CHAPTER XX — THE FULLNESS OF LIFE
Activity and practicality
Of course the two, principles and problems, cannot be separated. Nor can activity exist alone. Activity as such can be the most impractical thing in the world, as impractical as twiddled thumbs. It is not the doing of things that is so very important, but the doing of right things; that is, the things that are worth doing because they lead a man to his end. If we forget this, our activity becomes as senseless as a flow of words devoid of meaning; for actions, like words, are important precisely because they have a meaning. To neglect that meaning for love of the action is to destroy the action in itself, to remove from that action its humanity.
In a word, activity is practical insofar as it is human activity, activity with a goal worthy of a man. It is the humanity of that agent, man, that is in danger of being overlooked today; and it must not be overlooked under pain of madness.
The life of a plant is a matter of nutrition and generation; but the life of a man cannot be gauged in inches and offspring, for man is not a plant. The life of an animal consists of sensation and movement; but the life of a man is not a matter of speed or smell, because he is not merely an animal. Every living thing can be classified by that which is most proper to it. The proper, the important, thing about man is that he is a man, that is, a thinking animal. His distinctive notes are his thought and love, and the roots of that rational activity. It is on the basis of his thinking and his rational love that a man’s life must be judged.
Thought and human life: active and contemplative
How far we have drifted from this obvious, and distinctly human, point of view can be seen in our attitude towards contemplation. It is always something esoteric, mysterious; in particular cases, it is of doubtful existence. There seems to be something indecent about its practice outside the halls of a cloister. Now, as a matter of fact, contemplation is an activity of the speculative intellect of man searching for truth; external activity is the fruit of the practical intellect of man. Since it is on the basis of his thought that a man’s life must be summed up, this double activity is a complete division of human life: every man, living humanly, is either primarily a thinker or primarily a doer.
The norm of classification
Notice that word “primarily.” Of course thinkers must answer alarm clocks, eat meals and put on overcoats; and doers are not automatons or clods with never a thought. This division is not a matter of exclusion, for exclusion of either contemplation or practical action is tragic for a man; in its most extreme terms, it means either starvation or insanity. The division is rather a statement of the principal intention of the individual man and consequently of his greatest pleasure. The man whose efforts are principally directed to getting things done is leading an active life; the man whose efforts are directed principally to the knowledge of truth is leading a contemplative life. Or, to put this on a very human basis, that which we prefer to do in the company of our friends is an indication of the nature of the human life we are living; for the norm of that division, that classification, is the principal intention and the principal pleasure of the individual agent.
It is possible for men to escape both the contemplative and the active life. That is, all of their efforts can be directed to some such thing as sense pleasure which is the life of the voluptuary, or to mere physical development, both being an escape from thought; but then their lives have ceased to be human. They have embraced an animal or plant mode of existence rather than attempt the difficult task of leading a human life.
The life of the thinker: Conditions of contemplation
It is a serious error to identify the contemplative with a dry, dusty, emotionless creature moving in a gray world of cold reason. We come much closer to the truth when we visualize the contemplative as a gallant lover reckless of the cost of his love. Surely the first condition of contemplation, as of every human action, is love. It may be only the love of knowledge, love like the philosopher’s thirst for natural truth; or it may be a love not only of knowledge but also of the thing that is known, the burning love of God, for example, which drives men to search for a glimpse of His beauty in all the world. But always contemplation must begin in love, endure by love and result in love.
The love of the contemplative is a holy, clean, beautiful love. It must be; for holiness, cleanliness and beauty are conditions for contemplation. Or, in simpler language, the contemplative must possess the moral virtues; there can be no contemplation where the vehemence of passion and the external tumult of the world keep the soul in an uproar. The moral virtues quiet the passions to a whisper and reduce the external tumult to a distant murmur that is almost like a lullaby, enhancing rather than disturbing the peace of the soul.
Chastity, above all the other moral virtues, makes a man apt for contemplation. It is true that the brilliant proportion and splendid clarity that go into the making of beauty are essentially things of the intellect; but they are participated by the moral virtues through their participation of reason’s order, particularly by that virtue which restrains the passion most likely to upset reason’s order and besmirch its splendor. Not that this impure man may not be more powerfully contemplative than this pure man; but the impure man would be an infinitely greater contemplative if the eyes of his soul were not irritated by the dust of the senses.
The field of contemplation
Contemplation is a swift, intuitive knowledge, an instantaneous plunge to the heart of truth. And we human beings are not intellectual plungers; we are more at home playing for pennies than risking all on one turn of the wheel. We must crawl from depths to heights, from heights to depths; unlike the angels, we approach gradually to the height of contemplation. First we must get principles of knowledge from others, either by listening, or reading, or appealing to God by prayer. Then we must deduce the truths from these principles by meditation, speculation, mulling over the things we have received, until, finally, we are ready for that insight into sublime truth; a view that strikes the soul like nothing so much as a sunrise seen from an Alpine height.
