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Fr. Kurt Messick

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Active Contemplation
by Fr. Kurt Messick   

Last edited: Thursday, May 15, 2003
Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2003

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Some small reflections...

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Active and contemplative spirituality seems like a paradox, or at least a confusion of opposites. Yet these two descriptors can work well together. Indeed, to work optimally, they must be partners. The time of the Desert Fathers, historically viewed as masters of contemplative spirituality, was actually one of great activity and growth in the church. The Desert Fathers themselves saw their lives as very active, actively seeking a unity or understanding with God.

We have a tendency in our world of seeing contemplation as a passive happening. We define 'active' in terms of something physical and with movement, or at the very least more active mentally than our typical view of contemplation holds. Yet an intentional contemplation, an intentional prayer, an intentional spirituality will take on increasingly the aspects of activity, and most often leads deliberately to action in 'the real world'.

Contemplation can be an act of reflection, an act of reception, or an act of creation. In reflecting, contemplation takes stock of what has been. In reception, contemplation opens up the soul to that which is (and recall here the most common understanding of God's name in the burning bush -- I am that I am - that which is). In creation, contemplation lends the strength and intention of the person to the continuance and, indeed, the creation of the future. What many do not realise is that, in the Hebrew language, the name of God translates just as easily into I will be what I will be - God is always in the process of creating the world, moment by moment. This is a process that we, as God's subjects and created beings who are participants in God's creation, may work in through our intention, in making the world a better place.

Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life, sees action in the world as an outward sign of an inward power. This must be nurtured somewhere, like a seed buried underground that will burst forth in full flower. Yet Thomas Merton sees prayer and contemplation as itself action -- action that acts on the world through prayer directly and indirectly. Prayer and contemplation for Merton, set out beautifully in his collected essays, Contemplation in a World of Action, are active and action events, but should not be egocentric, solely for the benefit of ourselves. However, contemplation and prayer serve to strengthen and renew the individual, opening the self to new dimensions of life and love. The individual who neglects this runs the risk of burn-out, or a focus exclusively on the exterior world or the other in such a way that the person ceases to be as a person. There is no self left to give.

In the Christian scriptures, it states that faith without works is dead. This has often been misinterpreted to mean something akin to works-righteousness, a problematic doctrine; alternately, reaction to this often leads to a denigration of the importance of action. The Jewish religion has never had that stumbling block -- the sense that our actions in the world are reflective of our spiritual state has been strong (admittedly, this can lead to other problems, too).

Both Jesus and Hillel gave variations of the Golden Rule as central messages of the call of God. This message involves active and prayerful/contemplative elements.

For Jesus, he was once asked what was the greatest of the commandments. He responded that the love of God, completely and fully, was the first commandment, and the second was like it: to love one's neighbour as oneself. He said that all the law and the prophets hinged on these two statements. Notice that there is prayer and relationship with God and with each other in community in common measure.

For Hillel, he was asked to encapsulate Judaism while standing on one foot. He did so by telling the questioner not to do to others that which is hateful to himself, all the rest is commentary (but Hillel said to go and study the commentary!). Here again we have a combination of active and contemplative/prayerful study combined together.

It can be easy to dismiss one or the other aspect. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, 'We are greatly mislead if we think the struggle will be won only by prayer. God gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working.' He did not advocate prayer without action, nor action without prayer, but a synthesis and partnership of the two.

Micah 6:8
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?


This is often used as a text to show the blending of active and contemplative spirituality. To act justly and love kindness and walk with God is yet another reiteration of Jesus' and Hillel's statements.

Act prayerfully and Pray actively

Action and contemplation as separate in spirituality is an unreal separation; in fact, they cannot be completely divorced, and the attempt to do so renders empty the synergy, the transformative power that can come through as prayer influences action which influences prayer which influences action, and so on in a never-ending process.

We always tend to want to split things, break things into smaller chunks or different bits. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Desert Fathers, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa -- there is a discernable difference between these people and 'most' of humanity, because there is a certain holiness about them. What has happened is that they can talk the talk and walk the walk -- they have taken a singleness of purpose for the desire of God and transformed that into a very active and productive life for God. They didn't seek to split or separate or divide, but rather looked for that greater unity which is reflective of God's love.

One way to bridge the active and contemplative aspects of our spirituality, without becoming single-mindedly purposed to God, is through intercessory prayers shared with others. William Law speaks of intercessions as being acts of universal love. 'There is nothing that makes us love a person so much as to pray for them', Law wrote. When we cease to see others as other, we become active in our hopes for them.

Don Saliers tells us that intercessions turn us in the direction in which God's love is looking. We turn away from ourselves and begin that true service of identification with those who suffer, and this compels us to act.

Are we only praying for ourselves? Are we only praying for others? Are we only acting for ourselves? For others? We need to look for connections and areas of enlightenment and invigouration for our active contemplation and our contemplative action, our active prayers and prayerful action, to thrive.


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Reviewed by Gwen Dickerson 2/20/2004
Well done, Father! You've clarified my thinking with this well written article on contemplation. I especially like the way you give varied ideas and sources on/with both Christian and Jewish ideas and references.
Reviewed by m j hollingshead 5/17/2003
i like that premise: active contemplation, good article

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