There is nothing so important in the supernatural order as to have a deep, intense interior life. This is so, because at times we run into the error of subordinating the interior life to the practice of the virtues, as if our contact with God were only a means to perfect ourselves.
The case is not thus.
There is no doubt that prayer and all the other acts of the interior life have an efficacious influence on the acquisition of the virtues. From our relation with God, we draw the strength wherewith to repel temptations, self-knowledge whereby to be humble, sweetness of temper wherewith to treat with our neighbors, and the light and the strength with which to practice all the other virtues. Even more can be said, for one may be sure that the virtues which do not have their roots in the interior life are neither solid nor deep.
But this does not mean to say that we approach God solely to acquire virtues. On the contrary, the active life and all the virtues we must practice with respect to our neighbor and to ourselves, more than being the reward of our efforts, are the means whereby to achieve the contemplative life, the perfect interior life. In other words, the contemplative life is not a means or a ladder whereby to arrive at the active life. On the contrary, we work, we struggle, we sacrifice ourselves in order to love God, in order to have intimate and loving relations with Him. The true spiritual life consists in our relations with God. Relations with our neighbor and even with ourselves are something secondary; either they are ordinated to achieve the interior life, or they overflow from it.
But the central point of the spiritual life is the contemplative life. Why? Because it is for this that God made us. He made us for Himself, that we might know Him, love Him, and serve Him. Hence, if we sacrifice ourselves to achieve a betterment of our life and conduct, it is solely that we may render ourselves worthy to have communion with God. Thus, our interior life is the summit, the ideal, the goal toward which all our efforts ought to converge.
Contemplation is a foretaste of Heaven
The contemplative life is the life of Heaven. There, all the works of the active life will disappear. In Heaven, there will be no passions to contend with, or neighbors to help, or miseries to bear. The life of the blessed is an eternal contemplation: they see God, love Him, and are united to Him in an indissoluble embrace. This is the true life.
And God in His goodness has desired that even in this life, we should exercise ourselves in that which will constitute our eternal life. Already here below we can contemplate Him, although in the mists of faith. Already here below we can love Him, and with the same love of Heaven, although it does not produce in us the same effects as in the blessed. This is the true life; all else is fading and transitory. For this reason, our Lord told Martha that she was concerned about many things when only one thing was necessary and, on the other hand, that Mary had chosen the better part, and that it would never be taken from her. In this way, our Lord Himself teaches us that the contemplative life is better than the active, and that it will never be taken from the soul who has chosen it.
It is the better part because it is the most exalted. To live with God, to know Him, and to love Him is the highest activity that a creature can exercise; not even the seraphim can aspire to anything more exalted. It is the better part because it is the most excellent. What is more excellent than to have communion with God and to be friends and intimates with the Supreme Being? And no one can take it away from us. The active life is solely of time; the contemplative life is eternal. The life of mortification of the great penitents, the apostolic life of the great apostles, the priestly ministry, no matter how holy and fruitful it may be, end with death. Only one thing does not cease: the contemplative life. It continues on in Heaven; it is eternal.
The life of an artist, for example, consists in contemplating and reproducing beauty according to his proper art. He can do other things, as when he takes a vacation. But this is only a passing diversion. For when the journey has ended and the unwonted circumstances have changed, he will return to his art, which for him is his chief concern. All else is secondary and of passing moment.
Thus it is with us. We have been elevated to the supernatural order to contemplate God and to love Him. God created us for Heaven. To be sure, while we travel on the earth, we have to do many other things: combat our passions, help our neighbor, and so on. But these are not the proper activity of our life; they are secondary things that pass away. Our Lord wishes that our chief occupation on earth should be to exercise ourselves in what is to be our everlasting occupation in Heaven: to contemplate Him and love Him. We shall not be able to do this with the fullness and perfection with which the blessed do it, but at the least, in the midst of the preoccupations of this life, we ought to give the better part to the interior life. This, then, is the only true life. Hence, whatever else we do avails only to the extent that it is penetrated with the interior life, with the savor of contemplation.
We who have an exterior ministry, such as priests and members of Catholic apostolates, cannot do good for souls if we do not possess an intense interior life, as Dom Chautard has amply demonstrated in his work The Soul of the Apostolate. “We are the good odor of Christ,” says St. Paul, and for its diffusion in all directions, it is indispensable that we be deeply penetrated with Him and united to Him — that is, that we have an intense interior life. Souls who cannot exercise any activity directly upon their neighbors ought, from the recesses of their retirement, to diffuse the graces of God upon others. But they will be able to do this only to the extent that they possess an intense interior life.
The true efficacy of our works depends upon our interior life, and the true worth of a soul is the worth of its interior life; for a soul’s worth is in direct proportion to the intimacy and intensity of its relations with God. The interior life is the chief, the most important, and the most efficacious element of the spiritual life. It is the one thing necessary.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Archbishop Martinez’s Worshipping a Hidden God: Unlocking the Secrets of the Interior Life. It is available as a paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press or your local Catholic bookstore.
You can also read other works by Archbishop Martinez here on Catholic Exchange.