Action in a World of Contemplation *

Greenbelt is a festival of arts, faith and justice, which at the moment is held over the August Bank Holiday at Boughton House near Kettering. The first time I attended in 2008 I found it overwhelming; there is a huge amount happening, often simultaneously. So to help me manage the programme I often choose a theme. One year it might be art, or the environment, or talks by women, or LGBT issues.

This year I didn’t consciously choose a theme, but it became apparent as the weekend unfolded that I’d ringed quite a lot of talks relating to contemplation and action (* with apologies to Thomas Merton). Some of the other sessions that I attended shared related insights, and it was easy to be led into contemplation in the beautiful grounds of Boughton on a rare sunny Bank Holiday.

So for example, members of St Martin-in-the-Fields led “Sacred Space” on Sunday evening, a time of silence, meditation, music and prayer. It was opened and completed by the most beautiful reflective choral singing. And one of the insights I gained from Malcolm Guite‘s talk and readings on “Parable and Paradox” was that poetry leaves space for contemplation; the liminal lies between the lines.

“Sacred Space” was held in one of the venues dedicated to prayer and worship located on the other side of the lake. During the weekend I spent quite a bit of time sitting under the trees lining the way reading “An Altar in the World: Finding the Sacred Beneath Our Feet” by Barbara Brown Taylor. The title says it all. Every so often I would pause, look up, and gaze across the water. Eventually I started paying attention to the swans and ducks, serenely going about their own business, occasionally heads down bottoms up to feed, indifferent to the festival and the thousands of people. What a contrast with urban waterfowl! (Of which there are plenty under the Exeter Quay footbridge, intimidating passers by and making an extraordinary mess.) We humans have trained them to rush at us, to compete, attack and steal from each other. We kid ourselves that ‘feeding the ducks’ is a good and generous thing to do. Instead, throwing nutrition-free white bread at them has altered behaviour for the worse, caused malnourishment, and polluted their waterways. But I digress. At Boughton, they were living on enough, and embodying the glory. 

I missed the wonderful Sarah Corbett speaking on craftivism, injecting kindness and gentleness into activism. I have heard her speak before, and she was one of the inspirations for Particulart. I knew I could get hold of her talks later.

Instead, I journeyed to the other side of the lake to hear Kate Monkhouse speak on “A Spirituality for The Common Good”. The programme blurb said “What kind of spiritual practice helps us work for The Common Good? How does our prayer guide us to discern how to use our gifts and sustain our engagement? Where might we find joy in the midst of injustice and share delight alongside others?” She had plenty of practical advice. Ego warning! Clarify my motivations to effect any change; could I model that change? Find a mentor, and be accountable to another for my self-health. Have sabbath ‘dates’ with myself. Activism is not about competencies but self-awareness, emotional intelligence, integrity, and the ability to hold tensions. Good words include gratitude, contemplation, rule of life, worship, discernment, sabbath, hospitality, listening, joy. A-a-and… Wonder! Never underestimate the importance of beauty. I love this.

I found the Citizens UK session on “The contemplative organiser: developing a spirituality of action” a bit disappointing. It seemed to cast contemplation in a utilitarian light, as a means of keeping going with the action. For me, contemplation is action, and infinitely more: seeking union with God, abiding in that liminal space, representing God to world and world to God, part of the priesthood of all believers, holding the world in God’s presence for blessing and healing.

In contrast, Sr Teresa Forcades i Vila embodied my theme. She is a Benedictine nun currently taking a sabbatical and living separately from her monastery in order to focus on her campaigning for social justice. Yet still she maintains where possible her Daily Office. The rhythm of prayer is part of her, sustaining and upholding but not an instrument.

Finally to the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir and Rev Lucy Winkett. Winkett is a Greenbelt regular and is always worth hearing. I was looking forward to some wise words and uplifting joyful music. Boy was what happened unexpected!

In a series of talklets, opening out into songs, Winkett described how she and the choir are exploring gospel music as a way into contemplation, providing a sanctuary for the soul. In keeping with my Greenbelt theme, I consciously chose to embrace and explore this. My usual practice of centering prayer is quite different, yet I also simply found myself drawn to contemplation. So while at first I jiggled and tapped to the rhythm, in later songs I stilled and adopted a contemplative posture.

I allowed the music to flow over and through me, and the repetition, call and response, became a mantra. Similar to the practice taught by John Main, it got my distracted mind out of the way of an encounter in the depths. I began to be drawn into the beat of the drum and bass guitar, pulsing and reverberating through my whole body.

Then the choir sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, the anthem for the people who died in Grenfell Tower which opened Notting Hill Carnival the previous day, and the bass in my heart and gut became the heartbeat of God. It laid me full open. God’s compassion and grief welled up in me, and overflowed in tears.

As the choir ended with two upbeat songs, the people around me were getting up to dance. I couldn’t join them, but continued to sit and hold myself open. Gradually, the grief transfigured into joy, or what CS Lewis might have called a ‘fierce gladness’. The tears still flowed from the depths of my being but were now accompanied by light, and a gulping smile.

It’s important to test whether experiences are of God or ego. Did I make all this up? No. The tears are my guide. It is at the depths of my being where I encounter God, and whenever I try to put encounter into words, the tears always come. As Isaac the Syrian wrote: “Love silence above everything else… A multitude of tears is born in us by this discipline, at the wondrous vision of certain things which the heart perceives distinctly, sometimes with pain, and sometimes with wonder.”

I could tell that those around me were concerned. I didn’t try at all to hide my tears, and when they asked, I didn’t hide what had happened either. Once I felt able, I went to speak to Rev Lucy too. I think I thanked her and asked her to pass it on to the choir and band. The tears are still there when I’m recalling for a friend, even at a distance of a month. But words were – are – inadequate, and even more so when faced with a keyboard.

Sr Teresa spoke in her talk of not being merely a channel for God’s mercy to the world, because channels remain unchanged. This encounter changed me. It changed my expectation of contemplation, both in terms of ways in to the practice, and of experience. I cannot describe, much less explain, the encounter; everything is interpretation. However, I can describe the experience, a little of how I felt in response to the encounter, and maybe express some of the truth of the encounter. I couldn’t have borne more, either sorrow or joy. It may not happen again. But for those few precious minutes I had an inkling of what Catherine of Genoa meant by “my I is God.”

Now what? Well, I’ve added Greenbelt 2017 to the melting pot that is my understanding of my vocation to contemplative prayer. I am not planning to add gospel to my contemplative practice; partly because it was of the moment, and partly because I was shattered afterwards. Maybe something will crystallise, maybe not. The key is I think to be open. And the key to being open is to continue my rhythm of daily centering prayer.