Question of the Comparison Between the Active and the Contemplative Life
I. Is the Active Life preferable to the Contemplative? Cardinal Cajetan, On Preparation for the Contemplative Life S. Augustine, Confessions, X., xliii.70
" On Psalm xxvi.
II. Is the Active Life more Meritorious than the Contemplative? III. Is the Active Life a Hindrance to the Contemplative Life? Cardinal Cajetan, On the True Interior Life
S. Augustine, Sermon, CCLVI., v.6
IV. Does the Active Life precede the Contemplative?


Is the Active Life preferable to the Contemplative?

The Lord said: Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.[438] And by Mary is signified the contemplative life, which is consequently to be preferred to the active.

There is no reason why one thing should not be in itself more excellent than another while yet this latter is, for certain reasons, preferable to it. Absolutely speaking, then, the contemplative life is better than the active. And the Philosopher[439] alleges eight proofs of this. Firstly, that the contemplative life pertains to that which is best in a man, namely his intellect and its proper objects, i.e. intelligible truths, whereas the active life is concerned with external things. Hence Rachel, who typifies the contemplative life, is interpreted as meaning "the Beginning seen"; while Lia, who was blear-eyed, typifies, according to S. Gregory, the active life.[440]

Secondly, because the contemplative life can be more continuous, even though we cannot maintain our contemplation at its highest pitch; thus Mary, who is typical of the contemplative life, is depicted as sitting ever at the Lord's feet.

Thirdly, because the delights of the contemplative life surpass those of the active life; whence S. Augustine says[441]: "Martha was troubled, but Mary feasted."

Fourthly, because in the contemplative life a man is more independent, since for this kind of life he needs less; whence we read: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things.[442]

Fifthly, because the contemplative life is loved rather for its own sake, whereas the active life is directed towards an end other than itself; whence it is said in Ps. xxvi.4: One thing I have asked of the Lord, this will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

Sixthly, because the contemplative life consists in a certain stillness and repose, as is said in Ps. xlv.11: Be still, and see that I am God.

Seventhly, because the contemplative life is occupied with Divine things whereas the active life is occupied with human things; whence S. Augustine says[443]: "In the beginning was the Word: see What Mary heard! The Word was made Flesh; see to What Martha ministered!"

Eighthly, because the contemplative life pertains to that which is more peculiar to man -- namely, his intellect -- whereas in the works of the active life our inferior powers -- those, namely, which we share with the brute creation -- have a part; whence, in Ps. xxxv.7, after saying: Beasts and men Thou wilt preserve, O Lord, the Psalmist adds what belongs to men alone: In Thy light we shall see light.

And the Lord Himself gives a ninth reason when He says: Mary hath chosen the best part which shall not be taken away from her,[444] words which S. Augustine thus expounds: "Not that thou, Martha, hast chosen badly, but that Mary hath chosen better; and see in what sense she hath chosen better: because it shall not be taken away from her; for from thee shall one day be taken away the burden of necessity; but eternal is the sweetness of truth."[445]

But in a certain sense, and in certain cases, the active life is to be chosen in preference to the contemplative, and this by reason of the needs of this present life; as also the Philosopher says: "To practise philosophy is better than to become rich; but to become rich is better for one who suffers need."[446]

Some, however, think that the active life is preferable to the contemplative, thus:

1. "The lot which falls to the better people seems to be the more honourable and better," as the Philosopher says.[447] But the active life is the lot of those who are in the higher position -- of prelates, for instance, who are placed in honourable and powerful positions; thus S. Augustine says[448]: "In the life of action we must not love the honour which belongs to this life, nor its power." Whence it would seem that the active life is preferable to the contemplative.

But it is not the active life only which belongs to prelates, they must needs excel in the contemplative life; whence S. Gregory says in his Pastoral Rule[449]: "Let the superior be foremost in action, but before all let him be uplifted in contemplation."

2. Again, in all acts and habits the control belongs to the more important: the soldier, for instance -- as being higher placed -- directs the saddle-maker. But it is the active life which directs and controls the contemplative, as is clear from the words addressed to Moses: Go down and charge the people, lest they should have a mind to pass the limits to see the Lord.[450] The active life is therefore more important than the contemplative.

