The Traditional Catholic Doctrine about Action and Contemplation

What is the traditional Catholic doctrine regarding action and contemplation? There are many sources we could go to, and this blog has a long list of posts tagged action and contemplation. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that it is a somewhat substantial and varied archive of the subject matter. The gist, if one may find a gist in tens of dozens of posts and quotes, is that, although one’s state of life may be more or less contemplative and more or less active, in all cases, the exercise of the virtues, which can only occur in relation to our neighbours, prepares us for contemplation; in reflection, when we get to a point at which our own efforts aided by grace must fail to get farther along the road, yet we desire to grow more in virtue, which is to say grow more in Christ, then we must become contemplatives in some way or another. Thus contemplation, which is characterized by the predominance of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in our prayer or activity, is possible anywhere and everywhere, because it is the sap that alone allows the tree to flourish and conquer new ground beyond a merely human exercise of the virtues, including the theological virtues (which are superhuman in themselves but used very humanly in the beginning).

This shouldn’t sound very controversial after so many years of this blog’s existence.

Yet, when one goes to Saint Thomas (Sum. theol., IIa-IIae, q. 181, a. 1 ad 3mq. 182, a. 4), one finds it very plainly stated that the “active life” is ordained to the “contemplative life”:

The active life is a disposition to the contemplative life…

[One may say that] a thing precedes with regard to us, because it comes first in the order of generation. On this way the active precedes the contemplative life, because it disposes one to it… and, in the order of generation, disposition precedes form, although the latter precedes simply and according to its nature…

Progress from the active to the contemplative life is according to the order of generation; whereas the return from the contemplative life to the active is according to the order of direction, in so far as the active life is directed by the contemplative.

Here Thomas is following, principally, Saint Gregory the Great (or perhaps, indirectly, Evagrius): action is ordained to contemplation. In fact, action rightly undertaken calms our passions so that, in the measure that we are under their dominion, to greater and lesser degrees according to our wounds and our natural temperament, we can be freed from their dominion and become available for contemplation:

Consequently those who are more adapted to the active life can prepare themselves for the contemplative by the practice of the active life; while none the less, those who are more adapted to the contemplative life can take upon themselves the works of the active life, so as to become yet more apt for contemplation.

Saint Thomas clearly has a hierarchy of values in mind, and action is not at the top. Is there a contradiction here between the teaching of the Angelic Doctor and the saints, indeed other Doctors of the Church so often quoted on this blog?

If we read Saint Thomas superficially (in scholastic terms, materially), we might find a contradiction right away. We might interpret Thomas to be saying that in the order of time, on practises first the active life and then leaves it for the contemplative life. We might also find that one undertakes moral virtue in order to repose in contemplation… without the exercise of all the virtues. That’s not what Thomas says. We can see this is we carefully follow the sayings of saints and other great Catholic teachers:

I notice in some souls – there are not many because of our sins – that the more they advance in this kind of prayer [contemplation] and the gifts of our Lord, the more attention they pay to the needs of their neighbour. (Saint Teresa of Jesus)

A soul who has this spirit of prayer does more work in one hour than another, who is without it, will do in many… (Saint Jane Frances de Chantal)

We unite the contemplative with the active life. We seek to breathe Fire and Spirit into the active life. Without the anointing from the Holy Spirit, the wagons of the apostolic worker just grind along. (Saint Clement Hofbauer)

Contemplation opens a new world to the soul, with the beauty of which it is enraptured… Contemplation leads souls to heroic acts of charity, zeal, penance, and other virtues, as, for example, martyrdom. (Louis Lallemant)

[W]e must observe that our life ought to be a mixture of action and contemplation, in such wise that the former may be animated, directed, and ordered by the latter; that among the exterior works of the active life, we may always enjoy the interior repose of contemplation… (Louis Lallemant)

The practice of the virtues prepares for contemplation and is then directed by it. (Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange)

Oh, my Jesus, how great is the love You bear the children of the earth, for the greatest service one can render You is to leave You [in prayer in solitude] for their sake and their benefit – and then You are possessed more completely. (Saint Teresa of Jesus)

… even as the active and contemplative life is one… (Saint Catherine of Siena)

I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must “go out of oneself”, that is, one must go out to the world in order to carry the divine life into it. (Saint Edith Stein)

Have you not found that while we are active and appear to be filling Martha’s role, the soul can remain buried in contemplation, like Magdalene, like a thirsty man near the fountain? (Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity)

“One thing alone is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:42). This “better part,” which seems my privilege in my beloved solitude in Carmel, is offered by God to every Christian soul. He offers it to you, dear Madame, among all your cares and anxieties. (Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity)

