Implications--Contemplation and the Active Life

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I share the thoughts below because they have much troubled me the past several days. I have cast about for ways of saying what I would like to say and what I believe needs to be said, but this interior monologue expressed exteriorly is the best I could manage.

Tom of Disputations has stated that it is his belief that the teachings of St. John of the Cross do not comprise a universal call to holiness, that, in fact, they are really only for Carmelites and those inclined to Carmelite spirituality--not everyone is called to union nor to the contemplative life.

IF I believed that, I would have to discontinue blogging, because the only purpose to blogging is to share the NOT-EXCLUSIVELY Carmelite message of the call to Union with God. There would be no point in writing about these matters for the seven or eight Carmelites who are already on the boards, they already know this stuff as well or better than I do. I cannot say better than St. John of the Cross what he himself said.

However, I don't feel it to be true for several reasons. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are all Doctors of the Universal Church. Not doctors of the Carmelites, not merely great sainted leaders of the Carmelites. Now, there have been a good many founders of orders who are also Doctors of the Church, but many, as well who are not. It is not the founding of an order (which Teresa and John did not do) that makes one a Doctor of the Church. It is the articulation of a universal truth of the Church recognized as such. Thus what they have to say isn't spoken merely to Carmelites, or, for that matter merely to those inclined to mystical experience. Just as what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say is not confined to Dominicans or to those inclined to the exercise of intellect in Church matters.

For example, I quote John Paul II letter on St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Divini Amoris Scientia:

In these three different manuscripts, which converge in a thematic unity and in a progressive description of her life and spiritual way, Thérèse has left us an original autobiography which is the story of her soul. It shows how in her life God has offered the world a precise message, indicating an evangelical way, the "little way", which everyone can take, because everyone is called to holiness.

In fact, St. Thérèse's teaching is a distillation of the work of St. John of the Cross. Following His direction and that of St. Teresa of Avila, the Little flower concentrated their writings into the very concise, very small, very precise "little way."

from Divini Amoris Scientia
His Holiness John Paul II

From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her "eminent doctrine", which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.

First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher who, as she says, is "the Doctor of Doctors" (Ms A, 83v), and from him she receives "divine teachings" (Ms B, 1r). She feels that the words of Scripture are fulfilled in her: "Whoever is a little one, let him come to me.... For to him that is little, mercy shall be shown" (Ms B, 1v; cf. Prv 9:4; Wis 6:6) and she knows she is being instructed in the science of love, hidden from the wise and prudent, which the divine Teacher deigned to reveal to her, as to babes (Ms A, 49r; cf. Lk 10:21-22).

Pius XI, who considered Thérèse of Lisieux the "Star of his pontificate", did not hesitate to assert in his homily on the day of her canonization, 17 May 1925: "The Spirit of truth opened and made known to her what he usually hides from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones; thus she enjoyed such knowledge of the things above - as Our immediate Predecessor attests - that she shows everyone else the sure way of salvation" (AAS 17 [1925], p. 213).

Her teaching not only conforms to Scripture and the Catholic faith, but excels ("eminet") for the depth and wise synthesis it achieved. Her doctrine is at once a confession of the Church's faith, an experience of the Christian mystery and a way to holiness. Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.

Thérèse's teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: "There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on... through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth" (Dei Verbum, n. 8).

In the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux we do not find perhaps, as in other Doctors, a scholarly presentation of the things of God, but we can discern an enlightened witness of faith which, while accepting with trusting love God's merciful condescension and salvation in Christ, reveals the mystery and holiness of the Church.

Thus we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experience of faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ. In her are found the gifts of the new law, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself in living faith working through charity (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., I-II, q. 106, art. 1; q. 108, art. 1).

We can apply to Thérèse of Lisieux what my Predecessor Paul VI said of another young Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena: "What strikes us most about the Saint is her infused wisdom, that is to say, her lucid, profound and inebriating absorption of the divine truths and mysteries of faith.... That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit" (AAS 62 [1970], p. 675).

8. With her distinctive doctrine and unmistakable style, Thérèse appears as an authentic teacher of faith and the Christian life. In her writings, as in the sayings of the Holy Fathers, is found that lifegiving presence of Catholic tradition whose riches, as the Second Vatican Council again says, "are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and prayer" (Dei Verbum, n. 8).

If considered in its literary genre, corresponding to her education and culture, and if evaluated according to the particular circumstances of her era, the doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux appears in providential harmony with the Church's most authentic tradition, both for its confession of the Catholic faith and for its promotion of the most genuine spiritual life, presented to all the faithful in a living, accessible language. . . .

10. The spiritual doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux has helped extend the kingdom of God. By her example of holiness, of perfect fidelity to Mother Church, of full communion with the See of Peter, as well as by the special graces obtained by her for many missionary brothers and sisters, she has rendered a particular service to the renewed proclamation and experience of Christ's Gospel and to the extension of the Catholic faith in every nation on earth.

