St Thomas Aquinas, Carlo Crivelli, 1476

Active & Contemplative Orders

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[This article first appeared in the December 5, 1947 issue of Commonweal]

THERE ARE paradoxes in the history of Christian spirituality and not the least of them is the apparent contradiction in the way the Fathers and modern Popes have regarded the relation between the active and contemplative lives. Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory lamented the "sterility" of contemplation, which was in itself, as they admitted, superior to action. Yet Pope Plus XI came out in the constitution "Umbratilem" with the clear statement that the contemplative life was much more fruitful for the Church ( multo plus ad Ecclesiae incrementa et humani generis salutem conferre . . .) than the activity of teaching and preaching. What is all the more surprising to a superficial observer is the fact that such a pronouncement should belong to our energetic times. You would have sooner attributed the thought to Saint Augustine and left Pius XI to worry about "Rachel pulchra et infecunda" the symbol of the fruitless contemplative vocation. Of course the Holy Father's purpose is quite evident once you note that he refers to Leo XIII's letter "Testem benevolentiae" as a prelude to his pronouncement. That letter, you remember, was addressed to Cardinal Gibbons, and some people are still touchy about the whole affair.

       There is no need to be touchy about it. No such letter would be addressed, even by mistake, to us today. America is discovering the contemplative life. The discovery is slow in coming, perhaps. Our publishers are still very timid about putting out books that go very far into the interior life, but if they want to find out how misplaced are their fears let them consider the interest non-Catholics are showing in Saint John of the Cross (about whom there was recently an article in Horizon—a London magazine with intellectual pretensions) or let them remember that monasteries and booksellers who have been forced, by the demand, to reprint spiritual classics on their own initiative, have not suffered from it. The Trappists at Gethsemani, Kentucky, have had no trouble disposing of nearly ten thousand copies of a new translation of the "Soul of the Apostolate" in one year without advertising, and without the assistance of a corps of salesmen.

     Then of course there is the increase of contemplative vocations.

     All this invites us to reconsider a question that is by no means new, although perhaps it needs to be looked at in a new light. The argument "action vs. contemplation" goes back to the earliest days of the Church and it is not something that is so speculative that it has not many practical consequences that are vitally important to everyone.

     Saint Thomas gave a classical summary of the whole thing in the Summa Theologica. But the trouble is, he gave us two classical summaries. And on the surface it is rather hard to reconcile them. They are both in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa. The substance of Question 188, article 6, has become quite familiar, at least in a garbled form. Practically anyone who realizes the existence of the debate can tell you that Saint Thomas taught that there were three vocations: that to the active life, that to the contemplative, and a third to the mixture of both, and that this last is superior to the other two. The mixed life is, of course, the vocation of Saint Thomas's own order, the Friars Preachers.

     Not so many will be able to confuse you by contrasting this question with one which comes just a little ahead of it—one hundred and eighty-two. There Saint Thomas comes out flatly with a pronouncement no less uncompromising than the one we read from "Umbratilem." Vita contemplativa, he remarks, simpliciter est melior quam activa the contemplative life in itself, by its very nature, is superior to the active life. What is more, he proves it by natural reason in arguments from a pagan philosopher—Aristotle. That is how esoteric the question is! Later on he gives his strongest argument in distinctly Christian terms. The contemplative life directly and immediately occupies itself with the love of God, than which there is no act more perfect or more meritorious. Indeed that love is the root of all merit. When you consider the effect of individual merit upon the vitality of other members of the Mystical Body it is evident that there is nothing sterile about contemplation. On the contrary Saint Thomas's treatment of it in this question shows that the contemplative life establishes a man in the very heart of fall spiritual fecundity.

     When he admits that the active life can be more perfect under certain circumstances, accidentally, he hedges his statement in with half a dozen qualifications of a strictness that greatly enhances what he has already said about contemplation. First, activity will only be more perfect than the joy and rest of contemplation if it is undertaken as the result of an overflow of love for God (propter abundantiam divini amoris) in order to fulfil His will. It is not to be continuous, only the answer to a temporary emergency. It is purely for God's glory, and it does not dispense us from contemplation. It is an added obligation, and we must return as soon as we morally can to the powerful and fruitful silence of recollection that disposes our souls for divine union.

     When you see all this lined up in front of you, you turn back to Question one eighty-eight and readjust your spectacles. How can the two questions be made to fit together?

     The only way to see clearly through the apparent contradiction is to weigh the words of the famous distinction of the three kinds of religious vocations by the balance of traditional teaching as well as Saint Thomas's own doctrine as we have just expressed it.

