Beautiful Feet

At the shrine of Mary Annai Velangkanni in Medan, Indonesia

In today’s readings at Mass (Latin Rite), Saint Paul tells us about those who bring good news:

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Rom 10:14–15)

Now, there are two ways of reflecting on this teaching that have a contemplative angle to them: by which I mean, two ways in which the themes of contemplation are manifest.

The first concerns the missionary dimension of contemplation. The effects of contemplation overflow onto our action. In another sense, all our action is taken up into contemplation, just as Saint Hildegard teaches, in conformity with the Catholic tradition, that the body is in the soul (and not the soul in the body). So when we are sent, just going about our daily tasks, we have “beautiful feet”; in the measure that we are in Christ, even when we consciously do nothing and when we do not use our words, we have those feet that thread a path and spread Christ’s peace unconsciously.

The second angle is whether Saint Paul is talking about the progress in the spiritual journey itself. We could ask: How are they to call on one when they have not believed? – How are they to rest in the simplicity of contemplation continually, taking the action of body up into the soul where God dwells especially – and that especially in the highest parts of the soul, where all is more one? And how are they to hear without having heard? – And how are they to contemplate, if they have not meditated and built the bridges of friendships which they could, before allowing God to fix the final joints? And how are they to hear unless it is proclaimed? – And how are they to meditate unless they are taught the mysteries of faith upon which to meditate? And how are they to proclaim unless they are sent? – And how can they be taught unless there is a teacher? Saint Paul’s reflection is a reflection on the spiritual journey also. Contemplation, the personal spiritual journey: it is all encapsulated in the Church, our neighbours, those who speak and guide and lead and inspire. For there is no other normal path than this.


A Well Ordered Exterior

Many of the effects of contemplation, like all Christian prayer, involve setting up storage in Heaven (Mt 6:20). They concern the Church and the world at large.

On the other hand, another of the effects of contemplation is to reorganize and reintegrate our whole person. The human being who prays becomes rooted more totally and absolutely in Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and these Three impart a new order and organization to everything about him or her.

That includes the body.

Contemplation is something that happens to persons who are, as we say today, embodied. Perhaps it would be more accurate to note that the body is in the soul (as Saint Hildegard says), but regardless of the way we phrase things, it is true that any reorganization, reintegrating, and reordering of our whole person will involve a reorganization, reintegrating, and reordering of our body also.

This is an effect well known in Christian spiritual literature. The Western Church tends to call it transformation in Christ; the Eastern Church tends to call it transfiguration of the body, in reference to Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Mt 17:1–9; Mk 9:2–8; Lk 9:28–36; 2 Pt 1:16–18). The earliest recorded lives and hagiographies of the saints are replete with examples. Some of the better-known examples include the following: the account of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas speaks of a simultaneous “calmness,” “radiance,” and “intensity of gaze which made people avert their eyes”; Saint Antony of Egypt was described as having joy and the disposition of his soul visible on his face and in his movements; and it was said of Saint Macarius of Egypt that, like Moses (Ex 34:29), “the glory of the Lord shone on his face.”

But this Spirit-given transfiguration doesn’t have to be something marvellous and great. It can be something simple. It can be something small. It can “only” be the integration of the body into the Spirit’s goodness. It may simply be something extra in a smile, a comportment, the gestures, the hard-earned physical posture which comes from attention to others, an interiority flowing outwards in the eyes, a non-human confidence lived in humility etched into the lines of the face, or any other configuration of God and human nature in this wounded world – in short, as Saint Jane Frances de Chantal puts it,

a well-ordered exterior, the basis of which depends on the practice of the presence of God.

This organization and ordering of our exterior, our body, our gestures, and everything down to the tips of our fingers, comes from closeness to God. Grace can, if we have eyes for it, be seen. It is invisible but breaking into the visible world. That’s transfiguration, the taking of the body further up and further into the depths and riches of the soul and the Spirit.

