IN recollection and contemplation—kindred but not identical attitudes—we encounter two more basic constituents of religious life. Recollection is a condition of all truly wakeful and deep modes of living, and hence indispensable for our transformation in Christ. Contemplation, again, is the source that feeds all life in Christ, and at the same time, the end in which that life finds its fulfillment.
Distraction as the inability to concentrate
What, then, is recollection? It is primarily an antithesis to distraction. We say sometimes we are not able to recollect ourselves in prayer: we are distracted. We then mean that we are unable to concentrate our attention on one point; we are controlled by the automatism of our associations; our mind is flying from one object to another; the images of our fantasy fitfully displace one another. This state of mind, in which we do not attend fully to any object and fail to penetrate the logos of any part of being but are at the mercy of our mechanism of associations, is properly termed distraction—a state of being dragged along from one object to another, never touching any of them but superficially. That distraction is the exact antithesis to recollection.
Distraction as the inability to determine the object of our concentration
On other occasions, however, when speaking of distraction we mean that our attention is too much captivated by a certain object to allow us to concentrate voluntarily on any other object. This is distraction in a relative sense only. In this case we are not unable to concentrate at all but merely unable to control our attention at will; unable to detach it from the object that happens to hold it and to direct it to that other object which at the moment possesses thematic importance. Suppose the object which thus captivates our interest is more peripheral, less essential and less relevant than the other one which constitutes the theme of a situation and to which we vainly attempt to direct our attention; then, too, we have a state of mind opposed to recollection.
Recollection is the antithesis to concern with the superficial
For recollection proper always means an awakening to the essential, a recourse to the absolute which never ceases to be all-important and in whose light alone everything else discloses its true meaning.
Thus, recollection is more than the absence of distraction in the narrower sense of the term. It is more than the inner coordination resulting from our concentration on any given object. It also embodies an antithesis to all superficial diversion as such. Every attitude contrasting with distraction proper does not necessarily imply recollection. A man driving a motorcar through a busy street, who is keenly concentrated on the business of steering, is not therefore recollected.
Recollection is not merely the antithesis of reverie, of loose flights of fancy, and of the state of being swayed by the play of associations, but also of all submersion in trivial activities or interests. It is not merely a formal integration of our mind (as implied by concentrating our attention upon an object, no matter what); rather, it means an integration of the entire person; a realization of its true self out of the depths of its being. “Recollection is the accomplishment of unity in the ground of the soul,” says Ernest Hello.
A person who exhausts himself in the moment’s concern, who passes without a breathing space from one concentrated work to another, who always gives his unreserved attention to the task of the hour without ever pausing to recollect himself—such a person is as little recollected as one who dissipates his life in dreaming, playing, and empty chatter. The latter way of life is certainly more reprehensible; but both are alike opposed to true recollection.
In recollection, we recover our deepest orientation toward God
True recollection contains both an aspect of tension and another of relaxation. It implies a release from all tension of surface interests, but at the same time an enhanced consciousness of our central direction. In the attitude of recollection, we place ourselves at a distance from things so we can survey them all from a point of vantage, without ever being swamped in any special concerns or interests.
Yet, every kind of withdrawal from the peripheries towards the depths may not amount to recollecting ourselves. Concentration on a philosophical or artistic work necessarily implies a direction towards the depth, but it need not imply a state of being recollected. One may even be deeply touched by the beauty of nature or of great works of art, without positing an act of true recollection.
We may better understand this by visualizing some moment in which we are attempting to recollect ourselves. An important decision or a task of great dignity is ahead of us. We do not feel equal to it, as things are; we say we must first recollect ourselves. Withdrawing from all direct contact with the concern that occupies us, we try to forget whatever is on our hands, to escape the pressure of what is incumbent upon us, and to recover ourselves. To that end, we should remember the last things; and, from the whirlpool of the great and the small things of life, emerge towards God, the Cause and the Goal of all being. We return to what is truly and unchangingly omnipresent: the ultimate meaning of our life, our eternal destiny, our supreme goal.
Then only, when all else fades away for a moment, when we recover our deepest, unique direction towards God, when we stand before Christ, saying: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), do we actually recover ourselves and resume identity with our innermost selves. Thus alone can man attain to a real habitare secum (dwelling with oneself), as the Rule of St. Benedict calls it. For, as we have already seen, God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. In His perspective alone can we see every finite object in its proper place in creation, revealing, in the light of the supreme truth, its particular meaning and value.
And thus alone do we secure the necessary distance which guards us from being submerged in the immanent logic of a task or a situation; a distance not calculated to destroy our living contact with the object of our vision, but on the contrary, enabling us to penetrate its essence more truly than would exclusive attention to that object.
We must proceed to the depth in order to gain a full and adequate awareness of things, hearkening to God’s call from the depths of our being, and bringing our most intimate selves to full actuality. Until we meet the demands of life on a plane provided by such a primarily unpragmatic and nonfunctional attitude (that is, ultimately, by our relationship to God), we are unable to actualize ourselves except in a partial and distorted way. Our experience of things is otherwise still affected with incidental admixtures; it lacks the full sanction of personality.
Recollection may be voluntary or involuntary
However, recollection is not always a result of a voluntary act of recollecting oneself. Without a deliberate act in this sense, a high value that seizes out heart may lead us into the presence of God and so render us recollected. This process (which, to be sure, is not provoked by every value experience, however genuine) even constitutes a deeper and more organic form of recollection than the method of recollecting ourselves by a voluntary act.
Nevertheless, it would be an error merely to wait for the gift of such a recollecting influence to guide us towards awareness of God and of the true meaning of our life. Again and again we should voluntarily relinquish the turmoil of our current occupations, the pursuit of this or that concrete aim, and return to the essential that is proper to our inmost self.
Thus, the Divine Office is preceded by the prayer Aperi, which represents not only a prayer for the grace of true piety but an express act of recollection. In fact, the Office itself, besides its primary meaning which is to praise God, also represents an act of emergence from the welter of life towards God, a recovery of the essential—an attitude of recollection.
Only the recollected man is fully alive
In recollecting ourselves, we empty our soul of all current concerns, and are no longer possessed by the things which fill our life; we escape from the network of those autonomous systems of particular aims into which life’s single situations and tasks erect themselves. We face God directly, and take a new departure from the Alpha and Omega of our being.
Through finding our way to God, we find our way home to ourselves. Thus (and not otherwise), we establish that inward order of our life which makes it possible for us to attend to its details without yielding to the illegitimate pretension of the present as present. So our care for the various concerns and details of life will become legitimate before the face of God. From the center thus secured, everything can be brought to a common denominator, so that we may achieve unity in our life and our personality.
For, mostly, our life implies a continual desertion from the habitare secum. As a rule we incline to lose ourselves in the present situation and to accept the exclusive sovereignty of its immanent logic; to forget the proper and ultimate meaning of our existence. In this dispersed attitude, we are not really and truly alive. We actualize our peripheral being only or fragments of our deeper self at most.
Notwithstanding our intense concentration upon some object, our keen attention to one task or another, in the depth of our being we are asleep; we are not wholly existent, as it were. He only who is recollected is really awake; he alone, therefore, is alive in the full sense of the word.
Recollection is essential to transformation in Christ
The importance of recollection for the process of a transformation in Christ need hardly be pointed out. Without it, there is no full and valid life rooted in the depths and consequently, there can be no genuine, essential, and deeply penetrating transformation.
