Are you living a contemplative life?
October 4, 2018
What does it mean to live a contemplative life? Is it something reserved for the few – those living in monasteries or those advanced in holiness?
Contemplation is a gift God gives to those who faithfully practice daily prayer and work hard to overcome sin. Years of preparation are usually necessary. The contemplative life, however, is something even complete beginners can practice. Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, defines the contemplative life as “that form of life that directly seeks intimacy with God” (“Union with God,” p. 8). The contemplative life prepares us to receive this intimacy in contemplation.
The key ingredient in the contemplative life, besides prayer, is mortification. Now, when we hear the word “mortification,” we often think of the severe penances practiced by the saints. I am talking about something more basic: turning away from your own will to embrace God’s.
St. Francis de Sales, writing for lay people, says: “Fasting and labor both exhaust and subdue the body. If your work is necessary or profitable to God’s glory, I would rather see you bear the exhaustion of work than fasting. … At all times a constant habitual moderation is better than excessive abstinence, alternated with great indulgence. … Rather (than wear a hair shirt) correct your heart ….” (“Introduction to the Devout Life,” Part 3).
Father Jordan Aumann, OP, one of the great spiritual theologians of the 20th century, emphasized that the first step along the way of embracing the cross is doing one’s duty well. If you have a family to support, work hard on their behalf. If you are home with the kids, tend to their needs. Don’t let selfishness, laziness, socializing or social media take the time and energy you should be spending elsewhere. Mortification means turning away from self-indulgence out of love for God.
Another excellent way to practice mortification is to simplify your life. Our culture is built on acquiring material goods, but God is the friend of the poor. Can you share your excess with the needy? Do you need all the latest gadgets, or will they only distract you from doing God’s will? Will having a larger home with more expensive furnishings keep you too busy to pray, or bring stress to your relationships?
Simplifying your life can also mean clearing your calendar of excess activities. Are you too busy to observe the Sunday rest? Are you living as a family, or as a group of individuals under one roof, each going his own way? How much time do you spend with your spouse and children? What does your calendar say about your priorities?
Finally, are you overloading your senses and drowning out God’s voice? Purposeful silence is a mortification, especially in our culture. Would you ever dare to leave your phone at home when you go out? Do you use TV or music as constant background noise? Do you spend more time texting than talking with others? Distancing yourself from needless noise can make you more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
You do not need to be a monk or nun to live a contemplative life. Turning away from sin, self-indulgence, an over-abundance of possessions and too much sensory stimulation can transform your life and re-orient it toward God. Supported by such a lifestyle, your prayer will grow deeper, leading you to divine intimacy.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary,” just released by EWTN Publishing, and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.