Consenting to the Action of the Spirit
by Colleen Thomas
“Therefore the mystic’s concern with the imperative of social action is not merely to improve the condition of society. It is not merely to feed the hungry, not merely to relieve human suffering and human misery. If this were all, in and of itself, it would be important surely. But this is not all. The basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to himself in the life of the inidivudual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action.” ~ Howard Thurman
Though we sit still, silent and consenting, prayer is actually quite active. It is good to recall what we consent to – God’s presence and action within. To consent is, by definition, to agree to do something, or to “give permission for something to happen.” Consent is in itself an action, and in this act of consenting we are in fact inviting even more action. As practitioners of Centering Prayer, we are well disciplined to detach from results, yet by faith we believe that our prayer does indeed affect us and others. And perhaps, we have a small measure of faith to believe that our prayer might even affect the world in some holy, transcendent, or transformative way.
I must admit, my faith in the latter has waned thin over the past year. I’ve wrestled with the discomfort of inaction in the face of so much social and political unrest. What is my role to play in this time of trouble? How comfortable am I with righteous indignation – expressed by others or my own? Why is outcry and despair in the form of anger and rage confusing? Why can injustice be so paralyzing? How can I possibly act in the midst of all this chaos when the contemplative in me just wants to sit in my chair, turn off the news, and rest in the Presence of God? It is natural to want to remain grounded in turmoil, and a grace to be able to find that ground. But when my practice becomes so grounded that I resist action am I in some way resisting a greater work of the Spirit?
Fr. Keating calls the action of Centering Prayer the divine therapy. In other words, what is happening in this prayer practice is a mysterious work of the Spirit. Albeit a mystery precisely how the Spirit works in prayer, the language used to describe the Spirit in scripture is always active. From the beginning of the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovered over dark waters, separating light from darkness, moving over the earth. This is the setting of the creation story, the active protagonist being this Spirit of God on the move. From creation to incarnation, the activity of God is undeniable. Yet when it comes to prayer and how the Spirit works in prayer, I have a natural tendency towards stillness and inaction. If I’m being honest, prayer can slow me down.
There is an undeniable peace inducing effect of prayer on my own personal life that draws me to my chair each day. I can easily settle in to this feeling of at-homeness and experience a deep comfort in both my prayer life, and in my personal world. Sure, there are everyday stresses of life – health scares, bills to be paid, vocational discernment, bouts of loneliness and isolation due to extended COVID quarantine. Despite these, like during my Centering Prayer practice, I am able to catch moments of interior peace, so rich that news of a global health pandemic, heightened racial tensions, or domestic terrorism barely even shake me. At times I am so rooted, grounded, planted in this deep abiding Presence that death, violence, poverty, nor protest can move me.
And then I listen to an episode of the Encountering Silence podcast with Cynthia Bourgeault who reminds me – “The purpose of contemplation is to make us responsive and skillful actors at what we must do, not to shield us from action which must happen.” More questions abound.
Am I to continue sitting comfortably on my cushion ushering in the peace of God on behalf of the world? Am I to live out my social and civic duty in increments of 20-minute sits, bearing the burdens of my fellow brothers and sisters in holy silence? How does one become a “responsive and skillful actor” by virtue of prayer?
In the early weeks of the pandemic, I read Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. One of our lesser-acknowledged mystics, Howard Thurman was an African-American minister, himself influenced by Ghandi, and known to be a major influence on the life, theology, and non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. Although known to influence Dr. King, Thurman himself never took to the streets to engage in active protest or resistance. Like Thomas Merton, Thurman occupied his role as mystic prophet. In 1944, he established and co-pastored a multiracial church community in San Francisco called the “Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples” and wrote numerous books on the contemplative life and prayer.
Thurman knew well that contemplative prayer leads us in the direction of being inclusive people and communities, and that prayer does so by dismantling systems that oppose justice. He also learned well from visiting with Gandhi, that in his context of pre-civil rights America, to hold prophetic vision meant to act with prophetic boldness. To reclaim a world where all men and women are seen equally by God and one another meant to actively usher that world into being as a bearer of God’s light and hope in this world.
What if to be a mystic and a contemplative, like Thurman or Bourgeault, is to be moved into a place of deep awareness that changes not only my view of myself, but my view of the whole world. It is in this place of deep awareness that I come to terms with myself in relation to God and myself in relation to the world God reveals to me in prayer. Just as the Spirit can dismantle my false self, the Spirit at work in the world can also dismantle false systems of poverty, oppression and injustice in this world. Meister Eckhardt says, “There are many who follow Christ halfway, but not the other half.” What does the second half of my contemplative journey look like? I’m afraid that I have a new role to play, to act out this new vision for this new world, my country, God’s people.
Since the beginning of known time, the Spirit has been actively working at disrupting false systems and incarnating the new. Yet if the only new creation I am concerned with is limited to my own inner life, I may in fact be blocking the action of the spirit urging me to move beyond my comfort zone, beyond my safe personal world. To do this, I may need to reconcile what it is to be holy, what I am consenting to in the activity of my prayer, and what it looks like to be one with the Spirit of God that is always on the move.
We call them saints, those who have consented to let prayer move them from their chairs. In the great tradition of Mother Teresa and John Dear and Desmond Tutu and Gandhi and MLK Jr. – these men and women didn’t just spend their lives praying for mercy. Through prayer they became the Mercy of God itself. Meister Eckhardt reminds me again that besides Mary reclining at Jesus’ feet, there was also Martha preparing food for her friend, the troublemaker of Jerusalem. Even this small act of mercy is the incarnational nature of contemplative prayer. We would do well to consider Eckhardt who defends Martha from Jesus’ seeming rebuke – “Martha was what she did and did what she was.”
Colleen Thomas is a certified spiritual director trained in the monastic art of spiritual discernment and retreat leadership, with an MA in Theology from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. She is founder and curator of Soul Care LA an urban “monastery” offering spiritual companionship for enterprising artists, entertainers and entertainment professionals. To find out more, visit her website www.soulcarela.com