Contemplation and action: A Word from the mystics

By Therese Elias, OSB 

What place does prayer have in the life of the activist? When there is so much injustice and conflict in the world and so little time available to make things right, how can we justify the apparent luxury of taking time for personal prayer? Time spent in contemplative prayer seems, and has been called a “flight from reality.” 

Nevertheless, we stand in a spiritual tradition that states unequivocally that true prayer is a “flight to reality” and a necessity for the person of faith.

A life of regular contemplative prayer is indispensable to the person engaged in justice-making because it is so easy to forget that what we are laboring for, what we are expending our lives to make happen, is already at work among us. Prayer is the way in which we enter into this reality and are empowered by the Spirit at work in bringing this reality to fulfillment.

“In Christ the mystery of God’s will has been made known to us, the plan set forth in him, a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1)

This was Paul’s most elemental vision, a vision of all things being gathered up into Christ. This revelation of God’s justice at work formed the framework for all else that Paul preached and wrote. Both Paul and the early Church recognized that this was not private revelation, but belonged to all the Church and so we find it in the canon of authoritative texts that make up our New Testament.

Although we did not have this vision in the same way Paul did, (perhaps in one of those moments when he was snatched up to the third heavens), nonetheless it is our vision too, by virtue of our Baptism.  That it is ours by faith makes it no less real, no less believable.  It is the vision that we are called by the Gospel to live from, live into, and live toward.

Julian of Norwich had a similar revelation in her familiar image of the hazelnut.

“At that time he showed me something small, about the size of a hazelnut, that lay in the palm of my hand as round as a tiny ball. I tried to understand the sight of it, wondering what it could possibly mean. The answer came:  ‘This is all that is made.’ I felt it was so small that it could easily fade to nothing, but again I was told: ‘This lasts and it will go on lasting forever because God loves it. And so it is with every being that God loves.” (Revelation of Love, Ch. 5)

For Paul and for Julian, nothing can fall out of the hand of God.

Julian continues:

“From God we all come, in God we are all enclosed and into God we are all going and in God we will find our full heaven in everlasting joy by the purpose of the Blessed Trinity from without beginning.  The human soul is made of God and in the same point is knit to God and so is our made-nature rightfully one’d with its maker, … And so it is that there can, nor shall be, anything between God and our soul. We are knit in this knot and one’d in this oneing and made holy in this holiness. . .” (Revelation of Love Ch. 53, p. 118)

Between God and what God has created there is “no between!”

Hildegard of Bingen received visions of the whole universe held within the womb of God in the person of Sophia. In one of Hildegard’s visions, Sophia speaks:

“I, the highest and fiery power, have enkindled every living spark and have breathed out nothing that can die. I order the course of the heavens by circling its movement with my upper wings. I am the fiery life of the Divine essence – I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters.  In the sun, the moon and the stars, I burn.  I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things and they blaze from me.  (Book of Divine Works)

For Hildegard, as for Paul and Julian, all things are gathered up into the Divine. Even evil is held within God’s sway, for one can see in the illumination of Hildegard’s cosmic vision, a band of darkness on the outer rim of the cosmos, also held within the womb of Sophia.

These mystics were convinced that they had been given revelation meant for others and were compelled to proclaim it. Julian writes to all who will read her revelations:

“I felt sure that this revelation was for all the world to see. God truly wants you to receive it just as if Jesus himself had shown it to you all in person.” (Revelation of Love, Ch. 8, p. 18). 

We are called to appropriate this vision – that all things are being gathered together in Christ – as our own, “just as if Jesus had shown it to us.” This task involves more than an intellectual acceptance. The awareness of this reality that is at work among us is not something we can ever get our minds around. It is something we are called to experience at the deepest level of our being so that its power may transform our consciousness and empower us to action. Through our ongoing contemplative presence before God, our perception opens to the truth of this vision. Through our prayerful receptivity, this reality becomes a part of our whole being even though, often in our prayer, our mind seems to hold only darkness & distraction, only “not knowing.” 

We are called to spend time in the “desert,” the desert of silence before God. The desert can be whenever or wherever we leave behind “business as usual.”  It is a time when we “flee to reality,” perhaps for 40 days, 40 hours, 40 minutes, . . . The desert is the “birthing place” of the prophet.  The prophets of our tradition came out of the silence of a place apart, galvanized by the word of God, to speak and act among the people. Amos came out of an actual desert, Hosea and Jeremiah from the desert of personal suffering. John the Baptist emerged from the desert proclaiming a message of conversion. Jesus began his ministry from the desert. Paul spent many hours alone in prayer. Hildegard & Julian experienced their prophetic visions in a place apart.

Thomas Merton emerged from the desert of his contemplative, Trappist silence with the vocation of a prophet. His awareness of war and injustice seen in the light of his prayer stirred him to action. He wrote countless journal articles, corresponded with people of power in the government and the church, and authored books with titles like The Non-Violent Alternative, Raids on the Unspeakable, and Contemplation in a World of Action. His prophetic writings disturbed a number of politicians and even a few bishops!

Merton’s prophetic work was deeply grounded in his contemplative vision. In one of his most profound statements  we find a basic assumption that helps us understand so much else that Merton wrote. It is, I think, what his prayer taught him.

