Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It has been days since I last cleaned the house, perhaps weeks. Dust sits thick on the bookcases. Clutter is strewn about the floor. Life has gotten busy, too busy for my old routine of cleaning on a weekly basis. Homeschooling fills my mornings while my writing and reading work fill my afternoons. I dive into the house cleaning on the warm Saturday morning while the kids play outside and my husband picks up some groceries.
A familiar loneliness creeps into my consciousness and I cast my mind about for something to fill it. A podcast? An audiobook? Should I call someone while I work? Anything to distract me from the monotony of my house work. But a still, small voice calls gently out to me, reminding me that I am not alone in my work. He calls me to place myself in his presence in my work, to find fulfillment in being with him while I do these little things of my life—He calls me to a kind of prayer called active contemplation in every moment of my day.
I first learned about active contemplation when I read The Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. He writes in great detail about how to place yourself in God’s presence by being mindful of Him all around you, bringing yourself in your imagination close to Him, and calling on him throughout the day.
A thousand times in the day offer you soul to Him; fix your inward eyes upon His sweetness…Establish Him as the standard of your soul, and in every way excite your heart to the love of God. (Part II, Ch. 13)
Every moment of every day can be turned into a prayer. Yet, it is hard to teach our wayward souls to desire this focus on God above other things; I often find myself seeking out distraction. If only I would learn how to live as Thomas Merton described the Trappists do who turn their work into prayer.
Doing things, suffering things, thinking things, making tangible and concrete sacrifices for the love of God—that is what contemplation seems to mean here—and I suppose the same attitude is universal in our Order. It goes by the name of “active contemplation.” (Seven Storey Mountain, p. 466)
The beautiful thing about being Christian is that we are all called to live a kind of cloistered existence. This does not mean that we leave the world and live within the walls of a monastery, but it does mean that our hearts become the dwelling place of God. To do this well, we must cast off all that keeps us from loving him and draw close to him in all we do. Think of it as an interior cloister. When we do this, we make it possible to work like a Trappist—all our work and suffering can become a “tangible and concrete sacrifice for the love of God.”
How does one do this exactly? Merton explains it this way:
You are not supposed to pause and pray when you are at work. American Trappist notions of contemplation do not extend to that; on the contrary you are expected to make some act of pure intention and fling yourself into the business and work up a sweat and get a great deal finished by the time it is all over. To turn it into contemplation you can occasionally mutter between your teeth: “All for Jesus! All for Jesus!” But the idea is to keep on working. (Seven Storey Mountain, p. 462)
Keep on working. Make it a prayer. This is as the active Christian life should be. The work has to be done, but we can do it with God in mind.
The long commute in traffic? All for Jesus!
The child who needs help to fall asleep? All for Jesus!
The whole house needs to be vacuumed? All for Jesus!
The meeting is going long? All for Jesus!
The car has a flat tire? All for Jesus!
The dishes are piled in the sink? All for Jesus!
Time to cook dinner? All for Jesus!
The same mundane tasks day after day are making you restless? All for Jesus!
The child has been sounding out the same word for five minutes? All for Jesus!
You have to work late again? All for Jesus!
The best thing about this kind of prayer is that it disposes us to be more focused and attentive when we have an opportunity for true mental prayer. We will find that we have been with him all day and the time of prayer is a fulfillment of what came before. We can simply be in his presence and be close to his love. We will find that he is and always has been enough.
Above all, active contemplation prepares the way for love. It teaches obedience and humility. It shows a man how to seek God in His will. It makes the soul attentive to God’s presence and His desires. It teaches one to think about God instead of about the world, to desire to please God rather than to enjoy the satisfactions of the world. It shows us how to trust God and leads us on to abandon ourselves more and more to Him. (Merton, What is Contemplation?)
If the ideas of Merton and St. Francis de Sales are not enough to make this a worthwhile thing to try, Holy Mother Church also encourages the practices of active contemplation.
A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in the performance of their duties and in bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding even if only mentally—some pious invocation. (Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, Enchiridion of Indulgences, p. 12)
So, the next time you find yourself bored or distracted, the next time you find yourself caught up in desiring things or honor instead of God and his love, the next time you are about to lose your self-control over temptation, pause. Bring him to mind. Beg for his mercy. Open your heart to his grace—draw into your interior cloister. He is there waiting for you to be fulfilled in him.