Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Active vs contemplative: Round 1

Christian monasticism started with the Desert Fathers who, in about the third century, started retreating into the desert to live alone and think about God. A lot. As monasticism grew and expanded, the monastic life, particularly the contemplative monastic life, came to be seen as the height of Christian discipleship: if you really love God, the thinking went, what you'll most want is to spend all your time in prayer and contemplation, ideally with only minimal contact with other people. None of your Sister Act getting-out-into-the-community-and-painting-murals, just you and God, and an awful lot of praying. You notice this model in, for example, Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, which talks a lot about how annoying it is to spend time with people, who only distract you from praying and lead you into sin. Bastards.

Another Thomas who talks about the contemplative life is our old friend Thomas Aquinas. He distinguishes between the active and the contemplative forms of life: the active life is focused on external activities, whereas the contemplative life is about the internal contemplation of truth. Some people are naturally more disposed to the active life (most people, presumably); others (some monks) to the contemplative life. We all start off at the active life, though, and to get to the contemplative life you have to first work hard at being moral in your external activities, or your sinfulness and bad habits will stop you from being able to catch sight of God in contemplation. Contemplation is more enjoyable than anything else people do: how could it not be, when it's God we're contemplating? Whatever we do in this life, we're all destined for eternal contemplation of God: that's the 'beatific vision' (happy vision), the face-to-face encounter with God for which we're all made. We get glimpses of the beatific vision every now and then in this life, if we work really hard for it, but we're all too often distracted by bodily concerns. This is the goal, though: eternal contemplation of God; and to really love God is to want that more than anything.

This model was pretty common in Thomas' time, but it's pretty rare these days (leastways, I'd never heard of it till I started studying patristics). The good thing about it is that, when this model was generally accepted, theology wasn't seen as an abstract intellectual inquiry with no real relation to faith, as is often the case these days: to do theology was to practice contemplation and prayer, and the idea that you could do theology without it being an expression of your love for God would have been totally bizarre to Thomas and his contemporaries. There are less good things, too, but I'll talk more about that later this week. Till then, contemplate this.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP on Flickr


Ben Goudie said...

Does that mean the life of a monk is the closest thing on Earth to Heaven (or, indeed, to life on Earth with God after the Judgement, since I don't recall Revelation actually suggesting we'll be geographically in Heaven in the paradise of the afterlife)? You make monastic life seem more appealing and sensible than it's hitherto seemed.

Anonymous said...

Well I am glad not to be a monk! I think there must be a lot of value in pursuing holiness in the real world rather than locked behind closed doors! Although there is also a place for retreat and contemplation just not 24-7 in my book but then that's just my opinion.