What is the Contemplative Life and Whom is it for?

“Contemplation of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit is the mechanism of our pastoral and missionary action, for all those who have been baptised.”

A missionary must be “contemplatives in action,” the formula has become well known. “At the centre of your Ignatian spirituality is this desire to be contemplatives in action. Contemplation and action, the two dimensions together: because we can only enter God’s heart through the wounds of Christ, and we know that Christ is wounded in the hungry, the uneducated, the discarded, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, in all vulnerable human flesh.” It is the whole Church which is sent by Christ “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:19-20). It is not about swooning in mystic rapture; indeed, those who begin from contemplation are able to discover in the poor and in the suffering the very heart of Christ, his deepest feelings and choices, which every saint seeks to imitate. Our joy is that of the announcement. But all missionary life, to be authentic, is rooted in a life of prayer and contemplation.

The formula “contemplatives in action” is a classic expression of the Ignatian ideal of Christian perfection. In its most original form, it theorises that contemplation and action, at a profound level, manage to create unity to the point of reciprocal interpenetration of the two, through charity. Indeed, action, as much as contemplation, must proceed from love and tend towards love, so that love represents their principle, their practice and their aim. The point of departure for every spiritual life is “inspired by the love nourished in the heart […] considered as the most intimate sanctuary of the person where grace unifies interior life and activity.

Contemplative life, a gift from God to Christianity and to the world

If one had to give a definition of the contemplative life, one could simply say that it is the life of one who devotes himself exclusively, solely to the essential: God. Merging with the Passion of Christ, the contemplative manifests this dimension of the Church which lives in continuous prayer and praise, in solitude and withdrawal from the world. Here it is the same Holy Spirit whom impelled Jesus into the desert (Luke 4:1) whom manifests himself in the contemplative vocation. He has encouraged men and women, since the beginnings of the Church, to give the gift of their freedom to conform their life to that of Christ, fixing their gaze upon the Father, bringing the world to the heart of both solitary and community prayer.

Here the fundamental question posed is how to make possible a sufficient spiritual life associated with an absorbing external work; and more precisely to reduce this work, to draw from it for the same interior life. Cited in this perspective, the Benedictine formula of ora et labora (pray and work), which considers the expression of striking a balance of two different forms of activity, cooperating in the self-same purpose of divine worship and personal sanctification. The theme is not new in the history of spirituality. Subsequent to Vatican II it was widely reformulated in line with the thoughts of Saint Térèse of the Child Jesus: “love embraces all vocations” (Manoscritto B, f. 3; The Story of a Soul, ch. 11). It is the horizon within which we should all move; our earthly life, should be interwoven with that of the Saint Therese of Lisieux.

Seeking God, listening to discern His calls, seeing God within all things and in every single person, this is the life of a contemplative, always turned towards God, work and prayer. Yet, it would be an injustice and seriously limiting to oppose ‘contemplation and action’ and ‘contemplation and mission’ too quickly. However, the Holy Spirit is reluctant to allow itself be labelled into our categories, our ways of life and our borders.

The Holy Spirit of Pentecost that descended upon the apostles and the Church, is the same Holy Spirit whom “makes all things new” (Revelations 21:5), who transcends oppositions, goes beyond opposites, so that in the fullness of time ‘the work of God, the salvation of men and the coming of the Kingdom are accomplished.’

Through our baptism, we are all called to a life of intimate union with Christ, a life turned towards the Father and inundated by the Holy Spirit. Action nurtured in contemplation should be the ordinary of life. A life unified in Christ is a life placed under this double movement, fruit of the Spirit: action nourished by contemplation.

