May 2001 Print

Contemplatives: Their Place in the Church Militant


A Carthusian Monk

We are certain that God has not permitted all the destruction in Church and civil society in recent years without intending to bring good out of it. If the great "Reconstruction" is ever to occur, then we must take our part in it and we ought to do so particularly by working for the revival of the monastic orders which are given to prayer and penance. But various objections are raised against this view; it is the task therefore of the following pages to answer some of them.

Such complete absorption in the things of God as is involved in the contemplative life, it is said, could be understood in the ages of faith, when out of a society almost wholly Christian, religious vocations sprang up in lavish profusion. In the vast monastic family of those days, contemplatives had their chosen place in the front rank. But nowadays things are changed, and contemplation seems to be another word for selfishness. It is the day of active apostolate. The enemies of Christianity have banded together all the forces of evil for a last assault against the Church; it is, then, our urgent duty to gather in the same way all the vital forces of Catholicism and throw them into the breach. To hold aloof is to act the part of a deserter. And, they add, it is the more regrettable that men such as the Carthusians should stand apart from the fight, since they hold back from the Church Militant in action, not only well-trained soldiers, but even born leaders, the solitary life demanding qualities of mind and heart, and strength of character greater than that of other religious vocations. It will be seen that we do not seek to minimize the force of this objection; but to its plain statement we shall give an equally plain and frank answer.

Active Life or Contemplative?

That it is the day of active apostolate is quite true. In the present fight there is room for all men of good will, and to hold aloof is to act the part of a deserter; with this we are in hearty agreement. But let us make clear what we mean by that. What are we to understand by "activity"? Does it consist in bustle and noise, in feverish movement to start and keep going works of propaganda? Some might think so; they, however, judge by outward appearances only. Thinking men and theologians judge differently, accustomed as they are to descry beneath the exterior, the essence of things.

The marvelous force of activity increases in a being in proportion with the perfection and simplicity of its nature; so that it increases by leaps and bounds as we pass from animal to man, from man to angel, from angel on to God Himself. Grounding his argument on that of Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas (ST, II-II, Q. 182, A. 1) shows the greater excellency of the contemplative over the active life, both in its origin and in its object, as well as being more meritorious and more fruitful in results.

If we let our faith reply, the answer is even more decisive. For indeed, God Himself is the unchangeable and eternal Contemplative; but is He not at the same time pure activity as well, always acting ad intra, within Himself, even supposing creation not to have taken place? Again, on earth where do we find the most intense activity but in the Tabernacle on our altars? Yet, where is there less appearance of activity? Our divine Lord seems to be sunk in a death-like slumber. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the world draws its life from the divine Contemplative of our altars, the world, that is, both material and spiritual. The day when the last altar shall have disappeared will be the day of doom, when the world shall fall asunder.


What Is True "Activity"?

"It is the day of active apostolate." Certainly, if we take due account of the above principles. But let us place the question on a practical footing. For men of light and leading, in what does this activity consist, which is their duty and on which the salvation of society depends?

Of late, much breath has been spent and much ink spilt in the attempt to formulate the principles upon which the campaign at this crisis must be conducted. Meeting after meeting has been held, plans have been multiplied, resolutions affirmed and reaffirmed; a kind of artillery preparation before attack. And indeed, the outcome has been that many well-tried institutions have taken a new lease on life, while new societies or associations are rising to meet new situations. But is there not the danger of forgetting that the true principles underlying all Reconstruction, the divinely traced program, is something simpler and of wider scope than all this; something simple with heaven's simplicity, since thence it was brought to earth when angels sang their Gloria in excelsis on Christmas night over a sleeping world: "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will" (Lk. 2:14).

First of all, then, we are to give glory to God. That is to say, we must first seek the kingdom of God and His justice (cf. Mt. 6:33). Peace and happiness for the individual, the family, for society at large and the Church will follow in the nature of things and as a necessary consequence.

