“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own  The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.

John 14: 9-11

There is one experience above all others in which I lose all of my ordinary tendencies toward introspection and self-consciousness. It is when I am so engaged in a “work” that I become totally self-forgetful, mindless, in a good sense, of concerns about my own performance and even my own reason for being. I suspect that almost all of us have had such an experience. This is what Jesus is referring to when he says “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”

It is important here to understand “work” in its more all-inclusive sense. This is not work as mere labor, rather it is our expression in act of the call, the task God has given us uniquely as our contribution to the world. Thus, when we are engaged in “work” in the way we are describing, we are, in our whole person, sheer act. In Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel speaks of a state in which our presence to the act of shooting the bow becomes so transparent that we can say, “The bow shoots.” In pure work we disappear so that “the Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”

This experience is a common and ordinary experience of what we come to call in the Western tradition “contemplation.” This disappearance of the self that we experience at such moments of pure act are what Jesus calls our dying to self. So, when Theodore James Ryken says that his aspiration for his brothers is that they live in harmony the lives of Martha and Mary, the active and contemplative life, he is not speaking about a “balance” in life between the times for prayer and the times of work. Having been formed in a religious culture pervaded by middle Dutch mysticism, he is rather speaking of what Jan van Ruusbroec describes: a state of emptiness “in which we are one with God in God’s love, . . . a dying life and a living death, in which we go out of our own being and into our super-essential beatitude.”

Van Ruusbroec says that what characterizes this state for the one who has been drawn into this love of God is “enjoyment.” This may be quite surprising to us, and yet, if we can remember our own experience of the kind of work with which we began, we can begin to appreciate this comprehension. For, it is in working in the way in which we disappear from the forefront of our consciousness that we most know a sense of fulfillment in life. The great irony in life is that we experience, without questioning, the meaningfulness of our existence in the very experience of forgetting ourselves and of just doing what, at that particular moment, is to be done by us. Then, in the words that the author of John has Jesus speak, “The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”  This is the mode of work that Ryken aspired to for his brothers. The way to know that it is truly God’s will we are carrying out is to allow our work to be the Father’s work.  As Jesus says in John 5: 19, “I do only what I see the Father doing.”

From the mythical moment of the Fall of Adam and Eve, work and enjoyment have been estranged. As God expels Adam and  Eve from the garden, he tells them, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3: 19). Throughout humanity’s history what we have called work has been quite dissociated from the unique living out of our call. Perhaps at certain levels of affluence, and what we call professionalism, there are those who are able to manifest the uniqueness of their life and life call in their work. But for most, it is a case of earning our food by the sweat of our brow. The deep enjoyment that van Ruusbroec describes is to be found in a depth of self-presence and presence to others and the Other that we find in times of leisure, times that seem the very opposite of our working experience.

It is because “work” is essentially commodified for us that we perceive contemplation and action (work) as contraries. Even in our present culture, where pretty much everything and everyone is a commodity, a product to be used and consumed by someone, we intuit a deeper significance to a person’s work. Even the most crass of materialists will, to their own advantage, speak of how much a person’s self-esteem suffers when he or she cannot work. The problem in this case, of course, is that the interest is not in the person but rather in the advantage to them of the person’s self-sustenance. Yet, the insight is still true. Even in situations where our work and our call are far from harmonized, our psychological well-being depends on our experiencing the potency of acting on the world.

So, to harmonize in oneself the lives of Martha and Mary is to return to a kind of integrity that existed “before the Fall.” Ryken adopted for his brotherhood the motto: “Concordia res parvae crescunt. In harmony small things grow.” As the Fundamental Principles state:

For it is only in harmony
that you will grow,
that your community will grow,
that the love of God will grow in your world,
and that the kingdom of God will grow to completeness.

I must admit that for a very long time I experienced this statement as quite banal. It seemed to me that it did not afford a helpful life directive or suggest concrete practices to serve personal, communal, or global growth.  Instead it merely begged the question. Yes, so things grow in harmony, but the problem is the way of harmonization. If harmony means merely niceness and complaisance, there will not really be growth at any level.

