Action and Contemplation: Week 1
The Contemplative Mind
Sunday, May 8, 2016
(Feast of Lady Julian of Norwich)
What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action. —Thomas Merton 
I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987 because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years I met many social activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love except in their own minds. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, the need to look good, the attachment to a superior, politically correct self-image.
They might have the answer, but they are not themselves the answer. In fact, they are often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.
The lie always comes in a new form that looks like enlightenment. We are easily allured by the next new thing, the new politically correct agenda. And then we discover it’s run by unenlightened people who in fact do not love God but love themselves. They do not love the truth, but love control. The need to be in power, to have control, and to say someone else is wrong is not enlightenment. Such unenlightened leaders do not love true freedom for everybody but freedom for their new ideas. That’s been my great disappointment with many liberals. Untransformed liberals often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can’t let go of their own need for change and control and cannot stand still in a patient, humble way as people of deep faith often can. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Conservatives, on the other hand, idolize anything that lasts, but then stop asking the question, “Is it actually bearing any fruit?” It is the perennial battle between ideologues and pragmatism.
If we are going to have truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach them some way to integrate their needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. In CAC’s early years, I think our first internships were about 50% social critique and 50% contemplation. As time has gone on, we’ve more and more emphasized contemplation. I’m convinced that once you learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, your politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to teach you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias from the bottom, you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are “different.” From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do almost naturally.
Gateway to Silence:
 Thomas Merton, ed. Lawrence Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: Essential Writings (Paulist Press: 1992), 375.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Contemplative Prayer (CAC: 2007), CD, MP3 download; and
Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), 73-75.