Above the tabernacle in the Abbey Church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, a stained glass window features a striking image of Mary, "Our Lady of the Holy Spirit." Surrounded by symbols of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, Mary is enthroned as the queen of heaven, her arms raised in blessing and a crown upon her head. At the center of the crown is an unmistakable symbol: a fleur-de-lis. This is not simply an embellishment by the glass artist, however; it is a subtle reminder of the roots of the Cistercian monastic order.
Indeed, the fleur-de-lis is a symbol of the Cistercians, prominently featured on the order's coat of arms; this is not surprising when you consider that the Cistercian order was founded in France, and retains a strong French identity to this day. The first Cistercian monastery was located at Citeaux, in the Burgundy region of eastern France; the greatest of Cistercian theologians, Bernard of Clairvaux, also hailed from that same region; and even the most well known Cistercian of our time, Thomas Merton, was born in France.
Of course, today Cistercian monasteries are found all over the world, and the largest communities are now found in places like Nigeria or Madagascar. But the French roots of this particular form of religious expression helped me to see an unusual metaphor that speaks to the heart of contemplative spirituality.
For you see, contemplative spirituality is like the French resistance of the Nazi era.
Think about Jesus, who insisted that to follow him Christians should be "in, but not of" the world. Compare that to the rather challenging task that a member of the resistance faced during World War II. Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, with a collaborationist government ensuring that France remained securely within Hitler's control. The resistance, an underground network of freedom fighters, saboteurs, subversive journalists, spies and counterspies, gathered intelligence and provided support for the Allies during the War. They published underground newspapers and organized a militia to support the war effort after the Normandy invasion. When caught, members of the resistance paid with their lives. It goes without saying that to survive in such extreme circumstances, loyalty to the resistance must be balanced by the ability to deal, when necessary, with the occupying forces.
The Grateful Dead used to joke in their early, drug-addled days, that Jerry Garcia was their spokesman because he was the only band member who knew how to talk to straight people. But for the French resistance, such a skill was no laughing matter. The ability to deal with the Germans (or the collaborationist French government) was a matter of life and death.
How, then, is contemplation like the resistance? Thankfully, no one (at least in North America) is going to get killed for being a contemplative-or a Christian. But our society, increasingly complacent about economic injustice, excessive consumerism, environmental degradation, and the tolerance of both criminal and military violence, can credibly be said to be under "enemy occupation." Following Pogo, we know that when we meet the enemy, it is us! The forces of violence, injustice, and alienation that undermine our lives come not from an external invasion, but from the woundedness found within us all.
More and more people, whether informed by faith or not, seem to recognize that something is off-kilter. But it is so easy to simply collaborate with the forces of greed, violence, and inequity that characterize our culture, especially for those of us who enjoy the privilege that affords us at least a measure of comfort and entertainment. With each passing year we invest more effort and resources into systems of security and protection-from fences across the American southwest to increasingly intrusive searches at airports and, of course, bigger prisons to house our rapidly expanding population of inmates-to preserve a system that, ironically, nobody seems to be happy with.
We rightly recoil from Nazism not only for its racism and violence, but because it was a totalitarian system of government; such systems inevitably create more problems than they solve. So the solution to our current quagmire is not to impose some sort of top-down measure of control. And this is where contemplation comes in. For like the French freedom fighters of WWII, contemplation represents a way to disengage from the toxicity of our current world order, not in terms of supporting violent revolution, but in an opposite move: by embracing a revolution of humility and love. We cannot beat the greedy, violent, unjust enemy-that-is-us with weapons or military might. Only by "dropping out" of the system can we hope to overcome it with a new way of living. What is this new way? A way of reconciliation rather than violence, of shared resources rather than enforced inequity, a way of simply and quietly living rather than getting caught up in the ever-increasing frenzy of acquisition and competition. Such values are the fruit of contemplation. They are the values that monasteries embody, if imperfectly. They are the values of resistance.
Of course, no one can fully extricate himself from "the system." Even monks and nuns have to eat, and provide for their shelter, healthcare costs, and future needs. So just as the members of the French resistance had to know how to deal with the Germans, so we who embrace the contemplative life still have to function in the world shaped by power and privilege. The trick is to live according to contemplative values without alienating the people in our lives who, after all, we are called to love and serve. Some of us will continue to earn significant income; others will participate in the military or law enforcement; still others will work within a church that too often seems to collaborate with worldly, rather than heavenly, values. But as members of the contemplative resistance, how we function in our violent/greedy world will be transformed.
The first Christian monks, during the age of the Desert Hermits, understood their austere lives as a form of resistance against the evils of the Roman Empire. Likewise, the first Cistercian monastery began as a form of protest against the corruption of religious life in the middle ages. Today, all contemplatives-not just monks and nuns-are likewise called into the splendor of God's silence, not for the purpose of mere personal enlightenment, but as a way of engaging with the most toxic elements of the world in which we live-seeking to transform that world through prayer and compassion.