Contemplative community is solitude-community which provides leisure to celebrate life.

Community is always poised between two poles: solitude and togetherness.  Without togetherness community disperses; without solitude community collapses into a mass, a crowd. But solitude and togetherness are not mutually antagonistic; on the contrary, they make each other possible.

Solitude without togetherness deteriorates into loneliness.  One needs strong roots in togetherness to be solitary rather than lonely when one is alone.  Aloneness is neutral; loneliness is aloneness which is cut off from togetherness; solitude is aloneness supported by togetherness, blessed solitude.

Togetherness without solitude is not truly togetherness, but rather side-by-sideness.  To live merely side by side is alienation.  We need time and space to be alone, to find ourselves in solitude, before we can give ourselves to one another in true togetherness.

A particular balance between solitude and togetherness will characterize a particular community.  But by “balance” we mean more than the ratio between time spent alone and time spent with one another; we mean an inner relatedness of solitude and togetherness which makes each of them what it is in a given case.

On one end of the spectrum lies a type of community in which togetherness is the goal that is sought above all:  a particularly close-knit family, for example.  We may call this type togetherness-community.  On the other end of the spectrum lies a community totally oriented towards solitude, for instance, a community of hermits.  Let us call this type solitude-community. Since in either case both solitude and togetherness are essential for true community, the difference is one of emphasis.

The spectrum is continuous, but the distinction is clear; in togetherness-community, togetherness is the measure of solitude; the members have a right and a duty to get as much solitude as they need for deep and strong togetherness.  In solitude-community, solitude is the measure of togetherness; here the members have a right and a duty to get as much togetherness as each one needs to support and enrich solitude.

A human being cannot survive without community.  Nor can one be truly happy unless one finds the particular type of community that will fulfill one’s needs for solitude and togetherness. The process of matching one¹s personal needs with a particular type of community within the wide spectrum of possibilities is an essential part of finding one’s vocation, what one feels called to choose at a given time.

What do we mean by “contemplative life?”

By contemplative life we do not mean life in a cloister.  Contemplative life as a vocation means a particular form of life in which, ideally at least, every detail of daily living is oriented towards recollection.  By recollection we mean mindfulness, ultimately unlimited mindfulness, the inner attitude by which we find meaning.  Contemplative life in this sense is a form of life designed to provide an optimum environment for radical search for meaning.

Meaning and purpose are not identical.  It is possible, for instance, to accomplish a purpose that has no meaning.  Two different inner gestures correspond to purpose and meaning.  When we comprehend the purpose of a given thing or action we grasp it, we are in control.  When we want to understand the meaning of a given thing or situation, it must touch us (“How does this grab you?”, as the young people say); we are responsive, but no longer in control.

By grasping purpose we gain knowledge; by allowing meaning to take hold of us we gain that wisdom which is the ultimate goal of contemplative life. The two are mutually complementary; we must distinguish without separating them.  The openness for meaning is joined to the pursuit of purpose through leisure.

Leisure is not the opposite of work; we should be able to work in leisure.  The opposite of work is play.  Work is something we do to accomplish a purpose which lies outside the activity itself; once the purpose is accomplished, the activity ceases.  (We polish shoes in order to have them polished, not in order to polish them; once they are polished, we stop.)  Play is something we do because we find meaning in it, an activity which has all its purpose within itself.  (We sing in order to sing, for its own sake, not in order to have sung.)

Leisure introduces into every activity an element of play, an element of doing whatever it be also for its own sake, not only to get it done.  Thus leisure provides the climate in which we can be open for meaning.  Contemplative life as a form of life molded by a radical search for meaning will necessarily be a life of leisure, ascetical leisure.

Contemplative Life and the Peak Experience

It seems possible to gain some insights into the ascetic elements of contemplative life by an analysis of the so-called peak experience.  This term denotes a deeply personal experience of meaningful insight, often in a flash, always in a moment of leisure.  The experience itself is totally unreflective, but later reflection finds in it a series of paradoxes.

What takes place in the peak experience is paradoxically that I both lose myself, and yet I am in this experience more truly myself than at any other time. Expressions one uses afterwards to describe what happened may include: ”I was out of myself”; “I was simply carried away”; “I completely lost myself”; and yet “I was more fully alive, more truly myself than ever.”

