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Contemplative Life

The Catholic Encyclopedia

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A life ordered in view of contemplation; a way of living especially adapted to lead to and facilitate contemplation, while it excludes all other preoccupations and intents. To seek to know and love God more and more is a duty incumbent on every Christian and should be his chief pursuit, and in this wide sense the Christian and the contemplative lives are synonymous. This duty, however, admits of various degrees in its fulfillment. Many give into it only a part of their time and attention, either from lack of piety or because of other duties; others attempt to blend harmoniously the contemplative life with active ministry, i.e. the care of souls, which, undertaken from a motive of supernatural charity, can be made compatible with the inner life. Others again, who have the will and the means, aim at accomplishing the duty of contemplation to the utmost perfection, and give up all occupations inconsistent with it, or which, on account of man's limited abilities, of their nature would impede it. The custom has prevailed of applying the term "contemplative" only to the life led by the latter.

Contemplation, the object of contemplative life, is defined as the complacent, loving gaze of the soul on Divine truth already known and apprehended by the intellect assisted and enlightened by Divine grace. This definition shows the two chief differences between the contemplation of the Christian ascetic and the merely scientific research of the theologian.

The act of contemplation, imperfect as it needs be, is of all human acts one of the most sublime, one of those which render the greatest honor to God, bring the greatest good to the soul, and enable it most efficaciously to become a means of salvation and manifold blessing to others. According to St. Bernard (De Consider., lib. I, c. vii), it is the highest form of human worship, as it is essentially an act of adoration and of utter self-surrender of man's whole being. The soul in contemplation is a soul lying prostrate before God, convinced of and confessing its own nothingness, and His worthiness to receive all love and glory and honor and blessings from those He has created. It is a soul lost in admiration and love of the Eternal Beauty, the sight of which though but a feeble reflection, fill it with a joy naught else in the world can give — a joy which, far more eloquently than speech, testifies that the soul rates that Beauty above all other beauties, and finds in It the completion of all its desires. It is the jubilant worship of the whole heart, mind, and soul, the worship "in spirit and in truth" of the "true adorers", such as the Father seeks to adore Him (John 4:23). By contemplative life, however, is not meant a life passed entirely in contemplation. On earth an act of contemplation cannot be of long duration, except in the case of an extraordinary privilege granted by Divine power. The weakness of our bodily senses and the natural instability of our minds and hearts, together with the exigencies of life, render it impossible for us to fix our attention for long on one object. This is true with regard to earthly or material things; it is still more true in matters pertaining to the supernatural order. Only in Heaven shall the understanding be strengthened so as to waver no more, but adhere unceasingly to Him who made it.

Hence it is rare to find souls capable of leading a life of contemplation without occasionally engaging their mental or physical activity in earthy or material things. The combination, of the two lives, of which Catholic hagiology affords such striking and glorious examples, is, as a general rule, and for persons of ordinary attainments, a matter of considerable difficulty. Exterior action, with the solicitude and cares attendant on it, tends naturally to absorb the attention; the soul is thereby hampered in its efforts to ascend to the higher regions of contemplation, as its energy, capacity, and power of application are usually too limited to allow it to carry on together such different pursuits with success. If this is true with regard to those even who are working for God and are engaged in enterprises undertaken for the furtherance of His interests, it is all the more true of those who are toiling with no other direct end than to procure their subsistence and their temporal well-being. This is why those who have wished to give themselves up to contemplation and reach an eminent degree of mystical union with God have habitually withdrawn from the crowd and have abandoned all other pursuits, to lead a retired life entirely consecrated to the purpose of contemplation. It is evident that such a life can be led nowhere so safely and so easily as in those monastic orders which make it their special object. The rules of those orders supply their members with every means necessary and useful for the purpose, and safeguard them from all exterior obstacles. Foremost among these means must be reckoned the vows, which are great barriers raised against the inroads of the three great evils devastating the world (1 John 2:16). Poverty frees the contemplative from the cares inherent to the possession and administration of temporal goods, from the moral dangers that follow in the wake of wealth, and from that insatiable greed for gain which so lowers and materializes the mind. Chastity frees him from the bondage of married life with its solicitude so "dividing" to the heart and mind, to use the Apostle's expression (1 Corinthians 7:33), and so apt to confine man's sympathy and action within a narrow circle. By the same virtue also he obtains that cleanness of heart which enables him to see God (Matthew 5:8). Obedience, without which community-life is impossible, frees him from the anxiety of having to determine what course to take amidst the ever-shifting circumstances of life. The stability which the vow gives to the contemplative's purpose by placing him in a fixed state with set duties and obligations is also an inestimable advantage, as it saves him from natural inconsistency, the blight of so many undertakings.