The nature of contemplation’s reward depends upon the nature of the truth that is contemplation’s object. The highest truth is the proper and final object of this highest act of man’s mind; it is man’s highest reward, the reward of heaven itself. Some day we shall have that vision perfectly, directly; but as yet we are not in heaven. Now we contemplate first the divine effects; they take us by the hand up to the contemplation of divinity itself. It is an imperfect contemplation; but a contemplation that is itself a beginning of heaven.
Thus, from the greatness and excellence of the works of God we are lifted up to an imperfect view of the divine majesty, omnipotence, and wisdom. The consideration of divine judgment opens up the vistas of divine justice; the consideration of His benefits and promises lifts the veil hiding the divine kindness and mercy, and sends us to our knees in praise and gratitude.
These then are the conditions of contemplation: love, the moral virtues, the intellectual acts leading up to contemplation and finally, contemplation itself. True, our contemplation must stop short of the vision of God; short of that rare apostolic grace of rapture, no man in this life sees the face of God. Nevertheless, that vision is the climax, the fitting perfection of our present contemplation.
This hurried view of the conditions of contemplation is more than sufficient to bring home to us the degree to which our age has surrendered its human birthright. Indeed, if we consider no more than two of these conditions — the moral virtues and the consideration of divine effects and divine truths — there remains little doubt of the completeness of the surrender by the pagan world of high, human goals. For in a world where virtue is tossed out or respected only as a social instrument, in a world which shunts aside divine causality as unscientific and ignorant, there is no possibility of contemplation; and that means that half, the more important half, of a man’s life has been amputated.
As Catholics, we cannot stand aside pitying the modern world from our secure eminence; for these same considerations of the conditions for contemplation make plain a glaring weakness of American Catholic life. It is true that we have the moral virtues and insist upon their practice; it is true that we love God and we do consider, at least from time to time, divine effects and divine truths. Certainly we do not question God’s part in the creation and maintenance of the world. But how about that intermediate process, that series of intellectual acts — listening, reading, praying, meditating, pondering the divine truths that we might come to the climax of contemplation? Fairly recently in England there has been a determined movement to encourage meditation, spiritual reading and eventually contemplation by laymen. The attempt itself, the effort necessary to put it in motion, is a confession of the great need for such a movement and therefore of the great defect it supplied; here in America the movement has not even been started. Our attitude is, perhaps, that contemplation, meditation, is something for monks and nuns; rather impossible for the layman. But is this true?
It would be much more to the point, instead of abstract speculation on the possibility or impossibility of meditation, to ask ourselves some pertinent questions. How much do we engage in reading that is calculated to give our minds and hearts the food for a consideration of divine things? How much listening do we do to discourses on this same material? How much praying for greater insight into these truths? How much mulling over do they get from us? With these questions answered we can logically approach the question of the possibility or impossibility of meditation for layfolk; and we do not have to go very far. The first priest we meet can testify from his own experience that meditation and contemplation are by no means impossible to layfolk.
Some years ago, in the course of a retreat, I was approached by a woman in tears. Every morning, after getting her husband off to work and her five children to school, she herself went to work in a factory; she was back to cook the noon meal, and she had to do the rest of the housework in the evening. The children were angels; the husband was kind. In fact everything was fine, except her prayers. In some completely mysterious fashion, she would find a half-hour during this crowded day to slip into Church; kneeling down, she started the Hail Mary, but she never got it finished. The thought of the goodness of God or His love would come to her mind — and the half hour was gone. Her point was that this could not go on. After all, her prayers had to be said; what should she do about it? The answer was, of course, to do nothing about it but thank God; for there is no prayer that can compare with such as these.
This is not an isolated experience. And certainly it would seem to indicate that the standard excuse of being too busy for meditation is decidedly thin. If we find little of meditation, very little of contemplation in our lives, some of the immediate causes are not hard to locate: it is because we do not pray enough, we do not give our minds supernatural food to munch on, nor our hearts time for more than a hasty caress. We are too much absorbed by the hurried age in which we live, so busy gathering up knowledge that we starve our minds and our hearts.
Joys and duration of contemplation
Really this is not a matter of shirking an unpleasant duty; it is a matter of cheating ourselves of a joy that might easily be ours. Remember that contemplation is a beginning, a foretaste of heaven; even in this life its joy exceeds every other human delight. It is a spiritual joy and so it goes far beyond all carnal pleasure. Moreover, it is the highest act of man, the act most in harmony with his nature, accomplishing that for which he exists; and more and more delightfully as he develops the intellectual virtues of wisdom and knowledge that make contemplation easier. It is the secret of the scholar’s long hours, the philosopher’s relentless pursuit of truth; and, far above all these things, the secret of the saint’s utter surrender, with its joy of contemplating supreme beauty, supreme love, of contemplating Him Whom we love above all else with a love exceeding all loves.
