Contemplation and Commitment – Fr. Segundo Galilea (1974)


[Fr. Segundo Galilea – Chilean liberation theologian (1928 – 2010). This text was originally published in his Espiritualidad de la liberación in 1974. Translated by Sister Helen Phillips, MM. Translation published in Following Jesus, 1981, published by Orbis Books. The translated text can be found in Chapter IV of the aforementioned book.] 

Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ And the King will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’


One of the most important tasks of the church in Latin America is to reformulate the great themes of faith and of a validly traditional spirituality, in terms meaningful for the type of commitment that Christians assume today. This commitment is more and more socio-political and in many cases strongly conscious of participation in the liberation of the poor and the oppressed.

In this task, the theme of contemplation in relation to liberation and its demands of commitment appears of prime importance. This synthesis between the “militant” and the contemplative is urgent in order that the faith of Latin Americans today not become alienated from their lives and from the history that they are called upon to live and in order that it not, in the worst of cases, even disappear. This is so much more necessary now because of the misunderstanding created in the last thirty years among the various “types of spirituality” of Christians.

The last two decades have seen two types of “Christian lifestyle.” They could be described as the “religious contemplatives” and the “committed militants.” The first are very sensitive to the values that are properly speaking “religious”: to prayer and its practice, to the liturgy and the sacraments, to the transcendent dimensions of Christianity. They are, or were, less sensitive to the temporal or social dimensions.

The second group emphasizes more their commitment to historical tasks, social militancy, the “praxis” of liberation, in the sense of an integral, evangelical liberation that implies the overthrow of social, economic, and political subservience. To a certain extent they mistrust the sacramental life, prayer, and, in general. Christian contemplation. One important reason for this, of special interest to us, is the ambiguity in the doctrine and in the facts of the “traditional” concept of contemplation.

In fact, ever since the earliest centuries, contemplation, and above all contemplative prayer, had two different aspects. There was the Greek-platonic aspect, with similarities to the oriental mysticism of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. It was known for its individualistic character (“man alone, face to face with his God”), its strong sense of the transcendent and orientation away from life and its events. For this reason it easily became withdrawal. This platonic-oriental mysticism corrupted to a greater or lesser degree authentic Christian mysticism, not as an isolated incident, but rather to the extent that Greek thought and “ethos,” above all with its dualism, influenced the infant church. Along with this influence there was the tradition of genuine biblical contemplation, contemplation that we could call “historical” or “committed.” It is precisely this aspect of Christian contemplation which we ought to revive in all its fullness today.

The Experience Of Christians

What is so interesting as a major ecclesial reality in Latin America is that this revival is actually taking place in the experience of many Christians and groups of Christians, above all in those committed to different options related to liberation.

In these, many Christians are seeing themselves as participants with the Lord in redemptive tasks that are part of the building up of the kingdom. Many are growing even more as they dedicate themselves to socio-political commitments. From a tendency to question their faith and even to lose it, they now tend to strengthen it, to recover prayer, and to rediscover its meaning.

To illustrate this experience we adduce the testimony of three Christians, very dedicated to socio-political works. For them their option for “liberation” is the Christian option, with no historical alternative, although they do admit different political partisan alternatives. Their Christian training did not prepare them for this, and yet they discovered a great affinity between their choice and their faith.

These Christians react against an ahistoric salvation. They want salvation to be effective, to be joined to temporal and political commitments, even though they do not reduce salvation to politics or to just a temporal liberation.

These Christians place great emphasis on commitment, on praxis. They see in it a decisive point in the Christian dimension of their lives: precisely the values that demand this praxis, this commitment. They discover in prayer a way of assuring the presence of these Gospel values in their action. Even beyond this, they have recovered the true meaning of prayer and of Christian contemplation through their very commitment to liberation.

“In the social struggle, in working toward liberation, the danger is that ‘the others’ become, in practice, the enemy. This can happen very quickly if there are no ‘moral’ values,” says one of these Christians. “Therefore it is necessary that there be an irruption of the transcendent, of the Gospel, in the personal life of the believer. Prayer brings this about. Otherwise, one becomes merely a pragmatist, without values, or assumes the ethics of Marxism-Leninism. We might even fall below the nonbeliever.”

“Prayer in my experience,” asserts another, “in no way neutralizes the power of a commitment to liberation. On the contrary, it gives us the ability to find a more fraternal, more human, more ‘civilized’ way to effect this liberation.”

“Prayer really identifies us, in the light of our own consciences, as Christians, for it avoids dualism: dualism between faith and action, which has led many of our companions to lose their sense of faith. Prayer is the ‘bridge’ between a commitment to liberation and our convictions as believers.”