There is no need to dwell at length on the universality of Thérèse's doctrine and on the broad reception of her message during the century since her death: it has been well documented in the studies made in view of conferring on her the title of Doctor of the Church.

A particularly important fact in this regard is that the Church's Magisterium has not only recognized Thérèse's holiness, but has also highlighted the wisdom of her doctrine. Pius X had already said that she was "the greatest saint of modern times". On joyfully receiving the first Italian edition of the Story of a Soul, he extolled the fruits that had resulted from Thérèse's spirituality. Benedict XV, on the occasion of proclaiming the Servant of God's heroic virtues, explained the way of spiritual childhood and praised the knowledge of divine realities which God granted to Thérèse in order to teach others the ways of salvation (cf. AAS 13 [1921], pp. 449-452). On the occasion of both her beatification and canonization, Pius XI wished to expound and recommend the Saint's doctrine, underscoring her special divine enlightenment (Discorsi di Pio XI, vol. I, Turin 1959, p. 91) and describing her as a teacher of life (cf. AAS 17 [1925], pp. 211-214). When the Basilica of Lisieux was consecrated in 1954, Pius XII said, among other things, that Thérèse penetrated to the very heart of the Gospel with her doctrine (cf. AAS 46 [1954], pp. 404-408). Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, visited Lisieux several times, especially when he was Nuncio in Paris. On various occasions during his pontificate he showed his devotion to the Saint and explained the relationship between the doctrine of the Saint of Avila and her daughter, Thérèse of Lisieux (Discorsi, Messaggi, Colloqui, vol. II [1959-1960], pp. 771-772). Many times during the celebration of the Second Vatican Council, the Fathers recalled her example and doctrine. On the centenary of her birth, Paul VI addressed a Letter on 2 January 1973 to the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, in which he extolled Thérèse's example in the search for God, offered her as a teacher of prayer and theological virtue of hope, and a model of communion with the Church, calling the attention of teachers, educators, pastors and theologians themselves to the study of her doctrine (cf. AAS 65 [1973], pp. 12-15). I myself on various occasions have had the joy of recalling the person and doctrine of the Saint, especially during my unforgettable visit to Lisieux on 2 June 1980, when I wished to remind everyone: "One can say with conviction about Thérèse of Lisieux that the Spirit of God allowed her heart to reveal directly to the people of our time the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel.... Her 'little way' is the way of 'holy childhood'. There is something unique in this way, the genius of St Thérèse of Lisieux. At the same time there is the confirmation and renewal of the most basic and most universal truth. What truth of the Gospel message is really more basic and more universal than this: God is our Father and we are his children?" (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. III/1 [1980], p. 1659).

These simple references to an uninterrupted series of testimonies from the Popes of this century on the holiness and doctrine of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and to the universal dissemination of her message clearly express to what extent the Church, in her pastors and her faithful, has accepted the spiritual doctrine of this young Saint.

A sign of the ecclesial reception of the Saint's teaching is the appeal to her doctrine in many documents of the Church's ordinary Magisterium, especially when speaking of the contemplative and missionary vocation, of trust in the just and merciful God, of Christian joy and of the call to holiness. Evidence of this fact is the presence of her doctrine in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 127, 826, 956, 1011, 2011, 2558). She who so loved to learn the truths of the faith in the catechism deserved to be included among the authoritative witnesses of Catholic doctrine.

Thérèse possesses an exceptional universality. Her person, the Gospel message of the "little way" of trust and spiritual childhood have received and continue to receive a remarkable welcome, which has transcended every border.

The influence of her message extends first of all to men and women whose holiness and heroic virtues the Church herself has recognized, to the Church's pastors, to experts in theology and spirituality, to priests and seminarians, to men and women religious, to ecclesial movements and new communities, to men and women of every condition and every continent. To everyone Thérèse gives her personal confirmation that the Christian mystery, whose witness and apostle she became by making herself in prayer "the apostle of the apostles", as she boldly calls herself (Ms A, 56r), must be taken literally, with the greatest possible realism, because it has a value for every time and place. The power of her message lies in its concrete explanation of how all Jesus' promises are fulfilled in the believer who knows how confidently to welcome in his own life the saving presence of the Redeemer.

I'm sorry to quote at such length, but I think it is time to put this whole question to rest. There can be no question that John Paul II and one assumes much of the Church from the time of the Saint's beatification has regarded here doctrine as sound and universal and her doctrine is nothing other than that handed down from the Bible and from the riches of her mother and father in faith, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

Regarding St. John of the Cross, another opinion supporting my own from Doctors of the Church.

