[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.