I have been playing around with an interpretative key that I believe might help others to both navigate the world of contemplative writings and to apply their wisdom to contemporary living. I would argue that we should read contemplative literature in light of the idea of discernment. In this way, the wisdom of the monasteries is meant to guide the reader in their discernment of the work of the Holy Spirit so as to make them available to the person of Jesus Christ. However, this complete availability and surrender to God must be understood in its proper context.
For the Monastic writers, the whole orientation of both community life and individual discernment was towards two very specific goals. The first goal, which should surprise no one, is the ultimate goal of salvation. However, there was a second, more proximate goal that is equally important. Contemplatives throughout the ages expressed this more proximate goal by a variety of phrases and explanations, but each expressed in their own way what we now call infused contemplation.
The idea of infused contemplation can be understood as a supernatural resting in the Holy Spirit in which the believer comes to experience heaven on earth. This resting is nothing short of a very participation in the unconditional love of God, and such love, as understood by the great mystics, opens up channels of grace for the entire Body of Christ, filling all of the Church with the graces received through this important interior transformation.
However, many suggest that such an understanding of Christian living is ill-suited for parish life. While no one will explicitly reject contemplative spirituality, it is often implied that the wisdom of the monasteries is beyond the reach of your average Christian.
In contrast to the monastic idea of discernment, many seem more inclined to the more practical Ignatian approach. While the Monastic ideal is oriented towards infused contemplation, Ignatian spirituality and discernment is oriented towards human action and concrete decision-making. Because St. Ignatius’s understanding of discernment seems so well suited for active ministry, many suggest it is the only acceptable spirituality for Diocesan life. With its tools for analytic thinking and its incredible synthesis of many of the schools of spirituality that preceded it, it would seem that there are two tracks of spirituality within the Church, and the two, many seem to suggest, are irreconcilable.
And yet, we are in midst of a very peculiar problem within society.
For all our technological achievements and incredibly abilities to entertain and captivate, underneath the veneer of advertisements and appearances, our art betrays a subtle and growing anxiety and restlessness. American culture seems committed to an essentially activist outlook on life which sees human activity as the ultimate source and means of happiness. Like past generations, we must learn anew the notion of St. Augustine that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
When Ignatian spirituality is divorced from the interior quest for God, it becomes just another strategy of a fundamentally activist worldview. In this way, I would argue that the key to renewal in our parishes and in our personal lives is a greater integration of contemplative spirituality into every facet of Church life. Discernment, understood in both its contemplative and active orientations, must be understood by every Christian and more actively practiced.
So with that, I invite you to hear these words of Jesus Christ in a new light, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt. 6:33).