Editor’s note: Missioner Tim Shelgren reflects on the practice of contemplation and action and the ways this state of being has impacted his journey thus far.
“There’s no word for it in English.” This is a phrase my eldest son Troy, who lives in the German speaking part of Switzerland, often uses when he is trying to explain a foreign concept to me. For example, the German word “Handschuhschneeballwerfer” describes one who refuses to throw a snowball unless he or she is wearing winter gloves. See what I mean?
Last week in a stimulating Q & A Skype session with FMS’ up and coming overseas missioners-in-training, I found myself struggling to find the right word to describe a state-of-being. That is, a state of physicality and mind that I believe we, as missioners, must practice taking on in order to thrive in a foreign land.
Moving to a foreign country, to me, has been a great challenge. More than once I have said to my FMS colleagues in Jamaica, “We might as well have moved to Mars.” On a typical day, we look and talk differently than every single person we see and meet. As people from the United States, we make and favor spaghetti and meatballs. Jamaicans make and favor ackee and saltfish. When we express clear understanding of what our friends from the United States are saying, they reply, “Yes man, you’ve got it.” When we express clear understanding of what our Jamaican friends are saying, they reply, “No mon.” Then, they pretty much repeat what you just said. After almost two years, I still cannot figure this last one out.
These anecdotes highlight how we, as missioners, we must learn to live comfortably in the minority, to be curious eaters, and to be willing to constantly explore language and communication styles. In addition, we must figure out how to shift from our structured, predictable careers and routines at home to endless days, weeks, and months of not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring. Do you think St. Francis knew what tomorrow would bring for him when he climbed off his horse and entered into the colony with his new friend who was living with leprosy?
To enter into the colony and into the unknown, I have learned, the missioner must be vulnerable. And in order to be vulnerable, the missioner must have great courage. “Vulnerability” and “courage”: These are two words I had no problem coming up with in our Skype session because I have been studying, putting into conscious practice, and striving to develop both of these attributes. (See Brené Brown’s brilliant teaching on the topics, “The Call to Courage” on Netflix.)
“I suspect the subtle blessings you will find in this way of living will be around 200% greater than you ever dreamed.”
Not until one of the trainees asked specifically about the practice of contemplation and action did my struggle arise. At the same time, because Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s work on contemplation and action is the very stimulus that brought me on mission in the first place, I immediately felt connected to the new FMS trainee. “Yes, a kindred spirit,” I thought.
What my new kindred friend had heard was that, as a missioner, they may often find themselves in contemplation for 80% of the time, and in action for 20% of the time. I suggested, “I think you’ll find yourself in contemplation about 100% percent of the time, and in action about 100% of the time.” Here is what I am talking about:
No matter how vulnerable and courageous we are on mission, significant levels of anxiety and fear still, of course, rear their shadowy heads. As missioners, I believe we can best counter these emotions by maintaining a healthy body and a clutter-free mind so that our spirits are free to be in constant union with Christ. To reiterate, we must constantly strive to be one with Christ.
To help accomplish this feat, for the past several months I have: 1) Taken my daily physical exercise routines up about two notches. With physical strength, healthy blood and energy flow, and plenty of fresh oxygen, my mind and focus are rarely distracted by physical aches or pains. Often, I have none. 2) Begun sitting in meditation for thirty minutes in the morning, and thirty minutes in the evening. Sitting meditations are helping me learn how to clear my mind altogether—which is a unique skill that I am also learning to call on while working, playing, and going about all activities in daily life. My favorite contemplative prayer and meditation teachers are Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Pema Chodron, and, currently, Chade-Meng Tan in “Search Inside Yourself.”
As per a number of my teachers, an unblocked flow of energy in the body and a clear mind are two primary conditions necessary to develop the capacity to “awaken to” and “abide in” the Spirit of Christ who lives within us all—at all times, even while actively participating in life. As a missioner in a foreign land, this is the state-of-being that I am continually striving to find as a means of dealing with my shadowy anxieties and fears (see Robert Johnson’s “Owning your Own Shadow,” also a current favorite). I am pretty sure that what I am describing here is mirroring Paul’s challenge in I Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”
Keeping the energies in the body flowing and the mind clear while sitting, working, playing, and moving through our day, abiding in Christ at all times, praying without ceasing… Can we possibly come up with one English word—or a German word, for that matter—to name this practice? I seriously do not know.
However, I do know that if any of us wants to thrive in the colony of the unknown, the goal can be realized when we make mindful/conscious attempts to yoke ourselves with Christ 100% of our waking hours. And to all of our FMS overseas missioners-in-training, I also know that an abundance of service-related opportunities will soon come your way. Being a missioner, I have come to see that the world’s needs are endless.
Hang on tight, my kindred friends. One day, you may find yourselves active and busy in “service mode” 100% of your waking hours, while simultaneously yoking with Christ through every one of those same hours. On that day–Lord have mercy (as Jamaicans say)– I suspect the subtle blessings you will find in this way of living will be around 200% greater than you ever dreamed.
reflection: In what situations have you found yourself feeling vulnerable and courageous within your life? Was God present in these experiences?