There is a saying that goes “an idle mind is the devil’s workplace.”
I have a tendency, for better or worse, to question almost every idiom that I encounter. I know that’s not necessarily the point of them, but I cannot help it when I have seen that, for the better part of my emerging-adult life, lessons rarely fit into a convenient catchall. Rather, I relish in the intricacies, the multiple perspectives, the balances and compromises required when observing life’s happenings.
I very much enjoyed John Bradley’s recent post on “A Time to Act, A Time to Reflect.” It captures the idea that there is a needed balance between contemplation and action and that both are required in discernment and to better understand our call to live out God’s will in our lives.
Just over one month ago, I left my job with the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU). I will begin doctoral studies in Education at Boston College in the fall, but I decided to take the summer off and moved home to NEPA to be with my family. Since then, I have been able to travel, visit family and friends, help take care of my grandmother in the hospital, and do a fair amount of reading, writing, and watching the Phillies further plummet in the NL East.
I am in a time of transition. Transition periods offer plenty of time for rest, but also the opportunity to search one’s mind, heart and soul. Additionally, while my mind, body, and spirit have been active, there have certainly been temptations for all three to be idle. Idle in the “not using my time well and getting sucked into the black hole that is Facebook/ESPN” sense. To combat this natural and human response, I have tried to be intentional so that my downtime, my reflection time, my “idle” time, does not degenerate into something not necessarily of God.
One of the best ways I have found to do this is by praying with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. I have been with a spiritual director, a Jesuit priest in Philadelphia, since last autumn. I meet with him regularly, typically once a week, preferably and most often in-person, but sometimes via phone when we are not able to be in the same place. This ongoing experience, along with prayer, conversation with family and friends, and action, whether it be by helping my family, reading for my doctoral program, or preparing to move, has allowed me to be present to my time of transition.
I was not always so well-advised or able to do. Two years ago when I finished my time teaching with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), I drove right home and began working for the new ACESJU program. Though excited to begin this new undertaking, I had barely taken any time at all to reflect on my past two years in Birmingham, what my hopes were for my time with ACESJU, and what graces I would need to ask God for to be my best self as I was starting out. Looking back, I now know that I should not have been in such a rush and so dismissive of the need to reflect. Although I do not think it directly impacted my work or ability, it definitely impacted my state of mind, heart, and soul.
This is not to say that reflection has to take the form of a summer off. Had I been wiser or more aware, I should have taken time during that first summer working for ACESJU to search myself and my experiences to determine the gifts I had been fortunate enough to receive in Birmingham and during ACE, which areas still needed some work in my life, and what gifts I would be hoping to receive in Philadelphia and with my new job. Ultimately, I wish I had asked myself how I had better learned to love, who I learned to love, and then, going forward, how I could better love others, God, and even myself.
I suppose my point is this: Reflection is a beautiful necessity. As John Bradley described, being a “contemplative in action” allows you to “recognize God in all things encountered in an active life.” We need to take the time to allow grace to enter into our lives so that we can be aware of it in the future. We can be proactive in creating opportunities to reflect, but we also need to accept the conditions our lives present for us to be present to God. We cannot always find time for a retreat or a summer off, but we can always find the opportunity for prayer, conversation, and action (big or small) in this beautiful world. In this way, our reflection is not idle, but blessed, welcoming in the presence of God and love instead of the devil’s work.
 Michael O’Connor recently concluded his time on staff with the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU), a post-graduate teaching fellows program that serves urban Catholic schools in Philadelphia, and is preparing to begin doctoral studies in Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College in Fall 2012.