contemplative ethics

I’m struggling with an ethical dilemma at the moment, that, ironically enough, involves an essay on ethics. In January I took my ordination exams, which entailed writing six essays over four days on liturgy, ethics, theology, scripture, church history, and the practice of ministry. I passed five out of the six essays, but I have been asked to rewrite my ethics essay. My essay on what constitutes the good life for the Christian, was, the examiners wrote in their comments, a beautiful exploration of contemplative union with Christ but was lacking in specifically ethical insight. The examiners seemed to want something more philosophical and rational, beginning with a first principle and moving outward from there.

Now I’m faced with a challenge. It would be so easy to write a new essay about the good life for the Christian from the standpoint of virtue ethics, to discuss how an adherence to the principles of justice, mercy, and mutuality shape the Christian’s life. And it’s not as if that argument is devoid merit. The trouble is that no virtue, however laudable, is ultimate. Nor is rationality or philosophy. From the contemplative point of view, which is the only place from which I can speak with any sort of integrity, the pearl of great price is union with God in Christ. All other virtues and blessings that may flow from or to such union are mere reflections of the life that really is life.

The community watched The Trouble with Angels for our movie night on Sunday. At one point the mother superior, played by the inimitable Rosalind Russel, is contemplating expelling Mary, the movie’s spirited heroine. This is her deliberation: “Mary… oh, Mary has a will of iron. To bend but not to break… to yield but not capitulate… to have pride but also humility. This has always been my struggle, Sister.” This has always been my struggle, too, and it is with this essay.

How do I bend, but not break? Part of the trouble is that I find philosophical ethics fundamentally incomplete. These attempts to systematize human life and behavior too often make an idol of rationality and the life of the mind and divorce themselves from lived human experience. As such they also leave out the only thing that makes Christian faith possible or worthwhile: a living relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine telling someone who comes to you struggling with pain that longsuffering is a Christian virtue and they should endure their pain for that reason? Such a response would be beyond cruel. But to offer companionship in the midst of pain, to gaze on that pain with them, to remind them that Christ lives within them, also enduring their pain, even though they may not know or feel that presence–that’s the contemplative response and a much more appropriate pastoral one, too. To paraphrase the rule of our Founder, rationality that does not lead back to prayer is a dishonesty for the Christian.

And yet, I’m aware that there’s plenty of prideful stubbornness masquerading as conviction in my attitude toward this essay. I’m angry that I have to rewrite it. I feel misunderstood and marginalized in a church and an ordination process that often seem more concerned with strategic plans and administrative hoops than in helping to celebrate and clear the way for a living relationship with Christ. I would love to turn in the very same essay that I wrote originally, perhaps with a note at the top that says “here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” even as I know that such a move would reek (and rightly so) of arrogance.

So, the question remains, how to bend, but not to break? How to allow the fires of obedience (literally, “listening”) to temper the iron will within? How to write an essay that I say yes to with conviction and that also meets the guidelines laid out for me? How to craft a contemplative ethics that speaks to a rational world?


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14 Replies to “contemplative ethics”

  1. Dear Brother Aidan: You hit on a point of ethical problems dealing with answering ‘Why does God Allow Suffering?’…and what is our response to it. For myself…I found during my ministry to Aids patients, sometimes all I could do is to have a Presence. Whether it’s in the pain, the withering away of the body or helping dealing with unresolved issued before the patient dies…it’s always about Presence.
    It’s not about answering most of the time.
    Christ gave Love, Patience, Touching physically and spiritually and all combined just by being present. Sure one can argue ethically that people want answers when dying…so let others figure out ‘how many angels dance on the head of a pin’…you are so right Brother…be and have a presence is the answer. I can not think of a better place for you to witness this is in a Monastery of OHC.
    Prayers & Light,
    Joel Kauhl

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    1. Joel, thank you for your thoughtful reflection. Yes, I think you’re right. We need a more real-life way of thinking about Christianity and ethics. Admittedly, I’m not an ethicist, but I do imagine there are some folks doing that kind of work. We can all contribute to it, though.

