The Non-Dichotomized Life

Jesus said to the crowds: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

When Theodore James Ryken founded his brotherhood, he hoped that its members would come to learn, by living out together their true vocation, how to live and work in such a way that their lives harmonized what Ryken saw as the call of Martha to work and serve the world and the call of Mary to sit at the foot of Jesus in contemplative presence. As with any polarity in life, we who have attempted to follow the way he proposed have experienced the tendency to swing from one of these polarities to the other. Our tendency is to dichotomize the polarities of work and contemplative rest rather than to harmonize them.

This morning I received an email from a friend who is currently on retreat. In his recounting of his experience of these days of rest and prayer, he made the following comment:  “Diminishing energy demands that I overcome diffusiveness as much as possible.” Those of us who are getting older readily identify with what he is saying. Perhaps we could say that one of the graces of losing the energy and strength of our youth is the spiritual call it gives us to “overcome diffusiveness as much as possible.” Where once multi-tasking was not only a possibility but our typical way of working and being in the world, now our bodies lack the energy and resilience, as well sometimes as the cognitive capacity, to be such a diffused presence. What the physical and cognitive diminishment of age pushes us to, however, is really a call for all the stages of our lives.

Our team spent the past two days in very intense meetings. After the meetings ended yesterday, a colleague and I were speaking about the tasks before us which emerged out of those meetings. As we spoke, we both experienced that one of the greatest obstacles to our doing the work as well and as fully as it deserves is the diffuse nature of our lives and works. The deepest of work requires what the spiritual life terms “recollection.” If we are to be open to inspiration, to allow the various aspects of the reality we are called to serve to reverberate within and so direct us, we need the kind of space, time, quiet, and dialogue that makes such openness possible.

The truth, however, is that biases toward the functional and quantitative inhibit ways of living and working that serve such a harmonization of the contemplative and active. The demands of the active, our primacy of executive over meditative or transcendent willing, tend to exacerbate our ever-present human tendency to diffusiveness. Without adequate time and space for true leisure, which fosters reflection, prayer, and contemplation, I make poor decisions and I do not do the work that is being asked of me fully, with all my heart. When, on the other hand, my life becomes more “pure of heart,” when I give myself, my time, my energy to the one thing necessary, then the quality of the work is very different.

Because we, especially in our time, tend to be functionalist in our perspective and ways of living, we experience the polarity of work (action) and contemplation as a dichotomy. As my work for many years as a formation director took me out of school work, a late confrere and friend would often, not appreciatively I think, refer to me as a “Mary” while he and others “who had to work” were “Marthas.” The truth of the matter is that, for the most part, I, as well as he, tended to live a rather dichotomized life between the two. Since we had more spiritual practices in formation, it was assumed that we were more living the contemplative mode. Yet, Ryken’s vision was of a life of both contemplation and action in work and prayer, in rest and activity, in solitude and in community. As our Fundamental Principles say:

For it is only in harmony
that you will grow,
that your community will grow,
that the love of God will grow in your world,
and that the kingdom of God will grow to completeness. 

The harmony, or what Ryken referred to as the non-dichotomized life, of contemplation and action can be best described as a state of rest. This is the rest of which Jesus speaks in the gospel. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” As we powerfully experience in our own time of climate crisis, human activity can be constructive or destructive. It can be a source of life, or it can be a violent manipulation. We human beings have created ways of living to foster our own comfort and affluence at the expense of others and of our common home. We have created weapons to maintain our power and privilege over others that have put in our very fallible hands the capacity to destroy the planet. We see time and again how human beings have attained positions of power and respect at the cost and degradation of others.

Whenever we act, we always believe we are acting in our own interest. But when we act out of our own need or ambition alone, we are inflicting, at varying levels of intensity, violence on the world, on others, and even on ourselves. A measure of this willfulness in work is how tired and depleted our work makes us. And then, our bodies and our minds crave a kind of rest that in our time we refer to as “vegging out.” When I am over tired, I will drop in front of a television, or overeat, or fantasize or find countless other ways to become “unconscious.” Jan van Ruusbroec says that such “rest” produces blind ignorance, makes us sink down into ourselves in inactivity, and is “nothing other than a state of empty idleness into which a person falls and in which he becomes forgetful of himself, of God, and of all things as regards any activity.” When we reduce ourselves to “functionaries,” we try to balance our lives by becoming forgetful of ourselves, of God, and of the call to God’s service that is our deeper life. This is the dichotomized life in which we most often find ourselves.

The rest of which Jesus speaks, however, is very different. It is rest in him which we are to live both at work and at prayer. This rest is not inactive and passive. It is rather being “in our lives” in the mode of our greatest potency. This rest, as Ruusbroec sees it, is a loving immersion of ourselves in God. It is the deepest of engagements, with our lives, with our call, with God, and with the work which God is giving us to do. It is way of working without anxiety or strain. It is a way of being that is so immersed in ourselves that we cease to be self-conscious, but we are rather an instrument in the hand of God and of God’s work in the world.

Most of the time when my work overwhelms me, it is because I am “busy about many things.” It is because I am trying to do the work that is mine to do while, at the same time, doing things that are not mine to do. I cannot be at rest because I have exceeded the outlines of my own call, which are my limits. The work of God for us is a work that we, and only we, are able to do.  Some weeks back, I was in such a state of discouragement. At that very moment, a friend asked me, “If you could do whatever you wanted, what would it be?” From that moment we set out together to do precisely that work, and I personally discovered a store of energy that I had not realized I possessed.

Generally we live in societies that, for the sake of wealth and gain, waste enormous amounts of human potential. Recently I saw a public service announcement about a group that worked to educate young girls in countries where girls for the most part had not been educated. The announcement ended with pictures of girls who had participated in the program and a narration that asked who of them might be a future Nobel Prize winner, or the person to find a cure for a deadly disease, or the path to peace in the Middle East. It is striking to think of how much is lost because the wealth and power of the few stifles the life and possibility of so many. It is also striking to reflect on ourselves, of all we have been given to give away as gift to the world, and how much of that we waste away on frantic and fruitless toil.

Ryken had a vision which was that a group of persons who come together in such a way as to foster a harmonious way of living our call to contemplation and service could serve the world in a much greater way than as separate individuals. He understood, however, that the work, the service must never be disconnected from the call of each person and the Source of that call. To come to know and so to do the work of Jesus is to realize the rest that comes, even as we work, by being “yoked” to him. When we are instruments of God’s work and so rest in God, we “will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.”

All persons can find and possess this kind of rest in themselves by merely natural means, apart from God’s grace, provided only that they can become empty of images and all activity. But a loving person cannot rest in such a state, for charity and the interior touch of God’s grace do not lie inactive. For this reason an interior person cannot long remain in this state of  natural rest.

Consider now the way in which a person practices this natural rest. It consists  in sitting quietly in a state of idleness, without any interior or exterior exercises, in order to find rest and have it remain undisturbed. But it is not lawful to practice this kind of rest, for it produces blind ignorance in a person and makes him sink down into himself in inactivity. Such rest is nothing other than a state of empty idleness into which a person falls and in which he becomes forgetful of himself, of God, and of all things as regards any activity. This kind of rest is contrary to that supernatural rest in which a person possesses God, for the latter is a loving immersion of oneself characterized by a simple act of gain in incomprehensible resplendence. This rest in God—which is always sought actively with fervent desire, found in blissful inclination, eternally possessed in a loving immersion of oneself, and still sought even when already possessed—this rest is raised as high above merely natural rest as God is raised above all creatures.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals , II,iv,C

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