Now, it was for the realization of this program that God gave us His Son, the Word made Flesh, who is the principle and the essence of His activity. Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Calvary, His indwelling in the Blessed Sacrament, tell us with masterly eloquence how this glory has been given to God and peace brought to men.

But look more closely into the life on earth of Jesus Christ. It lasts but for three and thirty years; and of those, thirty are given to silence, to prayer and to hidden toil. Three only does He consecrate to His public ministry, and even then, during that short time, see how again and again our Savior goes apart from His disciples by day and by night to give Himself to prayer. For amidst all the comings and goings of the divine Word on earth, never for a moment does He lose sight of His Father's glory. As Fr. Faber says,

If we look at (our Lord's life on earth) in general, so as to get a view of its characteristics, it seems to us, first of all, a life of oblation. Worship was its predominant idea. Adoration was the mold in which it was cast. It continually reflected God. Yet it was not a private life, not a life which looked only to God and itself and so was sanctified. Its oblations were not simply its individual worship of God, but they belonged to all creation and were offered in its name....The business set before it was to consume itself for the glory of God. Thus it was incense, as well as victim....Its human soul was the thurible in which it was fragrantly consumed, offered asleep or waking, by night or by day, with every pulse of its human life. (Bethlehem, 78-79, 1860 ed.)

The entire work of the Incarnation, it is true, received its fullness of perfection and power from the sacrifice of Calvary; but dare we say that the years of hidden life at Nazareth were void of merit? Surely not; that would be blasphemy. No,

the secret life of the simple union of the two Natures in the divine Person is a vast series of wonders, whose scene is the house of Nazareth, but whose grandeur outshines that of all creation beside....Here was God adoring God. Here was a finite nature out of which infinite worship was streaming. Here was a created life which was in a most awful way a double of the Holy Trinity. (Faber, op. cit., 328, 331)


Rerum Ecclesiae Gestarum

On the Foreign Missions, Pope Pius XI, February 18, 1926:

"Now what great store We set by the contemplative life...that by the foundation of monasteries, their stricter form of contemplative life may be introduced and widely spread in missionary territories, so likewise in season and out of season do We pray you, Venerable Brethren and your beloved sons, to interest yourselves therein, for it is marvelous what measure of heavenly graces such solitaries would call down upon your labors....Whence it is perfectly clear that our anchorites keeping unbroken the Rule and spirit of their Founder, and taking no part in the life of action, can be daily of no small help towards the success of your holy apostolate. So that if the superiors of such Orders give ear to your appeals and set up houses, wherever you may agree together that they should, they do a thing in the first place helpful to the salvation of a vast crowd of heathen and one which, in addition, will be acceptable and agreeable to Us beyond the bounds of belief." (A.A.S., Vol. 18, p. 78)


The Divine Contemplative

Our divine Savior did not limit this active power, the source of glory to God and of the world's salvation, to the few years of His earthly life; He continues it down the centuries in a twofold manner: through His real and through His mystical body, that is, in the Holy Eucharist and in the Church.

In the Holy Eucharist, despoiled of all, even of the accidents of His human nature, poorer even than when on the Cross, He continues in a true manner His contemplation and sacrifice; He lives only for prayer: "ever living to make intercession for us" (Heb. 7:25).

In the Church, which is His mystical body, He wills that each of the states of His mortal life should be reproduced in its entirety, otherwise the parallel would be incomplete. Now from what we have said above, the one that excels all the rest, the fountain, so to say, of all the others, is His state of contemplation, His self-immolation.

This, then, must be reproduced. But by whom? Principally by souls dedicated to a particular mode of life and giving themselves exclusively to penance and prayer. It is in continuing one of these states, the highest of our Lord's earthly life, by the strict observance of the evangelical counsels, that the contemplative orders find their reason for being. They take no part in the general government of the Church, nevertheless they belong to the essence of her constitution, and undoubtedly her divine Founder has given them their mission.

