Contemplative in Action

Knowing of my interest in interspirituality and interfaith dialogue, my friend Richard gave me a wonderful book titled Monks and Muslims: Monastic and Shi’a Spirituality in Dialogue. The book contains papers from a 2011 conference during which Christian monastics and Iranian Shi’a Muslims shared thoughts on the subjects of revelation, prayer and witness.

I’ve benefitted from reading a number of the paired papers I’ve read thus far – and will doubtless share some thoughts about them in a future post.

However, I didn’t need to read past the introduction to the book to find something that struck me powerfully, something that helps explain the value of Christian/Muslim dialogue. The introduction quotes an excerpt from Frithjof Schuon attempting to answer the question of why monasticism is not part of the Islamic tradition, a tradition that “possesses mysticism, ascetic discipline, and a cult of saints?”

His answer to that question will resonate deeply with those who, like myself, are possessed of an Ignatian spirituality, which emphasizes being “contemplative in action.” He writes

One of the raisons d’etre of Islam is precisely the possibility of a “monastery-society,” if the expression is allowable: that is to say that Islam aims to carry the contemplative life into the very framework of society as a whole; it succeeds in realizing within that framework conditions of structure and of behavior that permit of contemplative isolation in the very midst of the activities of the world. …The famous “no monasticism in Islam”…really means, not that contemplatives must not withdraw from the world, but on the contrary that the world must not be withdrawn from contemplatives; the intrinsic ideal of monasticism or of eremitism, namely asceticism and the mystical life, is in no way affected.

Ignatius envisioned his followers as “contemplatives in action,” alert to the presence of God in all aspect of their lives, in constant relation to God wherever they were. This ideal is no different for Muslims than it is for Christians.