     In Saint Thomas's time the "active life" had not quite crystallized out into its modern meaning. Today the "active life" means technically a vocation to some external works of charity or mercy for the good of others. But the Fathers are apt to make use of it as meaning the activity required for the practice of any virtue and anyone who is in the purgative or illuminative ways will then be leading an active life even though he were to be cloistered or lost in the depths of the desert. Ordinarily, of course, works of mercy would be included among such acts of virtue. Saint Thomas uses the term in both these different senses without giving any warning when he is about to make the change. Now when he speaks of the three kinds of vocation he clearly means the active life in the modern sense—a vocation to the service of other people. But nevertheless his threefold division presupposes a hidden use of the ancient meaning. When he ranks the three vocations in their order of dignity with the teaching Orders at the top, the contemplative Orders in the middle and the purely active Orders at the bottom of the scale he was obviously thinking of the traditional conception of the degrees of perfection that you will find so explicitly in Saint Augustine or Saint Bernard: first comes the active life (practice of virtues, mortification, charity) which prepares us for contemplation. Contemplation means rest, suspension of activity, withdrawal into the mysterious interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the immense and fruitful silence of God and learns something of the secret of His perfections less by seeing than by fruitive love.

How can one fulfil a vocation to pass on the fruits of contemplation to others if he himself has no contemplation and no fruits?

     Yet to stop here would be to fall short of perfection. According to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux it is the comparatively weak soul that arrives at contemplation but does not overflow with a love that must communicate what it knows of God to other men. (Serm. 90 de Diversis.) For all the great Christian mystics without exception, Saint Bernard, Saint Gregory, Saint Theresa, Saint John of the Cross, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Saint Bonaventure, the peak of the mystical life is a marriage of the soul with God which gives the saints a miraculous power, a smooth and tireless energy in working for God and for souls which bears fruits in the sanctity of thousands and changes the course of religious and even secular history.

     With this in mind, Saint Thomas could not fail to give the highest place to a vocation which, in his eyes, seemed destined to lead men to such a height of contemplation that the soul must overflow and communicate its secrets to the world.

     Unfortunately all this is by no means obvious in the text of that particular article (Q. 188, A. 6). In fact, taken by itself, the bare statement "the religious institutes which are ordered to the work of preaching and teaching hold the highest rank in religion" is, frankly, misleading. It conjures up nothing more than a mental image of some pious and industrious clerics bustling from the library to the classroom. If it meant no more than this the solution would be hardly comprehensible to a Christian. Yet the tragedy is that many—including members of those "mixed" Orders—cannot find in it any deeper significance. If you can give a half-way intelligent lecture applying some thoughts from scholastic philosophy to the social situation, that alone places you very near the summit of perfection ....

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     No, we must turn back the pages to those flaming words which lay down the conditions under which it is valid to leave contemplation for action. First of all propter abundantiam divini amoris. The life of these mixed Orders is to be rated above that of the pure contemplatives only on the supposition that their love is so much more vehement, so much more abundant that it has to pour itself out in teaching and preaching.

     In other words Saint Thomas is here teaching us that the so-called mixed vocation can only be superior to the contemplative vocation if it is itself more contemplative. This conclusion is inescapable. It imposes a tremendous obligation. Saint Thomas is really saying that the Dominican, the Franciscan, the Carmelite must be super contemplatives. Either that or he is contradicting everything he said about the superiority of the contemplative life in Question one eighty-two.

     Therefore it will readily be seen that the serene sentence of the Angelic Doctor that "it is better to pass on to others the fruits of contemplation (contemplata aliis tradere) than merely to contemplate and nothing else" has a very serious catch to it. The Orders that are dedicated to the teaching vocation must necessarily build their houses in or near towns and live in contact with the busy and violent—and vicious world. Yet they have this obligation to be so filled with the infused wisdom that teaches us the secrets of Divine Love in contemplation that they will overflow and teach that love to the world. But the indispensable condition for the contemplative life is at least some measure of silence and solitude and withdrawal from the world. The so-called "mixed" Orders have always realized this and the Carmelites, for instance, have never considered a province complete unless it included several "deserts"—monasteries hidden in the mountains where the Fathers could retire to hermitages and live alone with God. After all, how can one fulfil a vocation to pass on the fruits of contemplation to others if he himself has no contemplation and no fruits?

     Whether the "mixed" Orders today in America are actually as contemplative as this program would demand is a question the author of this article has no way of answering. But at any rate it seems that most of them have reached, in practice, a sort of compromise to get out of the difficulty. They divide up their duties between their nuns and their priests. "The nuns live in cloisters and do the contemplating and the priests live in colleges and cities and do the teaching and preaching. In the light of "Umbratilcm" and the doctrine of the Mystical Body this solution is at least possible, if conditions leave them with no other way out. Saint Thomas, however, envisaged a program that was far more complete and satisfactory, for the individual and for the Church!

There are many different ways of sharing the fruits of contemplation with others. You don't have to write books or make speeches.

     But what about the contemplative Orders? Their rules and usages at least grant them all they need to dispose themselves for contemplation and if their members do not reach it, it is at least not because of any difficulty inherent in their actual way of life. Granting that they are, or can be, as contemplative as they were meant to be by their founders: are they anything else?

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     The fact is, there does not exist any such thing as a purely contemplative Order of men—an Order which does not have, somewhere in its constitution, the note of contemplata tradere. The Carthusians, with all their elaborate efforts to preserve the silence and solitude of the hermit's life in their monasteries, definitely wrote into their original "Customs" the characteristic labor of copying manuscripts and writing books in order that they might preach to the world by their pen even though their tongues were silent.

