I realize in previous posts that I have spent a lot of time talking about the interior life but have not given it the justice it deserves. I may not have mentioned in previous posts but I am currently enrolled as a Secular Discalced Carmelite and will be completing my first year next month so this topic on the interior life is very close to my heart. Since this is an extremely important topic for each of us and United Body, I will dedicate this post to this topic.
Let’s start with a passage from scripture:
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” – Luke 10:38-42
As a Catholic it can be very challenging to understand how to grow in holiness and virtue. In some instances we think that it is just about doing works of mercy, maybe being part of some church group, but just doing something. In fact all these are very good acts. One thing my wife and I did while we were in Houston was to prepare about 8-12 bagged lunches that we would than distribute around town. In all honesty, it did feel good to aid a fellow human being and to see how much God is with these individuals even though they have little. But this passage from Luke ought to be a frank reminder from our Lord: Mary chooses the better part by sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to His words.
In a world where we are told actions speak louder than words, the active life tends to get most of the spotlight vs the interior life. I think this is fairly human. People can see your actions, they can praise your actions, your actions usually have immediate results and the effect of good actions on our spirit are usually immediately felt. To the untrained, it would seem that the interior life is lazy, does not benefit others, rarely yields the desired results and can be fairly dry. Let us define what the interior life is:
The interior life is a life which seeks God in everything, a life of prayer and the practice of living in the presence of God. It connotes intimate, friendly conversation with Him, and a determined focus on internal prayer versus external actions…
I think some may be discomforted by the idea that an interior life of prayer, solitude and meditation could have priority over the active works such as helping the needy. It is a bit challenging and we just have to look at the realities. The interior life bears many spiritual fruits but these are often not visible while the active life bears immediate results and satisfaction because we can immediately see the fruits of our labor such as a feeding a homeless person. In the active life there is no waiting around for results: we give food, they are fed, our spirits are lifted. The interior life on the other hand, we pray, we meditate, we listen for the word of the Lord…and we wait. Sometimes we have to wait quite a long time before any results appear (or not appear) and I think this might be a big stumbling block for many souls. Here is a quote from The Soul of the Apostolate that speaks to this a bit further:
The active life is concerned with men, the contemplative introduces us into the realm of the highest truth, and never turns aside its gaze from the very principle of all life. Principium, quod Deus est, quaeritur. Being more sublime, it has a much more extensive horizon and field of action. “Martha, in one place, was busy in bodily work, with a few things. Mary, by her charity in many places, accomplished many things. For she, in the contemplation and love of God, beholds everything; her heart goes out to everything, comprehends and embraces all, so that, by comparison with her, it can be said that Martha is troubled over only a few things.” – The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O
In short, the active life is concerned with men, the interior life is concerned with God. I think this beautifully summarizes why the interior life is superior to the active life as described above.
I do want to stop here and mention the following: even though the interior life is superior to the active life, it does NOT mean that we ought to do no active works. Far from it, we are called to do great works of mercy and to love and aid our fellow man but the challenge here is not to allow the active works to take precedence over the interior life. The interior life is what draws our own souls to the Lord and this needs to be a priority in our lives. Here is a useful quote from St. Teresa of Avila:
…believe me, both Martha and Mary must entertain our Lord and keep Him as their Guest, nor must they be so inhospitable as to offer Him no food. How can Mary do this while she sits at His feet, if her sister does not help her? – The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila
We must not, at the expense of our own soul, do active works and forsake the interior life for it is foolish to go about working towards the salvation of other souls at the expense of forsaking our own! An analogy for this if we were to picture our interior life as a bucket. Our first priority should be to fill our bucket and to ensure that it is always full, however once it is full AND overflowing we can safety do active works in the world without diminishing the contents of the bucket! By not doing active works for our neighbor is not selfish on our part. If we have a desire to do good at the expense of growing in the interior life, we actually have our priorities out of order. This passage from scripture highlights this point well:
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.- Matthew 7:3-5
The interior life is what draws souls to God. It is the way by which we build and nourish our relationship with the Lord. The Lord may be hidden but he is everywhere and always calls us towards a relationship with Him. He wants us to know Him and love Him but he has a given us a way by which we can do this. So how do we do this? How do we pray and enter into this type of relationship with our Lord? This is a long and arduous journey that will not be done quickly. I recommend the following books:
- The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross
- The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila
- Story of A Soul by St. Terese of Liseux
- The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Garrigou-Lagrange
- The Soul of the Apostolate by Jean-Baptiste Chautard
I would say St. John and Garrigou-Lagrange are very advanced books and may not be suitable for most since they really dive into ‘technical’ details of the navigating the interior life. I will definitely touch on this more in a future post.
While some may be called in life to a religious, contemplative life the vast majority of us are called to work in the world to provide for our families and ourselves. The contemplatives still rely on the work that we do so that they can be nourished and strengthened for their tasks but we also need them in their state to pray for the conversion of souls and the world. That’s on a macro scale. On the micro scale, we need to ensure that this balance exists in us as well. While priority needs to be given to the interior life, we are called to be active by our Lord many times. Let us just be mindful not to forsake the interior life for the sake of the active life. The more united we are to the hear of Jesus Christ, the more beneficial our active works will be towards our fellow man.
Consecrate yourself to the Blessed Mother and she will surely guide you to the Lord. She is the quickest path to Jesus Christ!
Blessed Mother, pray for us!