I came across a very interesting passage in René Voillaume’s history of the Little Brothers.

Les petits frères doivent avoir cet amour de charité immense qui fera d’eux des apôtres: mais dans cette voie il n’y a pas de milieu…il faut être un saint, héroïque peut-être, mais en tout cas, comme sœur Thérèse, un petit enfant brûlé d’un amour sans limite. Un missionnaire ou un prêtre actif médiocre peut servir à Dieu d’instrument pour gagner des âmes: un contemplatif médiocre est inutile. Il est comme le sel affadi dont parle l’Évangile. Son rôle est d’attirer des trésors des grâce sur les âmes; est le moyen c’est l’amour, la souffrance et la sainteté.*


‘A mediocre contemplative is useless’, whereas a mediocre priest can be an instrument through which God can work. This is a fascinating insight which goes right to the heart of what being a contemplative means. He goes on to say that the rôle of the contemplative is to attract grace to people. That’s not quite how I would explain it. The contemplative does not preach, teach, or administer the sacraments. His life is hidden, focused on God. It is not a public life. It does not depend for its effectiveness on work, or social interaction. And that is why it is generally misunderstood and by many thought of as selfish escapism. On the contrary, as I suggested the other day, for the contemplative any turning away from the focus on God in the existential now would be escapist.

René Voillaume talks about attracting the treasures of grace. I would put it as opening up channels, or facilitating links. When I think about the meaning of the contemplative life two ideas come to mind. One is the Buddhist idea of pratityasamutpada.** Everything, and all of us humans, are co-dependent. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it ‘interbeing’. We are inter-linked at the deepest of deep levels. This applies even in nature and is one of the things that fascinates James Lovelock and has led to the ‘gaia’ hypothesis. We are not usually aware of these subliminal influences on us. This is one of the ways in which the Spirit operates, I believe. And it is at this level that the contemplative works. This is why René Voillaume stresses the need for sanctity.

But all this has to be taken on faith. When one is in solitary prayer, when one is suffering and consciously uniting oneself with the suffering of countless others and with the redemptive suffering of Christ, there is no evidence that anything is being accomplished or achieved. Is what one is doing better than reading a book, or going for a walk? Is it simply a delusion, a way of coping with suffering, with powerlessness? Is it (it needs to be said) a certain laziness, an unwillingness to get up off your backside and do something constructive like being of service to somebody?  Much better to help people would seem to be the conclusive answer. And yet… there is the tradition going back to the desert fathers in the fourth century, a tradition that is also very strong in Buddhism and Hinduism, and exists widely elsewhere.  This is a tradition that, while it does not deny that being of service to others is the highest of ideals, says that there is something just as important, which is generally not recognised, or even suspected by many. I am not talking here about conventional religious faith, about the belief in God and life after death. This, usually, is belief in a two (or three) tier universe – this world and the supernatural realm. For many, maybe for most people, I don’t know, this is enough. It answers their questions and provides meaning. But the contemplative is someone who is aware that none of our cognitive models of reality come near to the truth. Paradoxically, the more he becomes conscious of the impossibility of there being anything other than the hard empirical reality of everyday experience, the more he becomes aware of profound mystery. It seems that this hard empirical reality, so pressing, so immediate, is merely a thin surface beneath, or within, which there are depths upon depths. God is not out, or up, or beyond there. We are not just egos acting and interacting, atomised individuals. God is within, within everything but especially within us. Paul pointed all this out in his letter to the Romans. The whole of creation is in the process of giving birth. When we consider the cosmos we marvel at its complexity, its beauty and how it has evolved to produce life and self-consciousness. We marvel at the eco-system of the world we live in, at its intricacy, at its exquisitely delicate balance and at how efficiently everything interacts from the macro to the micro level (pratityasamutpada). What we don’t see, and are not usually aware of is the Spirit within, the Spirit giving birth to God within. Eckhart has the lovely idea of Christ being born in the soul. All past, all present and all future come together in the innermost depths of the soul. There the particular and the universal coincide, the Absolute and the individual unite.

God makes the world and all things in this present now. Time gone a thousand years ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant. The soul who is in this present now, in her the Father bears his one-begotten Son and in that same birth the soul is born back into God. It is one birth; as fast as she is reborn into God the Father is begetting his only Son in her.

The contemplative is someone who lives this mystery and in living it, this is the other point I want to make, he, or she, becomes a sign of contradiction.

A rationalist cannot justify the contemplative life, cannot justify the oxymorons of the Sermon on the Mount, cannot justify the set of values, standards and attitudes which Jesus put forward. They run counter to the accepted norms of social behaviour. And that is precisely the point. People who live like that (too few) are a sign of contradiction. We live without really questioning the common sense laws, rules and procedures there to protect us from the Hobbesian vision of the default state of humanity – “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, bruti
sh, and short.” But we are not predators prevented only by social constraints from giving vent to our selfish desires. We emerge from God. We reflect Him, or not, by our manner of living.

* Voillaume, René; Charles de Foucauld et ses Premiers disciples: du désert Arabe au monde de cités, Bayard Éditions, Paris 1998 p. 177

**dependent origination’, ‘co-dependent arising’ ‘conditioned co-production’, according to which reality is seen as a boundless web of interrelations whose momentary nodes make up the ‘things’ of experience. It is pure relation without substance. It leaves covetous man with nothing to cling to, nothing to become attached to.

Interbeing is a relatively new term coined by Thây to describe the essential interconnectedness of the universe. It challenges us to look beyond the world of concepts and opposites. If we look deeply into the nature of our universe we can see all things as profoundly interdependent. In traditional Buddhism this was originally called dependent co-arising.]

Leave a Reply