Contemplation and Conflict

The Wisdom of the Desert
The Wisdom of the Desert

I simply love this story of two desert fathers, which Thomas Merton recounts in his book The Wisdom of the Desert:

There were two elders living together in a cell, and they had never had so much as one quarrel with one another. One therefore said to the other: Come on, let us have at least one quarrel, like other men. The other said: I don’t know how to start a quarrel. The first said: I will take this brick and place it here between us. Then I will say: It is mine. After that you will say: It is mine. This is what leads to a dispute and a fight. So then they placed the brick between them, one said: It is mine, and the other replied to the first: I do believe that it is mine. The first one said again: It is not yours, it is mine. So the other answered: Well then, if it is yours, take it! Thus they did not manage after all to get into a quarrel.

This reminds me of the story that I once heard Sara Miles tell, when she was speaking at a church in Atlanta. It was about something that happened when she was in San Francisco working at The Food Pantry, which gives away groceries to about 400 families each week. This particular day she had a group of fifth graders volunteering to help run the pantry, and some of them noticed that one of the recipients was dressed in a suit, speaking on a cellphone. They watched him leave after he picked up his free food, and he drove off in a Mercedes. The kids were scandalized! They spoke to Sara, asking why she allowed this man to take food that was meant for someone who was poor and couldn’t afford groceries.

Sara said she saw this as a teachable moment, so she explained to the children that they weren’t in the business of judging the people they served. For all they knew, he was recently laid off from his job, and was dressed nice today because he had just returned from an interview. In other words, they really couldn’t assume that he didn’t actually need free food. And then she said, you can’t steal from us, because we’d just give it to you anyway.

This in turn reminds me of a conversation I once had with one of my favorite authors, Kenneth Leech. I was working on my first book at the time, and like many new authors I was nervous about copyright. I asked Ken how he handled it. He told me he didn’t worry about it, as far as he was concerned his work belonged to God, not him, and if someone wanted to copy it he was just glad that his ideas were being spread far and wide.

Now, let me be real. I’m sure Ken Leech’s publisher watches over his rights, and I bet if someone smartly dressed were to show up at the Food Pantry week after week after week, they’d try to get to know the person and figure out what was going on. My point in sharing these little stories is not to suggest that boundaries are unnecessary. Prudence has its place.

But my point for sharing these stories is very simple: when we commit to following Jesus, we need to remember that we are no longer victims. Not even if someone takes advantage of us, or tries to.

“If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jesus instructed his followers. “If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39-40) This is not about being a doormat! Jesus understood just how subversive these teachings really are. When we are anchored in the love of God, we find welling up within us a generosity, a love, dare I even say a power that enables us to be non-attached to the normal human tendency to fight off others who are perceived as a threat.

Here’s the bottom line, my friends. If we are serious about prayer — serious about deepening intimacy with God, about restoring the likeness of God in our souls (we are created in God’s image and likeness, after all), and serious about resting in the nourishing silence of contemplative prayer — if we are serious about these things, we will spontaneously begin to become non-attached, or at least, less attached, to all sorts of things: our pride, our sense of entitlement, our money, the things we own and are in the habit of protecting. And the point behind such non-attachment is not to make you or me a victim, but rather to free us — yes, liberate us — to relate to others from a position of generous love rather than self-protective fear.

Contemplation will not magically make conflict disappear, and I recognize that even contemplatives have to protect themselves or sometimes fight for what is right. When the Vikings showed up in Ireland, the monks didn’t just invite them in for tea.

But I also think that some of the conflicts that are making headlines in today’s world might look a lot different if people on both sides (yes, both sides) of a particular issue would approach the matter from a position of contemplative non-attachment. If we could love our “enemies” instead of always trying to defeat them. If we could serve everybody, without judgment. If we could be gracious when others refuse to serve us, and simply move on, without needing to retaliate in any way. And even if (gasp!) we saw lawsuits as a signal that we need to build and restore relationships, rather than hunker down for an expensive legal fight.

I suppose I’m a dreamer. But if we don’t dream about these kinds of possibilities, what’s the alternative? We will in effect be settling for a world “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.” That’s not a future I’m interested in.

Let’s build a more loving, kind, merciful and forgiving world. And I think the first step involves sitting still and being silent.


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3 thoughts on “Contemplation and Conflict”

  1. Lovely blog, enjoy the stories leading up to the point! By abiding in Christ, we receive a great gift of the peace that surpasses all understanding. Loving our enemies are some of the fruits that bloom from this sacred peace. Thank you for the deeper reflection!

  2. Monika Aylward

    I recently lost my husband of 49 years to a sudden brain tumor.
    I sold our home and cafe for economic reasons. I always wanted to
    live in quiet contemplation when the right time came. I think that it is here and I
    have nothing but grief blocking any inner peace I am looking for. Where do I start?
    All your posts seem so moving and joyful.

    1. Thank you, Monika, for your comment. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. Having just lost my daughter thirty-two weeks ago, grief has been my companion of late as well.

      I’d like to pray about your question and then respond to it in a blog-post. I think it deserves more than a brief response. It will take me a few days, but I promise I’ll get back to you. But for now, let me just say this: allow the grief to be there. Try to offer it hospitality, as painful as that may seem. If you cry throughout your prayer, remember that the Desert Fathers and Mothers saw tears as a gift from God.

      Okay — I’ll write more later, so stay tuned!

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