Contemplatives in Action

Author: Marcello Semeraro

Contemplatives in Action

Marcello Semeraro

In his 29 July [2018] message to the President of the World Executive Council of the Christian Life Community [see p. 4], the Pope wrote: “At the centre of your Ignatian spirituality is this desire to be contemplatives in action. Contemplation and action, the two dimensions together: because we can only enter God’s heart through the wounds of Christ, and we know that Christ is wounded in the hungry, the uneducated, the discarded, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, in all vulnerable human flesh”. One could comment on this text with Gaudete et Exsultate, where it reads at n. 96 that holiness “is not about swooning in mystic rapture”; indeed, those who begin from contemplation are able to discover in the poor and in the suffering “the very heart of Christ, his deepest feelings and choices, which every saint seeks to imitate”.

The formula “contemplatives in action” is a classic expression of the Ignatian ideal of Christian perfection. In its most original form, it theorizes that contemplation and action, at a profound level, manage to create unity to the point of reciprocal interpenetration of the two, through charity. Indeed, action, as much as contemplation, must — to use Fr Lallemant’s expression — proceed from love and tend towards love, so that love be their principle, their practice and their aim. It is what, with regard to this reciprocal interpenetration through action and contemplation, one reads in a document published in 1980 by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes: the point of departure for every spiritual life is “inspired by the love nourished in the heart [...] considered as the most intimate sanctuary of the person where grace unifies interior life and activity” (The Contemplative Dimension of Religious Life, n. 4).

The Pope’s words took me back to an unusual text by Giovanni Battista Montini entitled Metodo della simultaneità (The Method of Simultaneity): a series of notes, in reality, not completely homogenous and incomplete. Preserved in the archive of the Paul VI Institute and published on n. 53 of the Institute’s newsletter with a comment by Ignazia Angelini, a Benedictine nun, the document is included in a selection of Scritti spirituali, introduced and edited by Angelo Maffeis for “Studium” (page references refer to this edition).

Here the fundamental question posed by Montini is how “to make possible a sufficient spiritual life associated with an absorbing external work; and more precisely to reduce this work, to draw from it for the same interior life”. Cited in this perspective, the Benedictine formula of ora et labora (pray and work), which considers the expression “of striking a balance of two different forms of activity, cooperating in the self-same purpose of divine worship and personal sanctification” (p. 63). The theme is not new in the history of spirituality. After Vatican II it was generally reformulated in the line of Térèse of the Child Jesus: “love embraces all vocations” (Manoscritto B, f. 3; The Story of a Soul, ch. 11). It is the horizon within which Montini moves; his earthly life, as is noted, is surprisingly interwoven with that of the Saint of Lisieux.

These notes of Montini probably date back to a period slightly before his appointment to the See of Milan. Their tenor closely resembles other spiritual writings dating back to the early 1950s. Among them is one (published in Riflessioni. Unitinerario di vita cristiana, Rome, Dehoniane, 1997) with which it has a unique affinity: a meditation dated 10 February 1951, entirely concentrated on the Gospel passage oportet orare semper. Here it states the criterion that “one who has come in contact with God, must be ever in a state of prayer” and as a result it affirms the need to “cultivate the habit of the presence, of the union with God, of the profound union with Him, of the integrity of intention derived entirely from Him, directed entirely to Him”.

Here too is a reference to the Benedictine ora et labora, introduced by a quote from a passage of Saint Thomas; a key text of spiritual theology: “Prayer is always tantamount to keeping one’s life ordered to God” (Super epistulam ad Romanos, cap. 1 lect. 5). Montini’s reflection continues: “This is very important, because it makes simultaneity possible, that is, the doing of many things contemporaneously. The master of contemplative life prescribes: ora et labora, meaning that there are two things in one, one sole direction, to seek God. In explicit form when I pray, in implicit form, ending when I work. We must pay great attention to intentions, act with great rectitude of intention. If I do an indifferent thing for love of God, it acquires value as an act of love; if I do it with many intentions: for love of God and of neighbour, to honour and serve the Lord, the action is enriched with all the value of these intentions” (Riflessioni. Un itinerario di vita cristiana, p. 19). There is enough similarity to suppose that this meditation may be contemporaneous with the notes recalled above.

Montini’s text seems, at least intentionally, aimed at an ulterior elaboration, perhaps to be published. From the beginning, however, there is also an autobiographical dimension. In the introduction, in fact, two points of reference are explicitly identified: first and foremost, “awareness of the value and the obligation of interior life”, and then also the “necessity imposed by duty and by other independent circumstances by one’s willingness to engage in external affairs with that certain intensity that limits time and removes stillness to create the great silence and the profound world of interior life” (p. 61).

Much has been written about the first, interior and permanent exigency. The witness of Jean Guitton applies to all: Paul VI loved to reexamine himself in light of his parents. For this reason he quoted a few words of the Pope: “To my father [...] I owe examples of courage, the idea of never acquiescing in evil, the vow never to prefer life to the reasons for living. Which may all be summed up in a single phrase: to be a witness [...]. To my mother I owe the attributes of concentration, of the interior life, of meditation which is prayer, of prayer which is meditation” (Dialoghi con Paolo VI, Mondadori, 1967, p. 75; The Pope Speaks: Dialogues of Paul VI with Jean Guitton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968, p. 55). The second instance certainly reflects the personal situation of Montini working in the Secretariat of State, where beginning in 1937 he was Substitute and from November 1952 Prosecretary of State for Ordinary Affairs. Therefore, these notes were a sort of reflection for him.

