Contemplation and Public Action

The public good is most in danger when the voluntary visits to contemplation are neglected in favor of immediate communitarian action.

We don’t have to go off and become full-time contemplatives. But times of stepping aside from the race do help provide for safer involvement in public life. He says, in fact, that “the public good is most in danger” if such times are squeezed out of our lives.  [These quotes are from from James V. Schall, Professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University (in his Another Sort of Learning, 1988, Ignatius Press).]

'Contemplation' can mean ...

Of whatever type, “contemplation” tends to be a good practice for humans. So, here’s the obvious question: Is there in your life and mine a pattern of break-out times for “voluntary visits to contemplation” – or some such thing?

Loss of Integrity

The thesis upon which this book stands can now be stated forthrightly:
The foundations for order in the soul
and for order in society
are the same thing.

[Tad Dunne, Lonergan and Spirituality: Toward a Spiritual Integration, 1985, Loyola]

He applies that idea to social activism:

Key “Christian” or “moral majority” activists like Ralph Reed, Falwell, Dobson, etc. put enormous energy and money into trying to get hold of certain levers of power while leaving a trail of less than Christian behavior… the integrity got lost.

The mistake of the social activist is that he or she thinks that, given enough hard work and dedication and self-sacrifice, a social order will emerge which will replace the need to struggle for spiritual integrity.

The “struggle for spiritual integrity” is difficult and never-ending. The idea is very wrong that we can do without it if we just “get it right” with

  • the economic structure,
  • or the political structure,
  • or the legal structure,
  • or the church structure.

This is a very common and deadly error.

Writing over 20 years ago he connects that error more directly to leftist activism. But we have now also seen it become very characteristic of right-Christian activism. So we have seen key “Christian” or “moral majority” activists like Ralph Reed, Falwell, Dobson, etc. put enormous energy and money into trying to get hold of certain levers of power while leaving a trail of less than Christian behavior for the world to see and marvel at. Somehow the integrity got lost in the activism. And now they are very clearly on the shrinking end of public respect, support, and influence.


Dunne continues:

Activists generally do not attend to matters of the inner heart in their own lives, and consequently they have no real experience of quality living

If they never allow themselves the enjoyment of the values
of silence,
of beauty,
of solitude,
of celebration,
then they are never in a position to help others appreciate them.

And that is costly not only to the “others”, but to ourselves.

Burn-out is inevitable. So their efforts do not last, and it is a pity that good hearts have been charred beyond recognition.

I’ve seen it. Have you? It’s not pretty.


One aspect of this for some of us might be taking time to read, or even to study. Here’s an interesting observation from Angelina Grimke Weld. (She was an anti-slavery author in the 1800’s, and a writer on behalf of women’s rights. Her husband was the abolitionist and educator Theodore Dwight Weld.)

I have not placed reading before praying because I regard it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand what we are praying for.

Cool concept! Understand what we are praying about! Peter says the same thing: “Be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.” (1 Peter 4:7)

That’s not always possible; but if we make that effort we will be much more engaged as we pray.


[Prayer] is the great producer of sympathy … Our egoism retires before the coming of God, and into the clearance there comes with our Father our brother.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes on prayer

[from Peter Taylor Forsyth’s The Soul of Prayer (1916).]

In life it is not ‘dogged that does it’ in the last resort, and it is not hard work; it is faculty, insight, gift, talent, genius.
And what genius does in the natural world prayer does in the spiritual.
Nothing can give us so much power and vision. It opens a fountain perpetual and luminous at the centre of our personality, where we are sustained because we are created anew and not simply refreshed. For here the springs of life continually arise.

And there’s also this one:

[Prayer] is the great producer of sympathy. Trusting the God of Christ, and transacting with Him, we come into tune with men. Our egoism retires before the coming of God, and into the clearance there comes with our Father our brother … When God fills our heart He makes more room for man than the humanist heart can find.

Of course there is a kind of common, egoist prayer – a pushy, self-centered, self-promoting kind of prayer – that pays no attention to the retiring of our egoism and thus finds no room for either the coming of God or the coming with God of our brother. There’s plenty of that around, but our world has no need for more of it.

But our world does need us to be praying,
or “contemplating”,
or some such real and serious thing.
And it’s really good for us, as well as for the world around.

See also:
Changing the World: Activism With Prayer and Silence, or
God Doing Improv, In Our Towns, or
John Paul II – Prayer and the Stupidities of Public Life

This is a revised version of an article I published in 2008.

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