Another paradox of which one becomes aware in the peak experience is the fact that one is at the same time alone (not lonely) in a profound sense, and yet deeply one with all others present or even absent.  Often a peak experience occurs during a moment of solitude, out in nature for instance, but even when I am in the midst of a large crowd, say, in a concert hall, this one passage of music which touches me deeply seems to single me out, as if it had been written and performed especially for me. On the other hand, even on the mountain top or on a lonely shore my heart expands in the peak experience to embrace earth and sky and all living creatures.  The paradox is simply that I am most intimately one with all when I am most intimately alone.

There is a third paradox implicit in the peak experience: In a sudden flash of insight everything makes sense; everything, life and death and the whole universe; but not as if someone had given us the solution to a complicated problem: it is rather that we are reconciled with the problem.  For one moment we stop questioning and a universal answer emerges; or rather, we glimpse the fact that the answer was always quietly there, only our questions drowned it out.  When I stop asking, the answer is there.

The three paradoxes with which we are confronted in the peak experience provide a key for the understanding of contemplative life: they are like seeds out of which the most universal ascetical practices of contemplative tradition grow.  Out of the paradoxical insight that I am most truly myself when I lose myself grows the ascetical practice of detachment.  Poverty or detachment aims at more than giving away what I have; I must ultimately give away what I am, so as to truly be.

The experience of being alone when one is one with all provides a key for the understanding of celibacy.  A celibate person sustains the paradox which others experience only in a brief moment. She or he is alone so as to be truly one with all.  One could also say: s/he is so deeply united with all that solitude is paradoxically the only adequate expression for this unity.

Ascetical obedience is also rooted in the peak experience, in the insight, namely, that everything makes sense the moment I stop questioning, the moment I listen. Learning to listen is the heart of obedience; following someone else¹s commands is merely a means to this end. In the last analysis, we have only the choice between absurdity and obedience.  “Ab-surdus” means ”absolutely deaf”; “ob-audiens” denotes the attitude of one who has learned to listen thoroughly, to listen with a heart attuned to the deepest meaning.

The peak experience is a moment in which meaning strikes us, takes hold of us. Contemplative asceticism serves to support our wholehearted search for meaning.  It makes sense, then, that the structural paradox of the peak experience should provide a clue for understanding the paradoxical structure of ascetical practice. Contemplative life is basically the attempt to expose oneself to the meaning of any given moment (through detachment, celibacy, obedience) in unlimited mindfulness.

Solitude community

Contemplative community in the strict sense will be a community of people who support one another in that radical search for meaning which finds expression in ascetical tradition.  However, solitude is an integral part of this tradition in all its forms. In contemplative community the members live in community so as to protect one another’s solitude both from deteriorating into loneliness and from being infringed upon by misguided togetherness.  If there is one lonely person in the community, the others must ask themselves: “Have we supported her aloneness by the togetherness she needed?”  Yet, each one must also ask herself again and again: “Have I respected the other’s solitude?  Have I protected it against my own whims of togetherness?”  We are the guardians of one another’s solitude, to the left as well as to the right.

Solitude, however, is not an end in itself.  The end is a community supportive of the quest for meaning; and this is to say that the end is a community of leisure for only through leisurely living can we find meaning.  The very reason why people join to form community of this kind is the mutual help they can give to one another in creating an environment in which leisure is possible.  The leisure of which we are speaking is not the privilege of those who have time, but the virtue of those who take time. Contemplative community is solitude-community for the sake of leisure.  To live leisurely means to take things one by one, to single them out for grateful consideration. And this is the essence of celebration.  All other aspects of celebration are optional, but when everything is stripped away that can be stripped away, these two elements remain.  Wherever someone singles out something (or someone) for grateful consideration, we have a little celebration.  Celebration cannot and need not be justified by any purpose; it is ultimately meaningful.  To live leisurely means to celebrate every moment of life. Contemplative community is solitude-community which provides leisure to celebrate life.

Is community as you experience it today this kind of community?  If not, why not? And if we think it should be, how can we make it so?

Reprinted from Benedictines; Summer 1971; vol. xxvi, #2.

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.