“The person, the Christian,” asserts another, “must experience here and now in his or her commitment both the kingdom and hope. We must not become discouraged. We need consolations beyond our immediate experiences, which are often deceiving. Personal and contemplative prayer assure this type of experience.”

“Christians committed to liberation are contemplatives insofar as they capture what God desires for ‘the other’ and make of this the heart of their commitment. They are contemplatives, as I see it, because of their capacity to maintain the universal character of charity, without giving up their preference for the oppressed. Even beyond this, they are capable of developing forms of nonpartisan solidarity with the poor. …”

The Contemplative Source of Commitment

These experiences are not just intuitions without Christian value. They are a reference, “a theological locus,” insofar as they respond to the rediscovery of the authentic concept of contemplation. This is not just prayer, even though prayer is an indispensable and privileged form of contemplation, a very intense moment in our life of faith.

Contemplation is related to the vigor of faith and the capacity of this faith to shed new Hght on life and history. Contemplation means to experience God really, even though obscurely, in every phase of human life. It is the capacity to meet Christ and the experience of having met him through a vigorous and incarnate faith: “What we have seen and heard, what our hands have touched concerning the word of life . . .” [2] (the contemplative witness of St. John). Such faith is always found in the contemplative.

This “experiential encounter” with God—who reveals himself to us in Christ—presupposes the two contemplative encounters given us in the Gospel. The first is that of the very person of Jesus. The New Testament presents this encounter to us as the root of every conversion of faith and of the contemplative life. The revelation of Christ to the people of his time (Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman, Peter, the disciples of Emmaus, etc., etc.) created in them an encounter and a contemplative experience. Each of them is a type of Christian, and to be a Christian and a contemplative is the same thing in the New Testament. This same contemplative encounter was experienced by the apostles, already mature in the experience of 1 John 1:1. It appears unique to the apostolic vocation in the Transfiguration. [3] This episode responds to the discovery of a new dimension of Jesus by the three disciples, a contemplative dimension that goes beyond action. (“It is good for us to be here. . . . Let us make three tents. . . .”) The encounter with the person of Jesus has for the apostles a value in itself; it is privileged and at this moment surpasses the experience of the action.

St. Peter had the same kind of contemplative encounter [4] and such is the experience of all the saints.

The second encounter is inseparable from and complementary to the encounter with the person of Christ. It is the experience, again contemplative, of the presence of Christ in our brothers and sisters, above all in the “little ones.” This is typified in the famous pericope: “I was hungry . . . and you gave me to eat; … as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [5] Here the encounter with the suffering and needy brothers and sisters (the “little ones”) and the resultant service is an experience of Christ—as contemplative, therefore, as a personal encounter with the Lord.

Both encounters are inseparable. The first underlines the fact that Christianity transcends any temporal reality; the second that it is incarnate and inseparable from the love of neighbor. The first reminds us of the first commandment, to love God above all things, and of the absolute value of the person of Jesus. The second recalls the commandment that is like the first, to love our neighbor as ourselves and the presence of Christ in this love.

The first encounter gives rise to contemplative prayer and the various ways of relating to God; the second to a temporal commitment as a contemplative experience. The second encounter “incarnates” the first and gives a historical dimension to the encounter with God and to our life of prayer.

The experience of Jesus in the service of our brothers and sisters also gives a whole social dimension to Christian consciousness, thus transcending any purely individualistic and private consciousness as well as any contemplation with “platonic” tendencies. It gives to fraternal love a social and collective dimension insofar as the “little ones” are, in Latin America, not only individual persons, but also—and above all—human groupings, neglected subcultures, social classes, or sectors. . . . There is in them a collective presence of Jesus, the experience of which is truly a contemplative act.

Contemplation thus conceived gives a socio-political content to the faith, and faith itself acquires a historico-social dimension without reducing itself to just this. The Christ encountered and contemplated in prayer “continues” in the encounter with the brothers and sisters, and if we are able to experience Christ in service given to “the little ones” it is because we have met him in contemplative prayer. Contemplation is not only the discovery of the presence of Jesus in the neighbors (“you did it unto me”) but also a call to action in their favor, a commitment to liberation (“what you did”). The contemplation of Christ in the suffering and oppressed is a call to commitment. It is the historical content of Christian contemplation in the Latin American church.

The encounter-service of the poor is contemplative in those who have faith and makes them “contemplatives in action” in the best Christian tradition. This is not an automatic experience; it comes about to the extent that the Christ encountered in prayer emerges in the Christian conscience, as a background for action. “The Other” experienced in contemplative prayer is experienced in our encounter with “the others.” Neither is this an improvisation. It presupposes prayer, which is activated in service to others, thus acquiring a social content.

Dedication to my neighbors and to their liberation, on the other hand, insofar as it is contemplative, implies an accompanying and marginal presence of the Christ en- countered in prayer. This marginal consciousness of Christ is the point of union between prayer and commitment, and it prevents the latter from becoming empty by including both in the contemplative experience. Christian mysticism is a mysticism of commitment.