Cardinal Lustiger defined contemplative vocations in the Church in this manner, twisting our neck toward a rigid categorisation: “It is a mistake to interpret the diversity of vocations and gifts in the Church as a distribution of tasks or privileges within a secular society … Who says specialty gives utterance to preservation … But the same is not true of Christian vocations. Because any particular call (…) makes it possible to go to the very heart of the mystery of God. From this heart of the mystery of God, from the pierced heart of Christ flows living water which must be poured out in the hearts of all men. We must therefore definitively close the debate opened by the opposition between a so-called contemplative specialisation and a so-called active specialisation.” (Jean-Marie Lustiger, Dare to believe, Homily at the Carmel of Montmartre 1985)

Contemplative life in the strict sense is a special journey at the heart of the Church. It is renunciation of the world, a free choice to remain in the desert, not to seek oneself —which is the work of other spiritualities, far from Christianity— but to read there the work of God, to remain there as a “watchman,” observant of God for the salvation of men (Ezekiel 33:7-9), to draw from the source of all life.

The fence is the outward manifestation, visible to all, of this will to be with the Lord. When it is absent, the inclosure can be internalised. To leave the world, its turmoil, its temptations, to live in solitude and prayer, is to experience the tension that must end in the definitive union of humanity with God. This life, when it is authentic, that is to say the work of God who calls, is a life of joy and of peace. In this she is a witness for the Church and for the world.

Today, at a time of relativism, of multiculturalism, at a time also when triumphant technology wants us to believe that tomorrow everything will be possible, it is urgent to put what has been created back at the center of our concerns. What becomes of humanity at the start of the third millennium? What is humanities place on this land which has been depleted by overconsumption? Where would we gain the wisdom that is essential to building a safe and sustainable future? These are perhaps the only questions that we should be asking today.

Far from the hustle and bustle of the world, from its clamour, its immediateness, within the gratuity and silence received as a gift and not as a source of anguish, contemplatives help us to cultivate within us the room where God makes his home. The interior life, essential to a life of faith, whether we are bishop, priests, laity, religious, the interior life we received at baptism, needs room, peace, silence, in order to flourish, mature and bear fruit. These fruits, are for us, each and every one of us, collectively, they are the fruits for the Church and beyond that, the fruits for the world.

It is in the cleared room within our heart, in this freed space that we find the wellspring of our freedom, a freedom that is expressed, very concretely in our choices. Here again, these choices are for us but they are also for the Church, for the world, for all of society within which we live today and which seems to be utterly unequal to the task of giving itself a course, a direction, a future. Contemporary man is a man who is divided. We no longer find harmony within human relationships. We no longer find harmony at the heart of our lives which are torn by so many irreconcilable expectations. Harmony also seems to be absent from the lives of so many of our contemporaries. Violence is everywhere, ready to arise at the slightest pretext.

To contemplate is to find meaning, values, the strength for action. To contemplate is to reconnect with the God of revelation, that Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of God, a God who is the God of liberation. It is only to the extent that our contemporaries will find within themselves, within their everyday life, every week, every year, in their time of prayer and contemplation they will be able to find a link to the God who will free them from all forms of ungodliness. Our century, unfortunately has become a century of paganism where the contemporary gods amount to consumption, waste, wealth, possessions and the latest style.

Our future and that of our children is currently uncertain, even more so during a global pandemic, unrest and threats of economic insolvency. History seems to want to gain momentum. It presents us with uncertain challenges that we are not prepared for. But its not set in stone. Humanity is unfettered, humanity is free. Humanity was created free and that freedom was restored to humanity by God whenever it became compromised.

The entire history of our salvation is also the narrative of our liberation. Human freedom always tends to find its full magnitude, its realisation, its capacity to listen to God. Listening is the requisite word of the contemplative life. Its no coincidence that the rule of Saint Benedict begins as follows: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is the advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice”  (Rule of Benedict. Prologue Verse 1) It is an echo to the great cry of the call of God to his people: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, is Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4), an echo also to the living Word, the Word of Life, who is incarnated in Mary. For only one can truly fulfil the expectations of humanity. Only one can give us the true joy and happiness that does not pass into this life and beyond, eternal life.

