Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 16

Unifying Prayer and Action: Lessons Learned

Lyle SmithGraybeal

Contemplation and action. Justice and prayer. Centering and caring. Finding and seeking. How do these two aspects of the spiritual life work together? Can they work together? Are they necessarily separate? Or do they reinforce one another and work together for transformation? Most of our adult lives Felicia, my spouse, and I have been doing our best to live in a way that balances these dualities. Felicia is a natural contemplative; I am more of an activist. Felicia’s inclination is to stay in her cell and sit in silence; my bent is toward being with people and working on projects. We have tried growing in each area in the midst of everyday life. We have come upon no solutions; what we have found, instead, is a sense of direction. But first, I’ll offer a little history for contextualizing what we recommend.

01.  Transitioning: Alone and Together

When Felicia moved to Denver to attend Iliff School of Theology and to pursue our relationship, she needed a place to live. During her search, she found out about a unit available at Shepherd’s Gate, an intentional Christian community in downtown Denver. Felicia had lived in cities before—Orlando, San Francisco, and Portland—but never in quite as diverse a neighborhood nor with other families in “community,” a term she associated with people sleeping on cots in one big room and sharing toothbrushes. While Felicia didn’t know what to expect, she took the leap and enjoyed it, and we continued to live there after we were married.

Even so, Felicia had previously been exposed to lifestyles different from her own. Her father and mother worked for many years in international development, and her father helped found Heart to Honduras, a holistic ministry that works with villages near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. By this time in life (late twenties), Felicia had been to Central America many times for lengthy periods. Also, she would soon take a position at Inner City Health Center, a medical facility for mostly uninsured people in one of Denver’s least affluent neighborhoods. So she felt comfortable with other ways of living and people who looked and spoke differently from her.

Also in my twenties, I, on the other hand, experienced quite a shock transitioning to living among people different from me. Having grown up in a small Kansas town, I had limited exposure to diverse communities. As a junior at Friends University in Wichita, I became familiar with Tony Campolo and Eastern University, as well as John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association movement. This set me on a trajectory to attend Eastern University and live with other students in West and Southwest Philadelphia. It was a seismic shift to live in the Kingsessing neighborhood—ten square blocks of pavement that is home to eighty-thousand people, broken up into African Americans (90 percent), Asians (5 percent), Hispanics (3 percent), and those of other ethnicities (2 percent). (I was one of the “others.”) At the time Kingsessing experienced one of the highest infant mortality rates in not only Philadelphia but also the United States. In short, Kingsessing said to me, “Welcome to the real world.”

After that, I lived in intentional communities (expressions of the “new monasticism”) in inner-city Wichita and inner-city Denver. After Felicia and I were married, I made trips to Mexico and Central America. While I am no multicultural champion, I had at least caught up with Felicia’s experiences of diversity, which was quite a feat.

We both grew up in religious traditions that we now refer to as “soft fundamentalism”: while the fundamentals of faith were not branded on our skin with iron, they were stamped on our brains through repetition. We’d both become familiar with spiritual practices and classical devotional writers, I at Friends University with James Bryan Smith and Richard Foster, and Felicia as she worked through the death of her mother from a terminal illness.

02.  Learning: Inward and Outward

Like almost everyone who has been earnest in this way of living life with God, we have gone through periods of intense activism and optimism, times of settling centeredness and comfort, and seasons of palpable dryness and anxiety. There is no way to predict these things. As for action, sometimes what we do brings the expected results. And then there are the exceptions that ring with regularity when “stuck in the mud” is the best descriptor. On contemplation: it would be easy to assume that the time we sit down to enter into God’s silence would be the time for easy rest. But often it feels like time in the dentist’s chair coupled with the discomfort of a monkey mind jumping from tree to tree. Even more peculiarly, the silence sometimes brings hope and a sense of accomplishment, and the day of action offers up the fruit of rest and ease. The ways God works with us defy expectations.

When we do our best to live in both contemplation and action, our activities change our prayers, and our prayers alter our activities. While the causes for and words to describe this process are countless, we offer three simple ways of describing this intersection of contemplation and action, including a few suggestions for next steps.

