In the mid-1970’s when I was associate pastor at First United Methodist in Ashland, Kitty and I annually attended the College of Wooster Academy of Religion. One year, a group presented, rather than a single speaker. They were from a contemporary French monastic community, Taize’. I had never heard of this group before, although I had studied some about monasticism in church history in seminary.
I was struck by several things in these holy people; the first was that the monastic movement was alive and well in our time, that it was not a medieval remnant, but a vital spiritual and social force. Secondly, that there were valid spiritual practices beyond my limited devotional life. Next, and this helped shape my future Christian worldview, was their model for the Christlike life was always in the tension between struggle and contemplation. This might sound too deep, strange, or even threatening to our spiritual understanding, but let’s try to unpack it.
Shortly before these Taize’ representatives spoke to us, their order hosted a meeting of 18,000 young people. The invitation invited them to become “devoted to struggle and contemplation to become men and women of communion”. Any seeker of communion with God and humanity is at once seized by the tension between these two spiritual principles. What do these terms mean?
Struggle and contemplation seem to contradict or oppose one another. However, one is always at the heart of the other as we seek not only to follow Jesus, but to be one with him. We struggle within ourselves to be free from our interior prisons and the urge to dehumanize others. The outward struggle is solidarity with the oppressed and vulnerable. Contemplation is not some ethereal navel-gazing, but the necessary withdrawal into silence, prayer, scripture, reflection – those practices which help us discover our true selves in God. This is the lifelong journey of the soul, not to become some kind of spiritual space cadet, but to an authentic reflection of the image of God.
What I love about this is the wholeness of it all! As we confront the present Covid-19 pandemic crisis, we can be assured that we do not have to choose between the false contradictions of piety and social commitment, the prophetic and the mystical, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our lives. Live in the tension! We are and can do and be both! We can be socially responsible, outwardly caring, anchored in faith.
Out of the Taize’ movement have come beautiful liturgical music, some in our own hymnal; heartfelt prayers; and worship experiences to massage the soul. But Taize’ communities throughout the world have also ministered among the poor, to refugees, with the marginalized. Christ is present not only in contemplation, but in the struggle.
A final memory from that day over forty years ago was the repeated question from befuddled pastors: “But what do you do?” - a very pragmatic American question! The monastics tried to help us see into the very heart of the Christian life. We are not called just to do something, but are called to be as well. I believe our call is to be persons whose lives model the truth that in Christ we exist in the perpetual tension between struggle and contemplation: who we are is what we do and what we do is who we are. Be blessed, beloved, and stay in peace.
Faithfully, in love, Pastor Tom+