Ignatian spirituality is very action-oriented. We name desires. We engage our senses in prayer. We respond to the Call of the King. We converse with Jesus. We discern. In contrast, as I’ve studied the Eastern religions and taught them to high school students, I’ve noticed an important element that’s often too hidden within the Christian spiritual tradition: inaction.
Taoism embodies a virtue called wu-wei, which means “actionless activity.” Its paradoxical nature says that we can accomplish our tasks better when we avoid the tendency to act. To put it simply, it tells us to go about our daily tasks but not to obsess about doing them. My tendency, for example, is to spend more time obsessing about my to-do list and all the things that I have to get done than actually doing those things. A Christian spirituality like that of the Benedictines does not obsess about work but instead naturally incorporates work into the daily rhythm, simply going about it.
Another translation of wu-wei is “creative quietude.” In between the Ignatian contemplations and rules for discernment is perhaps where most of their fruit takes place: in the quietude where God appears most creative. In our colloquy with Christ we must quiet ourselves and listen. As we grapple with our interior desires and emotions we must pause and let them settle. At some point we must stop focusing on doing and let God do the doing! Angelus Silesius, a Catholic mystic from the 17th century, said “the more we reach for [God], the more [God] will escape.” Sometimes our over-acting can make us feel further from God. Sometimes we obsess about different prayer methods or “perfecting” our prayer, and we end up frustrating ourselves more. Can’t we just…pray?
I once asked someone how he spent his time on a silent retreat, a place where many try to focus on what they are going to “get done.” “I had no plans. I might listen to music or sit there and pray,” he said. “And if thoughts came to mind I’d just ponder them. And if I fell asleep then I fell asleep.” He was not obsessing over action, but instead allowed God to be creative in his quietude.
As an Ignatian practitioner I am always trying to squeeze more and more out of my relationship with God, obsessing about how to pray, and trying to find God in all things all the time. While we should try to find God in all things, perhaps it’s time for me to practice a bit of wu-wei and discover how much growth can happen in the quiet, when I put aside my plans and let God do the acting.