Action and Contemplation: Part One
Friday, January 10, 2020
Those who have gone to their own depths through contemplation uncover an indwelling Presence. Austrian philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) called this intimacy an “I-thou” relationship. It is a deep and loving “yes” to God and to life that is inherent within each of us. In Christian theology, this Presence would be described as the Indwelling Holy Spirit, which is precisely God as immanent, within us, and our deepest and truest self. God is the very ground of our being!
Some saints and mystics have described this Presence as “closer to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself.” Thomas Merton and others call it the True Self. The paradox is that this True Self is immortal and indestructible, and yet it must also be awakened and chosen. The Holy Spirit is totally given and given equally to all, but it must be consciously received. The Presence needs to be recognized, honored, and drawn upon to become a Living Presence.
We all bear the divine image, but we surrender to God’s likeness in varying degrees and stages. None of us is morally or psychologically perfect or whole (at least I have not met anyone who is), but saints and mystics nevertheless dare to believe that they are ontologically (“in their very being”) whole, and that it is totally a gift from God. It has nothing to do with our own private “me”—with anything we could do to earn or deserve it!
The Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. (In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”) Culture and usually even religion teach us to live out of the false or separate self of reputation, self-image, role, possessions, money, appearance, and so on. It is only as these things fail us, and they always do, that the True Self stands revealed and ready to guide us. Some enlightened souls surrender to this truth and presence early, usually by reason of suffering.
The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion already. And from this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves just about everything. We are made in love, for love, and unto love, and it is out of this love that we act.
Action doesn’t mean busyness or “do-goodism.” It may not even mean activism, but it does mean serious engagement with the suffering of the world, beyond our own in-groups and identity groups. Rightly sought, action and contemplation will always regulate, balance, and convert one another. Separately, they are dead-ended and trapped in personality. For all of us, finding tangible ways of expressing our faith is an endless rhythmic dance. The steps change now and then, but Someone Else is always leading and it’s just up to us to “follow” along.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 46-47; and
“Not the Center for Activism and Introspection,” Radical Grace, vol. 4 no. 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation: December 1991-January 1992), 1.