Question of the Contemplative Life
I. Is the Contemplative Life wholly confined to the Intellect, or does the Will enter into it?
S. Thomas, On the Beatific Vision, I., xii.7
ad 3m
II. Do the Moral Virtues pertain to the Contemplative Life? S. Augustine, Of the City of God, xix.19
III. Does the Contemplative Life comprise many Acts? S. Augustine, Of the Perfection of Human
Righteousness, viii.18
" Ep., cxxx. ad probam
IV. Does the Contemplative Life consist solely in the Contemplation of God, or in the Consideration
of other Truths as well?
S. Augustine, Sermon, CLXIX., xiv.17
" Ep., cxxx. ad probam
V. Can the Contemplative Life attain, according to the State of this Present Life, to the Contemplation
of the Divine Essence?
S. Augustine, Of the Sermon on the Mount, II.,
VI. Is the Act of Contemplation rightly distinguished according to the three kinds of Motion -- Circular, Direct,
and Oblique?
VII. Has Contemplation its Joys?
VIII. Is the Contemplative Life lasting?
S. Augustine, Sermon, cclix., On Low Sunday


Is the Contemplative Life wholly confined to the Intellect, or does the Will enter into it?

S. Gregory the Great says[316]: "The contemplative life means keeping of charity towards God and our neighbour, and fixing all our desires on our Creator." But desire and love belong to the affective or appetitive powers; consequently the contemplative life is not confined to the intellect.

* * * * *

When men's thoughts are principally directed towards the contemplation of the truth, their life is said to be "contemplative." But to "intend" or direct is an act of the will, since "intention" or direction is concerned with the end in view, and the end is the proper object of the will. Hence contemplation, having regard to the actual essence of it, is an act of the intellect; but if we consider that which moves us to the exercise of such an act, then contemplation is an act of the will; for it is the will which moves all the other faculties, including the intellect, to the exercise of their appropriate acts.

But the appetitive faculty -- the will, that is -- moves us to consider some point either sensibly or intellectually, that is, sometimes out of love for the thing itself -- for Where thy treasure is there is thy heart also, -- and sometimes out of love of that very knowledge which follows from its consideration. For this reason S. Gregory[317] makes the contemplative life consist in the love of God, since from love of God a man yearns to look upon His beauty. And since we are delighted when we obtain what we love, the contemplative life consequently results in delight, and this resides in the affective powers, from which, too, love took its rise.

* * * * *

Some, however, urge that the contemplative life lies wholly in the intellect, thus:

1. The Philosopher says[318]: "The end of contemplation is truth." But truth belongs wholly to the intellect.

But from the very fact that truth is the goal of contemplation it derives its character of a desirable and lovable and pleasing good, and in this sense it comes under the appetitive powers.

2. Again, S. Gregory says[319]: "Rachel, whose name is interpreted 'the Beginning seen,' signifies the contemplative life." But the vision of a principle, or beginning, belongs to the intellect.

But it is love of God which excites in us desire of the vision of the First Principle of all -- viz., God Himself -- and hence S. Gregory says[320]: "The contemplative life, trampling underfoot all cares, ardently yearns to look upon the face of the Creator."

3. S. Gregory says[321]: "It belongs to the contemplative life to rest from all exterior action." But the affective or appetitive powers tend towards external action. Hence it would seem that the contemplative life does not come under them.

But the appetitive powers not only move the bodily members to the performance of external acts, but the intellect, too, is moved by them to the exercise of contemplation.

"Hear, you that are far off, what I have done, and you that are near, know My strength. The sinners in Sion are afraid, trembling hath seized upon the hypocrites. Which of you can dwell with devouring fire? which of you shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh in justices, and speaketh truth, that casteth away avarice by oppression, and shaketh his hands from all bribes, that stoppeth his ears lest he hear blood, and shutteth his eyes that he may see no evil. He shall dwell on high, the fortifications of rocks shall be his highness: bread is given him, his waters are sure. His eyes shall see the King in His beauty, they shall see the land far off."[322]

* * * * *

S. Thomas: We do not enjoy all the things that we have; and this is either because they do not afford us delight, or because they are not the ultimate goal of our desires, and so are incapable of satisfying our yearnings or affording us repose. But these three things the Blessed have in God: for they see Him, and seeing Him they hold Him ever present to them, for they have it in their power always to see Him; and holding Him, they enjoy Him, satisfying their yearnings with That Which is The Ultimate End (Summa Theologica, I., xii.7, ad 3m).

"As the hart panteth after the fountains of water: so my soul panteth after Thee, O God. My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? My tears have been my bread day and night, whilst it is said to me daily: Where is thy God? These things I remembered, and poured out my soul in me; for I shall go over into the place of the wonderful tabernacle, even to the house of God. With the voice of joy and praise; the noise of one feasting. Why art thou sad, O my soul? and why dost thou trouble me? Hope in God, for I will still give praise to Him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God."[323]


Do the Moral Virtues pertain to the Contemplative Life?

The moral virtues are directed towards external actions, and S. Gregory says[324]: "It belongs to the contemplative life to abstain from all external action." Hence the moral virtues do not pertain to the contemplative life.

A thing may pertain to the contemplative life either essentially or by way of disposition towards it. Essentially, then, the moral virtues do not pertain to the contemplative life; for the goal of the contemplative life is the consideration of truth. "Knowledge," says the Philosopher, "which pertains to the consideration of truth, has little to do with the moral virtues."[325] Hence he also says[326] that moral virtues pertain to active, not to contemplative happiness.

But dispositively the moral virtues do belong to the contemplative life. For actual contemplation, in which the contemplative life essentially consists, is impeded both by the vehemence of the passions which distract the soul from occupation with the things of the intellect, and divert it to the things of sense, and also by external disturbances. The moral virtues, however, keep down the vehemence of the passions, and check the disturbance that might arise from external occupations.

Consequently the moral virtues do pertain to the contemplative life, but by way of disposition thereto.

