These are challenging times. Perhaps, amidst the shifting sands of our social landscape, the news headlines, the real need and suffering of those around us, and the incessant activity of mind and body all these can precipitate, we may have been able to find at least some moments for rest and reflection. It is precisely at times like these that the importance of both action and contemplation becomes evident. One sustains and supports the other. They are sibling orientations of the soul.
This is not a new insight. The ancient Stoics articulated in a recognizable form the importance of balancing action and contemplation. A few centuries later, the Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 524) describes in his Consolation of Philosophy how Lady Philosophy has a gown with two Greek letters: Pi, and Theta. Pi stands for praxis (or the active life), and Theta for theoria (or the contemplative life). Anyone who claims to be a philosopher – that is, a friend of wisdom – must practice both.
Gospel commentaries both before and after Boethius see the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, as having an allegorical significance beyond their historical facticity: as images of the active (Martha) and contemplative (Mary) life. Note that they are siblings, and live together under the same roof. Similarly, as philosophers have long taught us, the two dispositions must mutually inhabit the same ‘house’ of the soul. Christ gently chides Martha for letting busy-ness supersede the “one thing needful” – the content of contemplation, sitting at the feet of the Lord, possesses priority. In the life of a person, certain seasons – hours in the day, or part of the week or year – will be given more fully to one or the other in a recursive spiral; ultimately, though, praxis culminates in theoria.
These two dispositions receive colloquial expression in a common phrase and its reversal. We have surely all heard someone utter the statement, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” This gives voice to the spirit of praxis, or the active life. But its reversal is equally as important: “Don’t just do something, sit there (and think)!” Here is the imperative of the contemplative life, and the counterweight it provides to the dangerous possibility of unconsidered, or imprudent, action.
But at the same time, too much thought without decisive action is equally as dangerous. “Overthinking” things, and the paralysis of despondency it can catalyze, is the risk of too-little bodily activity. The desert fathers knew this, and encourages a principle which, through the Latin translations of John Cassian, ultimately received succinct expression in the summarized Bendictine imperative describing the spiritual life: ora et labora, pray and work. Their proper balance is critical.
The Greek word krisis means ‘judgement’; it implies a situation where a crucial decision will need to be made. The English word ‘crisis’ derives from this Greek term, as does its adjectival form which I used in the last sentence of section I above, ‘critical.’ A crisis can be understood as precisely a time that demands discerning judgment. Another way of saying it is that a crisis demands thought that leads to decisive action. It requires both theoria and praxis, and initially in that order..
Our current moment with the outbreak of COVID-19 can be justly described as a crisis. So much new information flies at us at an almost incomprehensible speed. Every hour there are new headlines, studies, graphs, charts. How do we know what is applicable to our particular regional situation? The sheer quantity makes the discerning prioritization of information and its proper interpretation a herculean task.
In times like these, we would do well to limit our news intake. Twice a day is a good baseline, along with reconsidering the real need for notifications on your phone. Step back and, rather than gorging on brief, hyperbolic news articles, let some genuine contemplation slow the whirlwind of action (and restless thoughts) that fill our days.
But wait, you may ask, isn’t that being irresponsible, or callous? Christ didn’t seem to think so: “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (Matthew 6:27). Worrying and thinking needlessly about things that are outside our control can in fact deter us from properly understanding what it is important and realistic to do in the present moment, in the time we have. While prudence and planning are good, unceasing doses of distressing information becomes a paralyzing distraction. After all, “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).
There is a wisdom to respecting the reality of limits, especially in a crisis. The notion of scale lends a certain concreteness to thinking about limits. At what scale can my actions make a difference? At what point has my thinking gotten ahead of me, and is thus ‘not to scale’? Let thought and action, theoria and praxis, these sibling orientations within the soul, keep each other in an appropriate balance.
When things seem overwhelming, remembering these sibling dispositions can provide psychological stability. It gives a name to moods or tendencies we may not have recognized in ourselves. Some people are more active, others more contemplative. While we try to forge the balance between them in ourselves, let’s take time to consider which of our friends or loved ones might have a different proportion of one or the other. If you incline toward frantic busyness, call a friend you know who is more laid back. If you tend to get caught up in a cyclone of worrying thought, call a friend who more easily makes decisions and inclines to helping in practical ways. Who knows, they might benefit from talking with you also.
Recognizing these two orientations within ourselves – one to thought, another to action – is really just the beginning of becoming a true ‘friend of wisdom,’ which is what philo-sophia, means. There are depths and heights that await us as we continue down this “straight and narrow” path, as the early Christian martyrs knew so well. The early Christians often referred to themselves as philosophers, and to the life of following Christ as the ‘true philosophy.’ Above all this was because Jesus Christ is Himself “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). To be a true philosopher, therefore, a true friend of wisdom, is to be a friend of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God. And the Lord bestows precisely this title on His disciples in the upper room, “I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
What being true philosophers means for Christians has from the beginning involved both praxis and theoria. The original Greek title of the book of Acts is none other than Praxeis, the plural form of praxis. In their non-stop travel, preaching, healings, and endurance of persecution, the Apostles clearly exemplify the active life. At the same time, they are constantly dedicated to worship and prayer, as both Acts and the Pauline Epistles indicate. From the early centuries, Christian theology gives theoria a deeper meaning than mere contemplative thought. It comes to imply the vision (theoria) of God that is granted in prayer and worship. The word theoria is a morphological cousin to Theos, the Greek word for God, the “One who sees.”
In becoming more like God, growing more deeply in the image and likeness of God, the Christian not only becomes strengthened for the vision of God, through the purification of his heart, but to the same degree also becomes a living revelation of God to others, who see God’s love manifested in his life. The lives of the saints bear witness to this, and their glory is precisely the glory of the Lord whom they humbly manifest, in thought, word, and deed.
The Christian life from the very beginning is both an active and a contemplative one; one of decisive acts and prayerful rest; a life that leads to intimate, prayerful communion with God, and that follows God into the midst of the needs of others. It is the truly philosophical life. We are called to live it now, more than ever, as we find ourselves – like Christians always have, actually – in a world that acts without prayer and thinks without faith. As we face the current crisis, let us remember that Wisdom Himself will guide us.
[Image: Henryk Siemiradzki, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (1886)]