Note: The terminology “active life” and “contemplative life” causes, in principle, a certain distortion of this perspective, suggesting a non-existent disjunction and lending itself to a warped interpretation of the actual reality of these two modalities of the religious life
This brief essay on the “contemplative dimension” of religious life cannot start out with speculative theological principles, it only attempts to establish the truth of that dimension in a panoramic way. Starting out from our existential state of affairs today:
- In passing, I note the great impacts that have changed our entire world situation and some of its negative and positive ramifications.
- I would like to point out the role of religious life within its contemplative dimension in the face of point in time, as a sign of benefaction, of merging, of the living connection of man with God. A sign which must be and remain radiant
- for all of humanity, for Christians in a special manner;
- within religious life, contemplative life as a sign for active life, of the same reality that it already possesses.
- I wish to point out the great problem of
- finding a lucid identity
- and discovering more appropriate methods of articulation.
Impacts and transformations
The profound transformations that have occurred in recent decades have caused not only new living conditions for humanity, but also a radical change in viewpoints.
I would like to point out some of the most significant results that led to the current situation. First of all, one can notice —although somewhat more remotely, but no less decisively— four impacts upon our cultural world which marked a new attitude within human behaviour with regard to the universe, with regard to all of humanity and with regard to us confronting ourselves:
- The discovery of an “evolutionary world” and dialectic with all its implications that has led to a new conception of the universe, and a dynamic vision of space and time.
- Marxism, which synthesised the awakening of a new consciousness of social man and alerted us to the problem of “accepted customs,” of a new society, one which, denounces oppression and injustice, yet ignored the essential aspects of man.
- Existentialism, which holds accountable for a whole disembodied cultural line and an abstract essentialism, but which does not always escape the danger of falling into opposite extreme, thus dismantling the very identity of one’s being.
- Freudianism and all the open road towards the psychology of depth, awakening within the human person the consciousness of both his external and internal conditioning, revealing a new augmentation of his limits and offering the risk of a quasi-deterministic conception of man, in the sphere of his persona.
Within the field of science, a whole “new world” arises with Albert Einstein, opening the road that will come to an end with atomic disintegration, our entry into the nuclear and cybernetic age, as well as the conquest of space.
All this has brought about profound transformations of the mentality and behaviour that have a had a strong but necessary impact upon religious life.
Present-day atheism, within a climate of technological progress and growth of secularism, these early days of a cybernetic age, runs parallel to the anguish of the human person, threatened with self-extinction and no longer owning in his own identity, “controlled by a completely dehumanised rational of mechanical decision-making processes.”
Hence the climate of opposition with which mankind —mainly our youth— claim the “right to their own emotions” and react against the prevailing violence (make love not war), even the need noted by Jung “to assure themselves of the same instinctual thoughts.”
Along with this threat and the response that is accentuated globally, we also note some positive aspects of these phenomena and which are considered favourable to the religious life, either as elements of purification, or as a call which must present an answer to the anguish of this new world. André-Corneille Halflants, in his “Vie contemplative et monde contemporain” —a conference delivered in Mechelen Belgium on June 2, 1970— recalls, for example, the purification of our representations of God brought about by contemporary atheism that unmasks the caricatures that we manufacture. Or even the purifying role of secularisation which —despite its threat of pragmatism and closure to all above-ground horizons— cast aspersions on our false clarifications of the marvels of the universe, which are being attributed to forced interventions by a divinity. All this obliges us to “place God in his supernatural place of Creator” and not to metamorphose the “man God” relationship into a mere self-serving utilitarianism that is placed in front of “a God who is there only to solve our difficulties,” a mystical and righteous God before whom our ignorance cannot even begin to understand how to embark upon an explanation of the universe, which has been revealed by science and which is dominated by mankind.
All these ceremonial cleansing’s of our graven images tend to liberate us and facilitate our efforts so that we can embrace this new world with an authentic contemplative dimension with “adhesion to God”; He is there: in His transcendence and, at the same time, He is more present to the world than to the universe itself, more present in each one of us than we are within ourselves.
What does religious life offer in response to the challenge of the new world?
Here we can situate the role of religious life in its actuality. As Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ († 10 April 1955) whom suggested, that it would enable us to open up a new world and that it would be in full devotedness to our experience of faithfulness to God, where the religious would find the perception of the “transparency of God within everything.” Only in such a manner can our lives become a visible manifestation of the contemplative dimensions, of man’s intimate relationship with God the Father.
