17 February 2009

St Bernard of Clairvaux on the Relation of Active and Contemplative in the Spiritual Life

I recently wrote a couple of posts decrying the auntithetical division into contemplative vs active, temporal vs mystical, but in writing them I didn't cite anyone really to support my positions. This morning I began reading an essay by Martin Smith, SSJE, entitled "Contemplation and Action in the pastoral Theology of St Bernard." It is from a lovely collection of essays on St Bernard, called, The Influence of St Bernard, and is published by the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres Press.

The point of the essay is to demonstrate how intimately related and dependent upon one another contemplation and action really are in the thought of St Bernard for the development of the capacity to love and live fully, the capacity, that is, to be all that we are called to be. Some of the essay deals with the problem of monastic life vs life in the world (especially with regard to a monk called to be Pope!), but most of it deals with the tricky balancing of active and contemplative dimensions in the monastery itself. What Bernard concludes again and again is that these two realities require each other. They are not really conflicting or antithetical realities, but instead need and come to fulfillment only in relation to one another. Especially, Bernard sees clearly, contemplation finds its completion in pastoral zeal and fervor which then itself leads back to contemplation. Most importantly, Bernard understands that God himself calls to activity as the natural fruit and completion of contemplation and vice versa. He writes:

[[ After this Divine look, so full of condescension and goodness, comes a voice sweetly and gently presenting to the mind the Will of God; and this is no other than Love itself. which cannot remain in leisure [contemplative withdrawal], soliciting and persuading to the fulfillment of the things that are of God. Thus the Bride hears that she is to arise and hasten, no doubt to work for the good of souls. This is indeed a property of true and pure contemplation, that it sometimes fills the mind, which it has vehemently inflamed with divine fire, with a fervor and desire to gain for God others to love Him in like manner and to that end willingly lays aside the leisure of contemplation for the labor of preaching. . . . And again, when it has attained the object desired, to a certain extent, it returns with the more eagerness to that contemplation, in that it remembers it laid it aside for the sake of more fruit.]] (Sermon 57 on the Song of Songs)

None of this means there is not tension between the two, nor "psychological suspense and misgiving," as Smith puts the matter. There is. Always. Contemplatives know this, and so too do those involved mainly in apostolic ministry. And yet, just as we cannot ignore either of the two essential forms of relatedness (to God and others) which are foundational for genuine humanity, or the intrinsic relation they bear to one another --- especially in the name of a self-absorbed and selfish 'contemplation,' or a soulless activism that lacks a contemplative underpinning and telos --- neither can we ignore the intrinsic relatedness of contemplation and action. It is the two together which witness to the authenticity of either dimension alone, and it is the two together which make us true contemplatives and mystics.