Throughout the history of spirituality there traditionally have been two paths that one could follow. These go by various names, but the thrust is the same. One classic way of talking about them is to label them the active and contemplative life. The active life is what characterizes most of us. It is normal life in the world. It describes those who have jobs and families. The contemplative life typically is a more restricted, more reserved life. Traditionally, it is seen a less worldly.
Another way the two paths are described is the monastic and lay paths. Obviously the monastic life is for those men and women who withdraw from the ordinary world and join a monastery. They dedicate and devote their lives to God in a more focused and time-consuming way than the other, lay folks do. To those of us outside a monastery, it might seem like a more demanding way of living. But perhaps the monks look at all of us “out here” in the world and wonder how we do it. For many there are jobs, families, chores at home and on and on. Probably the real truth is both ways can be quite demanding. They are just different.
It is easy to equate the active life with the life most of us are living in the world. In this case our lives are more complicated if we also want to live spiritually. Balance becomes tricky. How do I do my job, pay attention to family and friends, deal with problems and still give some attention to my spiritual journey? It is not easy. At times we fail miserably. The temptation is to give up. And yet we will have no spiritual life if we do not persevere.
It is also easy to equate the contemplative life with the life of the monks living in community or solitude. For those of us on the outside, it is tempting to conclude these monks have it made when it comes to living a spiritual life. After all, they have all that “free time!” They pray, do a little work, and be spiritual all day long. Some of us might be envious of this spiritual luxury. Many others of us wonder why they don’t get a real life and struggle like the rest of us! We can be secretly resentful because they seemingly have opted out of real life.
As with many models or categorizations, this way of understanding things probably is too simplistic and not useful. In my own life I have been trying to manage something in all the arenas. It is easy to see that I am in the “real world.” I have a wife and kids and grandkids. I have a job and I am busy like all other “normal” people. So clearly I am a layperson leading an active life.
But I also hang out with monks and in my own tiny way, I am attempting to live monastically in the midst of my normal life. I also am drawn to the contemplative life and try to practice that when I can. So I am either hopelessly confused or creatively trying to manage a tricky balance.
I was intrigued recently when I encountered the words of a writer on spirituality. His journey is the opposite of mine. In his younger years, he spent considerable time in the monastery. But ultimately, he struggled and finally left. But he did not dismiss the monastic. He simply learned to be spiritual and do spirituality in a different way. Finally, both paths are legitimate and, perhaps, complimentary.
Here are the sage words of Philip Zaleski, as he describes his move from one path to the other. “The struggle to love and to be loved, to make a living and provide for your family, and to keep sufficient sanity to get along in the world is a path toward spirit as sure as a retreat from life in some hothouse of spirituality where the way seems direct and transparent.” I like these words, but I fear he does not give the monastery as much credit as it deserves. But I do like his way of describing the spiritual journey. It involves loving and being loved. That sometimes is a struggle. Providing for a family can be quite easy. And then, there are times it can be a real pain!
We all know keeping sane in our world can drive you nuts! In fact I fear our culture sometimes anoints certain forms of insanity and pretends those forms are sane! For example, Americans honor hard work. But workaholics are probably insane. Sometimes I fear this is my chosen form of insanity! But it can look so spiritual.
I want to hold on to both spiritual paths. I see them as complements to each other. They can help me with the balance that I am sure is needed to grow spiritually. I want to be active and, yet, preserve a contemplative perspective that moderates the extremes of the active life. I want to embrace fully the lay life of being spiritual in the world. But I want to hang out with monks and read the literature of the monks. I want their witness to shine its light on my crazy dark places and bring me into the light.
Lord, give me help and hope as I journey through life…walking two paths.