We do not slip into this joy as easily as we do into a family heritage. There is a bit of a brisk fight to attain it. A fight against the defects and limitations of our own mind, as for instance, against the irritation of reaching to the very edge of truth yet not quite grasping it, like having a word on the tip of our tongue but being unable to say it. It is, too, a fight against the heaviness of our body’s bearing us down to lower things. But the very fight only makes the triumph the sweeter and the joy the greater.
Yet the necessity of a fight for this thing should not surprise us when we remember that it borders on the divine. It is, after all, the product of that frank likeness of the divine in us, our intellect and our will; like the divinity, contemplation too is spiritual, incorruptible, enduring. It deals with the incorruptible, the eternal truth; there are no contraries to destroy it. Of course, such a thing as this is not to be had lightly. Yet it does not involve straining of muscles, cleverness of hands or quickness of feet. Of course we get tired working at it; but not as tired as a farmer or a bricklayer doing his work; and we are the more quickly ready to begin again until the time when there will be no call for interruption.
The Catholics attitude towards contemplation has always been one of reverence, while the pagan usually has stood before it puzzled and confused. And small wonder. To the Catholic, the contemplative is already busy at the work of heaven, occupied with the end and goal of all men. The contemplative brings God closer to the ordinary Catholic and so is a kind of visible intermediary who makes the step to God seem just that much shorter. They are God’s favorites, these contemplatives; and because they are friends of ours, they are doing much of our work, throwing a cloak of protection about us, interceding against our own weakness.
Seen in its full significance, this Catholic attitude is nothing less than a recognition of the true values of the contemplative and active life; an acknowledgment of the eternal character of the one and the transient character of the other. This is what stamps Catholic culture with its own peculiar attitude towards active life. It is the radical cause of Catholic culture’s refusal to get too excited about active life; of its easy (and to the pagan, shiftless) acceptance of active life and its vicissitudes. It is the thing that enables the Catholic to grin a little amusedly at his success and make his poverty a hot-house for the nurturing of the shoots of sanctity. For the Catholic knows that the active life does not last; it is a step in a journey. There are things to be done, milestones to be passed, sorrows to be borne, tasks to be accomplished, but all on the way to heaven. In that ultimate home, all activity will be ordered to contemplation and the enjoyment of that eternal truth; not to keeping body and soul together, paying taxes, building up a savings account.
The life of the worker: Conditions for successful work
At the moment, active life is no light thing. Living humanly is never a light thing. For the successful living of the active life, the moral virtues are essential, for it is by these that man gets things done. And to the man who maintains that these are easy it might be unkindly retorted: “Try it and see.” Since prudence is directly ordered to the regulation of the moral virtues, it, too, directly pertains to the active life.
There is a serious commentary on the practicality of our modern American philosophy of action in the fact that the proportion of the perfection of prudence and the moral virtues is the proportion of our success in the living of an active life. Obviously, if these are the norms of our ability to live an active life, much of our pagan world has made really practical active living an impossibility for themselves; for prudence gets nowhere without goals to aim at, and there is no room for moral virtue where sense appetite stands alone as the unchallenged driving power of a man’s life. Nor is an age that dodges personal responsibility in any sense practical; for the active life (which is practical life) is not a light thing, an easy thing to be faced by a coward. It is a human thing, worthy of the strong efforts of a stout human heart.
It is interesting to note that teaching, for all its airs and grave dignity, belongs next to ditch-digging, not next to contemplation. That is, considering not merely the truth conveyed, but rather the conveying of that truth to the student, teaching is a work of the active, not the contemplative life. It is a kind of intellectual hod-carrying; and, whether we greet the news with sorrow or with joy, it is a work which ceases with death. There are no school days in heaven, at least as far as human teachers are concerned.
However, this is no slur on teaching. It is frequently necessary for a man to live an active life; in fact, many times in the individual case, it is better for a man to live an active life, never, of course, excluding contemplation. Yet, considered objectively, there is no comparison between activity and contemplation; the contemplative life is far superior, a superiority that is spontaneously, intuitively recognized by the simplest of Catholics.
His family would have every right to their astonishment if the day-laborer of no education remarked, over the supper table, that contemplative life is more thoroughly in harmony with the intellectual nature of man as his highest act turning about his highest object. Nevertheless, that same man does grasp something of the full freedom, the approach to divinity of the contemplative life. He recognizes in its serene continuity the beginning of eternity; he sees the reflection of its penetrating joy stamped on the face of the contemplative; he has nothing but admiration for its greater self-sufficiency, freeing man more and more from worldly things. He can agree with Christ that Mary has chosen the best part, a part not ordered to further ends but desirable in itself. He can almost feel the quiet and peace it gives in contrast to the bustling activity of his own life. Perhaps more clearly than anything else, he sees why Mary’s part will not be taken away from her; that is, he sees that this is a beginning, a foretaste of heaven.
