A term used to indicate a life characterized by solitude and prayers. Careful distinction should be made between a life of actual solitude and prayer and that state of life in which everything is officially so organized as to create an atmosphere of prayer and quiet. In its canonical form the contemplative life is a state involving the external profession of the religious life. It implies a cloistered existence in which through the exercise of prayer, mortification, and work in some way connected with the cloister, everything is so directed toward interior contemplation that God easily and effectively penetrates the whole of life. Noncanonical forms of the contemplative life are ways of devoting oneself entirely to God by prayer and seclusion. As practiced by those who live in the world, it has been given no juridical status by the Church even though it is approved by her. Pius XII, in the address "Cedant volontiers," cited as an example the holy prophetess Anna in the Gospel of St. Luke, who lived in the temple after the death of her husband and spent her days and nights in prayer and fasting. He also stated explicitly that they lead a truly contemplative life, who, by means of the three vows taken privately, seek perfection in prayer and solitude independently of any canonical status. Both in this manner and in other varying circumstances such men and women have built their own cloister in the midst of the worldly activity around them.
The practice of the contemplative life has roots in the earliest days of Christianity, when both men and women sought to manifest the total consecration of the Christian to Christ by the deliberate choice of perfect continence. Gradually, even in the first centuries, a more formal profession of virginity brought with it public recognition. Frequent prayer and mortification were joined to the practice of virginity, soon followed by dedication to poverty and obedience. As the need of common life began to be felt, it became rare for consecrated virgins to remain in the world. From the forming of communities of "ascetics," as they were called stem both the active and contemplative forms of the religious life. The contemplative life, however, has roots also in the early movement to the desert where time was devoted totally to prayer and manual labor. St. Anthony of Egypt in the 3d century originated the form of religious life called eremitical, in which an individual practicing it lived alone. Revived in the Middle Ages in the semi-eremitical life of the Camaldolese (1012) and of the Carthusians (1084), it has made a lasting impression on the Church. St. Pachomius in the 4th century, with monasteries of both men and women, founded the cenobitical type of monasticism characterized by the communal life. His work has survived under the various modifications introduced by St. Basil, St. Augustine, and especially St. Benedict. Local regulations for religious men and women eventually led to the imposition of enclosure on all nuns by Boniface VIII in 1298, an action that manifested both the Church's approval of and her concern for the contemplative life. In the Middle Ages, therefore, the only form of religious life for women was the contemplative. This continued to be the norm even for the second congregations of the mendicant orders, founded in the 13th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries some congregations of women came into being that, although they professed the contemplative life and kept papal cloister, departed from the medieval forms by substituting for the Divine Office certain apostolic and charitable works. Later centuries saw some of the older congregations of women adapt themselves to new needs and take up apostolic work compatible with enclosure, while still others retained the contemplative life in its strictest form. Modern apostolic needs, not always compatible with papal enclosure, have resulted in a distinction between major and minor enclosure, minor enclosure being a modification of the ancient discipline, thus allowing for greater freedom in leaving enclosure for the sake of apostolic works. (see cenobitism.)
Although external religious profession is essential to the canonical form of the contemplative life, it is not essential to the contemplative life as such. External profession is only a framework for interior contemplation, which is the essence of the contemplative life. The other elements of its canonical form, namely, the cloistered life, the exercises of piety, prayer, mortification, and manual work, are all directed toward interior contemplation. The religious vows, whether solemn or simple, both effect and symbolize in an exterior manner the total consecration of the religious to Christ, which contemplation seeks to bring to an interior reality. Papal enclosure is designed to guard both chastity and silence so that the world cannot disturb or contaminate the monastery. Mental or manual labor satisfies the obligation to work imposed on mankind by the natural law, and also the duty of penance. Work preserves the soul from danger. Undertaken with a holy purpose, it allows the worker to think frequently of God as present with him. It is at once an act of obedience and of mortification. Work done in this fashion is a continual exercise of every virtue. Through it occurs the efficacious union of action with contemplation that is effected by charity. As the perfection of the Christian life, charity is the moving spirit of a contemplative. With a heart open to all mankind, he exercises a universal apostolate: first, by example of a Christian life, second, by public and private prayer, and third, by abnegation and mortification so as to fill up "what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ … for his body which is the Church" (Col 1.24). In prayerful solitude the contemplative no longer lives, but Christ lives in him.
See Also: active life, spiritual; contemplation; religious (men and women).
Bibliography: Pius XII, "Sponsa Christi" (Apostolic Constitution, Nov. 21, 1950), Acta Apostolicae Sedis 43 (1951) 5–24; "Cédant volontiers" (Address, July 18, 1958), Pope Speaks 5 (1958) 61–81. "Apostolic Constitution, Sponsa Christi ", Review for Religious 10 (1951) 141–147. "Instruction on Sponsa Christi," Review for Religious 10 (1951) 205–212. f. b. donnelly, "Changes in the Status of Contemplative Nuns," Homiletic and Pastoral Review (1951) 734–738. p. pourrat, Christian Spirituality, tr. w. mitchell and s. jacques, 4 v. (Westminster, Md. 1953–55).
[j. f. conwell]