Reflections on Contemplation

(Going through Brother Francis’ papers, I came upon a binder containing notes for classes, and other materials. Brother had many such notebooks. As I flipped through it, I found this article, or rather, this collection of “reflections.” Brother did not write much, but when he did take up the pen, he tended to put down a series of pithy aphorisms, rather than a flowing narrative — similar to what one would read in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. These would be the fruits of, and further stimulus for, his own life of prayer, but they were also the seeds he would further develop in his lectures. This piece, which had about three or four corrections in his own hand, has never been published, and was perhaps never intended to be. Best I can tell, it was written in early 1989. –Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.)

No human act is supernaturally moral, unless it has as its ultimate end the attainment of the beatific vision. Only faith gives us a knowledge of the beatific vision, and only grace gives us a desire for it.[1] Every contemplative experience in this life is a foretaste of the beatific vision.

Whenever a man is happy, an element of the contemplative experience must be found in his happiness­ — indeed, it is the constitutive element.

Morality is the direction of all our activity towards the attainment of true happiness. True happiness is supernatural. Its other name is salvation. We cannot see the end of our actions except through grace; the same is the contemplative experience, without which no human action is truly salutary.

All happiness on earth is a foretaste of eternal life, as well as a preparation and an approach to it. Progress on the way to heaven is all the happiness possible on earth.

The contemplative experience is the secret of success in all active life: corporal works of mercy, preaching, teaching, and, above all, missionary life.

All the arts and art crafts, poetry, painting, music, building, farming, etc., must be at the service of faith, piety, beauty and virtue, and as such can only be genuine when proceeding from the fountainhead of a contemplative experience.

A man who can tell when he is happy, knows what a contemplative experience is.

Our Lord taught us, by His passion and death, that in this mortal life (in via), no amount of suffering, no, nor even death itself, could overcome or blot out the contemplative experience. Our Lady taught us that wisdom, purity, and beauty, crown the contemplative experience. St. Joseph taught us that the contemplative experience ennobles work and labor. All the saints teach us that it makes all the saints.

It’s a pearl of many facets.[2] It is recognition of God in His images, reflections, and traces. Persons are images of God. All the transcendent values, truth, goodness and beauty, are reflections of the divine excellence.

Each and every existing reality, from the most extensive galaxy to the smallest bug, is a concrete trace of His attributes.

To seek the contemplative experience is virtue; to attain, guard and preserve the same is wisdom.

But what is a contemplative experience? And first what it is not?

I once thought the contemplative man to be a self-centered person, pensive, indolent, temperamentally silent (i.e., the quiet type), serious about all things (he must be serious about the one thing that counts), unsociable, insensitive to beauty, indifferent to love, intellectual, moody, calculating.

I was, of course, wrong. And I am sure that there are people, and not a few, who think this way. Such people know not the nature of the contemplative and are, to the same extent, confused about the reality of true happiness. Such men cannot be truly moral; which means that they are unable to direct their human actions to the true aim of life, of which the contemplative experience is an image and a foretype.

A contemplative man or woman responds, not only enthusiastically, but ecstatically, to every reflection of the divine reality.

The contemplative person is joyful, enthralled, extremely responsive, overflowing with gratitude for his very existence, supremely alive and glad to be so, appreciative of things and persons, affectionate — but all his affections are ordered, namely, towards Our Lord and Our Lady first. (Disordered affection is sentimentality.)

The contemplative person is integral and whole — soul and body, mind and will and heart in all that he does. This is so because the contemplative experience is a take over, a kind of rapture. A poetic philosopher said “Contemplation does not rest until it has found the object which dazzles it” (Konrad Wiess quoted by Josef Pieper). And while the higher the object that dazzles, the higher the grade of contemplation; still the contemplative must be found on all levels of experience, for all must become acquainted with the true nature of happiness.

Here is a list at random of particles of the contemplative that may be found in any life.

  1. A child (or and adult, for in some respects we all remain children) enthralled by a game.
  2. A poet or an artist being overwhelmed by the scenery of nature — e.g. a sunset, an ocean, the Falls of Niagara, the Grand Canyon, the Cedars of Lebanon,[3] Mount Sinai, the Lake of Galilee etc.
  3. Experiencing a thrilling adventure, especially one involving victorious achievement and marks of nobility — e.g. climbing the Swiss Alps, flying over the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, walking on the Moon.
  4. Being enchanted by a great work of art — e.g., a symphony, a cathedral, a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.
  5. Being absorbed by a hobby.
  6. Dedication to a noble cause or to an admirable institution, especially when represented or symbolized by a great person (family devotion, patriotism, zeal for the Church).
  7. Falling in love. (The Canticle of Canticles, teaches us how an ecstasy of the natural order symbolizes the ultimate ecstasy of the soul. It is a poem of the Holy Spirit which presupposes the overwhelming prevalence of spirituality over animality in man in order to be understood correctly).

[1] There is the so-called “natural desire for God,” spoken of by theologians. It would seem that Brother Francis is speaking here of an explicit desire in the will for heavenly beatitude, whereas the natural desire is something in the intellect, founded upon man’s potency for beatitude. The former can only be supernatural and based upon revelation, while the latter is connatural with human nature.

[2] As I read this, my editor’s pen wanted to replace “jewel” for “pearl.” After all, pearls are smooth, not faceted. Then I thought there must have been a reason for his choice of words. I concluded he was probably playing off the “pearl of great price” in the Gospel (Matt. 13:46). Then I consulted the great Oracle Google and discovered that there are such things as faceted pearls (see here and here). That Brother would know about these would surprise me, but he was a man of many surprises.

[3] I once asked Brother Francis about the mighty Cedars of Lebanon. He told me he had never seen them. The remnants of the mighty Cedars of the Lord are 120 km from where Brother lived in and near Beirut, but travel was not as quick and easy in his days in Lebanon as it is now, and Brother’s family was poor.