- Correlation between action and contemplation up to the nineteenth century
- Action and contemplation in the life and works of Eugene de Mazenod
- Action-Contemplation in the Congregation from 1860 to the present day
- Towards a personal synthesis of the question
This article on one of the Oblate spiritual values of yesterday and today addresses a topic of utmost importance as much for the missionary character of the Congregation as for the individual Oblate concerned with as faithfully as possible living up to the vocation he has received. The question is this: How to balance the pursuit of the contemplative dimension which is integral to the universal call to holiness with all the activity we are called to engage in?.
Few Oblates have difficulty understanding what “action” means. From the inception of the Congregation, we have been missionaries in every sense of the word. Being an apostolic community is an essential and incontrovertible characteristic of our Oblate charism and self-identity.
What “contemplation” means, however, is much more problematic, not only for the Oblates, but also for virtually everyone. Throughout the history of the Church the term has been subjected to widely divergent interpretations. Consequently, the first section of this article will strive to identify some of those meanings so as to discern more accurately their relationship to our mission.
I. Correlation between action and contemplation up to the nineteenth century
The word “contemplation” as such is not found in Scripture. When theologians search the Scriptures for what is generally understood as contemplation, they usually speak of knowledge of God – especially the spiritual knowledge of the believer. In this case, the notion of contemplation approaches that of beholding, prophesying or experiencing a particular revelation .
Nevertheless, as this term is understood today, a number of correlative meanings can be found in biblical expressions like “coming”, “listening”, “loving”, “seeing”, “here I am” . In Scripture, we find examples of contemplation without any word to designate it. For instance, Luke is perhaps recounting Mary’s contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation when he mentions in the midst of all the activity surrounding the birth of Christ: “[his mother] treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:18). In the context of pressing activity, Mark is probably indicating the contemplation of Jesus when he notes: “In the morning long before dawn, he got up and left the house to find a solitary place where he could pray” (Mark 1:35).
In Greek, the word for contemplation is theoria. Its basic meaning suggests viewing with wonderment and delight a show such as a parade or religious ceremony. By extension then, it can apply to meditation, reflection or philosophic discourse. The Latin term contemplatio comes from temple which originally designated a place used by augurs to read omens. Consequently, in verb form, it denotes focusing attentively either with one’s eyes or with one’s spirit. In both languages, contemplation takes on a mystical tone when it designates to see God with the eyes of the heart.
In the patristic era , the School of Alexandria, it seems, was the first to correlate action and contemplation in the context of the spiritual life. In both Clement (+215) and Origen (+254), however, we find a certain hierarchy between the two notions – the one being inferior and a stepping stone to the other. Origen is the first to use Martha and Mary as well as Peter and John as types of the active and the contemplative life.
St. Augustine (+430) proposed three different ways of understanding the active and the contemplative life: 1) We live the active life here on earth, whereas we are destined to experience the contemplative life in eternity. In that sense, there is a radical division between the two. 2) The Bishop of Hippo also sees them as two aspects, functions or forces within every Christian life. Those forces can come into conflict insofar as certain actions may be incompatible with contemplation at a given moment. Nevertheless, there is usually something of both operating simultaneously within the entirety of human existence. In this context, he speaks of the objective superiority of contemplation over action. 3) Subjectively, however, and in terms of habitual modes of living, Augustine presents three authentic Christian lifestyles: a) the leisurely contemplation or study of truth; b) the active involvement in the management of human affairs; and c) a combination of the two, a certain mixed life.
St. Gregory the Great (+604) builds on the insights of Augustine with this nuance: the active life embraces the direct implementation of the moral virtues (justice, temperance, fortitude, etc.). In this context, it corresponds to what theologians would later characterize as the purgative and the illuminative ways. The contemplative life, on the other hand, is characterized by the operations of the theological virtues and constitutes the unitive way subsequently described by the scholastics. More than his predecessors, Gregory insisted that the contemplative life was for everyone regardless of class or vocation. The two lives are considered normal stages of spiritual growth for everyone. Thus he admitted the possibility of contemplation for everyone.
St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) elaborated extensively on the theology of Gregory and Augustine . On the one hand, he saw the active and the contemplative lives as two “states of life”, hence the division of religious institutions into active and contemplative On the other hand, he viewed them as aspects, functions and internal forces within the maturing life of an individual.
In this context, three inter-relationships are possible: 1) action can prepare one for contemplation, 2) one can alternate with the other, 3) action can flow from contemplation. Thus action has an ascetical value in relation to the mystical grace of contemplation. Action may also have a spiritualizing value of its own as the expression of love of God and neighbor in the apostolate. Seen in this light, the active dimension of life accentuates the ascetical, behavioral and practical; whereas the contemplative aspect stresses the mystical, aesthetic and speculative. For St. Thomas – who, when he defines contemplation, bases himself on the charism of the Order of Preachers – one engages in contemplation in order to share its fruit with others through some activity: contemplata aliis tradere (communicate to others what one has contemplated) .