03.  Relocating: Entering Active-Contemplative Territory

If an actor wants to succeed in the movies, she moves to Hollywood. If a sommelier seeks knowledge of wine making, a good place to live is France. If a Christian would like to be formed in the fullness of the life of God, relocation is almost inevitable. To be near what we hope to become is a key driver for integrating the active and contemplative life. If we want to become compassionate, we need to be near those who show compassion. If we want to become reflective, we need to be near those who spend time in reflection. Or even better, we need to hang out with those who do both.

We are not all called to move to the mission field. Some of us may be asked to stay in or return to familiar places or to locate ourselves in the culture of our origins. This relocation within every day, average living is no less valuable for the life of the soul and may be even more helpful when relocation lacks heroics. For sure, we are called to be transformed, and it is quite likely that we will not be challenged to new ways of being with ourselves and others unless we relocate—mentally, physically, or both. Any relocation will necessitate a reprioritization and reallocation of our time and money, which will have both inner and outer expressions.

Jesus is the model for relocation, of course. He desired to identify with humanity so fully that he became one of us: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message)Scripture quotations marked (The Message) are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. All rights reserved.. As a result of this process, “God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth— even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11, The Message). And as we relocate, we, too, will be changed.

My own geographic and cultural relocation from small town Kansas to urban Philadelphia has been cause for fruitful reflection. Like short-term missionaries to Africa or Central America or other places outside of comfort zones, I was eager to work for change and to bring Gospel light to the situations I was entering. I figured that with passion, expertise, and two years of graduate school, I would be well equipped to address most of the primary challenges of West Philadelphia! After spending time in the neighborhood, I came to at least two realizations, however: (1) I could not contribute to meaningful, long-term change unless I relocated permanently to West Philadelphia, and (2) a lot of people were already working for the shalom that God has in mind, and I could partner with them. Over time I realized that the call to be part of this neighborhood, if only for a time, needed to be rooted in prayer, as did my continuing response over the next few years to what could have been a disappointment but instead turned into a significant life-learning. West Philadelphia taught me about the interplay between action and contemplation, as contemplation had been present in the midst of active relocation.

One way to explore the opportunity for relocating and its impact on the active-contemplative life is to get to know someone who is quite different ethnically or temperamentally and try to see life from that person’s perspective. Another is to spend time with a story in the Bible (or reading a similar work of fiction or nonfiction) that includes significant transition. The book of Exodus in the Old Testament and the early Christian community in the New Testament come to mind, as do books like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. Even movies such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon and City of God are helpful tools for prompting the kinds of questions that result in internal “relocation.”

04.  Listening: Contemplating Is Engaging

While a more intentional life with God may begin in action, it quickly turns to contemplation, at least as regards our plans and agendas. Listening is the first step in learning about all the possibilities that God has before us. Our own lives in ministry and action have confirmed this, not only for the sake of ourselves but also for the sake of people around us. Most of us come to relationships with our own agenda and hope for certain outcomes. It’s helpful, however, to realize that our lives are not our own, that we are living for both others and ourselves. The only way to find out how we can do this together is to begin with questions and to continue by listening. We begin with an action, but it is actually an invitation, a question, a request for the thoughts and impressions of another. And then we wait with open ears. In so doing, we recognize God’s presence in each encounter and conversation, acknowledging a space where there is a different kind of triumvirate: God, you, and me.

Taking a contemplative approach toward conversation has transformational potential for both participants and the larger fellowship. More than once we have heard of communities that have suffered from the activism of those bent on doing first and listening later. During my graduate studies I heard of a city agency that built a multi-million-dollar health care facility for a low-income neighborhood. Following the grand opening, the number of patients was sparse. Wondering what tweaks they could make to improve the number of users, officials thought, “Why don’t we ask the neighbors?” The response: “We like to take care of ourselves. No doctors are necessary. We didn’t want a medical clinic. We want improved street lights so that we can visit one another at night in safety.” If only these officials had asked first and acted second, they could have truly met people’s needs and saved a lot of money!