Without recollection, all good resolutions—all honest endeavors to overcome a defect or to achieve a supernatural transfiguration of natural virtues—are bound to remain impotent and sterile. Without that mobilization of our depths which the act of recollecting ourselves implies, we cannot become marked with the seal of Christ.
Recollecting ourselves vs. being recollected
Obviously, we must distinguish two phases of the attitude of recollection: these are, to put them briefly, the act of recollecting ourselves and the permanent state of being recollected.
The first is the act of recollecting ourselves, of rising towards God and recovering ourselves; of setting ourselves at a distance from all present concerns; of ordering all things before the face of God, and referring everything to the great common denominator, Christ.
And the second phase is the state of being and remaining recollected. This state will have to endure, while we are attending to a concrete task, engaged in a serious conversation or some meaningful work, or performing any other activity. To be sure, we are then no longer empty of all present details or cares; we again divert our vision from God to some concrete creaturely thing, and actualize a partial aspect of our being. Yet, we do not separate ourselves from God; we do not sever connection with the profound and ultimate center of our being. We keep within the divine context; we accord to the theme on hand that place only which it can rightfully claim in the eyes of God; we envisage it from that ultimate point of view; and we remain wakeful and alive in the depth of our being. According to the specific nature of the activity we are engaged in, this attitude can be realized in different ways.
Recollecting ourselves for higher tasks
Suppose we are dealing with some essential task of high rank, which we cannot even approach in an adequate manner unless we are recollected. In this case, it is recollection alone which will render possible a deep devotion to this task. From the depth of our being we should give ourselves to the task in question in conspectu Dei, on the very basis of our devotion to God. The temptation to lose ourselves or to be dispersed does not arise. Our present interest is incorporated into the integral order of a recollected mental life; an uninterrupted current leads from God, and our soul’s depth, to that significant concrete thing.
Recollecting ourselves for necessary, but relatively superficial tasks
Or else, we are faced with a neutral theme which does not require—and is not even compatible with—devotion arising from the depth, but which holds a legitimate place in the outward order of our daily life or is legitimately proposed to us by circumstances. Then, again, we shall remain recollected by maintaining an essential, a superactual, connection with God and with the real center of our being. Far from exhausting ourselves in that peripheral concern and in spite of concentrating on it in the required measure, with our integral personality we dwell in another region. While we are attending, technically and intellectually, to the task in question, our awareness of God continues to resound in our soul like an unending melody.
This phenomenon of a superior motif resounding in the background, while the foreground is filled by peripheral interests, also occurs within the context of purely creaturely things. A great love, for instance, which inspires our heart and lends wings to our whole existence, is likely to resound with its melody throughout our external occupations; it never allows our soul to be dulled by the wear and tear of our daily routine, nor silences the voice of our deeper personality.
However conscientiously we may be attending to an outward task, we remain in the world of the beloved one. Our love of that person, not the activity of the moment, colors the atmosphere in which our soul is moving. At every moment it is present to our mind (however discreetly) that what we are just doing is not the real thing that fills and guides us; that we are not centered in this petty, peripheral section of our life but continue dwelling in the depth.
The same is true of the recollected person with reference to God and to the ultimate meaning of his life. He always keeps on the superactual level of wakefulness; amidst the welter of his outward activities he dwells in the world of God. His momentary concentration on a peripheral object never results in a submersion of the essential and valid thing.
Still, this second mode of being recollected while dealing with the concrete situations of life, meaningful or superficial, requires an intermittent renewal of the express act of recollecting ourselves. From time to time, we must bring ourselves to a full and exclusive awareness of God and of our essential goal, emptying our minds entirely of pragmatic interests and considerations. For the latter invariably expose man, in his fallen state, to lose hold of the habitare secum and to surrender all reserve in adapting himself to the immanent logic of the present particular situation. In order to remain recollected in the broader sense of the term, we must (aside from particular cases of extraordinary grace) lead an unceasing struggle, regaining unity with our true self again and again by an express act of recollection. The creaturely things that surround us involve, in varying degrees, a constant danger to our recollection in the real and ultimate truth; a danger inherent, above all, in many peripheral interests which appeal to our lust for sensation.
Contemplation is superior to action
Deliberate recollection is closely related to a further basic element of all true Christian life—contemplation. The words of Our Lord, “Mary hath chosen the best part” (Luke 10:42), clearly indicate the primacy of contemplation above action in our life. That primacy means not that we all should spend more time on contemplation than on action, but that we are to acknowledge and to experience contemplation as the higher of the two, as the more ultimately significant attribute of our nature.
Antiquity itself discerned the preeminence of the contemplative as against the active attitude. The magnificent words of Aristotle regarding the dianoetic (cognitional) virtues in the conclusion of his Nicomachean Ethics sufficiently testify to this. But ancient thought erroneously limited contemplation to the cognitional sphere. This identification contains a twofold error. In the first place, every search for knowledge does not imply contemplation. The scientist who is tensely working for definite results, who strides from fact to fact in order to solve a given problem, is not doing his researches with a contemplative intent. Only the intuitive penetration of the essence of a thing and the conscious dwelling in a truth already established, are truly contemplative attitudes. Secondly, contemplation embraces not only cognition but also the conscious state of being affected by a value; dwelling in the bliss derived from the light of beauty and goodness. The frui1 the enjoyment of value, the absorption in beauty—these are attitudes purely contemplative in nature. Many of our emotional acts have a contemplative character. Responses of joy, love, and adoration are typical embodiments of contemplation. Thus, Mary Magdalene not only listened to the words of Our Lord but in loving adoration immersed herself in the beatific presence of Jesus.
We contemplate ends, not means
In order to describe the characteristics of contemplation, we may start from its contrast with the position we take towards the means when engaged in a purposive activity. In all such activities our inward appreciation of the end is strictly differentiated from our relation to the means. Suppose we wish to meet someone, and for that purpose betake ourselves to a certain place. Meeting that person, or the performance of a definite task in this connection, constitutes our end. Walking to the place in question—or taking a train for that destination, buying tickets, etc.—are means pure and simple. It is the end that directs our steps, governs our activity, coordinates our thoughts and movements; it represents the telos and the thematic meaning of our enterprise. The means are mere points of passage as it were; they are merely used; none of them becomes thematic except in the context of its usefulness for the end. We are not intent on them as such, nor do we take any one of them seriously as a whole, in its essence; we are only interested in them according to their serviceableness for our purpose.
The structural difference between our attitude towards the end and towards the means is obvious. The strict attitude of uti, of using something, as applied to the means within a system of action, is the exact opposite of the contemplative attitude. It embodies the specifically pragmatic way of treating an object, characterized by the fact that our proper attention belongs to something other than the object with which we are now dealing, namely, to our object in the sense of our end or purpose. The immediate objects of our activity, with which we deal in terms of uti, play a merely instrumental (and transitory) role. On the other hand, full attention to an object as such, or an interest taken in its essential character as a whole, constitutes a first mark of contemplation.
Certainly, as a formal principle of our attitude, the difference between our relation to the end and to the means is always present. Yet, when the end itself is subordinated to a greater whole, which in its turn is governed by another supreme end, that difference becomes a merely relative one. Such is the case, for instance, when our meeting a certain person or our execution of a certain task—for which purpose we are to betake ourselves to a specified place—is again meant to subserve some other purpose.