* * * * *

But some maintain that the moral virtues do pertain to the contemplative life, thus:

1. S. Gregory says[327]: "The contemplative life means keeping charity towards God and our neighbour with our whole soul." But all the moral virtues -- acts of which fall under precept -- are reduced to love of God and of our neighbour; for Love is the fulfilling of the Law.[328] Consequently it would seem that the moral virtues do pertain to the contemplative life.

But, as we have already said, the contemplative life is motived by the affective faculties, and consequently love of God and of our neighbour are required for the contemplative life. Impelling causes, however, do not enter into the essence of a thing, but prepare for it and perfect it. Hence it does not follow that the moral virtues essentially pertain to the contemplative life.

2. Again; the contemplative life is especially directed towards the contemplation of God, as S. Gregory says: "The soul, trampling all cares underfoot, ardently yearns to see its Creator's face." But no one can attain to this without that cleanness of heart which the moral virtues procure: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God,[329] and again: Follow peace with all men with holiness, without which no man shall see God.[330]

But holiness -- that is, cleanness of heart -- is produced by those virtues which have to do with those passions which hinder the purity of the reason. And peace is produced by justice -- the moral virtue which is concerned with our works: The work of justice shall be peace[331] inasmuch, that is, as a man, by refraining from injuring others, removes occasions of strife and disturbance.

3. Lastly, S. Gregory says[332]: "The contemplative life is something beautiful in the soul," and it is for this reason that it is said to be typified by Rachel, for She was well-favoured and of a beautiful countenance.[333] But the beauty of the soul, as S. Ambrose remarks, depends upon the moral virtues and especially on that of temperance.[334]

But beauty consists in a certain splendour combined with a becoming harmony. Both of these points are radically to be referred to the reason, for to it belongs both the light which manifests beauty, and the establishment of due proportion in others. Consequently in the contemplative life -- which consists in the act of the reason -- beauty is necessarily and essentially to be found; thus of the contemplation of Wisdom it is said: And I became a lover of her beauty.[335] But in the moral virtues beauty is only found by a certain participation -- in proportion, namely, as they share in the harmony of reason; and this is especially the case with the virtue of temperance whose function it is to repress those desires which particularly obscure the light of reason. Hence it is, too, that the virtue of chastity especially renders a man fit for contemplation, for venereal pleasures are precisely those which, as S. Augustine points out, most drag down the mind to the things of sense.[336]

* * * * *

S. Augustine: While it is true that any one of these three kinds of life -- the leisurely, the busy, and the life commingled of them both -- may be embraced by anybody without prejudice to his faith, and may be the means of leading him to his eternal reward, it is yet important that a man should take note of what it is that he holds to through love of the truth, and should reflect on the nature of the work to which he devotes himself at the demand of charity. For no man should be so addicted to leisure as for its sake to neglect his neighbour's profit; neither should any man be so devoted to the active life as to forget the thought of God. For in our leisured life we are not to find delight in mere idle repose, but the seeking and finding of the truth must be our aim; each must strive to advance in that, to hold fast what he finds, and yet not to grudge it to his neighbour. Similarly, in the life of action: we must not love honour in this life, nor power; for all things are vain under the sun. But we must love the toil itself which comes to us together with such honour or power if it be rightly and profitably used -- as tending, that is, to the salvation under God of those under us.... Love of truth, then, seeks for a holy leisure; the calls of charity compel us to undertake the labours of justice. If no one lays on us this burden, then must we devote our leisure to the search after and the study of the truth; but if such burden be imposed upon us, we must shoulder it at the call of charity; yet withal we must not wholly abandon the delights of the truth, lest while the latter's sweetness is withdrawn from us, the burden we have taken up overwhelm us (Of the City of God, xix.19).

"O expectation of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble: why wilt Thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man turning in to lodge? Why wilt Thou be as a wandering man, as a mighty man that cannot save? but Thou, O Lord, art among us, and Thy Name is called upon us, forsake us not."[337]


Does the Contemplative Life comprise many Acts?

By "life" is here meant any work to which a man principally devotes himself. Hence if there were many acts or works in the contemplative life, it would not be one life, but several.

It must be understood that we are speaking of the contemplative life as it concerns man. And between men and Angels there is, as S. Denis says,[338] this difference -- that whereas an Angel knows the truth by one simple act of intelligence, man, on the contrary, only arrives at a knowledge of the simple truth by arguing from many premises. Hence the contemplative life has only a single act in which it finds its final perfection -- namely, the contemplation of the truth -- and from this one act it derives its oneness. But at the same time it has many acts by means of which it arrives at this final act. Of these various acts, some are concerned with the establishment of principles from which the mind proceeds to the contemplation of truth; others, again, are concerned with deducing from these principles that truth the knowledge of which is sought. But the ultimate act, the complement of the foregoing, is the contemplation of truth.

Some, however, maintain that many acts pertain to the contemplative life, thus:

1. Richard of S. Victor[339] distinguishes between contemplation, meditation, and thought. But these all seem to belong to the contemplative life.

But thought, according to Richard of S. Victor, seems to signify the consideration of many things from which a man intends to gather some single truth. Consequently, under the term thought may be comprised perceptions by the senses, whereby we know certain effects -- imaginations, too, as well as investigation of different phenomena by the reason; in a word, all those things which conduce to a knowledge of the truth we are in search of. At the same time, according to S. Augustine,[340] every operation of the intellect may be termed thought. Meditation, again, seems to refer to the process of reasoning from principles which have to do with the truth we desire to contemplate. And contemplation, according to S. Bernard,[341] means the same thing, although, according to the Philosopher,[342] every operation of the intellect may be termed "consideration." But contemplation is concerned with the simple dwelling upon the truth itself. Hence Richard of S. Victor says[343]: "Contemplation is the soul's clear, free, and attentive dwelling upon the truth to be perceived; meditation is the outlook of the soul occupied in searching for the truth; thought is the soul's glance, ever prone to distraction."

2. Further, the Apostle says: But we all, beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory.[344] But this refers to the contemplative life; therefore, besides the three things already mentioned -- namely, contemplation, meditation and thought, -- speculation, too, enters into the contemplative life.

