Heeding the call

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Global alarm bells sound urgently. Everywhere people concerned about climate change are calling for immediate, radical action. In these times, how best to respond and serve with integrity? I have been tussling mightily with this question, waking up at night thinking about it. A good friend of mine revels in front-line activism and campaigns vigorously for fundamental systemic change on social and environmental issues. A vibrant elder, she embodies the model of a social justice warrior in both personality and action. She does much good. I admire her greatly. Yet each time I try to mirror her ways of thinking and her actions, my heart sinks and I feel drained of vital energy.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay 

What is going on? Am I wimping out? Or do I trust the inner voice that quietly tells me “Her way is not your way.”

What is my way? Over the past few years, I have experienced a tidal shift from an outward-focused orientation to an inner one. After spending much of my life actively doing things to meet others’ expectations, I now find my natural energies turning inward to reflective contemplation. Could it be that contemplation — and the slow ‘non-doing’ it seems to require — serves as an important and necessary counterbalance to the hyperactivity of our present world? The poets remind us of this time and again. Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” My deep gladness lies in contemplation and mindful appreciation, in sharing my expressive talents through writing, music and poem-speaking. And yes, there is also a deep gladness in heeding a moral call, such as taking responsible actions, including uncomfortable ones, for the well-being of the earth and our fellow creatures.

Honouring both the inward call to contemplation and the moral call to outward action generates a tension that I am slowly recognizing is healthy in its discomfort. That tension calls on me to pay close attention to my motives for doing or not doing something; to risk action or non-action depending on the insistent echo of my inner voice; to be willing, as my teacher Kim Rosen counsels, “to be misheard, misunderstood, and unseen” if that means staying true to myself.

This poem from Rumi reminds me, wisely, that the call to be true to myself is by necessity incomplete, because we human beings are always stepping from question to answer to question in our unfolding growth.

A Voice Through the Door

Sometimes you hear a voice through
through the door calling you, as fish out of

water hear the waves or a hunting
falcon hears the drum’s come back.

This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you. Children fill their

shirts with rocks and carry them
around. We’re not children anymore.

Read the book of your life which has
been given you. A voice comes to

your soul saying, Lift your foot;
cross over; move into the emptiness

of question and answer and question.

~ Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks



  1. Wendy G Sarno

    March 31, 2019

    You articulate so well, Mary Lou, what so many of us are feeling these days. Especially those of us who are in the latter part of our lives, becoming elders, retiring from a life of work, longing for slower times. And then the world which is seemingly careening off course demands we become activists. What do we do?

    Just this week a friend sent me this quote from activist AND contemplative Thomas Merton:
    “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
    ― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

    The paying of deep attention you speak of and the willingness to risk following our own deepest wisdom even when, especially when it goes counter to the world’s cacophonous energy, is surely the most important soul work we can do. And this wonderful Rumi reminds us that turning toward what we most deeply love will save us. Thank you.


    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      April 2, 2019

      Dear Wendy — thank you so much for these words of wisdom from Thomas Merton; they will guide me as I keep discerning. Love – Mary Lou

  2. Maureen McGahey

    March 31, 2019

    Mary Lou & Wendy:
    Yes. Yes. These are the tensions of our time. I find it hard to sleep too often as I ponder the demise of our planet.
    And I feel I will protest when I can, yet it is also necessary to be still in frenzied times. So much calls for attentiveness so I know I need to nurture that in myself as well. And it so much about mentoring now. What I do — even if that is being the peace the world yearns for— is also vital.
    We are constantly finding a balance.
    And voicing how we feel is so essential to connect with other humans and to encourage one another to connect with this beautiful earth.
    So this poem fragment says how I feel as a grandmother.
    It motivates me to do and be what I can… and to pray as I can not as I can not…. even in places where this is not seen as valid.

    “it’s 3:23 in the morning
    and I am awake
    because my great great grandchildren
    ask me in my dreams
    what did you do while the planet was plundered?
    what did you do while the earth was unraveling.
    surely you did something when the seasons started failing?
    did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was
    What did you do

    -Drew Dellinger-

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      April 2, 2019

      Dear Maureen: ” I will protest when I can, yet it is also necessary to be still in frenzied times.” I’m resonating with that, and with “being the peace the world yearns for— is also vital.” Thank you for this inspiration. Love – Mary Lou

  3. Janice

    April 1, 2019

    Such a good reminder Mary Lou, not to do violence to oneself by taking on more than we can manage or following paths we do not feel drawn to follow. Being in stillness can be mistaken for indifference, laziness, selfishness but it can be a necessary part of being in this world, a way of bringing quiet attention to what we deeply love. love, Jan

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      April 2, 2019

      Thank you, Jan, and yes… that ‘quiet attention’ when that is what the soul counsels. Holding ‘stillness’ as necessary – a significant reframing from our upbringing! Love – Mary Lou

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