This will happen not because of a forced concords, but within a serious attention to the real, by a harmonious synthesis of this new vision of the universe in convergence, which is fulfilled in the total Christ, already present and alive today in the eschatological reality of the Kingdom.
This contemplative dimension of religious life “manifests and lives in a special way the” today “of the eschatological Kingdom”, the presence “hic et nunc—here and now” —in this Kingdom— of Someone alive whom we call God and Father of Jesus Christ, of the sanctifying strength of the Holy Spirit, energy that energises and unifies apostolic endeavours.
In recent centuries, perhaps, we have excessively insisted upon the diaconal aspect, that is, on apostolic activity, silencing in a certain way the gratuitousness of religious life, its religious dimension; This dimension is a fact in the life of every Christian and even of every religious man, and that can in a certain way be forgotten.
- Religious life, then, must be a sign of this reality for the world and for Christians. Faced with these impacts and in this nuclear and cybernetic era, as we have seen, the human person is faced with a double alternative:
- From an ever-increasing domination over the universe, running the risk of “bringing his essential need for adoration, to worship himself or the matter that dazzles him” (cf. Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ).
- On the other hand, the increasing threat of being submerged in automation and being reduced to a robot or a being determined by the dark meanders of his psyche, leads man to struggle in the anguish of self-destruction.
The contemplative dimension of the Christian vision of the universe could and should respond to this anguish and lead to the synthesis, key to this entire evolutionary universe.
The primordial role of this contemplative dimension becomes more current than ever in religious life, since it reveals for all men, for Christians wounded by anguish, the sign of the Kingdom, of the today of Christ alive among us, of eschatology, already present. And, in this dimension of convergence, the answer will also find its answer, being rediscovered, in the lucid awareness of one’s own identity with Christ, the values of freedom, fraternity, the possibility of dialogue, openness to God the Father in the impact of his absolute in the “transparency of their presence.”
It may be that, for many, this testimony is at first a sign of contradiction. But it is in the impact that every human person necessarily experiences at some point in his life, faced with the question of his own identity, that this testimony can be located. The witness of truly lived contemplation can and must be a true response, a sign of God present and alive in this technological world; a sign of that reality that belongs to everyone and should be the experience of each one.
This testimony, however, must be derived from life, since it is a free gift, and not be proposed to others by forcing them to understand and accept it.
- And within the various expressions of religious life, contemplative life is also situated as a sign. A sign not only for all men, but also for expressions of active life, since this dimension – which is typical of any and all forms of religious life, as it should also be of the life of all Christians – can become less conscious in the face of the urgency of the solicitations of the works in which they have committed. A living sign of that gratuitousness of God and of man’s response, a sign of the theophany of the Kingdom, making its relevance alive for other forms of active religious life more characterised, perhaps, by the activity of the apostolate.
A great problem remains, in fact distressing for the institutions of contemplative life, especially for women.
In this current context, how to achieve total fidelity to the values of which it must be a sign? How to live to answer the great questions of this new world? How to find new ways, how to free oneself from medieval clothing and customs that often cover those values and are linked to uses and laws of closure, to determinations that still consider the religious as a girl? How to find a clear, adult line of training?
In this total openness and in total fidelity, how to find the balance that does not lead to a break, without remaining out of date, that deepens the values of a life of prayer and celebration of Christ present, communion with the Father in the Spirit ?
It would be good to note that the Holy Spirit is not subject to any survival of any Order or Congregation and can always provoke new forms. It is obvious, moreover, that in a Congregation Ordained the only interest is that its members can serve, faithfully responding to the impulse of the Holy Spirit, being attentive to what He arouses at each time. It would be sad, however, for a religious family to disappear due to sclerosis, because its members clung to outdated and inappropriate ways and expressions of life. If it simply disappears like the seed that, alive and well, falls to the ground and produces its fruit, having fulfilled its mission, then it will be a pledge of new vitality, like one who loses life and gains it. The same gift of gratuitousness will flourish in new ways, since the Spirit of God blows where he wants.
The need for a reformulation of “expressions of life” that can more authentically meet the needs of a community of prayer and work, capable of offering a welcoming environment and dialogue, becomes more and more urgent. These expressions of life must not remain outside the historical conditions in which the religious lives, but rather be fundamentally affirmed in a deepening of prayer, of communion with the Father, as the basis of all external activity.
The question remains pending an opening which would allow flexible conditions of structures. The objective of this flexibility is a far deeper communion, an increased biblical poverty, which would include sustenance through work, an added conscious dialogue, and greater fraternal neighbourliness.