Are Action and Contemplation Mutually Exclusive?

Many believe that action and contemplation are mutually exclusive efforts. Some argue that a prayerful life is an escape from the difficult effort of loving service. Others argue that the apostolic life lacks a certain depth and devotion to the Lord. Yet the greatest mystics never saw a tension between apostolic service and contemplative prayer — for them, it would be impossible to have one without the other.  The deeper into prayer they went, the greater their apostolic zeal. The more dedicated their love of neighbour, the more they relied on prayer for strength. How is it that these prayerful people did more than people who feel they are too busy for prayer?

In her retreat Heaven in Faith, #40, Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity looked to the Virgin Mary to resolve this paradox. She notes that during the months between the Annunciation and the Visitation, the Virgin is a model for contemplative souls.  Indeed, a soul who lives by the interior life of love of the Indwelling of the Trinity is specially chosen by God to know the kind of peace that Mary knew in all her activities.

A contemplative who pondered everything in her heart, Mary was ready for action.  When a command from heaven arrives, she does not hesitate to makes haste into the hill country to serve her cousin. Putting her love for God into action did not diminish her prayer.  As soon as she completes her service to Elizabeth,  she returns to her life of contemplation in Nazareth. The reason why she so easily goes between the two is the simplicity of her soul – her soul is simplified, unified, made simple by its wholly loving movement to the Lord whether in service to others or prayer.

This same loving movement can lead us out of ourselves and into a great silence.  In the exquisite silence of faith, every obstacle to such self-donation is removed. In particular, the stranglehold of self-occupation and fear is broken. Stripped of all that can hold it back, in this wonderful stillness, the soul is vulnerable even to God’s slightest wish – and God will never hold Himself back.

This is the dynamism of the Bride of Christ – the mystical Body constituted by the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Love draws His Love all the more. Here, in this silence, the same silence that Mary knows, whether for love of neighbour or for love of God, the soul is always ready to give itself. Such a self-gift is at the heart of true and mature contemplation. The same self-gift defines true apostolic mission.

This peaceful readiness desires only that the will of the Father be fulfilled. If the Spirit of the Father prompts such a contemplative into action – its efforts are always fruitful. When the action is complete, the Father delights in the gaze of such a devoted heart – for He sees His own Son reflected there. Nothing can thwart this kind of love — for Divine Love animates and sets this heart in movement and at rest. The Trinity has become the very life of this soul – and this same soul, for its part, is transformed in its image and likeness to the Three Persons in One God.


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Image credit: Vicente Masip [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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