But speculation, as S. Augustine's Gloss has it,[345] "is derived from speculum, a 'mirror,' not from specula, a 'watch-tower.'" To see a thing in a mirror, however, is to see a cause by an effect in which its likeness is shown; thus speculation seems reducible to meditation.

3. Again, S. Bernard says[346]: "The first and chiefest contemplation is the marvelling at God's Majesty." But to "marvel" is, according to S. John Damascene,[347] a species of fear. Consequently it seems that many acts belong to contemplation.

But wonderment is a species of fear arising from our learning something which it is beyond our powers to understand. Hence wonderment is an act subsequent to the contemplation of sublime truth, whereas contemplation reaches its goal in the affective powers.

4. Lastly, prayer, reading, and meditation seem to belong to the contemplative life. Devout hearing, too, belongs to it, for it is said of Mary, who is the type of the contemplative life, that sitting at the Lord's feet, she heard His word.[348]

Man, however, arrives at the knowledge of truth in two ways: first of all, by receiving things from others; as regards, then, the things a man receives from God: prayer is necessary, according to the words: I called upon God, and the spirit of Wisdom came upon me.[349] And as for the things he receives from men: hearing is necessary if he receive them from one who speaks, reading is necessary if it be question of what is handed down in Holy Scripture. And secondly, a man arrives at the knowledge of truth by his own personal study, and for this is required meditation.

"Uni trinoque Domino
Sit sempiterna gloria!
Qui vitam sine termino
Nobis donet in Patria!"

* * * * *

S. Augustine: As long, then, as we are absent from the Lord, we walk by faith and not by sight,[350] whence it is said: The just man shall live in his faith.[351] And this is our justice as long as we are on our pilgrimage -- namely, that here now by the uprightness and perfection with which we walk we strive after that perfection and fulness of justice where, in all the glory of its beauty, will be full and perfect charity. Here we chastise our body and bring it into subjection; here we give alms by conferring benefits and forgiving offences against ourselves; and we do this with joy and from the heart, and are ever instant in prayer; and all this we do in the light of that sound doctrine by which is built up right faith, solid hope, and pure charity. This, then, is our present justice whereby we run hungering and thirsting after the perfection and fulness of justice, so that hereafter we may be filled therewith (De Perfectione justitiae Hominis, viii.18).

* * * * *

S. Augustine: You know, then, I think, not only how you ought to pray, but what you ought to pray for; and this not because I teach you, but because He teaches you Who has deigned to teach us all. The Life of Beatitude is what we have to seek; this we have to ask for from the Lord God. And what Beatitude means is, with many, a source of much dispute. But why should we appeal to the many and their many opinions? For pithily and truly it is said in God's Scripture: Happy is that people whose God is the Lord![352] Oh, that we may be counted amongst that people! Oh, that we may be enabled to contemplate Him, and may come one day to live with Him unendingly! The end of the commandment is charity from a pure heart and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith.[353] And among these three, hope stands for a good conscience. Faith, therefore, with hope and charity, leads to God the man who prays -- that is, the man who believes, who hopes, and who desires, and who in the Lord's Prayer meditates what he should ask from the Lord (Ep. cxxx. ad probam).

"For my heart hath been inflamed, and my reins have been changed: and I am brought to nothing, and I knew not. I am become as a beast before Thee; and I am always with Thee. Thou hast held me by my right hand; and by Thy will Thou hast conducted me; and with glory Thou hast received me. For what have I in Heaven? and besides Thee what do I desire upon earth? For Thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away; Thou art the God of my heart; and the God that is my portion for ever. For behold they that go far from Thee shall perish; Thou hast destroyed all them that are disloyal to Thee. But it is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God: that I may declare all Thy praises, in the gates of the daughter of Sion."[354]


Does the Contemplative Life consist solely in the Contemplation of God, or in the Consideration of other Truths as well?

S. Gregory says[355]: "In contemplation it is the Principle -- namely, God -- which is sought."

A thing may come under the contemplative life in two ways: either primarily, or secondarily -- that is, dispositively. Now primarily the contemplation of Divine Truth belongs to the contemplative life, since such contemplation is the goal of all human life. Hence S. Augustine says[356]: "The contemplation of God is promised to us as the goal of all our acts and the eternal consummation of all our joys." And this will be perfect in the future life when we shall see God face to face -- when, consequently, it will render us perfectly blessed. But in our present state the contemplation of Divine Truth belongs to us only imperfectly -- namely, through a glass and in a dark manner; it causes in us now a certain commencement of beatitude, which begins here, to be continued in the future. Hence even the Philosopher[357] makes the ultimate happiness of man consist in the contemplation of the highest intelligible truths.

But since we are led to a contemplation of God by the consideration of His Divine works -- The invisible things of God ... are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made[358] -- it follows also that the contemplation of the Divine works belongs in a secondary sense to the contemplative life -- according, namely, as by it we are led to the knowledge of God. For this reason S. Augustine says[359]: "In the study of created things we must not exercise a mere idle and passing curiosity, but must make them a stepping-stone to things that are immortal and that abide for ever."

Thus from what we have said it is clear that four things belong, and that in a certain sequence, to the contemplative life: firstly, the moral virtues; secondly, other acts apart from that of contemplation; thirdly, the contemplation of the Divine works; and fourthly -- and this is the crown of them all -- the actual contemplation of the Divine Truth.

Some, however, say that the contemplative life is not merely confined to the contemplation of God but is extended to the consideration of any truth whatsoever, thus:

1. In Ps. cxxxviii.14 we read: Wonderful are Thy works! My soul knoweth right well! But the knowledge of the works of God is derived from a certain contemplation of the truth. Whence it would seem that it belongs to the contemplative life to contemplate not only the Divine Truth, but also any other truth we please.

But David sought the knowledge of God's works that he might thereby be led to God Himself, as he says elsewhere: I meditated on all Thy works, I mused upon the works of Thy hands; I stretched forth my hands to Thee.[360]

2. Again, S. Bernard says[361]: "The first point in contemplation is to marvel at God's majesty; the second, at His judgments; the third, at His benefits; the fourth, at His promises." But of these only the first comes under the Divine Truth -- the rest are effects of it.

