From the Bookshelf

From the Bookshelf: Parker Palmer, The Active Life

Six years ago, in the middle of rabbinical school, I and a number of classmates took a Year of Education, in which intensive learning and interning gets you a Masters in Jewish Education. Like many who have gone through the program have found, the gifts go far beyond a degree.

One of the enduring gifts for me came when Dr. Michael Zeldin, then director of Hebrew Union College’s Schools of Education, recommended that I read The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer. I loved his understanding of education as a spiritual practice, and spirituality as an educational endeavor.

Every couple of years, now, I’ll find another Parker Palmer book to read and fall back in love with his wise and well-said words. When a friend mentioned The Active Life, one of Palmer’s earlier books, I was intrigued. Most of the chapters consist of a close reading of a story or poem, two from Chuang Tzu, a fourth-century BCE Chinese Taoist teacher (translated by Thomas Merton), one Hassidic story as told by Martin Buber, two stories of Jesus from the New Testament, and a poem by Guatemalan teacher and activist Julia Esquivel. What a collection!

The theme that runs through each of these stories is “the active life,” a phrase itself lifted from the title of the first selection from Chuang Tzu. In this book, Parker Palmer focuses not on education and spirituality, but on “being active” versus “being contemplative.” Or rather, he argues they are not mutually exclusive, and indeed more linked than we often imagine.

Rather than speak of contemplation and action, we might speak of contemplation-and-action, letting the hyphens suggest what our language obscures: that the one cannot exist without the other. When we fail to hold the paradox together, when we abandon the creative tension between the two, then both ends fly apart into madness…Action flies off into frenzy – a frantic and even violent attempt to impose one’s will on the world, or at least to survive against the odds. Contemplation flies off into escapism – a flight from the world into a realm of false bliss. (The Active Life 1999 edition, p. 15)

Parker defines his terms a few pages later:

I understand action to be any way that we can co-create reality with other beings and with Spirit. (17)

I understand contemplation to be any way that we can unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality and reveal the reality behind the masks. (17)

I find his definition of contemplation to be particularly useful, particularly if I associate contemplation with spiritual practices such as prayer, mussar, meditation, relational I-Thou encounters, and so on. If my spiritual practice isn’t helping me see reality more clearly, it probably isn’t a spiritual practice.

This sounds obvious, but as Palmer explains, truth and reality can be painful, and more perplexingly can be difficult to assign into convenient categories of good and bad. An illusion of moral order can be the ultimate seduction. I do believe in moral order, but Palmer’s definition of contemplation reminds me remain humble in what I understand and to seek to penetrate illusions wherever I can.