But even if there is no such successive subordination of aims—if, that is to say, our given purpose is not incorporated into a superior teleology but represents a relatively final end, the conclusion of a chain of meaning—even then, with the formal difference between end and means being clearly present, the material difference between our attitude towards the end and towards the means may not necessarily be great. Thus, for example, when we wash or eat, the momentary aim we are pursuing is not, strictly speaking, experienced as a means towards some other superior aim, but rather as a conclusive end in itself; but neither is it a substantial or important purpose, whose attainment could possess anything like the dignity of a self-contained theme. Most activities in our life are of this kind; they subserve some purpose which is not a sovereign theme by itself and which cannot, on the strength of its own substance, become the object of a frui proper—of contemplative or self-immersing enjoyment.
The object of contemplation must be seen as having great value
In all these ordinary cases, not only our attitude towards means but also our attitude towards ends (though, in a formal sense, the latter implies an essentially higher appreciation) are characteristically non-contemplative. For a second mark of contemplation consists precisely in this: that the object faces us as a thing of great dignity and importance in itself, which by virtue of its own substance may appreciably enrich our souls. Whenever we approach an object in the mode of contemplation, it is not only that we esteem it as such in a formal sense; materially, too—that is, on the ground of its specific content and quality—it must belong to the class of such entities as are able to affect our heart and mind by virtue of their own intrinsic significance. That it may be desirable, necessary, or indispensable, is insufficient; it must be important in itself.
An active attitude is future-oriented; a contemplative attitude dwells in the present
An active attitude, even though it be directed to the attainment of a purpose important in itself, is always typically distinct from a contemplative one. Thus, if we undertake a journey in order to see a beloved person again, or if we perform a lofty moral action, our intent is not contemplative. For first, it is filled by a tension towards the future: the thought of something which does not yet exist and which is to be brought about. And, secondly, in contemplating an aim we do not accord to the good we intend to realize that broad, undivided attention which is implicit in contemplation proper.
Our attention to the object conceived as an end for action, express and emphatic as it may be, always retains a certain narrow and functional quality (akin, in some measure, to a technical attitude of abstraction and formalization), which also manifests itself in the fact of our advancing towards our end through a succession of means.
The contemplative attitude, on the other hand—such as the contemplation of an object of great beauty and the pure, restful joy it yields—is free from that dynamic tension towards the future; it implies, not a hastening forward but a dwelling in the present. Further, the attention we accord to the object is direct, unqualified, broad (as it were); it is undivided, instead of being limited by attention given to other objects as well, as is necessarily the case when we intend an object purposely in action, which we cannot do without also devoting ourselves to the means.
Accomplished ends are not true objects of contemplation
In order to grasp this difference in its whole extent, we must even go a third step further. Let us visualize the moment when an aim of great value and importance is actually reached—when, say, a moral action like the saving of a human life or the frustration of an injustice is on the point of being accomplished. The stages destined to lead up to the realization of the good are now behind us; the distance that separated us from our goal appears covered; our action now bears directly upon the final good, and the concluding fiat is at last being pronounced.
Even this phase of our active contact with a good reveals a characteristic difference from the contemplative attitude. For the good is still embedded there, in the thematic context of realization through my action; whereas, in contemplation, the thematic quality of the object’s inner goodness unfolds in unalloyed purity. So long as the realization of a good through my action is still part of my theme, the prevalence of the good as such cannot fully express itself in all dimensions attached to that good. Nor do I, in that case, experience the good by my striving. In contemplation, I abandon myself to an object as a majestic entity which reposes in itself and does not require me in order to exist.
Contemplation is unconcerned with means or agents
Fourthly, our attention to the object—unlike the linear direction towards a purpose—can unfold in its full breadth without being altered by our concern with means; it is undivided attention.
In the fifth place, the contemplative attitude—as contrasted to action in all its stages, including that which precedes the final fulfillment of the end—is ruled entirely by the thematicity of the object as such. The aspect of a realization through my action is absent; the object acquires full thematic value.
Contemplation is reposeful attention to an object
Further, contemplation implies an inward penetration of the object, a communing therewith in awareness of everything it means, as though the object turned its full face to us. Whereas, in action, including even its final phase, we only touch the object from the outside intent on accomplishing it rather than facing it in all its plenitude.
Again, contemplation represents a specifically restful attitude, in which we, free from the circumscribing function of acting as agent, actualize our entire being. Finally, contemplation contrasts with action owing to its basic trait of receptivity.
Contemplation differs radically from relaxation
We have just described contemplation as a reposeful attention to an object fully present; this must not be construed in the sense of crediting every reposeful or relaxed state of mind with a contemplative character. Relaxation as such need not have anything to do with contemplation. I may dream, muse, or take a walk free from all particular purpose, without the slightest trace of contemplation proper. Nor is the relaxed state which denotes recreation—a state of mere rest, without any actual direction towards an aim—in any sense in the nature of contemplation. For all these forms of relaxation involve a temporary extinction of wakeful, alert spiritual life; they entirely lack intensity and are not far distant from a cessation of all intellectual activity. Nor are they consonant with the express attitude of intentional reference to an object. In these forms of relaxation, the dialogic situation between subject and object which is constitutive for all higher mental life cannot possibly thrive.
Contemplation, on the other hand—as has been explained by Jacques Maritain in his study on “Action and Contemplation” (Revue Thomiste)—represents spiritual activity in the most eminent sense of the word; only it is an immanent (in contraposition to a transitive) activity. All activity which in some way intervenes in the events happening outside its subject, all work in the broadest sense of the term, we call transitive. In contrast, an act of loving adoration, for example, is a purely immanent form of spiritual activity. Here, the actualization of the mind and the intense realization of a mental attitude take place within the person himself, devoid of any operation beyond the range of his own being—be it a fact brought about by action, an object produced, or a change effected in some object already existing. Yet, for being thus limited in range, immanent activity is by no means a less noble or intense form of activity.
Contemplation involves intense spiritual activity
It would be a gross error indeed to confuse contemplation with trivial or recreative relaxation as described above. On the contrary, it embodies activity of the highest degree, the fullest actualization of the person, and the most wakeful, genuine, and intense form of spiritual life. True, it is distinguished from action not only by the fact of its being immanent instead of transitive, but (as we have seen) apart from other aspects by the fact of its being unrelated to any purposeful, teleological coordination of behavior. Yet, contrary to the dull forms of relaxation, it reveals an eminently intentional structure; it implies attention to an object in the strictest sense of the term; and once more in contrast to ordinary relaxation, it manifests a quality of specific depth and significance.
But we cannot properly understand the nature of contemplation without putting the question as to its possible objects.
Nothing considered as purely instrumental can be an object of contemplation
To begin with, nothing purely instrumental in character is eligible for becoming an object of contemplation. One cannot, properly speaking, contemplate what is par excellence an article of use—a bicycle, for instance. To be sure, objects of this kind also can be envisaged in themselves, in their essence, instead of being merely utilized regardless of any aspect of them besides the abstract, functional one which is their availableness for a definite purpose. In the face of such objects, too, one element of contemplation—that of a purely cognitive, non-purposeful attitude—can be actualized. But their metaphysical content is too poor and insignificant to qualify them as possible objects for contemplation proper. They cannot deeply affect us, nor elicit the attitude of frui; attention based on a response to value in which our total personality is present would clearly be out of proportion here. We cannot immerse ourselves in the essence of such objects, nor can our soul rest in their embrace. The same is true of all other entities which do not possess a deep and noble content or a high value of their own.
