The 1960 painting by Francesc Labarta of St. Isidore of Seville and Bernard of Clairvaux is found in Santuario Nuestra Senora del Sagrado Corazon. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Living Contemplatively and Serving God in the World

Exploring essential components of priestly ministry

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Exemplary discipleship flows from the contemplative depths of priestly ordination. It enables priests to resist the temptation to succumb to a merely functional mindset or to allow lists of accomplishments to override the awed recognition that without God they can do nothing.

The medieval master St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) names the ebb and flow of contemplation and action as two operations of the Holy Spirit in the baptized soul. As if he were writing to priests today, he says in Sermon 18 of his 86 sermons on the first four lines of the Song of Songs: “‘Your name is oil poured out.’ Of what truth of our interior life does the Holy Spirit wish to assure us by means of this text? He refers to the experience of a twofold operation, one by which he inwardly strengthens the virtues that lead us to salvation, the other by which he outwardly endows us with serviceable gifts. The former is of benefit to ourselves, the latter to our neighbors. For example, faith, hope and charity are given to us for our own sake, without them we cannot be saved. But the gift of wise and learned speech, the power to heal, to prophesy, and endowments of this kind without which we cannot fully achieve our own salvation, are undoubtedly meant to be used for our neighbor’s salvation. And these operations of the Holy Spirit, that we take note of either in ourselves or in others, are named from their method of functioning: we call them infusion and effusion.”

In effect, St. Bernard counsels the priests and brothers he guides to be contemplatives-in-action and active contemplatives. Infusion has to precede effusion; otherwise, one’s best efforts may result in no more than an “empty yawning.”

As he says in the same sermon: “The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. … Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us, that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.”

Bernard insists in his timeless way of preaching that prayerful receptivity to the will of God is an essential component of the activity required of priests in any ministerial situation. To be avoided at all costs is mere activism. How can priests expect their ministry to have any efficacy without its being grounded in deep devotion to God? Neglecting this rhythm of infusion and effusion, their service may degenerate into a functional enterprise resulting in a diminishment of their call to holiness.

An excellent illustration of how to integrate sanctity and service can be found in the loving witness of two Teresas, one in the 16th century — St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-82), foundress and reformer of the Carmelite Order — and the other her modern counterpart and namesake — St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-97).

St. Teresa of Ávila

The earlier Teresa strove to live in cloistered simplicity behind the walls of Carmel, but her life records an excess of ministerial involvement that in due time affected not only the reform of her order but also of the entire Church. She refused to be bound by worldly concerns, neither for personal honor and popularity nor for visible success. She knew from experience that to gain inner freedom and the joy of being a daughter of the Church she had to deny herself, take up her cross and follow Jesus (cf. Mt 16:24).

St. Teresa of Ávila
St. Teresa of Ávila. AdobeStock

Throughout her life, Teresa of Ávila tried to blend the uplift of contemplation and the ordinariness of action. Whether she was peeling potatoes for the sisters’ supper or composing ascetical-mystical masterpieces, she found her center in the crucified Christ.

From 1560 until shortly before her death in 1582, she was active in founding new convents throughout Spain. Amid this detailed organization, she received interior graces so intense that she records for us the exact date on which the grace of spiritual marriage was given to her: Nov. 18, 1572 (“Spiritual Testimonies,” No. 31). Truly, Martha and Mary met in Teresa of Ávila. She is a living example for every priest of total abandonment to Christ and of loving service to the Church.

In her description of prayer as “an intimate sharing between friends,” this saint, a Doctor of the Church, assures her sons and daughters that there is no place for secrets between lovers. No matter what form prayer takes, from petitions to ground swells of praise, it signifies our conviction that, in her words, God alone suffices! One has to experience, as it were, a kind of “ego desperation” — the failure of plans and projects that are humanly engineered because one has neglected to listen to God. In such moments of loss of control, priests recognize that God alone is their strength.

As a rule, priests would rather be humiliated as Christ was before his accusers than be on the defensive. As Teresa says, “This is a wonderful way to imitate the Lord who took away all our faults” (“The Way of Perfection,” 15:1). When it comes to serving him with gladness, Teresa found that one accomplished more for his holy reign by being held in little esteem, by living the hidden life, and by remembering that our physical, mental, moral, and spiritual help comes from the Lord, who is our strength (cf. “The Way of Perfection,” 15:2).

