The Contemplative Activist: or How to Do Good, Better


Several weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a “Gravity” conference in Nebraska. Gravity puts on conferences for “contemplative activists.” When I try to explain this to people the first reaction is, “Contemplative Activist? Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Let me tell you how Gravity started. Chris and Phileena Heuertz worked overseas with marginalized populations like sex-trafficked women and girls. They noticed over time that their co-workers burned out every few years. They decided to try to figure out how to make this kind of activism more sustainable. To that end, they interviewed Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and Mother Theresa. All three said that in order to sustain good works, you must have a discipline of contemplative prayer practices from which to sustain your soul.

Chris and Phileena founded Gravity Center in Nebraska in order to help activists “do good, better.”

The retreat I went to was called a Grounding Retreat where these contemplative practices were taught. It was held at a Benedictine Monastery.

The retreat was wonderful! Each session we learned at least one practice and then tried it, and debriefed it. On the Gravity Website, you can explore all of these practices. I’ll list a few here: Silence, Solitude, Stillness, Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Breath Prayer, and the Examen.

A book I wrote about the retreat

For me, the take-home was threefold:

First, I have already used many of these practices, but none of them had become regular disciplines in my life except my monthly retreats to the Mercy Center in Auburn, California. Since the retreat, I have added Lectio Divina to my regular quiet morning reflections. I’ve also added yoga to my exercise routine, which I first tried at this retreat and am trying some guided meditations as I have failed at Centering prayer.

Second, as a writer, I was between books when I arrived at the retreat – without a clue about what I wanted to write next. Almost the second I walked onto the property, an idea downloaded into my brain. I’m enjoying writing that book now, about a burned-out activist of course!

Third, this is very personal: in my last job, I was at these kinds of retreat centers at least twice a year. One of the saddest parts of leaving that work was having to give up those retreats. Not just because of the locations, but because I got to be part of a national leadership team trying to take our organization to the next level in Spiritual Formation. We not only practiced these ways of prayer but brainstormed how to help others do so. This is kind of what makes my heart beat faster. I was afraid I was done with that part of my life and I’m so pleased to be wrong about that. Going to this Gravity retreat wasn’t even my idea. A dear friend who had been to one of these retreats before felt so strongly that I attend she actually raised all the money for my plane ticket and the cost of the retreat!

The last day of the retreat I sat by a little lake and asked God why I was there. Was it just to beef up my personal practices? Was it for a new book idea? He reminded me of the sense of loss I’d felt when leaving my last job, thinking I’d never be at a retreat like this again. And he simply said, “I love you enough to make this happen because I know it’s important to you.” That made me cry. It was as if he was saying, “I’ve got this!”

If you’re an activist, especially if you are working in some kind of job that exposes you to soul-draining work, it is important to restore your soul with contemplative practices. But all of us will do well to add these practices to our lives. To help us do good, better.

These are my versions of two of the disciplines:

Lectio Divina:

Choose a short passage from scripture, a spiritual book or a poem you will read over three times. Read it slowly the first time, savor the words. The second time, look for a word or phrase that stands out to you and let that word or phrase roll over in your mind. During the third reading, listen for the invitation to you from the passage. Write down what comes to you.

The Examen:

  1. Sifting back through your day, look for one place where you saw or felt God, or felt your true self. One small instance of peace. Savor that moment in your mind.
  2. Sifting back through your day, look for one place where you missed God or experienced your false self. A place of disquiet. Remember that honestly with love and grace.
  3. Remind yourself that tomorrow is a new day filled with hope.

Do you have any favorite contemplative practices? What has worked for you or what would you like to try?

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