Action and Contemplation

Notice the first image that comes to mind when you think of the word contemplation.  Possibly it is a monk fingering prayer beads and slowly walking the cloisters of a monastery.  Or maybe it is someone sitting in the lotus position with hands extended and palms facing up. But chances are good it isn’t someone busily engaged in office work, domestic chores, or other activities of daily life.

One of the great problems with contemplation is that too often it is divorced from life.  Often the path to this divorce starts with the mistaken assumption that contemplation is only for introverts or those who are trying to escape the demands of regular life.  But even if it doesn’t start here, usually contemplation is approached simply as a practice, not a way of life.  It’s something you do in private because of personal interests or disposition, not a way of grounding all your doing in being.

Thomas Merton offers us a wonderful image for thinking about the relationship of contemplation and action. He suggests that contemplation is the spring and action the stream that should flow from it.  Contemplation should be the source of all our action.  It provides the stillness before self and God where desires and motivations can be purified so that we can move out into life with action, not simply reaction.  In contemplation we open ourselves to allow love to spring up inexhaustibly from the Ground of the Soul and then move out through us to touch the world. Love springing up but then not flowing down the stream of action means that love has not really been received. For love is received in the measure it is given away.

Contemplation should be the source of all our living and all our doing.  Action and contemplation are two faces of the same coin.  Contemplation without action is escapist. But action that is not grounded in contemplation is dangerous because the result will always be raw reaction rather than truly free action.

Sometimes spiritual writers put too much distance between being and doing.  Contemplation grounds us in our being. It allows us to return to an identity based on “I AM” rather than “I have” or “I do.” It is a place of stillness that can uniquely prepare us for action.  We should be able to live with more fierceness and passion when we emerge from it. And we should then be able to carry that inner stillness into the midst of the action that flows from it.

Being without doing is meaningless. We find ourselves in our living of life, not in our reflection on it. It is in the stream of life that we most deeply encounter God in us, flowing up from the depths of our soul and out into the world. And it is in the stream of life that we notice God, active in the world, and are able to join God in the divine transformational agenda of making all things new in Christ.

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