When I speak of the contemplative life I do not mean the institutional cloistered life, the organized life of prayer. . . . I am talking about a special dimension of inner discipline and experience, a certain integrity and fullness of personal development, which are not compatible with a purely external, alienated, busy-busy existence. This does not mean that they are incompatible with action, with creative work, with dedicated love. On the contrary, these all go together.”— Thomas Merton in Contemplation in a World of Action
The practice of contemplation – regular prayer, spiritual reading, and thoughtful consideration of our relationships and behaviors – can lead to many insights and spiritual growth. And Merton makes it clear that such contemplative practices are not just for monks but are also effective for those of us living secular lives.
Merton emphasizes that contemplation combined with thoughtful action is the core of a meaningful life. Living a contemplative life isn’t about spending all our time in “the organized life of prayer.” Instead, fusing contemplation with action in our daily lives expands our spirituality so that it’s not just focused on ourselves but encompasses the world around us. Rather than emphasizing our personal happiness or salvation, we allow our spiritual practices to give rise to action that can change the world.
It’s tempting to consider this a theoretical concept that might be practical for some other people (who have more free time to pray or have stronger ties to a church, etc.). But Merton gives us a stark reminder that living without some grounding in contemplation can lead to “a purely external, alienated, busy-busy existence.” This description accurately portrays daily life for many of us! A life like this can cause us to wake up one morning and wonder if being busy and always striving for more is all there is to life.
But when we give ourselves the gift of a contemplative practice, action is less busy-busy activity and more likely to originate from thoughtful decisions. We better understand which activities actually bring us joy and how to serve others in need. The time we spend in contemplation pays us back in many ways.
The insights from contemplation allow us to see ourselves more clearly – our gifts and the areas we fall short. Hopefully, this perspective, combined with the knowledge that God loves us just as we are, leads to self-compassion. And from self-compassion it’s a small step to having empathy for others and their unique struggles. This empathy can help us see how to serve others better. Not by doing what we think would be best for them, but in a way that actually helps provide what they need.
Merton points out that contemplation could inspire us to actions as significant in scope as social activism. Or it could fuel our own unique creative work or lead us to focus on the relationships with those we love. These are all ways to serve others.
This summer might be a good time to think about how our inner spiritual disciplines are related to our service in the world. Maybe it’s time for a change in how we serve others. Should our focus right now be broader? Or are we being called to a more narrow focus to serve our family, friends, or neighbors? Or maybe our existing practice has raised questions that require a new spiritual practice or teacher? It can be helpful to spend some time journaling these questions, but it can also be beneficial to just hold them in mind (maybe revisiting them every few days) and let your brain consider them as a background process to your daily life. I’m always surprised at how often this method leads to good insight!
A blessing for all of us trying to live a life of contemplation and action
May we not lose heart living in a world where gun violence, war, hunger, racism, disease, and other tragedies are daily news. May we find peace in doing whatever we can to make the world better, by acting in service that is guided by love. May we be renewed by our practices of contemplation and trust that God will use our actions to help others, even if it’s in ways we may never understand. Amen.
The Center for Action and Contemplation was founded by Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr to provide resources related to the integration of action and contemplation. Fr. Rohr has written extensively on this topic. See the website for information on podcasts, online courses, and free daily meditations.