A Contemplative Life

May 19, 2014

A contemplative life is not as we might imagine it—dull with nothing to do but ponder and reflect. What the word contemplative usually conjures up for us is someone, probably a cloistered monk or nun—who has nothing to do all day long except think about God. There actually are contemplative orders of religious people that do focus on prayer within the cloister, but ask those contemplatives about how hard they work every day as they pray!

Nor is the contemplative life passive, one of an Orthodox Christian contemplating an icon of, say, Jesus or the Trinity for hours on end. Sitting before an altar, again doing nothing.

In the contemplative life there is a lot of time spent in prayer, not in spoken words so much as in silence, in communing with God, in listening for God’s “still, small voice” within. This silence, the ability to spend time with God is the hallmark of the contemplative life. But is not a life of inaction! Not at all. To live a contemplative life means that your mind is resting in God, communing with God, while your hands and body and speech and heart are engaged in activities inspired by the Holy Spirit.

It is the marriage of silent communion and inspired action that is the hallmark of a surrendered, contemplative life. For what good is communion if we do not share the gains from it out in the world? And what good is action that is not grounded in the Spirit? Usually, uninspired action springs from a list of shoulds—you should help the poor, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc. While that list was voiced by Jesus several times in the Gospel of Matthew, he never advocated just following the law without the engagement of the whole person—heart, mind, soul and strength.

He called the Pharisees and scribes “Hypocrites!” “Vipers!” for their strict adherence to the law and their total disregard of the love that is expressed in all the laws. So if we’re just doing what we are told, aren’t we like the Pharisees? If we’re being kind, but our hearts are judging and hateful, is that love? If we think we’re showing love, but it is only conditional upon the other doing what we want, is that love?

What we need is the marriage of love and action, of Spirit-driven action, of heart and mind. When we are just following the shoulds, we often suffer burnout because the Spirit isn’t sustaining us. Or we’re just going through the motions; only part of us is involved. And what is the message that the one we are helping gets? She is noticing that she is being fed, for instance, but also that the one who is serving is not interested in her. Is that love?

The contemplative life connects our actions with God’s purpose for us. We live in state of communion in which we can hear God’s suggestions, hints, etc., throughout our days and nights. We are hearing the best way for us to give and to be in any situation. And we are so much more successful in what we attempt because God is thinking through all the ramifications of any action and inspiring us to do what is most effective.

We human beings often have a great idea, but we have not thought through all the consequences of our actions. And we create a bigger mess through unintended consequences, just when we thought we had the solution. I have read that Africa is littered with abandoned clinics that lasted for a few years, but never involved the local people. Once the initial fervor was gone, so were the people behind them. Now the goats inhabit the vacant buildings.

God is the one with the solutions that look at all the moving parts of an action. He can design the one that is most likely to succeed and motivate many different people to do their part. So there is joy and satisfaction and fulfillment and lasting engagement in the doing.

The word contemplative originally meant to “mark out a space for observation.”[1] In spiritual terms it means to create space for God within us. This space lies in us as potential until we began to set aside time and space for God and for God’s input into our lives. When we continually allow God that space in our lives, she takes up residence within us. And he stays in touch with us all day/all night long. We call this space our soul, the deep-soul self, where God resides waiting for us to allow this relationship to happen on a deep level and be brought to consciousness.

So be a deep listener. Be dependent on God for who and what and where and when. Be a contemplative in action. Be love in this world. Live the life God designed for you at your conception.


Questions to ponder over the week: How big a space within me am I allowing God? Do I allow him/her the freedom to bring me to my full potential? Or am I limiting where I am willing to go with God? Will I follow him/her no matter what?


[1] The New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd Edition, New York, 2005, p. 366


Check out other pages on this website, bythewaters.net: Givers of Love and Forgiveness  on the home page and “What is the Soul?” on the Meditation page.

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