But from the consideration of the Divine judgments a man is led to the contemplation of the Divine justice; and from a consideration of the Divine benefits and promises a man is led to a knowledge of the Divine mercy and goodness, as it were by effects either already shown or to be shown.

3. Once more, Richard of S. Victor[362] distinguishes six kinds of contemplation; the first is according to the imagination simply, when, namely, we consider corporeal things; the second is in the imagination directed by the reason, as when we consider the harmony and arrangement of the things of the senses; the third is in the reason, but based on the imagination, as when by the consideration of visible things we are uplifted to the invisible; the fourth is in the reason working on the things of the reason, as when the soul occupies itself with invisible things unknown to the imagination; the fifth is above the reason, but not beyond its grasp, when, for instance, we know by Divine Revelation things which cannot be comprehended by the human reason; and the sixth is above the reason and beyond its grasp, as when by Divine illumination we know things which are apparently repugnant to human reason -- for example, the things we are told concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

And only the last named of these seems to come under Divine Truth; consequently contemplation of the truth is not limited to Divine Truth, but extends also to those truths which we consider in created things.

But by these six are signified the steps by which we ascend through created things to the contemplation of God. For in the first we have the perception of the things of sense; in the second, the progress from the things of sense to the things of the intellect; in the third judgment upon the things of sense according to intellectual principles; in the fourth, the simple consideration of intellectual truths at which we have arrived by means of the things of sense; in the fifth, the contemplation of intellectual truths to which we could not attain by the things of sense, but which can be grasped by reason; in the sixth, the contemplation of intellectual truths such as the reason can neither find nor grasp -- truths, namely, which belong to the sublime contemplation of the Divine Truth, in which contemplation is finally perfected.

4. Lastly, in the contemplative life the contemplation of truth is sought as being man's perfection. But any truth whatsoever is a perfection of the human intellect. Consequently the contemplative life consists in the contemplation of any kind of truth whatsoever.

But the ultimate perfection of the human intellect is the Divine Truth; other truths perfect the intellect by way of preparation for the Divine Truth.

* * * * *

S. Augustine: Martha, Martha, thou hast chosen a good part, but Mary hath chosen the better. Yours is good -- for it is good to busy oneself with waiting on the Saints -- but hers is better. What you have chosen will pass away at length. You minister to the hungry, you minister to the thirsty, you make the beds for them that would sleep, you find house-room for them that need it -- but all these things will pass away! For there will come a time when none will hunger, when none will thirst, when none will sleep. And then thy care will be taken from thee. But Mary hath chosen the better part, which shall never be taken from her! It shall not be taken away, for she chose to live the life of contemplation, she chose to live by the Word. What kind of life will that be that flows from the Word without spoken word? Here on earth she drew life from the Word, but through the medium of the spoken word. Then will be life, from the Word indeed, but with no spoken word. For the Word Himself is life. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is[363] (Sermon, CLXIX., xiv.17).

* * * * *

S. Augustine: 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![364]

Whosoever asks for This One Thing and seeks after It prays with sure and certain confidence; nor need he fear lest, when he shall have obtained It, he shall find It disagreeable to him, for without It naught that he prays for as he ought, and obtains, is of any avail. For this is the one, true, and only Blessed Life -- to contemplate the delights of the Lord for eternity, in immortality and incorruptibility of body as well as soul. For the sake of This One Thing are all other things to be sought after, and only thus our petitions for them are rendered not unbecoming. Whosoever hath this One Thing will have all that he wishes for, nor indeed will he be able to wish there for anything which is unfitting. For there is the Fountain of Life, for which we must now thirst in prayer as long as we live by hope -- as long, too, as we see not What we hope for. For we dwell 'neath the shadow of His wings before Whom is all our desire, that so we may be inebriated with the plenty of His house, and may drink of the torrent of His pleasure: for with Him is the Fountain of Life, and in His light we shall see light.[365] Then shall our desire be sated with all good things, then will there be naught for us to seek for with groanings, but only What we shall cling to with joy. Yet none the less, since this is the peace that surpasseth all understanding, even when praying for it we know not what we should pray for as we ought[366] (Ep. cxxx. ad probam).

"He shall cast death down headlong for ever: and the Lord God shall wipe away tears from every face, and the reproach of His people He shall take away from off the whole earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. And they shall say in that day: Lo, this is our God, we have waited for Him, and He will save us: this is the Lord, we have patiently waited for Him, we shall rejoice and be joyful in His salvation."[367]


Can the Contemplative Life attain, according to the State of this Present Life, to the Contemplation of the Divine Essence?

S. Gregory says[368]: "As long as we live in this mortal flesh none of us can make such progress in the virtue of contemplation as to fix his mind's gaze on that Infinite Light."

S. Augustine also says[369]: "No one who looks on God lives with that life with which we mortals live in the bodily senses; but unless he be in some sort dead to this life, whether as having wholly departed from the body, or as rapt away from the bodily senses, he is not uplifted to that vision."

A man, then, can be "in this life" in two ways: he can be in it actually -- that is, as actually using his bodily senses -- and when he is thus "in the body" no contemplation such as belongs to this present life can attain to the vision of the Essence of God; or a man may be "in this life" potentially, and not actually; that is, his soul may be joined to his body as its informing principle, but in such fashion that it neither makes use of the bodily senses nor even of the imagination, and this is what takes place when a man is rapt in ecstasy: in this sense contemplation such as belongs to this life can attain to the vision of the Divine Essence.

Consequently the highest degree of contemplation which is compatible with the present life is that which S. Paul had when he was rapt in ecstasy and stood midway between the state of this present life and the next.

Some, however, say that the contemplative life can, even according to our present state of life, attain to the vision of the Divine Essence, thus:

1. Jacob said: I have seen God face to face, and my soul hath been saved.[370] But the vision of the face of God is the vision of the Divine Essence. Whence it would seem that a man may by contemplation actually reach, even during this present life, to the vision of the Essence of God.