St. Ignatius of Loyola (+1556) completely revolutionized the theology and the practice of the active or apostolic life, together with the understanding of its correlation to interior life. Furthermore, his usage of the terms “meditation” and “contemplation” differs from that of his predecessors. Meditation is a very active reflection on some Gospel values. Contemplation, on the other hand, stresses entering into a Gospel scene by trying to imagine, see, feel, etc., what actually occurred at the time of Jesus. Thus, his view of contemplation, while being more receptive and affective than meditation, contemplation is still highly discursive, i.e., active .
St. John of the Cross (+1591) goes to the very heart of the problem. Following in the footsteps of Gregory of Nyssa, the Pseudo-Dionysius, the Rhino-Flemish mystics, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, etc., John brings out the fact that contemplation – from the point of view of God – is the immediate and direct, the transforming and purifying activity of the Father, Son and Spirit within us . From our perspective, contemplation consists in a state of loving receptivity to divine intimacy and in abandoning oneself to the love of God. Thus, contemplation both epitomizes and radically differs from all modes of discursive prayer. The Mystical Doctor would consider the Thomistic and the Ignatian approaches to contemplation to be basically discursive in nature. For John of the Cross, the contemplative life must not only favor contemplation, but the contemplation of God is its sole reason for being. Every detail of the contemplative life derives its meaning from the goal to which it tends “to remain lovingly in the presence of one’s Beloved” .
II. Action and contemplation in the life and works of Eugene de Mazenod
When Charles Joseph Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861) came upon the scene, all the above notions regarding contemplation and its relationship with action were widespread. According to the different traditions within the Church, the two terms were understood in different ways. Not all these views and ways are immediately reconcilable.
As for the Founder himself, “contemplation” was not exactly an everyday word in his vocabulary. In fact, his use of it was rare in the extreme. Nonetheless, the issue that has come to be called action – contemplation is found consistently throughout his life and his writings. The principal contexts in which he uses the word contemplation are the 1818, 1826 and 1853 editions of our CC and RR.
How, then, did the Founder live and understand the problem of action – contemplation? In other words, how did he see the harmonious balance between our exterior and interior life, between the demands of the ministry and the observances of a regulated religious life, between helping others and personal sanctification?
Eugene’s first significant exposure to part of the question of action – contemplation occurred in Venice (1794-1797) during the long sessions he spent with his mentor Don Bartolo Zinelli . Don Bartolo was a member of Society of the Fathers of the Faith (Paccanarians) , a group of priests aspiring to become Jesuits when the Society would be canonically reestablished. His spirituality was therefore, particularly Ignatian. The priest drew up a monastic-like program for his young disciple. Besides class, study and recreation, specific time was allotted for prayer. This prayer included not only set prayers to be recited but also periods of quiet meditation and possibly a simplified form of Ignatian contemplation as well. Along with the above, Eugene was given a strict ascetical program. He fasted every Friday and three times weekly during Lent. On Saturdays, he slept on the stone floor with a single blanket. He even spent occasional nights stretched out on a bed of hearth logs. Eugene took to that discipline, frugality and regularity like a fish to water. His program was rigorous and demanding, but the young teenager was spontaneously at home with the challenge.
Then, after a wasted year in Naples, came the luxurious life of Palermo from 1799-1802 . A noteworthy development took place during his stay in Sicily. Exteriorly, his lifestyle was the exact opposite of that in Venice. He experienced the full princely comfort and glorious prestige enjoyed by the Cannizzaro family. The Count de Mazenod, as he liked to call himself, slept in sumptuous quarters and dined in luxury. He even had a villa and servants at his disposal. It was the good life in aristocratic circles. The eighteen-year-old spent a lot of time studying coats-of-arms and genealogies in the hope of finding the origins of his family’s nobility. Eugene savored the company of Princess Marie-Amélie as well as the gala celebrations of Sicilian high society.
Yet, life surrounded by such riches, pleasures and prestige awoke in the young de Mazenod a certain feeling of emptiness. His memoirs offer a concrete example of this on the occasion of the feast of St. Rosalie, patroness of Palermo. The context of this passage, however, suggests that the following sentiments were not isolated, but part of a growing and gnawing awareness.
“It is a strange thing, but whenever I found myself in the midst of it, its noisy music and its completely worldly gaiety, I would feel my heart contract and sadness would take hold of me; whereupon I would slip off to some quiet spot and there, away from all those who seemed foolish to me, I gave myself over to serious and even melancholy thoughts, almost to the point of weeping. … It was simply that I was out of my element. I felt as though I were being forcefully thrust into a world towards which I felt no attraction. I hated the dissipation I saw all around me, for it was repugnant to all the yearnings of my soul for an entirely different kind of happiness. The greater the dissipation I saw in others, all the more strongly did I yearn for the opposite. That is the only way I can explain this phenomenon” .
Eugene was not schizoid. He did not have two personalities: one the fun-lover and the other the staunch ascetic. Count de Mazenod really fancied the good life like any normal young man. Yet, amidst it all, the created was beginning to open his heart to the Uncreated. The finite was causing him to become increasingly conscious of the Infinite .
