Contemplation and Action?

I was thinking of an old Simon and Garfunkel album the other day: Sounds of Silence. Although the title track is a wonderfully evocative and poignant song, it seems like a contradiction. Has anyone really listened to the sounds of silence? Perhaps the American composer John Cage did, at least he used it for a couple of his pieces. Another contradiction that gets used a lot is: controlled chaos. The campus where I work just finished a production of the musical Young Frankenstein and controlled chaos may best describe the process of performing a musical (or other stage work), but it doesn’t make sense: chaos is by nature uncontrollable. Perhaps Shakespeare had the most eloquent way to present oxymorons:

“O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!” Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1

A contemplative in action seems to be an oxymoron as well. When we think of a contemplative, we usually think of a wizened old man sitting in a cave on a mountaintop who never comes out, and receives visitors who seek their wisdom. A contemplative person is more than that, they have to take care of the basics of life, but we think of them in as living on a higher plane of existence without any significant contact with the world. However, the purpose of contemplation is frequently too narrow: there must be some reason to do it other than its own reward.  What use is inner peace if it has no effect outside us?

A great contemplative who was a person of action as well was St. Theresa of Avila, also known as St. Theresa of Jesus. She was born into a noble family in Spain, and for the first part of her life was a typical daughter of a noble family for the most part. When she was 15 her mother died, and about a year later her father put her into a Carmelite convent because he didn’t think he could handle her and evidently couldn’t come up with an acceptable marital match for her. For the next few years, with some difficult, she got acclimated to religious life and developed a deep desire to spend her time in prayer.

This wasn’t common for convents of the day. Many of the sisters were like her: daughters of rich and noble families who were uncontrollable, couldn’t be married, or both. When they entered a convent, they remained the same people they were when they came in, living the same kind of lifestyle they did at home (with personal servants and entertaining guests frequently). They prayed for their benefactors, but developing a personal prayer life wasn’t on the radar for most of them. The daughters of poorer families also did in the convent what they did on the outside: if their mothers spent their lives scrubbing floors and cooking, that what those sisters did. The class system of the day functioned the same way inside the cloister as it did outside it.

Theresa wanted something different: she wants her community to get back to its roots, organize their lives around common prayer and service, where everyone lived as equals. Her spirit of mysticism and contemplation is expressed very well in this thought:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.”

She found support for her inspiration as well as opposition. A lot of the sisters in her community didn’t want things changed: they drew in a lot of money and lived comfortable lives. After a vision, she began a new community within her order and eventually founded 17 houses, 15 for women and 2 for men. Her opposition caused trouble for her from within the Carmelite community and outside it; charges were brought her before the Spanish Inquisition for possible heresy. She worked hard to refute her critics, organize her communities, seek help and protection. The Pope eventually gave her group a special charter as Discalced Carmelites, and supervising the community meant she had to travel a lot and deal with a lot of practical details of running her monasteries. She wrote a lot, including books of spiritual guidance and community order.

She drew her strength to act through her contemplation. This poem expresses this spirit well, I think:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men no

We all have a calling to serve God, and Christ is our source. We need to root ourselves in our Savior, draw our strength from the great stream of Christ’s love as Theresa called us to, and that means we need space to let that presence of our Savior in Scripture and the Eucharist fill us, overwhelm us, energize us. Then we need to take the Divine energy and pour it out, as Christ poured out His life for us, in our work for the benefit of all. I think St. Theresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, put it well with this little thought:

We can only learn to know ourselves and do what we can – namely, surrender our will and fulfill God’s will in us



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