John's words are for all creatures and especially members of the Church. They do not have to live in monasteries or secluded settings or be contemplative. For John, God wants to transform each and everyone regardless of their lifestyle. All have to give the payback. We are "bandits". Intentionally or unintentionally we keep or are stingy with God who wants our loving thoughts, feelings, aspirations and desperations. John understood that to give up these for God results in a giving back to Him. John always reminds us that love is only repaid by love alone. We are spiritual thieves. We have imprisoned the Word made Flesh in God's many sanctuaries. God is more entrapped by His love for us than by our "stealing" him away from the celestial court. The kingdom of the heavenly court dwells in our midst, mystically and physically. Faith and love grasp this truth.

There is a mystic in each of us. It's God dwelling in us in a marvelous and invisible manner. God is absolute Mystery. God told Moses "I am who I am" One can not say more about God's presence than what God told Moses. The mystical apostle, St John, described God's nature: God is love. The mystical doctor's message is where there is no love, put love and you will find love. He was absolutely convinced that nothing is obtained from God except through love.

(I apologize that I was unable to find the document of Pius XI declaring him a Doctor of the Universal Church.

In my opinion, the fact that St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite in no way narrows the scope of his advise merely to those who are Carmelite. He is a teacher of the Universal Church--not without flaw or error, but certainly on a par with other Doctors of the Church. Just as St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and all of the great saints are not teachers of one small sector of the Church alone, neither is St. John of the Cross. One need not be Carmelite to heed his advice. Moreover, John of the Cross can be viewed simply as a synthesist of Doctrine up to his time. Finally, John spent more time as a director than as a teacher. Much of his teaching is really about teaching one to understand where one is on the spiritual path. He did very little direct teaching about a "method" or a "mode" of praying--he simply marked the path and told us how to recognize signs that tell us we need to progress and move on.

So I don't think the blog is in any danger. I stand on firm ground when I categorically state that St. John's teaching, like St. Therese's and St. Teresa's and St. Catherine of Siena is meant for all. If one chooses not to follow it, that is one's own business, but to suggest that because one does not choose to follow it, it necessarily follows that the teaching is not for all is, in my opinion and the opinion of a great many others whose thought means a great deal more than my own, erroneous. St. John advises all of us, Carmelites and Catholics of no order. What he has to say is not for a select few, the "chosen" or the called. Nor is meant only for the Carmelite order. This, in point of fact, is part of what is meant when one is declared a Doctor of the Universal Church. To object that his saying is difficult and therefore not required of us can be legitimately compared (in a far lesser degree) to stating that Jesus' teaching is hard and therefore not required of us. Truly St. John's teaching is not a requirement of salvation (whereas Jesus’ is); however, the difficulty it presents in no way abrogates its efficacy in achieving a life of holiness.

Are there other ways to do the same thing? Perhaps, but they all come to the same thing: "Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me." "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (or God and Venus, or God and Ceres, or God and Nature, or God and . . .) it is God alone. This is the core of the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and his call to contemplation and union is meant for all, either now, or in the life to come. There is no getting around it. The vocation of Christian life is perfection in charity that can only come about through stripping oneself (through grace and the Holy Spirit) from all attachments to things less than God. Hard, but true, and stated time and again in the teaching of the Church from the lips of Jesus to the present day.

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who shelters the homeless and feeds the poor and saves the unborn and teaches the unchurched if everyone is poor and "away at prayer"?

Dear Smockmomma,

Do you really think that Mother Teresa of Calcutta wasn't "away at prayer" as she did all she did? Did St. Catherine of Siena, who shamed the Pope at Avignon into returning to Rome not spend most of her life in contemplation?

There seems to be a prominent misconception that a contemplative life means sitting around and doing nothing. St. Teresa of Avila established 32 convents in her lifetime, difficult work sitting in your chamber and doing nothing.

I will say again--a contemplative life is not about doing nothing. It is about not letting anything come between you and what God wants for you. It is about achieving Union with God. When this happens, as James has wisely pointed out, your works should show it.

Contemplation is not isolation, in fact it is the most fundamental involvement in the affairs of humankind that there can be because the involvement is formed at a level higher than our own desires and wants.

Contemplatives are constantly feeding the poor, sheltering those without homes, fighting for the unborn, and carrying out all manner of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. I would venture to say that every great saint of action was also fundamentally a contemplative and led a contemplative life. They also led an active life. The two are not incompatible.



and your point for highlighting "you cannot serve God and mamon" is what? surely it is not meant to imply that if you are not a contemplative you are somehow serving mamon.