The pursuit of happiness through the satisfaction of human desires is not in itself inappropriate. But we must be aware that this pursuit will never fully pervade the heart of humanity, a heart that was made to welcome God and his mystery, to be delighted in God. It is the best part that Mary chose while standing at the feet of the Lord (Luke 10:39)

Contemplatives are there to remind us that it is possible to be free, to be truly free. Its possible to renounce the idols of modernity, money, power, technology …  God calls us in order to deliver us from all of our bondages and give us the only true happiness, the only true joy.

But the contemplatives have an additional mission: they manifest to us God’s fellowship with humanity. They show us God’s desire to reveal himself. God fixes His gaze upon humanity full of love, of trust, of peace. This gaze of love reaches within the deepest parts of our interior desert, into the very heart of our contradictions, into our thirsts and all of our unrealised expectations.

It is Jesus’ gaze of love upon the young wealthy man, it is His gaze of compassion upon the crowd, it is His turmoil at the death of His friend Lazarus and His witnessing the sorrow of Lazarus’ sisters … giving himself to Jesus Christ, God didn’t fake that. The contemplative’s response is an exacting response to God’s radical love for us.

The contemplative is for every human being and for the Church, a watchful warden. They bring us back, if we give our consent, to that which is essential: the love of God Whom gives Himself, He is charitable, He is benevolent; He is the sustainer and the one “true” Supreme Being and creator of the universe. Keeping His door open to humanity at times when we hunger for peace, serenity and respite, the monastery becomes a guiding light, an opportunity, for all those who have been baptised.

But at the start of the 21st century, the monastery may have gained yet another mission, one that was far more unexpected. Both nuns and monks alike have practiced what our contemporaries from the beginning have labelled as “happy sobriety.” The economic model of a monasteries, that does not favour the search for profit without limitations, may hold a key to solving some or many of the problems that we are facing today.

Contemplative life is at the service of the mission

The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes when we contemplate it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with your heart. When we approach it in this manner, its beauty will astonish and continue to constantly stimulate our imaginations. But for this to come about, we have to recover our contemplative spirit which will help us to once more realise that we have been entrusted with an inestimable treasure that makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There could be nothing more precious than what we can give to others.

Our contemplation of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the engine of our pastoral and missionary action. The more God’s mission calls us and sends us to the ‘outer limits’ the more we require places and periods of renewal that will allow us to respond to the Lord’s invitation: “Come away with me, by yourselves, to a deserted place and rest for a while…” (Mark 6:31).

The monasteries are an oases where we can stop, are welcomed, a place where we can rest and recharge our batteries before we return on our journey. Monasteries allow us, we who are called to the apostolic life to find calm, peace, spiritual guidance and support. Silence and distance from a noisy world will allow humanity to join together in welcoming God in peace, joy and contemplation.

But the life of the monastery goes far beyond the framework of its boundary walls. Nuns and monks are a living and invigorating part of ecclesial communion. Through prayer, particularly by reciting the Divine Office our Opus Dei, through the liturgy, we intercede on behalf of the people of God. It is for the benefit of the whole of humanity that contemplatives offer their lives. An important aspect, another witness for the world, is familial life. Not having chosen to live together, the contemplatives know that they are sons and daughters of the same Father, called to live their common vocation in a spirit of communion and as a family.

By their example, nuns and monks have also called to bear witness, particularly to the youngest, to the omnipotence of God. Young people will find in the monasteries a places to pray, reflect, adore and  in solitude deepen their dialogue of God’s call for them in their lives.

The contemplative life is part a of the Christian’s ‘art of living.’ In this art of living, prayer, silent adoration, fellowship, have prominence. They are signs of the Redemptive work of Creation which “has been groaning in labor pains until now — and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait …, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23). Contemplatives, throughout their lives, show us the purpose and delineate the path that will lead humanity toward God. They live each day in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Far away from speculations that would be purely intellectual on God, in humility and every day, experience a taste of God, the flavour of the faith that quenches, nourishes and regenerates. The God to whom we surrender is the living God who took flesh in Jesus Christ, espousing the history of humanity. This is not a theory, generalisation, idea or concept. The Christian contemplative —unlike contemplatives of other religions— does not first of all seek to explore his own inner depths nor do they seek enlightenment. It is to the living God that the contemplative turns to, bearing witness to the Holy Trinity.