Contemplation demands an object of value and depth
Contemplation proper demands, as its object, either a deep general truth or an entity of high rank and value. We may visualize, in contemplation, the contingency of all created beings or the essence of the spiritual person; we may be absorbed in the contemplation of the virtue of purity or of charity. The beauty of a work of art, too, may become an object for contemplation whenever we drink in that beauty, free from all preoccupations, and let our souls be elevated by its magic. Again, we may penetrate contemplatively the soul of a beloved person, becoming aware of its full splendor and, remote from all pragmatic concerns, in the devotion of love surrendering ourselves to its presence.
The object of contemplation determines the character of contemplation
But the quality of our attitude of contemplation is itself essentially determined, in part, by the nature of the object. Above all, an important difference must be noted according to whether the object of our contemplation is of a personal or a non-personal nature. In relation to a person, a form of contemplation is possible in which the fact that the contemplated object is also endowed with subjectivity is itself experienced in a certain definite manner.
We might describe this, if such a technical term be allowed, as I-thou contemplation. It is sharply distinct from all contemplation directed to a non-personal object which, correspondingly, might be termed it-contemplation.
The fact, however, that what we are contemplating is a personal being, does not of necessity qualify our contemplation as I-thou contemplation. (This requires the further condition that a mutual relationship of loving awareness should underlie our contemplation of the beloved person.) The thou-contemplation which may be present in such a case will, in a certain sense, be less perfect than our solitary contemplation, uncomplicated by the element of mutuality, of a person to whom we are devoted; the latter type of contemplation is likely to be of a more restful, a more static character, more timeless and more purely contemplative in quality.
The perfections in I-thou contemplation
But on the other hand, in the type we call I-thou contemplation the dialogic character of the relationship and the enrichment we receive from the contemplated person (who, in this case, actively reciprocates our love) acquire a new and higher degree of reality. The fact that the person we are contemplating by virtue of his love for us actually enters our own personality and pervades our own soul, confers a new dimension on the aspect of communing inherent in contemplation.
Most important of all, our loving approach is caught up, as it were; our response is directed to an object which is itself responsive to our love, our awareness of this aspect, again, coloring our very experience of the object in question. Thus, the object not merely happens to be a person but formally confronts us qua person, which renders possible a far greater intensity of contact. In this case alone will the fact that our object is of a personal nature manifest itself fully in our mode of approaching it. Thus, in 1-thoucontemplation the contemplative attitude acquires new, specific features of metaphysical perfection; a greater actualization of the receptive aspect of contemplation; and—something entirely new—the counter-response of the object, with the enhanced personalization of the contemplative relationship which results therefrom.
The perfections in It-contemplation
On the other hand, there is also (as has already been hinted) a metaphysical perfection specific to what we called it-contemplation, an exclusive privilege of this form insofar as we confine ourselves to objects of contemplation belonging to the realm of created things. In it-contemplation, which presents the object strictly qua object (even though it be a person), a broader, a more serene, a more purely contemplative attitude of spiritual immersion is realized than is possible in I-thou contemplation.
With this point reached, a further important division of contemplative attitudes becomes discernible.
Sometimes contemplation intensifies our experience of a particular moment
On the one hand, contemplation may mean a halt at a real moment in the flow of time, a “now” in which we are fully present and concentrated on a concrete object likewise present to us. Here, the normally latent—or, superactual—depth of our personal essence undergoes an actualization. When in the mutual spiritual interpenetration we drink, as it were, the being of the beloved, the rest of the world fades away around us. Dismissing all preoccupation about aims, I am then only directed towards the beloved, entirely immersed in his being and I nevertheless do not withdraw from the framework of temporal actuality but experience a more condensed, a fully valid actuality. I realize a unique and express now, I am aware—if the phrase be permissible—of a particularly momentous moment. The world of true and ultimate reality, the world of what soars above all transient aims and objects—a world to which I am only related, as a rule, in a superactual manner—enters my life, here, in the form of such a contemplative, presence; it actualizes itself in the real stream of my life.
Sometimes contemplation seems to lift us out of time
It is quite different with those more frequent instances of the contemplative attitude when I visualize and experience a great truth, a high value, or even the essence of a beloved person, from an extra-temporal level of vision, Then I withdraw, as far as the center of my consciousness is concerned, from my actual life, emerging towards the world of genuine and ultimate things which I now see ordered in the perspective of eternity, located as it were in their topos uranios (“celestial place”).
I do not, in this case, realize an express moment which is only raised above the rest of life by virtue of its specific quality of inward wealth and depth; rather I ascend, so to speak, a high peak soaring above my actual life and beyond the level of time experience. From that point of vision I perceive all things in their remoteness and their timeless being, independent of their real presence, penetrating their essence entirely at rest, in a specifically contemplative mode of consciousness. Let us think of the words of St. Augustine, in the liturgy of the Matins of Maundy Thursday. His voice there seems to reach us from a region beyond time; we sense his mind absorbed in contemplation, in the mystery of the Psalm text, immersed in the logos of that truth, unyoked, as it were, from the functional processes of life. In this form of the contemplative attitude the aspects of tranquillity and timelessness, of a pure and undisturbed intellectual devotion to the inward logos of the object, are particularly preeminent.
Contemplation brings us into contact with ultimate reality
In the first type of contemplation, then, it is the world of true and ultimate reality which enters our life; whereas, in the second, it is we who emerge from our actual life into that world. This renders a further important characteristic of contemplation easier to understand. It does not suffice in any form of contemplation that we should abandon ourselves to the object—to “rest” therein, to be “filled” by it—in an attitude however devoid of pragmatism.
In order that contemplation may bring out its full meaning and attain its perfection, another feature must be present. The object must affect us not only with its isolated specific content, it must elevate us into the world of valid and ultimate reality. We must, in contemplation, meet that world as such, so as to acquire suddenly a comprehensive new attitude towards all things.
Who of us does not know the supreme moments when a great truth, a glorious beauty of art or of nature, or the soul of a beloved person manifests itself to our soul with a lightning-like splendor, gracing our eyes with a vision of ultimate reality and prompting us to exclaim, “O Lord, how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!” (Ps. 8:10)?
It is not as though the specific content of what has thus manifested itself to us were presently to vanish again, after having fulfilled a transitory role. On the contrary, we continue to envision that object in its deep and unique proper essence, situating it, as it were, in its abode in the cœlum empyreum (“the highest heavens”) of that valid and ultimate reality into which it elevates us.
In other words, not until an object which by virtue of its specific content admits of contemplative attention so affects us that we at last face God Himself, encountering that object in the world of God and seeing it in the light of God—not until then will our attitude be that of contemplation proper. Then only, with our awakening to a sense of true and eternal reality, will our state of consciousness outgrow the limits of time. The halt we make will no longer mean a mere interruption of the stream of purposeful actuality but a triumphant soaring above it, an essential liberation from its fetters. So long as we are merely contemplating an object as such, not following it up to its abode in the cœlum empyreum and not being led by it into the presence of the “Father of all lights,” we may at most actualize certain formal features of the contemplative attitude; we will not rise in triumphant freedom and sweep above the neutral, pragmatic process of life with its succession of conative tensions and its inherent unrest.
Perfect contemplation always implies at least an indirect reference to God
Thus, all perfect contemplation implies an indirect reference to God, Unless it helps us to establish a contact with God, the contemplative attitude cannot attain a complete unfolding of its specific character. This does not mean that God must be its formal object; that all true contemplation must be religious contemplation proper. The contemplation we have now discussed is directed to some created entity as its formal object. Yet, even here, a reference to God is necessarily implied.
For first, contemplation is more than the intellectual analysis of an object or even the enjoyment of disinterested knowledge. It requires that the object should help us to approach the world of valid and noble reality, which again involves, as a background at least, our awareness of the presence of God.
