Contemplation – Sun. July 21, 2019
According to its website, “The Centre for Action and Contemplation began as a dream of Fr. Richard Rohr’s in 1986 during his first year in Albuquerque, New Mexico… The name was chosen because it expressed the paradoxical nature of the Center’s purpose: standing in a middle place, at the center of the cross, where opposites are held together.” The explanation of its history goes on: “We believed that action and contemplation, once thought of as mutually exclusive, must be brought together or neither one would make sense. We wanted to be radical in both senses of the word, simultaneously rooted in tradition and boldly experimental. One of the expressions of the radical nature of our work was our extensive inclusivity, bridging gaps within the spiritual and justice communities, building a rhythm of contemplative prayer and Zen meditation into our days, and even more fundamentally, believing that external behavior should be connected to and supported by inner guidance.” Action and contemplation.
Last Sunday we heard a Gospel story about action with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is prompted by a question about a detail in the summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The story then tells of a man in need who is ignored by 2 different people until finally a foreigner – a Samaritan – stops to take care of him with generosity and mercy. The story concludes with Jesus’ command to: “Go and do likewise.” It is a story designed to complicate the understanding of “neighbour” and to express the love of that neighbour. It is a story of love in action. It is a story of external behaviour reflecting an inner condition of acceptance and grace across differences that are expected to divide.
In our Gospel story today, immediately following the Good Samaritan in Luke’s telling, we hear the other side of the coin. Today we hear a story highlighting the importance not of action, but of inner guidance. Today we hear a story about the place of contemplation as the necessary counterpart to action. We hear a story about the love of God that supports and inspires the love of neighbour. It is a story of two sisters: Martha and Mary, who act as hosts to Jesus when he had come to their village.
Having welcomed Jesus into their home, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he is saying. She learns about the word of God while her sister Martha takes care of the many important tasks of hosting. The Gospel description of the scene is an ancient way of describing a time of learning from a master. As such, Mary acts like a disciple – notably, like a male disciple – which probably explains at least some of why her sister Martha protests against Mary’s behaviour. By spending her time learning about God’s word through Jesus’ teaching, by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening, Mary violates a clear social boundary and abandons the social role she is assigned. It is no wonder her sister Martha is so frustrated and annoyed. While Martha’s sister sits and listens, Martha does what she is supposed to do. She gets busy with the many tasks involved in offering hospitality. She is left with all the work – the ‘real’ work – of cooking and caring for a guest. And more, Martha does exactly what Jesus commanded the lawyer in the previous story: “go and do”… love your neighbour by showing hospitality and offering practical care.
It is clearly Mary who is in the wrong. Mary acts against convention, violates social norms, and could thereby bring difficulties to the whole family. Mary sits down in faith and claims a place that is not her’s to claim – the place of a disciple. She also exemplifies the love of God and the love for God – the first half of the lawyer’s answer about the requirements for abundant life. Mary chooses to listen and learn God’s word so that she can love God better – with her whole being: heart, mind, soul and strength. She seeks inner guidance. Mary is not a lawyer. She had likely never had an opportunity to sit at the feet of a master to listen before. And because she and the lawyer are different people, with different social roles, different experience and different expectations, they need different things to live out their faithfulness. To be a more effective follower of God, Mary chose to sit and listen. She chose contemplation. She chose to practice the love of God.
Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation operates with 8 core principles. The first is that “the teaching of Jesus is our central reference point.” The second is that “we need a contemplative mind in order to do compassionate action.” In further reflection on this principle, Rohr describes contemplation as being “open, undefended and immediately present.” He goes on to describe contemplative practices, writing: “Prayer is not the avoiding of distractions, but precisely how you deal with distractions. Contemplation is not the avoidance of the problem, but a daily merging with the problem, and finding its full resolution. What you quickly and humbly learn in contemplation, is that how you do anything is probably how you do everything. If you are brutal in your inner reaction to your own littleness and sinfulness, your social relationships and even your politics will probably be the same—brutal.”
In other words, the source, the inner condition, necessary for compassionate action… the love of neighbour… is one of grace. Notably, grace towards oneself. Practicing the love of God in oneself… experiencing God’s great love, is a necessary component to practicing the love of neighbour. Contemplation is any practice that teaches us love from the inside out. It is not about denying our sin, our mistakes, or our missteps. It is, rather, about acknowledging, even embracing, them, and discovering the love of God through them. It is cultivating an undefended stance of openness and radical presence in the here and now. Contemplation isn’t about escaping the world, but being more fully present in it. Through contemplation, we are reminded that we are okay, not because of any external behaviour, but because God created us and God chose us, just as we are.
Such an inner condition is what makes it possible to practice the love of neighbour without strings attached. Loving service can then be practiced out of compassion, conviction and inspiration, rather than obligation or trying to prove something to ourselves or to others, or trying to earn something. Knowing God’s love deeply within ourselves, without condition, is how we develop the capacity to act with compassion, particularly towards those who are different from us. The love of God – in our heart, in our soul, in our mind and in our strength – matters because that relationship influences how we love our neighbour *as ourself.*
Richard Rohr is quoted as saying: “The most important word in our Center’s name is not ‘Action’ nor is it ‘Contemplation,’ but the word ‘and.’” It is the connection and support of our external behavior through inner guidance that matters most. Serving *and* listening. Loving our neighbour *as ourself* and the deep experience of loving God and being loved by God in listening and learning, as Mary shows us today.