Eugene returned to France in 1802 to begin a new chapter in his life. Then, on Good Friday, March 27, 1807, he encountered the Crucified Savior in a deeply personal and touching manner. Along with the other effects of that conversion experience, we can say that for him it had considerable bearing upon the reconciliation between the exterior and the interior life. This is not to imply that the issue of action and contemplation was resolved either in theory or in practice at that time. No, what happened, however, was a radical personalization of his ministry and prayer. That is, henceforth both yearnings in his life converged directly and with affective intimacy upon the person of Jesus. Eugene had always loved Christ. Now, that love was catapulted into a new stage of intensity and a whole new dimension.
The years that young de Mazenod spent at Saint-Sulpice in Paris from 1808 to 1812 were decisive with regard to the question of action and contemplation. There, the various dimensions surrounding service to others and a vigorous interior life were integrated into a theological framework. At Saint-Sulpice, the Founder garnered one of the best ecclesiastical formations available in the France of his day. With regard to ascetical and mystical theology and its practice, he was without a doubt deeply imbued with the spirituality of the French School . As far as the correlation between ministry and prayer are concerned, Eugene was probably exposed to a thoroughly Sulpician view of contemplation. We do not possess his class notes precisely on this subject, but we can reasonably surmise that he was drilled in the difference between what was called “natural” and “supernatural”, “acquired and infused” contemplation . In all likelihood, he was also taught the “parts of contemplation”: reading, meditation and prayer.
At Saint-Sulpice, Eugene learned furthermore that he was not alone in trying to understand and to diffuse the tension which characterized his frustrated attempts to balance action and contemplation. He was wrestling with a universal problem. Everyone had experienced similar difficulties, each according to his experience and charism.
During those four years, the Founder probably came to identify the word contemplation with all that bears upon a dynamic spiritual or interior life. Moreover, through classical Thomistic eyes, he saw the fruit of contemplation – that is, the gleanings of his study, meditation and prayer – as gifts destined to be used directly for others. 
In that light, a truly apostolic life would have to be a “mixed” life: a blend of action and contemplation. Thanks to this scholastic teaching, the truths which Eugene had learned from Don Bartolo, these same truths tested at Palermo and internalized on the occasion of his conversion experience of 1807 were integrated into a workable theological context.
Nonetheless, despite the value of that framework, two factors in particular contributed to its inadequacy. First of all, it did not supply people with the means of attaining the desired harmony. No doubt, it taught that zealous action and intense contemplation must be reconcilable, since many saints had found that harmony. Yet for most people the practical solution would be to exercise the two in parallel lines, switching from one to the other. Moreover, that scholastic approach was rooted in a deeper problem: the theology of the age was still coming out of a basically static world view with fundamental dichotomies between natural and supernatural, body and soul, matter and spirit. Thus, everything that is exterior, physical or active was inherently suspect of being a threat to what is interior spiritual or contemplative.
Eugene de Mazenod was ordained a priest on December 21, 1811. He returned to Provence in October of 1812. The following March, we find him totally immersed in his first apostolic initiatives. This included simple instructions in Provençal to the poor of the area and the foundation of the Society of Christian Youth in Aix. That ministry was new in two senses: first, it was new to him, for he had just left the seminary. Second, it was new in the region because no one else in recent memory had attempted those ministries.
However, the young Abbé de Mazenod was having difficulty bridging the transition from seminary life to missionary life. Here for example, is the daily schedule which he meticulously observed during January and February of 1813: ” Six hours of sleep, six hours of religious exercises, eight hours for study of literature and theology, with the rest of the day [four hours] for meals and recreation” .
Abbé de Mazenod was living a quasi-monastic life while preparing himself for full-time active ministry. To add fuel to the fire, he was at this time sharing his house with a monk. Brother Maur was a Camaldolese expelled from his monastery of Grosbois, a monastery suppressed by Napoleon in 1811 because the monks maintained a steadfast loyalty to the exiled Pius VII. We can only conjecture what influence this uprooted religious had on Eugene’s monastic aspirations. Whatever the case, the brother returned to his monastery about the same time that the Founder resolved the vocational crisis which we shall now describe.
In the midst of his intense activity and equally intense attempts to live a quasi-monastic existence, in two letters to a close friend – Charles de Forbin-Janson, the founder of the Missionaries of France – Eugene revealed his inclination towards life in a cloistered community .
In the first letter, September 12, 1814, Eugene gives several reasons why he is unable to join his friend in Paris: his father and uncle need him and he is completely taken up with his apostolate. Then, he adds:
“I do not know if this will make me change my vocation. I yearn sometimes for solitude and those religious Orders which confine themselves to the sanctification of the individuals who follow their Rule without concerning themselves with people, other than by prayer, are beginning to be attractive to me. I would not mind thus spending the rest of my days […] Who knows! Perhaps that is how I shall end up. When I shall no longer be confronted by the extreme needs of my poor sinners, I shall feel less sorry about not coming to their aid. Besides I may be persuading myself that I am more useful to them than I am in reality. In the meantime, however, my time and energies are theirs” .
