Contemplative by Catastrophe

“I’m a “contemplative by catastrophe.” My wake-up calls generally come after the wreck has happened and I’m trying to dig my way out of the debris. I do not recommend this path as a conscious choice. But if you, dear reader, have a story similar to mine, I come as the bearer of glad tidings. Catastrophe, too, can be a contemplative path, pitched and perilous as it may be.

…Life can always be counted on to send something my way – who knows what it will be today? Maybe a reminder of a part of my past that I regret. Maybe a spot on critique of something I thought I did well. Maybe a political outrage that makes me feel that my country has lost all semblance of soul.

Whatever it is I’ll try to work my way through it until a hopeful reality is revealed on the other side. Regret can be turned into blessing. Criticism can refocus our work or strengthen our resolve. When we feel certain that the human soul is no longer at work in the world, it’s time to make sure that ours is visible to someone, somewhere.”


There are many meanings for the word ‘contemplation.’ In common parlance it refers to an intense focus, an attempt to decipher the depth of a subject. Religiously, contemplation is a form of meditative prayer characterized by quiet, wordless stillness wherein one rests in the presence of God. From a spiritual perspective, which is the one taken by Quaker author Parker Palmer in the above quote, contemplation is the experience of awakening to the truth that both ourselves, and our lives have a sacred depth of which we are most often unaware.

It is usually thought that the wake-up call to this depth comes in the form of a gentle nudge when, for instance, we are smitten by the beauty of a sunset, surprised by an act of kindness, or stopped in our tracks by the  birth of child or the peaceful, timely death of an aged loved one. Events of this sort, ordinary yet miraculous, can pull the rug from under our everyday, sleep walking way of getting through life.

This is not Palmer’s experience, as he states that “catastrophe, too, can be a contemplative path.” It can be the painfully unexpected, unwanted, and unfair, that opens our eyes, minds, and hearts to the wonder of it all. Even the likes of regret, criticism, and outrage, can be a blessing that makes us aware and appreciative of the sacredness of life, of others, and of ourselves. What is important is not how these wake-up calls come, but that we recognize and respond to them as invitations to become more present to the mystery of ordinary life.


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