It may well be that some exhausted sweat-shop worker is here and now meriting much more than does this enclosed nun, by reason of the tired girl’s more intense charity. But in itself, contemplation is more meritorious than the active life because it directly and immediately pertains to the love of God. Yet we find contemplatives actually praying for a cessation of divine favors that they might engage in active work. Thus Catherine de Ricci prayed for less of ecstasies that she might more efficiently handle her task of sub-prioress; but this is not a case of the contemplative returning to a better life. Rather it is a sharing of the fruits of contemplation with others, a return to activity in order to direct the active lives of others, to lead these others to the ultimate contemplation of heaven. For active life is really a preparation for contemplation as earth is a preparation for heaven.
Not that the effort and external activity of the active life is not an impediment to the contemplative life. It is. It needs no argument to make evident the fact that the stenographer pounding away at her machine or the electrical worker handling wires of high voltage cannot have their minds free for divine contemplation. On the other hand, the active life humanly lived, with the full perfection of the moral virtues and of prudence, is a positive aid to and preparation for contemplation by the peace and order it instills in the inner life of a man.
A comparison of the active and contemplative life
Are there natural contemplatives? people who are naturally made for contemplation, as there are people who simply cannot sit down and think? This is the old, old question of temperament. It is true that a natural purity and quiet of soul makes one apt for contemplation; it is also true that a naturally passionate nature, a natural drive to action, fits a man for active life. But what is done with these temperaments is quite a different question. Nature is never a sufficient explanation for the destiny of a man. If he is fitted by nature for living the active life well, that means that he is fitted by nature to prepare himself well and quickly for the contemplative life; with that preparation over, he will probably throw himself whole-heartedly into the contemplative life with all the generosity of his passionate nature. But many a person with a natural aptitude for contemplation is far from a contemplative. In other words, this matter of natural aptitude is rather a question of the amount of preparation necessary before embarking on the daring flight of the contemplative life.
States of life: Grounds for distinction in general
The division of active and contemplative is a division of human life on a basis of human activity, and that activity is exercised by men in different states of life. The very phrase “states of life” calls up pictures of the rich contrasted with the poor, the aristocracy as over against the peasantry, and so on. Actually, all such considerations are too external, too variable, to constitute a man in a state of life. We can see this more readily if we look at the roots of that expression “state of life”. A better translation would be “stance of life”. The phrase is taken from a comparison with the physical position of a man standing: he stands when he is erect and quiet, not when he is running, walking, lying down or jumping in a pool. And it is in this position, erect and quiet, that his members are properly disposed, in their natural position — head above the feet, arms hanging down, and so on.
Thus a moral state or stance will be an erect and quiet or permanent position of man among his fellows. It implies a certain immobility or quiet and a relation to the obligations affecting the person of a man, to his natural position: that is, according as he stands by himself or by another, according as he is under obligation to another or free from it.
On this basis there are two general stances or states of life: the state of freedom and the state of slavery. Both are permanent, both have a relation to the obligations affecting the person. The free man, not bound to another, stands erect by himself; the slave, bound to another, is erect only in being bound to another. Thus the religious is in a different state of life from the secular, for he is a slave to God; the just man is in a different state of life from a sinner, for sinners are slaves to sin.
Within the Church
Under these general states, there will be many more particular ones, according to particular labors and particular goals that men must busy themselves with. Take for example the Church. It reflects the grace of Christ as the universe reflects the perfection of God, demanding almost as great a variety as is to be found in the physical universe; for many facets are necessary for even an inadequate mirroring of that splendor. Then too, we cannot all be nuns or bishops or country pastors; the Church has a wide task to perform, a task not to be handled by a quick change artist or variously colored spot-lights. And this very variety results in a dignity and beauty of the order found within the Church. In other words, this variety of states of life is necessary in the Church for its perfection, its action and its beauty.
Spiritual states of life
It is in terms of perfection we speak when we distinguish the various states of spiritual life. In spiritual things there is a double slavery and a double liberty. There is the slavery of sin which is the state of the habitual sinner; and the slavery of justice, which is the state of the habitually just man. Then there is the freedom from sin, proper to the man who is not overcome by his inclination to sin; and the freedom from justice, which belongs to the man who sins regardless of his inclination to justice. Obviously, the slavery of sin and the freedom from justice go hand in hand and constitute a real state of spiritual slavery; while the freedom from sin and the slavery of justice go together and constitute a state of real spiritual freedom.
It does not take a profound analysis to notice a depressing parallelism here between the “new freedom” and one of these states. That “new freedom” is an exultation in the release from the fetters of justice; it is the youthful sinner’s concentration on the freedom involved in the slavery of sin. Apparently it is only the long school of the years that teaches man that the fetters of sin grow steadily heavier, while the fetters of justice are lightened to the delicate weight of the bonds of love. There is a freedom in the discarding of ethical limitations, the freedom from justice that goes hand in hand with the slavery of sin.
Both states, of spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom, are achieved by human efforts. And that means that they are reached by that slow-motion peculiar to humanity; not all at once, but little by little, with a beginning, an advancement, and a final perfection. In the state of spiritual freedom these are called the state of the beginners, of those who are progressing and of the perfect; or, in more technical language, the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive state.
