Contemplation in Action

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Amen, amen, I say to you, the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for what he does, the son will do also.

John 5: 19

We sometimes speak of contemplation as if it were a term of art, an object that we can grasp or an achievement or attribute we can attain. What we often refer to as the balance of action and contemplation then becomes seen as a harmonization we achieve by apportioning our time and effort in these two discrete areas of life in equal measure. This makes both action and contemplation products of our ego or functional dimension. It buttresses us, in our pre-transcendent identity, as the measure and measurer of all things.

In today’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus is addressing those who charge him with violating the law of the Sabbath. He makes clear that the Father, who rests on the Sabbath, also remains at work on the Sabbath. Jesus goes on to say that he himself acts only in accord with the Father’s activity in him. He cannot be violating God’s command to rest on the Sabbath because he is doing “only what he sees the Father doing.” Clearly the work of which Jesus is speaking, and implicitly both the action and contemplation that he is addressing, are of a totally different order than the way the scribes and pharisees (and generally ourselves) use the terms. We tend to speak of contemplation as an activity of our own; Jesus, on the other hand, speaks of not doing “anything on his own” but rather of doing “only what he sees the Father doing.” Neither act (work) nor contemplation are our doing, but rather God’s.

Harmonizing the life of Martha and Mary, integrating action and contemplation, is not a work of our functional dimension. It is not an achievement of some ultimate virtue on our part. It is rather a slow, committed, painful process of abnegation and transformation. It is the deliberate and single-focused commitment to submit our capacity for action, management, and control to

the aspirations and inspirations which we receive from the participation in the life of God that we are in the transcendent and pneumatic dimensions of our human personality. We come, through discipline, practice, and abandonment, to put our functional capacities in service to God’s way and work in the world rather than to the cultural pulsations of our time and our own vital impulses and functional ambitions. Slowly by slowly our acts in the world cease to be reactions and become, instead, instruments of God’s creative love and work in the world.

What we call contemplation is our capacity for “receptive attentiveness to the mystery of being.” Contemplative action is a “creative endeavor and involvement in the circumstances of our life” that emerges out of that “receptive attentiveness.” Simply put, contemplative action is one’s inspired capacity to do in the moment “what he sees the Father doing.” What we often term contemplation are those practices we undertake whose purpose is to foster that “receptive attentiveness to the mystery of being.”  For the spontaneous life of our unconscious is not receptively attentive but rather defensive and dispersed. it measures reality in terms of its potential gratification or threat to our physical, mental, and emotional well being. If we are to awaken to life beyond the self-centered, we must submit with diligence to difficult (and often tedious) practices that diminish our self-preoccupation and awaken our transcendent potencies.

Lent is that time of year when we examine our spiritual practice. We do so not to build ourselves up in virtue or holiness but rather to awaken ourselves to the presence and the love in which we truly “live and move and have our being.” It is only in obedience and service to this Divine life that our life and work find their end and fulfillment.

A beginner submits to the rules and traditions of some practice. A sustained narrowing of focus and intensification of discipline gradually yield a wider vision of possibilities and an increase in freedom of action. . . . joint attention . . . creates a new viewpoint, in which our genuine individuality is  . . . perceived. . . confirmed. Rootedness, obedience, and self-limitation are thus the conditions of autonomy and mastery.

Genuine agency arises not in the context of mere choices freely made (as in shopping) but rather, somewhat paradoxically, the context of submission to things that have their own intractable ways whether the thing be a musical instrument, a garden, or the building of a bridge. . . . When we become competent in some particular field of practice, our perception is disciplined by that practice; we become attuned to pertinent features of a situation that would be invisible to a bystander. Through the exercise of a skill, the self that acts in the world takes on a definite shape. It comes to be in a relation or fit to the world it has grasped.

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

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