Mysticism, Activism and Christianity: Why Pray if You Can Work?

By Fr George Adimike

Why pray if you can work? Why work if you can pray? At the background of these polemical questions is the wrong presumption that prayer and work are mutually exclusive. The ramifications of this presumption underpin many of the contemporary preachings, satires and jabs against the religious and existential enterprise. These questions are not only symptomatic of the present challenge in our society, but also constitute a facial feature of the severance of positive action from the umbilical cord of faith.

A proper response to them sheds light on one of the important truths of the Christian experience, namely that God is always “magis”; that is, God is always far more than our imagination and our thinking. As such, Christianity transcends the divide as a counterpoise for the true path to God. By being part of the great faith, Christians participate with creation in its radiation of God’s glory.

Thus, they join in the cosmic worship of the divine majesty through a spirituality that integrates action and contemplation. In offering a clarification to the posers, this piece gives deserving attention to the unique and compelling value of Christianity as the proper balance that obviates both extremes.

Christian spirituality presents two main tendencies that inexactly correspond to the Mary and Martha elements (cf. Luke 10: 39-42), namely, the contemplative and the active, respectively. The exaggeration of one aspect over the other in an exclusivist manner distorts the healthy diversity of Christian spirituality. Often Christians misinterpret these complementary dimensions pitching Mary against Martha as the model of holiness.

In response to the anomaly, others exaggerate the value of action and inadvertently de-market prayer. This false opposition undermines the beauty of the mosaic, which the harmony of these particularities presents. An authentic Christian life entails a spirituality founded on the marriage of the Mary (mysticism) and Martha (activism) elements. In other words, it is the integration of prayer and positive action.

This union of action and contemplation spells a spirituality in which a Christian lives the details of his life with God. This incarnational spirituality renders every aspect of life transparent to God. By implication, one lives in the frequency of God, which bridges the false dichotomy between prayer and work and obviates the two fallacies of the heresy of activism and the heresy of spiritualism. For a Christian, all actions should be inspired, fuelled and driven by prayer, and contemplation follows from and leads to action.

This incarnational spirituality that bridges the false dichotomy between prayer and work requires that we watch and pray (cf. Matthew 26:41). It is our Christian responsibility to work and pray, fast and vote, demonstrate against bad governance and occupy public spaces for a better result. Christians remove the stumbling blocks of poverty and oppression by prayer and positive action. In most “either-or” circumstances, something is lost.

We live beyond the dialectics of the sacred and the secular knowing that the secular has been made sacred by the assumption of materiality by Christ (the mystery of Incarnation). And as such, Christians sanctify work and sacramentalise the world provided they are ever connected to the divine power through prayer. It is inappropriate to abandon prayer to “spiritual specialists” since all need that spiritual energy, confidence and ointment that come from the  relationship which prayer offers. Every Christian needs to pray and work for the transformation of society.

Such positive action gives meaning to prayer. The problem is not prayer but the exaggeration of one aspect to the negligence or exclusion of the other. True Christians do not abandon their civic responsibility, which includes political actions.

In that light, Martha’s fault is not her concentration on work, but her complaint and failure to contemplate the friendship of Jesus in the midst of work. Mary succeeded in converting her contemplation into true worship in which she grew in friendship with Jesus. Martha failed to reach the next level of depth in her relationship with Jesus. Her weakness lay in the inability to integrate contemplation within her action. In actuality, both action and contemplation are complementary aspects of living the friendship with Jesus.

Yet, both are fraught with possible dangers – while Mary could fall into the error of inactivity and spiritualism, Martha could fall into negligence of prayer or ignoring the necessity and presence of Christ in a fret of work. Benedictine spirituality is an example of the integration of work and prayer. The Christian principle of existence requires that humans till the ground while God sends the rain; we plant and God gives the increase.

Whomever God invites to contemplation, He later sends on a mission. Prayer stimulates one to action; it supports and never substitutes. When the love of God is the primary driver of our mysticism, then action in favour of others translates and becomes its effect. Our recourse to God in love funds a return to the world of work and active engagement with quotidian realities.

In other words, an ecstasy that never becomes an exodus―a standing out spiritually that never journeys to be of good to human persons―fails a basic Christian test. The pathos of ecstasy that does not translate to charity only massages one’s spiritual ego. Going to God in prayer leads to returning to the world of action, for the result of prayer is the transformation of self and society.

Faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:14-26). Likewise, works without faith is toxic and enthrones a false religion in which the self and its capacities are worshipped and glorified. Works without faith leads to “egolatry” by replacing the transcendent object of religion with an immanent substitute. Consequently, it lures the world to the thinking that the present and the future can be constructed by man alone without God.

Such a mindset sees salvation as progress and what man can achieve by self. In her obsession with her exploits, humanity confuses the odour of Pelagianism with the seductive aroma of progress. This Pelagian confidence and self-congratulation becomes an easy warrant for her to criticise and abandon religion and thus alienate herself from God.

Personal and national development is a consequence of man’s filial quality, which gifts him with a co-creative agency. Through this God-given co-creative capacity, he transforms the world by means of his work. By the operative accompaniment of prayer, it becomes not only a relationship with God but also an investment. It is so because prayer aids sense-making narratives of this engagement by helping man to stay the course while conscious of his creatureliness.

It is no understatement to suggest that the world rises and falls by her management of creatureliness. While some exaggerate man’s poverty by a radical dependence on prayer that excludes work, others claim to be the architects of their destinies with absolute forgetfulness or exclusion of God. This severance of prayer and work demonstrates the crisis of man, truth and metaphysics.

Truth moved from its metaphysical understanding as being (verum est ens) to its understanding as whatever is made (verum quia factum) and now, unfortunately, to what is makeable or feasible (verum quia faciendum). Prayer keeps man in check and constantly reminds him of his identity as fallen and redeemed, indigent but noble, deprived, restored and endowed. Prayer is, therefore, a flame of light that illuminates the paths and alleys of existence.

According to Ignatian principle, “pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us”. Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) without losing heart (cf. Luke 18:1). It is unfortunate to create a false opposition between prayer and work. Fulfilment of purpose goes beyond material progress since humans are beyond materiality.

Life should be measured by parameters other than material success. If prayer is understood as a relationship, then its indispensability becomes clear because nothing substitutes one’s relationship with his father. So, it is mistaken to blame African backwardness on prayers. Instead, the challenge is prayer devoid of positive actions, grace devoid of nature, and faith devoid of good works.

Prayer is the acknowledgement of our connection to God and dependence on Him. Hence, authentic prayer leads one to appreciate one’s filial dignity and nobility as a child of God and to eventually draw the confidence, energy and drive to flourish. Failure to appreciate this should not be blamed on prayer.

The complete severance of prayer and work, as each struggles to establish; dominance over the other, spells doom for man. Christianity is God’s project for the radiation of his glory in Christ, thus letting the currency of goodness go on within the praxis of grace.

It, therefore, eschews faith without reason (fideism) and its corollary, reason without faith (rationalism). It embodies a living faith that is sustained by a living hope and produces active love. Hence, we pray and work because that is the only way to live a meaningful and responsible life.