But the contemplative life consists in a certain liberty of spirit; for S. Gregory says[451]: "The contemplative life means passing over to a certain liberty of spirit since in it a man thinks not of temporal but of eternal things." Similarly Boethius says[452]: "The human soul must needs be free when occupied with the thought of the Divine Mind; not so when distracted with the things of the body." From all this it is clear that the active life does not directly guide the contemplative, but by preparing the way for it it does direct certain works pertaining to the contemplative life, and in this sense the active life is rather the servant than the master of the contemplative. And this S. Gregory expresses when he says: "The active life is termed a service, the contemplative life freedom."[453]

3. Lastly, no one should be withdrawn from what is greater in order to apply himself to what is less; thus the Apostle says: Be zealous for the better gifts.[454] But some are withdrawn from the contemplative state of life and are made to busy themselves with the affairs of the active life; this is the case, for instance, with those who are placed in positions of authority. Whence it seems that the active life is of more importance than the contemplative.

But though a man may happen to be called away from contemplation to the works of the active life owing to the needs of the present life, yet he is not thereby compelled completely to relinquish his contemplation. Hence S. Augustine says:[455] "The love of truth asks for a holy leisure; the demands of charity undertake honest toil -- that, namely, of the active life. And if no one imposes this latter burden on us, then we must devote ourselves to the study and contemplation of the truth; if, however, such a burden is imposed upon us, then must we undertake it because of the demands of charity. Yet not even then are we altogether to resign the joys flowing from the contemplation of truth, lest the sweetness of such contemplation be withdrawn from us and the burden we have assumed crush us."

Whence it appears that when a man is called from the contemplative to the active life it is not so much that something is withdrawn from him, but that an additional burden is imposed upon him.

"As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of the Lord of Hosts, in the city of our God: God hath founded it for ever. We have received Thy mercy, O God, in the midst of Thy temple. For this is God, our God unto eternity, and for ever and ever: He shall rule us for evermore."[456]

Cajetan: Those whose duty it is to instruct others in spiritual progress should note that they are bound to take great pains to exercise them in the active life before they urge them to ascend the heights of contemplation. For they must learn to subdue their passions by acquiring habits of meekness, patience, generosity, humility, and tranquillity of soul, before they ascend to the contemplative life. Through lack of this, many, not so much walking in the way of God as leaping along it, find themselves -- after they have spent the greater portion of their life in contemplation -- devoid of virtue, impatient, irascible, and proud, if one but so much as touch them on this point! Such people have neither the active nor the contemplative life, nor even a mixture of the two; they have built upon sand! And would that such cases were rare! (on 2.182.1 2.).

* * * * *

S. Augustine: Terrified by my sins and my weight of misery I was disturbed within my soul and meditated flight into solitude. But Thou didst forbid it and didst strengthen me and say: Christ died for all, that they also who live may not now live to themselves, but unto Him Who died for them and rose again.[457] Behold, O Lord, I cast my care upon Thee so that I may live, and I will meditate on the wondrous things of Thy law. Thou knowest my lack of skill and my weakness; teach me and heal me! He -- Thine Only-Begotten Son -- in Whom lie hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, He redeemed me with His blood. Let not the proud calumniate me! When I think of my Ransom then I eat and I drink, and I pray, and in my poverty I yearn to be filled with Him, to be among those who eat and are filled and they praise the Lord who seek Him (Conf., X., xliii.70).

* * * * *

S. Augustine: He hath hid me in His tabernacle in the day of evils.[458]

Wherefore without any arrogance have I sought for That One Thing, neither doth my soul reproach me, saying: Why do you seek after It? From whom do you seek It? Do you, a sinner, wickedly dare to ask something of God? Do you, weak man, of unclean heart, dare to hope that you will one day attain to the contemplation of God? I dare! Not indeed of myself, but because of His pleasure in me; not out of presumptuous trust in myself, but from confidence in His promise. For will He Who gave such a pledge to the pilgrim desert him when he comes to Him? For He hath hid me in His tabernacle in the day of evils (Enarr. in Ps. xxvi.).


Is the Active Life more Meritorious than the Contemplative?

S. Gregory says[459]: "Great are the merits of the active life, but they are surpassed by those of the contemplative life."

The source of merit is charity. Charity, however, consists in the love of God and of our neighbour; and to love God is, in itself, more meritorious than to love our neighbour. Consequently that which more directly pertains to the love of God is more meritorious in its nature than something that directly pertains to the love of our neighbour for God's sake. The contemplative life, however, directly and immediately pertains to the love of God, as S. Augustine says[460]: "The love of truth asks for a holy leisure; that is the contemplative life," and this truth is the Divine Truth on Which the contemplative life is centred. The active life, on the other hand, is more immediately concerned with the love of our neighbour, it is busy about much serving.[461] Hence of its very nature the contemplative life is more meritorious than the active, as is well expressed by S. Gregory[462] when he says: "The contemplative life is more meritorious than the active, for the latter toils in the wear and tear of present work by which it must needs help its neighbour; whereas the former, by a certain inward savour, already has a foretaste of the repose to come" -- that is, in the contemplation of God.

