Active Life, Spiritual

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A life of external activity as opposed to contemplation. In the third century, Origen identified the active life with Martha and the contemplative life with her sister Mary. Before the Christian era the Greeks had differentiated the theoretical life from the practical life. The practical life was that which busied itself with the affairs of the family or the city. St. Paul used the Greek word "askein" to express the practical matter of working out one's salvation, of striving for perfection or making a spiritual effort to purify one's conscience in the sight of God. Gradually this word acquired the meaning of an exercise of the spiritual faculties in the acquisition of the virtues of learning, or exercise, in a physical sense. St. Paul often made reference to the efforts of athletes in the games when urging his Christians to the practice of perfection.

Origen was again the first to apply the word "ascetic" to Christians who practiced virginity and devoted themselves to works of mortification. With St. Augustine, the term active life became almost synonymous with ascetical striving, by making it consist of the practice of virtues, as apart from contemplation of truth. St. Gregory the Great, seconded this doctrine by identifying the active life with the practice of the corporal works of mercy, and to some extent the spiritual works and this tradition persisted through St. Thomas and Suárez.

The active life reaches a new plane when it concerns itself with the care of souls. From the time of Augustine authors point out that bishops, to whom the care of souls properly belongs, lead the active life in its fullest sense, as well as the contemplative life, since all their activity must be richly impregnated with contemplation. It follows that those who are not bishops lead the active life more fully, the more they participate in the care of souls, a work that is proper to bishops. That is why St. Thomas can rank those religious orders whose concern is to give to others the fruit of their contemplation in the first place. Historically, religious orders, at the beginning, were concerned only with the perfection of their own members. Gradually, the needs of souls forced them into the apostolate proper to bishops. Religious orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century, were founded with a view of doing the work that bishops could no longer handle alone. The revolutionary Society of Jesus (1540), which set the pattern for many of the more modern religious institutes, moved into whatever area was necessary for the good of souls, whether it was the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, or preaching and the administration of the Sacraments. In modern times, the next logical step was taken by the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy, or what is known as Catholic Action, a way of living the active life of the spirit while remaining in the world.

The secret of the successful practice of the active life is charity in action. As St. Thomas teaches, charity is the root of merit. Affective charity, consisting in internal acts of the love of God is common to both the active and the contemplative lives, and must be made effective in the external worship of God in the contemplative life. St. Augustine says that it is "only the compulsion of charity that shoulders necessary activity" (Civ. 19.19). Affective charity is the real measure of perfection, but is itself best gauged by this effective charity of good works. Effective charity means carrying out God's commands. The whole purpose of the active life is to attain union with God by service to the neighbor, whom God has commanded us to love. One leading the active life does not so much leave God for God, as the popular phrase puts it, but finds God always and everywhere in activity done for the love of God.

Obviously the term "active life" is an analogous term. In a non-spiritual sense it would be the opposite of quiet. In a spiritual sense it is ambiguous, for it can either mean the opposite of the contemplative life or the life that flows from contemplation. When used in the context of the spiritual as a univocal term, it usually refers to the life of virtue, the pursuit of virtue, the life of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and all those things that are indirectly connected with charity.

Bibliography: e. c. butler, Western Mysticism (2d ed. London 1927). p. t. camelot and i. mennessier, "The Active Life and the Contemplative Life," The Virtues and States of Life, ed. a. m. henry, tr. r. j. olson and g. t. lennon (Theology Library 4; Chicago 1957) 645683. j. de guibert, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, tr. p. barrett (New York 1953). e. coreth, "Contemplative in Action," Theology Digest, 3 (1955) 3745.

[j. f. conwell]