A question that’s lurked in my mind for years has begun to reassert itself in the past several months. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll phrase it this way: “is contemplation—the solitary, mystical work of deepening our relationship with God—an unjustifiable luxury in a time of crisis?” There are many other words that could almost as aptly take the place of “contemplation,” including “art,” “poetry,” even “the study of the humanities.” Basically, all the pursuits I hold in highest esteem—yet that can also feel terribly ineffectual in the face of ICE raids, anti-Muslim bigotry, widespread evictions, lead poisoning in Baltimore… One can write a poem about lead, but what good does that actually do people living in homes with lead paint? It seems self-indulgent even to consider such a response. At the same time, there are so many challenges facing our community and our nation, it’s hard to know what the proper response is.
Ours is a time that calls for direct action, not navel-gazing--this is the common wisdom. Nevertheless, I believe reflective, semi-monastic pursuits are as necessary as ever. They are also harder than ever to justify in a society that values quantifiable results over the immeasurable qualitative shifts that bring us closer to God. Yet the times in my life at which I’ve given away my solitude and space for reflection wholesale for extraverted activity and protest have left me feeling spiritually brittle and equally ineffective. I think there must be a balance—one each of us discovers for ourselves.
Some of my more extraverted friends can express their love of God and neighbor through organizing people, planning events, and engaging in political work without much need for solitary reflection or prayer. God most readily reaches them from the outside in. My own experience tells me that I am best able to love my neighbor when I can feel God’s love from the inside out. By coming to understand the God who lives, works and speaks through me, I am all the more prepared to recognize the work of God in others, and respond to the challenges the world presents with grace and wisdom.
No matter how we connect with God’s love, the act of expressing that love is always one of meeting it—whether from the outside in, or the inside out. So, while writing a poem about lead abatement might not directly impact the life of someone affected by lead poisoning—and it would be foolish to parade around claiming this poem as a token of one’s action in the face of a crisis—I believe the empathy it takes to compose a such a piece has spiritual ramifications and might prepare the prayerful poet to respond with subtlety and humility to the ethical challenges the world presents. Maybe these solitary pursuits are a little like doing one’s spiritual homework in order to be prepared for an exam which is always taking place.