Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby discussing the distinction between “action” and “contemplation” in the life of prayer. These two pillars of the spiritual life have undergone a shift of meaning. “Theory” and “practice” have come to mean two completely different things from what they once meant, with the first coming to mean “untested conjecture” and the second “practical experience” – a complete transformation of the patristic understanding of these terms.

Action and contemplation, the two Latin expressions corresponding to these Greek terms, have not fared much better, either. The shifts in meaning and valuation that have occurred in this regard could very well be responsible for the reversal and revaluation of “practice” and “theory”, also. They go to the very roots of our modern understanding of ourselves and hence have an immediate effect on our understanding of the spiritual life as well.

An “active life” – in the spiritual sense – is probably understood by most people today to be a life of “active” love of neighbor, that is, one of charitable deeds. When the original religious motivation is gone, it becomes mere “social activism”.

In contrast to this “active life”, there is the “contemplative life”, as it is practiced by the so-called “contemplative orders” in the seclusion of their cloisters – a life, it is generally thought, which is reserved for only a few. Such a life consists, then, of contemplating (from contemplation the things of God. Prayer is regarded as the first and greatest occupation of these contemplative orders. (35)

The first activity is directed outwards and has therefore generally been seen as more useful by society than the second which is directed inwards. However, there has been a more recent shift, with

a new reevaluation of these two forms of life … Since activity easily deteriorates into “activism”, which ultimately leaves people empty, more and more lay people and religious are turning to various forms of “meditation”, and not a few of them even dedicate all of their available time to “contemplation”. (35-36)

All this would have seemed rather strange to the Fathers. Although they made a clear distinction between a praktikos and a theoretikos, their understanding of this was totally different, and ultimately praktikos and the theoretikos are one and the same person, for, in Evagrius’ analogy, the praktikos is to the theoretikos as Jacob is to Israel. For the Fathers, the “practical” is concerned with the passionate part of the soul, with fighting the passions by means of the virtues and an ascetical life.

This “spiritual method” consists essentially of “keeping the commandments”, an endeavour assisted by all those practices that we designate as “ascetical” in the widest sense. Their goal is, with God’s help, to restore to the soul its natural “health,” which consists of “apatheia”, freedom from the “sicknesses” (or passions – πάθη) that estrange it from God. Without this dispassionate character, which is attained by degrees, the spiritual life (and prayer with it) deteriorates into self-deception, and that removes man even further from God. (38)

While this “active life” does include activity, it is not simply directed outwards. Instead,

Praktike, rather, embraces the entire realm of relations that a human being has to himself, to his neighbour, and to things; it is therefore called “ethics” as well.

In the patristic perspective, theoria or contemplation is “the natural “horizon” of praxis, which gradually leads to it and which contains it in embryo. Therefore,

All of those (apparently) “external aspects” of prayer, to which in the following pages such great significance will be attributed, belong jointly and severally to “the practical manner of prayer”, although, being what they are, they already contain within themselves their goal, “the contemplative manner”, as their natural horizon. As is true of the praktike in general, they are bound up with difficulties, just like the life of constant self-denial that Jacob led for seven years as suitor of the beloved Rachel. And yet this is not a matter of “self-redemption”, however that may be understood! For the goal of praktike – “purity of heart”, which alone enables a human being to “see God” – is always the fruit of the cooperation of “God’s grace and human effort,” in that order! The “contemplative manner of prayer” itself is then, just like theoria in general, a “charism”, pure and simple, a “gift” of the Father to those whom he has found worthy of it. (40-41)