Reflection on the Contemplative Life

“A Matter of Love”


There is a scene in the film, A Man for All Seasons about the life and martyrdom of Thomas More in which his daughter Margaret comes to the prison to convince him to avoid death by taking the oath of the Act of Succession making the king the head of the Church in England. Her argument is that, “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth, so take the oath with your lips but do not mean it in your heart.” Thomas More answers by saying, “What else is an oath but words we say to God […] When a man takes an oath he is holding his very self in his hands like water and if he opens his fingers then he may never hope to find himself again.”

Religious profession of vows, like oaths, entails words we say to God. They are words that represent a complete response to the Divine call to love Him because He first loved us. We did not choose Him, He chose us.

Let us look at two examples of the Divine call. In the Book of Revelation, after a very harsh rebuke spoken to infant churches in Asia Minor concerning their temptation to compromise with prosperous paganism because their Christianity has made them poor, the Lord invites them to intimacy with Him with the very tender words:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
then I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me.
I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne,
as I myself first won the victory
and sit with my Father on his throne. (Rev. 20-21)

Christ asks us to respond to this love by opening our wills to receive Him. Grace is always freely given by God, but God also wants us to freely accept it.

The invitation to Divine intimacy is also given by Christ to Zacchaeus despite his being a tax collector. Zacchaeus shows his preparation for receiving grace from Christ by climbing the tree since he is short. He also shows his good dispositions towards Christ because he wills to go beyond the letter of the law in reconciling himself in justice with others. The Lord responds with an action of Divine intimacy and love.

Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost. (Luke: 19:9)

God’s love always requires a continuous preparation of freedom on the part of the human being who receives it and Scripture points to those who emphatically show this preparation. The Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the one who makes the greatest response to the greatest invitation of grace in the history of the world is brought to the Temple by her parents at the age of three. They promised God if they could conceive that they would dedicate their child to the Lord, but they waited to this age before presenting her lest she miss her family. An early Christian source describes the scene vividly:

And the child was three years old […] and they went up to the Temple of the Lord, and the priest received her and kissed her and blessed her saying, ‘The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.’ And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there […] (Protoevangelium of James)

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple, designated as a special day in honor of the cloistered life, is a most fitting feast to show our thanksgiving, solidarity and support for this vocation because all these important themes are united together in her presentation. She goes apart into the enclosure as it were to prepare herself in spousal love to be the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the Redeemer. She spends her time in contemplation nurturing the life of grace with which God will invite her to the singular response of being his mother. She prepares herself for a life long encounter with her Son and begins the long process of keeping everything and pondering them in her heart.

The contemplative life is a formal way of life recognized by the Church to invite men and women, but especially women to find in the suffering of the cloister a place where they can experience the loving exchange of hearts with Christ.

The enclosure therefore, even in its physical form, is a special way of being with the Lord, of sharing in ‘Christ’s emptying of himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in … renunciation not only of things but also of ‘space’, of contacts, of so many benefits of creation’, at one with the fruitful silence of the Word on the Cross. It is clear then that ‘withdrawal from the world in order to dedicate oneself in solitude to a more intense life of prayer is nothing other than a special way of living and expressing the Paschal Mystery of Christ’. It is a true encounter with the Risen Lord, a journey in ceaseless ascent to the Father’s house. (Verbi Sponsa, 5)

The whole purpose of the cloister is not to flee from something evil but to concentrate one’s intention on the love of God. Often people who do not live the contemplative life think it is a good place to put social misfits. How many times does one hear people say, “The woman cannot get along with anyone, she belongs in a cloister.” Such comments completely misunderstand the purpose of the enclosure. It is not to keep people from contact with the world because they cannot get along with anyone. This is what a prison is for. It is rather a sign that the next world and the encounter of the soul with God in which each person surrenders the gift of themselves responding to God’s gift of Himself to us are the reason we exist to begin with. Cloisters should be founded and peopled by souls who are already perfect in the active virtues of loving others. They, like Mary, are so in love with God that they hasten, as she did in the Visitation to implement the conception of Christ in an evangelical act of practical charity—to be love in and for the Church.

In the wonderment of her splendid intuition, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus declares: ‘I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was ablaze with love. I understood that Love alone enabled the Church’s members to act . . . Yes, I found my place in the Church . . . at the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love’. (Verbi Sponsa, 7)

Cloistered religious are the heart of the Church because they truly show us the complete surrender and concentration of love. They are enclosed not because they have lost something, but because they have found Him.

Each member of the Church should look to the contemplatives to see an example of this spousal love for Christ after the example of Our Lady. Like her, we should open the door for Christ knocking there, invite Him to our house and rightly spend each day rejoicing in His presence.

In A Man for all Seasons, Margaret, frustrated, responds to More’s answer about oaths by saying, “But in reason, haven’t you already done all that God can reasonably expect of you.” More answers with Mary and all religious, but especially with the contemplatives, “Well, finally, it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally it is a matter of love.”

Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P.
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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