The spiritual life of Unitarian-Universalists takes place within the tension between contemplation and social activism. Sometimes we contrast these two as mutually exclusive. What is the use of singing hymns, lighting candles, or prayer in a world that calls for direct action? Why do activists committed to social justice so often feel a sense of futility and risk burn-out (some call it “compassion fatigue”)?
Those who view Unitarian-Universalism from the outside often perceive the movement as either too political (the religious wing of leftist politics) or too spiritual (the home for new-age spirituality, ungrounded from the world). Add to that the long intellectual tradition of Unitarianism and chalk up another criticism – we are all talk and no action.
The talk for the first January service focuses on the link between the contemplative life (spirituality) and our commitment to building stronger communities and addressing social injustice. The two are interwoven into one fabric – the warp and woof – of our whole lives. One without the other leads to an unbalanced life subject to either false piety or despair.
The Trappist contemplative monk, Thomas Merton, was both a champion of deepening one’s spiritual life and prophetic activist in mid-century America. Contemplation in a World of Action, is the title of a collection of essays, first published in 1971, that wrestles with the relationship between contemplative spirituality and social activism. His thoughts could have been written this past year. Composed in the midst of the Vietnam war and published in the early Nixon administration, Merton asked “what does the contemplative life mean in this age?” He concluded that, “A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful action. Without a more profound human understanding derived from exploration of the inner ground of human existence, love will tend to be superficial and deceptive.” Later in the essay he declared, “Far from being irrelevant, prayer, meditation and contemplation are of the utmost importance in America today.” Perhaps that is still true.