How Can Spiritual Practice Sustain Activism? | Sojourners

How Can Spiritual Practice Sustain Activism?

A movement is growing.

In recent months, hundreds of thousands have mobilized in mass protest — moved by a sense that our collective state is not well. Amid a slow and steady drip of half-truths and outright lies, action is an appropriate response, a sign of hope.

Emotion-laden responses are useful in building bridges from apathy to action. Yet, as countless fatigued and burnt-out activists struggle in the wake of moral outrage, we must go deeper.

We need a discipline of contemplative activism.

In recognizing the challenges of working for social justice, spiritually-rooted social action provides something of substance to the people in movements. From this place of rootedness, social movements can set intentions that point towards sustainability.

“Through activism we confront toxicity in our world; through contemplation we confront it in ourselves,” said Phileena Heuertz, founding partner of Gravity, a center for contemplative activism.

Through retreats and trainings, Heuertz helps individuals find their own center of gravity, or, as she describes, “the place that inherently knows we are loved, safe, and have no need to fear.”

“Without practices that dismantle our unconscious egoic motivations, at best our work will be limited in its effectiveness and at worse, our work will exercise more violence in the world,” said Heuertz. 

In drawing from a deep well of spirituality, contemplative activism nurtures a sense of wholeness.

Traditionally, contemplative spirituality is built on a foundation of silence, stillness, and solitude. For some, this means a commitment to exercises like centering prayer, the Daily Examen, and meditation. Others describe more physical practices like yoga, breathing exercises, and dancing.

While these practices are necessary for formation, Micky ScottBey Jones, director of Healing Justice Initiatives at Faith Matters Network, says there is more to activism than organizing and running successful campaigns.

"Not being rooted in something that allows for spiritual, emotional, and physical evaluations and check-ins will lead to a shallow and exhausting activism that likely isn’t sustainable in a health way,” said Jones.

All too often, contemplative spirituality is critiqued as being isolationist and a mere aspiration towards bourgeoisie spiritual experience. If our inner life doesn’t change how we address and meet the needs of those around us, we have precious little to offer the world.

Contemplative activism, then, isn’t ultimately about a set of practices but about holding a certain posture in the world.

“Contemplative activism is an invitation and an exploration of counterintuitive practices as a way to show up differently in the world,” said Tia Norman, contemplative designer for Folklore Films.

Healthy spiritual disciplines should not only change our own way of being, but lead us into conflict with a greatly needed voice and presence. In articulating this posture, Marlon Hall, whose work through The Awakenings Movement equips and sustains social visionaries, references Mark 4, in which Jesus speaks with spiritual authority to calm a storm threatening to overtake himself and those with him.

“Winds hollowing and ocean waves crashing against the vessel moving his party, Jesus stood and directly enjoined peace to be still,” said Hall.

From the center of a storm, Jesus’ prophetic posture emerges from a place of inward stillness. For contemplative disciplines to be of use in building sustainable movements, they must hold a firm commitment to balancing both inward and outward engagement.

“Contemplative activism carves out vessels of peace where Christ may speak directly to the issues of peace for people moved by the storms of our current sociopolitical climate,” said Hall.

In focusing on contemplation and action we honor the whole being. This nurturing of whole individuals is crucial for building transformative social movements equipped to engage personally, communally, and systemically.

Alongside contemplation and action, healing must be an essential part of a spiritually-rooted movement.

“The three are inextricably linked and in this moment; we need the potency of this triad, interconnected, to heal ourselves and heal the world around us,” said Teresa Pasquale Mateus, co-founder and executive director of The Mystic Soul Project.

As a storyteller and advocate for the liberation of women caught in cycles of sexual violence, healing through contemplative activism is critical to Nikole Lim’s work.

Lim describes parts of her experience in holding the stories of those in her community as “secondhand post-traumatic stress disorder.” The weight of her work has, at times, led to physical illness. While hospitalized with an unnamed virus that caused immense physical and mental stress, Lim wrestled with whether she was equipped for her vocation and considered abandoning it altogether.

Shortly after being hospitalized, Lim joined a pilgrimage to Rwanda. The intention of this experience, Lim said, was to journey alongside survivors and perpetrators of genocide to understand the pain that oppresses us all.

“It was through this experience that healing came in a profound way,” said Lim.

From the grounding of spiritual practice, Lim discovered courage to intentionally enter experiences of unspeakable violence and pain while caring for her own needs. Contemplative prayer has taught Lim the value of pausing and listening.

“These moments of reflection allow me to catch my breath — inviting God into the work toward justice so that in my exhaustion, I do not perpetuate violence through my careless words or unconscious actions,” said Lim.

As exemplified in Lim’s experience, Teresa Pasquale Mateus says, “I think that the grounding in a relational and intimate God, which the contemplative path offers, and practices for deep spiritual and emotional healing can help rebalance and restore much of this brokenness inside each of us and our communities of faith and action.”

Contemplative activism offers a foundation for a transformative and sustainable movement. While new language and practice continually evolve in this discipline, Micky ScottBey Jones offers a reminder that it is an approach that simply needs to be claimed in this time and place.

“Contemplative spirituality is our heritage. It is a gift from the ancestors. From those who have gone before in our faith traditions and moral courage movements.”