Teresa is a great proponent of the wisdom of promoting a both/and rather than an either/or approach to ministry. She knows that without Christ priests lose, but that with him they gain a hundredfold, including freedom of spirit, perfect peace and a blessed release from ingrained egoism and spiritual pride.

St. Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa mosaic in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Tirana, Albania. zatletic/AdobeStock

As we see in the life of another holy woman, Teresa of Calcutta, “who described herself as a tiny pen in a mighty hand,” the mountaintops of spirituality and the trenches of functionality are two branches on the one vine. Any priest longing for union with God can benefit from St. Teresa’s gentle yet firm counsel. She offers sensible, clear directives to follow. Humility lets priests be themselves, with all their limits and gifts in the arena of activity where Divine Providence places them.

Detachment enables them to live in each situation with a high degree of patience and perseverance. They can be near to others in genuine care while maintaining reasonable and respectful distance. Charity flows over into compassion for their weaknesses and the vulnerability of those entrusted to their care.

Both Teresas are living witnesses to the wedding of ministry and mysticism, of service and sanctity — virtues embodied fully in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Priests must emulate whether they go forth in service or return in solitude to the “hermitage” of their heart.

Contemplative Presence

Freed from excessive attachments to power, pleasure or possession, priests are free to experience oneness with God in their inner and outer life. Inwardly speaking, their prayer life becomes more receptive to the stirrings of grace; they try to be with God before the Blessed Sacrament without the need to know exactly where God may be leading them. They let go of their expectations and wait upon deeper revelations.

Their service is not a search for personal acclaim but a labor of love. As a result, they begin to live in charity and humility, the virtues that companion contemplation. The apostle Paul says: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Cor 3:16-17).

Knowing that contemplative presence is the wellspring of action draws priests to new disclosures of their calling as friends and servants of God. Frantic as functionalism may make them at times, they do not allow it to disturb their encounters with Christ. They happily accept his invitation to come away and be with him for a while.

To Be Missioned

Whatever priests happen to be doing — preparing a sermon, teaching a class, visiting the sick — they do it out of love for God and a desire to make this love manifest. They want to help others see the face of Christ in every person, event and thing. This is what it means to them to be missioned.

Missionary duty is not limited to the evangelizing work in foreign lands. It is what priests do every day in their parishes. Whatever their position in the diocese may be, they remain first and foremost faithful disciples, who guard against daily pressures that could distract them from their center in the Lord.

A story is told that one day in their mission house in Calcutta, the sisters went to the kitchen to ready bowls of rice for the poor begging at their door only to find that every sack was empty. They rushed to Mother Teresa to ask what they ought to do, to which she calmly replied, “Let us go to the chapel and pray.” A few hours later, the silence of their contemplation was shattered by a loud banging on the front door. A sister rushed to open it and to her amazement saw a few vans parked nearby from a local luxury hotel. The driver who knocked on the convent entranceway explained that due to flight delays a banquet for several hundred executives had to be canceled. Rather than waste the food, their boss had suggested that the sisters might put these full trays to good use. Many were fed that evening with gourmet delights beyond their wildest dreams. Mother Teresa, it is said, simply smiled.

She lived the Gospel truth all priests believe: that if the Church builds its life in the world on the solid rock of prayer, it will withstand any storm. As the psalmist says, “Unless the Lord build the house, / they labor in vain who build” (Ps 127:1).

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95).



Thomas MertonThe Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-68) also insists that contemplative life unfolds not only in monastic settings but also amid the world. In often unjust, bellicose and demeaning circumstances, lacking respect for human dignity, Merton reminds us in “Contemplation in a World of Action” (Doubleday, $27.99): “The contemplative experience originates from this totally new kind of awareness of the fact that we are most truly ourselves when we lose ourselves. We become ourselves when we find ourselves in Christ. Our contemplative vocation can become perverse and selfish if we are surreptitiously using tricks and bad faith. Bad faith for us consists in trying to play around with this concept of finding ourselves by losing ourselves. Bad faith wants to learn some trick way of losing ourselves so that we find ourselves and we come out on top in the end. This is one source of the self-deception and frustration that are so frequent in the contemplative life. Consequently, one of the basic rules is that it is always a gift of God. It is always something for which we must learn how to wait. But it is also something which we must learn to expect actively. The secret of the contemplative life is in this ability for active awareness, an active and expectant awareness where the activity is a deep personal response on a level which is, so to speak, beyond the faculties of the soul.”



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