As I understand it, early on in his work, Richard Rohr added the word “action” to the name of his Center in Pecos, New Mexico. Without “action,” you see, as an essential compliment and counterbalance, contemplation can too easily digress into self-serving navel gazing. I appreciate the ways he frames this tension, this paradox:
The most important word in our Center’s name is not Action nor is it Contemplation; it’s the word ”and“… We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey. Without action, our spirituality becomes lifeless and bears no authentic fruit. Without contemplation, all our doing comes from ego, even if it looks selfless, and it can cause more harm than good. External behavior must be connected to and supported by spiritual guidance. It doesn’t matter which comes first; action may lead you to contemplation, and contemplation may lead you to action. But finally, they need and feed each other as components of a healthy dynamic relationship with Reality. (Rohr, adapted from an exclusive video teaching within the Living School program)
It’s a crucial word, an essential tension to maintain in our spiritual formation discussions and explorations. It’s a variation of Wesley’s prayer that we’d “join the two so long divided: knowledge and vital piety.” Meaningful action emerges out of authentic knowledge/contemplation.
Meaningful contemplation demands informed action.
It’s a helpful reminder as I experience the political divisiveness and social unrest in our land… and in our world. Epitomized by the breadth and depth of ongoing protests surrounding the senseless killing of George Floyd (demonstrations which highlight strong currents and undercurrents of racism and social inequities in the fabric of our beings and our communities), the question forcefully rises from my core:
What can I do?
What am I supposed to do?
For me (and here, I can’t help but wonder if it’s not something all white males should think about), the best thing I can do (at least as a start) is to “shut up and listen.” No, it’s not the end all. It can not and will not replace the real roll-up-your-sleeves and lay-down-your-life work that’s needed. But, it is a start—an essential start.
“Shut up and listen!”: at its best, it’s at the intersection – the overlap – of contemplation and action. Being still and contemplating (i.e., really listening for) the voice of Jesus, the despair and anguish of others, the angst and reactions within me (and pondering their sources),… AND, believing and trusting that, in a world of impulsive reactivity and defensiveness, this listening is a most meaningful action – the source of real, authentic action.
“Shut up and listen!” It’s not easy. In fact, it’s far more complex and difficult that I think we can imagine. At or near its core, it raises all sorts of difficult questions:
- To whom should I listen?
(I’m not sure. In fact, I am rather convinced, that listening to your old familiar “stations” and commentators is really not listening. It’s more of hearing what you want to hear—solidifying what you already are. In fact, real listening might mean turning off the all the traditional stations and networks and commentators altogether… and finding a more relevant and fresh voice out there.)
- From where will I listen?
(Reading a book or watching a documentary/movie can be meaningful. [I am hearing that White Fragility, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, How to Be an Antiracist, and The Color of Privilege are all worthwhile reads. And, too, Amazon Prime has identified a host of relevant and meaningful watches.] Meaningful as these may be, though, the question remains: are we ready and willing to be about a listening that carries us beyond the comfort of our living rooms?)
- How and why will I listen?
(Our most recent issue of Ruminations (focused on community) had a quote from Henri Nouwen that has lingered with me. “We cannot change the world by a new plan, project, or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals. But we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and pre-occupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their center.” For our purposes here, now, the question is whether I am listening as one step in a series of steps aimed at controlling or planning or advising… or if I’m listening in a manner that provides a safe and disarming space that fosters a corporate listening to the Voice speaking at our center and centers.)
(It is no surprise, I’d add: how each of these questions about listening has a way of pointing to some kind of action.)
For all the ways that this listening makes sense to me
(that is, for all the ways that his word emanates from deep within),
I know there are others out there who will not see it this way.
If Facebook has taught me anything,
it’s that there is no consensus on anything these days.
So that some, seeing these words (assuming they have read this far),
will see me as a misguided soul –
duped by some establishment out there,
complicit in driving “their” agenda.
Here might be the hardest “shut up and listen” of all (at least, for me):
listening to (and trying to stay in truthful, loving relationship with)
those who have to have all the answers
and who do not know
(or even care to know)
what it is to “shut up and listen!”
for all the ways
that more could be added,
I believe it’s time
what I am hearing
from my center:
to shut up