I was thinking recently about the contemplative life – the life of those who give themselves up entirely to prayer, night and day – and had those common, critical thoughts about it: Isn’t it cowardly, abandoning the world? Why don’t they do something good and useful for the world instead? Isn’t it selfish, to leave the world in its misery, and go to seek your own heavenly bliss?
It troubled me, because I know the Church teaches not only its goodness, but (at least traditionally) its superiority to the active life. Jesus Himself said, Mary chose the better part, and it will not be taken from her.
And then (thank God), I realised that I was judging the contemplative life not even by the standards of the active life, but by the standards of the world. The contemplative life is on a different plane, and can’t be comprehended by the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot grasp it.
The contemplative life weds Heaven to earth, marries God to creation. That is why it is linked to celibacy (that, and practical concerns). In the Contemplative, creation is surrendered and offered to the Father, through and with and in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Through the Contemplative’s prayer, she is divinized, and all of creation with her. In her prayer, we are being brought to fulfillment in Christ.
The contemplative life appears cowardly, because we miss the true battleground of life. To a communist, the wars of the capitalists are stupid, not brave, because the true war, the war that will resolve all others, is the class war; to the Catholic, both are foolish, and every other human war too, because the true war, the one that will resolve all others, is the spiritual war.
It appears useless, because it is the very meaning of life. And how could the ultimate meaning be recognised by those who set their minds upon the use of things, rather than their final ends?
It appears as selfish, because in our selfish worldview, we wrongly assume that happiness and the desire for happiness are selfish. We assume that happiness comes from the self, when in truth, it is from the death of the self, and the Life of God. Contemplatives are happy insofar as they die to themselves, and no further. We have died, and the life we now live is hidden with Christ in God.
So what shall we make of the active life? The active life must be brought to entirely serve the life of the Spirit. Our work is not its own end, however good it may be, but is there for us to encounter and adore God in it.
The contemplative life is superior to the active as the end is superior to the means. Yet, if the active is a servant to the contemplative, it may thereby not only participate in the contemplative, but even fulfil and supercede it by humility. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
God bless you!