The above passage sounds like the musings of a man weighing the pros and cons of a discernment process. Abbé de Mazenod was seriously questioning the direction of his vocation at the time. Two factors were converging to cause him to re-examine his calling. First of all, he was experiencing a crisis of conscience. His ministry was taking too much time and energy away from the intensity which he believed he should be dedicating to this interior development. He could not balance the two. Then again, he had a connatural liking – indeed, a need! – to follow a “regular life” in the religious scholastic sense of the phrase. He was not completely at home unless he was rigorously observing, not only the spirit, but also the letter of some “rule”. His love for schedules and regulations for discipline and strict observance – already evident in Venice with Don Bartolo – stayed with him all his life.
At this time Abbé de Mazenod sized up the situation in this way: Strict observance of a rule equated leading a life conducive to personal holiness. But, the most regular compliance with such a rule was to be found in certain monasteries. Therefore, he felt obliged to explore that possibility.
Note that the Founder did not refer to “the contemplative life” in the sense of St. John of the Cross. He rather spoke of the regularity of those religious orders which restricted themselves to the sanctification of their members through what John would call ascetical practices. Canonically and institutionally, many of those religious orders are still designated in our day as centers of “the contemplative life”.
The second letter, written in response to Charles de Forbin-Janson’s urging him to join his Missionaries of France, stated in reply: “I still do not know what God wants of me but I am so resolved to do his will that as soon as it is known to me I will leave tomorrow for the moon, if I have to. I keep nothing secret from you. So I will tell you without ado that I am hesitating between two plans: either to go off and bury myself in some well-regulated community of an Order that I have always loved; or do in my diocese exactly what you have done successfully at Paris. […] I was feeling more inclined to the first plan because, to tell the truth, I was quite sick of living solely for others. […] the second plan, however, seems to me more useful, given the dreadful plight to which the people have been reduced” .
As became evident very shortly, God clearly chose the second project for Eugene. Once he realized the will of God in this regard, he responded by putting his whole heart and soul into its implementation. A year later, October 23, 1815, Abbé de Mazenod offered the following explanation to Forbin-Janson: “Now I ask you and I ask myself how I, hitherto unable to make up my mind in this matter, suddenly find myself setting wheels in motion, renouncing my comfort and risking my fortune by launching an enterprise of which I know the worth but for which I only have a liking negated by other and diametrically opposed views! This is a riddle to me and it is the second time in my life that I see myself moved to resolve something of the utmost seriousness as if by a strong impulse from without. When I reflect on it, I am convinced that it so pleases God to put an end to my irresolution” .
As we know, the actual founding of the Missionaries of Provence had occurred three weeks earlier on October 2, 1815 when Abbé de Mazenod had bought part of the old Carmelite monastery of Aix to be the first house of the Congregation. It was there that on January 25, 1816 he and Tempier took up formal residence. In view of the Founder’s monastic leanings, it is ironic that the first Oblate residence was a former monastery. No doubt, some of the reasons for its purchase were practical. It was the right size, in the right place, for the right price, at the right time. Nevertheless, there must have been something very deep within his heart which rejoiced in a special way. At long last he had his own monastery to live in and from which to go forth to work in his chosen field of the apostolate.
The phrase “impulse from without” referred to above means outside his selfish interests or apart from the partisan desires of anyone else. That force sprang from deep within him, from an undeniable sense of vocation. The other time something similar had happened was probably his decision in 1808 to study for the priesthood in spite of the persistent objections of his mother.
By October 1815, Abbé de Mazenod had resolved his vocational crisis. Nonetheless, it was not until three years later, in the formulation of the first CC and RR, that he expressed his resolution of the issue of action – contemplation. The formulation which he arrived at in 1818 remained basically the same for the rest of his life. Furthermore, it endured fundamentally intact for the Congregation until Vatican II. Underlying that solution was a certain dualism. Nevertheless, it also marked an important step forward .
In the first edition of our CC and RR, we find a spontaneous and vintage de Mazenod. The document itself is a combination of basic principles, general rules, specific regulations, daily schedule and mission ceremonial manual – all rolled into one. Two specific points in it have special bearing on the question of action – contemplation, that is, the aim of the Congregation to replace those Orders which had been destroyed by the French Revolution and the division of a typical missionary’s life into one part strenuously activity and the other intense “regular” observance.
a. Replacement of religious institutes destroyed during the French Revolution
After a brief Preface, the Founder began chapter one with “The End of the Institute”. That terminology represented traditional Thomistic procedure: always start with the final cause. The end of the Congregation, he specified, was to preach the word of God to the poor.
In the second paragraph, the Founder did not speak of the “second end”, but rather wrote:
“Article 1: The end of this society is also to make up as much as possible for the absence of so many inspiring institutions which have disappeared since the Revolution. The Church experiences more every day the terrible vacuum which that lacuna has caused”.
