The Interior Life: Both Active and Contemplative
There are periods in which the interior life becomes easy and sweet. Who has not had times when he was able, without any difficulty, to live for days filled with fervor? The pity is that we have not been able to determine why or how we arrived at this state.
One fine day, we perceived ourselves recollected; the presence of God became very easy for us; our soul was at rest, and we enjoyed a period of peace. But the next day, everything faded away, and we did not know how the fervor came or how it departed. And, unfortunately, since the bright days are few and the overcast ones are more frequent, we do not know what we must do to cultivate the interior life.
Some souls even believe that fervor is a sort of lottery prize: he whose turn it is to win, wins, and he whose turn it is not, has nothing to do but to resign himself. If only we could discover the thread of this labyrinth, the key of the interior life, so that we might know what we have to do both on the bright days and on the cloudy and overcast ones!
We might attempt to solve the problem in a superficial manner and enumerate all the elements whence the interior life takes its origin. For example: interior and exterior recollection; overcoming of self-love; purity of the heart, which ought to be empty of all created things; the practice of the virtues; and so on. Thus, the problem would be solved by saying that the soul must have and must intensify all these elements in order that the interior life might grow and develop.
But the question would still stand, and the soul would ask anew: “How does one acquire recollection, empty the heart, and practice the virtues?” For many times, the soul desires recollection and cannot achieve it. Neither can anyone empty the heart perfectly except by filling it with God through the medium of the interior life. Nor can anyone practice the virtues perfectly except by holding before the eyes of the soul the divine Model, whom we contemplate in prayer. Hence, we do not so much need to know the elements of the interior life and the means that favor it as to discover the key, the central point, that solves the whole difficulty. Where is this key of the interior life? May God be pleased to reveal the secret to us!
First of all, we must have clear ideas about the interior life. The spiritual life consists essentially in charity; and, Christian perfection is nothing else but the plenitude of charity. Now, charity has two aspects: love of God and love of our neighbor. Hence, the interior life consists principally in love of God and secondarily in love of our neighbor. Therefore, to live the spiritual life is to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. When we come to love in this way, we completely fulfill the law: “Love, therefore is the fulfilling of the law.”
From this double aspect of charity, the love of God and the love of our neighbor, flow the two forms of the spiritual life: the contemplative life and the active life. The contemplative life embraces all our relations with God, which consist essentially in knowing and loving Him. The active life embraces everything that has a relationship with our neighbor; such things, for example, as the practice of the moral virtues and the works of mercy.
The love of our neighbor has a twofold aspect. One is to make use of our neighbor to go to God, using him as a means to unite ourselves with God. The other is to serve our neighbor. Thus, once we are united to God, we can descend to our neighbor to bring him the graces we have obtained in our contact with the Supreme Being. Interchange with our neighbor is a profitable occasion wherein to exercise many virtues that bring us to God, such as humility, mortification, self-abnegation, patience, and meekness. For this reason, St. Thomas says that, for achieving perfection, life with our brethren is better than the eremitical life; but as soon as one has achieved perfection, the eremitical life is better than life in company with others.
And we have already indicated the reason for this, for it is our contact with our neighbor that gives us the opportunity to practice many virtues. If we lived in the desert, we would perhaps not suspect many of our weaknesses. Our neighbor humbles us and thus exposes our pride and self-love; with his impertinences, he reveals our irascibility or makes us practice meekness; with his manifold demands, he forces us to practice self-abnegation or brings to light our self-love; and so on. For this reason, spiritual writers say that the active life is the preparation for the contemplative life, because, in the former, we exercise the virtues that dispose us for the latter.
But once we have ascended to the summit of the contemplative life, traveling up the side that is the active life, we come down on the other side, bearing in our hands the treasures of God to distribute to our neighbor. This is the apostolic life. There is no one who has arrived at union with God, at the plenitude of contemplation, who does not feel himself eaten up with zeal for the salvation of souls. Then he descends from the height of contemplation to the field of the apostolate to win souls for God.
In one manner or another, therefore, every interior life must in its final phase be the contemplative life. Well, then, to contemplate God, the first requisite is to encounter Him. And once we have encountered Him, we need to know the means whereby to enter into communication with Him.
If I have a great desire to hear the lectures of a master, but if I do not know in what country or in what city he lives, the first thing I need to do is to search for him. And once I have found him, it is indispensable to know the language he speaks so that I may enter into communication with him. The same thing occurs in the interior life. All its secrets consist in this: to know how to find God and to know how to enter into communication with Him.