And, secondly, no thing discloses its own deepest meaning and unique value until it is seen in conspectu Dei: “And in Thy light we shall see light” (Ps. 35:10). Finally, it is only through our contact with God that the depths of our own being will be fully actualized and that we awaken to our full selfhood, thus becoming able to realize our contemplative attention to the given object with complete consciousness and receptiveness.
Religious contemplation simultaneously actualizes all the perfections of contemplation
Let us turn now to contemplation in the strictest sense of the term—to religious contemplation proper. The characteristics previously established, naturally, hold good here. When we face God in adoration and surrender, we again realize that relinquishment of the world of purposeful processes, that halt in our vital activities, and that restful immersion which are the marks of contemplation in general; only all this happens in a more perfect way.
But another important difference must be noted. Whereas in the contemplation of the created good, the different perfections of contemplation cannot be actualized simultaneously, they can be and are united in one in the contemplation of God. In our contemplative surrender to the absolute Person, we experience the light of His loving glance penetrating our soul and are conscious of His personal response to our loving surrender.
Thus, on the one hand, what we have called “I-thou contemplation” is fully present. And yet, on the other hand, that more particularly “contemplative” attitude of timeless tranquillity which we called “it-contemplation” appears in equal splendor. We may dwell in God with that absolute, changeless tranquillity which is alien to the precious, condensed supreme moments in the spiritual relationship between finite personal beings joined in mutual awareness of one another. God the omnipresent, who pervades all presentness, is also the eternal Being, towering above time in its entirety. He unites the concentrated actuality of the supreme moment to the timelessness of unaltered superactuality; He incarnates the abundance of all being and possesses all perfections of being. In Him the two specific aspects of contemplation which are mutually incompatible within the range of creaturely objects, here converge and become one.
Full surrender is possible only in religious contemplation
Moreover, religious I-thou contemplation differs essentially from the one which is possible towards a created person. Even in a purely formal sense, surrender to God is more properly possible than surrender to any created person. God alone can be an object of loving adoration. A unique form of subordination is implied therein—the only possible case of an absolute subordination, different from all relative surrender in kind and not merely in degree. There is further implied, however, an unconditional delivery of self: “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit” (Ps. 30:6). In religious contemplation alone—which, whatever be the special mystery we are viewing, is always in essence subsidiary to the worship of God—is it possible for us to fling ourselves, so to speak, into the object of our contemplation with our entire being. Here alone can the consciousness be given us that not merely our love but our entire being is received; that we rest encompassed by our absolute Lord from whose hands we have issued forth, in whom our being rests, and who in holy Baptism has communicated to us a new supernatural life.
Religious contemplation presupposes a personal God
As a result, genuine religious contemplation is unimaginable in relation to a deity impersonally, pantheistically conceived. Not only would the idea an I-thou contemplation be meaningless; there would be no place either for the experience of resting securely in God’s arms—an experience that can be granted to us by an infinitely superior absolute Person only, never by the phantom of an impersonal force. Incidentally, the very concept of an impersonal absolute contains a self-contradiction, for any personal being is in essence superior to everything impersonal.
The encounter with ultimate reality is preeminent in religious contemplation
The aspect of immersion, though it belongs to the formal structure of the contemplative attitude in general, acquires a more preeminent and literal meaning in religious contemplation. “Lo, to Thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed, tranced as it beholds Thee, shrined within the cloud” (Hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas). To religious contemplation, the character of a bursting through towards valid and ultimate reality is specifically proper. Its clear presence in our consciousness may vary according to our disposition at the given moment and to the measure of grace which God imparts to us; but, as a formal aspect at least, the intentional reference to rising up towards the cœlum empyreum is never absent from religious contemplation.
The latter must necessarily fulfill the function of drawing us before the face of God and rendering us aware of His reality, for God Himself is here, the proper object of our contemplation. It is not needful therefore that we should in each case actually experience the beatifying gift of being thus touched by the world of ultimate reality; whereas, when creaturely essences are the object of our contemplation, such an actual experience is a condition for bursting through: past the formal object of our attention and toward ultimate reality as seen in God’s perspective. Yet, in religious contemplation, an express reference to the world of ultimate reality is necessarily present; and if a full joy-giving, blissful experience of that world is also granted us, we do not thereby enter an altogether new sphere, but merely intensify our experience of what has already been the object of our intentional direction. As regards the actualization of the experience proper, a variety of degrees is possible.
In discussing the contemplation of creaturely objects, we pointed out that there were two classic cases; in one form of contemplation, the higher world enters our life, embodying itself, as it were, in a supreme, condensed “now”; in the other, we emerge, we are transported, in a sense, from our life towards that higher world.
On the level of religious contemplation, the division reappears. The moment of the consecration of the Host (which eminently appeals to a basic contemplative attitude in the faithful) is the supreme archetype of such a “now,” representing the influx of the world of valid reality into our life. In a similar, though not an identical sense, the act of holy Communion also contains such a “now.” The other pole is exemplified by interior prayer, and the so-called prater of quiet—contemplation in the very strictest sense of the term. This constitutes the supreme archetype, not of a paramount “now,” but of our withdrawal from vital actuality (a plastic expression of that withdrawal is furnished by the word ecstasy, whose literal meaning is “stepping out”), our elevation into a region beyond time, our ascent to the plane of eternal validity.
Religious contemplation is possible only after we renounce sin
Our loving absorption in God, foreshadowing the beatific vision we are to be granted in Heaven, is the most perfect contemplation. In moments of reposing in God and experiencing His all-pervasive presence, of our loving adoration of God, we achieve in statu viae something like an anticipation of our status in eternity. Every created being, however, though in very different ways according to its metaphysical rank and value, can become a point of departure for religious contemplation as described above.
In order to find our way to religious contemplation, we must, before all else, have renounced everything that cannot be upheld before the face of Christ. We must be firmly resolved to part with “the world and its pomp,” and to shut out whatever offends God. “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord; or who shall stand in his holy place? The innocent in hands, and clean of heart” (Ps. 23:3-4).
We must abandon preoccupation with creaturely goods
Next, to find our way to religious contemplation, we must rid ourselves of all preoccupation about any creaturely good. We must begin by becoming entirely empty. Not only must all conative tension, directed to some pragmatic purpose, disappear; for a moment we must forget everything, pronounce a nescivi (“I have forgotten”), and achieve a total inward silence, dimming all desires and longings in our soul.
More, we must possess an essential readiness to renounce any legitimate good, if that be God’s will. We must deliver back everything into the hands of God, so as to receive it again from Him according to His holy will. Not before we have thus waxed inwardly empty can we be completely filled by God, face the full reality of His presence, and belong to Him wholly.
Nowhere has the very tissue of contemplation been depicted in more tangible terms than in the conclusion of St. Augustine’s great work, De civitate Dei (22.30), which treats of eternal life; “There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end without end!”
Contemplation is the proper form of our spiritual life
In life eternal, alt our being will be contemplation. That bears evident witness to the truth that contemplation as against action represents the higher, more final, and more proper form of our spiritual life. That which “shall be in the end without end,” which embodies the crowning perfection of our being, which constitutes our eternal goal, the object of our longing and the content of our eternal happiness—that must be the higher, the ultimate good.
