Contemporary Contemplatives

Alongside western romanticism, the twentieth century witnessed within Christianity a growing counter-cultural resurgence of contemplation. It encountered resistance from more activist and more rationalist forms of Christianity. However this un-orchestrated emergence is mostly motivated by a felt need to depart from that form of rationalism with which the Western worldview is saturated. It is God out of the box. Let us take a tour of these developments.

In the pre-World War 2 era, interest in contemplation followed the parallel routes of ‘mythology’ and ‘mysticism’, and was pursued by some remarkable and original persons.


In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of brilliant minds explored mysticism. McDaniel contrasted two different viewpoints of this topic. In Western terms, mysticism is ‘other-worldly’ or ‘super-natural’. But if seen from an indigenous perspective, the ‘unseen’ is just another aspect of nature operating on several levels, just a part of life.[1] The writers listed briefly below were not the only persons to explore this aspect of life, but they illustrate the argument for a ‘renascent’ contemplative spirituality. Their writings received a wide readership, and still do.

Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) was a German systematic theologian. In 1911-1912 he visited North Africa, South Asia, and East Asia – after which he published his best known The Idea of the Holy – an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the individual. (1917)[2] In 1927-28 he also visited South Asia and the Middle East. He coined the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans et majestas – the profound, fascinating and majestic sense of mystery.

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an educated English woman, a gifted writer, and later a sought-after retreat leader in an era where she was the only non-ordained person, and a woman, to be so authorised by the Anglican Church. Archbishop Michael Ramsey is quoted as saying that ‘Underhill did more than anyone else in Anglicanism to keep the spiritual life alive in the period between the wars.’[3] Her self-confessed tendency towards ‘pure mysticism’ was balanced by concrete expressions of Christian community service among the poor.[4] In the USA, the former Communist, later Catholic Worker Movement’s Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was also thus doubly engaged.[5]

In France, Simone Weil (1909-1943), whom Malcolm Muggeridge called ‘the most luminous intelligence of the twentieth century’,[6] lived a short but brilliant life in radical solidarity with the poor during Europe’s fascism. Her adult body was racked by frequent severe migraine, but in that desolation her spirit grew into mystical ‘attentiveness’ (Fr. Attente) to the Christian God (though it is maintained that even at death she refused baptism). She died in England from malnutrition, which she voluntarily entered into through a desire to identify with the war-ravaged hungry of her homeland. At the same time, Sr Edith Stein (1891-1942), also a Christian Jewess like Simone Weil, was taken from the Netherlands and exterminated at Auschwitz. She had been a writer and theologian on the mystical writers St John of the Cross (sixteenth century), Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century) and Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500CE), all of whose writings had been indebted to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, to which we shall return below.

The authors above wrote in the days when anything that was not schematized and rational was considered ‘mystical’. This breadth of meaning is still in use. For this reason perhaps, in the social sciences of this period, the focus was not upon mysticism but mythology, pursued on the one hand from the point of view of psychology, and on the other by anthropology.


Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss who developed concepts in clinical psychology that described unconscious archetypes in individuals, collective consciousness in societies and synchronicity in events. He favoured the use of dreams and mythology in interpreting our conscious and unconscious (the shadow) dimension, believing that spiritual emptiness was at the heart of much psychological distress. Because of his affirmation of spirituality, and to some degree his integration of it into his philosophy, his psychological analyses are often used by contemplatives like Bede Griffiths (see below) to describe the interior workings of the contemplative life, especially the concepts of the Shadow self (‘the Other’) and the Archetypes. [7]

Mircia Eliade (1907-1986) was Rumanian, and a post-war exile in France, who revived the status of mythology after the popularity of Frazer’s (now discredited) The Golden Bough. He showed the religious dimensions of the rituals and symbols that were in common life and culture, and not necessarily associated with religion or deity. He sought to show that the irreligious had nevertheless unconsciously substituted other rituals, and that a ‘ritual dimension’ was nevertheless being expressed. For Eliade, ritual was the focus of spirituality which was quite distinct from the inward mysticism of other thinkers.[8] Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) has been his successor in the widespread interpretation of all religions in terms of archetypal myths, especially the heroic archetype.[9] This contrasts sharply with the review of Australian colonialism above which found the ‘heroic’ archetype to be egoistic. Campbell and Eliade did not have the only assured outcome of scientific anthropology. Another anthropologist, Victor Turner studied the change-process in cultures which he expressed in terms of liminality and communitas. He later went on to a study of the process of pilgrimage, to which we shall return.[10]

