In his book Healing the Divide, Amos Smith speaks of a friend named Helen who was always busy with numerous activities and grandchildren but would pause all activity to give visitors her full, undivided attention. “Whenever I went to see her,” he said, “I felt like the most important person in the world. She hung on my every word and listened deeply with understanding and compassion. Then she offered carefully chosen words that always had my best interests in mind. Helen did this with everyone who graced her home regardless of background.”
One of the things that gave Helen her depth was her devotion to prayer. Every morning for over 30 years she read from the Bible and her daily devotional booklets. She sat in stillness as the sun came up and pondered those words. Then she pondered those words all day and let them sink in. Helen knew how to attend to people and to listen because she attended to God and to the “still small voice” within (I kings 19: 12). She made room to listen.
Anne worked for the American Friends Service Committee in Washington DC. She tackled polarizing political issues on Capitol Hill. Her work was draining, yet she was an energetic long-term activist of 25 years—a rarity. She claims her vitality and stamina on the Hill stem from her daily hour of silent Quaker-style worship. Her daily dose of silence inoculates her from burnout. Many social justice activists sideline their spiritual life, leaving themselves vulnerable to compassion fatigue, to bitterness, and to burnout. But many other souls who take on draining service work recharge their batteries through prayer. If we can’t find constant renewal, life force dwindles.
In Luke 10, Jesus teaches his disciples at Mary’s and Martha’s home and Mary listened instead of helping her sister prepare a meal for their visitors. Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10: 42).
Mary knew the better part – the frame of mind at the center of our aspirations. Mary sat silently at Jesus’ feet. In the end the world needs this silent attentiveness at Jesus’ feet more than all our doing. We need people who have serenity, whose presence is a wellspring of calm. This peace can’t be imitated. It comes from within, from a life of prayer and joy. This stillness is far more valuable than anything we could be “doing.” Habitual stillness feeds our souls and nourishes our relationship with God (Psalms 46: 10). In a restless, harried world, habitual stillness is a beacon of light. This blessed stillness, as it is called by East Orthodox writers, is of more value than any external thing we can acquire.
Too Busy to Connect with God?
Today, chronic restlessness overflows. Excuses to stay distracted and aimlessly busy abound. Mary calls us to a still point amid the storms, a solace where people can come and collect themselves… where people can come and feel safe… where people can find the spaciousness necessary to hear the spirit… where there is a lightness and calm even in the most tense situations.
When asked, Taoist Master NI Hua Chang, gave his best advice to Americans when he said, “do less.” His statement reflects the spiritual poverty of the West. Most of us are running all the time. Most households have two wage earners, there are children to attend to, and relentless technology. Of course, it’s possible to maintain presence and composure in the midst of multitudinous activities. But this is the graduate course in practicing the presence of God.
Evelyn Underhill, a wonderful writer on Christian mysticism, offers:
Many people feel unaware of any guidance,
unable to discern or understand the signals of God;
not because the signals are not given,
but because the mind is too troubled,
clouded, and hurried to receive them.
The small number of people, like Anne, who inwardly connect to the deep promptings of their souls and outwardly connect to the world through activism and service, have the greatest effects on society. Mysticism pulls us towards service and service towards mysticism. We need more Christians who are both mystics and activists.
Activists enter the fray of the world’s injustices and risk the scarring likely to come from those encounters. Contemplatives seek the still small voice within for respite from the storms and for reconnection with the joyous freedom at our Source. The two together move mountains.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2)
The Kingdom Within and the Kingdom Come
John’s gospel presents the dominion of God as a reality we can enter here and now. God’s realm is also the coming reign of justice and peace—a realm yet to come.
Jesus’ life speaks to the personal “Kingdom within” (Luke 17: 21) and the collective “Kingdom come” (Matthew 6: 10). The Kingdom within is the transformed presence of our minds and hearts here and now. The Kingdom come is the transformation of the world through compassionate service and solidarity with the vulnerable, which is to come.
Jesus was contemplative and activist, mystic and prophet, spirit and form, God and human, absolute and relative, existing for eternity and existing in time.
Contemplation and Action
Christian prayer’s distinguishing characteristic is its focus on service. Enlightenment isn’t the central point. The point is intimacy with God, which spawns more effective servanthood.
Activism used to be divorced from faith. Now we’re seeing more and more kinship between them. We need a spiritual refuge we can return to again and again and we need a cause. May more activists find their spiritual refuge in Jesus dynamic essence and in prayer and may more Christians turn activist!
May more people reconcile world-denying asceticism on the one hand with God-denying humanism on the other. May more Christians emulate Jesus by loving the Creator and taking care of the creation, by communing with God and serving our neighbors.
Without activists, contemplation is in constant danger of becoming what Thomas Merton called “consecrated narcissism.” Without contemplation, activism is in danger of turning into a humanistic enterprise stripped of its vital connection to God as source of inspiration and refuge from the storm.
For further understanding of the connection between the Kingdom of God within us and the Kingdom of God in this world read:
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Healing the Divide; Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots by Amos Smith