New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Practical mystics

Jennifer Kavanagh

How do we live for God? Is faithfulness best expressed inwardly, through prayer, or outwardly by trying to build the Kingdom on earth? Jennifer Kavanagh explores the necessary balance between action and contemplation.


In Christianity the story of Martha and Mary is familiar: one sister called to the way of action, serving Jesus in practical ways; the other preferring to sit at his feet in contemplation. We may find ourselves identifying with one more than the other. Someone whose life is essentially interior, a 'monk in the world', often feels inadequate, guilty at not 'being out there and doing things'. Ironically, the Marthas of this world also feel guilty: that they are too busy, not spending enough time in silence and solitude.

In fact, no life is either completely active or completely contemplative. We all stand on a spectrum between contemplation and outward engagement, the balance renegotiated by each of us at different times of our lives. The relationship between worship and witness in the world is indivisible. For the Spirit we listen for, are waiting on in prayer, is a dynamic one: its whispers are promptings to take love and truth out into the world, to heal it. As Saint James said, 'What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it?' (James 2:14)

'Love', says Carlos Carretto, 'is the synthesis of contemplation and action,' and we are all called to different kinds of love in action. 'I have known the satisfaction of unrestrained action,' he says,  'and the joy of contemplative life in the dazzling peace of the desert, and I repeat again St Augustine's words: 'Love and do as you will''¹ .


Quakers are sometimes called 'practical mystics'. When my new-found faith brought me to their doors, some sixteen years ago, it was a sense of the 'mystic' - a direct relationship with the Divine - that called me, but the practical, in ways entirely new to me, was not long in catching up.

I had not been looking for a community, but I found one. Since childhood, I'd been persuaded that the problems of poverty and injustice in the world were too big for any of us to make a difference, but the discovery of a group of people who were making a difference allowed me to think that perhaps I could too. So I jumped in with both feet. My background was in publishing. I had no experience of voluntary action or community work, but when I was asked to co-ordinate the Quakers' programme of tea runs for homeless people, I said 'yes'; said 'yes', too, when asked to start a new community centre in one of the most deprived wards in the country, in the East End of London. It was a very steep learning curve, a wonderful experience, and the birth of what feels like a new life.


But at the same time, I felt a powerful need to retreat. I was not alone in that need. More and more men and women are turning from the stresses of everyday living in search of a quieter time. Websites are burgeoning with details of personal or communal retreats. The Retreat Association lists some 250 mainly Christian centres in the UK. If you add to that the numbers who seek solitude on an informal basis, and those going to India or a Greek island for a yoga course, the numbers are significant.

What I found then was a little 'hermitage': a hut, about 6ft by 10ft, in the corner of a large garden of a communal house, and every now and then I left London to spend a few days there. The hut had a bed and folding table, and windows that looked out on one side on to the River Thames, and on the other on to dense foliage. I could have been anywhere. The first night, alone in an unlocked hut accessible both from the garden and from the waterside, I was a little nervous, thinking of a human intruder or a rat. The next day, elated in the freedom of the little space, I realised that by facing our fears, however insignificant, we make spiritual progress in our search for complete trust.

In 2003, I surrendered to a need for deeper release. I sold my flat and embarked on a nomadic period of about a year. Travelling, living in rented accommodation, walking, weeping, I made the journey, as Henri Nouwen puts it, from loneliness to solitude. From complete engagement to total withdrawal: my life was swinging like a pendulum.


But the balance can be expressed quite differently, and over recent years I hope that I have settled into a less separated way of being. The American Quaker, Thomas Kelly, writes that we can live a life on two levels: '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' . And it is that other realm, that parallel universe, that needs to shine through in our outward lives. As Jonathan Dale has written, we need 'to approach the daily world from the prism of faith'³ .

But how, in the midst of a busy life, can we do this? Even as we earn a living, bring up a family, care for elderly relatives, or commit ourselves to voluntary work, it is still possible - and necessary - to pause. A practice like this can be such a small matter: a pause for gratitude before a meal; indeed a pause before embarking on any activity, to make its intentionality clear; a pause during the day to take stock, centre ourselves. In that pause, like the moment between one out-breath and the breathing in, or between a wave receding and the swell of the next, is a space of another dimension. When I read recently, 'Before changing action, pause and remember who you are', my first thought was that that means knowing who we are in the first place, and then I realised that 'remember' can also be seen as the opposite of 'dismember'. 'Recollection' and 'self-remembering' are also expressions of bringing the self back to an awareness of the present moment. In a God-centred faith,  recollection will be to the Spirit within and to God's will.


'In the midst of our work,' wrote Teresa of Avila, 'we should retire within ourselves, even if just for an instant, to recall Him alone who keeps us company.'

The Practice of the Presence of God is a slim volume of letters and conversations describing just that: a way of life in which everything is done for the glory of God: an active title for an active expression of our faith. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French lay brother, spent years washing up in the monastery kitchen, every moment consecrated, in the present and in the Presence. For such people there is no distinction between worship and daily life: all are one. Simple, and the hardest thing in the world.

To live in the world is an explicit practical acceptance of the dynamic nature of the Spirit. Our relation with God is not in isolation of our fellow beings; as we are blessed, so we too are able to bless. The Spirit works on us to enable us to give something of what we have received to others, to act as a mirror. So it is that God works not only directly but through human beings, each on another. As we open our hearts and receive, so we give to and receive from other people. How we relate to the world and to other human beings is part of how we relate to God.

It is by our behaviour that we are judged - 'by their fruits shall ye know them' (Matthew 7:16). The fruits do not have to be an increase in action or in more successful action; they can be in an increased quality of 'being', in a greater awareness, in a more awakened state. The best of all worlds, it seems to me, is 'doing' with increased 'being'. That, I believe, is the true fulfilment of our human potential as spiritual beings. Manifesting the spiritual in the world by what we are, what we do. And how we do it.

There is an Andrei Rublev icon of angels representing the trinity, sitting down but with wings spread: in contemplation but ready for action. Similarly Thomas Merton writes of an icon of the Buddha with one hand supporting a begging bowl, indicating acceptance of grace, the other pointing downwards - a passive attitude to heaven and an active attitude to the world.



1  Carretto, Carlos, Letters from the Desert, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972, pp. 24-25.

2  Kelly, Thomas, A Testament of Devotion, NY: HarperCollins, 1992, p. 35

3  Dale, Jonathan, (ed.), Faith in Action, London: Quaker Home Service, 2000, p. 51