Could St Mary’s follow the ‘Way’ of inaction?

100_09311Image taken from Workers Bush Telegraph

I got a little irate today. I received an email (sent to a list that I am on) in which the sender announced that the police would have to get past her to arrest our parish priest, Peter Kennedy. Right, I should hurry up and give you the context.

Our parish of St Mary’s South Brisbane has long been a refuge for many lapsed, disenchanted and dissenting Catholics. It has also been a thorn in the side of many Catholics who might be considered more traditional or more aligned with the official Roman Catholic Church.

Peter Kennedy, has been our leader for 28 years. Peter’s leadership has questioned and refuted fundamental tenets of the Catholic tradition, broken with traditional Catholic ritual and liturgy and established a local tradition of strong social justice advocacy and service.

For some time now and over a range of issues including the use of lay homilists and the admission of gay, lesbian and divorced people as fully participating members in our Eucharistic celebrations, the Archbishop, John Bathersby, has felt compelled to try and bring us in line. Well, this history of attempting to discipline the disobedient and defiant child has now come to a sort of show-down. Peter’s appointment as administrator of our community will terminate on the 21st of this month although he has been offered the options of resigning or retiring by then.

Peter has stated publicly that he will not be moved and that he will stage a sit-in together with those members of our community who wish to join him. Peter has many supporters who admire him for standing up for his beliefs and I am one of them. I am not sure how many of these supporters also fully back all of Peter’s actions but I feel there could be a significant number.

I have been inspired by Peter’s sincerity, his deep compassion, his sense of conviction and his readiness to take action despite the personal toll on him. I have not always agreed with him or his actions but that has never compromised the deep regard I have and will always have for him.

My irritation earlier today rose at the thought that flames were being recklessly fanned in an already tense situation. Why a sit-in, to start with? I mean was there any threat of Peter being forcibly removed from the church? I didn’t think that the Archbishop would have seen a need for that. Surely the termination of Peter’s appointment as administrator does not prevent him from being a member of our community? So why presume that he needs to be removed and forcibly at that?

I hadn’t at the time of my irritation read in the news that the Archbishop had sounded the possibility of the police being asked to remove Peter if he refused to leave voluntarily. Having not long read it, I can now understand the basis of the comments of the sender of the email.

I feel sad that matters have come to this. I feel uneasy too. To be honest, I feel hints of guilt arising every now and again. There are times when I wish I could give unquestioning support to Peter’s actions. I mean, why am I not prepared to do what the sender of the email and others like her are? Why am I not as fired up and passionate about the actions Peter and his advisors seem to be leading us into?

I remember being a lot more passionate about similar things when I was a lot younger. I also remember being a lot less happy and at peace than I am these days. On a deeper level, that sense of peace and joy or contentment remains untouched. On the surface, however, there is an enquiry that’s being conducted in my mind. So once again, I have looked into the Tao Te Ching for some wisdom. Here is what I’ve found in Chapter 3:

3.  Without Action

Not praising the worthy prevents contention

Not esteeming the valuable prevents theft

Not displaying the beautiful prevents desire

In this manner the sage governs people

Emptying their minds

Filling their bellies

Weakening their ambitions

And strengthening their bones

If people lack knowledge and desire

Then they cannot act

If no action is taken

Harmony remains

Translation variously sourced and compiled at

If you’ve ever had the impression that the teachings of Lao Tze are like warm honey flowing down an inflamed throat, you might be in for a bit of a shock.  You’d be better of preparing yourself for some serious indigestion for often times, his insights are hard to stomach.  I mean, is this chap truly advocating inaction? And let me tell you, he seems to do this often. For instance, in chapter 43 he says:

43.  Overcoming

Water overcomes the stone

Without substance it requires no opening

This is the benefit of taking no action

Yet benefit without action

And experience without abstraction

Are practised by very few

And earlier  in Chapter 2:

The sage experiences without abstraction

And accomplishes without action

He accepts the ebb and flow of things

Nurtures them, but does not own them

And lives, but does not dwell

Translation variously sourced and compiled at

Initially and on the surface, this is disturbing. And yet, you know, it makes sense to me. I mean, so many of my actions are the outcome of a fear-conditioned, separatist mind even when those actions have been carefully reasoned. The problem I think is that, no matter how reasoned and reasonable, they still seem to be contaminated with history. Whereas the action that arises spontaneously, requiring no thought and propelled by the natural energy of love, of the Way, is really ‘beingness’ rather than ‘action’. Know what I mean?

I’m not playing with words here, at least I don’t mean to. I feel I am really getting into what Lao Tze is saying. Most of our action is really ‘reaction’. Something happens and we act based on our history of experiences. But when there is no history to inform us, what we ‘do’ is really just ‘being’, the ‘dance’ of the Presence!

I’ll tell you this. It’s not easy to shed years (or lifetimes) of conditioning which is why Lao Tze’s words may sound absurd and completely impractical. But listen to what he says and you begin to wonder if its truth hasn’t always been staring you in the face while you’ve been deftly avoiding eye contact!

NOT praising the worthy prevents contention

NOT esteeming the valuable prevents theft

NOT displaying the beautiful prevents desire

These are all forms of inaction. And without knowledge and desire, we are free from the need to act. So that we can be and ‘being’ is harmony which, in my experience, is also the seat of spontaneity!

When some of us believe that what we know is right or righter that what others know, we are compelled to take action to defend what we know. That’s how we’ve always done things. But is there a different way?  Perhaps the Way of inaction?

What do you think?


2 Responses

  1. Yes the “Way of Inaction” is very popular in Brisbane. Especially when the weather is hot and the cricket is on the TV.

    But seriously, of course action based on limited information or without checking ones sources would be unwise.

    The Tao quotations are all very true. However the powerful constantly find reasons to act against the less powerful and we can take the easy way or help defend the weak.

    In St Mary’s case the hierarchy will act against the St Mary’s Community unless it stands up for itself which I am glad to say it is doing.

    The rest is strategy and tactics. Lao Tze has some great ideas for success in conflict situations too!

  2. Hi Mark

    Thank you for taking the time to respond and opening up this subject for further reflection.

    Yes, indeed, Lao Tze has recommendations for conflict which he seems to have confined to a few verses. His thoughts on ‘inaction’, however, appear almost as a refrain throughout the Tao Te Ching, which itself is a teaching on governance, self and societal..

    I wonder what you make of Lao Tze’s words, ‘The sage…accomplishes without action’? It seems oxymoronic, doesn’t it, especially since most of us are dominated by a need to ‘act’, which is what compels me to reflect on it.

    How does one ‘accomplish’ without action? What is to be ‘accomplished’ and what is ‘action’?

    Here are my thoughts:

    What is to be accomplished is harmony/peace, the nature of the Tao. To me, this is even more important than ‘rights’, ‘justice’ or ‘power’, for instance. This is not to say that ‘rights’, ‘justice’ and ‘power’ have to be sacrificed in favour of peace/harmony. Rather, they are recognized as outpourings of a mind conditioned to see itself as separate from others (which sets up the stage for conflict).

    Yet, hidden within our need for ‘rights’, ‘justice’ and ‘power’ is our deep longing for peace/harmony, our natural state; a longing which can only be fulfilled through union with all else.

    When peace/harmony is accomplished (or re-experienced for it is how we naturally are), then we are able to once more ‘be’ – a state in which our ‘actions’ are natural, spontaneous and free.

    Actions in themselves don’t bring about peace/harmony – they never have. However, ‘actions’ that spring from a peaceful/harmonious state of mind and being express that very state, which I believe is ultimately what we all seek.

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