“Article 2: That is why our members will try to rekindle in their own persons the piety and fervor of the religious Orders destroyed in France by the Revolution. Our members will strive to follow their virtues as well as their ministry. They will imitate those institutes by practicing a life based on the regular observance of the rule, for example: the living out of the evangelical counsels the love of silence and solitude, the disdaining of worldly honors the distancing of self from frivolous conduct, the abhorrence of riches, the practice of mortification, the public and communal recitation of the Divine Office, the assistance of the dying, etc” .
That aspect of the end of the Congregation became articles 3 and 4 in the official 1826 Latin edition of our CC and RR. There, it is referred to in typical Roman ecclesiastical style as the “second end” of our society. The Founder’s thought is repeated in the 1853 and 1928 editions of our CC and RR. We no longer find it explicitly stated in the 1966 edition or thereafter.
In Abbé de Mazenod’s mind as expressed in the first French CC and RR, those are not two ends of the Congregation – much less one following upon or subordinate to the other. Rather they represent the one and the same end of our apostolic life from two complementary viewpoints. That emphasis is important, for it highlights the depth of harmony between action and contemplation which the missionary must strive to achieve. Thus, zealous ministry and vibrant interior life are two sides of the same coin for an Oblate.
The types of work which Abbé de Mazenod mentions regarding those Orders manifest a strong monastic tone. He does not, however, distinguish one canonical category from another. Yet we can see the writing between the lines. Achilles Rey, one of the first biographers of the Founder, gives the following explanation of what he had been taught in the mid-1840s: “They told me from the day of my admission to the novitiate that one of the ends of our society was to imitate as far as possible the examples left us by those old congregations which no longer exist in France: the poverty of the Franciscans, the obedience of the Jesuit, the zeal of the Dominican, the love of silence and solitude of the Cistercian, the mortification of the Trappist” .
On October 8, 1831, the Founder circulated a brief commentary of select articles and phrases of our CC and RR. This is what he wrote regarding action and contemplation: “My God, give me the grace to really understand what this third article in De Fine Societatis means. We read it so often without reflection… Let us pass in review all those Religious Orders which the Revolution wiped out in France. Let us remember the diverse ministries they exercised, the virtues they practiced. Some accomplished their vocation through contemplation and prayer in the seclusion of God’s house. Others fulfilled their calling by ministering to people in innumerable works of zeal. I urge you, therefore, to apply to yourselves the lesson of this third article” .
The lesson which the Founder wants us to draw from the above quoted passage is not that some Oblates be contemplatives and others active. He prayed rather that every Oblate be zealously apostolic, an attitude which necessarily includes fostering the full development of the contemplative thrust within him.
One last detail with regard to the restoration of the old Orders. The Carmelite monastery which became the first house of the Congregation – wittingly or unwittingly – turned out to be a symbolic fulfillment of this desire of the Founder. It had been confiscated by the anti-royalists during their uprising. The old monastery was declared national property and sold to the highest bidder. At least twice, it changed hands between the Revolution and October 2, 1815 when Eugene purchased part of it. By bringing the former monastery back into God’s service, Abbé de Mazenod physically restored something sacred which had been taken away by the French Revolution.
b. The two parts of an Oblate’s life
In the 1818 edition of our CC and RR, in the context of the particular obligations of missionaries, the Founder stressed the following:
“Imitating these great models [Jesus and the Apostles], one part of their life will be spent in prayer, interior recollection and contemplation in the seclusion of God’s house which they share in common”.
“The other part of their life will be entirely dedicated to those works outside the house to which ardent zeal calls them. These works include conducting parish missions, preaching and celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, catechizing, directing youth, visiting the sick and prisoners, spiritual retreats and other works of this kind” .
In the re-editing process, the paragraphs on the ends of the Congregation were rewritten from the point of view of the two parts of Oblate life. Similar to the pattern above regarding the end of the Congregation, these thoughts on the two parts of an Oblate’s life became articles 1 and 2 under the heading “Chapter III, Part Two, Other Principal Observances, #I: Charity, Humility and Flight from the World” in the Latin 1826 and 1853 CC and RR. In our 1928 CC and RR, the two articles are found under the same heading enumerated as 288 and 289. The formulation of those two articles disappears in the 1966 and 1982 revisions of our CC and RR. As we shall see later, however, they preserved what is most positive in their spirit.
As far as the relationship between action and contemplation is concerned, the above text is without doubt the most significant expression of the Founder on the subject. In a sense, that text epitomizes all his preceding struggle over this issue. Furthermore, virtually all his later expressions on the topic either flow from it or echo it. That text does not represent the most integrated solution to the question of action and contemplation. Nonetheless, it marks a major threshold in both the personal life of the Founder and the corporate life of the institute. Despite its limitations, that text remains one of the most poignant deions of what the Preface calls the “apostolic man”.