Undoubtedly, in statu viae it is not for us to abandon ourselves exclusively to contemplation. Even in the lives of men and women who, in answer to a specific call, have vowed themselves to a life of contemplation—the Carmelite Sisters, for example—a certain measure of action is indispensable. The outward process of life itself demands, to a degree, a rhythm of pragmatic activities. Beyond that, however, work proper must not be wholly foregone even in contemplative orders—a principle expressed in the monastic device ora et labora (“pray and work”). Our nature in statu viae is so ordained for action that the latter cannot be wholly eschewed without spiritual injury. But to mankind in general, God has entrusted a more definite task of activity. “Subdue the earth,” the Lord said to Adam and Eve. Even in Paradise, man was destined for activity; only, in that state, it would have been toilless activity. It lies in the divine plan that in statu viae (a state of unfolding and actualization), man should intervene creatively in the processes of nature and should build up a culture. We are thus called on to acquire an increasing knowledge of the world; to create material and spiritual goods; to elaborate and order a life in common.
Action has both dignity and necessity in our lives
Action, too, possesses a high dignity of its own; it embodies a specific mode of representing God. That man is an effigy of God is also manifest in the fact that of all earthly creatures he alone is able to change and to shape his environment by a free and conscious choice of purposes; that the right has been conferred on him to perfect outward nature and to share in the creative rulership of God. This is implicit in all action as such; in a specifically high and pure form it is expressed in moral conduct on the one hand, in creative art on the other.
The status viae as a whole is characterized by a realization of things not yet real, a production of new things, a tension inherent in tasks awaiting their fulfillment and aims claiming to be accomplished. Moreover, for man in his fallen state, the process of sanctification—of a transformation in Christ—is dependent on a systematic effort towards a moral formation of self and is thus inseparable from a set of ends and means. Consequently, that process is by no means free from that tension towards a purpose to be realized which we have seen to be specifically opposed to contemplation. This aspect of purposefulness attaches both to our effort towards self-perfection and to the works of charity organically issuing from that peerless virtue. We are, in statu viae, not merely being but becoming, subject to the law of change; wherefore, even in our innermost selves we are tied to the world of action and the tension that goes with action.
Yet our primary attitude must be receptive
Nevertheless, in spite of the high metaphysical dignity of action, in spite of man’s specific mission of activity in statu viae, in spite of the requisiteness of action, even for the attainment of our eternal goal, the contemplative attitude ranks higher than any transient activity, however noble.
The primary attitude of man, as a creature, is a receptive one. To let ourselves be apprehended by God, to lay our soul open to the influx of God’s eternal Word, to expose ourselves to the sword of the love of Christ—therein lies what is most proper to our essence. Our transformation in Christ, again, means primarily our undergoing a process of transformation by Him; He is to engrave the seal of His countenance upon out soul. Our basic attitude remains a receptive one. Thus, too, it is our emptying ourselves before the face of God, our abandoning ourselves to His operation to be filled by His presence, the vacate et videre (“to rest and to see”) that effects a regeneration of our souls, enabling us to realize the further elements of contemplation, the amare et laudare(“to love and to praise”) in full completeness and depth. Unless we again and again drink of the water “springing up into life everlasting” (John 4:14), the source of true and valid life in us is bound to dry up.
All deep activities are nourished by contemplation
Even as regards our contemplative attitude in relation to creaturely objects, the law of our primary receptiveness holds good. Think, first, of the predominant part in our soul’s life played by cognition, through which the universe of being discloses itself to our mind. Furthermore, all realization of values on our part, in the active sense of the term realization, presupposes our realization of values in the passive sense of that term. The inward wealth of a personality depends closely on the comprehensiveness of its vision of values. Unless it be supplemented by contemplation, an action directed to high and relevant aims is liable to become a hollow, cramped pursuit, lacking genuine fruitfulness.
Of this we shall easily convince ourselves if we consider the fact that all moral action has its basic root in charity, which is contemplative in essence. For, while charity as such is contemplative, in the situation of the status viae it necessarily generates action, according to the words of St. Paul: “For the charity of Christ pressethus” (2 Cor. 5:14). As soon as moral action is not nourished and animated by love (thus steeped on one side in a medium of contemplation), it becomes shallow, and comparable to a “tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).
However, all other activities of a deeper meaning, such as artistic creation or scientific work, equally need the regenerating effect of contemplation. Without this, everything is apt to lose its centrality and to end in shallowness. Efforts devoted to perfecting oneself, in particular, are doomed to such a fate if divorced from contemplation. St. Bernard justly says: “Thus, if thou art wise, thou shalt make thyself a well, not a canal. For whatever a canal takes in, it again pours out almost in the next moment, whereas a well holds back until it be filled; it so communicates from its superfluity without suffering damage, knowing well that whoever has chosen the worst part for himself is doomed.”
The peripheral activities, in their turn, require no contemplative substructure in order to be well performed according to the meaning of their immanent teleology. But, were it not for the counterbalancing effect of contemplative elements in our mental texture, such surface activity is apt to overgrow our life and to draw us entirely into the peripheral sphere, superseding all higher aspirations in us by the set of interests it represents. Not unless we again and again pause to take breath, abandoning ourselves to contemplation, can we escape the danger of losing ourselves in the peripheral and of allowing the deeper meaning of our life to be swamped.
Summary of the superiority of contemplation over action
To sum up: it is for three reasons that the contemplative attitude, including that which is related to creaturely objects, excels in rank the attitude of action. First, as against all purposeful activity, it constitutes the deeper and more final form of our mental life. Secondly, it represents the superior form of contact with the object, the only one which—by contrast to all uti—is consonant with an adequate appreciation of the object. Thirdly, it is the source of all spiritual fruitfulness and inward wealth, the necessary precondition to all truly valuable activity and the most proper attribute of human nature which, as we have seen, is primarily receptive. Above all, however, it is contemplation alone in which the central theme of our whole being—our union with God—is realized. Though action is necessarily implied by our advance towards that union, its accomplishment takes place in pure contemplation.
Contemplation must not, of course, be considered exclusively or even primarily because it constitutes an indispensable base for fruitful and valid action. It is never a mere means but is in very truth the end. For apart from its regenerating and enriching influence on personality in action, it represents by itself the higher and more enduring part in the soul’s life, the one that is to subsist alone in eternal life, Even on earth, the contemplative moments are the highest and most condensed. That is why the Lord said, “Mary hath chosen the best part.”
The preceding enquiry has demonstrated, then, the privileged position of contemplation as against action, and the specific dignity of religious contemplation proper. Notwithstanding the high specific perfection inherent in action, the moments of contemplative attention, even on a creaturely level of objects, embody a more fully valid actualization of our deeper being than do even the highest forms of action on the same level. In the moral domain—the most central of all for every human being—charity is supreme, and charity is contemplative in its inmost nature, although in statu viae, if it be genuine, it cannot but generate deeds.
The excellence of contemplation is also revealed by the fact that it does not, in essence, presuppose an unfinished situation. All creaturely action, on the other hand, is conditioned by the incompleteness characteristic of the status viae, the empty space to be filled, the thing that remains to be accomplished. Contemplation, not being thus tied to imperfection, will subsist even where “God shall be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), All creaturely action is necessarily transient; yet, the contemplative mode of existence is to maintain itself in eternity. Contemplation, therefore, is the “final word” of all creaturely being.
Recollection is the preamble to contemplation
How are recollection and contemplation related to each other? They have many features in common, but they are not mutually equivalent. All true contemplation implies a state of being recollected; again, the act of recollecting oneself requires a rudiment of contemplation, Both attitudes contain a turning towards the depth and a withdrawal from the welter of the temporal, the immanent mechanism of the functional. Yet, while in recollection we become or make ourselves empty of pragmatical concerns, directing ourselves to the absolute; in contemplation we are thus empty, resting in the absolute. In this respect, recollection is a preamble to contemplation. Furthermore, while the basic characteristic of recollection is integration in depth as opposed to dispersion, that of contemplation is the restful immersion of self as opposed to purposeful tension.
