retreat are available by reservation.

Some time ago, I audited a class that included readings by Thomas Merton. During the semester, the professor mentioned a book titled, At Home in the World The Letters of Thomas Merton & Rosemary Radford Ruether, Edited by Mary Tardiff, OP (1995). Ruether (b. 1936) is a feminist scholar and Catholic theologian. She is also a prolific author and popular speaker.

The letters in the slim volume cover a period of eighteen months—August 1966 to February 1968. Merton and Ruether correspond about, among other things, the role (if any) of monastic life in modernity. Ruether thought Merton “was at the end of a period of development of his own thinking on monasticism…and was very much testing the waters to explore what he should do next” (p. xiv). Ruether (who was twenty-one years younger than Merton) initiated the correspondence, looking for “a genuine Catholic intellectual peer, one who would treat me as a peer, and with whom I could be ruthlessly honest about my own questions of intellectual and existential integrity” (p. xvi). Ruether found Merton to be such a person.

Monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani lead lives of prayer, work, and sacred reading. Merton also wrote. His books include subjects such as the contemplative life and prayer as well as social issues—race relations, violence, nuclear war, and economic injustice. Although fully committed to monastic life, he chafed under its restrictions. He supported monastic renewal, believing that institutionalized monastic life is built on “a perverse doctrine of authority-humility- obedience” (p. 37). Merton had interests that extended beyond the monastery walls and he “felt like an outsider…in his monastery, his church, and his society” (p. 103). Nevertheless, the contemplative life sustained him, feeling most at home with solitude and silence.

Although I know little about monastic life, the contemplative life has always held some vague appeal for me. Modern society, especially given the “immediacy” we’ve come to expect from our technological devices, places little value on the discipline of self-exploration and/or encountering God/ess—a discipline that requires time and patience. One of the reasons I like coming to New Mexico for much of the summer is that I can more easily give myself blocks of time to read and think than seems possible back in Virginia. What would it be like to devote a lifetime to such activity?

Ruether “had a brief and superficial interest in monastic life” (p. xiii) in the early 1960s. She had become disillusioned, though, with the monastic community, specifically regarding her role as a laywoman. While corresponding with Merton, she taught and worked “in urban churches on issues of racism, poverty, and militarism” (p. xiv), focusing on how the Church could positively impact the lives of people vulnerable to the effects of structural injustice.

Ruether writes, “When are our schools going to stop preparing people for some other world and making them unfit to deal with this one???” (p. 10). She also asserts (correctly, I would add) that “monasticism got mixed up with anti-matter theology and hence got involved in a fearful ambiguity towards creation…” (p. 39). She insists that all creation is good and continues, “[M]onasticism…always was a misunderstanding of the gospel, and the dichotomies of monastic life have ever revealed this fact…a view of the gospel that makes salvation a salvation from the world and not a salvation of the world” (p. 28).

Merton writes, “I am more and more convinced of the reality of my own job, which is meditation and study and prayer in silence” (p. 15). He rejects Ruether’s “other-worldly” monastic theme stating , “[M]anual work has been held in honor” and monks “have had…sensual contact with matter and have not in fact despised matter at all except in theory…” (p. 43).

Merton contends Ruether expresses an “absolutist version” of monasticism—a version he does not accept. He writes, “[T]o my mind the monk is one of those who not only saves the world in the theological sense, but saves it literally, protecting it against the destructiveness of the rampaging city of greed, war, etc.” (p. 35). He suggested that monks run our national parks. He believed the contemplative life to be a restorative life.

Merton gives me a fresh look at monastic life. In light of our current, dismal political landscape, perhaps the contemplative life can be used as an excellent form of resistance. Merton was disillusioned with the politics of his own day. “[P]olitical action is too often rendered futile by the massive corruption and dishonesty and fakery which neutralize it everywhere” (p.43-44). He does not mean that “political action is ineffective and hopeless: just that something else is needed” (p.44). Might that “something else” be the contemplative life? Merton states, “[T]he monastic life can play a very helpful part in the worldly struggle precisely because of the different perspective which it has and should preserve” (p. 45).

I’m still not clear what the monastic life is all about, but I am drawn to its possibilities birthed from silence, meditation, and deep thought.

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

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Categories: Catholicism, Feminist Theology, Friendship, Resistance

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11 replies

  1. I tend to agree with Ruether that monastic life focuses on salvation from the world and not of the world. I do believe that forms of meditation, contemplation, and so forth can be useful in giving us a perspective on the things we care about in our lives and in the life of the world. The question is whether the point of it is to be more in the world or to unite with a deity or divine principle that is outside the world. I believe that Merton and some of his brethren communed with this world in their agricultural labors, but why, we must ask did they feel the necessity of separating from women, from sexual life (theoretically at least), and from family life? Is it because as I have written: they felt birth into this world through the body of a woman and life that ends in death just isn’t good enough?

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    • Carol, Thanks for your input and important questions worthy of much discussion. There is no doubt in my mind that misogyny plays a big part in this sequestering of men from the world. Women sequester themselves as well although I think the reasons women do so are not the same. I don’t think that being “in” the world and “outside” the world need be in opposition although that’s certainly how the whole monastic life has been framed. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to read that Merton wanted to re-form the institution itself. I don’t know of anybody (there may be) that’s taken up that mantle.