This mystery of the light that passes through our action in the measure that it has been interiorized in us by some contemplative prayer, is for each of us not only an ideal, but also a set point. In the measure that we have said yes to this invitation from God, we will be pacified, liberated, in joy, and it is God who, even without our thinking about it, will illuminate by a kind of overgrowth our activity, whatever it may be. (Charles Journet)

On this road towards the perfection of love considered absolutely or under all relations, finally action, in one way or another, superabounds from contemplation – open contemplation or masked contemplation, whose sapiential savour passes secretly through inspirations which concern more especially the active life, and through the exercise of the corresponding Gifts of the Holy Spirit; finally, whether it leads an active life or a contemplative life, and whether in one state of life as in the other it has the grace of an open contemplation, the soul raised to the mystical state habitually participates in a contemplative influx, it refreshes itself in one manner or another in the sources of contemplation… (Jacques Maritain)

And on top of all this, the entire doctrine of Saint John of the Cross is one wherein contemplation takes allpulls it towards itself and conquers it in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. The transforming union goes outwards while going inwards.

In a word, just as (to borrow Saint Hildegard’s well known saying) the body is in the soul, our action must become progressively more and more in our prayer.

Or again, the exterior, the active, is seized from the inside.

Does this sound different from what Saint Thomas teaches? In fact, Thomas teaches the same thing as this. When he, expressing the traditional doctrine dating back to Saint Gregory, says that action, rightly undertaken and in an attempt to arrive at virtue in Christ, disposes us to contemplation, he does not actually stop there; for contemplation does not actually stop there. What does Thomas go on to say? A contemplative soul experiences a more intimate, less human-centred view of God; and this reflects onto its action. Then the experience gained in – or being undergone in – contemplation exercises its influence on action. As the Doctor puts it, contemplation “moves and directs the active life”; indeed, “those who are more adapted to the contemplative life can take upon themselves the works of the active life, so as to become yet more apt for contemplation.” Specifically, the human and theological virtues are strengthened and, at the same time, dependence on the motions of the Spirit received through his seven Gifts is, more or less consciously, noticed and deepened. Contemplation occasions and causes, through God’s causality, normal growth in the life of grace. This is the opposite of saying that, when one reaches contemplation, that action ceases or that one must withdraw more from the world. No withdrawal or no greater times of contemplative prayer are demanded, except insofar as we must continue to go to our room and close the door behind us, as we have time to do so.

If contemplation overflows into our action, to greater and greater degrees, this means that, as one goes deeper into contemplation, everything becomes more simply found in loving contemplation of God, which then condenses all our actions into the will of God known experientially and under particular guidance of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit by whose inspirations we swim like fish in the sea. Action is taken further up and further in. While going to greater lengths and depths with greater ease, action shelters in the loving contemplation of God, where it finds its true home. As Father Garrigou-Lagrange puts it in a distinction of his, our action is no longer mere action; it is apostolic activity through and through.

In fact, what Saint Thomas – along with the rest of the Church – is teaching us is that the beginning of contemplation in a dark night, when we seek to pray as we could before but no longer can do so (a process in which spiritual dryness, depending on the mixture of action and prayer in our lives, can arise from various influences from our neighbours, via our constitution and health, and by God’s all-enveloping providence), yet still desire to pray and advance in virtue, marks a change in our lives. God can take more direct control, because in contemplation, it is all God’s way. This naturally must affect our virtues, our life under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our action, our relationships with our neighbours. Everything is brought into the game. And the higher, directing, diffusing power is contemplation. Thus, when God gives us loving contemplation of himself, that’s the biggest change in us since receiving sanctifying grace in the first place. The game has changed. It is less us using what we are given (while being to a certain extent guided) and more us being guided (while using what we are given). This is spiritual progress. That is the sense in which action is oriented towards contemplation: not to annihilate or suppress action or to declare action separate from and inferior to contemplation (impossible! Jesus is a “carpenter’s son”); but to say that human action is only truly itself in the measure that it is taken up onto contemplation, which is to say, a simple resting-in and flowing-from God; or, put another way, action in relation to our neighbours is where we start and continue in a spirit of prayer, but action is only truly itself in the measure that it is true and deep transformation in Christ. This marks the way of spiritual progress.

(I hope all this is well documented enough to quell any doubts or scruples any reader may have. Saint Thomas, Saint Teresa, Saint Jane, Saint Clement, Saint Catherine, Saint John, Saint Edith, Blessed Elizabeth: pray for us!)


2 thoughts on “The Traditional Catholic Doctrine about Action and Contemplation

  1. Pingback: “Contemplative in the Mud” | SOUL FOOD MINISTRIES

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