But S. Denis says[371]: "If anyone saw God and understood what he saw, then it was not God he saw, but something belonging to Him." And similarly S. Gregory says[372]: "Almighty God is never seen in His Glory, but the soul gazes at something derived from It, and thus refreshed, makes advance, and so ultimately arrives at the glory of vision." Hence when Jacob said, I saw God face to face, we are not to understand that he saw the Essence of God, but that he saw some appearance -- that is, some imaginary appearance -- in which God spoke to him; or, as the Gloss of S. Gregory[373] has it, "Since we know people by the face, Jacob called knowledge of God His face."

2. Further, S. Gregory says[374]: "Contemplative men turn back within upon themselves in that they search into spiritual things, and do not carry with them the shadows of things corporeal; or if perchance they touch them, they drive them away with discreet hands. But when they would look upon the Infinite Light, they put aside all images which limit It, and in striving to arrive at a height superior to themselves, they become conquerors of their nature." But a man is only withheld from the vision of the Divine Essence, which is Infinite Light, by the necessity he is under of turning to corporeal images. From this it would seem that contemplation can, even in this present life, arrive at the sight of the Infinite Essential Light.

But human contemplation according to this present state cannot exist without recourse to the imagination, for it is in accordance with man's nature that he should see intelligible forms through the medium of pictures in the imagination, as also the Philosopher teaches.[375] Yet intellectual knowledge does not consist in such images, rather does the intellect contemplate in them the purity of intelligible truth; and this is not merely the case in natural knowledge, but also in those things which we know by revelation. For S. Denis says: "The Divine Light manifests to us the Angelic hierarchies by means of symbolical figures by force of which we are restored to the simple ray," that is, to the simple knowledge of intelligible truth. It is thus that we ought to understand S. Gregory's words when he says: "In contemplation men do not carry with them the shadows of things corporeal," for their contemplation does not abide in these things but rather in the consideration of intelligible truth.

3. Lastly, S. Gregory says[376]: "To the soul that looks upon its Creator all created things are but narrow. Consequently the man of God -- namely, the Blessed Benedict -- who saw in a tower a fiery globe and the Angels mounting up to Heaven, was doubtless only able to see these things by the light of God." But the Blessed Benedict was then still in this life. Consequently contemplation, even in this present life, can attain to the vision of the Essence of God.

But we are not to understand from S. Gregory's words that the Blessed Benedict saw the Essence of God in that vision; S. Gregory wishes to show that since "to him who looks upon his Creator all created things are but as nothing," it follows that certain things can easily be seen by the illumination afforded by the Divine Light. Hence he adds: "For, however little of the Creator's Light he sees, all created things become of small account."

Veni Sancte Spiritus
Et emitte coelitus
Lucis Tuae radium!

O Lux Beatissima
Reple cordis intima
Tuorum fidelium!

S. Augustine: And thus, the remaining burden of this mortal life being laid aside at death, man's happiness will, in God's own time, be perfected from every point of view -- that happiness which is begun in this life, and to the attainment and securing of which at some future time our every effort must now tend (Of the Sermon on the Mount, II., ix.35).

"The old error is passed away; Thou wilt keep peace: peace, because we have hoped in Thee. You have hoped in the Lord for evermore, in the Lord God mighty for ever. And in the way of Thy judgments, O Lord, we have patiently waited for Thee: Thy Name, and Thy remembrance are the desire of the soul. My soul hath desired Thee in the night: yea, and with my spirit within me in the morning early I will watch to Thee."[377]


Is the Act of Contemplation Rightly Distinguished According to the Three Kinds of Motion -- Circular, Direct, and Oblique?

S. Denis the Areopagite[378] does so distinguish the acts of contemplation.

The operation of the intellect in which contemplation essentially consists is termed "motion" in the sense that motion is the act of a perfect thing, according to the Philosopher.[379] And since we arrive at a knowledge of intelligible things through the medium of the things of sense, and the operations of the senses do not take place without motion, it follows that the operations also of the intellect are correctly described as a species of motion, and are differentiated according to the analogy of divers motions. But the more perfect and the chiefest of bodily motions are local motions, as is proved by the Philosopher.[380] Consequently the chief intellectual motions are described according to the analogy of these latter.

Now, there are three species of local motion: one is circular, according as a thing is moved uniformly about the same centre; another is direct, according as a thing proceeds from one point to another; and a third is oblique, compounded as it were from the two foregoing.

Hence in intelligible operations, that which simply has uniformity is attributed to circular motion; that intellectual motion by which a man proceeds from one thing to another is attributed to direct motion; while that intellectual operation which has a certain uniformity combined with progress towards different points, is attributed to oblique motion.

All, however, do not agree with this division, thus:

1. Contemplation means a state of repose, as is said in Wisdom[381]: When I go into my house I shall repose myself with Her. And motion is opposed to repose. Consequently the operations of the contemplative life cannot be designated according to these different species of motion.

But whereas external bodily movements are opposed to that repose of contemplation which is understood to be rest from external occupations, the motion of intellectual operations belongs precisely to the repose of contemplation.

2. Again, the action of the contemplative life pertains to the intellect wherein man is at one with the Angels. But S. Denis does not apply these motions to the Angels in the same way as he does to the soul; for he says that the circular motion of the Angels "corresponds to the illumination of the beautiful and the good." But of the circular motion of the soul he gives several definitions, of which the first is "the return of the soul upon itself as opposed to external things"; the second is "a certain wrapping together of the powers of the soul whereby it is freed from error and from external occupation"; and the third is "the union of the soul with things superior to it." Similarly, he speaks in different terms of the direct motion of the soul as compared with that of the Angels. For he says that the direct motion of an Angel is "according as he proceeds to the care of the things subject to him"; while the direct motion of the soul is made to consist in two things: first of all "that it proceeds to those things which are around it"; secondly, that "from external things it is uplifted to simple contemplation." And lastly, he explains the oblique motion differently in each case. For he makes the oblique motion of the Angels consist in this that, "while providing for those that have less than themselves, they remain in the same attitude towards God"; but the oblique motion of the soul he explains as meaning that "the soul is illumined by Divine knowledge rationally and diffusely."

Consequently it does not appear that the operations of contemplation are fittingly distinguished according to the aforesaid species of motion.