To most contemporary minds, the two-part ideal sounds dualistic, and to some degree it is. It presents a fragmented picture. On the mission, you work yourself “entirely” to death. Then, once safely back home, you pursue a quasi-monastic lifestyle until you are sent out again. And so on, back and forth. In a sense, Abbé de Mazenod may have been laying down for others what worked for him, or at least what he believed should work. Yet, what he was stressing was not a blend of two modes, but rather an exhaustive concentration of two co-equal portions: now the one, then the other. If an Oblate were to carry that parallelism to an extreme, he could burn out both ministerially and spiritually.
Let us not, however, be unduly critical for there is more than dualism here. There is also insight and practicality, the voice of experience and the utterance of a prophet.
Insight and practicality. The two-part ideal does make some sense. The immediate context of its formulation was intense evangelization in a limited area of southern France. Those first Oblates knew well what they were up against. So, in order to sustain the hard days and long weeks of that ministry they needed an equally intense way to restore their strength. This strength was not only spiritual, but also physical, emotional and psychological. The Founder had observed something along this line in the example of Christ and the Apostles. In the midst of his most active ministry, “[Jesus] was constantly going off to some spot where he could be alone and pray” (Luke 5:16). The Lord told the Twelve: “‘You must come away to some solitary place all by yourselves and rest awhile’; for there were so many coming and going that the Apostles had not time even to eat” (Mark 6:31).
The voice of experience and the utterance of a prophet. Most really zealous people need a timetable, a schedule, a rhythm – something! – to keep their drive from running away with them, to hold their enthusiasm within reasonable bounds. There is no limit to what needs being done, but there certainly is a limit to what God is calling any one of us to do. Even the Savior did not remedy all evil at one time. An Oblate is a savior in the Savior. Therefore, his ministry is limited by God. It is limited by common sense. It is limited by his need to be with fellow Oblates and to be alone with his Lord.
To my knowledge, the Founder did not put a numerical value on his two-part ideal. He never intimated that it should be specifically 50/50 or 70/30, etc. No doubt, he had twenty-four hour days in mind and seven-day weeks. Fundamentally, however, he was referring to a qualitative rhythm, like breathing in and breathing out. That rhythm would naturally differ from missionary to missionary, from ministry to ministry. As a matter of fact, the more diverse the Congregation’s ministries became – foreign missions, teaching in seminaries, parish priests, etc. – the less the literal observance of that rule was possible. Its spirit, however, is with us still, but in a different way and in a form easier to assimilate.
In 1818, Oblates did not take vacations or a weekly day off. If we add up all the days that an average contemporary Oblate takes off from ministry – including retreats, seminars, district meetings – they would probably come close to three months out of the year. Perhaps all that Oblates do during our time off is not exactly what the Founder had in mind when he wrote the Rule, but hopefully it has something to do with its spirit.
The history of trying to balance action and contemplation in the life of the Founder and in the practice of the Congregation before his death could easily take a hundred pages just to outline. The first section of the bibliography at the end of this article indicates some of the more obvious examples. Suffice it to say, however, that there was gradual improvement both personally and corporately, even if a subtle dualistic and subordinationalist attitude persisted.
There is, however, one instance in the life of the Founder after 1818 which remains a particularly striking example of the tension which continued between the two parts of an Oblate’s life. The incident involved Marius Suzanne, an especially close friend of Abbé de Mazenod. The two had met in 1816 and had hit it off immediately. The Founder was so interested in him that he took personal charge of his formation. De Mazenod had great plans for the talented young man. He was grooming him to be superior of the scholasticate where the future of the Congregation would be in his hands.
Ordained in 1821, Suzanne was put in charge of one of the most important mission centers of the institute: the Calvaire in Marseilles. He was a zealous speaker and had tremendous appeal with the people. Besides being superior and a busy missionary, he was given the added responsibility of building a new church and of raising the necessary funds. Obviously, it was impossible for Suzanne to be present at all community functions. When the Founder heard of this, he descended personally on the community and convened a chapter of faults. At that session, it became apparent that Suzanne was missing a lot of community exercises, including the office in common. The Founder’s fiery temper exploded, and in a very emotional scene he deposed Suzanne. De Mazenod, furthermore, announced that henceforth he himself would fulfill the functions of local superior in order to remedy the disorder. Suzanne, humiliated and crushed, was left only with the duty of preaching missions. The condemnation, which was as unexpected as it was brutal, indescribably wounded the young religious. Suzanne took his knocks humbly and used his new freedom to redouble his efforts at evangelization. His health soon gave out, however, and he died on January 31, 1829, in Marseilles with his remorseful friend and spiritual father at his side .
Perhaps the Founder was justified in being upset by Suzanne’s conduct. But nothing can justify the rage and ruthlessness which he exhibited. Maybe the Founder believed that he had to make an example of Suzanne. Only God knows. Any way we look at it, however, it seems that Eugene de Mazenod was the one who learned the greatest lesson. He learned never to do such a terrible thing again. He also learned that there had to be a more evangelical manner to reconcile action and contemplation than the way he had adopted in Suzanne’s case. All indications are that the Founder did heed both lessons.