The soul of modern humanity is sick, wanting explanations for everything, to take everything apart, to own everything and possess anything and everything that lives. The soul seems to have great difficulty when it comes to consenting to enter into the mystery of God, the God who reveals Himself, who gives of Himself, who surrenders Himself for us. “The Word of God, who is God himself and the Bridegroom of the soul, comes to the soul and then leaves it at his pleasure …”  said Saint Bernard (On the Song of Songs — Sermon 74). Man is not in control. He can just beg “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over” (Luke 24:29).

A contemplative life is the ardent desire to meet God who wants to give himself to all of humanity. Union with God is the endmost raison d’être of all human life. This is what the contemplative announces. To those of us who are sent out into the world, our missionary life must always be rooted in contemplation.

To reveal Christ to the world, to help each person to know “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) is first of all to enter into the contemplation of God who always precedes us. The contemplative in a “state of mission” that is to say capable of contemplating God who comes to meet us through Jesus Christ and entrusts himself to human freedom. A God who proposes, who proposes himself, a God who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In the life of the disciple-missionary, a contrast between contemplation and mission does not really make any sense at all. Jesus teaches, cured, drove out evil, fed a multitude, Jesus then proclaims The Message and Heals the Sick. Early the next morning, long before dawn, he arose and went off to a secluded place, where he prayed (Mark 1:34-35). From His life of unparalleled intimacy with the Father, He is the Only Begotten, the Word of Life, He is born as a missionary, emanating from the Holy Trinity to reveal to the peoples of the world the true face of God. Following him, the disciple-missionary excavates within himself the space of contemplation to place themselves at the service of Christianity and of all of humanity.

Within Christian lives, contemplation and action are two indivisible aspects. To acquire a knowledge of this path, we will need teachers. Contemplative monasteries are a gift from God for the local ecclesial community where everyone is able to nourish themselves on the cornucopia that emanates from the contemplative life.

During a time of new evangelisation, it is important that places of renewal, of reward, of fraternity, bear witness to the omnipotence of God. The bishops, as pastors of the flocks entrusted to them, is the guardian of this charism, proper to the contemplatives within his own diocese. Priests who find peace and renewal among contemplatives, also take care to nourish the communities of the Word and the Eucharist. It is also their responsibility to help preserve the authenticity of this form of life.

Contemplative life has a missionary remit, just as missionary life cannot be conceived of without being rooted within the contemplation of the mysteries of God and of the Church. It is necessary to have discovered the ‘pearl of great price,’ the treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44-46) to be consumed with the desire to bring it to all peoples, consumed by the joy of evangelising. It is from one’s personal encounter with Jesus that the impulse of the evangeliser is born.

In the Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, Saint John of the Cross O.Carm, a master of the contemplative life, gave this recommendation to all missionaries: “Let them think, those who indulge in activity without measure, who imagine that they will encompass the world in their sermons and their outer works. They would be much more useful to the Church and would please God much more, not to mention the good example they would set, if they spent half the time they devote to the activity to stand before God in prayer. Their prayer would merit their grace, and would provide them with the necessary spiritual strength. Without it, everything is reduced to hitting the blows of a hammer, to produce almost nothing, or even absolutely nothing, and sometimes do more harm than good… it is unmistakable, good is only done through virtue of God. ‘That being enamoured,’ that is, practising virtues for the love of God. ‘I lost myself; and yet was found’” (Canticle Stanza № XXIX).

Today each baptised person is invited to rediscover the missionary dimension of their own vocation. To be fruitful, fecund and lasting, this rediscovery must be deep-rooted within a life of prayer and contemplation.