Have you ever had the experience of a book falling into your hands at just the right time, conveying the message you need to hear? That is how I have felt reading Parker Palmer's The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. There are many aspects of the book upon which I would like to comment (and will in future blog posts), but I want to begin by highlighting the way in which Palmer understands the relationship between "contemplation-and-action."
Let's look first at the way Palmer defines these two terms separately. He says,
I understand action to be any way that we can co-create reality with other beings and with the Spirit . . . I understand contemplation to be any way that we can unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality and reveal the reality behind the masks. (p. 17)
While we can separate the two terms for purposes of analysis, in reality "contemplation-and-action" are experienced as one movement; a movement toward awareness that allows us to act with freedom and creativity. As Palmer notes, action without contemplation is mere frenzy. I would add that it also could be understood as addiction - compulsive behavior generating the illusion of control, completely out of touch with reality. Conversely, contemplation without action is escapism. It can be an expression of moral cowardice; a refusal to take responsibility for our lives.
Palmer rightly points out that life provides us with many opportunities to practice "contemplation-and-action." It is given to all of us, not just to ascetic virtuosos. I think of a friend who was crushed to discover his spouses infidelity. He came to see how narcissistic his partner had been throughout their marriage, and how co-dependent he had been. This stripping away of illusion was a contemplative experience born of becoming willing to see reality at is it, rather than as we wish it to be.
After an extended period of marriage counseling, the relationship ended in divorce. My friend continued therapy and worked on developing a stronger sense of self and appropriate boundaries, and is now happily engaged in a new and much healthier relationship. The new relationship is creative of reality, of the person my friend is created to become and the life God desires for him.
A willingness to be led by the Spirit into an awareness of reality is all we need to become experienced practitioners of "contemplation-in-action." Life lived with a bare minimum of such awareness is all the school we need. Palmer rightly rejects a preoccupation with contemplative techniques, as they can get in the way of the actual lived experience of awareness.
While I would agree with him about the dangers of preoccupation with technique, it has been my experience that a commitment to contemplative practice - a regular pattern of prayer and meditation - strengthens my willingness to have my illusions stripped away so that I can live in awareness of reality, and act responsibly and creatively. It isn't how we practice, but the actual willingness to practice that can make a difference.
I appreciate Palmer's way of breaching the false dichotomy between contemplation and action. As Gigi Ross notes in her insightful commentary on the story of Jesus' encounter with Mary and Martha ("Martha with the Heart of Mary," Shalem News, Winter-Spring 2006), we don't need to strike a balance between contemplation and action because they are not opposites. Action and rest are opposites, and that is certainly a balance we need to honor for the sake of our well-being. I agree with Ross that a "balance" between contemplation and illusion is not desirable. Being in touch with the deepest desires of our heart, our God-centeredness, is desirable whether we are at work or on vacation, engaged in demanding action or relaxing.
One final observation: in reflecting on "contemplation-and-action" I wonder if we might also speak of "contemplation-in-action." When I ponder Jesus' teaching and practice, so much of what he did and said was in the service of stripping away illusions so that people could experience the kindom of God as present reality. He acted so that we might see, and his vision opened up new ways of being in the world. Jesus' parables and his parabolic actions (healing on the Sabbath, engaging with women, chasing the bankers out of the Temple) were models of contemplation-in-action. His example bears witness to our heart's desire for integration and wholeness - and to the vulnerability and risk required to become free of our illusions.