Are you a contemplative? Some people, faced with this question, would answer an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Perhaps they are saints, at a high stage of union with God. Or perhaps they practice Eastern (as in Hindu or Buddhist) forms of meditation that they equate with contemplation. Some would call themselves contemplative because they are thoughtful and quiet. The rest of us might answer, “No.” Since we are not saints, we wouldn’t dare think of ourselves as contemplatives in the proper sense.
Nevertheless, everyone, no matter his stage in the spiritual journey or his vocation, can live a contemplative life.
A contemplative life is a life ordered toward union with God
If you have read The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, you know Teresa divides the spiritual life into seven stages, which she called mansions. (To be completely accurate, she says that a soul goes back and forth among these stages, rather than proceeding from one to the next in a straight line.) Supernatural contemplation begins in the third or fourth mansion. But contemplative living can begin at our first conversion, even in childhood. Contemplative living prepares us to receive God’s gift of supernatural contemplation.
Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, defines the contemplative life as “that form of Christian life that directly seeks intimacy with God” (Union with God). This is opposed to the active life, which seeks to serve our neighbor out of love. It’s obvious that lay people living in the world, especially spouses and parents, need to live this type of active life. But the contemplative life is also possible and necessary for us.
Prayer and mortification are the means to this end
Fr. Gabriel notes that prayer and mortification have been the traditional means of preparing ourselves for supernatural contemplation. But what does that mean for the average person today?
We need to dedicate our lives to prayer, setting aside thirty minutes or more each day to spend with God. If you are not convinced of the need for daily mental prayer, or think you are too busy to include it in your schedule, please read Why should you pray? and 7 ways to make time for prayer.
Mortify your will
I used to joke about wearing a hairshirt, but I don’t believe you’ll find one in any reputable religious catalog.
When a person I know entered a religious order, he left behind a “discipline” he had been using for mortification. The discipline is a small whip used to mortify the body. Religious in the Middle Ages often used a discipline. Some still do today. This person told me where I could find his discipline and encouraged me to use it, knowing that I was striving to live a contemplative life.
I almost had to laugh at this. At the time, I was recovering from a fairly difficult Cesarian delivery. I was up much of the night nursing a newborn, and had almost no time to myself. My body was already being disciplined! My vocation naturally brought with it physical mortification that God could use for my spiritual growth, if I accepted and embraced it.
The purpose of mortification is detachment from everything that is not God.
As spouses and parents, we should primarily work on mortifying our will. What does God want me to do? How can the things I do not like about my vocation be a means of learning detachment? How can they teach me that my peace, comfort, and hope should rest in God alone?
Here are some sage words from St. Francis de Sales on Detachment, taken from Part III of Introduction to the Devout Life:
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 of fasting…
At all times a constant habitual moderation is better than occasional excessive abstinence, alternated with great indulgence. The discipline has a surprising effect in rousing the taste for devotion, if used moderately. The body is greatly subdued by the use of the hair shirt, but it is not fit for ordinary people, married persons, those who are delicate, or who have to bear considerable fatigue…
Rather correct your heart, which idolizes your husband, and has indulged your child, letting him give way to pride, vanity, and ambition.
Live a simple life
The second way I believe that lay people living in the world can practice mortification is by simplifying our lives. Instead of amassing possessions, we should give generously to the poor and stick with the things we really need. We should not forget what Jesus said about the difficulty of a rich man entering Heaven! Many possessions means many distractions from God.
I was remarking to my boys (again!) this week how their lack of video games and electronic devices causes them to spend time reading, writing stories, and playing outdoors. When our possessions become a hindrance to real life, it’s time for them to go.
We should also clear our calendars of so many activities that we don’t have time to pray, go to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, or spend time with our families. This presents a constant challenge as our children get older. If we look at all the events we plan to attend over a month, what priorities do we see?
Finally, are we overloading our senses and drowning out God’s voice? Just yesterday I unsubscribed from receiving email notifications from Facebook. I also decided to check in with Facebook two or three tines a day, rather than keeping it open all day long. When it is open, I tend to check it as I pass the computer, or when I’m supposed to be writing a blog post or my book. I need to turn off the noises and pop-ups every time I receive email too.
Other sensory distractions might be background music or TV, mindlessly surfing the Internet, constant texting, or talking on your cell phone instead of to the people in front of you.
God calls everyone to an intimate relationship with Him, whether priests, religious, or parents of families. The path towards contemplation is simple: prayer and mortification. It is also difficult, because it entails sacrifice. Together, let us make the commitment to strive for it.
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Share with us: How do you practice mortification in keeping with your state in life?
11 thoughts on “Are you living a contemplative life?”
Everyone can live a contemplative life and we are all called to contemplation – that union with God. As for mortifications, you have given many good and practical examples for the modern Christian. I had recently decided to give up sugar in my hot tea. My husband noticed this and said, “Ah! How can you stand that! You might as well wear a hair shirt!” I had to laugh at his comment, since giving up sugar in my tea seems so small a thing. But I did think it was something that I was attached to and was drinking more tea each day for the ‘sweetness’. I really like your blog and that you homeschool and love the Carmelite way! Advent Blessings to you!
Rebecca, I like my tea black, but I drink plenty of it–probably too much. On the other hand, I’m always tired (need the caffeine) and often cold (need the warn cup in my hands while I write in the wintery basement). As I’m sure you know, St. John of the Cross said being detached from little things as well as big was vital to growth. God bless your efforts!
when you are poor, have 9 kids and a husband struggling with clinical depression (But on the same page as you are spriritually) you do not have to look for ways to mortify yourself or live simply because you are thrust into the middle of such a life- then, the call is to embrace that life with joy
Sounds like a blog I know of –Joy of Nine. 🙂 You seem like a person who has always been joyful, Melanie. Was this a real struggle for you at one time?
“Offer it up.”, as my father always said. And that is what I do mostly. I think of god often.
Simple, but effective. Thanks for your comment, Michelle.
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I’m at a stage in life where our home is somewhat like a monastery, generally silent. Most days there is ample time to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, meditate on Scripture, and do plenty of spiritual reading. I am grateful for the gifts of time and silence, although I wish my grandchildren lived close by. If I had a regret, it would be that I didn’t make time when I was your age to learn and live a more contemplative life. I didn’t even know what contemplative meant then.
Patti, thanks for your comment. You exemplify why I like to teach parents to teach their children how to pray. There are so many things we can do at any age to live a contemplative life, but we generally don’t know them until someone else tells us. We shouldn’t have to rediscover the foundations of the spiritual life on our own. However, we are especially blessed in our day that as our life expectancy grows longer, we have more opportunity to live in a contemplative manner once our kids are grown or we are retired from work. Thanks for the examples you gave.
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