Marginal Pioneers

These viewpoints on the power of myth and mysticism were living and working with notoriety in mainstream culture. Others, however, attracted both wonder and scorn for their spiritually-motivated stance on the margins of twentieth century society – one in the deserts of Algeria and one in the ‘deserts’ of the oceans around Iona.

Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) served as a Captain in the French colonial military in Morocco and Algeria and had a reputation ‘for indiscipline and notorious conduct’.[11] Five years later he was converted: ‘The moment I realized that God existed, I knew I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.’[12] He joined the Trappists, one of the most ascetic of Catholic Orders but then in Nazareth and Algeria he placed himself amongst the poorest of the poor, practising ‘the life of poverty, hiddenness and abjection’. He drew up a Rule for a new Order, a desire which was not realised in his lifetime, ‘to carry the Gospel to the most abandoned… not by preaching it but by living it.’[13]

Living in danger for seven years in a hotly contested colonial rule, at Tamnassaret in the Hoggar Mountains, he was murdered by some of the Tuareg people he had befriended. The Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus was the Order established after his death. Little Sister Magdeleine, who founded the Little Sisters of Jesus, quoted brother Charles when she said:

Be patient as God is patient, loving as God is loving…reject harshness, bitterness, condescension, the militant spirit which sees those who differ as enemies… The Christian programme is simple: love, love; goodness, goodness…see in every human being a beloved brother/sister and friend.[14]

There are many books about Foucauld’s life, and he has been beatified by the Vatican.[15]

One of Foucauld’s Little Brothers was Carlo Carretto (1910-1988). From an activist Catholic youth role in Cold War Europe, Brother Carlo reports that he was propelled by the Spirit to go to the Little Brothers of Jesus in the Sahara in 1954. He heard God say to him: ‘Leave everything and come with me into the desert. It is not your acts and deeds that I want; I want your prayer, your love.’[16] After ten years as a hermit, he returned to Italy to ‘take the desert to the streets’, and through retreats and publications his message spread around the world.[17] As one example of the influence of the desert, it is noted that Ivan Illich, who wrote the famous social polemic De-Schooling Society in 1960, was in 1959 on retreat in a desert cave under Carlo’s direction.[18] The Little Brothers and Sisters are the closest in recent centuries to the original Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Another recent liminal form took place in the Celtic equivalent of the desert – the Irish Sea. The small island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland holds a cherished place in Scottish history, indeed of the history of European Christianity. It is where in 563CE Columba founded a Celtic monastery that was instrumental in later evangelising Scotland, England and northern Europe. In the middle ages it was a pilgrimage site, the burial ground of the Scottish kings including Macbeth, and had a Benedictine abbey. The ‘Iona Community’ was re-founded in 1938 by the Rev George MacLeod (1895-1991), a social activist and later pacifist. In 1933, he resigned his stipend (church salary paid to clergy) in order to re-establish a revitalised missionary community on Columba’s island of Iona.[19]

At that time, only the parochial system was an acceptable form of ministry and therefore Iona was a radical step in the ‘training’ of leaders. He took student ministers and the unemployed to work together to rebuild the medieval abbey as well as to find common ground both in work and in spirituality. As the group worked, they began to reinvent a contemporary monastic life, a mixture of prayer, hard labour and study.[20]

Iona is today an ecumenical Christian community spread across the world, which seeks new ways of living the Gospel ‘in today’s world’, including the common life.[21]Their common rule includes obligations in four areas:

* common life

* disciplines in daily Bible-reading, prayers and tithing to the needs of others

* participation in regional meetings and an annual meeting

* commitment to peace and reconciliation.