But while man's intellect is generally the same with that of the Angels, the intellectual powers of the latter are far higher than in man. It was therefore necessary to assign the aforesaid motions to human souls and to the Angels in different fashion in proportion as their intellectual powers are not uniform. For the Angelic intellect has uniform knowledge in two respects: firstly, because the Angels do not acquire intelligible truth from the variety of compound things; and secondly, because they do not understand intelligible truth discursively, but by simple intuition. Whereas the intellect of the human soul, on the contrary, acquires intelligible truth from the things of sense, and understands it by the discursive action of the reason.

Hence S. Denis assigns to the Angels circular motion in that they uniformly and unceasingly, without beginning or end, gaze upon God; just as circular motion, which has neither beginning nor end, is uniformly maintained round the same central point. But in the case of the human soul, its twofold lack of uniformity must be removed before it can attain to the above-mentioned uniformity. For there must first be removed that lack of uniformity which arises from the diversity of external things: that is, the soul must quit external things. And this S. Denis expresses first of all in his definition of the circular motion of the soul when he speaks of "the return of the soul upon itself as opposed to external things." And there must be removed in the second place that second lack of uniformity which arises from the discursive action of the reason. And this takes place when all the operations of the soul are reduced to the simple contemplation of intelligible truth. This forms the second part of S. Denis's definition of this circular motion -- namely, when he speaks of the necessity of "a certain wrapping together of the powers of the soul," with the result that, when discursive action thus ceases, the soul's gaze is fixed on the contemplation of the one simple truth. And in this operation of the soul there is no room for error, just as there is no room for error in our understanding of first principles which we know by simple intuition.

Then, when these first two steps have been taken, S. Denis puts in the third place that uniformity, like to that of the Angels, by which the soul, laying aside all else, persists in the simple contemplation of God. And this he expresses when he says: "Then, as now made uniform, it, as a whole" -- that is, as conformed (to God) -- "is, with all its powers unified, led by the hand to the Beautiful and the Good."

But the direct motion in the Angels cannot be understood in the sense that, by considering, they proceed from one point to another; but solely according to the order of their providential care for others -- according, namely, as the superior Angels illumine the inferior through those who stand between. And this is what S. Denis means when he says that the direct motion of an Angel is "according as he proceeds to the care of the things subject to him, taking in his course all things that are direct" following -- that is, those things which are disposed in direct order. But to the human soul S. Denis assigns direct motion in the sense that it proceeds from the exterior things of sense to the knowledge of intelligible things.

And he assigns oblique motion to the Angels -- a motion, that is, compounded of the direct and the circular -- inasmuch as an Angel, according to his contemplation of God, provides for those inferior to him. To the human soul, on the contrary, he assigns this same oblique motion, similarly compounded of the direct and the circular motions, inasmuch as in its reasonings it makes use of the Divine illuminations.

3. Lastly, Richard of S. Victor[382] gives many other and different kinds of motion. For, following the analogy of the birds of the air, he says of these latter that "some at one time ascend on high, at another swoop down to earth, and they do this again and again; others turn now to the right, now to the left, and this repeatedly; others go in advance, others fall behind; some sail round and round in circles, now narrower and now wider; while others again remain almost immovably suspended in one place." From all which it would seem that there are not merely three movements in contemplation.

But all these diversities of motion which are expressed by, up and down, to right and left, backwards and forwards, and in varying circles, are reducible either to direct or to oblique motion, for they all signify the discursive action of the reason. For if this discursive action be from the genus to the species or from the whole to the part, it will be, as Richard of S. Victor himself explains, motion upwards and downwards. If, again, it means argumentation from one thing to its opposite, it will come under motion to right and left. Or if it be deduction from cause to effect, then it will be motion backwards and forwards. And finally, if it mean arguing from the accidents which surround a thing, whether nearly or remotely, it will be circuitous motion. But the discursive action of the reason arguing from the things of sense to intelligible things according to the orderly progress of the natural reason, belongs to direct motion. When, however, it arises from Divine illuminations, it comes under oblique motion, as we have already said (in the reply to the second argument). Lastly, only the immobility which he mentions will come under circular motion.

Whence it appears that S. Denis has quite sufficiently, and with exceeding subtlety, described the movements of contemplation.

"For behold my witness is in Heaven, and He that knoweth my conscience is on high. For behold short years pass away, and I am walking in a path by which I shall not return."[383]


Has Contemplation its Joys?

In Wisdom viii.16 we read: Her conversation hath no bitterness, nor Her company any tediousness, but joy and gladness. And S. Gregory says[384]: "The contemplative life means a truly lovable sweetness."

There are two sources of pleasure in contemplation; for, firstly, there is the very act of contemplating, and everyone finds a certain pleasure in the performance of acts which are appropriate to his nature or to his habits. And the contemplation of truth is natural to man as a rational animal; hence it is that "all men naturally desire to know," and consequently find a pleasure in the knowledge of truth. And this pleasure is enhanced according as a man has habits of wisdom and knowledge which enable him to indulge in contemplation without difficulty.

Secondly, contemplation is pleasurable owing to the object which we contemplate, as when a man looks at something which he loves. And this holds good of even bodily vision, for not only is the mere exercise of the visual faculties pleasurable, but the seeing people whom we love is pleasurable.

Since, then, the contemplative life especially consists in the contemplation of God, to which contemplation we are moved by charity, it follows that the contemplative life is not merely pleasurable by reason of the simple act of contemplating, but also by reason of Divine Love Itself. And in both these respects the delights of contemplation exceed all other human delights. For on the one hand spiritual delights are superior to carnal delights; and on the other hand, the love of Divine charity wherewith we love God exceeds all other love; whence it is said in the Psalm: Taste and see that the Lord is sweet.[385]

Some maintain, however, that contemplation is not pleasurable, thus:

1. Pleasure belongs to the appetitive powers, whereas contemplation is mainly in the intellect.

But while the contemplative life mainly consists in the intellect, it derives its principle from the affective powers, since a man is moved to contemplation by love of God. And since the end corresponds to the principle, it follows that the goal and term of the contemplative life is in the affective powers, in the sense, namely, that a man finds a pleasure in the sight of a thing which he loves, and this very pleasure stirs up in him a yet greater love. Hence S. Gregory says[386]: "When a man sees one whom he loves his love is yet more enkindled." And in this lies the full perfection of the contemplative life: that the Divine Truth should not only be seen but loved.

