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Systole and Diastole: Action and Contemplation

April 23, 2024


Hans Urs von Balthasar once summarized the spiritual life, or what he more descriptively referred to as “the life of love,” as “an eternal oscillation between resting in God and acting with God’s help, between systole and diastole.1 We live in an era in which considerably more emphasis tends to be placed on “systole” than on “diastole,” on “acting with God’s help” than on “resting in God,” on action than on contemplation. The risk in placing so much emphasis on the “active” part of the life of love is that we gradually may come to believe that the “contemplative” part is less and less important, and maybe even dispensable. After all, there’s so much to be done, whether we’re talking about social justice work, efforts aimed at evangelization, charitable work, or any other important form of Christian action. With so much work to be done, who has time for prayer? But of course, we need both: contemplation as well as action, resting in God as well as acting with God’s help. Faith apart from works is, indeed, dead (James 2:26), but works apart from a faith that is rooted in prayer and contemplation tend to be dead as well, or soon will be. As Balthasar puts it, “Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognize it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed and humiliated.”2

Action aimed at evangelization, social justice, etc. is a good thing, but action aimed at such goals that is also deeply rooted in prayer, in a profoundly contemplative life, is a much better thing. When we take time to “rest in God,” God’s Spirit, God’s dynamic power and love, can then flow more freely through our actions, making those actions more effective and impactful. The more our lives are rooted in the divine love, the more that divine love can flow through us and out into the world, a world which so desperately needs to experience God’s love through us. The better we know Jesus Christ via prayer and contemplation, the better we will be able to see and serve Jesus in other people.

The relative proportion of time spent in contemplation and action can vary across individuals, depending on their temperament, gifts, etc., as Balthasar observes with regard to some very famous saints: “We can compare Catherine of Siena, for instance, who out of long and solitary periods of prayer ‘erupts’ into sudden action, with Little Thérèse, who acts only in contemplation, or with Saint Ignatius, who contemplates in action!”3 Ideally, the oscillation between contemplation and action eventually grows into an interpenetration of the two, where prayer becomes action and action becomes prayer.4 Jesus, in his earthly life, perfectly embodied this interpenetration of prayer and action: “All of [Christ’s] activity is a liturgical service before the Father, and, thus, all of his activity is prayer, and all of his prayer is an action and a sacrifice for men before God. All of his prayer leads of itself to action, and all of his activity becomes a prayerful glorification of the Father because of its generosity and its sacrificial character.”5

The better we know Jesus Christ via prayer and contemplation, the better we will be able to see and serve Jesus in other people.

Mary, too, serves as a paradigm for us of active prayer and prayerful action. Luke tells us twice within the space of a single chapter of his Gospel that Mary was deeply contemplative (2:19, 51). Undoubtedly, Mary’s contemplation of the Jewish Scriptures had prepared her for the decisive action of her life, her free and unconditional assent to God’s invitation to serve as the mother of God’s own Son (Luke 1:38). Similarly, Mary’s contemplation of Scripture, the words of the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28-37), the message of the angels given to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-20), Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2:25-35), etc. must have guided and shaped her actions as she raised and formed Jesus in the Jewish faith, a spiritual formation that helped to prepare Jesus for his mission as the long-awaited Messiah.

How can we achieve a greater integration between action and contemplation in our own lives? One of the key suggestions that Balthasar offers us is to stop periodically throughout the day in order to take what he calls a “contemplative pause”6 in our activity—a brief time of prayer and reflection. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is an excellent way to do this, since this form of prayer specifies various times throughout the day at which to pray and provides a prayer format, focused on the Psalms, that the Church has been praying daily since ancient times. The “Jesus Prayer” is also useful here, since it is very brief (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) and can be prayed whenever a spare moment presents itself. I often like to pray another variation of the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners”) because this version is offered up on behalf of all people. The idea behind the “contemplative pause” is to return continually to the Source of divine love throughout the day. The more we do this, the more we will come to abide in the Source, and the more the divine life and love will be able to flow through us and into all of our actions in the world.7  

Balthasar drew this image of the flowing of the divine life in us and through us via the interpenetration of contemplation and action from the writings of the Flemish mystic Blessed John van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), among other sources. Ruysbroeck wrote that “This streaming of God into us demands of us a flowing out and a flowing back . . . into the same source from which that torrent has flowed.”8 He drew an analogy among respiration, the relationship between contemplation and action, and the nature of eternal life:

“The Spirit of God blows us outwards, so that we can cultivate love and the practice of the virtues, but He also sucks us inwards, so that we can give ourselves up to rest and enjoyment. And this is eternal life. It is the same as when we exhale the air that is in us and again inhale a new breath. . . . To go inwards in an unrestrained enjoyment, to go outwards with good works, and in both at all times to remain united with the Spirit of God.”9

That’s the goal—in contemplation, in action, in all things—to remain united with the Spirit of God.

1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. V, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, 74.
2 Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible, 109.
3 Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms, 122.
4 Balthasar, Explorations in Theology. Vol. I, The Word Made Flesh, 237.
5 Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms, 122.
6 Balthasar, Explorations in Theology. Vol. IV, Spirit and Institution, 307.
7 Balthasar, Engagement with God, 50-51.
8 John van Ruysbroeck, “The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage,” cited in Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. V, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, 75.
9 John van Ruysbroeck, “The Book of the Seven Steps,” cited in Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. V, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, 74.