One of the most intriguing ideas in John Cassian’s Conferences regards what he considers the goal of Christian living. For him the ultimate goal is to be with Christ in heaven, but he also explains that there is a more proximate goal in this life. For him, we must keep our eyes always on the proximate goal which is the “purity of heart” which makes possible the “vision of God.” I would define purity of heart as those intentional and ascetical efforts which prepare the human heart for the gift of contemplation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes contemplation as follows:
Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery (2724).
Often, instead of having purity of heart as our proximate goal, we substitute a whole host of secondary goods which can lead to distortion and confusion. Thus, our goal should not be a series of upright and noble behaviors (as good as they are), but rather intimacy with Jesus Christ which is the foundation which makes possible virtuous activity. Contemplation is a special mark of intimacy, the mark of a soul that has cooperated with God’s grace and allowed the Holy Spirit to bring it healing and peace. Likewise, this gift is given so that the human heart might be free to love with the very same love of Jesus Christ.
Along these lines, Benedict XVI explains that Christianity is not the result of “an ethical choice or a lofty idea,” but rather an encounter with Christ (Deus Caritas Est, 1). In this way, as we come to know Christ in the wordless, imageless gaze of love, we soon discover that all our actions flow from this encounter by means of a kind of spiritual instinct. Our intuitions do not remain merely constructs of our imagination, but rather they begin to harmonize with rhythms of the Holy Spirit.
This is the science of the saints, namely that voyage into the heart whereby the believer discovers God. This science is not merely the domain of specialists who dedicate their lives to prayer. Instead, it is the pathway of human flourishing that God makes available to everyone through Jesus Christ. In this way, contemplation is not an auxiliary to Christian living, but rather the point towards which all must strive.
Those who have discovered Christ’s love as it emerges from the depths of their divinized personhood have discovered the pearl of great price. They have gazed into the infinite riches of God’s mercy and received a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. That is why we make time for meditation; that is why we toil day by day in the interior vineyard of the human heart. Let us recommit ourselves to this important work.