We speak here of the contemplative orders only. The proposition in a more general sense and extended to other religious institutes would cease to be true. St. Bernard says that the religious life is so much of the Church's essence that it began with it, or rather, the Church was begun by it, Qui primus fuit in Ecclesia, imo a quo coepit Ecclesia (Patr. Lat., t. 182. co1. 912. Cf. also, The Ideal of the Monastic Life, by Dom Germain Morin, 69, "This then is our model, the life of the first Christians: the life which sprang up with the beginning of the Church, etc.") .

We do not see them at work as corporate bodies in apostolic times, because then, in this particular, God's glory was served by the blood of the martyrs; that was sufficient witness for the visible continuation of Calvary. But when the era of the great persecutions came to an end, the blood-stained arena of martyrdom was exchanged for the unbloody martyrdom of the religious life. In the countless lauras of Egypt and Palestine, as later on, in the monasteries of the East; and later still in those of the West, men saw with wonder, the hidden Christ of Nazareth, the dying Christ of Golgotha living and dying over again.

For several centuries, all external ministry was forbidden to these contemplatives; it was an understood thing that nothing should be done to lessen the value of their penitential life or the power of their intercession. It is remarkable to notice that decay of discipline entered the monasteries only from the time, and to the extent that the monks, either out of necessity or from choice, were permitted to go forth and take part in the active ministry in imitation of those new religious orders which the needs of the time had produced to aid and supplement the work of the secular clergy.

Fr. Baker, in Sancta Sophia, (173, 1876 ed.) additionally notices:

No doubt there is that the decay of religion hath principally proceeded from this preposterous disorder, viz., that in most religious communities active spirits have got the advantage to possess themselves of prelatures and spiritual pastorships over the contemplative, though the state of religion was instituted only for contemplation.

In the 11th century, as a consequence of the great impulse given earlier by Charlemagne to popular education, of which the burden fell principally on the monasteries; and likewise, as a result of the disturbed state then of Christendom, the purely contemplative life had ceased to be practiced in the Church. Providence, however, to make it flourish anew, raised up one of those men of faith and genius who seem to be held in reserve through the centuries for the accomplishment of its mighty plans. This was St. Bruno (A.D. 1030-1101) the founder of the Carthusian order. The oft quoted saying, Cartusia nunquam reformata, quia nunquam deformata, the Carthusian order has never been reformed because never deformed, is substantially true, because it has remained true to the spirit of its foundation, has kept apart from all external activities and devoted itself absolutely and entirely to contemplation.


Contemplatives Are Active

We have deemed it necessary to show the solid foundation which theology and history lay for this question. The reason why it is sometimes discussed in a small-minded way is that it is viewed from one of its secondary aspects only. We may draw several conclusions.

The Carthusian monk is essentially contemplative. He reproduces and continues in the Church the hidden and suffering life of our Lord Jesus Christ. His cell is at one and the same time Bethlehem, where he begins a new life; Nazareth where his life of voluntary penance is passed in silence and obscurity; Calvary where obedience never ceases to offer him as a sacrifice on the cross which his observances and his Rule raise up for him; it is a Tabernacle where in union with the prayer of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament he fulfills St. Paul's great boast, "I fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh" (Col. 1:24). In a word, he is an official suppliant and penitent offering to God one of the greatest glories that He can provide for Himself on this earth. At the same time, he works powerfully for his own salvation and that of his neighbor.

From this then, we may judge what is the excellence of a contemplative's activity, even though he exercises it only by prayer and penance; nay, just for that very reason. It is God's will for him, it is apostolic, universal in scope, and how efficacious!