2. Again, strife and contention hinder delight. But in contemplation there is strife and contention, for S. Gregory says[387]: "The soul, when it strives after the contemplation of God, finds itself engaged in a species of combat; at one time it seems to prevail, for by understanding and by feeling it tastes somewhat of the Infinite Light; at other times it is overwhelmed, for when it has tasted it faints."

It is true indeed that contest and strife arising from the opposition presented by external things prevent us from finding pleasure in those same things. For no man finds a pleasure in the things against which he fights. But he does find a pleasure, other things being equal, in the actual attainment of a thing for which he has striven; thus S. Augustine says[388]: "The greater the danger in the battle, the greater the joy in the triumph." And in contemplation the strife and the combat do not arise from any opposition on the part of the truth which we contemplate, but from our deficient understanding and from the corruptible nature of our bodies which ever draw us down to things beneath us: The corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presseth down the mind that museth upon many things.[389] Hence it is that when a man attains to the contemplation of truth he loves it still more ardently; but at the same time he more than ever hates his own defects and the sluggishness of his corruptible body, so that with the Apostle he cries out: Unhappy man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?[390] Hence, too, S. Gregory says: "When God is known by our desires and our understanding, He causes all pleasures of the flesh to wither up within us."[391]

3. But again, delight follows upon a perfect work.[392] But contemplation on this earth is imperfect, according to the words of the Apostle: We see now through a glass in a dark manner.[393] Hence it would seem that the contemplative life does not afford delight.

It is indeed true that the contemplation of God during this life is imperfect compared with our contemplation of Him in our eternal home; and in the same way it is true that the delights of contemplation here on earth are imperfect compared with the delights of contemplation in that home, of which latter joys the Psalmist says: Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy pleasure.[394] Yet, none the less, the contemplation of Divine things here on earth is, although imperfect, far more perfect than any other subject of contemplation howsoever perfect it may be, and this by reason of the excellence of what we contemplate. Whence the Philosopher says[395]: "It may indeed be the case that with regard to such noble existences and Divine substances we have to be content with insignificant theories, yet even though we but barely touch upon them, none the less so ennobling is such knowledge that it affords us greater delight than any other which is accessible to us." Hence, too, S. Gregory says: "The contemplative life has its most desirable sweetness which uplifts the soul above itself, opens the way to heavenly things, and makes spiritual things plain to the eyes of the soul."

4. Lastly, bodily injuries are a hindrance to delight. But contemplation is productive of bodily injuries, for we read in Genesis[396] that Jacob, after saying I have seen God face to face, ... halted on his foot ... because He touched the sinew of his thigh and it shrank. Whence it would seem that the contemplative life is not pleasurable.

But after that contemplation Jacob halted on one foot because, as S. Gregory says, "it must needs be that as the love of this world grows weaker, so a man grows stronger in his love of God," and consequently, "when once we have known the sweetness of God, one of our feet remains sound while the other halts; for a man who halts with one foot leans only on the one that is sound."[397]

"Tu esto nostrum gaudium
Qui es futurus Praemium.
Sit nostra in Te gloria
Per cuncta semper saecula!"

* * * * *

S. Gregory: Between the delights of the body and those of the heart there is ever this difference that the delights of the body are wont, when we have them not, to beget a keen yearning for them; but when we have them and eat our fill, they straightway beget disgust for them, for we are sated therewith. Spiritual joys, on the contrary, when we have them not are a weariness, but when we have them we desire them still more, and the more we feed upon them the more we hunger after them. In the case of the former, the yearning for them was a pleasure, trial of them brought disgust. In the case of the latter, in desire we held them cheap, trial of them proved a source of pleasure. For spiritual joys increase the soul's desire of them even while they sate us, for the more their savour is perceived, the more we know what it is we ought eagerly to love. Whence it comes to pass that when we have them not we cannot love them, for their savour is unknown to us. For how can a man love what he is ignorant of? Wherefore the Psalmist admonishes us, saying: O taste and see that the Lord is sweet![398] As though he would say to us in plain terms: You know not His sweetness if ye have never tasted it; touch, then, the Food of Life with the palate of your soul that so, making proof of Its sweetness, ye may be able to love It.

These joys man lost when he sinned in Paradise; he went out when he closed his mouth to the Food of Eternal Sweetness. Whence we too, who are born amidst the toils of this pilgrimage, come without relish to this Food; we know not what we ought to desire, and the sickness of our disgust grows the more the further our souls keep away from feeding upon that Sweetness; and less and less does our soul desire those interior joys the longer it has grown accustomed to do without them. We sicken, then, by reason of our very disgust, and we are wearied by the long-drawn sickness of our hunger (Hom. XXXVI., On the Gospels).


Is the Contemplative Life lasting?

The Lord said Mary hath chosen the best part which shall not be taken away from her[399] because, as S. Gregory says: "Contemplation begins here below that it may be perfected in our heavenly home."

A thing may be termed "lasting" in two ways: from its very nature, or as far as we are concerned. As far as its nature is concerned, the contemplative life is lasting in two ways: for first of all it is concerned with incorruptible and unchangeable things, and in the second place there is nothing which is its contrary: for, as Aristotle says[400]: "To the pleasure which is derived from thought there is no contrary."

And also as far as we are concerned the contemplative life is lasting; and this both because it comes under the action of the incorruptible portion of our soul -- namely, our intellect -- and so can last after this life; and also because in the work of the contemplative life there is no bodily toil, and we can consequently apply ourselves more continuously to such work, as also the Philosopher remarks.[401]

Some, however, argue that the contemplative life is not lasting, thus:

1. The contemplative life essentially concerns the intellect. But all the intellectual perfections of this life will be made void, as we read: Whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed.[402]

But the fashion of contemplation here and in our Father's home is not the same; and the contemplative life is said "to last" by reason of charity, which is both its principle and its end; wherefore S. Gregory says: "The contemplative life begins here below that it may be perfected in our heavenly home, for the fire of love which begins to burn here below, when it sees Him Whom it loves, burns yet more strongly with love of Him."