It may, however, chance that one man derives greater merit from the works of the active life than another does from his contemplative life; as, for example, when, from the superabundance of the Divine love, in order to fulfil God's will, and for His greater glory, a man is content to be separated for a space from the sweetness of Divine contemplation, as the Apostle says: I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ for my brethren.[463] On these words S. Chrysostom[464] comments thus: "The love of Christ had so completely taken possession of his heart that he could even despise that which he desired beyond all things -- namely, to be with Christ -- and that because it was pleasing to Christ."

Yet some maintain that the active life is more meritorious than the contemplative, thus:

1. A thing is said to be meritorious because of the reward. But reward is due to work, as S. Paul says: And every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.[465] Labour, however, belongs to the active life, repose to the contemplative, as S. Gregory says[466]: "Everyone who is converted to God must needs first labour in toil; he must take Lia -- that is, that so he may arrive at 'the vision of the Beginning' -- that is, the embraces of Rachel." Whence it seems as though the active life was more meritorious than the contemplative.

But while external toil makes for an increase of accidental reward, the increase of merit as regards essential reward consists mainly in charity, one proof of which is external toil undertaken for Christ's sake; but a much greater proof of this is given when a man puts aside all that pertains to this life and delights in giving himself up solely to Divine

2. Again, contemplative life is in some sort the commencement of future bliss; and consequently the words of S. John: So will I have him to remain till I come, S. Augustine comments as follows: "This might be more fully expressed thus: May perfect actions, modelled on the example of My Passion, follow Me; but may contemplation begun here on earth remain till I come, to be perfected when I come"[467]; and similarly S. Gregory says[468]: "The contemplative life begins here below to be perfected in our heavenly home." But in that future life we shall not merit, but shall receive the reward of our merits. Consequently the contemplative life seems to have less of the ratio of merit than has the active life; but it has more of the ratio of reward.

But in the state of future bliss a man has arrived at his perfection and consequently there is no room left for merit; but if there were room left his merits would be more efficacious owing to the pre-eminence of his charity. The contemplation of this present life, however, has some accompanying imperfection, and consequently there is room for improvement; hence such contemplation does not destroy the idea of meriting but makes increase of merit in proportion as Divine charity is more and more exercised.

3. Lastly, S. Gregory says[469]: "No sacrifice is more acceptable to God than zeal for souls." But zeal for souls means that a man gives himself up to the works of the active life. Whence it seems that the contemplative life is not more meritorious than the active.

But a sacrifice is spiritually offered to God when anything is presented to Him; and of all man's good things God specially accepts that of the human soul when offered to Him in sacrifice. But a man ought to offer to God first of all his own soul, according to the words of Ecclesiasticus[470]: Have pity on thine own soul, pleasing God; secondly, the souls of others, according to the words: And he that heareth let him say: Come.[471] But the more closely a man knits his own soul, or his neighbour's soul, to God, the more acceptable to God is his sacrifice; consequently it is more pleasing to God that a man should give his soul, and the souls of others, to contemplation than to action. When, then, S. Gregory says: "No sacrifice is more acceptable to God than zeal for souls," he does not mean that the merit of the active life is greater than that of the contemplative, but that it is more meritorious that a man should offer to God his own soul and the soul of others than that he should offer any other external gift whatsoever.

"But thou, our God, art gracious and true, patient, and ordering all things in mercy. For if we sin, we are Thine, knowing Thy greatness: and if we sin not, we know that we are counted with Thee. For to know Thee is perfect justice: and to know Thy justice, and Thy power, is the root of immortality."[472]


Is the Active Life a Hindrance to the Contemplative Life?

S. Gregory says[473]: "They who would hold the citadel of contemplation must first needs exercise themselves on the battle-field of toil."

We may consider the active life from two points of view. For we may first of all consider the actual occupation with, and practice of, external works; and from this point of view it is clear that the active life is a hindrance to the contemplative, for it is impossible for a man to be simultaneously occupied with external works, and yet at leisure for Divine contemplation.

But we may also consider the active life from the standpoint of the harmony and order which it introduces into the interior passions of the soul; and from this point of view the active life is an assistance to contemplation since this latter is hindered by the disturbance arising from the passions. Thus S. Gregory says[474]: "They who would hold the citadel of contemplation must first needs exercise themselves on the battle-field of toil; they must learn, forsooth, whether they still do harm to their neighbours, whether they bear with equanimity the harm their neighbours may do them; whether, when temporal good things are set before them, their minds are overwhelmed with joy; whether when such things are withdrawn they are over much grieved. And lastly, they must ask themselves whether, when they withdraw within upon themselves and search into the things of the spirit, they do not carry with them the shadows of things corporeal, or whether, if perchance they have touched upon them, they discreetly repel them."