A cloistered life among men may cover the whole earth with its activity, if it be a life of worship, while the conqueror, the statesman, or the man of letters have at most but a circle which they only influence partially and in which their influence is but one of many influences. (Faber, op. cit., 80)

A Carthusian who had formerly been a foreign missioner was once asked what he did in his cell. "I am still a missionary," he replied. "Formerly, I could work only in a circumscribed area; now the whole world lies open to my zeal, and by prayer I can reach the furthest off savage in Africa or Oceania." We may also compare it to the motors hidden away in the heart of some vast piece of machinery and communicating life to the whole. A French orator (Mgr. Turinaz, Bishop of Nancy) in answering the question, "What do these solitaries do, of what use are they?" compares them, not inaptly, to lightning rods warding off the shafts of divine anger from a guilty world. They are to the world at large what the ten just men, had they been found, would have been to the Cities of the Plain; indeed, were they to be lacking in the world, there is only too much reason to suppose that God's thunderbolts would fall on an unrepentant generation.

Montalembert wrote, "I cannot imagine a finer subject than the history of prayer....If it was given to human pen to write it, that history should be the history of the monks....Thanks to them, prayer existed in the character of a permanent and public force, universally recognized and blessed by God and man" (Monks of the West [London: Nimmo, 1896] Vol. I, 32 ).


The Power of Intercession

You ask, what is it that gives contemplation its wonderful intercessory power, making it superior to every other created activity? It follows from what we have already said. In imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose different states he reproduces, the contemplative offers his freedom, his talents, his entire person and life before the majesty of God's claims. He abandons himself without reserve to His good pleasure. In God alone he seeks light and guidance; He is the goal and rule of all he does. God never allows Himself to be outdone in generosity. He takes supreme delight in this self-abandonment, a source of so much glory to Him; and He repays it with wonderful graces.

With Dom Innocent Le Masson, General of the Carthusians in the 17th century, we may say that the contemplative is, in the best sense of the word, a courtier and intimate friend of God. Seated at His feet like Mary at Bethany, his adoration, worship and attendance are never intermitted. His prayer assumes the character of a holy boldness of intimacy, and God, Who loves that we should do violence to His mercy, holds open the treasury of His favors to him.

A further reason for his power of intercession is found in the very nature of contemplation, and in the forms of prayer employed by the contemplative. Contemplation is above all an affair of the heart, in its method it is widely different from discursive meditation, in which the intellect plays the largest part. Now, the intellect easily gets taken up with its own ideas; pride, at one and the same time, forms a hindrance and becomes a punishment.

The heart is humbler; in simplicity and uncalculating, without self-seeking, it goes to meet its Beloved. And when day and night, as a Carthusian does, it feeds its desires on the divine marrow found in the Holy Scriptures, and more especially in the psalms, a change comes over it; it becomes all on fire, and without reasonings darts forward to regions unknown to the intellect. Faith, worship, desires, all breathe forth in one outpouring of love; it is no longer mere prayer, but uplifting of the soul, fiery transports, impassioned flights that are the result, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit it wings its flight unhindered to God; an eagle flies less swiftly towards its prey. What need is there to say more? The heart abandons itself and throws itself upon God, and God in return gives Himself to the soul. It may gaze upon Him, lay hold of Him, threaten, aye disarm Him! He suspends the decrees of justice, and looks down upon the world with a smile of forgiveness. A child, then, may save a whole nation. (We are not here supposing extraordinary phenomena, such as ecstasy, which sometimes may accompany prayer, but those "ascensions" which tend to union, the normal goal of mental prayer.) Abraham, Moses and Onias in the old Testament are the visible proofs of this truth; and how many other instances are there not in the lives of the saints?


Monastic Prayer, the Great Weapon

Yes indeed, it is the day of active apostolate. "We must fight, and he who deserts God's standard to hide himself in slothful selfishness is a traitor. We must fight, but reasonably, in a favorable position, and use good arms and wise tactics" (cf. The Contemplative Life in Its Apostolic Aspect [London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne], 17). That is precisely what the contemplative does; whence we may understand how useful, how necessary in the mighty conflict with evil, is the contemplative's intercession whether exercised by Carthusian monk or nun, or other religious.