States of perfection: In general
Notice that all three are subdivisions of the state of spiritual freedom; in other words, the common note that binds all three together is the note of perfection, the note of charity. The point is important to offset the rumor, sponsored by slipshod thinking, to the effect that there is an imperfect charity like an imperfect factory product that can be had somewhat cheaper than the genuine thing. All charity is perfect in the sense that all charity prefers God above all else; there are not several kinds of charity, one good and others not so good. There is only one kind; but there are several degrees of that one kind. Men in all three of these states of spiritual perfection are spiritually free, i.e., they are united to God through charity; a truth that becomes obvious when we remember that these three states include all men in the state of grace.
It should not be hard to see that there are degrees of perfection. It is evident that we are not perfect as God is, loving Him infinitely as He loves Himself. The prosaic necessity of a night sleep is proof enough that we have not the prerogative of the blessed, of loving God to our full capacity and without interruption. There are, as a matter of fact, just two possibilities open to us. We can love God to the extent of avoiding sin; or we can go further and love Him to the extent of directing all our energies to love of Him by abandoning all else that might in any way hold us back from Him. The first is the state common to all the faithful keeping the Commandments; the second is the state common to those who have abandoned the world and entered religious life.
To put the matter in utterly simply language, perfection consists in keeping the Commandments. Christ spoke adequately, beautifully and with divine simplicity when He said: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” The counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are not a bypass to heaven, substitutes or alternates for the Commandments: they are instruments, dispositions for a more perfect observance of those Commandments. They do not set a man on a road different from that followed by the rest of the friends of Christ; they merely remove the obstacles from the common road, doing away with the slightest impediments to charity.
This makes clear a very necessary distinction. A rule of silence and bells that clang in the middle of the night are not essential for the observance of the Commandments; they can be kept in any condition of life, in any place, at any time. Consequently, in any condition of life we can be perfect. But the public embracing of the counsels, of the fixed, permanent way of life which we call religious, puts a man in the religious state or state of perfection. Notice that it does not make him perfect; rather it dedicates him to a whole-hearted pursuit of perfection that runs down its quarry only on the other side of death.
In particular: The episcopal state
As a matter of fact, this state of perfection is not the monopoly of religious; indeed, they have elbowed their way in, by their profession, to a condition that bishops take on by virtue of their office itself. It takes a brave man to accept a bishopric; for it takes a brave man to dedicate himself not only to his own perfection, but to the perfecting of others. His perfection must fill the cup of his own soul and overflow into the souls of others; his love must be a flaming fire, not only sufficient to warm the house of his own soul, but to set fire to the hearts of all of his people.
We are being decidedly petty when we think of a bishopric only in terms of the honor, the administrative planning, the wealth or the power that may go with it; we are forgetting the loneliness of it, the long hours of prayer, the sorrow that escapes all comfort as souls make their way to hell, the agony of a commander whose lieutenants send in such desperate pleas for help from beleaguered fortresses on all sides.
This is an office not to be refused at one’s own pleasure, but cheerfully accepted when obedience demands; it is an office lawfully desired, but only by a man who wishes to make a holocaust of himself. Naturally, it is not a state into which one steps lightly.
Immediately upon assuming his office, the bishop becomes the torch-bearer for all others, the center of all eyes. He carries the responsibility for the souls of his people and they look to him unquestioningly for leadership. It takes a good man to be a bishop; but not necessarily the absolutely best man. Once he has undertaken his apostolic task, the bishop cannot lightly lay it down; he is dedicated to the souls of others and they must be his first consideration. He cannot desert them for any reasons of personal convenience, safety or even of greater perfection offered by the contemplative life.
The religious state: As a “state of perfection.”
Even in religious life there are grouches, early-morning indispositions, people who find the coffee abominable; for the religious state and sanctity are not synonymous terms. That you can take as absolutely first hand information. There is no halo included in the habit that is given to a postulant. These men and women are called religious because they bind themselves to the service of God with the chains of love; they offer God a holocaust of themselves and that is the work of religion. They die to the world; though not infrequently they have difficulty staying dead. Because by their state they unite themselves to God, it is called a state of perfection.
The postulant is not asked to work miracles as a condition of admittance; for sanctity is not a pre-disposition to the religious life. Rather it is the goal of religious life; indeed, while religious life demands many things, it also offers many helps, gives freedom from many temptations and is, generally, a boon to the weak as well as to the holy. In fact, we might say that one can save one’s soul much more easily in the religious life — but not nearly so comfortably.
