Contemplatives Past And Present

ST. BENEDICT: (480-547)

St. Benedict is considered one of the great founders of the contemplative monastic tradition in the Church. As a young man and student he became disillusioned with much of the superficiality of life in the city. At first he moved to a quiet place in the countryside and gradually felt a call to an increasingly simple, contemplative life. He lived for 3 years as a hermit in a cave near Subiaco in Italy. Gradually people began to hear of his holiness and they came in large numbers to seek his spiritual advice. Some wished to gather around him in a contemplative community. Listening to this further call, Benedict went on to establish 12 monasteries in and around Subiaco eventually founding the great monastery of Monte Cassino situated on a hill-top between Rome and Naples. One of his major contributions was the development of his “Rule” – the Rule of St. Benedict – to help guide the life of his communities. It is a work of great spiritual and human balance. It continues to inspire and guide laity and religious today and is the foundation of some of the great contemplative communities such as the Benedictines and Cistercians whose vibrant life continues to enrich the Church and world in our times.

A word of wisdom from St. Benedict: “Listen and attend to the ear of your heart”

ST. CLARE OF ASSISI: (1194-1253)

St. Clare of Assisi was the first woman to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. Although her father was adamant that Clare would marry a young man chosen by him, Clare was so deeply inspired by the conversion and message of Francis that she refused to marry, causing a serious rift with her father. With her sister Agnes, Clare sheltered in the Church of San Damiano which had been rebuilt by Francis. Together, and with other women, they founded a contemplative community later and now known as the Poor Clares. Their life was simple, austere and embraced the joyful spirituality and radical poverty taught by Francis. A strong woman, Clare resisted attempts by various church leaders to use a Benedictine rule for her community. Eventually for her strength, spirit and perseverance she gained the respect of those Church leaders and her rule deeply faithful to the Franciscan tradition “won the day”. The Poor Clares continue to live in the light of that simple, prayerful rule of life today.

A Word of Wisdom from St. Clare: “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.”

ST. TERESA OF AVILA: (1515-1582)

As a young woman this great Spanish Saint became a Carmelite nun at the convent of the Incarnation in Avila, her “hometown”. Over time Teresa became “spiritually worried” by the relaxation that was entering into the life of the nuns there. The cloister was becoming, instead of a house of prayer, a place of busy social activity. At first Teresa, like many of us are, was swept along by the tide of her peers and she too found herself becoming distracted from her call to contemplation. She struggled with this situation and eventually found the strength and courage to found a reformed Carmelite convent, St. Joseph’s in 1562. Here she was joined by other women who also wanted to return to the focus of Carmelite life for God. This group who lived a very simple, prayerful life became known as Discalced Carmelites (that is, barefoot Carmelites). In her efforts St. Teresa was joined by a young Carmelite priest, who inspired by her committed, charismatic personality went on to reform the men (friars) of the Order, St. John of the Cross. St. Teresa and her companions received much opposition to their attempts at reform but through all the difficult days Teresa was still able to say: “The feeling remains that God is on the journey too.” Teresa wrote two very important books outlining her life and the Spirituality of the Carmelite Order; The Way of Perfection and the Interior Castle. There are also collections of the Letters written by St. Teresa in which we see her as a strong, intelligent, very practical and often humorous woman – a great example of total commitment to God. St. Teresa went on to found numerous Carmelite Convents across Spain and the Discalced Carmelite Order continues today across the world as a simple prayerful presence in God and for all.

A word of wisdom from St. Teresa: “To have courage for whatever comes in life, everything lies in that.”

A word of wisdom from St. John of the Cross: “In the evening of life we will be judged on love alone.”


Perhaps one of the most well-known and popular saints in the Church, Thérèse became a Carmelite nun in Lisieux, Normandy at a very young age. She was clear that her special call from God was to the contemplative life. From that hidden cloister where she spent only a few years before her early death from T.B. at the age of 24 she has made a powerful contribution to the spiritual life of many across the world. Her life highlights the tremendous gift that the contemplative life is and well beyond its walls. Persuaded to write her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Thérèse describes her sense of holiness. Known as the “Little Way” Thérèse’s witness is to a holiness not accomplished by grand or heroic acts but by loving attention and faithfulness to everyday events, joys, annoyances and duties. In her autobiography we see a glimpse of Thérèse’s emotional vulnerabilities and in this she is a great teacher of strength in perceived weakness and of trust in a God, whom Thérèse often described in feminine as well as masculine terms, who loves us just as we are. At the end of her young life, Thérèse experienced great spiritual doubts and yet again her witness through a life totally given to God in love and in constant concern for others demonstrates ultimate trust in God and fidelity to a life well-lived. The contemplative spirit of Thérèse is gift to all.

A Word of Wisdom from St. Thérèse: “Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will and being just what God wants us to be.”

