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Day and Night – Work and Rest – Justice and Contemplation

On the surface, a life of action in the cause of biblical social justice and the quiet of contemplation don’t seem to mix. In reality, I suspect you – as I – have found they are inseparable.

We are not the first ones to discover this truth. The oneness of action and reflection is as old a reality as the necessity of night and day; rain and sunshine; unconsciousness and consciousness. That is how reality seems to be structured – and although I can’t speak for everyone, my life seems to go better when I live in harmony with how things are.

The bible and history are full of folks that illustrate this for us: Elijah, needing some time out after his very public and bloody “victory” over the priests of Baal; Mary, finding that the only way to respond to the news of her pregnancy was to sing songs and visit friends; and then there is Jesus himself who seemed to regularly need time for reflection and solitude.

It strikes me that things can go very wrong if we try to pull action and contemplation apart. Just as concentration and good judgment depend on sufficient rest for body and mind, so too wise and effective action on behalf of justice and peace requires a practice of quiet and listening to God.

Nelson Mandela once said that the good part about being on Robben Island breaking rocks for all those years was the ease with which one could concentrate and contemplate. I wonder how important that was later in his role of peacemaker and rebuilder of South Africa?

We each need our Robben Islands.

Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that problem solving – fixing things, planning, laying out time-tables – is what we lack. Reflection and contemplation involve neither problem solving nor planning. In fact, they don’t involve thinking. Just as the opposite and complement of day is night, so the complement of action is quietness.

Those of us brought up and schooled in the Calvinist tradition are, frankly, impoverished when it comes to this critical piece of the Christian life. Every aspect of relating to God and one another – from worship to work – seems to involve words and thoughts for us. In my childhood church and community even physical action was minimal; no kneeling, no dancing, no stillness.

We need the gifts of other Christian lineages – even other religious traditions – in order to be whole. Thankfully, there are so many out there and available today that we no longer have any excuse. Here are just a few:

Centering Prayer is a practice of contemplative prayer that has become widely accepted in Protestant circles. It is essentially a 20 minute stillness meditation where we listen rather than talk to God. Here is a good website:

Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation is a Franciscan is one of the best known contemporary practitioners and teachers of classic Catholic social teaching and practice. Daily meditations, helpful books, and periodic retreats can be found here:

What is your practice? How do you couple doing justice and walking humbly with God? What have you learned?




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