Keep calm, contemplate, resist

by Susan Rose Francois

NCR Contributor

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As I write these words, the East Coast of the United States is experiencing a winter storm that meteorologists have termed a "bomb cyclone." As far as I can tell, this unusual term describes a severe winter storm with a corresponding rapid deepening of low-pressure areas.

To a non-meteorologist like myself, out my window it just looks like a very cold and very windy never-ending swirl of snow, moving in every direction all at once: up, down, sideways and all around. I can't tell what is falling snow and what is already-fallen snow being thrown up in the air once again by the chaos of the storm and wind.

And so 2018 begins.

Given that many folks are feeling lost or unmoored in the midst of the swirling chaos of our national and global geopolitical reality, a bomb cyclone is actually quite a fitting metaphor for the start of this New Year. We are faced with Twitter storms by a sitting president, lofting incendiary words at targets ranging from celebrities to political opponents to another nuclear-armed nation. The future of our social safety net and funding for critical life-and-death government programs have been thrown up into the air by swirling political winds in Washington, leaving people who are poor and vulnerable out in the proverbial cold.

Meanwhile, people of goodwill observe the chaos, unsure what to do about it all as the next news cycle brings more swirling storms.

We want to hunker down, close the doors, and stay safe and warm, away from all the crazy. This is a natural response, and sometimes it is the right course of action, for a time, to recharge our batteries, but it cannot be our default position.

While storms (hopefully) pass, the chaos of the present state of our nation has serious present and future consequences that we cannot afford to ignore. America is great when its citizens are engaged and its branches of government work in tandem for the common good, not only of our nation, but the entire Earth community.

Keep calm

During the Second World War, the British government was concerned with how to keep its citizenry engaged in the face of actual life-threatening bombing campaigns. The Ministry of Information developed a number of clever advertising campaigns to boost the morale of the people, one of which has caught on in the decades since as being applicable to many situations: "Keep calm and carry on."

There is indeed wisdom for our own times in this slogan. When so much is out of our control, we owe it to ourselves to attend to our own well-being and the well-being of others, rather than be paralyzed by or exhausted by the never-ending nature of the chaotic storm.


At the same time, we must also attend to the life-threatening craziness gripping our national and global geopolitical landscape. As I've pondered the signs of our times, especially in light of the chaotic windy storm metaphor, I can't help but be reminded of the essays included in Gordon Zahn's compilation Thomas Merton on Peace. While Merton was writing in a Cold War context, his words are eerily appropriate for our situation in 2018:

The present world crisis is not merely a political and economic conflict. It goes deeper than ideologies. It is a crisis of [the human] spirit. It is a great religious and moral upheaval of the human race.

In order to keep calm, we are called to nurture our own contemplative practice. This is not in order to hide from the world, but rather to enable us to find the light of God's love within and shine it on a world desperate for light and love, a world in crisis. We will not be able to think our way out of this mess, but rather we must partner our God-given gift of reason with the very heart of God's love, within and among us, for all people and all of creation.

Pope Francis recognizes the critical need to be contemplatives in action today. In his 2018 World Day of Peace message, focused on the desperate situation of migrants and refugees, he encourages not only actions that welcome the stranger but also fostering a "contemplative gaze." Looking on the situation with eyes of love allows us to see the dignity, hope and possibility already present amid the darkness and chaos.

"Those who see things in this way," he writes, "will be able to recognize the seeds of peace that are already sprouting and nurture their growth."


Cultivating a contemplative gaze is critical, especially when we can see not only disregard for human life and dignity, but even the threat of nuclear war on the horizon. I honestly never thought I would be living in a time when the threat of nuclear war was once again so palpable. This makes these next words from Merton even more haunting and challenging.

We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results of "history." We are the ones concerned. We are the ones responsible ... How does one "resist"? ... I do not know. I am merely saying that this is an urgent problem that we have to consider and study with all our attention.

In light of the current posturing between the leaders of nuclear-armed nations, including our own, we must be engaged, we must resist.

In the face of policies and legislation that privilege the already privileged and burden working families, we must resist.

In the wake of systems of oppression, abuse of power, and violation of human dignity, we must resist.

We can weather the storm. We can love our way through this. Let's just keep calm, contemplate and resist.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]