In her mystical masterpiece, THE INTERIOR CASTLE, the sixteenth century holy woman, Teresa of Avila, reminds us that… “On the spiritual path, the Beloved asks only two things of us: that we love him and that we love each other. This is all we have to strive for.”

She goes on to say, “In my opinion, the most reliable sign that we are following both these teachings is that we are loving each other… Be assured that the more progress you make in loving your neighbor, the greater will be your love for God. His Majesty loves us so much that he repays us for loving our neighbor by increasing our love for him in a thousand ways. I cannot doubt this.”

With classic Teresian fervor, she concludes this passage by appealing directly to our hearts: “Oh, friends! I can clearly see how important love of your neighbor is to some of you, and how others of you just don’t seem to care. If only you could understand how vital this virtue is to all of us, you wouldn’t engage in any other study.”

Five hundred years ago, this cloistered Spanish nun offered a teaching as relevant today as ever: not only must we ground our activism in contemplative stillness, we need to engage the fruits of contemplation in active service to the world. Our personal relationship with the Divine is meaningless unless we take it to the streets and see the face of our Beloved in the face of everyone we encounter.

We are not all meant to organize rallies, pour our drawn blood on Pentagon documents, travel to underdeveloped countries and volunteer to inoculate children. In her manual on contemplative prayer, called THE WAY OF PERFECTION, Teresa makes a distinction between “active and contemplative personalities,” and advocates that we be true to our own nature. Holding the suffering of humanity in our hearts in prayer every day can be as powerful a service as finding shelter for the homeless. Cultivating and abiding in inner peace makes a significant contribution to peace on earth. Working on our personal spiritual path raises the level of consciousness of the whole.

Yet, not everyone is a natural contemplative, either. For some, sitting in silent meditation feels artificial, even wasteful. When they close their eyes, they do not sense the presence of the Divine; rather, they experience an overpowering urge to get up and go do something. They may be right about this impulse.

Teresa invokes us the Gospel story of Mary and Martha to highlight this distinction. Mary – probably the Magdalene – was an ecstatic. She was all about devotion and rapture. She would fling herself at the feet of Jesus whenever he came by for a meal and she would remain there until he left. Meanwhile, Martha was stuck in the kitchen, grumbling about being left with all the work, elevating herself to a state of false martyrdom.

“Remember,” says the ever-practical Teresa, in an effort to console those who are naturally more active. “Someone must cook the food! …Think of yourselves as favored by being allowed to serve with Martha.”

The important thing, Teresa reminds us, is that by serving one another, we are serving the Holy One, who is continuously dropping in for a visit. “If contemplation, silent and vocal prayer, nursing the sick, cleaning the house, and the most menial labor, all serve the Guest who comes to eat and drink and converse with us,” Teresa asks, “why would we choose to tend him in one way rather than another?”

Last summer, I had the good fortune of spending a few days at Jonah House, the historic peace and justice community in Baltimore, made famous by the Berrigan family. Two of the residents, known in the media as the “Colorado nuns,” had recently been released from prison where they had been locked up for yet another “plowshares action,” invoking the Prophet Isaiah by symbolically banging on missile silos with household hammers, “beating our swords into plowshares.”

After lunch one afternoon, we sat around the community living room and the nuns pulled out their knitting. It was difficult to imagine these two grandmotherly women as enemies of the State. As they began praising my new translation of Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, I couldn’t resist confiding in them. “I feel like a fraud,” I said. “Here I am, reflecting on the esoteric teachings of the Early Renaissance, while people like you are willing to go to jail for your convictions about nuclear disarmament.”

The nuns put down their knitting needles and took it upon themselves to convince me that by speaking and writing about the teachings of the mystics, I am making as valuable a contribution to peace on earth as any act of civil disobedience. That, through my words, I open hearts and minds, and allow people to look with clear eyes on the suffering of the world, thereby moving them to act with love and compassion.

It was hard to believe them, but I tried. Their words alleviated a secret burden of guilt I had been carrying ever since my first book came out, which happened to coincide with launching the war on Iraq.

I am beginning to rest in the fact that we each have our own way of loving God by loving each other. Mine happens to require long hours of solitude and silence. For others, it’s about engaging in prison reform, making calls to the House and the Senate to vocalize their opposition to American Imperialism, raising funds to keep our rivers clean.

If every act is an act of love, we are all activists. If the root of all our action is contemplation, then our whole lives become a prayer.