The essence of religion
The obligations of the religious are the source of his joy as well as of his discomfort; they embrace, over and above the Ten Commandments, his rule and the three counsels of Christ that make up the essence of the religious life: poverty, chastity and obedience. These latter are embraced under vow and necessarily so: since the state of religion implies an obligation to the things of perfection, an immobility or permanence that is conferred by the vows. There is a graphic statement of the purpose of the vows in the story of the Roman emperor who recovered the true Cross and, from his piety, determined to shoulder it while he retraced the Way of the Cross; but with all his great strength, he could not move a step along that sacred way until he had taken off his shoes and discarded his royal robes. From another point of view, we might say that the religious, in his vows, has taken to himself a wife that will give him no peace short of perfection, he has put himself under a happy necessity that forever drives him on to better things. Or again, the vows enable a man to offer all of his life in an instant; to get the business over with quickly in a kind of spiritual self-destruction, so that he can stand aside in something of the eternity of God, with time stretched out complete before him.
The vows do make up the essence of religious life; and that life can be variously considered. We might look on it as a spiritual gymnasium in which we constantly exercise to perfect charity. It may have the air of a quiet retreat, a state of peace from the uproar of the world and of human appetites; or the emphasis may be on the roaring activity of a holocaust to the Creator. But do not let anyone tell you it is a martyrdom; if they attempt it, you may keep a straight face, but in your heart you have a right to feel amused. What religious life really does is to remove all the impediments to an unrestrained rush to God: the cupidity for external goods, concupiscence, and inordinate self-will.
The three vows
Of the three vows, the greatest — but not necessarily the most difficult — is the vow of obedience, simply because it brings the most precious and the most utterly free gift. External things can be extremely valuable; the goods of man’s body can hardly be tagged with a price; but the goods of his soul, the utterly sacrosanct faculties that no one or no thing can get at but God and the man himself — there is a royal gift, the gift of man’s own will. This vow of obedience contains the other vows and its acts are closer to the inner acts of religious subjection, the acts by which a man pays his tribute to his Creator in a coin worthy of the Kingdom of God.
From all this it might seem that a religious is teetering on dizzy heights, heights from which it is easy and terrible to fall. In a sense that is true. By reason of his vows, the sin of a religious can be much more serious than the sin of a layman; thus, for instance, a sin of impurity in his case has the added malice of sacrilege. There is too the element of contempt or ingratitude, and the danger of scandal. But on the other hand, the sin of the religious in an individual case, may be lighter by reason of greater weakness or greater ignorance. At the very least, it should be easier for the religious to repent, not only by reason of the habitual direction of his life to God, but also because of the help of his religious brethren.
The labors and support of religious
The young novice who falls into bed at night completely exhausted has long since discovered how false was the rumor of empty, idle days in the convent. Forty years later, she will still be wondering how in the world a story like that ever got around. There are indeed things to be done in religious life; but the general nature of it only indicates that inner spiritual activity that is at the heart of it. As for the external works, well certainly the religious is not automatically a crusader commissioned to preach, teach, hear confessions and so on; for that he will need the Sacrament of Orders and authorization of the bishop. Even more certainly his habit gives him no right to open a pawnshop, operate a coal mine or run a tavern. In fact, secular business is forbidden to religious, unless it is engaged in by reason of charity and then only in moderation and with the permission of his superiors. At any rate, it must not interfere with the essential business of religious life.
But after all, these religious must keep alive. How? Well sometimes the very rule of a religious demands manual labor; thus the ancient Benedictines and Carthusians had manual labor as their official work. In other cases, not the rule, but brute necessity demands manual labor. Other religious, as the Carmelites of Wheeling, West Virginia, subsist on alms but they are not allowed to ask for the alms, depending on divine providence to send them sufficient for their needs. Still others live by out and out begging; and among these are the Dominicans and the Franciscans, hence their name of mendicant or begging friars.
The mere fact that so few Dominicans, Franciscans or Carmelites have starved to death is some little indication of the place religious life has in the hearts of Catholic layfolk. They understand, of course, that the purpose of the begging is not to insure a lazy leisure for the friars. It is legitimate to receive alms or beg for them when the religious are engaged in works of public benefit, such as contemplation, or when they constantly distribute their own goods to the poor. A lazy or greedy beggar is vicious, whether he wear a religious habit or not; if the solicitation of alms is a medium of humility, of necessity, of penance or of utility, it is virtuous. The particular purpose of Dominican begging is to release the brethren from manual labor that they might more profoundly pursue their work of study, teaching and preaching.
Our astonishment at the cut of a religious habit might be mitigated to some degree if we remember that it was not designed as a pattern for the Beau Brummels of this, or indeed of any, age. It is the garment most fitting to one who has become a fool for Christ as Christ became a fool for us on the Cross. Thomas, in his own day, asked if religious could legitimately wear old or vile clothes; and answered, matter of factly, that of course they could if they had nothing else to wear. The answer might well have been autobiographical. He also noted other reasons such as bringing home to others the religious’ contempt of the world, a gesture of penance, or of humility. Of course, if the religious habit is paraded from vanity (God save the mark!), for purposes of greed, or if the clothes are old and shabby through sheer negligence, there is little virtue in the wearing of the habit.