Dear Smockmomma,

I think I'm missing your point. I don't see it highlighted in my post. It's mentioned in the last paragraph--or did I boldface it elsewhere? If I did, it was probably some thought that slipped right out of my head before I actually wrote and I apologize for that. However, if you mean the last paragraph, I cite it to say that no matter what path is chosen it must end at the same summation--because it is not possible to serve God and mammon, because what is duple cannot achieve union with what is simple, whatever path is taken toward God winds up with a simplification a stripping away of all that is not-God. I go on to cite St. John of the Cross and say that is the core of his doctrine of contemplation, but it is actually the core of Christian life--"a slave cannot serve two masters." We must choose. By our choice to attend Mass, receive confession and the other sacraments, we have indeed expressed our desire and are on the right path, but far from the perfection of that path. We still love things that a not-God, often more than God Himself. But He will lead us with "leashes of love" as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing would have it. We have set out hands to the plow, now it is required that we not look back.

If I missed the reference you were talking about, please accept my apologies and drop me another line. I'll be happy to clarify. As I said, if it is somewhere else, my rather more dim than usual vision tonight overlooked it, please accept my apologies for the confusions.

(Sometimes things get highlighted that I mean to say something about, and then my brain gives a great big squeeze and tosses any vestige of what I was trying to say far, far away, and yet the highlighting remains. If it occurs outside that last paragraph, what is said above probably explains it.)




I have to agree with SmockMomma here. I don't get how contemplation is reconcilable with our duties in the world, although I think you provide a better explanation than most. I just don't find the argument convincing.

I had this argument with Athanasius of Summa Contra Mundum a few weeks ago. Maybe I just need to stop reading about contemplatives and how the contemplative life is what we're called to.

I don't see how you can be a contemplative, totally absorbed in Christ, sell all your posessions and, to use the vulgar, go be a bum, and still pay the rent/mortgage, raise and educate your kids, contribute to the financial support of the Church, etc. I suspect that's where SmockMomma is coming from.

On a separate note, I wanted to thank you for explaining to me why Therese of the Child Jesus is a Doctor of the Universal Church. I asked that question, rhetorically, just the other day. Thanks. I still don't understand what was so special about her, or the Little Way, but I at least understand why she's a Doctor.

Dear Flambeaux,

And you would be right, if that were what contemplation is about. But that isn't. I keep bringing up examples of contemplatives who lived very active lives and who had in their hands the care of many souls and a great deal of money from patrons. St. Teresa of Avila was one of these.

Where does one come by the impression that to be contemplative requires "selling everything and becoming a bum?" It absolutely isn't so. In fact, if one were married and/or had children, such an action would be a great sin against the family--great sin is no way to start a good contemplative life.

Please understand that contemplation isn't otherworldly. If is real and it is possible for everyone. It requires Paul's attitude toward things, "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor." Except for Franciscans it isn't about deliberately seeking poverty, it is, in part, about not seeking money above all. That is to say one continues one's job, one continues to support one's family, one continues to be a contributing member of society. None of these stand in the way of contemplation. Money is not evil. Love of money is. If your life is dominated by the quest for money, you'll never make much of a contemplative. However, if your life is properly oriented toward God, you'll never care about making much, you'll only care about fulfilling His will. For a married contemplative, part of that will entails the well-being of spouse and children. This means you can't sell everything.

I know it sounds odd--but think about the Chassidic Jews, who are very devout, likely many of them quite contemplative in their own fashion. But many of them work in the diamond districts of New York and make a great deal of money. It is only in western Christianity that we drawn the odd equation that sanctity necessarily entails poverty. However, St. Katherine Drexel was at once very saintly and quite wealthy all of her life. She did not "sell everything and become a bum" but rather built homes, shelters, hospitals and schools for the poor.

Contemplation is not precluded by active participation in the requirements of your primary vocation. The greatest bar to contemplation is sin. Period.



For the record: No, it is not my belief, and I doubt I ever stated, that the teachings of St. John of the Cross do not comprise a universal call to holiness, nor that they are really only for Carmelites and those inclines to Carmelite spirituality, nor that everyone is not called to union or to the contemplative life.

What is my belief, and what I do think I stated, is that not everything St. John of the Cross wrote is for everybody.

Dear Tom,

And I readily admit that in my usual haste I may have misread and generalized. I accept not only the correction to the view I have presented here, but also the premise you state. There may well be portions of St. John of the Cross that are the "exclusive domain" of the Carmelites--that is things that are so intrinsicially related to the vocation that they have little meaning or practical use beyond the Order.

More likely is that my own unique expression of St. John of the Cross may be such that I have distorted what he actually says into what it means for a Carmelite for him to have said X. In other words, the discrepancy may not be in John's writing but in my presenation and understanding of it. My understanding would naturally be informed by my own vocation and I will have blind spots with regard to that point. So it becomes more important for me, with your help, to identify things that may be potential differences and for me to examine them closely and see if the differences really stem from St. John of the Cross or if they stem from Steven's distorted reporting of St. John. Then I can correct the phrasing to more accurately reflect what St. John actually teaches--which may indeed be universal, or which may be uniqurely Carmelite.

Thanks for clarifying and providing the opportunity for me to reflect more fully upon these differences.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 18, 2004 6:02 PM.

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