Contemplative Life, Justice and Mercy

SOUNDINGS – Contemplation or Action? Yes!

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a lot to do!  Most people I know really want to make a difference in the world and make it a better place for more people.   Many of us struggle to pray more and be with God more deeply as the deepest way we respond to the challenges of our lives and the challenges of Kingdom action.   It’s important to keep struggling to find that balance!

Despite the inherent tension between contemplation and action, particularly felt when one tries to integrate them on a daily basis, the proper balance must be sought, for contemplation and action need each other.   Writing in Compassion, Henri Nouwen’s insights regarding prayer are to be applied to contemplation:  “Prayer and action, therefore, can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive.  Prayer without action grows in a powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation.  If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service.”      

Thomas Merton used a more graphic illustration of “the spring and the stream” to make the same point.   Writes Thelma Hall, “Unless the waters of the spring are living and flow outward, he said, the spring only becomes a stagnant pool.  And if the spring loses contact with the spring which is its source, it dries up.   In this image of Merton’s, contemplation is the spring of living water, and action is the stream that flows out from it to others; it is the same water.”

Another helpful metaphor is that of two wings of the same bird.   Obviously, both wings are needed for a bird to fly, to function as a bird.   The two wings enable its body to fly, to live into its essence.   It could be said that contemplation and action are both needed for a Christian to live into his or her essence, to be who they are, the Body of Christ.  Jesus said in John 15: “Abide in me” and “Apart from me you can do nothing”.    He does not say that there is anything wrong with action, but rather that it is through abiding in him (contemplation) that fruit (action) happens.    Indeed, as William Johnston observes, “Mystical action is chiefly a matter of bearing fruit.”

Beyond simply talking about abiding in himself as the foundation of our work, certainly Jesus in his own life demonstrated the happy marriage of contemplation and action.   Of course he is remembered for his many acts of mercy and compassion.   But he is also remembered for his constant return to prayer, early in the mornings or off with God in the mountains.  It is interesting to note that on several occasions, before Jesus did something of great import to his mission, he would retreat in solitude to pray.   Before he began his ministry, he went to the desert (Lk. 4.1-14).  Before he chose the apostles, he spent the night in prayer (Lk. 6.12-13).  Before he would go to the cross, he went to the Garden (Lk. 22.39-46).   In the Gospel of Luke, we see most clearly Jesus the activist, who is intent on healing and bringing good news to the poor (Lk. 4.18-19)  And yet, among the Gospels, it is the Luke that most often records Jesus in solitude and Jesus in prayer.     

Bede Griffiths sees in Jesus the right relationship of contemplation and action lived out:  “Jesus is the man who is totally given to God, the one who is totally surrendered to the vertical movement.  At the same time he was totally open to all people and to life as a whole.  That is the dual movement, vertical and horizontal, of contemplation in action, action in contemplation.”   Thus, Griffiths observes, “Social action should flow from our contemplation…There is no rivalry between contemplation and action.”   

If we are to become Christ-like, we will be those who balance well contemplation and action.   If we are to be more fully the Body of Christ in the world, we will be those who manifest both inclinations.

So, Contemplation and Action—Two Wings for the Body.    The two wings of contemplation and action, held together within one body, enables us to be the Body.   Held together, contemplation and action enables us to live fully into who we are made to be, for God’s sake, and the sake of the world.



“SOUNDINGS” posts are aimed at considering topics that are important for our society, for the Church, and for our own spiritual journeys. To ‘take a sounding’ is a nautical term about using depth to determine where you are and where you’re going.  These writings are designed to do just that. Follow along when we post on Fridays by subscribing here and selecting “Soundings.” Please share this post with others!

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