Of course, we can move into this direction of listening first and speaking second in many ways. One is to approach the Bible from a contemplative perspective. For example, take a favorite passage of Scripture and spend at least six days with it. Or six weeks. Or six months. Sit with it and find all the ways God speaks to you through it as you live the story. Another way is to approach each non-utilitarian conversation with a spirit of inquisitiveness. Try doing this for a full day. After you ask a question, engage your attention and truly hear the words spoken, as opposed to thinking about how to reply. This may lead to some awk-ward silence, which becomes space for the Holy Spirit to speak. “When we are too quick to speak, we may cut off conversation that could be sacred, holy sharing of the deepest kind. So probably a good rule of thumb would be—when we do not know what to say, say nothing,” notes Sarah Butler Berlin.Sarah Butler Berlin, Contemplative Compassion (Englewood, CO: RENOVARÉ, 2009), 34.

05.  Embodying: Action Is Praying

Perhaps the only way to ad-dress the synthesis of action and contemplation fully is with embodiment—living out the two simultaneously. Paul writes, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, KJV).Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the Authorized Version of the Holy Bible, also known as the King James Version. At work. At home. At school. At rest. At church. Prayer is work; work is prayer. This is embodying the balance between the active and contemplative.

It is no wonder that work and prayer form the foundation for the daily rhythm of many of the monastic orders. “Ora et labora” (prayer and work) is a brief description of the Benedictine way of life. Commitment to intentional religious life, be we ordained or lay (“new”) monastics, is a long experiment in embodying contemplation and action. Over time we realize there are no moments of “only prayer” or “only action.” Life becomes all action and all prayer. As Thomas Merton put it, “The main point is that for St. Benedict both action and contemplation are necessary in the monastic life. Both go together. As St. Bernard says, ‘Martha and Mary are sisters and they must live together in peace in the same house.’”Thomas Merton, The Monastic Journey (Mission, KS: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1977), 46 (emphasis Merton’s). An intentional spiritual life results in the contemplative-active synthesis. Perhaps no one has better described the fruit of the synthesis between and embodiment of contemplation and action better than Thomas R. Kelley:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings. . . . It is at this deep level that the real business of life is determined. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), 9.

As introverts know, being available for relationship can be the hardest work a person does. As a raging introvert, Felicia found living in community eventually became helpful in her present vocation of ordained ministry. Shepherd’s Gate was one such experience, a chance to embody the rhythms of relationship. This was encouraged through participating in the regular ebb and flow of the day apart as households and the day together as a community. The day apart included both the activities we would do out in the world and private time together as nuclear families, parents, and children. The day together was time for community life. Several evenings per week we shared meals and conversation, and sometimes more conversation with ice cream. At least once per week, we met to pray and discuss business. This may not sound like much, but for an introvert who has already spent all day with people at work, being with others nearly every evening as well was quite a hurdle to jump. Even so, this pattern became easier for Felicia as she submitted to it and allowed relationships to deepen and become part of her. With familiarity and regularity it was easier to dip in and out of conversation with her housemates. She has carried this ability into her role as an Episcopal priest, which puts her in touch with many people for various periods of time. Pastoral relationships now require less energy for her after having learned at Shepherd’s Gate how to enter into and leave them with greater ease, embodying the contemplative in the midst of action.

As for ways to move toward this embodiment of the life of action and contemplation, time spent among throngs of people may produce anxiety, but they can be wonderful experiences if we surrender to the moment. The next time this is the case, you might become aware of the sights, sounds, and smells and become comfortable with them, allowing this comfort to pour into those in your presence through the ease it brings. You might also experiment with dedicating an entire day to discovering a rhythm of work and prayer, alternating for the purpose of infusing one with the other. Perhaps at day’s beginning, mid-morning, lunchtime, mid-afternoon, and day’s end, you can spend a few minutes reflecting on what has happened the previous few hours.

06.  Unifying: All of Life

Today Felicia and I are still navigating these waters together. As people hungry for God, we find the labor we expend and the moments of rest create a life that is aware of and available to God and neighbor. Sinking into this comfortable discomfort—trying to balance the active and contemplative, motivated by Jesus as our example—is the hope of our lives.


For a number of years Felicia and Lyle Smithgraybeal have been involved in shared ministry (fifteen years) and marriage (thirteen years). Felicia is a priest in the Episcopal Church. She enjoys pastoral care and spiritual formation ministry and tolerates preaching. Lyle is the coordinator for Renovaré USA and likes planning events and working with authors. Noah is their dog; he finds living with them in Frederick, Colorado, quite nice.