One morning, when I was living in Kathmandu, Nepal, I was awakened by a man standing in front of my home calling something in what I presume was Hindi or Nepali (I spoke neither at the time). His face was painted in bright colours; he wore very simple and minimal clothing with a rosary of sorts and, unlike most Nepalis, his hair was completely unkempt. I later learned that he is a Sadhu, a Hindu holy man. Sadhus, while following the teachings of Hinduism, seem to take Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 6 (paraphrase: “do not worry about tomorrow”) very seriously. They own nothing. They store nothing. They seldom have shoes on their feet. They survive on whatever others offer them. Theirs is a life of moment-to-moment simplicity. One might call it an extreme case of urban asceticism.
And at that moment that was what I wanted.
I suppose I was on a quest for enlightenment of sorts. My United Church upbringing wasn’t resonating (as was true for many of us in our early 20s). My dabbling into evangelical circles was ringing a little hollow. I wanted to be so intimate with God as to eschew the material world and live only in the moment. As it turns out—and this is where I might differ from the Sadhus—I wanted only to live for myself. I wanted the contemplative lifestyle but I wanted it only for my own fulfillment. I had come to Nepal to learn about and maybe address some of the inequities this material world offers, but suddenly I was becoming quite taken by the notion of my own ‘enlightenment’ above anything else. Forget the pain and suffering of the world. Forget the structural imbalances that keep people living in poverty.
Fortunately I grew out of that. And maybe the pendulum swung the other way. A few years later I was back in the United Church pew and craving to turn this immense institution into a social justice organization, and only a social justice organization. I sought to interpret Jesus and the scriptures in ways that would confirm my bias: Jesus was about only social justice. How far the pendulum had swung from when I wanted Jesus to be about only contemplation.
I suppose in my old age (mid-30s) I’ve mellowed a bit and have learned to combine my leanings of these two periods of my life. I’ve come to see Jesus as a mystic, a contemplative. And I see him as one who used his unity with God to seek to address the structures that separate people from God: oppression, hierarchies, slavery, arbitrary imprisonment, patriarchy, and so on.
I see the heart of Christianity as the intersection between contemplation and social justice advocacy. And, wouldn’t you know, there are others with this same conviction! I’ve found tremendous inspiration from Richard Rohr and the Centre for Contemplation and Action. And I’ve found United Church folks in BC who are equally (or more) committed to this same intersection. Here in Castlegar we are piloting a Centre for Contemplation and Justice, to see if my neighbours are also craving something that, for whatever reason, generally isn’t on offer in the institutionalized parts of our denomination.
We’ll see how it goes and I invite you to stay tuned as we share what we learn from this experiment.
Peace and blessings,
(Rev.) Greg Powell