As you step into one of those old monasteries and convents with the air of incense and their quaint medieval sculptures, you are entering another world, completely alien to what you call ‘home.’ Here, time gives way to eternity; worries are toned down, and slowly peace and rest rush in a soul which has almost lost sight of such sentiments. The liturgy is really at home in such places. Saint Benedict, as he took the Tradition of the Church, applied it to his monks wrote in his rule: “We are establishing a school for the Lord’s service.” For this is what the holy Patriarch did: a school in which his monks would learn how to give themselves totally to God. This section on the liturgy will deal with its very purpose, which is the union of the soul with God, a communion of mind in prayer and contemplation.
Lately, I had the occasion to step into a seminary to preach a thirty-day retreat, the great month of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This is a stunning experience! You are being immersed into a foreign environment, not for a few odd days, but for a whole month, which allows you to forget what is was back then when you were ‘normal’ and one of so many battling for survival out in the ‘cold.’ The long meditation and contemplative hours spent in union with the Great Rabbi of our soul: Our Lord does become alive to the retreatants, who relish spending so much time on the same themes over and over again. At least we understood one thing coming out of this power plant: contemplation must be the soul of the Church, the soul of the apostolate, and the soul of the City, or else darkness and death set in!
St. Thomas in a pregnant article (II-II, q. 182, art. 1) unveils some reasons for the primacy of contemplation over action. Such a life suits man in what is most perfect in him, that is, his mind, whereas the active life deals with outer things. The first can be more continuous, as sampled by Mary, who stood motionless at the feet of Christ (Lk. 10:39). Such life also is loved for itself, whereas the active life is ordained to something else than the profit of one’s soul. Hence Psalm 26 explains: “I asked only one thing from the Lord and I shall not seek another—that is to dwell in the house of the Lord all days of my life, to see the joy of the Lord.” It also consists in a sort of leisure and rest, according to Psalm 45: “Vacate et videte—be quiet and see how good the Lord is.”
This last quote Dr. John Senior (in The Death of Christian Culture, p. 152) interestingly translates as “Be empty of all things and see that I am God.” Quoting St. Benedict, he explains that those who seek God by themselves in an undisciplined private monasticism “live in their own sheepfold and not the Lord’s.”
Is that excluding all the Catholic lay folks from that contemplation which proceeds from the Holy Ghost? All Christians are indeed invited “to taste and see how good God is,” as soon as they have been imbued with faith and charity, received at Baptism. Already the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost are, so to speak, at their finger tips—habits, i.e. things had and apt to be used at will! It is most normal that the knowledge by faith becomes experimental and delightful thanks to that connaturality produced by love; and this faith, now turned contemplative, inflames the virtue of charity in its turn. There is thus a mutual dependence, a ceaseless intercommunication between faith and love.
Here again, Dr. Senior (idem, pp. 153-4) deserves mention.
“The Catholic Church has a rich deposit of faith and a fecund life even today germinating in its soil—martyrs, monks, and theologians, all calling with the same quiet voice, not seeking publicity, calling softy but insistently from the Gulag Archipelago and the desert cells, from isolated schools, and even from the silent hearts of nameless persons in the lonely crowds who kneel before the Blessed Sacrament—if they can find it—or stop to pray in empty churches and in quiet rooms.”
Fr. Calmel (Revue Itinéraires, No. 183, p. 155) explains another very important point: contemplation cannot go without faith in Christ, and Him crucified.
“It would be a mortal mistake to present the contemplative life as a sort of luxury reserved to intellectuals, to clerics who have the leisure of studying Metaphysics and Sacred Scripture, as a mainly higher selfish life deprived of love. On the other hand, it would be a no less pernicious mistake to pretend that the only term ‘love’ suffices to define our goal in life. It is enough indeed, but with the proviso that we know what it radically demands and which road it leads us to: It demands conversion and the cross.
“But this second error which preaches Christian love as if it were not contemplative seems, today, and by far, more frequent. Let it be known indeed that the contemplation of the saints proceeds from the faith made intuitive and quasi experimental, both by charity and by the effects of the Holy Ghost. Let it be clear also that we cannot grow much unless our soul be taken by the hand of the Spirit of love and of truth, by His sevenfold gifts. These gifts of the Paraclete give us a moral life worthy of God and wholly similar to that of Christ, a life of sanctity…”
This is theology in action; this is the life blood of the Church in its most perfect activity allowing the Church to subsist and to live in unity and unison with the past centuries. Dr. Senior (ibid.) again offers a good illustration of the words of Fr. Calmel:
“The arguments of scholastic theology codified at Trent, encapsulated in catechism texts, amplified by the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium of the Church these last four hundred years—all this is based upon and animated by the experience of the spiritual life of the contemplative monk and nun and of the soldiers of the militant orders leading what St. Thomas calls the mixed life, and even of laymen like St. Thomas More who, though chancellor of England, led a hidden life, wore a hair shirt beneath his public silks, and ended up a martyr to the Faith as well. In turn, the hidden life of contemplatives seeks its consummation in death transfigured by love. It is no accident that the greatest doctor of the spiritual life is named St. John of the Cross.”
The contemplative life, writes St. Thomas (ibid., q. 180 and 182), consists in a sort of leisure and rest, and liberty of mind, where man burns of the desire to perceive the beauty of God, and offers his soul in sacrifice. It has its principle and its end in love, deals directly and immediately with the charity of God Himself, is ordained not to any love of God but to perfect charity. In a way, it sets the way for an obscure beginning of beatitude. This is the rather theological version of the poetic text of David (Psalm 15): “You have revealed to me the ways of life; You shall fill me with joy by gazing at your face: endless delights on Your right hand.”
Since contemplation is the perfect act of man on earth, contemplative houses should manifest also the perfect achievement of society and that their growth or recess will gauge the level of that society. Given our de facto atheistic—or worse, apostate—societies, it is no wonder why the Church, which has already delivered itself to the world, is experiencing more and more difficulties founding spiritual power houses. Such islands of prayers and penance, a permanent rebuke to the world, will hardly be found growing in modern society where private property and properly structured and organized societies are not respected, for the profit of an abject, end-in-itself capitalism which is unnerving the souls of all citizens.
But, thank God, these houses of prayer, however few and sparse they are, still constitute an archipelago in the ocean of indifference and Godlessness. I remember Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaking about the Russian concentration camps. He explained how, paradoxically, these were the only places where you could speak freely about the slavery they were undergoing from Comrade Stalin. The same can be said of these few religious places where, despite the aspect of fortress and prison of these cloisters, one’s soul is enjoying real freedom from the troubles of a sick world.
Doubtless, today’s world is—and more so tomorrow’s world will be—the best one to run away from and turn to become an anchorite or a monk! Not everyone can run away from his duty and shut himself up. But spiritually, what prevents men from fulfilling what Dr. Senior somewhere said that, to be faithful to his mission, “the monk must pray eight hours a day, the priest four and the layman two hours.” These are no slight demands on our fast lane life style. Yet, sparing some time for our prayer life and some spiritual reading should be the order of each day so as to inflame the heart and direct the mind to “the one thing necessary.” God’s grace and a minimum of diligence can bring about this miracle of utterly gluing our soul to Our Lord and His Mother who wish for no better thing. Let us not forget the prayer Father Brebeuf had taught this old Huron squaw. When she was lying out on the icy lake all night long as she was feeling the coldness of death setting in, she repeated: “My Jesus, have mercy on me,” and a heat wave filled her half-frozen limbs right away. The next morning she was found alive against all hope by the Black Robes of the mission.