Bearing (True) Witness
I have just returned to civilization after spending four glorious days at the retreat house at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, CO, with the “New Contemplative Exchange”, where thirty of us gathered to pray, to listen, to sit together in silence, and to envision the future role of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition and the world.
One of the things that most deeply affected me during our exchange was the deep quality of listening and respect for each other that characterized our discussions. Many persons commented how deeply we felt seen and heard, and how profoundly healing this was. It was in these discussions that I began to get a sense of the way in which we were “bearing (true) witness” to one another.
Three general themes emerged for me that characterized our vision for an emerging future of contemplative Christianity:
- A need to expand our circle of leadership – in particular to include persons from a wider variety of social, economic, and racial groups than were represented at this gathering.
- A strong emphasis upon the embodied and incarnational dimension of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition (beyond “thoughts” to dwelling in presence with an integrated fullness between mind and heart, body and soul).
- A burning desire to connect the interior transformation of contemplation with embodied, healing presence and peaceful witness in a violent, divided world (contemplative social action).
It is in this last theme that I began to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the ninth commandment against bearing “false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 & Deuteronomy 5:20). This commandment is about much more than simply not lying (though it does direct us toward speaking truthfully). Rather, it has to do with how we “bear witness” to others – that is, how we see and hear others as infused with the innate dignity that comes from being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This is especially necessary for those who are most vulnerable or excluded from society. In our political discourse today, this includes bearing true witness in particular to Muslims, immigrants, and African Americans (although the list could be expanded significantly).
After our New Contemplative Exchange I had the pleasure of spending another four days solo backpacking in the Colorado Rockies. This meant that for nine days I had almost no access to cell phone service or internet. Plenty of time for a thorough media detox. One of the first things I noticed at the airport was the intensity with which the anger and division of our culture’s “discourse” (if we can call it that) immediately engendered that old, familiar toxic anxiety and fear within me.
My first inclination is revert to my old defenses against this toxic anxiety – to blame those on the other side of the political aisle for all the bad stuff in the world. Or another alternative is to deflect this toxicity with an uneasy laughter, by watching my favorite political satirists ridicule the hell out of the Trump administration, Congress, etc. But despite the temporary sense of moral superiority I feel in doing that, it does little to address the underlying tension, the creeping sense that in seeking to divide I am somehow bearing false witness against my neighbors.
Contemplative prayer (in any spiritual tradition) aims at overcoming the dualities and divisions that separate us from our own true nature within, from each other, from the earth, from all creation, and ultimately from God. To be a “contemplative” (whether you call yourself one or not) is to seek a union that is whole and complete, that excludes no one and no thing. And so the positive side of the ninth commandment, which is the effort to “bear true witness to and with my neighbor,” becomes a radical act of hospitality and healing.
Bearing this true witness is much easier to do on retreat in Snowmass or hiking in the mountains. And so I wish to join with others, to ask for your help and your prayers for me to sustain this deep listening and bearing witness to others. With gratitude I offer the same prayers for you.