Reflection on the Contemplative Life

“A Matter of Hope”


Among St. Thomas Aquinas’ questions in the Summa Theologiae on the happy life is one in which he asks: “Is the fellowship of friends required for a happy life?” Saint Thomas has already identified the ultimate happiness and fulfillment of man with the vision of God in heaven. As is customary with the Angelic Doctor, he rarely answers a question yes or no. The context of the question allows him to treat the issue in its entirety.

Regarding the fellowship of friends, Saint Thomas explains that: “The happy man in this life needs friends, not for their external usefulness, since his happiness is from within, nor for pleasure, since his perfect pleasure comes from the activity of virtue, but as contributing to that activity itself. He does good to them, he delights in seeing them do good, and in turn they help him and do good to him.” In other words, though the hope of the happy man is ultimately in Heaven, in this world his friends help him to realize that hope. They concur with him in that hope and aid him in attaining it by encouraging him both to avoid vice and to embrace virtue.

Hope is the theme of the most recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi. The Holy Father laments the fact that, following the Enlightenment, many people began to develop a boundless hope not in the vision of God, which would demand surrender in faith to God’s reason, but in what he calls faith in progress. According to this mistaken philosophy, science and human reason will produce utopia, a sort of Heaven on earth, if they are just freed from the shackles of things like faith in God. He quotes Immanuel Kant as a prime representative of this school of thought who wrote that: “The gradual transition of ecclesiastical faith to the exclusive sovereignty of pure religious faith is the coming of the Kingdom of God.” The pure faith of which Kant spoke is the confidence in the ability of human reason to resolve every difficulty so there would no longer be any need for a Savior.

Man’s hope would then be in something of his own creation and his nature would be fulfilled by just discovering the best social structure to implement this new vision. Though his hope would be in a human future, it would not be a future beyond this world, but a future of man’s own creation.

Since free and autonomous human reason would be the way to arrive at this hope, this hope would also be a solitary hope realized by the brave new individual, without any spiritual connection to any other. Placing one’s hope in autonomous human reason deals the deathblow, according to contemporary thought, to the fact that human reason cannot answer all questions.

Cloistered and monastic life stands at the very antithesis of this modern attitude. From the standpoint of human reason and pure freedom, it is a scandal. If man’s reason is sufficient and salvation for the human race can only be achieved through progress in science or politics, then those who choose to cut themselves off from both must be inhuman. The materialism of the present culture makes it impossible for people to conceive of a reason beyond this world or a spiritual awakening which includes a personal union with a transcendent being and the implementation of that union with the whole human race through a spiritual connection. For modern man, the cloister grille or monastery wall truly represents a prison to keep people in and a flight from reality.

Instead, authentic human reason has always pointed to its own limitation. For example, many scholars (including Saint Thomas) believed that Aristotle knew the soul was immortal from reason alone. The Fifth Lateran Council defined that one could know the soul was immortal from reason alone. Unlike Plato, who also discovered the immortality of the soul, Aristotle also knew that the human soul and body were in a substantial union with each other. Yet, it is evident to the senses that the body dies while the soul lives forever. This is an unnatural condition. Aristotle also has a principle that an unnatural condition cannot exist perpetually. Yet, there is no power in the human body or spirit to allow the body to live forever. There is no solution to this conundrum by reason alone. Only when Christ rises from the dead is the solution this problem posed by reason solved. The physical cloister is a sign of the resurrected life, the final completion of man, the only source of our hope.

The supernatural life of Heaven, the blessed life is the only true final happiness for man. This includes both the soul and the body. God’s divinity will permeate all in this blessed life. Though human beings can have a modicum of happiness here on earth and must be concerned for things which happen here, the final hope of man can be in nothing but Heaven.

The cloister or monastery stands in testimony to this fact. Not only is it a place where those already perfected in the life of virtues and gifts can give themselves wholly and utterly to God, but the very enclosure itself is a sign of that spiritual eternity which underlies, supports and moves the world of time.

Far from entailing a rugged individualism which denies interest in the neighbor, the cloistered religious experiences precisely through his or her union with the “alone with the Alone” a union with the whole human race based on the union with God they cultivate. This is true in the vagaries of the personalities of the physical community with which the religious must live, but it is also true of all those people, in this world and the next, for whom Christ bled. This union demands a spiritual friendship and interest with all.

For as Pope Benedict XVI states in Spe Salvi: “It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish…'(no. 15).”

Contemplatives, then, are the hope of the world in the sense that one sees in their lives what the final perfection of the human race should be. This is true because of their moral union with Christ. It is also true of their moral union with each other. It is also true of their physical separation in the cloister which emphasizes the next world and the resurrection of the body as the source of our hope. They are truly spiritual friends to the whole human race and though they rarely leave the enclosure, they do the greatest good to others, they delight in seeing others do good, and in turn others help them and do good to them, all through union with the Trinity.

Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., a nationally-known Dominican priest, retreat master and spiritual director, is the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life.

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