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  2. Always loved The Trouble with Angels — a movie both funny and wise. Wishing you a “scathingly brilliant idea” for the essay (but one that won’t get you into trouble).

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  3. Can’t help thinking this post is your essay in embryo – an exploration into why ethics need to begin from contemplative relationship…

    Also, “I feel misunderstood and marginalized in a church and an ordination process that often seem more concerned with strategic plans and administrative hoops than in helping to celebrate and clear the way for a living relationship with Christ.” is why I’ve finally stopped going to church altogether. Too much “raise £1,000,000+ for new Parish Centre and very little “feed the hungry”. Too much “believe this very narrow set of doctrines or go to hell” and very little, if any, “come as you are – even if you never change, and don’t believe the correct formulae by our lights, you are still embraced by the Divine, who will never love you more than in this moment”.

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    1. Thanks for your reflections, Dorothy. Yes, I think you’re right that I’ll include some of these thoughts in my final essay. And I love the way you put the invitation we could offer: “you are still embraced by the Divine, who will never love you more than in this moment”–“even if you never change!” Amen!

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  4. Oh my goodness! My heart found rest in reading this! I am so where you are on this. I’m getting ready to celebrate the 19th anniversary of my ordination…and I remember those essays well…and the “politics” involved in getting them done and getting through the approval process. God bless you with that, and prayers that the call you have embraced with your heart and your life will be ratified so that you may bring this depth to a community and a Church that desperately needs it. One of the great challenges of our day is that we have move away from the contemplative movement of The Spirit in our life together as The Body of Christ. We have a major identity crisis because we do not spend enough time exploring this Union together and empowering people to grow in it. We’ve been co-opted by the corporate mindset and are now flailing in fear of “failure” in so many places. When Christ is our first love, all other loves express themselves much more organically and authentically. I can’t like this post enough!!!

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    1. Thank you for your encouragement, Eileen. I have found, throughout the ordination process, that there is tricky footwork involved in maintaining my integrity while also being flexible enough to provide the information needed for the tasks set me. And I couldn’t agree more that we have accommodated the corporate model far too often, which has led us directly into this present moment of crisis. We seem to forget, too, that we’re a people who believes that life comes out of death–that’s as true for the Church as it is for an individual.

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  5. Dear Brother Aidan,

    Amid all the wisdom and encouragement already offered, I have just one humble addition to offer: When I think of how am I moved to be in the world with others — which is what I think ethics ultimately comes down to — what underpins that movement is my conviction of the reality of the inner life … and the corollary that the inner life of another is just as valuable as my own. On a good day, I feel guided and respond by trying to remain true to that guidance. And I leave the door open to another doing the same thing or to providing dialogue, silence, listening, presence to support them through their own process. I guess yo could call it an ethics of fidelity rather than virtue. Best of luck with your essay and the rest of the ordination process.

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    1. Sue, thank you for your wise and grounded reflection. I love the idea of an ethics of fidelity! That phrase gives me some insight into the sort of thing I value, as well, which, for me at least, flows directly out of my sense of union with Christ. I may very well include that idea in my essay!

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  6. Bending is the option we seek since it allows us to hold tightly to what we deem worthy. We rebel against the breaking, but indeed that is where we find God.

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  7. I really like your thoughts here, Aidan, and, as usual, they lead me to more deeply contemplate and seek that closer union with Christ. I think this post could be a great starting point for your essay. I’m no ethicist or philosopher, but it seems to me that your thought here provide a very good foundation for ethics, especially as you express it in this statement: “All other virtues and blessings that may flow from or to such union are mere reflections of the life that really is life.”

    The way I see it, while all of life and actions as a Christian ideally flows from that contemplative union, in actuality, there are times when I am not all there with that connection with Christ (from my end; I know he’s always right there). I think of the nuts and bolts of ethics or virtues as a guide for those times when I’m less able to live so ideally and unconsciously out of the life of Christ in me and yet want to make choices that honor him. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but that’s how I tend to view the more external guidelines and virtues.

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