Hence, recollection is not limited to the moments of contemplation. It may continue to be present while we are active, if not as an express act of recollecting ourselves, at least as a general attitude of being recollected. Whereas our earthly life could not be purely contemplative, it should always remain recollected. That habitare secum, that dwelling with oneself, ought never to be forsaken.
Yet contemplation nourishes recollection
On the other hand, we cannot recover that general attitude of being recollected unless from time to time we pause in our active life to seek refuge in contemplation—particularly, in religious contemplation. In a formal sense, recollection as a rule precedes contemplation, but it cannot be developed into a full recovery of self except in contemplation. The withdrawal from outward preoccupations, and the rest of what is meant by “recollecting ourselves,” are introductory to contemplation; but again, the latter, putting us in the presence of God and in contact with the world of ultimate reality, prepares the way for our confronting everything—including relevant impending tasks—with God, and thus leading a recollected life.
We may say that a recollected mode of life is only possible if contemplation is given its due place as the focal element of life and its spiritual center of gravity.
Regular religious contemplation helps us grow recollected
Recollection being as decisive for our transformation in Christ as it is, how are we to achieve it?
In the first place, by the practice of religious contemplation. The true Christian must at any cost conquer a place in his life for contemplation. He must firmly refuse to let himself be dragged into a whirlpool of activities in which he is driven incessantly from one task to another, purpose succeeding purpose, without a pause. The present period of perpetual unrest, in which the machine has come to be the model, the causa exemplaris, of well-nigh all things, in which everything is caught in a process of instrumentalization, in which Leistung (“achievement”) with the emphasis on quantity and mere technical perfection, has assumed priority over being in a substantial and meaningful sense—this period of shallow hyperactivity is only too apt to drag us into that whirlpool of outward preoccupations.
All our actions, even those with a religious or moral importance, which therefore essentially appeal to the contemplative attitude, we tend to perform in the manner of discharging a duty or of acquitting ourselves of a task—not to say, of turning out the required output. We live in uninterrupted tension, never ceasing to be concerned about what has next to be settled; and many of us no longer know any alternative to work except recreation and amusement.
Fully aware of the obstacles which, today more than ever, threaten to prevent us from recollecting ourselves and from practicing contemplation, we must endeavor to overcome them by different methods.
To achieve recollection, we must daily spend time in inner prayer
First, we should consecrate every day a certain space of time to inward prayer. There must be such a fraction of the day, in which we drop all our topical or habitual concerns before God, facing Him in complete emptiness, so as to be filled by the holy presence of Christ alone.
Yet, we must guard from performing the inner prayer as though we were dispatching a business among others, assimilating it to the rhythm of current tasks. We must really loose the spasm of activity and be dominated by the consciousness of departing in our inward prayer towards the superior realm of ultimate being, in radical transcendence of the aims and concerns which habitually rule the course of our thoughts.
All these we must leave behind, pronouncing a nescivi (“I have forgotten”): I will forget everything that was, and is to come; nor think of what lies ahead of me. Whatever I am wont to carry and to hold in my arms I will let fall before Jesus. It will not fall into the void: standing before Jesus, I deliver it all up to Him. Everything belongs to Him: all burdening worries and all great concerns, both mine and those of the souls I love. I am not abandoning them as I would abandon them in seeking diversion: I know that in Jesus they are truly in a safe harbor. When at His call I relinquish and abandon all things, I am not casting them away; on the contrary, I am assigning everything to its proper place.
Inward prayer is the utmost antithesis to all tense activity: we cannot practice it fruitfully unless we succeed in extricating ourselves from the rhythm of affairs to be settled. To preserve that pragmatic attitude during our inward prayer is to falsify the latter’s essence to the point of absurdity.
We must integrate prayer into the events of our day
Also, we must interpolate free moments in the course of our day; moments in which we raise our eyes to God, forgetting everything for a second and experiencing His presence. In the midst of our occupations we should halt from time to time, and turn towards God for a moment, emerging from the world of causae secundae to God, the causa prima—the primary and supreme Reality and Truth, by whom and in whom alone everything unfolds its meaning and realizes its value.
We must remain always conscious of God
Above all, we must resist being swallowed up by the immanent logic of our activities and of the diverse situations in which life places us. Here lies the chief threat to our leading a recollected life. Certainly, we are obliged to respond to the immanent logic of the diverse situations and tasks that face us; but we must never deliver ourselves to them unreservedly.
We must not be possessed by them but remain firmly anchored in God, thus preserving a perspective which enables us to accord every created thing as much only as is due to it in conspectu Dei. This means a permanent struggle which we must renew again and again, in the spirit of St. Peter’s words: “Brethren: be sober and watch” (1 Pet, 5:8).
We must avoid superficial diversions
Yet, the purposeful tension involved by our tasks and concerns is not the only great obstacle to recollection. Another is the attitude of peripheral diversion.
Therefore, in order to recollect ourselves, we must shun everything that appeals to our craving for sensation. We must guard against yielding to our idle curiosity, against cramming our mind with wanton things. We must keep out of situations that pander to our appetite for the sensational. We should also leave books unread which, devoid of artistic value, are meant to captivate our interest by their exciting contents or technique—“thrillers,” for instance. For all these things are apt to drag us into the peripheral sphere and to hinder us from recollection, be it only for the reason that they encumber and dissipate our imagination.
Likewise, we should avoid meaningless conversations and irrelevant social gatherings as far as it can be done without offending charity. It has been pointed out on an earlier occasion that these trivial things enclose a danger to us, inasmuch as they hamper us in attaining true simplicity. It is not without good reason that we have that hollow feeling—that we feel washed out, as it were—after a long run of empty and superficial conversations. It is because we have strayed far from reality proper and the sphere of valid meaning; from God; and, by the same token, from our own true selves.
We must cultivate silence and inner stillness
Nay, prolonged talks as such, be they even of a less irrelevant nature, tend to interfere with our concentration. Silence is of great help in recollecting ourselves; that is why it plays such an eminent part in monastic life. Conversation (in the sense of mere chatter) obviously allures us towards the ephemeral; but even if it is devoted to more important topics, it implies a certain exhaustion, a tendency to dispersion. It is, therefore, a form of activity which needs to be compensated by not too rare intervals of silence. Silence fulfills an important function in mental regeneration. It is only in the passivity of silence that the things which have deeply impressed us may resound and grow in our soul, and strike root in our being. Silence alone evokes that inward calm which is a prerequisite of recollection.
To be sure, by silence we do not mean here a mere outward abstaining from speech, coupled with its mental continuance. We must also cultivate an inward stillness. At any rate, however, outward silence is a condition for recollection.
Far be it from us to contest the dignity and weight of a noble word; the nobility and importance of man’s high gift of objectifying and communicating his knowledge by words charged with meaning; and least of all, the greatness and depth inherent in his capacity to embody his love in a word and to pour it thus into the soul of the beloved. Yet, we shall fail of the deepest actualization of the gift of speech itself unless we intermittently undergo periods of silence so as to recollect ourselves. In most cases, unhappily, talking is but a form of letting oneself go, a misuse of the high gift of speech, a perversion of its proper meaning. Talk of this kind is always an antagonist of concentration, stultifying that high mission of human speech which the Psalmist had put into these words: “I have believed, therefore have I spoken” (Ps. 115:10).