The Root that Flourishes in Rocky Soil

In Coloane, Macau

Take note of the root that flourishes in soil so rocky that it is almost impossible to plough. Still, it produces perfect fruit, good to the taste. You are that soil, beaten upon, as you are, by heavy storms of war and by the evil winds raised up by the devil. Yet… you will remain steadfast.
Saint Hildegard von Bingen

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!)

Contemplation is for Everyone


Contemplation is for everyone. This is the traditional doctrine of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis de Sales, among others. In this, they’re following teachings of pseudo-Dionysius, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas, Saint Catherine of Siena, among others. And it’s not just a doctrine. It’s a matter of the Gospel penetrating our lives.

Why is contemplation for everyone?

Saint Thomas defines contemplation as a simple intellectual view of the truth, above any particular reasoning, drawing of conclusions, or going from point to point, accompanied by admiration (wonder). One of the key notes here is that of admiration or wonder. When Saint Thomas says that contemplation is “intellectual”, he doesn’t mean academic. He just means that the “view” resides in the higher parts of the soul, rather than at a discursive, piece-by-piece level. This is not academic at all. It’s open to everyone. It’s simple in itself.

That’s one way to define contemplation. And that’s a good grasp on the reality. Of course, the choice of word doesn’t matter very much. It’s the reality that matters more. This definition of contemplation could apply in many ways. We could contemplate the sea or a flower, an idea in our discipline, a conception of a work of art as an artist, and so on. Christian contemplation is contemplation that presupposes faith (and hence hope and love) and dwells on the revealed mysteries of faith. It dwells on them by suffering their divinity inside a human person. Christian contemplation is a simple view, distinct from various meditative views, of God. It is, as Saint Thomas says of faith in itself, inchoatio vitae aeterna, an inchoate experience of eternal life, for it is an inchoate experience of the life of God himself (see Jn 3:36; 5:24, 39; 6:40, 47). Now, why wouldn’t everyone be called to this? Everyone is called to eternal life; everyone is called to the Church of Heaven. So why wouldn’t everyone be called to take a road that gets closer and closer to the destination?

Of course, not everyone is called to contemplation right now (see this post, for example); God gives graces only when it is good for us and we are ready. We might not be ready right now. There is a distinction between knowing that the road passes through a forest and knowing that any particular person is at the edge of the forest right now. But, in fact, the road passes through the forest. The development of Christian life, progress in Christian living, passes through contemplation and leads to the quasi-continual unity of contemplation and action, of prayer and activity, in a more simple and more alive love of God. Contemplation is not a separate, extraordinary mystical grace separated from the normal way of sanctity. Not at all. Contemplation normally comes part and parcel with Christian perfection, the journey to it, and the achievement.

A few quotes from other Doctors of the Church should suffice to put this in place. ^^

Saint Teresa remarks (Interior Castle, IV, ch 3) that

all of us… are called to contemplation…

though not enough prepare for it and accept it and know how to receive it without hindering God’s work within us. Or again in the Way of Perfection (ch 20):

His mercy is so great that He hinders no one from drinking of the fountain of life [i.e., contemplative prayer which quickens our life]… Indeed, He calls us loudly and publicly to do so. He is so good that He will not force us to drink of it.

The call is open and public: “taste and see” (Ps 34:8)… but will we accept the invitation in this life or wait for the next? Saint John of the Cross, in the prologue to the Ascent of Mount Carmel, remarks that he proposes

a solid and substantial doctrine which is addressed to all, on condition that they decide to pass through nudity of the spirit.

He then spends the book describing the passage from meditative prayer, to the first stages of contemplation (which may be so dark that the soul is unaware that it is even contemplating our Lord), to the greater stages of union with the Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Trinity dwelling within:

After the first steps on the path of virtue, when the Lord desires to make these souls enter the dark night, to lead them to divine union, there are some who do not go any farther. Sometimes the desire to do so is lacking, or they are not willing to be led into the night; sometimes it is because they don’t know what they ought to do; sometimes they seek in vain a guide who can lead them to the summit. It is truly heartrending to see how many souls… are content with inferior relations with God.

