Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Contemplation and Action

"Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it."  I Corinthians 12:27.
The theme for North Pacific Yearly Meeting's annual session this year was "Being Practically Spiritual: The Integration of Inward Life and Outward Action."  I did not attend, but I have many friends who did.  I also got to hear how the annual session went through the posts on Western Friend.

One friend wrote me a lovely, detailed letter about his experiences at yearly meeting.  Something he wrote really stood out to me:  He said that the queries for worship sharing were designed to move outward from inward contemplation to action in the community and, in reading the queries in advance, only the first day's queries spoke to him.

That comment made me think about the ways Friends talk about action and contemplation, and how I think we set them up as a false dichotomy.

What I sometimes hear Friends say is that one needs contemplation to ground action, giving the example of a political activist going out and burning up, then needing to return to time with God before being able to do more of that work.  

The problem is, I think Friends may be confusing contemplation with rest and self-care.  In my experience, contemplation is not a restful experience.  Although the effort may not be as visible to the outside world, prayer is hard work, and it is not easy to be open and vulnerable to God.

I also think that Friends at times say "action" as shorthand for "political activism," which is a much too narrow definition.  I have friends who feel called to political activism, and I am grateful for their work in, with, and against political organizations, but I also know that not everyone is called to that work, and that it is not the only work.

Thomas Kelly talks about the work of prayer in his chapter on "The Blessed Community" in A Testament of Devotion.  He says in part,
"Within the wider Fellowship emerges the special circle of a few on whom, for each of us, a particular emphasis of nearness has fallen.  These are our special gift and task.  These we 'carry' by inner, wordless prayer.  By an interior act and attitude we lift them repeatedly before the throne and hold them there in power.  This is work, real labor of the soul.  It takes energy but is done in joy."  Pp. 58-59.
A few weeks ago, I gave vocal ministry at Freedom Friends Church.  The message was short.  I said that the metaphor of the body of Christ had been important for me in a lot of ways and had come up frequently.  That day, its meaning for me was that we don't all have to do everything.

So, I do believe that contemplation grounds outward action—in a community.  We need those who go out and do public works and we need those who hold the center and ground the community in prayer.  I think that the idea that we all need to balance contemplation and action in our own lives is one of the ways that the individualism of our culture has crept into the Religious Society of Friends.

My hope for Friends is that we will truly see ourselves as the body of Christ and be able to recognize how each person's calling is a part of that whole.  "For," as Thomas Kelly goes on to say, "these bonds of divine love and 'carrying' are the stuff of the Kingdom of God."


  1. A couple weeks after NPYM Annual Session I went to a training institute for basically social change orgranizers. I mean to post several threads, but a couple things stood out that your blog post speaks to:

    --I have found myself reflecting on political activism grounded in spiritual study. Many Quakers excel at this, but campaigns like Gandhi's satyagraha or even the study done by prisoners on Wouth Africa's Robben Island stand out for me as examples.

    --At the event I went to after Annual Session, I kept finding myself thinking Faith community. Faith Community Faith Community. Probably that is as much a barometer of directions I am led to connect as anything but the feeling was powerful.

    --The other thing that kept happening: I kept listening to everyone want to plunge in at the beginning of the day and thinking "Look, may we plase shut up and pray for a few minutes before we dive in to our topic. I decided I just needed to hold the prayer, but again the need, inclination to pray is important for me.

  2. One of the great discoveries I made in studying Woolman's Journal was the time he spent "on the road" as compared to the time he spent "at home." At first reading he seemed he was very "active" but on closer study his activism was very much "dependent" on his ability to stay "at home" and take care of everyday matters.

  3. It seems to me that contemplation and action are inextricably linked in life. Contemplation is one of the important ways we develop our relationship to God. It is critical that we develop our ability to listen, to open different ways of perceiving, to expand wisdom or however one wants to characterize the learned closer connection with whatever God is. But God is, among other things, existence itself. God has created this astonishing universe around us, and more specifically has brought each of us into being with this life and consciousness that we have. We are intended, for whatever divine reason, to be engaged with this creation, with each other, and and to share in whatever measure we are able, the joy God has in creation.

    So the "adequate life" in the lead quote is the result of both both a large expenditure of attention (and time) in learning to know God and participating in the world. Participation might be political or it might be doing a job and shedding what Light we have around us. It might be helping and supporting others who need what we may be able to offer. But whatever it is we do or do not do is informed by what we discern as direction from God, which has come from contemplation in hours or moments of time.

    "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly in heart and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my you is easy and my burden is light." Matt. 11:28-30

    This seems to me to describe what Kelly touches on. Taking the time out and effort to know God is a yoke and a burden. At first. But the knowing, wisdom, relationship gained turns life around to become easy and joyful. That yoke becomes easy and the burden of life does become Light.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.