As Columba saw the sea as a desert, and as his community emulated the lifestyle perfected in Egypt, so Iona today has the same global mission in mind, though with far less reliance on the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Members practise ‘liminality’ in the form of solidarity with the socially marginalised and through works of social justice and pacifism. ‘Thirteen years on from its foundation, it (Iona) has an impressive track record in terms of directing able and committed men into frontline situations of parish ministry and industrial chaplaincy in Scotland.’[22]

Iona does not stand alone. The rural French village of Taize has also become an ecumenical community of peace-making, worship and contemplation, not in the Reformed tradition of Iona but in the way of European Catholicism.

These two geographically marginal locations have had global impact. They both share with other contemplative traditions the insistence that ‘the final goal of the life of faith is not contemplative enjoyment of God in itself but ‘consists in taking on Christ, and therefore returning from ecstasy to loving service of neighbour’’.[23]

There are several other ways, after World War Two, that a desert spirituality of contemplation developed in its mainstream forms. Several contemporary contemplatives have raised the church’s awareness of contemplative spirituality, now broadly being called ‘meditation’, though strictly speaking that is a narrower term. This happened largely through a renewed attention to medieval mysticism (Hildegard, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Cloud of Unknowing), but also through a new interest in the spirituality of East Asia (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism). Three representative figures are Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths and John Main.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) became a Christian and a Catholic in his twenties. He met a Hindu monk named Bramachari who suggested that he read the ‘many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St Augustine’s Confessions’.[24] Like Charles Foucauld, Merton entered the Trappist Order in 1941. This was to be his home for the rest of his life. His many books, articles and speaking engagements took him to many parts of the world, but in 1965, after many years of being refused, he was granted the right to live in solitude on the monastery grounds in Kentucky.

In 1968, during a visit to India and Thailand in dialogue with Buddhist monks, he had several interviews with the Dalai Lama, who later said that Merton changed his opinion on Christianity.[25] On this journey, he died of accidental electrocution in Bangkok. His society has continued publications from his extensive journals posthumously.

Merton’s major works were on contemplation and solitude. His first works, in the late forties, including his autobiography Seven Story Mountain, [26] were about the spiritual provocation of the materialistic modern person that was presented by the ongoing existence of monasticism. In the fifties he wrote in a more personalised and inward way. The social and political implications of eremiticism emerged throughout the early sixties. He found that solitude unmasked the false self, and destroyed the effect of ‘the great regression to the herd mentality that is taking place now.’[27] He had compassion for those who were trapped in a society that rejected solitude and who had no way to find their true self:

The real wilderness of the hermit is the wilderness of the human spirit which is at once his and everyone else’s. What he seeks in that wilderness is not himself, not human company and consolation, but God.[28]

Merton became famous as a priest for his writings against the Vietnam War, which were written soon after his book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers in 1960 – The Wisdom from the Desert:

These were men [sic] who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now a Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve… for them the only Christian society was spiritual and extramundane: the Mystical Body of Christ.[29]

But he was not simply repeating their life in the desert; he had a social engagement that spoke from the desert. In this he echoed Jesus Christ himself, as we shall see in later chapters. He challenged modernity on many fronts. He saw himself on a journey.[30]

He had a wide influence but he was not alone. His contemporaries the Jesuit Karl Rahner and Von Balthasar were writing theologies based around the medieval mystics at the same time.

Bede Griffiths

What Merton engaged in Buddhism, another engaged in Hinduism. Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) was a student of CS Lewis at Oxford. He became a Catholic and made his first naïve experiment in ascetic community life in the Cotswold Hills. After joining the Benedictines, he eventually received permission to go to India. He eventually came to the ashram in Tamil Nadu dedicated to the most Holy Trinity. He entered into the customs of Hindu India as much as possible and engaged in dialogue with Hinduism.[31] In later years he travelled the world widely on speaking tours, even in frail health, and wrote twelve books. He was propelled by a love of both Indian interiority and non-duality and his own Christian experience to join the two in reclaiming the ancient tradition of wonder and wisdom:

