Christian Mysticism And Contemplation

Dave Andrews

Parker Palmer, the Quaker community worker says: ‘contemporary images of spirituality tend to value the inward search over the outward act, silence over sound, solitude over interaction, quietude over engagement and struggle.’[i] Palmer says ‘if one is called to the world of action, the(se) images can disenfranchise the soul, for they tend to devalue the energies of the active life rather than encourage us to move those energies towards wholeness.’[ii]

Palmer says that ‘we need a spirituality which affirms and guides our efforts to act in ways that embody the vitalities God gave us at birth, ways that serve the great works of justice, peace and love.’[iii] ‘To be fully alive is to act. The capacity to act is the most obvious difference between (being alive) and dead.’ Palmer says ‘action, like a sacrament, is the visible form of the invisible spirit, an outward manifestation of an inward power. As we act we not only express ourselves, we reshape our world and our world reshapes us.’ [iv]

Activity may be a sign of life, and inactivity a sign of death – but all activity is essentially risky. Palmer says ‘the greatest risk in action is the risk of self-revelation. No one can know us fully, not even we ourselves, but when we act, something of our mystery often emerges…’ How can I know what I think – until I hear what I say? How can I know what I feel – until I see what I do? [v]

‘Our actions may reveal something false in us; (our) own words may occasionally judge (us). Or, our actions may reveal something true in us that others want to censure, when our inner guidance defies conventional order. The question is – whether we are willing to act in the face of these risks, (whe-ther we are) willing to learn from whatever truths our actions may reveal.’ [vi]

‘Which,’ Palmer says, ’brings us to the subject of contemplation – and to the difficult insight at the heart of the contemplative life – truth is always preferable to illusion, no matter how closely the illusion conforms to our notion of the good, or how far the truth diverges from it.’[vii] ‘To be fully alive is to contemplate.’ Palmer says the capacity to contemplate is not ‘the practice of a particular technique, like sitting in a lotus position or chanting a mantra’; but an awareness of and appreciation for the reality beyond illusion. It ‘happens any time we get a glimpse of the truth behind the magician’s trick.’ [viii]

‘Contemplation is difficult for so many of us because we have so much invested in illusion: the illusion, that violence solves problems, that young people sent to die in wars to defend the rich are heroes rather than victims, that both the rich and poor deserve their fate – just to name a few.’[ix] ‘These illusions serve a societal function: they keep us in place’.[x]‘This is why the contemplative moment, the moment when illusion is stripped away and reality is revealed, is so hard to come by. There is a vast conspiracy against it.’ [xi]

Parker Palmer says ‘rather than speak of contemplation and action, we might speak of contemplation-and-action, letting the hyphens suggest what our language obscures: that the one cannot exist without the other. When we fail to hold the paradox together, when we abandon the creative tension between the two, then both ends fly apart into madness. Action flies off into a frantic effort to impose ones will on the world. Contemplation flies from the world into a realm of false bliss.’[xii]

Palmer says the ‘separation’ of contemplation and action ‘is the starting point for many of us’. At this stage of our lives ‘we feel forced to make a choice between a contemplative life and an active life. Because our culture tends to value action over contemplation, we often begin by choosing a life of activity that can become frantic, that exhausts our souls.’[xiii]

Palmer says ‘when exhaustion overcomes us, we move into a stage of alternation. We take a little vacation to refresh ourselves, then we plunge back into action again until we are exhausted again, then take another vacation – and on the cycle goes. Alternation is better than separation but both stages reflect the mistaken notion that contemplation and action are mutually exclusive ways of life. By moving from separation to alternation we may save ourselves from terminal burnout, but we never allow the two poles of the paradox to interact in a way that would bring health to both ways of life. Our active life is never transformed by contemplation; our contemplative life never transformed by action.’[xiv]

Palmer says ‘many of us live a long time in the stage of alternation, but some people, at least some of the time, move on to the stage (of) integration. Some people make the breakthrough simply because they are wise. But perhaps the breakthrough is more often made by people who abandon themselves so deeply to action that no vacation can help them. They become so profoundly exhausted they are forced to live beyond willpower and find themselves falling into the sustaining power of the paradox (of contemplation-and-a

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