ST. EDITH STEIN (1891-1942)

Edith Stein, an eminent German philosopher, university professor and later Carmelite nun was born in 1891, in what was then Breslau, into an observant Jewish family. At a young age Edith rejected belief in God but later, after reading a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, she converted to Christianity and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. As a young woman Edith contributed much to the philosophical discussion taking place in Europe at the time especially in the area of existentialism. Following her conversion to Christianity and already committed to a strong life of prayer Edith expressed a desire to enter the Carmelite Order. Her spiritual director and Benedictine Abbot, Fr. Raphael Walzer, OSB suggested to her that for the time her greater contribution would be to continue her work in philosophy and in the education of women. Deeply committed to both, Edith continued as a teacher and became, across Europe, a highly regarded public speaker on the status of women. She claimed very clearly that, “One could say that in case of need, every normal and healthy woman is able to hold a position. And there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman.” Quite radical for her time! With the increasing persecution of and threats to the Jewish people in Germany, Edith could no longer hold a teaching position. She was at last free to enter the Carmelite Convent in Cologne which she did in 1933 becoming Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. Dedicated to her contemplative life, Edith did indeed face the cross. She, along with her sister, Rosa had been moved from Germany to a Carmel in the Netherlands for their safety. But after the Dutch bishops had spoken out against the Nazi regime, Edith and Rosa, along with numerous “non-Aryan” Christians in the Netherlands were rounded up and taken to Auschwitz where both Edith and Rosa died in the gas chamber in 1942. Some last images of Edith Stein, remembered by survivors, were as she went around the hut in the concentration camp supporting and consoling terrified mothers with their children. In many ways Edith teaches us clearly that a contemplative stance is possible everywhere. She displayed it in her patience in waiting on God’s will as she continued her teaching at the urging of her spiritual director, she witnessed to its importance in her hidden life in Carmel and at the end she was able to leave that place under arrest expressing that same contemplative spirit in care for others at Auschwitz and in her final moments of horror.

A Word of Wisdom from St. Edith Stein: “Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone.”

THOMAS MERTON (1915-1968)

Thomas Merton is perhaps the best-known contemplative of modern times. Following the publication of his autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, he became famous well beyond the Catholic Church. The book deeply touched people across the world. Merton, however, had not been religious and certainly not contemplative in his young life. His childhood spent in France and England often in boarding schools, the death of his mother while Merton was still a child, the early death of his father from a brain tumour, his “crisscrossing” the Atlantic to visit his grandparents and then back to England all contributed to a certain rootlessness. For most of his early adulthood he was agnostic if not atheist. As a student at Cambridge University, Merton could only be described as “wild”, paying far more attention to drinking and sexual exploits than to his studies. Eventually settling down Merton went to study at Colombia University in New York and he became a Roman Catholic. After considering joining the Franciscans, Merton discerned a contemplative vocation becoming a Trappist monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Through his writing from the cloister, which included over 7O books, Merton shared with a vast reading audience the richness of the contemplative life. Interestingly, from the seclusion of the monastery, Merton was able to show the intimate connection between prayer, social justice and peace through his writings. His contemplative life called forth “contemplation in action” from others. Toward the end of his life Merton became very involved in interfaith understandings of the contemplative spirit witnessing to that unity in God of all of life and faith. It was this work that initiated his leaving the monastery for a short time to attend an interfaith monastic conference in Thailand at which he was to be a speaker. Sadly, Merton died as a result of an accident on that trip to Bangkok in 1968. He has left behind for us a great gift of the transformation and unity of life to which the contemplative vocation “speaks in the silence”.

A word of Wisdom from Thomas Merton: “By reading Scripture I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”


If you are a movie-goer you may well be familiar with this group of Trappist monks, seven of whom were kidnapped on the night of 26-27 March, 1996 and whose beheaded bodies were discovered some 2 months later on May 21, 1996. The movie, Of Gods and Men features the gentle contemplative lives lived by this community of monks in the monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, Tibhirine, Algeria. Their contemplative life was spent in a Muslim village where they witnessed to unity in God. Brother Jean-Pierre Schumacher, a survivor of the attack on the monastery because as porter he was unseen by the kidnappers, tells of a life lived peacefully together in the village. He speaks of the gardens in which the monks worked together with some village families who were able to eke out a living thanks to the land and harvest shared with the monks. Although a contemplative community the monks would, as a mark of respect and care, attend some of the special celebrations of the local community and they were able to provide basic medical supplies and attention given by one of the monks who had previously been a doctor in France. Brother Jean-Pierre says of that time, “We lived on the mountain and our relations with (the local people) were like family. This attests to the life of contemplation as a life lived in and for peace. It is thought that some extremists from outside the village were responsible for the kidnapping and murders although not all details are known to this day. But in the contemplative spirit that is the mark of Trappist life, Brother Jean Pierre says, echoing the important words of the Prior of the monastery who was among those killed, “We must forgive. God calls us to love one another.” The monks had known their lives were at risk during the Algerian Civil War yet although free to return to France they had discerned to stay, to simply be a presence with and for the people. Before the attack on the monastery took place, Prior Christian de Chergé had written a letter or testimonial home to France to be opened only in the event of his death. In that letter we read powerful words of love, respect and forgiveness arising from the grace and trust of the contemplative heart centered in the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Some of the words of Wisdom from the Testimony of Brother Christian de Chergé: “If it should happen – and it could be today – that I become a victim of that terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure I would like them to pray for me: How worthy would I be of such an offering? ….. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how could I rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today and you, O my friends of this place, beside my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold was promised.

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU and this ‘A-DIEU’ to commend you to God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise – if it please God, the Father of us both – AMEN!