“. . . if you descend into the depths of your own spirit. . . and arrive somewhere near the center of what you are, you are confronted with the inescapable truth, at the very root of your existence, you are in constant and immediate and inescapable contact with the infinite power of God” (The Contemplative Life).

In my deepest center, my True Self is always before the face of God and this, our Christian faith tells us, is true of every person. It is in myself that I also meet the world. 

“The way to find the real “world” is not merely to observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.” (CWA, p. 170)

Merton was mentor for some of the most influential young activists of the 60’s: Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Jim Forst, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joan Baez. They came to Gethsemane Abbey to make retreat with him and he wrote them numerous letters. His message to them was consistent: they should not be protesting war and injustice unless their work was grounded in a contemplative vision. What Merton recognized is that prophetic action without prayer has shallow roots and cannot survive. Armed solely with our limited ego’s resources we do not have the strength to deal with the darkness of the world. We become discouraged, frustrated, overwhelmed and easily burn out.

Merton speaks of prophecy as “unmasking the illusions”  — the illusions of my church, my society, my government, my group.  But first of all the prophet must unmask the illusions that have been spun around one’s own self.  “In the last analysis, if there is war because nobody trusts anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, untrusting, .. . “ (CWA, p. 161)  

Pogo said it all: “We have met the enemy and they is us!” My first grade teacher taught us the same. When we pointed a finger at a wrongdoer she would ask, “How many fingers are pointing back to you?

Merton was convinced that only contemplatives are prepared to be  prophets because they have taken up a critical stance before their own ego-centrism and thus can do so in the world. In prayer our illusions about ourselves appear for what they are. This can be uncomfortable, even painful.

“Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.  Genuine contemplation is incompatible with complacency and with smug acceptance of prejudiced opinions.  It is not mere passive acquiescence in the status quo, as some would like to believe — for this would reduce it to the level of spiritual anesthesia.  Contemplation is no painkiller.  What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations!  The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest.  It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty:  the center, the existential altar which simply “is.”  (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 12-13)

It is in the “desert” where we meet God & find grace, but it is also where we contend with the demons of our own ego-centered selves. Henri Nouwen defined the prophet as “one whose life has been disrupted and through whom God disrupts the lives of others.”  Contemplative prayer, engaging with the Word of God, brings me face to face with my unhealed self.  I daily name own idols, my own inner “demons” and the awareness of this prepares me to confront the idols and demons of the group or nation.

If I’m not recognizing & integrating my own shadow, I very well could be projecting it onto the mirrors outside me, onto other persons, society, the church, or the nation. Worse than the prophet facing burnout is the prophet who sees the splinter in the other’s eye but cannot see the plank in one’s own. Some of the greatest tragedies of history have occurred because supposedly  “holy, righteous” people projected their un-integrated shadow onto others. And so we have crusades, witch hunts, the inquisition, racism, ethnic & religious wars.  The demonizing of the enemy that takes place in war comes about through the projection of our unhealed darkness onto another. Contemplatives can more clearly name the shadow in the world outside because they are facing it in themselves.

But more than that, they are grounded in their own center, where they are in “constant, immediate, and inescapable contact with the infinite power of God.”  The contemplative prophet is deeply rooted in the union of all in Christ, union with all other people and with all creation.

“The world . . . can be encountered in the ground of my own personal freedom and love. If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love itself and nowhere else will I find myself, and the world, and my brothers & sisters & Christ. The same ground of love is in everything.” (Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 171)

The prophet in contemplative prayer thus engages in changing the world by the very act of praying because of this deeper union that takes place in prayer.

A fitting conclusion to this reflection might be a meditation on Merton’s own mystical experience of all things being gathered in Christ. It happened in a most unlikely place.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . .

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that God gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

Merton, Paul, Julian, and Hildegard attest to the reality in which we stand. They were empowered by the vision. So too can we be.  They invite us to pray as they did and in doing so, they echo the invitation of the Spirit within us, summoning us to join the prayer that is already going on in our hearts.

Sr. Therese Elias leads contemplative prayer each Tuesday and Thursday, teaches a six-week course called “Praying with the Mystics” twice a year and is a regular speaker and pilgrammage leader. For information about upcoming Celtic pilgrammages, go here.




  1. Peter Stauffacher said

    Thank you dear sister for BE-ing in our community….ahhhh (or at times aughhh) to Pray…. so simple, yet seemingly so hard and elusive at times- due to ego? Thank you for helping some of us begin to let God in, through all the layers of illusions and delusions; to eventually, get Sooo excited at God’s Love for us…..that, then we too can let His Love pass through us to His other children, also….what UNearned Priceless GIFT….invited to be part of the Human race…..
    I too have seen the Fruits of the Holy Spirit in our Peace and Justice community
    with those prayerFULL, and the denial of fruit when God was Not so honored or Centered in the ‘works.’ It seems to me we cannot be reminded enough of this, nor spend enough energy at it….when Mother Theresa (‘burdened??’ w/ so many ‘works’ to do….) spent 4 hours a day in prayer…..Thank you for so Clearly and Well-saying this source of All Good(God)ness.
    Humbled GrateFULLy,

  2. Thank you, Therese, for calling us to enter into the vision of Jesus, Teilhard, Julian, and Ernesto Cardenal – as we take moments to live at-one-ment with the Ever Creative Presence Who continues to bring light from darkness, hope from despair, and oneness from division.

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