2. Again, men but taste the sweetness of contemplation here, snatching at it, as it were, and in passing: whence S. Augustine says: "Thou introducest me to a most unwonted affection within me, to an unspeakable sweetness; yet I fall back again as though dragged down by a grievous weight!"[403] And S. Gregory, expounding those words of Job, When a spirit passed before me, says: "The mind does not long remain steadfastly occupied with the sweetness of intimate contemplation, for it is recalled to itself, stricken back by the immensity of that Light." The contemplative life, then, is not lasting.

It is true indeed that no action can remain long at the pitch of its intensity. And the goal of contemplation is to attain to the uniformity of Divine contemplation, as Denis the Areopagite says.[404] Hence, although in this sense contemplation cannot last long, yet it can last long as regards its other acts.

3. Lastly, what is not natural to a man cannot be lasting. "But the contemplative life," as the Philosopher says, "is beyond man."[405]

But the Philosopher says that the contemplative life is "beyond man" in the sense that it belongs to us according to what is Divine in us -- namely, our intellect; for our intellect is incorruptible and impassible in itself, and consequently its action can be more lasting.

* * * * *

S. Augustine: This day sets before us the great mystery of our eternal beatitude. For that life which this day signifies will not pass away as to-day is to pass away. Wherefore, brethren, we exhort and beseech you by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ by Whom our sins are forgiven, by Him Who willed that His Blood should be our ransom, by Him Who has deigned that we who are not deserving to be called His slaves should yet be called His brethren -- we beseech you that your entire aim, that which gives you your very name of "Christian," and by reason of which you bear His Name upon your foreheads and in your hearts, may be directed solely to that life which we are to share with the Angels; that life where is to be unending repose, everlasting joy, unfailing happiness, rest without disturbance, joy without sadness, no death. What that life is none can know save those who have made trial of it; and none can make trial of it save those who have faith (Sermon, CCLIX., On Low Sunday).

"And thou shalt say in that day: I will give thanks to Thee, O Lord, for Thou wast angry with me: Thy wrath is turned away, and Thou hast comforted me. Behold, God is my Saviour. I will deal confidently, and will not fear: because the Lord is my strength, and my praise, and He is become my salvation. You shall draw waters with joy out of the Saviour's fountains: And you shall say in that day: Praise ye the Lord, and call upon His Name: make His works known among the people: remember that His Name is high. Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath done great things: shew this forth in all the earth. Rejoice, and praise, O thou habitation of Sion: for great is He that is in the midst of thee, the holy One of Israel."[406]


[316] Moralia in Job, vi.18.

[317] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[318] Metaphysics, ii.3.

[319] Moralia in Job, vi.18; and Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[320] On Ezechiel, loc. cit.

[321] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[322] Isa. xxxiii.13-17.

[323] Ps. xli.1-6.

[324] Moralia in Job, vi.18.

[325] Ethics, II., iv.3.

[326] Ibid., X., viii.1.

[327] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[328] Rom. xiii.10.

[329] S. Matt. v.8.

[330] Heb. xii.14.

[331] Isa. xxxii.17.

[332] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[333] Gen. xxix.17.

[334] De Officiis, i.43, 45, 46.

[335] Wisd. viii.2.

[336] Soliloquies, i.10.

[337] Jer. xiv.8, 9.

[338] Of the Divine Names, vii.2.

[339] On Contemplation, i.3 and 4.

[340] De Trinitate, xiv.7.

[341] De Consideratione, ii.2.

[342] De Anima, II., i.2.

[343] Loc. cit., i.4.

[344] 2 Cor. iii.18.

[345] De Trinitate, xv.8.

[346] De Consideratione, v.14.

[347] De Fide Orthodoxa, ii.15.

[348] S. Luke x.39.

[349] Wisd. vii.7.

[350] 2 Cor. v.6-7.

[351] Hab. ii.4.

[352] Ps. cxliii.15.

[353] 1 Tim. i.5.

[354] Ps. lxxii.21-28.

[355] Moralia in Job, vi.28.

[356] On the Trinity, i.8.

[357] Ethics, X., vii.2.

[358] Rom. i.20.

[359] De Vera Religione, xxix.

[360] Ps. cxlii.5, 6.

[361] De Consideratione, v.14.

[362] Of Contemplation, i.6.

[363] 1 John iii.2.

[364] Ps. xxvi.4.

[365] Ps. xxxv.9, 10.

[366] Phil. iv.7; Rom. viii.26.

[367] Isa. xxv.8, 9.

[368] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[369] De Genesi ad Litt., xii.27.

[370] Gen. xxxii.30.

[371] Epistola I., to Caius the Monk.

[372] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[373] The Glossa Ordinaria, taken from S. Gregory's Moralia in Job, xxiv.5.

[374] Moralia, vi.27.

[375] De Anima, III., vii.3.

[376] Dialogues, ii.35.

[377] Isa. xxvi.3, 4, 8, 9.

[378] Of the Divine Names, IV., i.7.

[379] De Anima, III., vii.1 and 2.

[380] Physica, VIII., vii.2.

[381] viii.16.

[382] Of Contemplation, i.5.

[383] Job xvi.20, 23.

[384] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[385] Ps. xxxiii.9.

[386] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[387] Ibid.

[388] Conf., viii.3.

[389] Wisd. ix.15.

[390] Rom. vii.24.

[391] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[392] Ethics, X., iv.6.

[393] 1 Cor. xiii, 12.

[394] Ps. xxxv.9.

[395] De Partibus Animalium, i.5.

[396] xxxii.30-32.

[397] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[398] Ps. xxxiii.9.

[399] S. Luke x.42.

[400] Topics, I., xiii.5.

[401] Ethics, X., vii.2.

[402] 1 Cor. xiii.8.

[403] Conf., x.40.

[404] Of the Divine Names, IV., i.7; and Of the Heavenly Hierarchy, iii.

[405] Ethics, X., vii.8.

[406] Isa. xii.1-6.

question clxxix of the division
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