Thus, then, the exercises of the active life are conducive to contemplation, for they still those interior passions whence arise those imaginations which serve as a hindrance to contemplation.

Some, however, maintain that the active life is a hindrance to the contemplative, thus:

1. A certain stillness of mind is needful for contemplation, as the Psalmist says: Be still and see that I am God.[475] But the active life implies anxiety: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things.[476]

2. Again, a certain clearness of vision is called for in the contemplative life. But the active life hinders this clearness of vision, for S. Gregory says[477]: "Lia was blear-eyed and fruitful, for the active life, since occupied with toil, sees less clearly."

3. And lastly, things that are contrary hinder one another. But the active and the contemplative life are contrary to one another; for the active life is occupied with many things, whereas the contemplative life dwells upon one object of contemplation; they are, then, in opposite camps.

But all these arguments insist upon the occupation with external affairs which is but one feature in the active life, not upon its other feature -- namely, its power to repress the passions.

* * * * *

Cajetan: But the five foolish virgins, having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with the lamps.[478]

By this oil is signified testimony to a man's goodness or love of God. For there is this difference between people who perform good works, that the only testimony which some men have to their goodness is without -- namely, in the works themselves; within, however, they do not feel that they love God with their whole heart, that they repent of their sins because they are hateful to God, or that they love their neighbour for God's sake. But there are others who so perform good works that both their works that shine before men bear witness without to the good soul within, and also within their own conscience the Holy Spirit Himself testifies to their spirit that they are the sons of God; for such men feel that they love God with their whole heart, that they repent of their sins for God's sake, and that they love their neighbour and themselves for God's sake: in brief, they feel that God is the sole reason why they love, why they hope, fear, rejoice, or are sad: in a word, why they work both within and without: this is to have oil in one's own vessels (On S. Matt. xxv.3, 4).

S. Augustine: See the life that Mary chose! Yet was she but a type of that life, she as yet possessed it not. For there are two kinds of life: one means delight; the other means a burden. And the burdensome one is toilsome, while the delightsome one is pleasurable. But enter thou within; seek not that delight without, lest ye swell with it and find yourself unable to enter by the narrow gate! See how Mary saw the Lord in the Flesh and heard the Lord by the voice of the Flesh -- as ye have heard when the Epistle to the Hebrews has been read -- as it were through a veil. (A new and living way which He hath dedicated to us through the veil, that is to say, His Flesh.[479]) But when we shall see Him face to Face there will be no "veil." Mary, then, sat -- that is, she rested from toil -- and she listened and she praised; but Martha was anxious about much serving. And the Lord said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful and art troubled about many things; but one thing is necessary[480] (Sermon, CCLVI., v.6).

"Bless the Lord, O my soul: and let all that is within me bless His holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and never forget all He hath done for thee. Who forgiveth all thy iniquities: Who healeth all thy diseases. Who redeemeth thy life from destruction: Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion. Who satisfieth thy desire with good things: thy youth shall be renewed like the eagle's. The Lord doth mercies, and judgment for all that suffer wrong. He hath made His ways known to Moses: His wills to the children of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and merciful: long suffering and plenteous in mercy. He will not always be angry: nor will He threaten for ever. He hath not dealt with us according to our sins: nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For according to the height of the Heaven above the earth: He hath strengthened His mercy towards them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our iniquities from us. As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear Him: for He knoweth our frame. He remembereth that we are dust: man's days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish."[481]


Does the Active Life precede the Contemplative?

S. Gregory says[482]: "The active life precedes the contemplative in the order of time, for from good works a man passes to contemplation."

One thing may precede another in two ways: firstly by its very nature; and in this sense the contemplative life precedes the active in that it is occupied with chiefer and better things, and hence it both moves and directs the active life. For, as S. Augustine says,[483] the higher reason, which is destined for contemplation, is compared to the lower reason, which is destined for action, as man is compared to woman -- she is to be governed by him.

But secondly, one thing may be prior to another as far as we are concerned, it may, that is, precede it in the way of generation. And in this sense the active life precedes the contemplative, for it conduces to it, as we have already said. In the order of generation disposition to a nature precedes that nature, though that nature is, simply speaking and considered in itself, prior to the disposition to it.

But some maintain that the active life does not precede the contemplative, thus:

1. The contemplative life is directly concerned with the love of God, the active life with the love of our neighbour. But love of God precedes love of our neighbour, for we have to love our neighbour for God's sake.

