Practicing Contemplation While in a Crowd

I’ve been trying to develop a more contemplative life, using Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation as my primary guide. I’ve written some about aspects of this journey, such as in this post about the solitude I found in a simple garden project and this one about the harmful effects of viewing oneself as better than others. I’ve been thinking about another point that Merton makes about contemplation and our relationship with others. He writes:

“The ultimate perfection of the contemplative life is not a heaven of separate individuals, each one viewing his own private intuition of God; it is a sea of Love which flows through the One Body of all the elect, all the angels and saints, and their contemplation would be incomplete if it were not shared….”

I’m inclined to separate myself from others when I want to pray or meditate. I probably expect such moments to produce my “own private intuition of God.” I certainly benefit from such secluded moments. However, if my only spiritual connection takes place in isolation, my faith would be quite narrow. I would see others as distractions from the contemplative life, not compatible with it. Recently, I’ve had more in my schedule drawing me into the company of others. As a result, I haven’t had as many private moments when I’ve been free to connect with the unseen realm of Spirit. Am I less contemplative, though, or just contemplative in a different way?

Merton is suggesting that the highest form of the contemplative life is lived with others not by oneself. I tend to think of solitary contemplation and social engagement as incompatible with each other, but Merton suggests otherwise:

“The more we are alone with God the more we are with one another, in darkness, yet a multitude. And the more we go out to one another in work and activity and communication, according to the will and charity of God, the more we are multiplied in Him and yet we are in solitude.”

I’m not entirely sure how to be increasingly alone with God and together with others at the same time, but I have a few ideas. It helps to remember that God’s Spirit is always in conversation with all of us, so the people I’m with may be seeking the divine presence just as much as I am. When something strikes me as somehow manifesting the transcendent, I’m trying to mention that to whomever I’m with rather than keeping it to myself. That’s easiest to do in settings with a dedicated spiritual purpose, such as the Men’s Bible Study I attend many Wednesdays. I’m trying to speak up more in other situations where I see some connection to the divine, such as a sublime sunrise or prayed-for situations quietly resolving themselves without any of the dreaded complications I had feared (on that subject, let me mention my gratitude that my computer is connected to the internet after having stubbornly refused to do so for most of the last day).

I also have started to use breath prayers not only when alone but when I’m with others. For a year or so I have been silently praying either the Pilgrim’s Prayer (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) or brief phrases from the Psalms (Such as “Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me”, “For God alone my soul waits in silence”, or “Your power and your righteousness, Lord, reach the high heavens.”) throughout the day. I still say these mostly when by myself, but little by little they are coming to my mind more when I’m with others. It’s a way to be with God and with other people simultaneously. The more I have that experience, the more natural it seems!

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family. I maintain a part-time therapy practice in Grand Rapids. I currently worship at Monroe Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at
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1 Response to Practicing Contemplation While in a Crowd

  1. Peter Everts says:

    This was a helpful reflection, Bob. I am on a similar journey reading Richard Rohr’s writings that incorporate Merton’s writings as well as many others…all pointing to practice of meditation occurring not only in retreat settings, but when fully engaged with others. It is a slow learning for me who associated “being with God” to be away from social situations.

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