Contemplation and Action

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In times before, contemplative life and active life were often seen as nearly antagonistic. If one were contemplative, it would seem, one could not also be active. Now, there was a certain truth to this if one were of a contemplative order that was cloistered. There isn't a lot of action possible in the world behind the walls of a convent or monastery. While there is some truth to this, nevertheless, the contemplative was active within the narrow world of the convent, fulfilling the duties that life called them to. However, the world has, since the time of Christ, been infused with active contemplatives. St. Catherine of Siena springs to mind, but the Apostles were also prime examples, as well as many of the early Christians. Katherine Drexel and Dorothy Day come to mind in the modern world, as well as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

How, then, can we make sense of this blend of life. As long as one is in the world, one has a certain obligation to serve others. Within the cloister there is a limited circle to whom we owe the allegiance and service of charity through corporal works of mercy. This limitation leaves the cloistered person open for constant prayer for all in the world. The presence of cloisters is another infusion of grace in the world--centers of prayer for the redemption and sanctification of the world.

But if one is not confined to a cloister the urging and longing of contemplation, it would seem to me, translates into service to the greatest number of people possible. That is, a truly contemplative life in the world necessitates service of some sort. James tells us "Faith without works is dead." This is as true of a contemplative as it is of any other person. James goes on to tell us that it is insufficient to wish our Brother a good day or even God's peace if we can see that he is naked and hungry. Prayer has its place, an exalted place, a place of overwhelming importance; however, if prayer does not leave my heart open to service, if it does not change me substantially to be a loyal citizen of the kingdom of God, then it is possible that it is not prayer at all, but merely "nice thoughts."

Prayer is a work of transformation. As we pray we communicate and as we communicate, if we are truly listening, we are necessarily transformed. Contemplative prayer is communication par excellance. St. John of the Cross refers to infused contemplation as "divinity by participation."

So what is the link between contemplation and action. I believe a true contemplative in the world will be spurred on to some sort of action by his prayer. That is loving Christ requires keeping His commandments. I cannot keep His commandment to love another in abstract isolation. Yes, I pray for my brothers and sisters, but I must also be present to share their burdens and joys. Contemplation prepares us to do the work that God has appointed us to. If we keep house, contemplation prepares us to do this work without expectation of reward or kind word, merely for the intense love we have for Jesus. If we are communicators, contemplation gives us something worthwhile to communicate.

Contemplation gives each person "the mind of God." It informs actions, thoughts, and prayers. It prepares me to face the world and to find God in the person of Jesus Christ. When I talk of the life of being a contemplative, I am not exempting myself or anyone else from the hard work that is necessarily part of this life. I think of the desert fathers, who retired to their isolated cells, but who also taught and lived by "If you do not work you do not eat."

So, when I talk of contemplation, my focus is necessarily on the prayer side of that life. My expectation is that if contemplation is actually occurring in a person, that prayer will spill out into public view through the actions, writings, or public statements of the person. Contemplation done in the world feeds a violent urge toward active love. This is one of those things I think is meant when Jesus speaks about "From the beginning the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by storm." This violent love cannot be restrained. "Many waters cannot drown it." And so it must come out, or being held within, it must, like a flame without oxygen snuff itself out. A contemplative serves the world through prayer, but a contemplative in the world also serves through the work of his hands or his mind.

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Thank you for this post. I think that an interesting example of this can be found in the Taize community. For instance, you write, "Yes, I pray for my brothers and sisters, but I must also be present to share their burdens and joys." Brother Max Thurian (who later became a Catholic priest) wrote in 1963, "An inner life which is truly Christian has deep roots in the life of the world as it is today. Prayer is genuine, if to the adoration of God it joins intercession for all those who suffer, if it lifts up the sufferings of others in the presence of God, if it knows suffering from within as an experience which it has shared with Christ and with all other men."

Just as contemplation cannot overlook action if it is to be genuine, action cannot overlook contemplation. Brother Roger wrote in 1973, when action was very much in the mind of the churches, "In the struggle for the voice of the voiceless to be heard, for the liberation of every person, the Christian finds his place - in the very front line. And at the same time the Christian, even though he be plunged in God's silence, senses an underlying truth: this struggle for and with others finds its source in another struggle that is more and more etched in his deepest self, at that point in which no two people are quite alike. There he touches the gates of contemplation."

For Taize, the place where conemplation and action actually come together is in liturgical experience. Brother Max again:

"It is in the life of worship that faithful members of the Church will learn most deeply the meaning of that vocation as servants of God that they are to maintain throughout life and every part of life; that they will come to understand most perfectly the oneness of their whole life in Christ; and then their life will take on its full significance, as a life directed towards that kingdom in which the adoration of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is changeless and everlasting."


Hi Steven - Have you taken a look at the Center for Action & Contemplation at ? It was started by Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan. I have not looked into it much, but I do think that a contemplative life does lead to action, maybe just not action in a the way we are accustomed to.

Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, OP, Master of the Order of Preachers wrote a interesting reflection on itinerancy that has some engaging and insightful comments on the tension between the contemplative life and the active. It can be found at

Of particular note is the Section titled Itinerancy and Contemplation: The Art of Inerpreting the Present Time



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 11, 2004 7:04 AM.

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