But the contemplative life is not concerned with merely any kind of love of God, but with the perfect love of Him; the active life, on the contrary, is necessary for any kind of love of our neighbour, for S. Gregory says[484]: "Without the contemplative life men can gain admittance to their heavenly home if they have not neglected the good works they could have done; but they cannot enter without the active life, if they neglect the good works they could do." Whence it appears that the active life precedes the contemplative in the sense that that which is common to everybody precedes in the order of generation that which is peculiar to the perfect.

2. Again, S. Gregory says[485]: "You must know that just as the right procedure is for a man to pass from the active to the contemplative life; so, too, it is often profitable to the soul to return to the active life." Consequently the active life is not absolutely speaking prior to the contemplative.

But while we proceed from the active life to the contemplative by way of generation, we return from the contemplative to the active by way of direction, in order, that is, that our active life may be directed by the contemplative; just in the same way as habits are generated by acts and then, as is said in the Ethics, when the habit is formed we act still more perfectly.[486]

3. Lastly, things which accord with different characters do not seem to be necessarily related. But the active and contemplative life are suited to different characters; thus S. Gregory says[487]: "It often happens that men who could have given themselves to peaceful contemplation of God have been burdened with external occupations and so have made shipwreck; while, on the contrary, men who could have lived well had they been occupied with human concerns, have been slain by the sword of their life of repose." Consequently the active life does not seem to precede the contemplative.

But those who are subject to the influx of their passions because of their natural eagerness in action, are for that very reason more suited for the active life, and this because of the restlessness of their temperament. Hence S. Gregory says[488]: "Some are so restless that if they desist from work they suffer grievously, for the more free they are to think the worse interior tumults they have to endure." Some, on the contrary, have a natural purity of soul and a reposefulness which renders them fit for the contemplative life; if such men were to be applied wholly to the active life they would incur great loss. Hence S. Gregory says[489]: "Some men are of so slothful a disposition that if they undertake any work they succumb at the very outset." But he adds: "Yet often love stirs up even slothful souls to work, and fear exercises a restraining influence on souls which suffer a disturbing influence in their contemplation." Hence even those who are more suited for the active life, may, by the exercise of it, be prepared for the contemplative; and, on the contrary, those who are more suited for the contemplative life may profitably undertake the labours proper to the active life, that so they may be rendered still more fit for contemplation.

"I have cried to Thee, for Thou, O God, hast heard me: O incline Thy ear unto me, and hear my words. Show forth Thy wonderful mercies; Thou Who savest them that trust in Thee. From them that resist Thy right hand keep me, as the apple of Thy eye. Protect me under the shadow of Thy wings."[490]


[438] S. Luke x.42.

[439] Ethics, x.7 and 8.

[440] Moralia in Job, vi.18.

[441] Of the Words of the Lord, Sermon ciii., alias xxvi.2.

[442] S. Luke x.41.

[443] Of the Words of the Lord, Sermon civ., alias xxvii.2.

[444] S. Luke x.42.

[445] Sermon ciii., alias xxvi.4.

[446] Topica, III., ii.21.

[447] Ibid., III., i.12.

[448] Of the City of God, xix.19.

[449] ii.1.

[450] Exod. xix.21.

[451] Hom. III., On Ezechiel.

[452] Of Consolation, v.2.

[453] Hom. III., On Ezechiel.

[454] 1 Cor. xii.31.

[455] Of the City of God, xix.19.

[456] Ps. xlvii.9, 10, 15.

[457] 2 Cor. v.15.

[458] Ps. xxvi.5.

[459] Moralia in Job, vi.18.

[460] Of the City of God, xix.19.

[461] S. Luke x.40.

[462] Hom. III., On Ezechiel.

[463] Rom. ix.3.

[464] Of Compunction, i.7.

[465] 1 Cor. iii.8.

[466] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[467] Tractat., 124, On St. John, xxi.22.

[468] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[469] Hom. XII., On Ezechiel.

[470] xxx.24.

[471] Apoc. xxii.17.

[472] Wisd. xv.1-3.

[473] Moralia in Job, vi.17.

[474] Ibid.

[475] Ps. xlv.11.

[476] S. Luke x.41.

[477] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[478] S. Matt. xxv.3, 4.

[479] Heb. x.20.

[480] S. Luke x.41, 42.

[481] Ps. cii.1-15.

[482] Hom. III., On Ezechiel.

[483] On the Trinity, xii.12.

[484] Hom. III., On Ezechiel.

[485] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[486] ii.1, 2.

[487] Moralia in Job, vi.17.

[488] Moralia, vi.17.

[489] Ibid., vi.37.

[490] Ps. xvi.6-9.

question clxxxi of the active
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