And that’s exactly what he says applies to all who willingly accept the journey and the Cross that it is: the journey towards union in this present life. He intends to draw a map for those who wish to attain such union in love that, though they may, without consciousness or voluntariness, sin venially, may nonetheless be prepared for Heaven and united in will with God: prepared, not waiting for purgatory after death to be washed up. He gives a plan of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), a totally new life which does not merely perform “damage control” on our sins but actually rebuilds the sacred house which is our soul and body in Christ’s most sacred image. And contemplation is in the midst of that plan.

Likewise, Saint Francis de Sales’ great descriptions of contemplative prayer find their place as a rung in the ladder of his great Treatise on the Love of God, giving the unmistakable conclusion that, under normal conditions, all normally should pass by there on the way to purification and the Church of Heaven.

Contemplation, then, is part of, and increasingly part of, Christian perfection, i.e., progress in the spiritual life.

But when we say that contemplation is “part and parcel” with Christian perfection, there are some things we don’t mean.

  • We don’t mean that all the extraordinary phenomena like prophecies, visions, miracles, raptures, and ecstasies (“the weakness of ecstasy” as Saint Hildegard called it) are part of the normal way of sanctity. Those are extras. They’re exterior. They don’t cut to the deepest interior of love. They may come from our particular bodily or temperamental weaknesses in handling the influx of grace. They may serve as tangible signs (1 Cor 14:22) for ourselves or others, either in the present or in memory. But they’re not the thing. The thing is transformation in Christ: love in ever-expanding dimensions, for God is infinite Love. And if one is to think Christ’s thoughts, do his will, and be like him, nothing less than a quasi-continual state of prayer will do, and this can only be so if its basis is contemplative, for no other prayer is continually open to receive from heaven.
  • We don’t mean that everyone must pursue a contemplative way of life, without an emphasis on action. Far from it, for contemplation gives new life to action and all the virtues.
  • We don’t mean that every person’s contemplation will be equally manifest. Perhaps some will see God more in their neighbours and thus, in response, appear to be more active than the one who prays in the cloister and thus works for the Body of Christ in a more withdrawn, but more manifestly contemplative, way. Contemplation can even be more or less manifest to the one undergoing it.

The variety of gifts given by our good God – which is to say, at least in part, the variety of emphases the Lord makes in the distribution of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit – mean various manifestations of the central truth of contemplation. But this variety does not take away from the essential link between contemplation and the Christian journey. The variety of saints is great. However, they do all point to the notion that we may, in this present life, “pray continually” (1 Thes 5:17) and “taste and see” (Ps 34:8) our God in a way that is supernatural, truly above the limits of the human person in itself. And it is this interiority that they find in contemplating their God, brightly or darkly, which changes them into the icons which they are. All the saints were changed and matured in contemplation.

Saint Hildegard, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Thérèse, and Marcel Văn describe the souls of creation as a variety of flowers, some big, some small, some more colourful, some less, and so on. But all seeds in the garden ought to grow into flowers. The point is never that some ought to get by without growing in beauty and without growing to their own particular maturity. The point is that the manifestation of these interior principles of contemplation varies as the garden of flowers varies. But it is still the same interior principle, the same life, the same Gospel.

The invitation is open. Holiness is asked of all and offered to all. Normally, contemplation is part of this. There is a cost to be counted. There is a path to follow. There is a Cross to embrace. And all of that has contemplation in its midst.

Some related posts:

Church of Christ’s Humanity

At St Clement Chapel in Pattaya, Thailand

God wanted Jerusalem (which was built from the holy works of humankind and which appears like a bride adorned for her husband [Rev 21:2]) to be made in praise of His humanity, just as He created the angels in praise and honour of His divinity.
Saint Hildegard von Bingen