Moreover, in this society we see the antitype of the monastic community with its anti-vows.  So it is that poverty, chastity, and obedience have become demonic, the exact opposite of the vows of religion, the symbols now of oppression and idolatry.  First, the anti-vow of poverty, a commitment to inequalities of wealth and power, concentrated financial power, growing areas of poverty and deprivation.  And, let us not, these are not simply pockets of accidental poverty, unfortunate blots on the urban landscape, but essential and inevitable poverty, so long as the maldistribution of resources and the imbalance in society remain.  Secondly, the anti-vow of chastity, a commitment to dehumanization, to what Marcuse called ‘one-dimensional man’, to the denial of human sexuality.  Surely not, cry the critics, how can anyone seriously maintain that ours is a desexualized society?  Oversexed, perhaps.  Yet in fact the apparent explosion of ‘liberated’ sexuality is far less significant than the prevalence of sexual ignorance in our society, a prevalence to which any Samaritan, any marriage guidance counsellor, in fact, anyone working at the personal level with individuals and couples would testify.  The surface manifestations of apparently ‘liberated’ sexuality are, for the most part, merely the pathetic admission of the lack of it.  There is, rather, a dulling of the feelings: sexuality is banished to the bedroom and to the genital area.  We can no longer say, with Julian of Norwich, that our substance and our sensuality are in God.  We are suffering from what St Thomas Aquinas termed insensibilitas and which he stigmatized as a vice.  Thirdly, the anti-vow of obedience, for we have become an increasingly authoritarian and repressive society, the society of the corporate state where it is the ‘yes-men’ who prosper. […] And the most sinister fact about these anti-vows is that they are not even freely made: they are merely accepted as part of the way things are.  So there is an anti-contemplation, a disease of partial perception, or of no perception at all. (82-83)

Kenneth Leech | The Social God


The Desert

Christian contemplation therefore is not a smug search for interior peace, for the resolution or reduction of conflicts and tensions.  On the contrary, faith is a principle of struggle and purification before it becomes one of peace.  The Christian mind is one that risks intolerable purifications.  The need for radical purifications is expressed in the symbol of the desert, the symbol, above all, of contemplative prayer.  The desert is the place of conflict in which God appears often to be absent or to assume terrifying forms.  It is the place of spiritual resistance, of the encounter with evil, and of the purifying of our spirits.  It is expressed too in St John of the Cross’s symbol of the Dark Night through which all human souls in search of God must pass if they are to mature: a process of seeing by not seeing, of agnosia, the way of ignorance.

The solitude and inwardness which the symbols of the desert and the Dark Night express are essential to the common good, for without solitude, human society cannot become a communion but only a collection of separated individuals.  It is in solitude, in the depths of man’s aloneness, that there lie the resources for resistance to oppression. […]

Thus Christian contemplation is rooted in the crudity and squalor, the despair and cosmic struggle, of the incarnation and passion.  The vision of God is glimpsed within the world of matter.  Contemplation is not a search for consolation or comfort or inner peace, however much these may at times follow. (54)

Kenneth Leech | The Social God

Contemplation, Chaos, Crisis

The Christian pursuit of contemplation does not take place in space, but within this broken and fallen world-order.  Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum.  Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, the human loneliness.  It is within this highly deranged culture that the contemplative explores the wastes of his own being.  It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that he pursues the vision of God and experiences the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search.  He becomes part of that conflict and begins to see into the heart of things.  It is a painful experience, as Simone Weil saw:

Man only escapes from the laws of this world in lightning flashes.  Instants when everything stands still, instants of contemplation, of pure intuition, of mental void, of acceptance of the moral void.  Whoever endures a moment of the void either receives the supernatural bread or falls.  It is a terrible risk but one that must be run — even during the instant when hope fails.

The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order. (53)

Kenneth Leech | The Social God

Solitude and Solidarity

Liberation always begins on the plot of earth on which one stands.  ‘In solitude, in the depths of a man’s own aloneness, lie the resoureces, for resistance to injustice.’  On the other hand, a resistance which has not been wrought out of inner struggle must remain superficial or degenerate into fanaticism.


Merton saw solitude and solidarity to be interconnected.  The practice of solitude brings ‘a deepening awareness that the world needs a struggle against alienation.  True solitude is deeply aware of the world’s needs.  It does not hold the world at arm’s length.’  ‘The solitary, far from enclosing himself in poverty, becomes every man.  He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.’  Indeed ‘it is deep in solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers.’  Solitude is thus necessary for the flowering of the common life of love and sharing. (42-43)

Kenneth Leech | The Social God