Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Contemplation and Action

The last week or so, I've been casting around for another subject, partly because the previous entry was a bit of an act to follow. While I'm grateful that it was received so well, it was a bit of an exhausting entry, so it's taken a couple false starts to settle on a new entry.

What I decided to write about is something else which represents a change for my spiritual life in the last ten or so years- the interlocked combination of contemplation and action. That will, inevitably, strike some of my readers as a contradiction in terms. 'How could sitting and thinking about God be compatible with getting out and doing things? Isn't contemplation just another word for navel-gazing? Get up and do something useful!'

At the root of that objection is an assumption that contemplation and action are mutually exclusive- that one can't do one and the other. Yet, I think that is mistaken. After all, when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Law, he answered :   

                                “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all
                                  your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the first
                                  and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it:
                                  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the
                                  Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22, 36-40)

You see what Jesus did here. In answer to the question about the greatest (i.e. one, greatest) commandment, he gave two. One, "Love the Lord your God..." calls forth the contemplation of God with all our faculties- emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Two, he calls us to "Love your neighbour as yourself"which calls one out and into action. That is, he calls us inward into contemplation of God, but, then, outward to our neighbour which involves action. Then, He anchors it with the last statement which makes "All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments". That is, all that God has taught us in the Bible hangs on the love of God and love of neighbour. Just as the two cannot be separated, so contemplation and action can't be separated.

You can see that combination in the lives of so many heroes of the faith in our and previous generations. Thomas Merton combined a commitment to monastic contemplation with a burning desire for peace-making. Henri Nouwen felt the pull to contemplative prayer, but also remained committed to serving his neighbour in his spiritual writings, but, perhaps, more importantly, in his work at L'Arche in the last years of his life. Nor are Christians the only ones who do this. Gandhi had a rigorous ascetical prayer life amid all his efforts to serve his people. I could go on, but you get the picture. All of these figures found that a vigourous prayer life was necessarily for them to do the good that they did in the world. And, conversely, the actions they did in the world were essential for their understanding of what God was asking them to do in their prayer lives. Contemplation and action didn't just co-exist for them. They complemented each other.

Here is the point where I have to admit that my attention-span for contemplative prayer would fill a tea-spoon. I can manage about ten minutes, maybe, fifteen, in prayer before my thoughts spin completely out of control. And that is on a good day. Of course, I know that is common and that it is part of the process of learning contemplative prayer. The desert monastics in the 4th century talk about warring against the logismoi- the chains of obsessional thinking which get in the way of our prayer to God- as a necessary element to getting to contemplation. My difficulties with concentration just mark me as a beginner and I can live with that.

Yet, even in the modest nature of my prayer-life, I have seen that link between contemplation and action enrich how I do things. Compassion and openness to others comes easier when I pray. Listening to God, even a little bit, makes it easier to listen to people. And it is listening and compassion which allow me to build community in both my classes and extra-curricular clubs- communities were students can feel safe enough to risk, whether that risk in intellectual or mental or emotional. Listening also helps me hear the pain and experience of others and impels me to action to find a space for that too in my teaching. When prayer (contempation) and action coincide, good things happen.

Of course, the opposite is true for me. All too often, I lose track of prayer in the course of the day. Fear, resentment, selfishness drive me in ways that I'd prefer not to admit. I make mistakes. I fail to listen. I lose my temper. But, as a desert monastic story goes, when asked what people did in that monastery, an elder said that they fell, and got up, fell and got up, fell and got up". Perhaps it is in my failures that growth comes, usually in the form of remembering to pray. And it is that prayer that leads me to find a way to make amends.

I am, as I say, a beginner and, as a result, I make the mistakes of a beginner. I don't understand everything about contemplation. I doubt if anyone really does. That might be the point- getting to know God is a lifelong endeavor which really doesn't end in our life times (or, at least, shouldn't). But that contemplation, that prayer, doesn't stop when I say 'Amen' and head out to the rest of my life. That prayer should be part of the process of becoming the person that God has made me and, then, translating that into what work God has for me today. And it is that work which leads me back to contemplating who sent me. so I can learn better what I need to do. It all interelates. It is all connected.

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