A fatal illusion may follow on the intoxication of excessive activity: more or less inexperienced souls persuade themselves that the salvation of society depends entirely on human means. Once started on this downward way, fatal blindness will supervene which will lay open the way for a defeat beyond repair. Quos vult perdere Jupiter dementat ("whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he drives mad"). One suspects that the devil is only half afraid of active opposition. As an old campaigner, he even helps it on at times, much as a general allows the enemy to advance and come to grips, afterwards the more easily to surround them. For one good work started, he can set up ten in opposition, since he is more gifted with activity than all the active workers in the world taken together. And is it not true that amidst all the self sacrifice, the enthusiasm and devotion that active workers bring to the cause, there is a super abundance at the same time, of the human element? How many fair beginnings have ended in disappointment and worse, because of the petty jealousies and rivalries of those who persuade themselves that the success of God's work is bound up with their own personal success? Time wasted, good money thrown after bad, disunion amongst Catholics, all this and much more to a like effect is but too often the result of works of active apostolate.

What the devil really does fear, because he knows its marvelous power and because he has nothing to meet it with, is prayer and above all, monastic prayer, supported by penance and practiced with an intensity that arrives at contemplation. The chant of the Divine Office, the official prayer of the liturgy which has a twofold power according to the saying, Qui bene cantat, bis orat ("sung prayer is double prayer"). Here he recognizes his real enemy. His tactics against it, therefore, are ever the same: he tries to destroy the homes of prayer, or at least to introduce a relaxation in their discipline; he sets to work, to turn them from their purpose by attracting and attaching them to the employments of the active ministry, or by keeping back from them as much as possible the vocations that God intends for them. It is the devil's greatest gain when, under the pretext of employing one's zeal to better purpose, he is able to retain on the battlefield of active works some of those generous souls, keen in their spirit of devotion, who under wiser guidance as to the supernatural value of the contemplative life would unhesitatingly set out to scale those spiritual heights which their Rule sets before the Carthusian monk and nun or other contemplative religious.


Proportionate Need of Contemplative and Active Workers

In writing as we have done, we are far from wishing to throw the least discredit on the multiplicity of good works that are today set going so hopefully and with so much zeal. It is quite clear that they are necessary. If we need suppliants we must also have combatants. Let the religious and the priest alike, join hands with the laity; let him turn apostle, missioner, schoolmaster, hospitaller, newspaper editor even! Let him seize every opportunity of holding up the torch of faith for those that sit "in the valley of the shadow of death" (Ps. 22:4). The list of names of the standard bearers of the Church's social action in modern times is a long and honorable one, and no one will deny that their lives afford shining examples of self sacrifice and heroism. Contemplatives are foremost in giving hearty praise to all such enterprises as have ecclesiastical approval.

But at the same time we are faced by a twofold phenomenon which it would be childish to deny. On the one hand, the vastness of the effort expended; and on the other hand, the smallness of the visible result. Providence has its own ways, but here at least, the effect is not proportionate with its cause. May it not be because the volume of prayer demanded by God has not been forthcoming?

Let those given to the active life, whose battlefield is down in the plain, keep up the struggle without faltering. But if they wish for victory in the end, let them seek recruits who shall add to the number of hands raised up on the mountain in prayer for them. If only it might be possible to draw towards the purely contemplative life as it is led in the Charterhouse, a number of souls proportionate to that attracted by the needs of our day to institutes devoted to active work what a guarantee would there be of an earlier and more decisive victory; the tardy dawn of the long awaited Restoration would broaden out into full day.


