The Primacy of Contemplation

Source: District of Asia

At the beginning of his De doctrina Christiana St. Augustine says that if our contemplation of God, through Scripture, cannot be shared with others, it is not yet fully developed in us. If a good is of such a nature that it is not diminished by being shared, then, if we possess it without sharing it, we do not yet possess it in its perfection. St. Thomas echoed that thought when he described the dignity of those religious orders which are devoted not only to contemplation but to the work of sharing the fruits of their contemplation with other men.

The phrase used by the Angelic Doctor has become classical. Sicut enim majus est illuminare quam lucere solum, ita majus est contemplata aliis tradere quam solum contemplari.  St. Thomas concludes from this that the religious orders which are devoted to preaching and teaching are therefore superior to orders which are considered "purely contemplative" and that these in turn are superior to those which are called "purely active." But the fact that the preaching and teaching orders are accidently concerned with works of the active life does not make the active life ipso facto superior to the contemplative life. On the contrary, in the thought of St. Thomas, the activity of the preaching orders has a very special character. We remember that when St. Thomas agreed that the active life might be preferred to contemplation, in certain circumstances, he qualified his statement with the phrase, propter abundantiam divini amoris. When he comes to consider the activity of the apostolic orders, the same notion of superabundance is in the forefront of his mind. The dignity of the apostolic orders flows from the fact that their preaching bears witness to the fullness of contemplation: ex plentitudine contemplationis derivatur.

The dignity of the apostolic orders is not derived from their apostolate as such. It is not derived from their activity. It is not derived from their preaching. It is derived from their contemplation. The contemplation proper to the apostolic vocation is not simply a low degree of contemplation, but its fullness. The works to which these orders are devoted cannot be performed as they ought to be performed unless they are the overflow of contemplation in all its plenitude. And so, if St. Thomas considers the apostolic orders superior to merely contemplative orders, it is not because of what they accomplish in the external order of things. It is not because they get busy and do things that the Dominicans are to be preferred to the Carthusians, in the mind of St. Thomas. The only justification the apostolic orders can have for claiming superiority over the purely contemplative orders is the fact that they are destined, by their very nature, to the superabundance of contemplation-a contemplation that has to overflow and communicate itself to others.

St. Thomas does not take a merely abstract view of the conditions upon which the superiority of the apostolic orders depends, as if it were sufficient for the orders themselves to have a high ideal, while the interior lives of their members counted for nothing. Speaking in the same terms, using the image of a fire that burns and gives light, he speaks of preachers who, because they do not have deep interior lives of love and prayer, are lights in appearance only, and not in truth. They are lightbearers by vocation but in actual fact their lights have gone out-or else they were never lit. Aliqui sunt lucernae solum quantum ad officium, sed quantum ad affectum sunt extinctae. The reason for this, says the Angelic Doctor, is that a spiritual light is not enkindled except by the fire of charity. He is speaking of the love which is the principle of contemplation. Ardor praemittitur illustrationi.

Therefore, when St. Thomas argues that the preaching and teaching orders hold pride of place among all other religious institutes, he bases their dignity not merely on their activity but on the contemplation which is the principle of that activity. They owe their superiority to the fact that the very nature of their works implies a purer and more intimate love of God and a deeper, more experimental knowledge of His infinite goodness. Far from detracting from what he had said about the primacy of the contemplative life, St. Thomas' explanation of the superiority of the preaching orders only enhances the dignity of contemplation, which is the essential end of the apostolic vocation.

Let there be no hesitation on this point. The preaching and teaching orders are not destined merely to functions of the active life. The contemplative life is an absolutely essential end of the preaching vocation. Without it, the kind of preaching envisaged by St. Thomas will be impossible.

Nor is it sufficient to consider contemplation merely as a means to action, in the life of the preaching orders. According to Father Garrigou-Lagrange this would be a "diminution of the traditional teaching." Contemplation is not a secondary end of the apostolic life. It is not the mere handmaid of activity. It does not take a subordinate rank to the work of preaching. On the contrary, it is contemplation itself which is the primary and principal end of the apostolic life. I am not making this up out of my own Cistercian head. I would never dare, of my own accord, to come out so flatly with such a statement, concerning the vocation of orders of which I have only a remote knowledge. I am simply quoting the most authoritative modern spokesman of one of the greatest of the preaching orders. Father Garrigou-Lagrange says quite clearly: "It is apostolic action itself which is a means subordinated to the union with God to which the apostle wishes to lead souls.... We must say that the apostolic life tends principally to contemplation which fructifies in the apostolate." Nor is Father Garrigou-Lagrange alone in this opinion. Father Joret, O.P., in his quasi-official guide to the Dominican life, insists that the Friar Preacher does not merely use contemplation as a source for apostolic ideas. Contemplation is the very summit of the Dominican life, the highest of ends for the Friar Preacher. Contemplation and action are not two distinct ends of the apostolic life, of which the first is the means to the second. On the contrary, there is one end only: a contemplation so superabundant that it overflows in apostolic action.

Father Bernardot, O.P., writes in a similar vein: "If the religious applies himself to prayer and study, not principally for the sake of contemplation itself, but in view of some active work, in order to be able to teach and to preach, his application to contemplation then reduces itself to a work of the active life because it is performed chiefly in view of an exterior action."  It would follow that prayer and study, performed with an exterior activity in mind as their proximate end, would become works of the active life and would thus be inferior to works of the purely contemplative life. Msgr. Journet, writing in La vie spirituelle, remarks that:  The apostolic life which involves exterior activity in the world is more excellent than the contemplative life only in so far as its exterior activity, instead of preying upon contemplation as a parasite, is merely added to contemplation in order to manifest it. As long as exterior activity attenuates the lustre of hidden contemplation, then the active life prevails, and this active life is inferior both to the contemplative life and to the apostolic life. What we call the apostolate, in ordinary parlance, is, quite often, nothing but the active life, and that in its lowest degree. 

The Carmelites have an extraordinarily strict and lofty ideal in this respect. The primacy of contemplation is so jealously safeguarded in the Carmelite Rule that it can be said to be the essential characteristic of that Rule. So strictly is action subordinated to contemplation, in the Carmelite ideal, that without contemplation a Carmelite is not supposed even to attempt to enter the apostolate.