At the end of his life, Bishop de Mazenod left us his final testament: “Among yourselves practice charity, charity, charity – and, outside, zeal for the salvation of souls” .
The bequest testifies that he personally came to a peaceful harmonization of the two parts of an apostle’s life, at least on his deathbed. Charity at home; zeal for others. Charity is the quintessence of contemplation which loves and serves God in himself and all others in him. Zeal is the quintessence of apostolic action which loves and serves others and God in them. Agape – love of God, love of self, love of others – is the core of the apostolic life in all its dimensions.
III. Action-Contemplation in the Congregation from 1860 to the present day
After Bishop de Mazenod’s death, the text related to replacing those Orders destroyed by the French Revolution remained virtually unchanged in our CC and RR until Vatican II. Yet, already in 1861, the Congregation was so international that the specific reference to the French Revolution had little impact beyond that of being an interesting historical fact of our beginnings. As the twentieth century dawned and progressed, the accent fell more on adapting to the enormous changes of the present and on straining toward a revitalized future. The ministerial and spiritual dimensions of the end, however, have not been lost. Here are a couple of examples:
Ministerial dimensions. “The entire Congregation is missionary in character and its principal aim is to help those souls who are most in need… Toward this end the Congregation, true to its living traditions, is prepared… to respond to all the needs of the world and the Church” (CC and RR 1966, C3).
Spiritual dimensions. “We are…ready to leave everything to be disciples of Jesus. The desire to cooperate with him draws us to know him more deeply, to identify with him, to let him live in us. We strive to reproduce in ourselves the pattern of his life” (CC and RR 1982, C 2).
The two-part ideal of the Founder also remained intact practically verbatim in our CC and RR until Vatican II. In a circular letter dated March 21, 1862, Joseph Fabre the second Superior General, stressed the following points:
“We are called to become saints so that we can effectively work for the sanctification of the most abandoned…. We are priests, we are religious. This double quality imposes on us serious consequences…. Never forget that our holy Rules prescribe that we pass a considerable part of the year within our houses so that by practicing all the religious virtues we can become worthy instruments of God’s graces” .
Three points stand out in that text: Our interior life serves our apostolate. Yet, nothing is said about sanctification by and through ministry – a truth greatly stressed today. The terms “priests” and “religious” tend to replace “action – contemplation”. The latter terminology does not, however, entirely disappear. There remains insistence on the side-by-side partition of our lives coupled with a two-fold underlying suspicion: that the contemplative is innately better than the active and that contemplation is somehow threatened by ministry.
The above third point was becoming an increasing dilemma, as Father Fabre’s report to the General Chapter of 1887 attests: “One of the serious obstacles to the observance of the Rule is the multiplicity of exterior works. According to our Constitutions, after having given ourselves to our active ministry for a part of the year we must spend the other part within our communities nourishing ourselves by a life of prayer and study. No doubt, in many houses, especially those outside France, the ministry which we exercise lasts throughout the whole year. Nonetheless, in those circumstances where we cannot observe the letter of the Rule, do we let ourselves be permeated by its spirit and strive to reconcile our exceptional works with this essential element of our life?” 
In the above text, it is not clear what Father Fabre means by “exceptional works”. He could mean that our ministries are exceptionally well done or that those year round activities are exceptions to the Rule. What is clear, however, is that the observance of that aspect of the Founder’s ideal was not “regular” enough in his view.
Our 1982 CC and RR preserve very well the spirit Father Fabre and all other sincere Oblates wanted to see carried on. Three situations contribute to a reanimated expression of that spirit.
One contemporary reason we cannot return to our respective houses for a considerable part of the year is that fewer and fewer of them exist as such anymore. Since the 1970’s, the majority of local Oblate communities are districts rather than “houses” in the canonical sense.
Today we realize more than ever that prayer – especially contemplation – is not only an essential aid to ministry, but also is itself an authentic ministry within the Church . Furthermore, ministry is a formidable matrix of personal sanctification not only for the recipients of our efforts, but also for the ministers themselves . Ministry is a continuous source of challenge, purification and transformation for those who listen to God within others .
The Founder envisaged a two-part division of an Oblate’s life. Within a given year, we were to dedicate ourselves to an alternating concentration between mission and a quasi-monastic existence. The spirit of that dialectic of the apostolic life has been recast in the 1980’s into a flowing rhythm of ministry and prayer, of work and relaxation, of sharing with God’s people and with fellow Oblates, of participating in meetings gatherings and seminars.
Some of that rhythm takes place on a daily basis. For example:
“We will live such lives as to be able worthily to celebrate [the Eucharist] every day… In the prolonged silent prayer we make each day, we let ourselves be molded by the Lord” (CC and RR 1982, C 33).
Some of the rhythm occurs on a periodic basis. For example:
“We will set aside special times each month and each year for deeper personal and community prayer, for reflection and renewal” (CC and RR 1982, C 35).
