Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 25, 2004
Be a contemplative in action
Christians must be able to see clearly and judge rightly
The Shepherd Speaks
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
The Jesuits sometimes refer to their vocation as one of being "contemplatives in action." St. Ignatius of Loyola, their founder, wanted them to be actively engaged in bringing Christ to the world, but he realized that such apostolic activity would be fruitless unless grounded in a discipline of prayer.
In fact, all Christians are called to be contemplatives in action. Unless we are connected constantly to the one who is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), our activity, even in the service of God, will not mean much. It is easy to get lost in activity, which then simply becomes busyness, if we lose sight of the purpose of our actions.
Mary and Martha
Two friends of Jesus have traditionally symbolized the active and contemplative dimensions of the life of discipleship. In Luke 10:38-42 we meet Martha and Mary. Martha is busy serving her guests. Her role is essential, or nothing good would be accomplished. It is not enough to wish for the good; action is required. The wise motto of the Young Catholic Worker movement, followed by many Christian groups, is "See, judge, and act." We see the situation, judge or assess it in the light of Gospel values, and then move into action.
That action is in the spirit of Martha. She makes real the greatest of the virtues, charity. She foreshadows what Jesus himself does at the Last Supper as St. John recounts it: he serves the apostles, humbly washing their feet (John 13:1-15). Jesus tells us that we should follow his example of humble service.
Yet when Martha complains that Mary is listening to Jesus, and not helping her with her work of service, Jesus answers: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken from her" (Luke 10:41-42). This has always seemed a bit unfair, since without Martha's work no one would eat.
Our Lord is not, however, criticizing the hard-working Martha; he is simply pointing out that in our work of service we should not be anxious and troubled, but keep focused on our goal, which is life in Christ. Our very activity will be truly fruitful only if it is rooted in contemplation, in being with the One we love. Only then will our activity bring life.
We can easily, even in generous works of service, lose sight of the goal, and forget about the context of God's loving presence, which Mary clearly appreciated. So it is not a choice between Martha or Mary; the Christian life requires both the active and the contemplative dimension.
We need to move boldly along the pathway of life, but not forget to keep an eye on our destination. This is one reason why Bishop Sheen, the American spiritual writer, invited all priests to spend one hour each day in adoration of our Eucharistic Lord, a practice which has transformed the lives of countless priests.
Times of prayer, and especially Eucharistic adoration, provide the necessary contemplative foundation for our activity in the service of God and neighbour, whether it be in the context of our family, or work, or the wider community. We need to return again and again for the Sabbath experience of spiritual refreshment and clarification that sends us back into action.
We face many challenges that call for action, not only in the struggles of our personal lives, but in the needs of our broken society. Christians must act decisively and effectively.
To do that they must be able to see clearly and judge rightly, and that requires the peace of contemplation illuminated by the gift of faith, which bears fruit in active charity.
We are specially blessed in our diocese with contemplative orders of religious sisters, whose witness of prayer lifts the apostolic activity of all of us. But all of us need to incorporate into our lives both the Martha and the Mary dimensions of Christian discipleship.
This is why, in view of the great needs of our society and the effective action which the Lord calls us to undertake, I encourage Catholics to spend time in adoration in their parish church, and why I will be instituting Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel at St. Andrew's Church, beginning after the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday, May 29, the feast of Corpus Christi.
This will provide us all with an opportunity to draw strength for our lives from the quiet prayer of adoration, at any time of the day or night. It should also lead us to reflect that while the rest of us are busily engaged in our daily activities, some of us will be praying for the needs of us all.
(Third in a series)
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