Reformulating Christian Contemplation In Latin American Terms

These reflections give rise to the necessity of reformulation or of completion of the concept of contemplation, while maintaining its traditional values.

The essence of real Christian prayer always consists in “going out of oneself in order to meet the Other.” In contrast with an attitude that might appear as egoism or as an evasion of reality and responsibilities, true prayer is a supreme act of abnegation and forgetfulness of self in order to meet Christ and his demands in others. In this sense prayer is related to the classic themes of death, and the cross—”death to self in order to live for God” [6] — which implies the crucifixion of egoism. That is why Christian mysticism goes through the purifying “dark night of the senses, ” [7] through loneliness and aridity, which causes egoism to die and leads us out of ourselves in order to find the Other. We touch upon this theme of “the desert” as an essential element of Christian contemplation.

The desert in the Christian tradition is, above all, an attitude of the spirit. But many of the great contemplatives, including Jesus, [8] St. Paul, [9] many prophets, [10] the early monks, many contemplative orders, and Charles de Foucauld in modern times, went into the geographic desert often during their lives to sense this spirit with the help of an external sign. The geographic desert is symbolic of an attitude of clearance, of putting oneself in a situation of truth, with no illusions before God, of a radical poverty that makes us expect all as a gift from Christ, of silence in which we can listen to the word of the “Other.”

The desert symbolizes the attitude of human powerlessness before salvation. It is to be ready, in the painful experience of our limitations, to receive this salvation through no merit of our own, with the obscure conviction that God is seeking us and that Christianity, more than the love of humankind for God, is the love of Jesus, who first seeks out humankind.

These great fundamental themes of Christian contemplation have been set forth with an almost exclusive reference to God. They are in the line of the “first encounter” of the New Testament referred to above, which relates us contemplatively with the person of Jesus. We believe this description is incomplete and that it is influenced with characteristics of Greek-oriental mysticism. To recover the authentic concept of Christian contemplation, in a meaningful form for the faithful committed to the cause of liberation, we must extend these same themes to the “second encounter,” to the contemplation of Christ in our neighbor, in the little one.

So, in order to find Jesus in “the other,” in order to discover “the other” as “other” to whom I must give myself and not as an extension of myself and my interests, I need to go out of myself, to die, to crucify selfishness. To the extent that we die in order to live for God, we die in order to live for our neighbor and vice versa.

And this capacity to live for our neighbors, especially if they are poor and the least of people, is the decisive source of the temporal commitment of the Christian, and of the socio-political dimension of charity and of contemplative faith. It is the basis of the public and social dimension of Christian contemplation, which up to now has been un- duly private. There, and not in a revolutionary dialectic, do believers find the strength of their militancy and of their work of liberation.

The same desert attitude, that of contemplation, is united to this commitment. If the contemplative-desert forged the great prophets, then present-day Christian prophecy in Latin America equally needs the contemplative attitude of the desert. The attitude of “going out of one’s self,” to come face to face again with the absolute and with the true meaning of things, allows one to “leave the system” as an unjust and deceitful society, in order to denounce it and to free oneself from it. If Christianity does not “go to the desert” in order to get away from the “system” it will never be free or prophetic and able to liberate others. If it does not learn how to be silent in itself in order to silence the “oppressors’ words” and to listen to the word of the truth that makes us free, in the attitude of “the desert,” Christianity will not be able to transform its world prophetically or politically. Contemplation which frees one from egoism and from “the system” is the source of freedom and of the capacity to set others free.

Authentic Christian contemplation, which crosses through the desert, transforms contemplatives into prophets and heroes of commitment. Christianity brings about the synthesis of the militant and the mystic, of the politician and the contemplative, overcoming the false contradiction between the “contemplative-religious” and the “committed-militant.” Authentic contemplation, which through the encounter with “the absolute of God” leads to “the absolute of the neighbor,” is the meeting place of this difficult symbiosis, so necessary and life-giving for Latin American Christians committed to the liberation of the poor.

The Biblical Message Of Contemplation And Commitment

The current Christian proofs of the contemplation-commitment synthesis and the recovery of its authentic content are rooted, of course, in the best tradition of Christianity and the Bible. The prophets, Elijah above all, appear to take this line: guides of a people, critics of a system, proclaimers of a message of liberation, not from a power position but rather from the people and in their service and from a contemplation of the word of God which impels them to action. This is the mystical-political line of the militant Christian that springs from the people and from the word and not from power.

In this contemplative line we must situate the figure of Moses as a symbol. It is typical of the politico-mystic that he had a very deep experience of God in the desert, and without ceasing to be influenced by this experience he led a people toward their freedom. Service in the liberation of people through their participation in power is a very likely definition of a Christian politician today.

