“And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”

Acts 15: 8-11

The past few nights I have been reading the concluding chapters of Roger Lipsey’s biography of Dag Hammarskjold. These chapters deal with the very complicated role of the United Nations, and so of Hammarskjold himself, in the struggle for independence of the Congo. In the course of that most difficult time in Hammarskjold’s life and work, a work that would ultimately cost him his life, he gave a brief statement on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights. A few lines from that statement are especially striking:

The General Assembly is now engaged in a debate on the colonial issue. It is significant for the present international revolution. The progress toward self-determination and self-government for all peoples is truly an encouraging translation into political action of the concept of human rights. . . . But let us not forget that there is a colonialism of the heart and of the mind, which no political decision can overcome and against which the battle must be waged within ourselves, without any exception.

“A colonialism of the heart and of the mind.” In today’s reading from Acts we hear Peter addressing the “colonialism of the heart and of the mind” of those members of the Church who would place upon the shoulders of the Gentile converts “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” There is something about us, Hammarskjold in frustration calls it “the stone age psychology of humanity,” that is wont to place yokes on others that we ourselves are not able to bear. Often we do this in the name of caring for them. We are unable to bear their struggle to find their own way, and so we impose on them, in the manner of true colonialists, our sense of order, of what is good for them.

In his attempts to stand for the UN’s stated position of “neutrality” in the Congo, Hammarskjold became the target of accusations of bias and partiality from all sides. He described what he saw as the stance of the organization, and so his own, as follows: “It is a thankless and easily misunderstood role for the Organization to remain neutral in relation to a situation of domestic conflict and to provide active assistance only by protecting the rights and possibilities of the people to find their own way, but it remains the only manner in which the Organization can serve its proclaimed purpose of furthering the full independence of the people in the true and unqualified sense of the word.” (Lipsey, p. 528)

Is God’s gift of the Holy Spirit given universally and without partiality? If it is, then we must, as Hammarskjold says, continually wage a battle both without and within against the “colonialism of the heart and of the mind.” It is my own impatience that signals for me the level of that colonialism in my heart and mind. I experience this both within my own culture and even more so in engaging others who are of a different culture. It is really difficult, at the interpersonal as well as the political level at which Hammarskjold is working, to “protect the rights and possibilities of the people to find their own way.”

There are both inner and outer obstacles to such a “neutrality.” As stated, the great inner obstacle is impatience born of unconscious arrogance. It lies in our basic stance of presumption to know. Despite all the evidence in our own lives to the contrary, when it comes to others we presume to know what is best for them. As Peter puts it, we place a yoke on the shoulders of others that we have been unable to bear. This is inner colonialism and arrogance. As it is unconscious, however, it masquerades in us as service, as promoting the good of the other. The problem is that we don’t know what is the good for the other; only they can know that.

A significant outer obstacle to this practice of neutrality in service is, as Hammarskjold points out, that those whose side we have failed to take in our practice of neutrality will accuse us of favoring their opposition. As was once pointed out to me long ago, if those on every side are critical of you, you must be doing something right. To truly be in service of the autonomy and self-responsibility of others will always leave one, in this world, facing his or her own existential aloneness. To serve no particular self-interest or prejudice is to stand in service of the mystery of otherness. It is to relinquish control over outcomes and face and accept the possibility that, at least in the short run, chaos and even destruction may seem to rule the day.

Colonials did not enter a new world and culture as if it were a mystery which they were to allow to speak to them. Rather, they came imposing their sense of order and civilization. Ironically enough, given today’s reading from Acts, Church missionaries did the same. Instead of attending the Spirit that was given to these others, they immediately imposed the yoke of their interpretations on them. Instead of open and receptive dialogue, they proselytized. Pope Francis spoke to this in Morocco on March 31 of this year:

In other words, the paths of mission are not those of proselytism. Please, these paths are not those of proselytism! Let us recall Benedict XVI: “the Church grows not through proselytism, but through attraction, through witness.” [a 2007 homily] The paths of mission are not those of proselytism, which leads always to a cul-de-sac, but of our way of being with Jesus and with others.

