By Fr. Joe Kerrigan, Friend of Mepkin Abbey
As contagious as COVID-19 has been over the past three years, the spread of social polarization seems more pervasive. Political discourse, the media, relations with families, friends and colleagues, and even the church have not been spared from the toxic qualities of hardened, opposing positions.
Recently Pope Francis has spoken on the subject. “Polarization is not Catholic,” he said in a November interview with America magazine. “A Catholic cannot think either-or and reduce everything to polarization. The essence of what is Catholic is both-and”.
In his Message for the World Day of Social Communications, Jan. 24, 2023, the Pope noted, “In a historical period marked by polarizations and contrasts — to which unfortunately not even the ecclesial community is immune — the commitment to communicating ‘with open heart and arms’ does not pertain exclusively to those in the field of communications; it is everyone’s responsibility.”
In the earliest centuries of Christianity, thousands of women and men became disheartened by what they perceived to be the futility and superficiality of society in the Roman Empire. They fled to the deserts of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere, in pursuit of deeper, wholehearted transformation in Christ.
What these men and women, known today as the “desert elders,” discovered in their monastic cells, caves and in some cases, tombs, lives on in prayer methods and practical Christian wisdom that has survived and been refined to the present day, not only in monasteries but increasingly among people of all walks of life.
Their legacy might also give us hope and a practical direction in overcoming polarization.
The desert elders were Christian pioneers of contemplative practice. The practice takes many forms, and we might be familiar with some of them: Lectio Divina, Christian Meditation, centering prayer, the Jesus Prayer and many more ways of surrendering, often in silence, in prayer.
When we enter into that practice as a daily prayer discipline (and there really is no other way than as a daily discipline if we want to be transformed by it), we begin to note that its rigor takes us deeper within. We go into that “inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret,” as Jesus advises, not coincidentally, in the Gospel chosen for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:6), the first day of the great Lenten church season of conversion and penance.
Over time, we develop an inner spaciousness. For example, we are no longer reacting to things at a surface level, we are responding. Although we still perceive things very much as right or wrong, black or white, we also see a lot more gray. And we express our judgments with a gentle authority, like a grandparent saying to a child, “Have you thought about doing that another way?” versus an abrupt “Don’t do that, that’s wrong!”
In the Pope’s two statements cited earlier, he actually consciously or unconsciously noted two positive aspects of contemplative practice: it’s not either-or, it’s non-dualistic, with the wide world that goes with it. And an open heart is critical to contemplative practice, enshrined in St. Benedict’s famous dictum from his Rule: “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.”
Over the course of our practice, we observe that our inner monologue has changed, perhaps starkly. That constant pattern of repetitive inner chatter that we revert to at a traffic light, in a checkout line, while we can’t get to sleep, etc. is a pattern that usually reinforces our ego, ambition and striving, but once contemplative practice deepens, we find those ego needs dissolving. We could say we are becoming more conformed to Christ.
Just as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) procedure takes about 20-25 minutes to reach a depth for full efficacy, and psychiatric medicines usually need about 6-8 weeks to really work, so, too someone who aspires to develop a contemplative practice has to commit to two 20-25 minute sessions daily, and persevere through 6-8 weeks (roughly the duration of Lent) before experiencing initial results. To further the medical analogy, the late Trappist Fr. Thomas Keating called centering prayer, “the divine therapy.”
So, want to give up polarization for Lent? Head to that “inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret”!