We have spoken strongly about the importance and the primacy of the life of prayer and contemplation, of silent adoration before the sacred mystery of God who is Love. We have tried to point to the bond of intimacy with God that is the “hinge” on which everything else in our world is suspended. When this bond is cut, as it is now in the widespread “crisis of God,” then the other elements of human life lose their harmony because they lose their organizing principle, that which sustains them and gives them their deepest meaning. In response to this crisis, we have pointed to the radical life and witness of those who devote themselves to abiding contemplation in silence, solitude, and unceasing prayer. But now we need to complement what we have said, so as not to give the impression of neglecting other elements of the Church’s life in all its richness.
Properly understood, the contemplative vocation is a particular and unique service given to the universal Church—a way of being conformed to Christ who, from the heart of his filial intimacy with the Father, laid down his life for the sake of all. It is a way of inserting one’s own life into the mystery of Christ, who said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all of humanity to myself,” and who through this lifting-up “gathered together into unity all the children of God who were scattered abroad.” This vocation, therefore, does not exist in a tension with the other vocations within the Church—whether they be marriage and family, active religious life, or the priesthood—but rather it is at their service through its own unique gift. They all complement one another within the unity of the mystical Body of Christ, in which all the members are not identical.
In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ, whose radiance “brightens the countenance of the Church.” The laity, by virtue of the secular character of their vocation, reflect the mystery of the Incarnate Word particularly insofar as he is the Alpha and the Omega of the world, the foundation and measure of the value of all created things. Sacred ministers, for their part, are living images of Christ the Head and Shepherd who guides his people during this time of “already and not yet,” as they await his coming in glory. It is the duty of the consecrated life to show that the Incarnate Son of God is the eschatological goal towards which all things tend, the splendour before which every other light pales, and the infinite beauty which alone can fully satisfy the human heart. (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 16)
This image of the “one light of Christ” which refracts uniquely in each vocation and each individual life is beautiful and very helpful. The unity of the Church is God’s greatest gift and his deepest desire: that we will truly be one within the very unity of the Trinity. But this unity is in no way opposed to diversity. Rather, it is a unity-in-diversity and a diversity-in-unity, as all of us share together in the one light of Christ that envelops us, while this light becomes present in a special way in each one of us. Love is manifested in an expansive openness of heart, an openness that reflects the openness of the Persons of the Trinity to welcome one another and to share themselves with each other. It is only this radical and unconditional openness to receive and to give which makes true and enduring communion between persons possible.
Each vocation, therefore, is profoundly interconnected with all of the others, and they enrich one another by their mutual exchange, their reliance upon one another, their interpenetration within the single Body of Christ.
We can see, in a way, that the reality of the family is the most basic and the most central of all vocations, for it is the cradle in which our human existence is first sheltered and grows. It is the basic cell of human society, in which the individual person himself is enveloped from the beginning of his existence. The family is a precious treasure of the Church. This should be clear from our previous reflections on the experience of a child in the arms of her parents, a child growing up within the shelter of familial love. God has willed the family to be the primary and basic space in which human hearts grow and mature, learning how to receive and to give love and to live in harmony and communion with others. The flourishing of the Church depends, therefore, in large part on the flourishing of the family. The family is the smallest community in the Church, the “domestic church,” while the universal Church herself is, by the will of Christ, the protector and safeguard of the authentic meaning of the family.