That absolute Reality, or unitive principle – which lies at the core not only of Hinduism but of Buddhism and Taoism – becomes the heart of Bede’s vision. Identified with ‘God’ or ‘Father’ the Source and first divine Person, it becomes a key for opening Christianity to its depths.[32]

‘Wisdom Christianity’, as he called it, was not based on the Western philosophical tradition, a specialty, but about ‘breaking out from the confinement of our over-specialized consciousness…the critical breakthrough into a greater consciousness, which has long been beginning in the modern west.’[33]

He sought to bring the worshiper from a state in which faith is objectified to an experience of personal participation in God. He practiced and taught renunciation, contemplation, poverty, submission, celibacy, and what he saw as the hardest renunciation, that of the ego. ‘The problem with human existence is that we all have a self-centred personality,’ he said. He saw that a true detachment from egoism had been practised by Gandhi:

What Gandhi saw so clearly is that this detachment was not a way of escape from the world but of a freedom from self-interest which enabled one to give oneself totally to God and to the world.[34]

Griffiths laid the groundwork for a society, now called the Bede Griffiths Association, to promote the renewal of contemplative life in the contemporary church and world. This vision has perhaps been carried out by another, someone whom Griffiths himself was to describe as ‘the best spiritual guide in the church today’,[35] John Main.

John Main

John Main (1926-1982) was in colonial service in Malaya in 1954, when he was impacted by a Hindu holy man. ‘I was deeply impressed by his peacefulness and calm wisdom. He asked me if I meditated.’[36] For eighteen months they practiced and discussed meditation in ways that were then regarded as ‘eastern’, where meditation is focused into silence, as distinct from ‘western’, where reflection is focused upon scripture. Main grew a special interest in Christian traditions of silence and mantra. Much later, Main found the same practice in Cassian in Gaul in the fourth century,[37] who had learned it first-hand from the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

When he joined the Benedictines in London in 1959, upon his return to the UK, this practice was forbidden to him, something he struggled with but learned from:

I learned to become detached from the practice of meditation that was most sacred to me…but I always went back to the obedience which was the foundation of my life as a monk.[38]

In 1975 he began to teach meditation to groups, which quickly spread. In 1976, in a period of meditation at the hermitage of the late Thomas Merton, ‘the Spirit moved deeply in his heart and called him to the work of teaching meditation.’ [39] Where Merton had written personally about prayer in the modern world, Main was to teach how to do it, and to organise the way to do so, centred on the ‘attentive wakefulness’ of the saying of one’s mantra. Surprisingly, he lacked the social engagement of Merton, Underhill, Day, Griffiths and McLeod. His opening prayer, still in use by meditation groups is:

Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call, ‘Maranatha…Come, Lord Jesus’.

He emphasised that this is not a technique but a personal journey. Harris, a Canadian public servant, and one of his earliest students said:

‘Meditation is a gift of such staggering proportions that we must respond to it gradually, gently. When we begin we cannot fully understand the sheer magnificence and wonder of it.’[40]

Main died of cancer in Montreal in 1982, and his leadership was taken up by Fr Lawrence Freeman. In 1991, the World Centre for Christian Meditation (WCCM) was inaugurated.[41] In this movement, hundreds of small groups in many nations now gather for weekly meditation sessions, buoyed by personal practice and taught from WCCM resources. From these groups thousands gather biennially in world conferences.[42]

Many groups and courses on Christian meditation exist outside WCCM, and two other simultaneous leaders can be mentioned – David Ray from Mississippi and Morton Kelsey in the UK: ‘…neither the Western novices in Zen or Yoga or Transcendental Meditation nor the more experienced writers about them seem to realize that there is a powerful and unique Christian method of meditation available to any ordinary person who wishes to use it.’[43]

A better history of this renaissance could be written. It is sufficient to notice that, just as in the years of Constantine, simultaneous and separate sparks of spiritual renewal have been growing in many places through a revival of various forms of Christian contemplation. The relation between eastern and western forms of contemplation is still being debated.