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Contemplation and Action

Jan Johnson

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Of Warrior-Kings and Fiery Prophets

The common thought seems to be that a truck driver, gymnast, or video game developer would never participate in contemplative prayer. Many write off contemplation by saying, “But I’m a doer, like Martha!” as if the world were split between contemplatives and activists. This split is not only artificial but tragic; contemplation and activism are parts of an organic whole.

Contemplative prayer is not only for introverted, intuitive types. Consider the reflective psalm-writing shepherd David. Imagine this warrior-king in contemplation one moment; the next moment he’s killing a lion to save his sheep. This same man, who squirmed out of a desperate situation by pretending to be mentally unbalanced, was schooled by God in the contemplative tradition (Pss. 5:3; 27:14,; 37:7; 38:15; 40:1; 130:5–6). Perhaps David even got the creative idea of feigning madness while waiting on God. It wouldn’t surprise me, considering the practical insights I’ve gained from contemplative moments. For someone as practiced in solitude and contemplation as David, the border between the rich inner life and the active outer life was permeable. He must have moved in and out of contemplation all day.

Other biblical figures with active public lives connected with God in private moments. In Elijah’s discouragement (including suicidal thoughts), the angel drew him far from the public scene to hear the gentle whisper of God. There he rested, conversed with God, and discerned the specifics of his prophetic vision (1 Kings 19:12). Jacob retreated to Bethel, and God showed him his future and hope (Gen. 28:10–17). Jesus withdrew to the desert to listen to God and began inviting the disciples to join him (Mark 6:31).

Contemplatives make good activists. Their activity becomes focused, powerful, and sustained.

Contemplatives make good activists. Their activity becomes focused, powerful, and sustained. Significant doers draw from a well of quietness before God. For example, Amy Carmichael was a single missionary to India, who rescued temple prostitutes, eventually establishing a home and school for them. She also wrote this:

Give much time to quietness. We have to get our help for the most part direct from our God. We are here to help, not be helped, and we must each one of us learn to walk with God alone and feed on His word so as to be nourished. Don’t only read and pray; listen. And don’t evade the slightest whisper of guidance that comes.

Both Augustine of Hippo and Bernard of Clairvaux were contemplatives who were highly productive. Three years after entering the monastery, Bernard was sent to found the abbey at Clairvaux and served there as abbot until his death. During that time, he founded more than sixty monasteries and assisted in founding three hundred more.  Augustine was not only an ecclesiastical and liturgical leader, but also a magistrate, “assaulted by his congregation with small- claims  disputes, and forced to beseech a haughty civil service on their behalf.” In the midst of all these good works, both men (as their writing reveals) made seeing God and loving God the primary pursuit of their lives.

a person standing on the beach looking at the breakers

Too Much Interiority

It’s true, however, that as you practice contemplative prayer, you may become more fascinated with “feeling holy” than with God’s own self. Joan Chittister, author of Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, wrote how she discovered the danger of becoming “pseudocontemplative” in her early days in a convent training to become a nun.

The biggest shock of my early life in the community was to find out that novices were not permitted to go to chapel between the regular times for prayer. Now what kind of a place was this? Here I was, set to get instant holiness and impress the novice mistress at the same time, but someone apparently had figured out both motives and moved to block the whole idea. In fact, they had something much better in mind for all of us. They wanted us to work. Why?
Chittister explained that pseudocontemplatives see work as an obstacle.

They want to spend their hours lounging or drifting or gazing or “processing.” They work only to sustain themselves and even then as little as possible. Pseudocontemplatives say they are seeking God in mystery, but as a matter of fact they are actually missing the presence of God in the things that give meaning to life.

To practice the contemplative life without the active life can lead to self- absorption and “spiritual greed,” as John of the Cross called it. Richard Rohr went so far as to say that prayer, spirituality, and devotions can become a place to hide, even a way of inflating the ego as if one lives on a higher level of some sort.

A rhythm of reflection interwoven with activity invites God’s presence to infuse all of life, even mundane activities. During Henri Nouwen’s stay in a Trappist monastery, the regimen he was given alternated times of contemplation with peeling potatoes and hauling rocks from a riverbed. God became as present to him in work as in prayer.

Compassion for People We Don’t Know

Experienced contemplatives of the past and present tell us that God, through contemplation, enlarges our heart to such an extent that we care not only about those we know, but also about those we don’t. In God’s presence, we come to care about the world God so loves. We come away from contemplation equipped with a heart for bringing justice and mercy to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the needy, the sick, and the prisoners, even though we’ve never met them (Matt. 25:35–36). 

God-driven service flows out of what you hear from God, and it motivates you to answer God’s invitations to advance the kingdom and be a voice for the voiceless. Ongoing conversations with God gets you involved in the redemptive work of pulling people back from their slide into sin and despair. Missionary Frank Laubach described it this way: “After months and years of practicing the presence of God, one feels that God is closer; His push from behind seems to be stronger and steadier, and the pull from in front seems to grow strong.” We have a sense of God’s hand reaching back to lead us while the other hand stretches forth unseen into God’s will.

The rhythm of action and contemplation prevents compassion fatigue and burnout.

The rhythm of action and contemplation prevents compassion fatigue and burnout. Your conversational life with God will keep you richly supplied with companionship and innovative ideas. As an author and longtime commentator on social justice issues, Jim Wallis understands this rhythm:

Action without reflection can easily become barren and even bitter. Without the space for self-examination and the capacity for rejuvenation, the danger of exhaustion and despair is too great…. Contemplation confronts us with the questions of our identity and power. Who are we? To whom do we belong? Is there a power that is greater than ours?… Our drivenness must give way to peacefulness and our anxiety to joy…. Strategy grows into trust, success into obedience, planning into prayer.

Wallis’s insight that “drivenness must give way to peacefulness” reassures us that the driven among us are not excluded from the contemplative way. It helps us seek God instead of our own goals.

Perhaps this idea of contemplation as burnout prevention explains why the Sisters of Mercy don’t get overwhelmed as they work among the poor and dying in Calcutta, India. Even though they get so much important work done, writes Christine Sine, “they spend only five hours a day among the poor. The rest is spent in prayer, meditation, and things that focus them on God. Their effectiveness and ability to keep going is multiplied incredibly because of their time with God.” 

Conversely, compassion can shrivel into nothing more than sentimental feelings without hands--on compassionate activity: wiping a bloody nose or scrubbing a dirty floor. “Moved with compassion,” Jesus spent hours healing the sick and teaching the crowds (Mark 1:41; Matt. 14:14; Mark 6:34). Yet underlying this activity is the fact that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16, emphasis added) – sometimes for an entire night (Luke 6:12). His life of action wasn’t a lonely sprint, but a journey with Father and Spirit, with plenty of stops along the way.

Jan Johnson is an author, speaker, college professor, and spiritual director. This article is adapted from her book When the Soul Listens. 

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