Activism, Contemplation, And The Mystical Body

John Steczynski

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Solitude can refer to many things and to many states of mind, both positive and negative. I would like to consider aspects of this as they relate to my life.

When I was young, it was common, at least in religious circles, to distinguish the active life and the contemplative life. In practical terms this generally meant the difference between life in the world and life in a monastery, though it was allowed that there were other ways of living a contemplative life. At the time the contemplative life was considered a higher calling.

Today there is a much greater value placed on the active life, on what we might simply call activism, especially social activism. One rarely hears about the contemplative life. A part of that is probably due to the fact that the term is too strongly associated with institutional religions, and in many circles, anything related to that is considered taboo. Further, many judge those who dedicate themselves to such a life as withdrawn, self-indulgent and even egotistical.

Yet contemplation is clearly a human good. One might even consider it a necessity. It seems to have made a comeback. Or possibly it never disappeared, simply changing faces. People put off by at least western (Christian) religious institutions approach it in other ways, whether through new age spirituality or through eastern, particularly Buddhist (generally viewed as a spirituality, not a religion), traditions. Often the two merge.

Not infrequently, secularized (or at least deinstitutionalized) contemplation (or meditation) is used more overtly for material (business) or psychological (stress reduction, in order to be more productive) gain rather that religious or spiritual elevation. Often its benefits become directed towards personal power.

This use of a religious/spiritual exercise for personal gain can be abusive. Throughout history people have used the power inherent in religion for their personal aggrandizement. This is at the root of the mistrust people feel towards religion. This can become just another instance of the same dynamic.

I should like to counter with a reconsideration of contemplation though another out-of-style term from my youth: The Mystical Body of Christ. It could probably equally be the mystical body of Buddha (Dharmakaya), or of Shiva, or of whatever deity or spiritual power one professes. The beauty of this approach is that it organically connects and unites us, makes us a whole, but preserves our individual uniqueness. Seen properly, the head and the anus are equally essential components for the entirety. This concept avoids the problems of total spiritualization, and asserts the real functioning of each part.

Contemplative life was considered a higher calling precisely because its fruits were seen as being universal, not personal. It was in fact perceived as a life which sacrificed one's personal good for the sake of the good of all others. It was seen as the necessity which supported and gave energy to the work of the activists. Perhaps a better way of viewing it would be to see its own fulfillment in the fulfilled good of the entirety. The activists are equally necessary, in a sense actualizing the work of the contemplatives. Each person is a specialized part of the body which really functions only when working in combination with each other part.

Today, few would dedicate themselves totally to the contemplative life. Those who care about the world see so many overwhelming needs that they would consider it irresponsible not to apply themselves to addressing them directly. Unfortunately, this can be so overwhelming that often they themselves become overwhelmed and burn out. Contemplation, meditation, times of solitude, can provide necessary balance.

The tension of this polarity impacts at least two aspects of my own life.

I have a younger daughter who is seriously disabled because of multiple sclerosis. I and my older daughter try to help her as much as we can. We realize that Rachel needs much more help than either or both of us can regularly provide. While it is for the most part just barely manageable right now, the disease is progressive and will most likely get worse. Our counselor keeps telling us that we have to take precautions not to burn out. That would both be damaging to ourselves, and would result in our being unable to continue helping Rachel. But it is very difficult to deny someone you love what they need. Yet it seems that at some point we will have to withdraw in order to be able to remain involved.

This relates to a second area.


In addition to being a parent and to teaching, I am an artist. A part of the tension in my relationship with my daughter is finding time to do my art.

The arts themselves require balancing private and public. Writing, composing, drawing, all are usually done in solitude. But they normally find their fulfillment in being read, heard or seen. Even the performing arts require practice, the development of skills, at least some of which is done alone.

Not only do I usually do my drawing by myself in my studio, I need to do a certain amount of contemplating to be able to even approach my work. This does not always require being literally alone. I can get insights and ideas from many sources, including conversations and crowded events. But there is a certain amount of processing that still has to take place, and that normally has to take place in some degree of solitude.

I do find some conflict in this entire process. I care about the state of the world. I cannot be certain that my art will directly affect this. At the same time I believe that my art, on a very deep level, has value. I believe that in some way, over the long run, my art will contribute to the betterment of the world. I would like to believe that the time I devote to my solitude will somehow help support those who devote their energy to activism.

On a much more narrow level, I know my lover finds me a better person to be with when I have been doing some drawing. At least from time to time, he accordingly actually encourages me to draw, even though that time takes me away from him.

This is not a simple issue. We each need to find a balance, what is right for us, what seems to be the best way we can contribute to the greater whole. For most of us, this means amounts of both engagement and of solitude within our individual lives. Sometimes this means finding the balance within the broader body of the community. We continuously count on other known and unknown people to fulfill various of our needs. So also in this area. We need to figure out our place in the bigger picture. Within this we need to respect the roll of solitude, of contemplation.

The difficulty is of course that we have to rely on our belief. Even if we are fairly certain that we are being true and honest, are not just justifying feeding our egos, we cannot know for certain that the balance we have worked out is absolutely the best. Sometimes sharing with another trusted person is good. Ultimately, we have to feel it and we have to trust our feelings.


John Steczynski teaches art at Boston College. His work can be viewed at www2bc.edu/~steczyns


Last update Sept 21 2000