We are called to be “with others” in a spirit of humility, dialogue, and discernment. This is the meaning of mission. We make a mistake, however, if we misunderstand this call to be passive, detached, and disengaged. To read of Hammarskjold’s life and experience during the Congo crisis is to realize the cost in pain, fear, solitude and misunderstanding of his “neutral” service. It is very hard work to attempt to protect “the rights and possibilities of the people to find their own way,” It requires belief that they too have been given the gift of the Spirit and that it is for them to give form to their lives and worlds in accordance with that spirit. It is an outer and inner work. Outwardly it means doing what one can to protect the space in which such discernment can occur, and inwardly it requires the depth of humility to abandon one’s own impatience and certitude.

Near the end of his life, Hammarskjold wrote to a friend in tribute to another friend who had died. He ponders something that his recently deceased friend had written him, no doubt referring to Hammarskjold himself, about “those who create poetry by action.” Hammarskjold says that this is a beautiful concept but that it is basically an illusion. This is so because in the political sphere the violent psychology of human beings and the randomness of events “make it rather difficult to translate contemplation into action and to make action the source material for contemplation.” Of course, this immediately catches one’s attention, especially for a brother and son of Theodore James Ryken. For Ryken’s great vision of his brotherhood was that its way of living together would form its members into “the non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary,” of contemplation and action. Hammarskjold, when he writes this letter, is within months of his death and near the end of a life striving for the harmony of contemplation and action and as he reflects on the struggles, misunderstanding, and pain of his efforts on behalf of the independence of the people of the Congo, he seems to doubt that such a harmony is really possible.

At least personally, I fully appreciate this position. So powerful are the unconscious drives of my own and others’ “stone-age psychology,” and so intransigent seem the forces behind the apparent arbitrariness of “events on all levels,” it often seems impossible “to translate contemplation into action” and even to make action “the source material for contemplation.” Perhaps, however, the only adequate response to this experience lies in the apparent resignation of Hammarskjold’s last line: “However, we do not ourselves choose the shelf on which we are placed.” Perhaps this is not resignation at all but rather true abandonment to the Mystery. Perhaps what seems like the impossibility of translating contemplation into action is most possible in the kind of non-doing that “neutrality” requires, in our disciplining of our knowingness and impatience in service to the unfolding of others. And perhaps our action becomes the source material for contemplation when we offer it as the fruits, meager and poor as they may seem, of our desire to serve the others. To hear of the harmonization in life of contemplation and action can seem, in theory, to create “poetry by action.” But perhaps it is actually much more prosaic it may be our feeble and stumbling efforts to be of service and not dominance, while trusting that the Spirit who has been given to those we seek to serve will, finally, lead them, as us, to where they are called to be.

Sten Selander—who, as you know, never outgrew the adventurous explorer spirit of a boy—wrote me once with an accent of envy about those who create poetry by action.  It is a beautiful concept and there may be some little element of truth in it but basically it is an illusion.  We all remain free to form our personal life in accordance with standards which otherwise may find their expression in poetry.  But obligation to action, especially in the political field, is more of a danger than a privilege.  At the present phase events on all levels and the basic stone-age psychology of men make it rather difficult to translate contemplation into action and to make action the source material for contemplation.  However, we do not ourselves choose the shelf on which we are placed.

Dag Hammarskjold, Letter to Erik Lindegren, 6 August 1961, quoted in Roger Lipsey, Hammarskjold: A Life, pp. 525-6

One comment on “Prosaic Contemplation

  1. Paul Cullen on

    Great reflection, John, on contemplation, action, and—at all times—respect for others. Dag Hammarskjold has been a favorite of mine since Fordham when I had a friend produce a calligraphy of a quote I used from his Markings in some paper there: At some point I did answer Yes to Someone or Something, and from that moment I was certain that my life in self-surrender had a goal.


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