Prayer Or Action? The Tension Explored

What is our future as committed Christians as the third millennium begins? How shall we live the Christian life – how do we live the gospel now – as we seek to create a new, just, peaceful world? What resources of the Spirit of God are available to us in the quest to transform our cultures and societies?

Two temptations are enticing. One is to plunge into activism without a spiritual grounding. The other, especially insidious, is to take a deep breath, close the doors of the churches on the problems of society, and focus on a private experience of religion. For some, a “Jesus and me” religiosity is very satisfying since it allows them to seek personal holiness without attention to those outside their religious circle. This, however, is a corruption of the gospel, whose basic principle is love of God and love of neighbor.

Many persons of faith find themselves spiritually undernourished and weak as they struggle to live their lives with integrity. The problems of the world – whether in the countries of the South or the North – are so intricate and intertwined that just to attempt to understand their complexity is daunting. And understanding is only the first to step to a praxis of transforming love and justice. Where will we find the nourishment that will provide the strength and conviction that we so obviously need?

It is clear mere good will and technical skills will not create the ethos of the new society we desire. Human beings in the twenty-first century, as before, remain weak, selfish, suffering from the effects of personal and social sin. Women and men of all cultures and societies do strive to transform their part of the world, but a vision of a new society is not sufficient of itself to sustain persons and communities over the long haul. Something more is needed.

Prayer or Working for Justice?

People like simplicity. It is much easier to choose one thing and focus all of one’s efforts on it. Thus dichotomies are born, two-headed creatures that seem to speak two languages. Today Christians are often confronted with the dichotomy between being a person of prayer and living a private type of Christian life and being committed to the struggle for justice and peace.

At first glance it seems incredible that such a monster should be among us, for certainly there cannot be a choice between these two dimensions of Christian life. Yet if we reflect on our experience, most people will have heard at least some of the following statements:

“I need a lot of time for prayer and time for myself; I simply don’t have time to get involved in social justice things.”
“Prayer is wasting time that can be better spent at a meeting working for justice in a real way.”
“Look at all those people at prayer meetings: they don’t know anything about what the struggle for justice is really about.”
“Activists never pray; they just follow the latest party line.”

But we cannot simply choose one and ignore the other. Our God is a God of justice and peace and we come to know God both in prayer and in concrete action toward justice, peace, and the care of creation. Jesus the Christ to whom Christians commit their entire selves is revealed in the Gospels as one who sought deserted places in which to pray early in the morning, (Mark 1:35-36), who prayed all night, (Luke 6:12), and who announced his mission as bringing liberty to the poor, (Luke 4:18). In the life of Jesus as given to us in the Gospel witness we see no choice between prayer or his mission of liberation. Rather, we see the integration of these two dimensions of life.

It is not hard to convince most Christians that at least “some” prayer is a good thing in life. Persons may struggle to find time to pray, wonder if they are praying well, and desire a deeper life of prayer. Seldom is prayer rejected out of hand by a sincere Christian believer.

But commitment to the social mission of the gospel is much more problematic. Within the Catholic tradition, we have seen a dramatic change in attitudes toward the world in the last one hundred years, but especially since Vatican II (1962-1965). No longer is the posture of the Catholic church one of constructing ever-higher walls between the church and the world. The poetic statement of the opening lines of the “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et spes) describes this new perspective: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

In addition, the statement of the Synod of Bishops of 1971, “Justice in the World,” made a very bold departure from past understandings of prayer and action. The call now is to understand that action for justice and peace is at the heart of the gospel:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation. (The Gospel of Peace and Justice)

This is a call not only to the work of personal charity, but also to efforts to transform social structures so that people are no longer poor, hungry, illiterate, homeless, unemployed – and the nations and continents have a fair share of the world economic pie. This is especially crucial in Africa, the poorest continent, one sometimes described as “hopeless” by transnational business leaders and other bodies with its wars, famines, unemployment, the ravages of HIV/AIDS, and immense global debt.

The challenge before us is to be persons of deep prayer and authentic commitment to the works of justice and peace. It does not matter which conversion happens first: to a deeper faith commitment in Jesus the Christ or an awakening to the imperative to labor for a just and peaceful society. Growth in both must continue apace. Peter Henriot writes:

But as important as it may be to see this commitment to act for social justice as being a consequence of growth in true spirituality, it is even more important to understand – and to practice – this commitment as being simultaneous to the growth process itself. This emphasis upon simultaneity is a more difficult conclusion to demonstrate. It rests upon an appreciation of the reality of the “public dimension” of personal human experience. Such an appreciation comes with an understanding of social structures and of our own existential relationship with those structures. (Liturgical Foundations of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions)

This call to contemporary Christians throughout the world is to learn how to do this: to grow simultaneously in the life of prayer and in commitment to social transformation, to walk on the two feet of love of God and love of neighbor.

Food for the Journey to Justice

In Matthew 13:52 we read of the householder who is able to bring both old and new things out of the storeroom. If we investigate some of the treasures in the Christian storeroom, we shall find plentiful resources for our commitment in prayer, love, and action to help build a world for our commitment in prayer, love, and action to help build a world in which the tears will be wiped from humanity’s eyes, (Revelation 21:4), or at least more realistically, to work so that at least some tears will no longer be shed!

The great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner stated, “In the future we shall be mystics or we shall be nothing.” (Theological Investigations) It is in the teachings of some of the great teachers of prayer in the Christian tradition, those adventurers of the Spirit we have termed mystics, that good and plentiful food for the journey to wholeness in personal and communal life will be found.

Saint Augustine’s description of the human heart remains true as we stand at the beginning of this new century: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Confessions) The life stories of the great women and men of the Christian tradition whose lives of prayer were focused on union with the One they loved do not demonstrate a lack of care and concern for the world in which they lived. Rather, since they lived the basic dynamic of the Christian life in a growing fullness – union of the love of God and love of neighbor – their teachings contain important resources for us in our journey today.

In an ecumenical interpretation of the history of Christian spirituality, it is important to realize that the wisdom of the great teachers of prayer belongs to all Christians. Some lived and wrote before the Reformation in the sixteenth century; their legacy is part of the whole Christian heritage. Since the sixteenth century, Christians in the West have experienced a radical institutional brokenness of the body of Christ. Here the mystics can help to heal the divisions since their message cuts across denominational lines and ecclesial fences to speak of the essential themes of Christian life: faith, hope, love, experience of God in prayer, mission.

Mystical experience is not one of separation, of real or artificial dichotomies, but one of wholeness. The life of a person of intense prayer may be lived in solitude, in community, or in public – but his or her experience is never individual and unrelated to the concerns of the times. Thus it is to the mystics that we turn in our search for resources for our journey in prayer and transformation of our society.

(by Susan Rakoczy)

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