Dancing Polarities — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Dancing Polarities

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Dancing Polarities
Monday, January 13, 2020

The words action and contemplation aptly describe the two dancing polarities of our lives. In classic Christian philosophy, 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.

Full integration doesn’t happen without a lot of mistakes and practice and prayer. And invariably, as we go through life, we will swing on a pendulum back and forth between the two. During one period we may be more active or more contemplative than at another time.

It does concern me how often all kinds of inner work are called contemplation, but they do not lead us to a full contemplative stance. We shouldn’t confuse insight-gathering and introspection with contemplative spirituality. Contemplation is about letting go of what is false and incomplete much more than it is about collecting what is new, no matter how true, therapeutic, or helpful it is. In other words, if personal growth is still our focus, I do not think we are contemplative yet. True transformation demands that we shed ourselves 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).  Self-help and personal growth are not of themselves the open field of grace where we move beyond self-preoccupation.

An exalted self-image of “I am a spiritual person” is far too appealing to the ego. I am afraid it’s not uncommon in the religious world for “innerness” to become disguised narcissism and overly self-serving. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) even warned against confusing an introverted personality with being a contemplative. [1] They are two different things. The introvert finds solitude quite comfortable, while the mystic and hermit use solitude to discomfort themselves.

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, too much outer focus risks superficiality, negativity (passing for love of justice), and various messiah complexes. Those on the right can lack love, and those on the left can lack love—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. The need to be right is not love.

[1] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1964), 325; and

The Inner Experience: Notes of Contemplation, ed. William H. Shannon (HarperSanFrancisco: 2003), 147.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 105-107.

Image credit: Algerian Woman Preparing Couscous (detail), Vincent Manago (1880–1936).
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: By contemplation, we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of the world. Action, as we are using the word, means a decisive commitment toward involvement and engagement in the social order. —Richard Rohr
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