Silence is of course the proper element of the contemplative soul, since to converse with God and men at the same time is hardly possible. Moreover, conversing unnecessarily is apt to give rise to numberless thoughts, fancies, and desires alien to the duties and purpose of contemplative life, which assail the soul at the hour of prayer and distract it from God. It is no wonder, then, that monastic legislators and guardians of regular discipline should always have laid such stress on the enforcing of silence, strenuously enforcing its observance and punishing transgression with special severity. This silence, if not perpetual, must embrace at least the greatest part of the contemplative's life. Solitude is the home of silence, and its surest safeguard. Moreover, it cuts to the root of one of the strongest of man's selfish propensities, the desire to make a figure before the world, to win admiration and applause, or at least to attract attention, to be thought and spoken of. "Manifest thyself to the world" (John 7:4) says the demon of vainglory; but the Spirit of God holds another language (Matthew 6). Solitude may be twofold: the seclusion of the cloister, which implies restriction of intercourse with the outer world; and the eremitic confinement of the cell, a practice which varies in different orders.

Religious life, being essentially a life of self-denial and self-sacrifice, must provide an effectual antidote to every form of self-seeking, and the rules of contemplative orders especially are admirably framed so as to thwart and mortify every selfish instinct; vigils, fasts, austerity in food, clothing, etc., and often manual labour tame the flesh, and thus help the soul to keep in subjection its worst enemy. Contemplatives, in short, forego many transient pleasures, many satisfactions sweet to nature, all that the world holds most dear; but they gain in return a liberty for the soul which enables it to rise without hindrance to the thought and love of God. Though God Himself is the chief object and study of their meditation, He is not the only one. His works, His dealings with men, all that reveals Him in the province of grace or of nature is lawfully open to the contemplative's investigation. The development of the Divine plan in the growth of the Church and in the history of nations, the wondrous workings of grace and the guidance of Providence in the lives of individual souls, the marvels and beauty of creation, the writings of the saints and sages of Christendom, and above all, the Holy Scripture form an inexhaustible storehouse, whence the contemplative can draw food for contemplation.

The great function assumed by contemplatives, as has already been said, is the worship of God. When living in community, they perform this sacred office in a public, official way, assembling at stated hours of the day and night to offer to the Almighty "the sacrifice of Praise" (Psalm. xlix, 14, 23; see Office, Divine). Their chief work then is what St. Benedict (Rule, xliii) Call emphatically God's work (opus Dei), i.e. the solemn chanting of Divine praise, in which the tongue gives utterance to the admiration of the intellect and to the love of the heart. And this is done in the name of the Church and of all mankind. Not only does contemplation glorify God, but it is most beneficial to the soul itself. Nothing brings the soul into such close union with God, and union with God is the source of all saintliness. Never so well as when contemplating the perfections of God and the grandeur of His works does man see his own imperfections and failings, the vileness of sin, and the paltriness and futility of so many of his labours and undertakings; and thus nothing so grounds him in humility, the prop and the bulwark of every other virtue.

Love for God necessarily breeds love for our fellow-men, all children of the same Father; and the two loves keep pace with each other in their growth. Hence it follows that contemplative life is eminently conducive to increase of charity for others. The heart is enlarged, affection is deepened, sympathy becomes more keen, because the mind is enlightened as to the worth of an immortal soul in God's eyes. And although of the two great commandments given by Christ (Matthew 22:37 ff.) — love of God and love for our neighbor — the first is exemplified more markedly in contemplative orders, and the second in active orders, contemplatives must and do have in their hearts a strong and true love for others, but they realize that love in their deeds. The principal means contemplatives have of proving their love for others are prayer and penance. By prayer they draw down from Heaven on struggling and suffering humanity manifold graces, light, strength, courage and comfort, blessings for time and for eternity. By penance they strive to atone for the offenses of sinful humanity, to appease God's wrath and ward off its direful effects, by giving vicarious satisfaction to the demands of His justice. Their lives of perpetual abnegation and privation, of hardship cheerfully endured, of self-inflicted suffering, joined to the sufferings of their Divine Master and Model help to repair the evil men do and obtain God's mercy for the evildoers. They plead and make reparation for all men. This twofold ministry carried on within the narrow precincts of a monastery knows no other limits to its effects than the bounds of earth and the needs of mankind. Or rather that ministry extends further still its sphere of action, for the dead as well as the living benefit by it. (See also MONASTICISM).


ST. THOMAS, Summa Theol., II-II, Q. clxxix-clxxxii; SUAREZ, Tract. de Oratione, lib II, c, ix sqq; IDEM, De varietate religionum, lib., I, c.v, vi; DENYS THE CARTHUSIAN, De contemplatione; La vie contemplative: son role apostolique (Montreuil-sur-Mer, 1898); DIVINE, Manual of Mystical Theology (London, 1903).

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Contemplative Life'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​c/contemplative-life.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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