In this enterprise the contemplative quality of Moses led him to come face to face with the absoluteness of “the other” in the solitude of the burning bush, and with the absoluteness of “the others,” in whom his experienced faith led him to discover a people among whom God dwells and to whom he had to announce the freedom of the children of God. This contemplative quality also allowed this mystic not to be discouraged by this people who often showed them.selves as mediocre and to accept, therefore, the loneliness of his prophetic leadership. (“Why does Yahweh bring us to this land . . . would it not be better to return to Egypt? . . . Let us choose a leader and go back. …” “Why have they taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this awful place …?”) [11]

In this prophetic solitude, Moses, notwithstanding, remains firm in hope “as if he could see the invisible.” Because of his contemplative faith “he considered the humiliation of Christ more precious than the riches of Egypt.” [12]

This hope, which belongs to “political prophecy,” sustained Moses even to the ultimate sacrifice in his mission: at the end he himself did not enter into the promised land to which he had led his people. He sacrificed “power” to help in the “liberation of his people,” faithful to his contemplative grace.

The case of Jesus is also profoundly enlightening, although in a different way. His contemplation leads to a commitment which is not directly temporal but rather pastoral-prophetic. It had socio-political consequences more proper to the ministry of evangelization than to temporal-political action.

The commitment of the contemplative to the poor and the little ones can be seen under two aspects. The first is the directly political option. In this Christians channel their charity—serving Christ in the “other”—through the mediation of projects of change and political means that will help to effect these projects; to do this they must participate in power. They strengthen their partisan option, because they see that this is the best way of effecting liberation. Here their contemplative commitment becomes strategy and partisan politics.

The second way of commitment to the “little ones” is that of the prophetic option. In this, charity, source of contemplation, is channeled into the effective and operative proclamation of Christ’s message concerning the liberation of the poor and the “little ones.” This message leads to the formation of a critical consciousness and is capable of bringing about liberating transformations that are deep and decisive. In this sense it has socio-political consequences. This option is less common and therefore more charismatic.

A committed love needs both of these expressions, which are not always exclusive one of the other, just as human love expresses itself in marriage and also in the more prophetic and less common form of celibacy. Both forms of loving are intense, as both forms of militancy which we have noted are efficacious and legitimately Christian. The second form, more proper to the pastoral ministry and to the hierarchy—although it does not absolutely exclude other forms of commitment—is the form of militancy adopted by Christ himself and the apostles. With this they renounced power and political partisanship, but created instead the consciousness necessary for progressive liberation from all forms of oppression.

In making known the presence of God in every human being, and thus the dignity and absolute destiny of all human beings, Christ and the apostles not only made known their own contemplative vision of humanity. They also gave a socio-political content to this prophetic proclamation by making it incompatible with the prevalent social system and pagan attitudes toward human beings.

In giving a privileged status to the poor and needy and identifying himself with them in a special way, Christ summoned and mobilized the poor for the kingdom of God. This is not only a contemplative action—the presence of Jesus in the dispossessed and the intuition of their dignity. It also led to social commitment with political consequences, for the incorporation of the poor into the kingdom of God takes place in history and implies a progressive liberation of these poor and needy from concrete social systems.

Jesus proclaimed the beatitudes. It is impossible to announce and to live this message without living in hope, without being a contemplative. But the beatitudes themselves are the “ethical attitude” of contemplatives. This radical living out of the Gospel is a prophecy that invariably challenges individuals and societies.

Thus the biblical message from Moses to Jesus gives us both views of the contemplative commitment to liberation. In the mystique of Moses, liberation takes on a temporal and political face and prefigures the total liberation in Christ.

In the mystique of Jesus this full sense is present. Liberation takes on an eschatological and decisive face, saving and transforming both humanity and society from within. This implies socio-political changes just as the liberation of Moses implied hope in the unknown and the eschatological vocation of Israel.

Both symbols have a contemplative message. All Christians in Latin America today live these to a greater or lesser degree in different ways—always complementarily, according to their function or vocation. They unite mysticism and commitment in the same contemplative call because the source of their Christian vision is the same: the experience of encountering Jesus in prayer and in our neighbor, above all in “the little ones.” [13]

[1] Matt. 25:37-40.
[2] John 1:1.
[3] Matt. 17:1ff.
[4] 2 Cor. 12; Phil. 3:7ff., etc.
[5] Matt. 25:31.
[6] Rom. 6:1.
[7] St. John of the Cross.
[8] Matt. 4:1.
[9] Gal. 1:17.
[10] Ezek. 1ff.; 1 Kings; Elijah, etc.
[11] Num. 14, 20.
[12] Heb. 11:26-27.
[13] Matt. 25:41