The Restoration of All Things in Christ by Prayer

The conversion of our nation! How much more is included in that well worn phrase than is generally thought of. The Church's divine commission to preach the gospel to every creature is not fulfilled in shepherding this or that section of non-Catholics into Christ's fold. Her message is for all. She must convert her own wandering children as well; raise the fallen, rouse the slothful and hold the wayward. And as we gaze in expectation into the years immediately before us, whose heart will not quail before the gigantic nature of the task committed to her in saving the souls of the millions outside her borders! Some words of a well-known Jesuit writer, Fr. Joseph Rickaby, are as true today, or truer, than when penned some 25 years ago [c. 1895]. He spoke of England, but his words are applicable to the United States, to the work of American Catholics in this country before the Council, and contains warnings and applications to the post-Conciliar apostolate that we must all seriously consider. He says in The Month:

The prospect of the religious future of very dark indeed. We poor English Catholics have "piped" and our countrymen have not "danced." Our learning, our controversy, our church-building, our schools, our publications, our societies, our preaching, our works of benevolence, all seem thrown away. They have not been useless to be sure; we have saved the few, and that is much: but on the solid mass of the nation we make no impression, nor seem likely to make any; and, compared with our failure, our successes go for little. It will be difficult for us to hold in the future such vantage ground as we have won and now possess. The world is steeped in a spirit which is solvent of all Christianity; and there are signs manifest enough of the action of that spirit upon our people. It does not do to be too gloomy; but it is difficult to feel cheerful in thinking of the conversion of England, if one has any idea, as most of us have, of the tendencies of thought around us. But here comes in the second part of the text, "we have mourned and you have not lamented." We have not "mourned" half enough, to induce our country to "lament" their false religious position. The sin of England has been great for centuries and remains unexpiated, a bar to conversion. We should have more conversions, if we did more penance to procure them. That is not a pleasant thing to think of. How can we fast and pray whose daily work suffers from our lack of time and strength to do it? There is comfort in the principle of the division of labor, and in those much reviled but still Catholic doctrines of vicarious expiation and communion of saints. We must have some of our number to go apart, and fast and pray and do penance for the rest of us, not certainly to excuse us in sin, not to cover our idleness and neglect of duty, not to exempt us from sorrow and contrition and such penance as God will require of us personally, but to draw down by their extraordinary penances that extraordinary mercy and those superabundant graces, without which this country never will be brought to God and to His Christ.

Thinking of this profound truth, one is filled with grief and resentment to hear the (contemplative) life...described as a 'useless and selfish life' even by Catholics, and by those Catholics of all others who should know better. Such is the utilitarian, naturalistic spirit of the age, that we cease to believe in any but the corporal works of mercy, and those spiritual works which have a direct natural efficacy. "To pray for the living and the dead," and to add fasting to the prayer of intercession, as Tobias did, does not strike us as so very necessary. Yet it may be just the one thing wanting to make the rest of our works efficacious (Vol. 96, 27).

The monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy
after it had been bombed by the American forces during World War II.

With these considerations before us, we may ask ourselves again: What is the place of contemplatives in the Church Militant? And, what is their value in these troubled times? Shall we answer that their day has gone by? That in going aside from the battle to pray and watch and fast they are acting the part of deserters? Read what the venerable Fr. Baker wrote, when in his own day surely if ever his nation had need of active workers.

Those that are inexperienced may, and often do, call this (contemplation) a state of idleness and unprofitable cessation, as Martha complained against her sister Mary; but those that have attained to a taste of it know it to be the business of all businesses, as St. Bernard calls it....Those inexpressible devotions which they exercise, and in which they tacitly involve the needs of the whole Church, are far more prevalent with God than the busy endeavors and prayers of ten thousand others, a few such secret and unknown servants of God are the chariots and horsemen, the strength and bulwarks of the kingdom and churches where they live. (Sancta Sophia, 508, 1876 ed.).

This work, originally written by French Carthusians circa 1895 and adapted to the situation in England by the Carthusians of St. Hugh's Charlerhouse, Parkminsler in 1920, has been adapted by The Angelus to address the needs of the modern post-Conciliar apostolate.

Imprimi potest
Fr. JACOBUS MARIA, Prior Cartusiae. In domo Lucae, 4 Maii 1920.
Nihil obstat
Fr. THOMAS BERGH, O.S.B. Censor deputatus. 7 Junii 1920.
+ PETRUS, Episcopus Southwarcensis. 9 Junii 1920.