All this seems to be the most simple and obvious thing in the world. For where is God? We do not have to ascend to Heaven to find Him. God is within us: “In Him we live, and move, and are.”68 The divine Goodness has wished to remain with us, in our heart and in the tabernacle. Yet despite bearing God in our heart, and living in a divine atmosphere, and having Him in the tabernacle, how difficult it ever is to find God! Is not this “not finding” God the great torment of souls?
If all people — the wise, the ignorant, the simple, the imperfect, and even the sinners — have the right to enter into communication with God, why is it difficult to do so in practice? The answer lies in this frequent complaint of pious souls:
“I cannot pray.”
“How so, if prayer is, as it were, the breath of the soul?”
“That is true. I feel the need to pray; I wish to do so; but I am not able. I cannot form a single act. I am dumb, deaf, dry; I cannot hear, or speak, or feel.”
How can one explain these apparent contradictions? God stands near, yet we do not find Him. We can enter into communication with Him in all manner of ways, yet we do not succeed in doing so.
Here we meet with the key of the interior life. The explanation of these apparent contradictions lies in this: that our God is a hidden God, as the sacred Scriptures tell us. “Verily Thou art a hidden God.” And a hidden God must be sought. If there is a secret hiding place in a room, and if there is a person concealed in it, we do not encounter him, even though he is near us. We do not even suspect his presence. Thus it is with God. He is a hidden God. He is present everywhere, but everywhere He is concealed: in the stars of the heavens, in the earth that supports us, in the air that we breathe, in the neighbors that surround us. But will we always discover God?
As pertains to the saints, yes. They find God everywhere, and for that reason, some of them went into ecstasy before a simple flower, since they discovered God in it. We, on the other hand, need to make innumerable reasonings to know that He is there. As our Faith tells us, God lives in our heart. But sad experience teaches us that we do not always encounter Him. Why? Because, although He is there, He is hidden; and to find a hidden person, it is necessary to seek him.
God is in the Eucharist in a special way, and of all the places where He is, there we encounter Him most easily. However, even there He is hidden. How often we draw near to the tabernacle without perceiving or feeling anything!
Consequently one of the secrets of the interior life consists, not in knowing where God is, because we already know that He is everywhere, but in knowing that, wherever He is, He is hidden. Hence, the secret of entering into communication with Him is to find Him.
The second secret is this: Once we have found God, how do we communicate with Him? Sacred Scripture tells us: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.”
Herein is the source of our difficulty in communicating with Him, for His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. Thus, God communicates to us through one way, and we walk in another. He has His manner of approaching us, and we do not understand, for, in reality, we wish that He would communicate with us in our way.
For example, we believe that as often as God communicates with us, we must feel it, since we cannot imagine that communication with a beloved person, as our Lord is, could be dry and barren. But since the ways of God are different from ours, ninety-nine percent of the times that our Lord comes to us, we do not feel it. And this deludes us, and we believe we cannot communicate with our Lord because we cannot perceive Him.
To us, it seems that our Lord can have only a delicious sweetness and that, when He comes, we must, therefore, taste Him with the sweetness of the blessed. And sometimes it is thus. The coming of our Lord fills our hearts with sweetness. But God does not always taste the same. He is like the manna; He holds within Himself all savors.
St. Bernardine of Siena says that God has two savors: the savor of sweetness and the savor of bitterness. When we feel our heart heavy, it is also God who draws near; it is Jesus who communicates with us — no matter how poorly we understand that He also possesses the savor of bitterness. Well does St. Thomas say that all our errors in the spiritual life flow from this: that we wish to measure divine things with our human criterion, which is so puny and paltry. How often, when we think that we are most distant from God, we are most closely united to Him!
According to my view, the secret and key of the interior life is this: Jesus is a hidden God; we must, therefore, seek Him. But in seeking Him, we must remember that the ways of God are very different from our ways. To know those ways and to seek God through them are the sole means of finding God and of uniting ourselves to Him.
This article is from a chapter in the book Worshipping a Hidden God by Archbishop Luis M. Martinez available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art: St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Cathedral, Kyiv by Konstantin Brizhnichenko 11 October 2014, own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons. Cover of Worshipping a Hidden God, used with permission.