The Fruitful Union of the Contemplative and the Active

“Just as the love of God,” says St. Isidore, “reveals itself by acts of the interior life, so also the love of the neighbor manifests itself by the operations of the exterior life; and as the love of God and the love of the neighbor are practically inseparable, it follows that these two forms of life cannot subsist without each other.” This is also the teaching of Suarez and St. Thomas. “Those who are called to the works of the active life,” says the latter, “would be mistaken, were they to imagine that they are thereby dispensed from the acts of the contemplative life, for they should be added to the duties of the active life. Hence, these two modes of life, far from excluding one another, require, presuppose, mingle with, and complete each other; and if one of them should have the larger share, it should be the contemplative, which is the more perfect and the more necessary of the two.”

Action, to prove fertile, stands in need of contemplation; and when the latter has reached a certain degree of intensity, it pours out on the former some of its superabundance and enables the soul to draw directly from the Heart of God the graces that the active life is charged with distributing. This explains why, in a saint, action and contemplation united together in perfect harmony im­part perfect unity to his life. For instance, St. Bernard was at the same time the most contemplative and the most active person of his time. In him, contemplation and action so perfectly harmo­nized together, that he, at one and the same time, appeared wholly devoted to external works and all absorbed in the presence and the love of God.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Spiritual Handbook for Catholic Evangelists. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Father St. Jure, S.J., commenting on Canticles 8:6 — “Place me as a seal upon thy heart and as a seal upon thy arm” — says that “the heart signifies the interior, contemplative life, and the arm, the exterior, active life, and that Holy Scripture mentions the heart and the arm together in order to show that both modes of life can be found perfect together in one person. The heart is men­tioned first, because it is far more noble and necessary than the arm. Moreover, contemplation is likewise far more excellent and perfect and more meritorious than action. The heart beats day and night; were it to cease for a moment, death would ensue. The arm is only an integral part of the body and moves at intervals. Hence, we should sometimes cease performing external works, but should never relax from our application to spiritual things.”

The heart imparts life and strength to the arm by means of the blood it sends to it; otherwise the arm would wither away. In like manner, the contemplative life, the life of union with God, through the light and perpetual assistance that the soul receives from this intimacy, vivifies the exterior occupations and is alone capable of imparting to them a supernatural character and real usefulness. Without the contemplative life, all languishes; all is sterile and full of imperfections.

Man, alas, too often separates what God has united; hence, perfect union between the contemplative and the active life is sel­dom found. Moreover, it cannot be realized without a series of precautions, which are too often neglected, such as: never to un­dertake what is beyond one’s strength; to see habitually but simply in all things the will of God; never to engage oneself in apostolic works, unless God wills it, and then only as much as pleases Him and with the sole desire of practicing charity; from the very start, to offer to Him one’s labors and, in laboring, frequently to renew one’s resolution of acting for Him and by Him, by means of holy thoughts and aspirations; in all labors, however absorbing they may be, always to keep oneself peaceful and self-possessed; and to leave success solely to God and keep free from all anxiety, in order to be alone with Jesus Christ. These are the wise counsels the mas­ters of the spiritual life indicate as means of being united to Jesus Christ.

Sometimes our occupations may become so numerous as to prevent us from enjoying union with Jesus, but this of itself will not injure us. If this state is prolonged, we should bear it, grieve over it, and dread above all to get used to it. We are naturally weak and inconstant. When our spiritual life is neglected, we soon lose all relish for it. When we are absorbed by material tasks, we are apt soon to take delight therein. On the other hand, if we sincerely re­gret our inability to devote ourselves to the practices of the inte­rior life, in order to devote so much more time to God’s works, and yet strive as much as we can not to lose sight of God, our disposi­tion will prevent our numerous occupations from doing us any in­jury, and God will, as it were, work with us and support us.

The true apostolate is a union of the contemplative and the active lives

The union of the contemplative and the active lives constitutes the true apostolate, the principal work of the Christian religion, according to St. Thomas. The apostolate supposes souls capable of ardent zeal for and devotedness to the supernatural order.

“The apostolate of the man of prayer,” says St. Bonaventure, “is the conquering word endowed with a divine mission and zeal for souls and fruitful in conversions.” The apostolate of the saint is the sowing of the seed of faith, the word of God, says Pope St. Leo. It is the fiery love of God, enkindled on Pentecost by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Apostles, to enable them to propagate it among all nations. It is the same fire that our divine Savior had come to cast upon the earth. The sublimity of this ministry con­sists in laboring and providing for the salvation of others, without loss or injury to the apostle. To transmit to men’s minds divine truth is, in fact, a ministry worthy of the very angels. To contem­plate truth is good indeed. To impart it to others is better still. Reflecting light is more than merely receiving it. To give light is better than to shine under a bushel. The soul is nourished by con­templation, but, by the apostolate, it gives itself.

This mingling of the apostolate and all the outpouring of its zeal with contemplation and its sublime elevations to God has produced the greatest saints, such as Sts. Dionysius, Martin, Ber­nard, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Francis Xavier, Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, and Alphonsus. They were ardent contempla-tives as well as apostles.

Interior life and active life! Holiness in apostolic works! What a powerful and fertile union! What prodigies are wrought by such a union!

O God,
deign to give Thy Church
many such apostolic men,
but at the same time,
deign to revive in their hearts
a longing to “spend themselves
and be spent” for the salvation
of their fellowmen
and an ardent thirst
for a life of prayer.
Impart to Thine apostle
a contemplative activity
and an active contemplation,
and they will gain the victories
which Thou didst promise them
before ascending to Heaven.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dom Chautard’s Spiritual Handbook for Catholic Evangelistswhich is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard


Jean-Baptiste Chautard (1858-1935) entered the Cistercian Fraternity at Aiguebelle, France, at the age of nineteen. In 1897, he was elected Abbot of Chambarand, and from 1899 until his death, he served as Abbot of Sept-Fons. He also directed several other Cistercian monasteries. Dom Chautard is perhaps best known for his writings on the apostolate.

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  • noelfitz

    Reading this article, written possibly a hundred years ago, makes me realize how much the Church has changed, which is not surprising since the Second Vatican Council ended 50 years ago.

    The first thing that struck me was how male the Church was then, women are not mentioned in the article; secondly the Church seemed very clerical, as the contemplative life is unfamiliar to most Catholics now.

    The article clearly advocates the superiority of the contemplative life over the active one. But now, post Vat II, perhaps we have gone back more to the early Church where different talents are recognized. St Paul points out we all have different gifts and different callings; we are not all called to be both contemplatives and active Catholics.

    “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in
    proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” (Rom 12:4-8 NRSV).

  • Gaudium et pax

    I believe that we are all called to BOTH contemplation and action. They are inseparable. We are each called to intimate union with God and we are each called to serve God and others according to His Will. The deeper we seek and come to know Him in prayer (contemplation), the more He is able to fill us with His goodness (grace) and His goodness will overflow onto all He asks us to serve – making our actions fruitful.

  • noelfitz

    Gaudium et Pax

    Many thanks for your thoughtful reply to me. I appreciatre it very much, as it is encouraging to receive other views.

    First of all, I am reminded that Mary and Martha were different; we all
    have different talents, interests and callings. It is not a case of one size fits all.
    I do not believe we were all called to have the vocation of a Cistercian
    abbot, essentially based on contemplation with some activity.

    You wrote “The deeper we seek and come to know Him in prayer (contemplation), the more He is able to fill us with His goodness (grace)”. For most of us our job is not to seek him
    deeply in contemplation, but to faithfully carry out the duties of our lives. Grace is a free gift of God; our contemplation does not make God able to fill us with grace.