Today, Sister Joan Chittister continues exploring the relationship between prophetic witness and contemplation:
A spiritual path that does not lead to a living commitment to . . . the Kingdom of God within and around us everywhere for everyone, is no path at all. . . . It is a dead end on the way to God. . . .
[While] European mystics and contemplatives often lived in community, they tended to focus on the individual experience of encountering the divine presence. African American contemplatives turned the “inward journey” into a communal experience. . . . The word contemplation includes but does not require silence or solitude. Instead, contemplative practices can be identified in public prayers, meditative dance movements, and musical cues that move the entire congregation toward a communal listening and entry into communion with a living God. . . .
.. This is how Howard Thurman describes the embodied locus of contemplation:
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes . . . unless it be a part of the “fluid area of your consent.” This is your crucial link with the Eternal. 
. . As I see it, the human task is threefold.
- First, the human spirit must connect to the Eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning.
- Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity, facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace.
- Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts.
Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth. These tasks require a knowledge of self and others that only comes from the centering down that Thurman advocates. It is not an escape from the din of daily life; rather, it requires full entry into the fray but on different terms. . . . Always, contemplation requires attentiveness to the Spirit of God. .
The effectiveness of action depends on the source from which it springs. If it is coming out of the false self with its shadow side, it is severely limited. If it is coming out of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective. The contemplative state, like the vocation of Our Lady, brings Christ into the world. —Thomas Keating 
.. I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987 because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years, I met many social activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, the need to look good—attached to a superior, politically correct self-image.
They might have the answer, but they are not themselves the answer. In fact, they are often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail and too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Without inner transformation, there is no grounded or lasting reform or revolution. When subjugated people rise to power, they often become as dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power hasn’t been exorcised in them.
We are easily allured by the next new thing, a new agenda that looks like enlightenment. And then we discover it’s run by unenlightened people who, in fact, love themselves first of all but do not love God or others. They do not really love the Big Truth, but they often love control. Too often, they do not love freedom for everybody but just freedom for their own ideas.
Untransformed liberals often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can’t let go of their own need for change and cannot stand still in a patient, compassionate, and humble way. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Untransformed conservatives, on the other hand, tend to idolize anything that lasts, but then avoid the question, “Is it actually bearing any fruit?” This is the perennial battle between idealism and pragmatism, or romanticism and rationalism.
If we are going to have truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach them some way to integrate their needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. I’m convinced that once you learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, your politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to teach you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias from the bottom instead of the top, you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do—and what is not yours to do—almost naturally.
Contemplation is radical in that it goes to “the root” (radix) of all our problems. Contemplation is the heart of the matter because it changes consciousness and thus transforms how we enter into communion with God, with ourselves, with the moment. Without the contemplative mind, all our talk about and action for social change and justice can actually do more harm than good. In working for social change, we all get angry, disillusioned, alienated, and hurt. We make mistakes, we don’t agree with others, we discover that change takes longer than we’d hoped and the solution isn’t as simple as we’d imagined. I have seen far too many give up, grow bitter, or just nurse a quiet cynicism when they can’t hold disappointment with a contemplative, nondual consciousness. Action needs to be accompanied by contemplation for us to stay on the journey for the long haul. Otherwise, we’re just constantly searching for victims and perpetrators, and eventually we start playing the victim or perpetrator ourselves.
Contemplation is not a new idea; it’s one of the treasures of our Christian tradition. Jesus himself modeled this way of praying and being. It was taught systematically in monasteries for centuries, for example, by Francisco de Osuna (1492–1540), a Spanish Franciscan friar, whose writing liberated Teresa of Ávila. The desert mothers and fathers in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Cappadocia understood and cultivated it for centuries. While systematic contemplative teaching was largely lost for the last 500 years, today interfaith and inter-denominational interest in contemplation continues to grow all over the world.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI invited Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Church in England, to address the Synod of Catholic Bishops. Williams emphasized the foundational and radical importance of contemplation:…
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. . . . For now we see only a dim reflection as in a mirror; but then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. —1 Corinthians 13:8-10, 12
Meditate on the following passages from The Cloud of Unknowing, holding them in your heart—beyond rational critique or intellectual understanding. Allow them to speak to you at a deeper level. [Bracketed words are mine.]
I know you’ll ask me, “How can I think on God as God, and who is God?” and I can only answer, “I don’t know.”
Your question takes me into the very darkness and cloud of unknowing that I want you to enter. We can know so many things. Through God’s grace, our minds can explore, understand, and reflect on creation and even on God’s own works [as we should!], but we can’t think our way to God. That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one thing I cannot think. [God] can be loved, but not thought. [John of the Cross and many other mystics say the same thing. We could have saved ourselves so much fighting and division if we had just taught this one truth!]
By love, God can be embraced and held, but not by thinking.
.. No matter how sacred, no thought can ever promise to help you in the work of contemplative prayer, because only love—not knowledge—can help us reach God. . . .
Become blind during contemplative prayer and cut yourself off from needing to know things. Knowledge hinders, not helps you in contemplation. Be content feeling moved in a delightful, loving way by something mysterious and unknown, leaving you focused entirely on God, with no other thought than of [God] alone. Let your naked desire rest there. . . .
It doesn’t matter how much profound wisdom we possess about created spiritual beings; our understanding cannot help us gain knowledge about any uncreated spiritual being, who is God alone. But the failure of our understanding can help us. When we reach the end of what we know, that’s where we find God. That’s why St. Dionysius [5th/6th century] said that the best, most divine knowledge of God is that which is known by not-knowing.
Friends, you just received a post graduate course in Christian spirituality, a course which very few are ever taught.
Love must always precede knowledge. The mind alone cannot get us there (which is the great arrogance of most Western religion). Prayer in my later years has become letting myself be nakedly known, exactly as I am, in all my ordinariness and shadow, face to face, without any masks or religious makeup. Such nakedness is a falling into the unified field underneath reality, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness,”  where we know in a different way and from a different source. This is the contemplative’s unique access point: knowing by union with a thing, where we can enjoy an intuitive grasp of wholeness, a truth beyond words, beyond any need or capacity to prove anything right or wrong. This is the contemplative mind which religion should have directly taught, but which it largely lost.
But the human ego prefers knowing and being certain over being honest. “Don’t bother me with the truth, I want to be in control,” it invariably says.
Most people who think they are fully conscious or “smart” and in control, have a big iron manhole cover over their unconscious. It does give them a sense of being right and in charge, but it seldom yields compassion, community, or wisdom.
.. Divine perfection is precisely the ability to include imperfection; whereas we think we must exclude, deny, and even punish it! The flow of grace is an increasing ability to forgive reality for being what it is—instead of what we want it to be!
.. The beauty of the unconscious, whether personal or collective, is that it knows a great deal, but it also knows that it does not know, cannot say, dare not try to prove or assert too strongly. What it does know is that there is always more—and all words will fall short and all concepts will be incomplete. The contemplative is precisely the person who agrees to live in that kind of blinding brightness. The paradox, of course, is that it does not feel like brightness at all, but what John of the Cross (1542-1591) called a “luminous darkness” and others identify as “learned ignorance.”
We cannot grow in the integrative dance of action and contemplation without a strong tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and a willingness not to know—and not even to need to know. What else would give us peace and contentment?