The key to a more significant reading, however, lies in appreciating that Ryken understood that harmony must first of all mean the harmonization of contemplation and action. We live, which means we act, in harmony only when the Father is doing his works in us. One of the evangelical counsels is obedience. St. John of the Cross admonishes that we are “to do nothing except in obedience.” In other words, every true work is to be done out of an ongoing appraisal of God’s will. To work, to act contemplatively is to do what God has directed us to do. A correlative to this is that we must discipline those compulsions in us that would act out of a false sense of urgency based on our unconscious drives for gratification. The practice of contemplation in action is often first a practice of not doing.

The harmonization we seek, according to van Ruusbroec, requires first of all that we enter a “state of emptiness.” One of the most counter-intuitive teachings of the mystics is that we do not find God through our own willful quest for God, but, on the contrary, by becoming empty of all we take to be ourselves, including our images of God. We must cease to work in order to become someone and, instead, become no one so that God may act through us. As Jesus taught, we must die to ourselves if we truly desire life. Similarly, it is only in harmony that our community will grow because as long as our relationship to others is based on how they support our false sense of self, then the community is doomed to founder on the shoals of competing self-gratifications. Community as communion is a sharing in the enjoyment of God in himself and in all of us “in common.” To begin to grasp this is to realize that it is not at all trite to say that it is only in harmony that the community will grow, because harmony requires the giving over of what we take to be our very lives.

Clearly, it is only in the harmony of contemplative action, work that is the Father’s work in us, that “the love of God will grow in our world.” For God’s love and God’s will to increase on earth as in heaven, our own will, to the degree it impedes God’s love, must decrease. The heart of Ryken’s vision is, in fact, a powerfully radical one. It is the same as that of Jesus. It is of a community of persons who dedicate their whole lives, and who are willing to help each other to die to themselves, so that the Father’s will and work might be carried out through them. This means that the work they do is totally dependent on and the result of their continual personal and communal transformation. To the degree this is occurring, their work will be done in enjoyment.

People should look at us as we work together for them and be drawn by the power of the love and the enjoyment that they witness. We all know that, unfortunately, lots of times it is not enjoyment we have seen in so-called religious people. Far too often we see rather anxiety, willfulness, self-concern, and even depression. In the lives of so many good and good-willed people for whom work as commodification has become central in their lives, any enjoyment beyond bodily gratification seems unattainable. This is because we cannot attain enjoyment. We can only receive it as our own will and willfulness disappear and the life, love, and work of God begin to flow through us.

We all know the experience, even if only momentarily, of our action and work participating in and expressing God’s work. And so we also know the greatest enjoyment which we as human beings can experience, God’s enjoyment of “both himself and all of us in his sublime nature.” To experience this joy is to realize in the moment the gift of being and the reason for living, the harmony of all life. But this requires of us that “we have so mastered ourselves that we can become free of images every time we wish, right up to that empty state of being where we are one with God.” This is the ongoing preparatory work to the actualizing in our lives of “the non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary,” the harmony of life from which all love and life can grow.

Furthermore, in our state of emptiness, in which we are one with God in his love, there begins a super-essential contemplative experience which is the highest which anyone could express in words. This is a dying life and a living death, in which we go out of our own being into our super-essential beatitude. It occurs when, through grace and God’s help, we have so mastered ourselves that we can become free of images every time we wish, right up to that empty state of being where we are one with God. This takes place in the fathomless abyss of his love, where we find full satisfaction, for we have God within us and are blessed in our very being through the interior working of God. There we are one with him in love, though not in being or nature. Rather, we are blessed—and blessedness itself—in God’s essential being, where God enjoys both himself and all of us in his sublime nature. This is the core of love, which is hidden from us in darkness and in a state of unknowing which has no ground.

Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II, D, p. 247

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