Dancing Polarities

January 13th, 2020 by JDVaughn Leave a reply »

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Dancing Polarities
Monday, January 13, 2020

The words action and contemplation aptly describe the two dancing polarities of our lives. In classic Christian philosophy, Thomas Aquinas and many others stated that the highest form of spiritual maturity is not action or contemplation, but the ability to integrate the two into one life stance—to be service-oriented contemplatives or contemplative activists. By temperament we all tend to come at it from one side or the other.

Full integration doesn’t happen without a lot of mistakes and practice and prayer. And invariably, as we go through life, we will swing on a pendulum back and forth between the two. During one period we may be more active or more contemplative than at another time.

It does concern me how often all kinds of inner work are called contemplation, but they do not lead us to a full contemplative stance. We shouldn’t confuse insight-gathering and introspection with contemplative spirituality. Contemplation is about letting go of what is false and incomplete much more than it is about collecting what is new, no matter how true, therapeutic, or helpful it is. In other words, if personal growth is still our focus, I do not think we are contemplative yet. True transformation demands that we shed ourselves as the central reference point. Jesus said, “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain,” and it will not bear much fruit (John 12:24).  Self-help and personal growth are not of themselves the open field of grace where we move beyond self-preoccupation.

An exalted self-image of “I am a spiritual person” is far too appealing to the ego. I am afraid it’s not uncommon in the religious world for “innerness” to become disguised narcissism and overly self-serving. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) even warned against confusing an introverted personality with being a contemplative. [1] They are two different things. The introvert finds solitude quite comfortable, while the mystic and hermit use solitude to discomfort themselves.

Having said that, I’ll point out the other side of the problem. Too much activism without enough inner work, insight, or examination of conscience inevitably leads to violence—to the self, to the project at hand, and invariably to others. If too much inner focus risks narcissism and individualism, too much outer focus risks superficiality, negativity (passing for love of justice), and various messiah complexes. Those on the right can lack love, and those on the left can lack love—they just wear two different disguises. We need both inner communion and outer service to be “Jesus” in the world! The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God. The need to be right is not love.

Ours to Do
Sunday, January 12, 2020

I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation more than thirty years ago because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years, I met many activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love except in their own minds. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, to look good, to defeat the other side, and to maintain a superior self-image.

They might have had the answer, but they were not themselves the answer. In fact, they were usually part of the problem. Most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and other great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and awakening of soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because they have not yet faced the shadow side of power. We actually need fewer reformations and more transformations.

The same dualism often masquerades in a new form which only looks like enlightenment. We are all easily allured by the next new thing until we discover that it’s also run by unenlightened people who in fact do not love God/Reality but themselves. They do not love the truth but the illusion of control. The need to be in power, to have control, and to say someone else is wrong is not enlightenment. Such unenlightened leaders do not want true freedom for everybody but only for their own new ideas. My great disappointment with many untransformed liberals is that they often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can neither let go of their own need for change and control, nor can they stand still in a patient, humble way as people of deep faith can. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Too many conservatives, on the other hand, idolize anything that appears to have lasted, but then stop asking the question, “Is this actually bearing any fruit?” It is the perennial battle between idealism and pragmatism.

In order to become truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach and learn ways to integrate needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. I’m convinced that once we learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, personal politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to tell you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias toward the bottom (not the top, which is far too defended and idealized), you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do almost naturally.  And what you do not need to do at all!

Summary: Sunday, January 5—Friday, January 11, 2020

We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey. (Sunday)

In contemplative practice, the Holy Spirit frees us from taking sides and allows us to remain content in the partial darkness of every situation long enough to let it teach, broaden, and enrich us. (Monday)

Silence surrounds every “I know” with a humble and patient “I don’t know.” It protects the autonomy and dignity of events, persons, animals, and all created things. (Tuesday)

Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking.  (Wednesday)

A regular practice of contemplation helps us trust that silence will uphold us, receive our mistakes, and give us the courage to learn and grow. (Thursday)

Action doesn’t mean busyness or “do-goodism.” It may not even mean activism, but it does mean serious engagement with the suffering of the world, beyond our own in-groups and affinities. (Friday)

Practice: A Prayer for Our Cities

Jesus never told us to separate ourselves from the world. That’s why St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers would not be monks. The Franciscan friars were a totally new religious movement, living in the middle of cities, right with the people, refusing to separate themselves. Francis didn’t hate or avoid the world. He said we had to find a way interiorly to love and have compassion for the world. “The whole world is our cloister,” he taught us. [1]

Our friends at Mile High Ministries in Denver, Colorado, have written a beautiful prayer adapted from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People that we would like to share as inspiration for the beginning of this year’s meditations on Action and Contemplation. We invite you to use place names specific to your location and read responsively in a group, though it may also be prayed alone. No matter the setting, allow the ground of silence to hold these sacred words until they birth compassionate action in the world.

Loving God, you have set us in families and clans, in cities and neighborhoods.

Our common life began in a garden, but our destiny lies in the city.

You have placed us in Denver. This is our home.

Your creativity is on display here through the work of human hearts and hands.

We pray for Denver today—for the East Side, West Side, North and South.

For Montebello, Sun Valley, Green Valley, and all two miles of Colfax.

We pray for our poorest neighbors and for powerful people in banks and offices downtown.

We pray for people from the ’hood and the barrio and for the new urbanites.

We pray for Denver’s sisters: Aurora, Arvada, Cherry Hills, Lakewood, Thornton, Highlands Ranch, and others.

And for Albuquerque and Cheyenne, Jerusalem and Nairobi, Kunming and Cuernavaca—and a thousand other cities connected to our own.

In all our neighborhoods this day there will be crime and callous moneymaking; there will be powerful people unable or unwilling to see the vulnerable who are their neighbors.

There will also be beautiful acts of compassion and creativity in all these places—forgiveness and generosity; neighbors working together for a more just community.

Help us see this place as something other than a battleground between us and them, where our imaginations are limited by win/lose propositions and endless rivalry.

Show us a deeper reality, God: Show us your playground, and invite us to play.

Like the city of your dreams, make this a city where those who were once poor enjoy the fruits of their labor;

A place where children are no longer doomed to misfortune, but play safely in the streets under the watchful eyes of healthy old men and women;

A place where former rivals and natural enemies work and play together in peace;

And where all people enjoy communion with you. We pray in the name of the one who wept over the city. Amen. [2]


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