Being a Contemplative in Action

The phrase “contemplative in action” is a commonly-used description of Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality. It conveys the idea the contemplation is fulfilled by action, that prayer is complemented by our actions of love in the world.

It also conveys something about how we are in the world. I read a wonderful statement that conveys beautifully what that means. It is posed in the form of a question I read in a back issue of Listen, a newsletter for spiritual directors. The question is:

Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s one the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest?

Although framed as a question (the answer to which is yes), it lays out some qualities that describe one who is a contemplative in action: Alive. Active in the world. Possessing an inner openness and presence. Alert. Completely at ease. Completely at rest.

Some of those sound, at first blush, to be contradictory. But they really aren’t. At our best, when we are being contemplatives in action we can be, at one and the same time, active and alert (being Christ in the world) and at ease and at rest (secure in God’s presence in and with us). Busy with our hands, but peaceful in our hearts.

I say “at our best” because we don’t manage to unite those seemingly contradictory elements all the time…maybe not even most of the time. But it is a worthy goal.

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Prayer and Action

One of the books I am currently reading Shane Claiborne and John Perkins’ book, Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical. I have yet to read or listen to anything of Shane’s that I haven’t thought wonderful (not to mention challenging) and this book is no exception.

Among the subjects addressed in the book is one of central importance to all of us on our spiritual journey – the role of prayer. Prayer, in Perkins’ words, is one of the “primary ways in which we connect with the power of God.”

There is a danger, however – the danger that prayer becomes an excuse not to act. We express our sadness at a problem and promise our prayers, and that lets us off the hook to do anything else.

Both Perkins and Shane emphasize our need, as Christians, to be people who pray and act. Shane writes

When we pray for the hungry, let’s remember to feed them. When we pray for the unborn, let’s welcome single mothers and adopt abandoned children. When we give thanks for creation, let’s plant a garden and buy locally grown fruits and veggies. When we remember the poor, let’s reinvest our money in micro-lending programs. When we pray for peace, let’s beat our swords into plowshares and turn military budgets into programs of social uplift. When we pray for an end to crime, let’s visit those in prison. When we pray for lost souls, let’s be gracious to the souls who’ve done us wrong.

You get the idea. We don’t all need to do the same things. But we all need to do something to combine our prayers with being the hands and feet of God in the world.