So lately I’ve been trying to sort out what it means to be a contemplative. I think one of the things I keep running into is the rather Puritan/Protestant notion that one has to always be doing something. What good are the folks, who spend most of their days in some sort of community, dedicating most of their lives to prayer? Why do we need them, anyway?
In A Right to be Merry, Mother Francis discusses how contemplatives are really the backbone of the Church. (I’m holed up in a library on campus because it’s air conditioned, so I don’t have the reference handy.) She also discusses how they’re usually the first under attack by enemies of the Church. Now, I’m not one to pull a Bill Donohue and claim injustice from everywhere, but there are people out there who, for whatever reason, do want to see the Church destroyed. (From both within and without.) Evil does exist, although humans are all too willing to do Screwtape’s job for him.
So, yeah, I’m not out there working in soup kitchens or shelters. You won’t ever see me out there protesting at a Planned Parenthood, either (for a number of reasons). It’s not because I don’t think social justice or pro-life issues are important, but it’s because that’s not where I’m called to be. No matter how I throw myself at those issues, no matter what I do, it isn’t enough.
Contemplatives deeply care about other people and their issues, but we recognize that no matter how we throw ourselves at those problems, we aren’t called to active ministry. Our lives are primarily one of witness, and by that I mean a a kind of sacred attention. We need to be alone with the Divine, and it isn’t selfish longing. It’s where our gifts are, and where we are called. It’s only through union with the Divine that we can reach out to others.