Contemplative Activism as a Model for Mission

The signs of the times can be troubling. Poverty and exploitation, wars and terrorism, global warming and over-consumption plague our planet. Although there are marks of beauty, creativity, justice, and peace, we have a long way to go before our world is fully redeemed. Being a part of an international community committed to serving Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor gives me an uncommon, intimate understanding of the ways in which our personal lives can impact others—either for good or for harm. Contemplative activism roots us in offering the good.

It is estimated that twenty-seven million people are victims of modern day slavery—trafficked into all forms of bonded labor, including the commercial sex industry.1 Today in Kolkata, some of my friends are fighting for their freedom from such a degrading “trade.”

As I write, nations proliferate nuclear weapons and economic sanctions endanger the well-being of innocent people. The threat of terrorism lingers and nation states make war against one another for many reasons—power, control, security, survival, and autonomy. Wars are even made in the name of God.

Leaders wield their power to determine the impact of their nation-state conflicts, but the personal impact of war on themselves does not compare to that of their innocent citizens who suffer the devastating effects of armed conflict. Some of my young friends in Sierra Leone are such victims. They are making the long and arduous journey of transformation from the hell they experienced after being inscripted into rebel forces during the notorious blood diamond battles. Children of war and war brides are some of the most vulnerable victims of armed conflict.

Global warming, over-consumption of non-renewable natural resources, and the exploitive way we produce and eat food can be linked to our disregard for the created world and our human family who share the space in which we live. Scientists and spiritual teachers illuminate how greed, inequality, and disrespect for the other are connected to the abuse of our ecosystem.

For us in the affluent West, the impact is felt most widely in the need to “tighten our belt” a little bit, purchase fewer lattés than we use to, and exchange our SUVs for more fuel-efficient vehicles. But for my friends in South and South East Asia, the impact is much direr. The most vulnerable always suffer the most. And they are the ones for whom God has always shown particular interest. Scripture indeed indicates that the essence of our faith will be measured against how we treat people who are poor.

It seems domination and exploitation is commonplace almost everywhere we turn— nation to nation, person to person, and in relationship to the earth. Christians too are often implicated in the violence. How can we offer a different kind of presence in the world and really make a redemptive impact?

Responding through Contemplative Activism
Contemplative activism as a spiritual posture is essential.

Contemplation is the space and presence-of-being that allows for the dismantling of our illusions that wreak havoc on the world and nurtures the growth and development of our true selves. Action without contemplation can be a dangerous road—leaving us blind to the pitfalls of our false self motivations—even in mission. 

What will history write about us?

Contemplative activism makes way for:

  • Freedom for everyone instead of power and control of the few
  • Cooperation instead of selfish grasps for security and survival
  • Divine love instead of lustful cravings of ego

Contemplative practices reinforce a posture of regular abandonment and surrender to God—in our exterior as well as our interior lives. Surrendering to the immanent presence of God around and within us allows for greater transformation on a personal, communal, and global scale.

Action without contemplation is not an obedient life and appears rather absurd when we honestly examine it. Henri Nouwen encourages us to turn from an absurd way of living to an obedient life. According to Nouwen, the English word absurd comes from the Latin word surdus, meaning deaf.

An absurd life is a deaf life—one in which we cannot hear the Voice in silence. The many activities we are involved in—as noble as they are—and the cacophony of sounds around us often drown out the voice of the One who calls us the Beloved. We must adopt contemplative disciplines that help us tune into the voice of God.

Action Born from the Heart of God
Without contemplation, the liberation and fecund life that Jesus taught is out of reach, and his admonition that we would do even greater things than he seems impossible.

Contemplation leads to just and compassionate action, and action born from the heart of God leads to contemplation. Even Thomas Merton, who committed to long periods of hermitage steeped in solitude, silence, and stillness, became an active voice for justice in the face of the social evils of his time.

A commitment to contemplation leads to radical action. In the words of Mother Teresa,

The true inner life makes the active life burn forth and consume everything. It makes us find Jesus in the dark holes of the slums, in the most pitiful miseries of the poor, in the God-Man naked on the cross, mournful, despised by all, the man of suffering, crushed like a worm by scourging and crucifixion.2

Contemplative activism makes us supple in the hands of God. By way of Christ’s ongoing, transformative work in us, we are able to love and serve more freely, purely, and unconditionally—like Jesus.

Suggested Practices for Getting Started
on the Journey of Contemplative Activism

  • Breath Prayer
  • Centering Prayer
  • Labyrinth
  • Lectio Divina
  • Prayer of Examen
  • Welcoming Prayer

Descriptions for each prayer can be found
by clicking here.

Suggested Resources for Disciplines

  • The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom
    for Our Lives Today
    by Timoth M. Gallagher
  • Divine Intervention by Tony Jones
  • Lectio Divina by M. Basil Pennington
  • Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by
    Cynthia Bourgeault
  • Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
  • Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by
    Cynthia Bourgeault  

Rather than divide the active life from the contemplative life, an authentic and relevant life brings union to the active and contemplative dimensions of our spirituality.

Consider the wheel as a symbol for life. Contemplation will be found in the center axis, and the active life will extend out in the spokes. All the while the wheel turns and progresses forward.3 Without the center axis, the spokes would lose their anchor and be unable to support the forward motion of the wheel. Without the spokes, the center axis would be deemed extraneous.

When we are least connected to our contemplative center, our life is most tense and chaotic and more likely to breed violence and exploitation. When we are anchored in contemplative spirituality, the active, exterior expression of our life is more peaceful, purposeful, and effective.

In a reality plagued by human exploitation, armed conflict, and destruction of our ecosphere, we owe it to the world and to God to nurture contemplative activism. Thankfully, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus opens a way for us to live with redemptive impact. Contemplative activism as a spiritual posture for Christian mission is essential to purifying our presence in the world.


1. “Human Trafficking Statistics.” Polaris Project,

2. Hunt, Dorothy S., ed. 1987. Love: A Fruit Always in Season: Daily Meditations by Mother Teresa. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Ignatius Press.

3. Nouwen, Henri. 2007. Beloved: Henri Nouwen in Conversation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 23.

Phileena Heuertz serves as co-director of Word Made Flesh, an international community serving Christ among the most vulnerable of the world's poor. Over the years, she has traveled through nearly seventy countries working with marginalized and oppressed people. She is author of Pilgrimage of a Soul (InterVarsity Press, 2010), a theological narrative steeped in contemplative spirituality.