The last book written by Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, is a user's manual -- not only on the maintenance of a life of deep interior prayer, but also on the essential development of an activated conscience. Everyone has a conscience, but unfortunately, not everyone puts theirs to significant use. As I was pondering Merton and conscience this morning, it dawned upon me that conscience is a revolutionary act...
Perhaps for most of us, if we think about conscience at all, we think of conscience as "that little voice who tells us if doing this or that is either good or bad". Such a "definition" is, though, but the beginning of conscience. A deeper truth is that an activated conscience is a dynamic force, or energy, for personal and social transformation. This is of paramount importance! Many of us have witnessed powerful examples, such as: the Civil Rights Movement. All of "white America" was comfortable with race relations before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Stories of a bus boycott barely moved that white America. But when nonviolent black marchers were hosed by firemen, bitten by police dogs, and clubbed by white protesters our consciences were stirred. Eventually, that stirring led to a collective activation of conscience that led to the beginnings of a significant degree of social change.
When I started a little Catholic Worker House and began to feed the homeless and hungry in Salinas, we were ignored, opposed, and then ignored some more. But after years of showing up and standing alone, awareness of poverty in our midst, led to an increase of understanding and a commitment to change a lack of concern into a vital caring. And so our eventual Soup Kitchen became a center for, not only expanding services, but more importantly, a center for interfaith and community engagement. As the community conscience was activated, an energy was released to accomplish so much more than was first imagined.
As I scan the news on a daily basis, a number of things are increasingly obvious. Perhaps the first that comes to mind is the "rise" of the so-called nationalist, or white supremacist, movement in the U.S., Ontario Canada, much of Europe, and now Brazil. As a counter cultural radical, I find this profoundly disturbing. But looking to my spiritual mentors like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton (pictured above), St. Francis, St. Hildegard, and Rumi, I know that I (we) can't, in turn, simply be reactive. So, getting back to my morning pondering, I am thinking that opposition to nationalism and the idea of white supremacy must, at its core, be about a call to conscience. Individually, nearly all people are "good"; it's when we are in a crowd, and our individuality is submerged in "the group", that we do things that we never would if we saw ourselves as standing alone.
Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, St. Hildegard, and Rumi, through all their days as mystic-activists, stood alone. Immersed in contemplative prayer, they each looked out upon the world from the vantage point of an absolute belief in the value of every life: nurtured and made available to them precisely because of their "self-annihilation" and surrender in prayer. Emptied of the habitual "priority of self" -- whether of the body, soul, perception, opinion, politics, or religion -- they each could enter into the self of the other in a type of soul-communion and so they changed: their vision enlarged, their hearts expanded: and in some mystical way, they "could become the other -- every other". This is the most revolutionary act any human being can make... And this is the end result of an activated conscience... Is it any wonder then, that so few of us want to make this journey?
I need to mention another observation, which has been increasingly considered by many, and that is the power of "the group" in social media. Manipulators of our minds and passions clearly understand the power present in "the group" -- and so they feed us the allotment of information that they already know will mold us into willing consumers of whatever it is they are selling. It might be, literally, anything. But only some things are a clear and present danger! Anything that proposes a "good - bad", "better - worse", or "us - them" scenario, needs to be questioned or resisted! Like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, St. Hildegard, and Rumi, we must learn to "stand alone" in deep interior contemplative prayer, if we are going to activate our conscience and contribute to a revolutionary act. What the world needs, above all else, are crowds of people who "stand alone" before the wonder of the Universe... Who attune their minds, bodies, and souls to the magic of love... Who revel in gratitude, simple living, gracious harmony, and an abundant hope... Who live a contemplative life (while not forgetting to wash the dishes)... And who pursue the Beloved Community by remembering that, in the words of William Blake, "we are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love."