Ever since Richard Rohr brought the term “action and contemplation” back into the public’s eye people have been hungry to find the balance between the two. How can we seek stillness and solitude while also addressing the pressing concerns of the world we live in? How can we deny the world while also loving our neighbor and enemy? At first glance the two seem diametrically opposed.
Before I begin I want to acknowledge that there are many ways this dynamic can be understood and lived out. The vast majority of them are good and pleasing in God’s sight. I think that Thomas Merton expressed very well the fact that our desire to please God does in fact please God. This is his famous little prayer:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
For this reason, I put forth that my understanding of the dynamic between action and contemplation is one path among many, and if your path is different that still pleases God.
The Celtic tradition has always had a monastic flare. Yet, it has also been one that emphasizes the importance of what we do and how we live in the world. Teachers like Pelagius have emphasized the importance of social justice and right living. Celtic Christianity never aligned itself with the power of empire in quite the same way as the Roman way (though it was not perfect). There has always been an emphasis on generosity, turning away from wealth and power, and seeking simplicity.
These things all fall within the realm of action but the Celtic tradition has not ignored the path of contemplation either. Many early Celtic saints were famous for retreating from society altogether to live lives of interiority and inward transformation. The writings of later Celtic philosophers and theologians tried their best to work out how we can live lives of action AND contemplation and they came up with a basic formula.
This formula is the opposite of what many modern teachers describe. Where most of the discourse I have heard describes the dynamic as beginning with contemplation and leading to action, the Celtic understanding goes the other way. Eriugena, for instance, describes the process as beginning with action and moving into contemplation.
The belief is that if we do not live a life of goodness and humility then the inner demons which must be overcome in contemplation will overpower us. If we imagine that we are resting in God’s grace and contemplating the highest mysteries while simultaneously living lives focused on material wealth and power then we are fooling ourselves.
The Cloud of Unknowing (which I believe is a Celtic text) describes a three fold path beginning in action, moving through the life of liturgy and theology, and finally resting in contemplation.This is something that we discuss more in depth in our virtual retreat Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.
While the dynamic between action and contemplation provides the framework for this retreat we also discuss the human condition and humanity’s place in creation, nature spirituality and how to seek guidance and wisdom from the natural world, and the lives of several prominent Celtic saints. If you want to know more you can follow the link above, there are several videos available to watch for FREE. Or check us out in the Virtual Chapel which is the hub of our online community. We hope to see you soon!