action in inactivity

I just sent this journal excerpt to a friend:

From the Tao Te Ching, an ancient text held sacred by the Taoist religion:
The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things,
and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.
One of the major themes in the Tao Te Ching is "action in inactivity." In quietness and stillness, great things can be accomplished, battles won. This ties in with another major theme, "harmony," which is mentioned in the passage above. By living in harmony, we can act without striving, and lead without coercion. It reminds me of the whole active life vs. contemplative life argument. Doing vs. being, the practical vs. the ideal, etc.

I think the greatest challenge to Taoist "inactivity," or contemplative spirituality in general, is the problem of evil. We can't just let evil happen, can we? We HAVE to act, resist, fight, kill when it comes to evil, right? What other choice do we have? To this, Jesus responds with one of the hardest sayings he ever uttered (Mt 5.38-41):
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."
This is not submitting to evil out of fear. It is overcoming evil with good.

This all helps describe the dynamics of faith. Faith is really inactivity: death to self, openness, surrender. Yet it is the portal to love, which is the source of all good action. Love is the activity in faith's inactivity. Love motivates our good-doing, while we remain in the non-doing of faith. Faith does not strive or resist or coerce. Yet, through faith, love creates, heals, conquers, overcoming all evil. Love cannot be overcome; it is the ground of all being, God himself. And faith is 'harmony' with God.

Here's a good passage from Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism, about contemplative 'work':
...the 'quiet' to which the mystics must school themselves in the early stages of contemplation is often the hardest of their tasks. ...Work they must but this work may take many forms--forms which are sometimes so wholly spiritual that they are not perceptible to practical minds. Much of the misunderstanding and consequent contempt of the contemplative life comes from the narrow and superficial definition of 'work' which is set up by a muscular and wage-earning community.
To clarify "contemplation" (from later chapters in the same book):
The condition of all valid seeing and hearing, upon every plane of consciousness, lies not in the sharpening of the senses, but in a peculiar attitude of the whole personality: in a self-forgetting attentiveness, a profound concentration, a self-merging, which operates a real communion between the seer and the seen--in a word, Contemplation. It is an act, not of the Reason, but of the whole personality working under the stimulus of mystic love. ...We pour ourselves out or, as it sometimes seems to us, IN towards this over-powering interest: seem to ourselves to reach it and be merged with it.

I've been thinking a lot about 'activity.' I don't want to fall into a quietistic position of despising active 'doing.' But I also don't want to be driven by a need for activity, the desire for results, wanting to 'make something happen.' I believe ministry is best if we're free to do or not-do.

One of the reasons I lost interest in 'contemplative' writing years ago is that much of it seemed to describe a prayer life that was separated from normal human existence. Often the contemplative life was presented as being incompatible with physical activity, so people had to choose: contemplative or active life? I certainly was attracted to the deep life of prayer that contemplatives described. But did it have to replace active ministry? Shouldn't prayer enhance ministry?

Teresa of Avila presents a better view in this quote from Mysticism:
"You may think, my daughters," says St. Teresa, "that the soul in this state [contemplation] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship."
I agree that contemplation is an asset to the active "service of God," not only helping us to discern what God wants, but also motivating our actions with love. In addition, when there is a pause in our occupations the 'activity' of contemplative prayer remains. Thus we can act in the power of God's love when we see others in need, and at other moments we can sit like Mary at the feet of Jesus.

This becomes clearer when the 'activity' of prayer is understood. It's not just asking God for things, or trying to exercise some spiritual power to make things happen. Prayer is actively willing what God wills. It is the power of Love (the Holy Spirit) moving in us through faith. Thus, in intent, prayer is essentially the same as active ministry--the only difference is the physical movement. Ministry and prayer become one piece. "Pray without ceasing" becomes a possibility.

The crucial part is that we surrender our will to God in faith; then we move or don't move according to his will. We're ready to jump to the service of others as we encounter their need. And we're also ready to remain 'waiting for the Lord' when our hands seem tied. Yet, whether we're in a moment of doing or not-doing, we're always active if we remain in prayer. Because prayer means an active giving of oneself, willing with God's will, loving with God's Love.