Although the Second Vatican Council affirmed the so-called “universal call to holiness,” according to which all Christians are called to be saints, it is not equally clear whether there is also what we might term a “universal call to contemplation.” Indeed, some insist that contemplation is a divine gift that God may withhold from some. And for those God does bless with this gift, it is usually presumed that they lead lives wholly conducive to receiving this gift–that is, lives of seclusion, solitude and silence. Indeed, our Cistercian life incorporates just such elements in our daily regimen in what our Cistercian Constitutions describe as a life “wholly ordered to contemplation.” And thus the centuries-old association of Mary’s having chosen he better part, referring to contemplation in opposition to Martha’s active and non-contemplative life style.
But then we encounter someone like Saint Bernard who, although initially entering into the seclusion and remoteness of Citeaux, was soon sent forth to found Clairvaux and take up responsibilities that would repeatedly lead him outside the monastery and back into the world he had left. And yet, despite an incredibly active and distracting life, few, if any, would contest his contemplative spirit and the depth of his abiding union with Christ–even in the midst of his frenetic activities. In this, he is not unique if we consider people like Saint Teresa of Avila–that other great contemplative whose final years were so often spent in crisscrossing Spain in the service of founding new convents of her reformed Carmelite nuns.
Saints like Bernard and Teresa thus teach us two important truths about contemplation. The first is: for Christians, contemplation is not so much about altered states of consciousness as it is about a unique and privileged intimacy and union with God that offers, here on earth, a foretaste of heaven and Eternal Life. And when we speak of intimacy and union, we are in the domain of love which is inescapably bound up with the two freedoms of those who love each other. Accordingly, contemplation, as this privileged intimate union with God in Christ, can never be acquired by human effort, ascetic discipline, or prayer and meditation techniques. Instead, because contemplation is fundamentally about a relationship between God and the Christian, it is something that we can only be invited into and experience as a totally unmerited gift.
That much being said, Saint Bernard’s intense spiritual life didn’t just happen without preparation or daily effort. As we know from his biographies, his early days as a monk were given to deep devotion, fidelity to prayer, worship and sometimes overzealous feats of ascetic discipline. And it is in this human effort that we witness human freedom which, like the divine freedom, is essential in the relationship of love that characterizes our union with God. However, the efforts we exert are less in the service of bringing about that union and more in the service of expressing our fundamental freedom and desire to accept God’s free gift of himself in love. These then come together in that mysterious interaction between grace and human effort as we are gradually transformed by God’s totally gratuitous gift of himself.
And so, whereas it is not for me to say whether all people are called to contemplation in this life, it does seem to be the case that this precious gift is not confined to those who dwell in cloisters far from the hustle and bustle of the world. Nor is it necessarily withheld from those who daily lives within the cloister are filled with unavoidable activity and a host of responsibilities. For when activity and busyness are not sought out but demanded by love and compassion, then Saint Bernard serves to reassure us that Mary’s better part can be taken up into Martha’s concern about many things and transform these into blessed avenues for growth in contemplative union with God, until that final moment when we pass from this world into that eternal repose wherein Mary’s better part becomes the glorious destiny of all.