For Aristotle, contemplative activity is in itself the most exalted action of man on this earth. Thus contemplation is the exact opposite of practical activity, by definition, it is the most important moment in human life.

Aristotle explains that the wisdom of a contemplative person includes marvellous pleasures both by its purity and by its firmness. The wise man, even when left completely alone, can still devote himself to contemplation.

Aristotle explains that the wise man has the duty to lead other persons to contemplative activity. He anticipates the Desert Fathers and all the contemplatives who decided to devote their lives to God, who is Wisdom and the source of all wisdom.

Of course, the divine realities of which Aristotle speaks are quite far from our God and Christ. The philosopher merely calls his contemporaries to lift up their minds and their hearts.

Indeed, there is in man a sort of nostalgia for God’s company. We have within us a profound desire and a will to be face to face with divinity.

On the Christian level, contemplation is actually an intimate conversation with God in silence and solitude. It is impossible in the agitation of the world, but even more so in the distractions of interior noise. The tumults that are most difficult to contain are still our own
interior storms.

With Christ, contemplation resembles the joy of two lovers who look silently at each other. I often think of the little peasant who used to come each day to the church in Ars. He remained for a long time absolutely immobile in front of the tabernacle. One day, the saintly Curé asked him, ‘What are you doing there, dear friend?’ He replied
‘I look at Him and He looks at me.’

The little peasant said nothing because he knew that he had no need to speak of any sign from the Son of God, because he knew that he was truly loved. In love words are not necessary. The more dense the life of silence, the more alone the soul is with God. And the more virginal the soul, the more it withdraws from the agitated world.

Nevertheless, we must not think that it is possible to contemplate God only in the silence of a monastery, a church, or in the solitude of the desert. John Paul II exhorted Christians to be ‘contemplative in action’.

In the commentary on the Gospel of John by Saint Thomas Aquinas, there is a particularly illuminating passage. Jesus turns to Andrew and John, who have asked him: ‘Rabbi (which means teacher), where are you staying?’ And he answers: ‘Come and see.’

Saint Thomas thus gives a mystical sense to words that actually mean that only an encounter and personal experience can enable us to know Christ. This experiential knowledge of God in us is the heart of contemplation.

Christ’s sacred humanity is always the way by which to arrive at God: to allow him to speak in the silence, before the blessed sacrament, looking at a crucifix, in the presence of a sick person who is another Christ, Christ Himself.

Each soul, of course, has its path. John Paul II used to say that although sometimes he felt that the time was ripe for him to ask God for things, on other occasions that was not the case.

For Saint Thomas, practically speaking, there is no contradiction between contemplation and activity. Thus a monk can brave a spiritual storm in his cell or in the monastery church and find God again after working in the fields. …Sacrifice, obedience, mortification are capable of bringing him back to the Father.

Intense intellectual or manual work purifies the mind of preoccupations that make conscious union with God impossible. ‘Ora et labor’ sums up the two paths to contemplation offered not only to monks but to all disciples of Christ.

Contemplation leads us toward the divine in an irreversible movement. The man who contemplates and encounters his Creator will never be the same again; he may fall a hundred times, sin a hundred times, deny God a hundred times, but a part of his soul has already arrived in heaven definitively.

It would be regrettable if prayer turned into long, vague chatter that led us away from authentic contemplation.

Garrulous prayer does not allow the soul to hear God. This is a danger of modern life, in which silence sometimes becomes disturbing. We ceaselessly need to hear the noise of the world: today logorrhea is a sort of imperative, and silence is considered a failure.  …

Contemplation is a precious moment in the encounter between man and God.


Adapted and edited from Robert Cardinal Sarah ‘God or Nothing – A Conversation on Faith’ Ignatius Press 2015 Pp. 208-210.

This article can be found in Mirror 0216.