That rhythm – whether daily or periodic – can be compared to the binary code used in computers. The interrelated pairings between zeros and ones form the basis of unbelievably simple interaction for an incredibly complex world. The rhythm between communion with God and service toward others in the apostolic life can also be compared to the interaction of binary stars. Binary stars consist of two energy masses which revolve around each other in a dialectical interchange. The harmony of their interdependence is sustained by the mutual gravitation.
The Founder insisted that each Oblate be at the same time both a missionary and a saint (Preface). Our 1982 CC and RR express that dimension of living in faith in two ways: in terms of a general principle and in six concrete suggestions to implement that principle:
General principle. “We achieve unity in our life only in and through Jesus Christ” (CC and RR 1982, C 31). That principle presupposes an abiding intimate relationship with the person of Jesus “who through us gives himself to others and through them gives himself to us” (CC and RR 1982, C 31) .
Concrete suggestions. “1) While maintaining within ourselves an atmosphere of silence and inner peace, 2) we seek the Lord’s presence in the hearts of the people [we serve], 3) in the events of daily life, 4) in the Word of God, 5) in the sacraments and 6) in prayer [both communal and private]. We are pilgrims, walking with Jesus in faith, hope and love” (CC and RR 1982, C 31).
Regarding the day-to-day working out of the binary rhythm between action and contemplation our 1982 CC and RR do not impose a detailed list of a priori regulations. Our CC and RR insist rather on honest discernment. On the one hand, our “living conditions” should “favor inner recollection and a personal” flow of life which permits a balance of the two interconnecting thrusts. On the other hand, “each Oblate, with the help of his Superior or spiritual director, will give due attention to these aspects of his life, since both effectiveness in ministry and progress in religious life depend on them” (CC and RR 1982, R 22) [R 33c in CCRR 2000].
IV. Towards a personal synthesis of the question
The question of action – contemplation is a difficult one to address. It is difficult on a personal level because it requires so much gift of self and honest discernment. It is difficult on a theological level because it touches so many intricate issues which have such far-reaching implications. It covers our life from birth to death.
I wish to share a few brief thoughts which have helped me understand better and to live more peacefully the balance between ministry and prayer in my Oblate life. I hope these insights will assist others to live that mystery more consciously and voluntarily in theirs.
In virtue of the universal call to holiness, every person – a fortiori each Oblate – is called to contemplation . At least in death, God invites everyone to loving surrender to him.
All prayer contains within its inner dynamics a movement toward that loving surrender which the mystics term “contemplation”. Moreover, there is in all human life a developing contemplative thrust, a steadily increasing propensity to remain affectively receptive to God’s initiative . As that contemplative thrust intensifies, so too does our awareness of its presence and our willingness to allow it to overtake us.
We must, however, distinguish three interrelated notions: contemplative prayer, contemplative thrust, contemplative life. Contemplation is that affectively receptive mode of praying toward which all prayer spontaneously tends. Contemplative thrust refers to loving openness to God in every detail of our being and doing throughout this mortal existence. Contemplative life is a vocation in its own right to which only a few are called. As a distinct vocation, the contemplative life is a relatively self-contained, self-integrating all-embracing life-style  whose sole reason for being is the contemplation of God. As such the contemplative life is not better, higher or more perfect than any other authentic Christian life-style. As a way of life, it is God’s choice for a few, even though something of its inner dynamics permeates all human existence.
When we look at our calling to be Missionary Oblates, our corporate vocational life-style is clearly apostolic rather than contemplative or eremitical. We are apostolic religious, not monks or hermits . God, however, is free to call an individual Oblate from his apostolic life-style to a contemplative mode of living or in extremely rare cases to an eremitical life. As a spiritually vibrant Congregation, we must expect the Lord to do that from time to time. Nevertheless, a candidate would not normally be admitted into our ranks if he were to come to us seeking either the contemplative or the eremitical life.
If the above assertions are correctly understood, we no longer have to refer to our life as “mixed”. Our vocational life-style is apostolic with all that that entails. Furthermore, there is a contemplative thrust within our life – whether we are awake or asleep, working or praying, doing something or undergoing something. That contemplative thrust is God’s direct and immediate activity within us, inexorably moving all that we are becoming and all that we do toward transforming union in him.
Certainly, our formal prayer is different from our apostolate. Nonetheless, both are ministries to which we need to give of our time and of ourselves. Yet, no matter how discursive our prayer or how active our apostolate, both will ultimately be epitomized in an eminently contemplative act of loving surrender to God in death .
So much for a theology of action – contemplation. Regarding its practice, I cite an observation made by Father Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., in 1924. His statement expresses a growing worldwide consciousness regarding the integration of action and contemplation to which our 1982 CC and RR bear eloquent witness: “Whether I am active or whether I am praying, whether I laboriously open my soul to God through work or whether he assails my soul with passivities from within or from without, I am equally conscious in all instances of being united to/in Christ Jesus… First, foremost and always I am in Christo Jesu, and only then do I act or do I suffer or do I contemplate” .
Francis Kelly Nemeck