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Contemplation in Action: Week 1
Action and Contemplation
Monday, June 26, 2017
The words action and contemplation have become classic Christian terminology for the two dancing polarities of our lives. Thomas Aquinas and many others stated that the highest form of spiritual maturity is not action or contemplation, but the ability to integrate the two into one life stance—to be service-oriented contemplatives or contemplative activists. By temperament we all tend to come at it from one side or the other.
This full integration doesn’t happen without a lot of mistakes and practice and prayer. And invariably, as you go through life, you swing on a pendulum back and forth between the two. During one period you may be more active or more contemplative than at another time.
I have commonly noticed a tendency to call any kind of inner work contemplation, and this concerns me. Inner work might lead you to a contemplative stance, but not necessarily. We shouldn’t confuse various kinds of inner work, insight-gathering, or introspection with contemplative spirituality. Contemplation is about letting go of the false much more than just collecting the new, the therapeutic, or the helpful. In other words, if you and your personal growth are still the focus, I do not think you are yet a contemplative—which demands that you shed yourself as the central reference point. Jesus said, “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain,” and it will not bear much fruit (John 12:24).
We must guard against our “innerness” becoming disguised narcissism, navel-gazing, and overly self-serving. I am afraid this is not uncommon in the religious world. An exalted self-image of “I am a spiritual person” is far too appealing to the ego. Thomas Merton warned against confusing an introverted personality with being a contemplative. They are two different things.
Having said that, I’ll point out the other side of the problem. Too much activism without enough inner work, insight, or examination of conscience inevitably leads to violence—to the self, to the project at hand, and invariably to others. If too much inner focus risks narcissism and individualism, I guess too much outer focus risks superficiality, negativity passing for love of justice, and various Messiah complexes. You can lack love on the Right and you can lack love on the Left—they just wear two different disguises.
We need both inner communion and outer service to be “Jesus” in the world! The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God.
Gateway to Silence:
Be still and still moving.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 105-107.