The field of religious activity: Basis of differences
That there is unity in the religious state is evident from the common dedication of all religious to the service of God; that there is variety can be hidden from no man’s eyes, least of all from the eyes of a man who has seen the benumbing array of religious habits at a University summer school session. There is, however, a more scientific way of distinguishing religious orders than by the habit; for each order is organized to its last detail with its proximate end in view. Thus, the proximate end of Dominican religious life (to keep the example in the family) is a double one: contemplation in the monastic tradition and the scattering of the fruits of that contemplation by preaching and teaching, particularly in university circles. To attain those ends, the Dominican has very special means: full monastic observance, choral office, cloistered convents, silence and a rigid course of study. The proximate end of the Jesuit Order is the education of youth; and in order that they might be more free for that physically exhausting task which takes up so much of every day, its members are freed from the community monastic observance.
Seen in this light, the varieties of religious orders give a panoramic view of the human heart, the wide fields of sacrifice to which the human heart reaches out under the inspiration of divine love. We find military orders with the proximate end of battle, battle in defense of the worship of God, defense of the community or, as St. Thomas suggests — approving the ideal of a later chivalry — in defense of the poor or the oppressed.
Then there are the other active orders, less aggressive, who take care of the poor, the aged, beggars, the sick, children, educate youth, indeed, take care of almost everything human that needs caring for. An American needs no examples of this type of religious life. There will be orders dedicated to preaching, the parochial ministry, misgions, and so on; in other words caring for the spiritual needs of their neighbor. And there will be orders dedicated to study. In the time of St. Thomas it was a burning question whether or not a religious order could be dedicated to study. His defense of that ideal was a defense of his own Dominican Order; and he points out, from the experience of his own intense years, that the labor of study is a constant chastisement of the flesh and a curbing’of worldly desires. He noticed too, again from his years at the books, that study served contemplative life both directly, by the study of divine truth, and indirectly by removing the intellectual errors which are an impediment to contemplation.
Then there are the purely contemplative orders which represent a direct approach to the goal, to God Himself. Since the worth of the religious state is measured by its approach to God, these orders are much higher than the purely active orders, higher and harder, for their approach is direct.
Highest form of religious life — union of active and contemplative
In between the active and the contemplative orders is what is, in practice, the highest form of religious life — a union of the contemplative with the active, so that both are proximate and principal ends of this type of religious life. It is the type of life represented by the Dominican Order; its superiority is argued by St. Thomas (again in dctense of the family) on the obvious grounds that it is much better to have light and give it than merely to have it; it is a greater thing to contemplate and give the fruiss of contemplation to others than merely to contemplate. The study, the preaching and the teaching of Dominican life represent one side, the side of the dispersal of the fruits gathered by the other side of Dominican life, the side of contemplation and monastic observance.
Again in answer to a question of his time, St. Thomas insists that it is not an impediment to religious life for the community to possess goods; the care of such common things is not the care of selfishness but of charity, for each member is seeking not that which is his own, but that which belongs to the community. Abuse is, of course, possible through too much solicitude or too much wealth; but the thing itself is not to be condemned because of a particular abuse of it that may crop up in the course of history.
Strange as it may seem to us, though it is quite logical, solitary religious life is in itself more perfect than community religious life; although it is the most dangerous to all but the perfect. I say this is logical because community life, after all, is a means to perfection; hence it is unnecessary when perfection is already had. Solitary or hermit life, then, is for the perfect. For anyone else it is extremely dangerous, for it strips a man of the helps he gets from community life: the help to intellect from instruction, and the help to affection from the rebuke of example and correction. It has been said that community life keeps a man from getting old. That may or may not be true. But it is certainly true that community life does all that can humanly be done to keep a man from getting odd. In it there is as little chance for the development of eccentricities as there is for the seventh child of a family of twelve to become spoiled.
Entry into religious life
An historical or a modern world-wide study of religious life brings to light two practices that meet with small sympathy in our country today: the taking of a vow to enter religious life and the reception of children into monasteries. This coldness is due, to a great extent, to misunderstanding. We forget that a vow is itself an act of virtue, of the virtue of religion; and that just as sin is worse when it proceeds from a will obstinate in evil, so a virtuous act is better if it proceeds from a will firmly fixed in good, as is the case in the vows. What is more important, from the side of misunderstanding, is that we look upon entry into religion as something absolutely irrevocable, like the loss of our second teeth. Granted that having taken such a vow a man must enter the religious life or commit sin; that does not mean that he must stay, nor that he must be kept even if he wants to stay. Nor does it mean that he does not have time, plenty of time, to find out what it is all about before binding himself for life to the religious state.
As for children, much the same limitations must be kept in mind. It is true that children have been taken into monasteries as mere infants; but certainly they were not bound by irrevocable ties to religious life until they could bind themselves. To St. Thomas, this meant until they reached the age of reason which, by his computation, was the age of puberty. The practice today, as always, is to guarantee the full freedom of entry into religious life: for it is only by love that this life can be lived, and love cannot be forced.
