Saint Augustine of Hippo (354—430) tells a story in his Confessions that has made a lasting impression on me as a pastor. While he was in Italy, as a young man advancing his career in rhetoric, Augustine became increasingly interested in Christianity. So he and his friends visited Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan. They hoped to ask him questions about the Christian faith. Augustine shared what these initial visits with Ambrose were like: “Very often when we were there, we saw him silently reading [Scripture] and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence (for who would dare to burden him in such intent concentration?) we used to go away” (Confessions 6.3).
What struck Augustine about Ambrose was his commitment to contemplation.
In the early church, bishops like Ambrose had enormous administrative responsibilities. In addition to the tasks of preaching and pastoral care, it was also their duty to distribute goods to the poor as well as hear and settle legal disputes among citizens in their region. In light of these administrative demands, it is significant that Augustine remembered Ambrose as one who regularly took the time to be silent in contemplation.
After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine himself went on to become a bishop. Like Ambrose, he modeled the virtue of contemplation in his ministry. He spoke frequently about the necessity of contemplation for all Christians, but especially pastors. For Augustine, contemplation was the mind gazing upon God. It involved prayer, study, meditation, reflection, and silence, and was distinct from the virtue of action, which included engaging in service, ministry, and works of mercy to others.
Augustine found the virtues of contemplation and action throughout Scripture, but most clearly illustrated in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–48. Mary—who sits and listens at the Lord’s feet—exemplifies the virtue of contemplation. Martha—who is busy showing hospitality to Jesus and his disciples—exemplifies the virtue of action. In Luke’s text, Jesus says Mary has chosen “the better part.” Augustine took this to mean that contemplation is superior to action because contemplation is what we will be doing in the life to come. In eternal life, action will fade away, but contemplation will remain. We will have an unending vision of God.
Contemplation and action are different, but they are not opposed. Indeed, they strengthen each other. The virtues of gazing upon God in silence and ministering to others in action go hand in hand.
Despite the superiority of contemplation, Augustine affirmed that action was also good and necessary in this life. Today, there is a popular interpretation of Luke 10 that would say that you are either a Mary or a Martha—that is, you are either a pray-er or a doer. The two are mutually exclusive. Augustine, however, would have said we should all be both Mary and Martha at the same time. Mary and Martha should coexist in every Christian. Contemplation and action are different, but they are not opposed. Indeed, they strengthen each other. The virtues of gazing upon God in silence and ministering to others in action go hand in hand.
Augustine’s thoughts on contemplation and action are deeply relevant to us today because we live in a culture that is not conducive to contemplation. The constant presence of technology and the strong demand for productivity make gazing upon God difficult, at best. For some, contemplation might feel like a waste of time or a neglect of responsibility to minister to the pressing needs of others. Today, if visitors were to come to our pastoral offices and find us “sitting for a long time in silence,” as Augustine so often found Ambrose, we would probably feel slightly embarrassed.
However, the health of our souls and the vitality of our ministries hinge on our ability to practice the countercultural virtue of contemplation. If we do not gaze upon God in silence, we will not have the inner spiritual resources necessary to engage the difficult work of Christian action. Action without contemplation becomes spiritually impoverished activism. Without the discipline of gazing upon God, our action will result in either exhaustion or egotism.
The health of our souls and the vitality of our ministries hinge on our ability to practice the countercultural virtue of contemplation.
At the same time, we must also be aware of the opposite danger. Contemplation without action becomes escapism. If our gazing upon God removes us from the world entirely, then our contemplation has gone awry. True contemplation of God should always drive us into the world to engage in concrete works of mercy for others—because the God we gaze upon is the incarnate God who himself entered the world and poured himself out on its behalf in self-giving love.
Pastors who seek to cultivate the virtue of contemplation, and congregations who support them in that endeavor, will be more likely to engage in meaningful action among their flocks and their communities. It is no coincidence that Augustine found Ambrose to be not only a bishop who sat in long periods of silence but also a bishop who was “habitually available to serve the people in their needs” (Confessions, 6.3).
Despite the cultural forces—both inside and outside the church—that work against contemplation, we need to be creating more Ambroses—more pastors who can sit in silence and gaze upon God. Recovering the virtue of contemplation will provide the foundation for truly meaningful action in the world. If we do not recover this virtue, we will not be available to serve the world as we should.