Reflection on the Contemplative Life

Incensing the altar in preparation for the liturgy.“A Matter of Faith”


(Click for printable PDF of this reflection.)

In observance of Pro Orantibus Day 2012
Reading: Lk 19:11-28

Mary accomplished outwardly through her body what wisdom from within gave to her faith.

— St. Lawrence Justinian

These words, taken from the Office of Readings for the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, can help us glimpse how the journey of a single disciple and that of his or her community are intimately A Day of Support for Cloistered Life.

“For Those Who Pray” connected and together form a response of faith. In fact, communities of the contemplative life seek to establish within themselves the same dynamic connection that made the Virgin Mary both a hearer and doer of the Word. The journey of an individual, in fact, happens and grows in the atmosphere of a community that is genuinely dedicated to a search for God.

The parable proclaimed in today’s reading from Luke speaks of some servants who received varying amounts of money from their king. The “coins” are often seen to be the personal gifts or talents that God bestows on each of us in varying degrees. However, we could also understand the “coins” as the gift of time, and the members of the contemplative life invite us to consider how we use the grace of each new day.

Poor Clare at prayer.The contemplative life, through a centuries-old wisdom regarding the use of time and space, together with its own rhythm of life, offers a particular way of realizing the principal goal in life for any one of us: the search for God. The routine of each day becomes a sort of “school” in which the monk or sister can explore the ways of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Each day is, first and foremost, a sort of apprenticeship in faith that is guided by the regular rhythms that might be compared to the vital actions of inhaling and exhaling: prayer and work, wakefulness and rest, fraternity and solitude, silence and speech. God is part of it all. In an increasingly secularized world, where God is perceived to be absent or indifferent, the daily life of a contemplative community witnesses to the mysterious presence of God, who is both utterly transcendent as well as the Friend who, in the light of the Incarnation, delights in dwelling in human history and sharing human affairs. The community is called to testify with its lifestyle to its daily search for the Face of God. Such a search calls for the unreserved commitment of each individual but, paradoxically, it is a search that each member cannot accomplish alone. The writings of St. Clare of Assisi allude to this truth. When speaking of her own spiritual journey, she often refers to my Sisters and I or, I, together with the Sisters the Lord has given me. Francis had already recognized this mutual relationship, when he gratefully observed that the Lord gave me brothers.

Contemplative monks and nuns pursue a manner of living in which the faith they profess and celebrate gradually becomes life itself. In this way, they strive to heal the terrible schizophrenia that happens to Christians when faith is separated from life. This manner of living is held together by some important forces, such as the wisdom of the liturgical year, offered by the Church as a way of re-living the great events of our salvation. The liturgy invites the contemplatives to immerse their lives in the life of Christ, so that He might transform them to ever more resemble Him. In union with the entire People of God, the community drinks each day from the fountain of the liturgy, as the members continue their pilgrimage towards the “promised land” that is the glorified body of their Risen Lord.

Carmelite Sisters of Lafayette, LAAnother source of daily nourishment is the Word of God. In a certain sense, the contemplatives do not read the Word, rather they permit the Word to “read” their lives by revealing the real meaning of existence. This Word is shared among the members of the community, so that the fragmentation of life is transformed into ways that conduct the members to a more intimate knowledge of the Source of life itself. Hence the Word, together with the Eucharist, provide daily instruction in the ways of faith, helping the monks and sisters to see and believe by recognizing in even the most ordinary moments the presence of the Lord and His saving power.

The Letter to the Hebrews described how Moses by faith left Egypt, not fearing the king’s fury, for he persevered as if seeing the one who is invisible (Heb 11:27). Such is the prophetic vocation of a contemplative community that finds in a world that has lost its moorings, a world in which everything is extremely fragile and too often undependable, the solidity of the rock that is Christ Himself, who accompanies them through the desert (cf. 1 Cor 10:4). This rock gives the monks and sisters the eyes of faith that become accustomed to perceive the mysterious and invisible presence of the One who is actually very close to them and is nothing less that the foundation of their hope and the certain promise of its fulfillment.

Most Rev. Joseph W. TobinMost Rev. Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., is the secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Born in Detroit, Archbishop Tobin is the eldest of thirteen children. He joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) in 1973 and was ordained a priest in 1978. As a priest he served Spanish-speaking immigrants in the USA and Canada before being elected superior general in 1997 and ordained a bishop in 2010.

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