Perhaps we have adopted too much of the point of view of our pagan age. We wonder if those who enter religious life very young know what they are missing; yet it never dawns on us that they will never finish finding out what they are getting. We concentrate on what they are surrendering, watching them go with a puzzled reluctance. We shy away in distaste from one who induces others to enter religion as we would from a kind of proselytizer; though St. Thomas says rightly that the reward of such is very great. It is the reward given to those who bring others to Christ. No doubt God, with His infinite patience and comprehensive knowledge of human vagaries, can understand it, but it must be bewildering to the angels to see Catholic parents fighting off their children’s attempts to get closer to Christ. Christ Himself had a word to say, a sharp word, to the men who tried to shield Him from children; here it is the children who are being shielded from Christ.
Perhaps some of the modern distaste is inspired by the momentous character of this decision to enter religious life. Such finality of choice comes as a jarring shock; it is such an ultimate disposition of life. Again this is the viewpoint of the pagan; the making of the decision normally does not require much advice-seeking or long deliberation. We should deliberate about things because they are dubious, not because they are final. The entry into religious life is certainly a good; the candidate does not expect to persevere by his own strength but by the power of God. So for the most part, the candidate for religious life enters the novitiate as gaily as a girl goes to her marriage. He might well take counsel about the manner of going, about securing entrance, about the particular order he will choose, the possibility of some impediment that might bar him; but the entry into religious life itself should be as easy as falling in love. That is precisely what it is.
The common goal — fullness of life: Fullness of action
Now we have come to the end of what is called the moral part of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas. To sum this up we should really go back to the first chapter of the second volume of this work where we started to talk of the goal of man. If that be difficult, let me point out, just passingly, that in that first chapter we uncovered the key to human life and action, which we said was the goal. Human action is a motion going to some place; and that place, that goal, gives meaning to human life, a goal which we determined was the vision of God, the union of man with his last end. From all sides that successful conclusion of human life meant the fullest perfection, the greatest development, the fullness of human life. So the vision of God is the end of man, and at the same time the fullness of human living.
Fullness of achievement
In all the rest of that second volume, and throughout this one, we have been considering the ways and means by which man wins to that goal: the intellect, the will, the passions: the habits or principles of actions, which when good are virtues, when bad are sins, the one driving men on full speed to the goal, the other dragglisg him back or shunting him off the road that might lead to the goal. We saw that it was only that which went towards the goal that was worthy of the name of action; that it was only by approach to the goal that we achieve. From the very beginning, then, we have seen the true notion of practicality. Since then we have worked up step by step to its fullest development.
Contemplation and modern life
In this chapter we have come to the fullness of achievement — contemplation — to the most abundant state of human life, the state of perfection — the religious state. Perhaps this final result of our study would be summed up by the world today in such terms as this: the fullness of action is possessed by the dreamer, the fullness of achievement is found in this thoroughly sterile condition they call the religious life. The statement would be grossly unfair; but it would have the virtue of bringing out clearly by contrast our modern world’s notion of action as mere activity and of achievement as the denial of all goals.
We have come to these conclusions with complete intellectual honesty. We have proceeded step by step; not looking at only this or that fact, but insisting on an examination of all the facts. And all the way through we saw that human fullness and the fullness of virtue marched side by side. Every motion of defense we made for the fullness of virtue was a defense of humanity itself.
Activity and modern life
It is easy, then, to understand how much injury has been done to human life by cutting contemplation out of it. It is as reasonable to cut off a man’s head and feet and expect him to run a race as it is to cut off the principles and the goals of human life and their consideration, and expect human life to go somewhere. In other words, we have reached the ultimate in frustration when the modern devotees of activity have destroyed their own idol, when those dedicated to activity have destroyed activity itself, removing from it its human element. Obviously, thought cannot be taken out of human action and have it still remain human; not merely thought, but upward thought, thought of the ultimate goal.
Religious life as a norm of full life of an age: In itself
We might sum up all this in terms of the religious life, by pointing out that the religious life is truly the most practical of human lives because it goes most wholeheartedly to the goal, to the purpose, to the sole reason for all activity. At the same time that it achieves fullness of action it also achieves fullness of actual accomplishment; for it gets done the things that above all other things must be done.
In the estimate of the age
It is precisely because the Catholic can see this truth that his own active life is so rich in its actions and in its fruits. In fact, we might say that the fullness of the life of any age may be accurately judged by its attitude towards religious life; not towards religious, you understand, but towards the religious state. In an age that has nothing but contempt for the apparent futility, the impracticality, the inactivity of religious life, there will be little of practicality, little of true activity, nothing of achievement. On the contrary, where religious life is recognized as worthy of the highest of human efforts, you will find men aiming at the right goals and at least trying, trying strenuously, to share in those goals. By that very fact, such an age will share to some extent in that fullness of action, that fullness of achievement. In other words, the men of that age point all their efforts towards the goal that is worthy of men; by those actions they constantly take steps towards the one goal that is worthy of achievement, the one goal that gives reason to human life, the last goal, God.