Action/Contemplation

It’s been a murder week, between a massive investment of energy at work, the ongoing war against entropy at home, and the ramped-up preparations for Benedict’s arrival on March 17th.  New beds were constructed, enormous amounts of trash were hauled up and down and out and away, children demanded to know what else I was planning on doing for them.  It’s been immensely gratifying.

What all that work hasn’t left any time for (in addition to blogging) is reading and thinking.  One of the great perks of my job is that I have time between classes to decompress and meditate on…well, just about anything.  A lot of Ovid, Benedict, or Ariosto happens in there!  And when I ride the train home, that’s 45 minutes of uninterrupted rest and contemplation.  But lately, I’ve been feeling the loss.

Time isn’t the right word for the problem, though.  It’s not quite energy either, although I have been doing a lot more sleeping on the train.  Even when I am up and about, or sitting at a desk with no parent, student, administrator, or child demanding my attention, I simply cannot concentrate on words and ideas.  And while it’s amusing to tell people that I have pregnancy hormones, and the stupid television blaring in the background doesn’t help, it’s really just another first-hand look at the irreducible tension between the active life and the contemplative life.

It’s interesting how driven we are to try to create a balance between action and contemplation, even in a purely secular sense.  Me time, gym memberships, reading clubs, heck, even just trying to balance home and work while being great at both: we sense the goodness of both action and contemplation and we want to have both.  I want to plumb the depths of spiritual masters so that it will make me a better teacher and father.  I want all of both worlds.

Christ and St. Paul are both pretty clear that a choice has to be made.  It’s impossible to be great at both, for they are two worlds that draw on the same currency of the human soul.  It’s a great feeling to solve every problem at work but the investment of self has to be total to “be the best you can be.”   That’s the siren that needs its head chopped off.  To have any space at all for contemplation you have to say “enough” to action and accept that you will not be the best you can be.

Like all the resurrection paradoxes of the Gospel, that choice will make things a lot better for action.  All that wise/foolish and weak/strong talk in St. Paul is not mystical obfuscation.  There’s no doubt but that contemplation is a higher good.  It took me ages to understand that properly: action is a good, taking care of children is a good, doing justice in this world is a good.  But once you know the reward of contemplation, and try living without it for a time, there’s no question which is higher.  Like much of the Gospel, that’s something you can only see from the inside; you couldn’t have convinced me about it 20 years ago.

Sadly the choice cuts both ways and it cuts deep.  I have to accept that I only have so much time, energy, and attention to invest in prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading.  If I devoted myself to those things as much as I want to now, people would go unfed.  So would I, for that matter.  So I won’t be a master of all the masters I want to be; I’ll never have the insight into Aquinas I want; I’ll always be troubled by the things of the world.

But those things include playing Uno with my kids, convincing teenagers that the truth of a valid deduction is not a matter of opinion, building up a great school, and tag-teaming the world with my wife.  Not a shabby list of goods, and we have a gentle Master who leads us to rest even through lesser paths.  Lesser doesn’t mean evil, or sleep would be bad.  So would apostles.

Still, Mary has chosen the greater part; man cannot live on bread alone.  Everyone needs to say no to the world in order to have any hope of surviving it, no matter how tightly tied to it.  Survive and thrive…by ignoring, at least a little.

And yes, this is me gearing up for a serious blog-marathon this weekend.

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