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  2. I love this post (and your blog). A few months ago, a friend and mentor asked me to think deeply and answer with truth, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I turned it over in my head for a few days, and the clear answer was, “A medieval mystic.” Not exactly a reasonable career choice, lol! But after meditating on it and breaking it down in writing and in conversation with friends, I’ve finally come to understand what my instincts were telling me. I may not be the most intelligent, or the most eloquent, or even the most devout (I’m not even Christian). I know that I haven’t been blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with visions or distinct messages from God. But I also know that my primary mission in life, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, has been a search for Truth, whatever that might mean. Since coming to the realization that I am allowed to pursue a contemplative life, despite the pressure of the outside world to center my existence around financial gain and social media interactions, I’ve felt so calm and at peace. I’m not escaping from the world – still have multiple jobs, credit card bills, student loan debt, etc. – but it feels like there’s more space for me here now. I know that I’m headed in the right direction. Hope that your time in New Mexico gives you the peace and space that you crave, as well <3

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    • Thank you for your encouraging response, Anna. I do think the contemplative life is something worth pursuing. I suppose there are a variety of ways to go about it all while still carrying on “normal” life. It does seem to open up wonderful possibilities. I love how you put it–“…it feels like there’s more space for me here now.” All my best to you.

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  3. Contemplative Resistance. I love seeing these two words together. Thank you for this post.

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  4. Merton had a strong influence on me during a time of unexpected change! I was living in a monastery at the time, questioning the idea that monastic life (which I love) is synonymous with contemplative living. I also questioned why male monks did not have the same restrictions of cloister as female “monks” or “nuns”, not knowing at that time how we women could lead men to destruction with a simple wink of our eye!

    I think that the Vatican, addicted to the joy of putting things and people in orderly boxes, got confused. Some of the most deeply contemplative people I’ve met are neither Christian nor monk/nun. Not every monk/nun I’ve met is contemplative. I see Monasticism as a structure to assist people to become thoughtful, prayerful and eventually, wise. It very often leads to contemplation, which in turn led some of our ancestors to take in and teach young women, nurse the sick through knowledge of herbal remedies (think Hildegaard), and have the flexibility to observe the Rule as servant to the Gospel.

    During the 1960’s some women monastics in the US made some dynamic steps in re-interpreting what it means to be a Monastic person. They affirmed the “contemplative dimension of every person” and became teachers of prayer, deep awareness of the present moment, and resistance to injustice. They broke down the Trumpian Wall that had been erected between the “good spirit” and the “evil world” and re-united all of creation with the Divine Spirit that animates and sustains all life – because contemplative prayer especially, is manifested by a life of love and compassion for all.

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    • Thanks, Barbara, for this informative and heart-felt reply. Given my limited knowledge about cloistered life, there does seem to be a difference between men’s and women’s cloisters. I appreciate your thought–“…contemplative prayer especially, is manifested by a life of love and compassion for all”–as you speak about the reunification of all of creation with the Divine Spirit. I think Merton’s attempt to dismantle the patriarchal, monastic institution as he saw and experienced it would agree with you.

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  5. This is such a treat to see this subject here. I was drawn to Merton’s writings in college as I was searching for a less aggressive, less evangelical form of Christianity than what I grew up with. In this way, Merton and the contemplative life were very inspiring. Like Anna, I was then taken by the idea of female medieval mystics and chose that as my subject of study when I entered CGU. When I came to CGU, I wanted to live in some church basement and devote my time to silence and deep thought, as you mention. When I met Rosemary and she told us about this book, I was in love with the fact that the two theologians I found so inspiring had corresponded. So as you see, I have so much love for this subject.

    I have been reading Nhat Thich Hanh’s commentaries on Buddhist sutras and there is one that is called “The Better Way to Live Alone.” One gatha is this: “Observing life deeply, it is possible to see clearly all that is. Not enslaved by anything, it is possible to put aside all craving, realizing a life of peace and joy. This is truly to live alone.” I think that we all need retreat. Jesus would often leave the crowds of people to commune in nature/the wilderness alone, and Mohammed would meditate in a cave outside the city. I think that being surrounded by nature and perhaps others who are focused on mindfulness can be ways to restore and ground ourselves. I’m glad that you seek and find this in your life. One day when I get a job with a living wage (so not adjuncting I suppose), I hope to use some of my vacations for those retreats. Still I feel The Better Way to Live Alone sutra is one that I also need to practice. I just thought I would share it because it seems to add another layer. Thank you for your posts. I always love your take on things.

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    • Thank you for that sutra, LaChelle. It touches me deeply and wants to be on my desktop.

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    • Thank you, LaChelle, for your insight on this subject and your kind words. I do admire Thich Nhat Hahn and think he has made an important contribution to this whole contemplative experience in the West. I remember seeing a movie some years back titled, “Becoming the Buddha in L.A.” Part of the film has him speaking with Diana Eck about peace and love, getting at deepening one’s experience in the world, finding meaning, etc.

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