Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fr. Jordan Aumann on the Contemplative and Active Lives Compared

[87] Active Life

5. As the contemplative life consists essentially in the operations of the speculative intellect, which has knowledge of truth as its proper object, so the active life consists essentially in the operations of the practical intellect, which controls and directs the lower faculties in view of the means to an end. The practical intellect is not a distinct faculty from the speculative intellect, but a distinct operation of one and the same intellect, so far as the intellect is able to consider truth as such (speculative operation) or truth as ordained to action—something to be done or made—(practical operations).[1] The immediately eliciting principle of contemplative activity is the speculative intellect, while the activity of the will is antecedent, concomitant or consequent. In the operations of the active life, however, the immediately eliciting faculty is not the speculative intellect, but for prudence the practical intellect, for justice, the will, for courage and temperance the sensitive appetite.

6. As with contemplation, so with the operations of the active life, it is possible to consider them as purely natural or as supernatural. According to ethics the acquired moral virtue of justice is the primary eliciting virtue in the active life, although the moral virtues of temperance and courage likewise are part of the active life, but as removing impediments to the virtue of justice. According to Christian theology, the active life depends on a working and instructed faith, the infused virtue of prudence, enhanced by the Gift of Counsel, the infused virtues of justice and mercy and the Gift of Piety first of all, and then on the infused virtues of courage and temperance and the Gifts of Courage and Fear of the Lord.

The active life is essentially related to the performance of the acts of the moral virtues and its first fruits should be the perfection of the individual through the practice of virtue. But since the active life consists principally in the acts of justice and the Gift of Piety, it follows that it not only performs the works of justice but it is ordained directly to the love of neighbour [sic].[2] For that reason the virtue of mercy, under the direction of charity, forms part of the supernatural active life. For St [sic] Thomas, the good active life is a disposition or preparation for the contemplative life; it is also a consequence of the contemplative life, as being ordained to love of neighbour. In its perfection the active life looks to the supernatural society of the Church and seeks to extend the kingdom of God on earth. As the interior life, rectified by the moral and theological virtues, is a source of the good done to others in the works of mercy and justice, so the contemplative activity is a source of preaching and teaching in the apostolate.

[88] Active and Contemplative Life Compared

7. Both the contemplative and the active life can be considered in their interior operations and in their external acts. As regards the interior or immanent acts of the virtues characteristic of the contemplative life, the following supernatural powers will predominate: the theological virtues (including the interior act of love of neighbour), the speculative Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the virtue of religion (especially in the worship of God). The contemplative acts of the Christian are therefore designated as constituting the 'interior life' or the 'life of prayer'.

The active life, on the other hand, calls into play the interior acts of the virtues and Gifts which pertain to self and neighbour, mainly the moral virtues (especially justice), prudence and the practical Gifts of the Holy Spirit. For that reason the active life is also called the 'moral life', the 'life of the moral virtues' or the 'ascetical life'.

Both of these lives are aspects or phases of the one and the same spiritual life of an individual person, though they will vary with the individual. And since the spiritual life necessarily involves the interior acts of the theological and the moral virtues as well as the gifts which perfect them, every Christian should cultivate both the interior or contemplative aspect of life and the moral or active aspect. In practice, however, because of dispositions flowing from temperament and character, some persons will be more inclined to contemplative acts, even if they are in an active state of life, while others may be more inclined to the moral and ascetical acts, even if they are in a contemplative state. According to the teaching of the early Fathers it was to be expected that contemplatives would at the beginning be concerned primarily with the ascetical practices of the moral virtues, since the active life was considered a preparation for the contemplative phase. On the other hand, although there have been 'contemplative types' who remained in the active life (St Ignatius of Loyola was called a 'contemplative in action'),[3] the person who has this inclination would normally be expected to seek a contemplative state of life. Judging from the history of spirituality, it would seem that women are generally more disposed to the contemplative state than men, because they usually have more of an inclination to prayer and are more devout and receptive than men.

The person who is active by disposition is usually characterized by a strong sense of duty to God and neighbour, a desire to prove his love by actions and great facility in the practice of the moral virtues. The active type is much more common than the contemplative type and the reason given by St Thomas is that 'the contemplative life is not properly human but superhuman',[4] while 'the properly human life is the active life, which consists in the practice of the moral virtues'.[5]

[89] 8. Considering the external acts or spiritual exercises proper to the contemplative and the active life, the former is manifested predominantly by the practice of prayer, both liturgical and private, while the latter is expressed by the works of mercy in some type of apostolate. This does not mean, of course, that prayer as a spiritual exercise is restricted to those who are contemplative by profession, for St Thomas says that 'although all who are in the active life do not arrive at the perfect state of contemplation, nevertheless every Christian should engage in contemplation to some degree'.[6] There is, however, this opposition between the exercise of set prayer and the performance of the works of mercy: both activities require time and it is impossible to give one's attention to both at the same time. Nor does it solve the problem to state that work can be made prayer, for the two are distinct. What can be done is to supernaturalize one's external action by proper motivation and to restrict one's external occupations so that time for genuine prayer can be provided. This is more necessary for those who are engaged in study, teaching, preaching—what we may call a doctrinal or intellectual apostolate—because those engaged in the manual or mechanical tasks can usually remain recollected in God and even pray as they work.

The most important thing is charity, and this should motivate the activities of both the contemplative and the active types of life. In the supernatural order what matters most is not what one does, but the love with which he does it. As St Thomas says 'The root of merit is charity'.[7] Consequently, the truly spiritual man will strive with all his power for the perfection of charity, and as he grows in charity he will feel compelled to manifest it in his actions. The person who is inclined to external works will manifest his charity especially in the works of mercy, out of love of neighbour; the person who is more inclined to the interior life and its practices will manifest his charity in the practice of prayer, which is the language of the love of God.


1. cf. Ia. 79, 11

2. cf. 2a2ae. 182, 2

3. cf Nadal, H., S.J., Epistolae, Monumenta Historiae S.J., IV, Madrid, 1905, p. 651

4. De virtutibus cardinalibus 1. In Ethic. X, lect. 11 & 12, he calls the contemplative life 'divine'

5. De virtutibus cardinalibus 1

6. III Sent. 36, 3, 5

7. 2a2ae. 182, 2


Source: Jordan Aumann, Appendix 1: Active and Contemplative Life," in Summa Theologiæ: Volume 46: Action and Contemplation, trans. by Jordan Aumann (Cambridge: Blackfriars, 1966), 87-89.

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