The word “simultaneity” in the title The Method of Simultaneity provides us with another key for a better understanding of the document. The terms ‘simultaneous’ and ‘simultaneity’, in fact, are rather frequent in Montini’s language. With reference to the expression “contemplatives in action”, one can recall the homily of 27 Scptembei 1970, during the solemnity of proclaiming Saint Teresa of Avila a Doctor of the Church. The secret of her doctrine is “in the holiness of a life consecrated to contemplation and simultaneously committed to action, and of experience both suffered and enjoyed in the effusion of extraordinary charisms”, the Pope said.

Actually, although this interpenetration of active life and contemplative life was not realized in Teresa’s Carmel (as historical reasons certainly prevailed in the choice of a strict cloister), it is present in Teresian doctrine and, today, scholars of the Teresian charism tend to dwell on this very theme of the unity of life. In the conclusion of Interior Castle, in fact, Teresa writes: “believe me, both Martha and Mary must entertain our Lord and keep Him as their Guest, nor must they be so inhospitable as to offer Him no food. How can Mary do this while she sits at His feet, if her sister does not help her? His food is that in every possible way we should draw souls to Him so that they may be saved and may praise Him for ever”. To the Gospel’s objection that Mary chose the better part, Teresa responds with wise humour: yes, Mary “had chosen the better part, for she had already done Martha’s work by waiting on our Lord, by washing His feet and by wiping them with her hair” (VII, IV, 17-18). A truly original re-examination of the Gospel scene with the two sisters. Three centuries later, Térèse of the Child Jesus would return to it in the “pious re-creation” entitled Jesus in Bethany.

The theme of simultaneity is also present in two other texts, both of 1968 and both referring to the priestly ministry. At the end of the concelebration of the closing of the Year of Faith, in his 30 June message to priests, Paul VI would write of a “yearning for contemplation united with activity”. And speaking to 200 presbyters and deacons who were preparing for ordination in Bogota on 22 August, he would recall that the pyschological effect produced in them by ordination would be the “twofold polarization” of mind, spirituality and also of action “toward the two terms that find in us their point of contact, their simultaneity: God and man”.

Paul VI, however, was also aware of the instability of that balance caused by human frailty. Here then, again in Bogota on 24 August 1968, in inaugurating the second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, he exclaimed: “Blessed be this our tormented and paradoxical time, which almost obliges us to the sanctity corresponding to our office, so representative and so responsible, and which obliges us to recover, in the contemplation and the ascetics of the ministers of the Holy Spirit, that interior personal treasure, from which the extremely compelling dedication to our office almost turns us aside”.

Number 76 of the Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi asks a series of serious questions to which the Jesuit Bergoglio would refer when dictating the spiritual exercises in those same years: “What is the state of the Church ten years after the Council? Is she firmly established in the midst of the world and yet free and independent enough to call for the world's attention? Does she testify to solidarity with people and at the same time to the divine Absolute? Is she more ardent in contemplation and adoration and more zealous in missionary, charitable and liberating action?” (J.M. Bergoglio, Meditaciones para religiosos, Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1982, p. 241).

Evangelii Nuntiandi, which is in some way the spiritual testament of Paul VI, returns to the central argument of the notes, namely, the simultaneity of contemplation and action; a theme which he had previously offered at the General Audience of 7 July 1971 when, highlighting the fundamental criteria that must guide the full implementation of the Magisterium of the Council, he had indicated the old binomial, which entirely pervades the experience and history of our Catholicism: contemplation and action”.

At the end of it all, however, Montini’s true quandary is not actually the composition of contemplation and action. Even deeper, it is about how to fulfil the need to always pray, which is then the need to always seek the Lord. With an implicit reference to a Thomist expression (in fine nostrae cognitionis Deum tamquam ignotum cognoscere), Montini noted in The Method of Simultaneity: “A feeling of active trust and of loving tendency toward the Known Unknown is, it seems to me, easier to have and to keep and to renew oneself among the successive occupations and distractions of the soul. The feeling here is an implicit thought, a prevailing and operative concept, an almost numb but ever vital activity, a habitual possession, a spontaneous inclination toward the Object beloved and sought after. Ardent and composed, it can be associated to other operations of the spirit and of the limbs and can implant therein a note that easily arouses a more precise and direct awareness of the Divine Presence” (p. 64).

We understand, lastly, that this method also entails “knowing how to bring into prayer what prayer is not, and prayer must become” (p. 74). A task, perhaps, not very far from the Ignatian formulae “seek and find God in all things” and “wholly love and serve God”, which emphasize certain fundamental aspects of being “contemplatives in action”.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 August 2018, page 6

For subscriptions to the English edition, contact:
Our Sunday Visitor: L'Osservatore Romano