We must find time for solitude
From time to time, not only silence but solitude is requisite for concentration. The presence of a person we know forms an interpersonal situation, which by itself involves a certain tension. That tension varies according to the character of the person in question, and of our relation with him, but in no case is it compatible with full inward relaxation. Should someone even exercise a specifically recollecting influence upon us, should a noble attraction emanate from his nature, drawing us nearer to God, the necessity for solitude will not thereby be eliminated but rather confirmed. For it will be in moments of solitude that the intensity of this spiritual contact will build itself up and bud in the depths of our soul. A moment saturated with meaning, a valid “now” requires a period of calm relaxation for taking effect. Nor is this function of solitude disturbed by the fact that, while being alone, we are engaged in some kind of activity, for the relaxation inherent in solitude has a character of its own, different from that of the relaxation due to the absence of activity.
We must get sufficient rest to remain mentally alert
Lastly, a certain measure of mental alertness, too, is necessary for recollection. In an exhausted condition we can hardly recollect ourselves; and often enough, we cease to be recollected because we are tired. Psycho-physical exhaustion tends to warp the intentional structure of our mental life, to abolish the predominance of objectivity and logical orientation. We then become more or less a puppet of our mechanism of associations, losing control over our thoughts and the images of fantasy. In a specific fashion, this condition manifests itself in dreaming. So also does a state of distraction, owing to a deficiency of psycho-physical vigor, interfere with recollection, with that recollected state of mind which is meant by the term habitare secum (dwelling with oneself). We then react too impulsively; we are more than usually inclined to be irritated; we lose control over our reactions. Thus, exhaustion may cause us to fall a prey to the immanent mechanism of any situation in which we happen to be placed, and particularly, to our own specific defects. All things are likely to possess us at will; and we tend to react impulsively on the basis of our natural dispositions, instead of freely taking our stand, with the full sanction of our personality.
We must balance intensity with relaxation
Therefore, a certain quantity of sleep and a modicum of simple recreation also belong to the preconditions for a recollected life. Since we are psycho-physical beings, we cannot invariably live with the same spiritual intensity. Nor can our life be filled exclusively with activities devoted to the higher good, with the pursuit of important aims, with the reception of deep impressions. Even for the sake of recollection itself, there must be intervals of pure relaxation, of a mere absence of tension, with no aspect of intensity.
If the periods of purposeful tension and relevant action require the balance of intervals of relaxation and recreation, the contemplative attention to high values, again—with the intense spiritual experience and elevation it implies—must be followed by pauses without any kind of intensity, during which the impressions received may thrive in stillness and strike root in our soul. Such a pause might, for example, take the form of a solitary walk during which we meditate, but without any effort or any express act of concentration, on what we have received, not intending, as we do in contemplation proper, to evoke a full response. Humble moments of this kind will contribute, in a unique and necessary sense, to the very completion of a deep and genuine spiritual experience. Or again, the pause we speak of may be represented by some external, neutral activities which we perform in solitude.
Thus, on the one hand, receptive contemplation will regenerate us so as to render us better able to accomplish valid and meaningful actions; but on the other hand, there is also a regenerative function proper to simple, neutral activities, which in its turn conditions our full capacity for realizing the contemplative attitude itself. It need hardly be said that regeneration is of a very different kind in the one and in the other case. The need for recreation in the broader and in the closer sense of the term is a specific stigma of our metaphysical insufficiency as fallen men in statu viae. The fact that we cannot maintain our life invariably on a level of high intensity but are obliged to intersperse it with nondescript, neutral moments, should evoke in us a humble awareness of our insufficiency. In contradistinction to the natural idealist, whose attitude was touched upon in Chapter 1, the Christian essentially accepts this limitation inherent in his human status. Avoiding the pitfalls of strained ambitiousness and exaltation, he is familiar with the reality of the limits imposed on us in statu viae. Yet, he envisions wistfully the status termini—the final state of man in our celestial home—in which he will never have to quit the highest intensity of being that fills the deep all-comprehensive “now” of eternity. “There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end without end!” (St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 22.30).
Recollection nourishes simplicity
We perceive the profound relationship between recollection and simplicity. By virtue of recollection alone can we reduce everything to the common denominator that is Christ. In the attitude of habitare secum alone do we gain the stronghold where we are safe from all division by the multiformity of life. Recollection alone makes it possible for us to keep awake in ourselves the basic attitude of charity, elicited by the melting fire of Jesus’ love, and—notwithstanding the manifoldness of the different keys of emotional attention required by the changing situations—always to preserve our essential identity, to remain semper idem. Recollection provides the groundwork for that wakefulness thanks to which no mutually disparate currents of life can flow side by side in our soul without being confronted with one another.
Recollection and contemplation are goals for us to attain
No less clearly do we perceive the central importance of recollection and contemplation for our transformation in Christ as a whole, Unless we cultivate a recollected mode of life and recognize the primacy of contemplation, we remain essentially unfit for receiving the holy imprint of Christ.
Still more, it can be said that the attitude of habitare secum, as well as a primarily contemplative rhythm of life, are no mere conditions but actual elements of the process of transformation in Christ; they form part of the goal which Christ has called us to attain. For our very being in eternity will consist in an ultimate, wholly concentrated, and purely contemplative surrender to God “that, beholding Thee with eyes unveiled, I shall be made happy by the sight of Thy glory”—as heavenly bliss is described in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas.
May the true Christian, always seeking and yearning for Christ, sit at the Master’s feet listening to Him and responding in words such as these: O Jesus, I know that it is my supreme task to let myself be shaped anew by Thy love; to empty my soul so that Thou shalt rule and unfold therein; and melted by Thy love, to see all things in Thy light, to experience and to do everything in Thy spirit. I know that this reforming of my soul can only come to pass if I lay myself open to Thee, and listen to Thy holy voice. Therefore, at whatever cost, I will be intent above all on providing room in myself for the gentle irradiation of Thy light, and on exposing my heart to the sword of Thy inconceivable love. Thou hast called on me to accomplish the ultimate breach with the world. The spirit that fills the prayers of the holy Church, the prayers in which Thou forever adorest and exaltest the Father shall expand my soul, fill it with Thy holy light, and draw it to Thy most holy Heart in which dwells all plenitude of divinity; and this holy life which fills our souls shall mirror and proclaim Thy brightness, “that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
I cannot become transformed in Thee unless that holy stillness spread out in me; unless Thy gifts of grace and the calls of Thy love slowly expand and mature in my soul. Therefore, wherever Thy will has placed me, it will always be my chief task to face Thee, free from all haste of earthly activities; to drink in Thy love, and to live in Thee, loving and adoring. Then only can the prayer of Thy Church become a love song of my soul.
Permit not, O Jesus, that my daily obligations make me forget my chief task, that my life be exhausted in the individual works which it is my duty to perform. Thou, Lord, who once said to Martha, “thou art troubled about many things: but one thing alone is necessary,” grace my soul with holy simplicity, so that it be filled with yearning love of Thee; so that I await Thee with burning torches and girt loins; so that I stand awake before Thee; and let all else be merely a fruit of this holy life, a superabundance from this inexhaustible source. Set the stamp of greatness and breadth, of holy freedom and wakefulness, upon my soul. Let my ear never miss Thy voice in the symphony of Thy gifts. Let me never pass over Thy graces with ingratitude, preventing them from bearing ample fruit in my soul. Grant me the fulfillment in my soul of Thy holy word: “Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).