~ Contemplative and Active Living ~
“The reason why the Psalmist confesses that he understands the things of God [is not] ‘because I have attended the schools, because I have learnt from learned men,’ but ‘because I have sought out your commandments’…Let the sons of the bond-woman listen to this, those who seek the wisdom of the earth, the sons of Belial puffed up with learning, who tend to despise the simple and ignorant because they are not powerful in letters…Let the humble listen and be glad that there is knowledge of holy Scripture learnt from the Holy Spirit which often the layman knows and the theologian does not, the fisherman, not the lawyer, which the old woman has learnt, but not the doctor in the schools.”
The above is a quote from Meditations written by John Whiterig in 1371. Prior to living a solitary contemplative life, he led an active life of service and had been a student at the University of Oxford. This scholar and contemplative knows first-hand about which he writes.
Augustine observes “It is not what you are nor what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be…The whole of life of good Christians is nothing else but holy desires.” Gregory the Great adds “all holy desires grow by delay; and if they diminish by delay, then they were never holy desires.”
This may indeed be part of why God sometimes delays His response to our prayers and tells us to wait. We are blessed with the ability to test our desires directly by experience. Sometimes when we hear the inspirational words of truth and accounts of divine grace from those who lived them in activity, or read the promises of Scripture or even writings such as these Weekly Reflections, we feel a love and attraction to them and for more of them, wishing very much to experience them directly. This is evidence of a Christian’s love for growth and self-transcendence. But it remains holy only if the desire does not diminish during those periods of activity when we tend to our work and mundane chores of cooking, cleaning, repairing or fulfilling obligations. During those times we may feel a spiritual dryness and long for the time we can again “take a break” from such activity for contemplation or for “getting back into the word” so to feel those holy desires and consolations again…a stop-and-go spiritual life.
Then there are those times when long after our contemplation, reading or hearing or seeing the holy truth and its promise and gifts, we feel our attraction and desire grow overwhelming. They press upon us as we sit in traffic, as we cook and wash dishes, as we lay in bed waiting for sleep, and find their intensity in us just as strong upon awaking. Our active and contemplative living have merged into one, each giving witness to the other. We are living truly in the constancy of grace. Although still a sinner by nature and consenting to temptations, we are at the same time approaching the perfection of Christlikeness. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4, NIV).
Grace is so ineffable, so pure, so holy, it cannot be perceived by our physical senses or even sin-tainted hearts. But the fruits of grace are very and wondrously evident in this physical world. The fruits of grace are felt and seen by even those who don’t know what they are perceiving in the grace-full person. Children just rejoicefully play in that grace with self-abandonment and feel its loving strength and nurturing. Jesus says we must become like that to enter His kingdom.
Too often we assume the job of the independent workers of God and ask Him to bless the work we have chosen to do. The active life does possess an element of this, though it is infused with humility and not ambition. We pray for His wisdom and guidance over our activities and work, for His validation and will, and His blessing as we proceed. We must exercise our own decisions and strategies since we are not God’s robots but His free-willed children. In this sense the active life is a partnership with God. When we pray His will be done, we must realize He may choose us to carry it out. When we pray for our daily bread, we must realize He may choose us to help distribute it.
However, in the practice of contemplation, we leave God alone. We ask nothing. We work towards nothing. “Be still and know that I am God…the Lord Almighty is with us” (Psalm 46:10a, 11a, NIV). “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14, NIV). “You teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (Psalm 51:6b, NIV). “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8, NIV).
We do this every day. Soon, contemplation and activity merge and the fruits of grace grow abundantly, to be shared in love with our enemies and friends alike.
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John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © November 23, 2002
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