The sacred ministry of the priesthood and diaconate exist as a radical service of the family and of all the members of the Church. Especially the priesthood, received in succession from the Apostles whom Christ ordained to this ministry and office at the Last Supper, identifies in a profound way with Christ as the Shepherd, Head, and Bridegroom of his Church. The conformity of the man who is ordained to this sacred office is so radical that he truly comes to exist in persona Christi, conformed to the Savior in his own role as Mediator between God and man. It is through the gift of the priesthood that God makes himself sacramentally present within his Church until the end of time, and also preserves her in the fullness of the faith through the special gift of infallibility safeguarded to the successors of the Apostles in union with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
But what about the consecrated life, and in particular the contemplative life, which is our focus in these reflections? The family exists, so to speak, “at the roots,” as the foundation of society and of the Church, in which each one of us finds the soil in which to grow and mature in love and communion. The ordained ministry exists as a bridge between humanity and God, a mediation achieved through sacramental conformity to Christ the Priest and Servant, by which a man is entrusted with an office that binds him in a special way to God and also in a special way to humanity thirsting for God. The consecrated life, on the other hand, belongs in a particular way to the holiness of the Church, which is her heart and her ultimate goal; it is a service of holiness for the sake of the whole People of God. It exists as an anticipation of the state that awaits us at the consummation of time, the goal which we seek and toward which we are journeying; and it is devoted in a special way to the inner mystery that informs all the other vocations, so that, through its unique service, the universal light may radiate more fully in the lives of all the children of the Church. All of these vocations are therefore, as we see, profoundly complementary.
But as we saw in our earlier reflections, the differences of the vocations and their complementarity are secondary to something yet deeper, yet more universal: in the Love of God that unites us all together in the most profound intimacy, while also bringing out the most profound and interior uniqueness of each person. The life of each one of us has been born from the immense love of our heavenly Father—a love that has created the world, has been ceaselessly at work throughout history, and has manifested itself most fully in the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—a love in which God has from all eternity chosen us to belong to him as his beloved children. This truth of childhood before the Father is the most intimate mystery of each person—known, willed, and loved by the Trinity from all eternity. This gift of filial intimacy with the Father, in the Son and the Holy Spirit, is the vocation beyond all vocations; it is the truth that lies at the heart of all human existence as that which is most unique to every person, and yet also that which most universally binds us together as one within the all-enveloping embrace of God.
It is from within this universal Christian vocation to childhood before God, to adoption into the intimacy of the Trinity through Christ, that every particular vocation can find its place and its full blossoming. Indeed, a vocation cannot be fully and freely accepted unless it is welcomed into this space of childlike receptivity, and is itself a blossoming of our identity as son or daughter of the heavenly Father. In truth, it can be said that a person is not ready to discover their unique vocation in life until they have reached the point where they can actually let go of ever discovering and living this vocation, content simply to rest in the abiding truth of God’s love and of childhood before him. From this relaxation and surrender of heart, a space is opened in the human spirit for God’s call to sound with vivid clarity. And now the person can welcome this call, not as a source of their own personal identity, but as a flower and a fruit of their belovedness before God, of the gift that they are for God in their own unique existence, and above all, of the gift of God himself.
In welcoming this call and remaining faithful to it, they can express their reciprocal love by giving themselves as a gift back to God and a gift for the good of their brothers and sisters and the entire Church. In a word, precisely a person’s abiding in the central mystery of love—where God touches each unique heart in nakedness, where he gazes upon each person with an unrepeatable gaze that reveals the inner identity of every individual—precisely here a person can also welcome the unfolding of their life in obedient service for the good of the mystical Body of Christ and the world.
All of this being said, we can conclude these reflections by turning our glance toward the contemplative life, to discern the contours of its specific gift within the Church. Paradoxically, its primary mission is precisely to point our eyes continually towards that central and universal mystery that, in the midst of the multiplicity of life, can be forgotten or lost from sight. In this sense, it simply seeks to realize and manifest that truth which is the heart of every vocation and of the life of every child of God. It is a perpetual reminder that, beyond all of our tasks and responsibilities in this world, and even beyond our human relationships, there is a sacred and “virginal” space in the depths of our being where we are alone with God. Here we are invited, not to do or achieve anything, but to welcome in complete trusting openness the gift of his love and to abandon ourselves to him in return. In this way, we allow God to realize in us the deepest truth of our being and our highest destiny: intimacy with him in love, immersion into the bosom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet here, in a mysterious way, at the very heart of our communion with God, we find ourselves most deeply and authentically united to our brothers and sisters, and able to welcome them tenderly and to give ourselves to them in return. In the heart of the Trinity, all human hearts come together into unity, like lines converging on a single point: the welcoming embrace of the One who is perfect Love.