Action and Contemplation

For the past few weeks I have been working on a short film for Catholic Charities in Los Angeles. While this short film in not as visually stimulating as the films I made in Haiti and Kenya these past two years, the suffering of the poor here in my own city is no less painful. I filmed a homeless couple with a two month old baby, which broke my heart. I also spent a few hours with a homeless man who lives under a freeway overpass located on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. The loneliness of his life haunts me. The following essay was penned many years ago…and is still valid today.

I still struggle with the question of what to do when I encounter a homeless person. While I try to root my life in prayer, perhaps the reason I don’t know what to do is that I haven’t spent enough time listening to God in order to find out what God would like me to do. St. Francis of Assisi spent fully half of his adult life in prayer, in order to find out what God wanted him to do. He left the busy, noisy marketplaces of Assisi and ascended the mountains in search of silence and solitude, where he could better hear the voice of God by deepening the vast reservoir of his prayer life. Nothing distracted St. Francis from prayer; nothing diverted his love from God. I’m easily distracted. Francis emptied his heart, leaving it undivided and available for God alone. I’m still holding part of me back. “I have done what was mine to do,” the saint said near the end of his life, urging his followers to “pray that God shows you what is yours to do.”

I don’t have the ability or the freedom to help every homeless person I encounter on the streets. However, if my life is sufficiently grounded in prayer, then – and only then – I will be receptive to promptings from the Lord on how best to respond to a particular situation. Perhaps it might be to give a little money. Perhaps it might be to offer a silent prayer or a reassuring smile. Perhaps God might ask me to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Only in prayer will I find – as St. Francis did – what is mine to do in relationship to the poor…and everything else in my life.

St. Francis of Assisi was unique. He was a mystic and a person of action. His actions flowed out of his contemplation, out of his longing glance at what is real. The word “contemplation” actually means to witness and respond. Thomas Merton, in Bread in the Wilderness, reminds us that “the secret of contemplation is the gift of ourselves to God.” And when we give ourselves to God in prayer, we begin to experience the richness of divine love and mercy, and are better able to share that love and mercy with others.

In prayer, St. Francis was free from the complexities of thought (and figuring out what to do) and he discovered the simplicity of his own heart.

A simple heart is a heart where God is allowed in. A simple heart is a pure heart, a heart always willing to surrender itself to the will of God.

“The life of contemplation in action and purity of heart is, then, a life of great simplicity and inner liberty. One is not seeking anything special or demanding any particular satisfaction. One is content with what is.”
-Thomas Merton
The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation
William H. Shannon, editor

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1 Response to “Action and Contemplation”


  1. 1 aliceny January 24, 2013 at 8:06 am

    You (and Merton) almost make it sound too easy to actually encounter our God in prayer. It requires shutting out the noisy distractions of the “world” with its constant selfish demands of the will and the flesh. It requires one to totally empty oneself to create a place for Him to enter.
    I agonize over my seeming human inability and my sinfulness to do this. I desperately want this closeness with my God but I cannot seem to make it happen. Is it possible that my sincere desire to achieve this intimate connection is enough — is it the first step? Please pray for me, and for all those who seek to receive God into their hearts and minds.

    Bless you for what you are doing in your ministries, Mr. Straub.


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