     The Cistercians had no such legislation, and they even enacted statutes to limit the production of books and to forbid poetry altogether. Nevertheless they produced a school of mystical theologians which, as Dom Berlière says, represents the finest flower of Benedictine spirituality. We have seen what Saint Bernard, the head of that school, had to say on the subject, and in any case even if the Cistercians never wrote anything to pass on the fruit of their contemplation to the Church at large, contemplata tradcre would always be an essential element in Cistercian life to the extent that the abbot and those charged with the direction of souls would always be obliged to feed the rest of the monks with the good bread of mystical theology as it came forth in smoking hot loaves from the oven of contemplation. This was what Saint Bernard told the learned cleric of York, Henry Murdach, to lure him from his books into the woods where the beeches and elms had taught the Abbot of Clairvaux all his wisdom.

     And these "purely active" Orders, what about them? Do any such things exist? The Little Sisters of the Poor, the nursing sisterhoods cannot truly fulfil their vocations unless there is something of that contemplata tradere, the sharing of the fruits of contemplation. Even the active vocation is sterile without an interior life, and, indeed, a deep interior life.

     The truth is, in any kind of a religious Order there is not only the possibility but even in some sense the obligation of leading, at least to some extent, the highest of all lives—contemplation, and the sharing of its fruits with others. Saint Thomas's principle stands firm: the greatest perfection is contemplata tradere. But that does not oblige us to restrict this vocation, as he does, to the teaching Orders. They only happen to be the ones that seem to be best equipped to pass on the knowledge of God acquired by loving Him— if they have acquired that knowledge in contemplation. Yet others may perhaps be better placed for acquiring it.

     In any case, there are many different ways of sharing the fruits of contemplation with others. You don't have to write books or make speeches. You don't have to have direct contact with souls in the confessional. Prayer can do the work wonderfully well, and indeed the fire of contemplation has a tendency to spread of itself throughout the Church and vivify all the members of Christ in secret without any conscious act on the part of the contemplative. But if you argue that Saint Thomas's context limits us at least to some sort of visible and natural communication with our fellow men (though it is hard to see why this should be so) nevertheless even in that event there exists a far more powerful means of sharing the mystical and experimental knowledge of God.

You are called to be a contemplative and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others

     If we turn to the pages of Saint Bonaventure's Itinerarium we will find what is perhaps the best description ever written of this highest of all vocations. It is a description which the Seraphic Doctor himself learned on retreat and in solitude on Mount Alvernia. Praying in the same lonely spot where the great founder of his Order, Saint Francis of Assisi, had had the wounds of Christ burned into his hands and feet and side, Saint Bonaventure saw, by the light of a supernatural intuition, the full meaning of this tremendous event in the history of the Church. "There," he says, "Saint Francis 'passed over into God' (in Deum transiit) in the ecstasy (excessus) of contemplation and thus he was set up as an example of perfect contemplation just as he had previously been an example of perfection in the active life in order that God, through him, might draw all truly spiritual men to this kind of 'passing over' (transitus) and ecstasy, less by word than by example." (Itin, vii. 3.)

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     Here is the clear and true meaning of contemplata tradere, expressed without equivocation by one who had lived that life to the full. It is the vocation to transforming union, to the very height of the mystical life and of mystical experience, to the very transformation into Christ that Christ living in us and directing all our actions might Himself draw men to desire and seek that same exalted union because of the joy and the sanctity and the supernatural vitality radiated by our example—or rather because of the secret influence of Christ living within us in complete possession of our souls.

     And notice the tremendously significant fact that the Seraphic Doctor makes no divisions and distinctions: Christ imprinted His own image upon Saint Francis in order to draw not some men, not a few privileged souls, but all truly spiritual men to the perfection of contemplation which is nothing else but the perfection of love. Once they have reached these heights they will draw others to them in their turn. Thus all men are called to become fused into one spirit with Christ in the furnace of contemplation and then go forth and cast upon the earth that same fire which Christ wills to see enkindled.

     This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to be a contemplative and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.

     Yet if this sublime fire of infused love burns in your soul, it will inevitably send forth throughout the Church and the world an influence more tremendous than could be estimated by the radius reached by words or by example. Saint John of the Cross writes: "A very little of this pure love is more precious in the sight of God and of greater profit to the Church, even though the soul appear to be doing nothing, than are all other works put together." (Spiritual Canticle, b, XXIX, 2.)

     There are degrees and varieties in this perfection to which you are called, but these degrees do not depend on the means you have at your disposal for preaching divine union. On the contrary they are measured by the perfection of that union itself. You will most perfectly fulfil this great vocation not by being a great teacher or a great scholar but by being a great saint, and sanctity means perfect love of God. The teaching, the exterior works are only accidental. To make them the principal thing is to doom yourself to failure because that will lead you in the wrong direction: it will make you aim at the riches of knowledge rather than the spiritual poverty of the contemplative which is the indispensable prerequisite for acquiring the wisdom that is born of Christ’s love.

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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