22 May 2009

In Praise Of Contemplation

Below are excerpts from the Apostolic Constitution, Umbratilem, by Pope Pius XI. It is a letter which expresses high approval for the contemplative life, and praises God for raising up Saint Bruno to restore the contemplative life of the Church to her earlier splendor.

While the letter does focus specifically on the call by God on those who serve the Church full-time in the life of contemplation, silence and solitude, the Holy Father does mention, however, the example of Mary of Bethany which intimates further reflection for those among the laity.

It has been preached and taught by many over the centuries that in that particular Gospel account, Martha represents the active life and Mary the contemplative life. The contemplative life is a full-time calling placed upon some, but the active life is a full-time calling placed upon no one. Each of us, regardless of the duties and cares we are responsible for in the world, are not excluded from “the better part”. And now more than ever we as Christians need to commit ourselves to a daily routine of going into a room, shutting the door and praying to our Father in secret (cf. Matthew 6:6). The Holy Father, even at the time when this Apostolic Constitution was written, reveals a world of “so many Christians living without a thought for the things of the next world.” How much truer is this today?

Father Thomas Keating O.C.S.O., reflecting on the Martha and Mary story, writes: “When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the good portion, He is telling Martha that she needs to find a place in her life for this contemplative quality, and that this perspective would make her good actions better. Purity of intention developed through contemplation brings to action the quality of love. Without contemplative prayer, action easily becomes mechanical, routine, draining and may lead to burnout.”

All those, who, according to their rule, lead a life of solitude remote from the din and follies of the world, and who not only assiduously contemplate the divine mysteries and the eternal truths, and pour forth ardent and continual prayers to God that His Kingdom may flourish and be daily spread more widely, but who also atone for the sins of other men still more than for their own by mortification, prescribed or voluntary, of mind and body - such indeed must be said to have chosen the better part, like Mary of Bethany.

For no more perfect state and rule of life than that can be proposed for men to take up and embrace, if the Lord calls them to it. Moreover, by the inward holiness of those who lead the solitary life in the silence of the cloister and by their most intimate union with God, is kept brightly shining the halo of that holiness which the spotless Bride of Jesus Christ holds up to the admiration and imitation of all.

From the earliest times this mode of life, most perfect and at the same time most useful and fruitful for the whole of Christendom more than anyone can conceive, took root in the Church and spread abroad on all sides.

Since the whole object of this institution lay in this, that the monks, each one in the privacy of his cell, unoccupied with any exterior ministry and having nothing to do with it, should fix their thoughts exclusively on things of heaven, wonderful was the benefit that accrued from it to Christian Society.

In the course of time the institution so pre-eminent, that is called the contemplative life, declined somewhat and lost in vigor. The reason was that, although the monks, as a rule, shunned the care of souls and other exterior ministry, yet they came by degrees to combine the works of active life with their pondering on divine things and their contemplation.

According to His great kindness, God, Who is ever attentive to the needs and well-being of His Church, chose BRUNO, a man of eminent sanctity, for the work of bringing the contemplative life back to the glory of its original integrity. To that intent Bruno founded the Carthusian Order, imbued it with his own spirit and provided it with those laws which might efficaciously induce its members to advance speedily along the way of inward sanctity and of the most rigorous penance, to the preclusion of every sort of exterior ministry and office: laws which would also impel them to persevere with steadfast hearts in the same austere and hard life.

If ever it was needful that there should be anchorites of that sort in the Church of God it is most especially expedient nowadays when we see so many Christians living without a thought for the things of the next world and utterly regardless of their eternal salvation, giving reign to their desire for earthly pelf and the pleasures of the flesh and adopting and exhibiting publicly as well as in their private lives pagan manners altogether opposed to the Gospel.

It is hardly necessary to say what great hope and expectation the Carthusian monks inspire in us, seeing that since they keep the rule of their Order not only accurately but also with generous ardor, and since that rule easily carries those who observe it to the higher degree of sanctity, it is impossible that those religious should not become and remain powerful pleaders with our most merciful God for all Christendom.