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Contemplative Prayer and Apostolic Activity

By Fr. James Farfaglia
1/29/2013 (5 years ago)
Catholic Online (

Is there a conflict between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity? The beautiful example of Saint Therese of Lisieux demonstrates that there is not a conflict at all.  

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - With great ease we could all make a long list of the serious problems that afflict the world.  We could talk without difficulty about violence, war, terrorism, poverty, corruption, scandals and the rapid decline of moral values. 

Attempting to resolve even a small dimension of any one these on-going challenges, we could certainly excuse ourselves from any form of prayer, affirming that we simply did not have the time to waste time. 

When we consider the pressing needs of the existing moment, it is a big temptation to consider prayer, especially contemplative prayer, as something useless.  It would be easy to fall into a state of activism and to allow our spiritual life to suffer or to abandon it all together. 

Is there a conflict between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity? 

Let us recall a quote that I mentioned in my last article: "The most intense response of a person to this charism of love [agape] is contemplative prayer.  Contemplating is loving!" (Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, OMI and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit p. 144).

These words from Nemeck and Coombs really caught my attention when I read them.  How can we understand what they are saying?

Illustrations always make a point really clear, and what helps me to understand these words is the beautiful example of Saint Therese of Lisieux.  Saint Therese is a very popular and a very well-known saint, so there is no need for us to spend time talking about her history.  The link that has been included will give sufficient biographical background for those who may want to know more about her. 

Instead, I would like to focus on two very important aspects of her life during her time as a young Carmelite nun.  Keep in mind that as a Carmelite, Therese was a cloistered religious, never leaving the convent.
The first thing that we need to consider is an amazing section from her autobiography.  Her words have inspired millions of people over the years.  Let us take a look at the text and see how it perfectly illustrates the meaning of the quote from Nemeck and Coombs.

Therese is someone who is exploding with profound love.

In her reflection she writes, "To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me?  And yet it is not so.  No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations. 

I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr.  Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus.  I feel within my soul the courage of the crusader, the papal guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church."

After describing the deep desires that she has for these other callings, she then focuses on Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.

 "I finally had rest.  Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by Saint Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all.  Charity gave me the key to my vocation.  I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a heart and that this heart was burning with love.  I understood that it was love alone that made the Church's members act, and if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and a word, that it was eternal!"

She then concludes with words that perfectly illustrate the point made by Nemeck and Coombs in their book about contemplative prayer. 

"Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love, my vocation, at last I have found it, my vocation is love!"

Nemeck and Coombs explain the relationship between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity by explaining that contemplation is ministry because "the most intense response of a person to this charism of love [agape] is contemplative prayer."

Contemplation is ministry because "this simple act of love which so characterizes contemplation is not just a private gift.  The love of God, in its contemplative expression, not only transforms the individual soul, but in and through the soul, in a mysterious way, it also transforms the Church, the world" ((Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, OMI and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit p. 145).

This then will help us understand a second aspect of the example of Therese of Lisieux.  From her love, rooted in contemplative prayer, springs forth an intense zeal for the salvation of souls. 

Within the walls of her monastery, she becomes aware of the up-coming execution of a convicted criminal by the name of Henri Pranzini who was convicted for the murder of two women and a child.  He was sentenced to be executed by the guillotine. 

For a period of time she focuses in on the salvation of his soul through her daily life of prayer and penance because, according to the news reports that she became aware of, he showed no sign of repentance. 

On September 1, 1887, as the executioner was about to put the convicted criminal's head on the block, Pranzini took the crucifix a priest had offered to him and kissed it three times. 

Therese wept and was overwhelmed with joy that her prayer had been answered.  

Finally, it is interesting to remember that Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Francis Xavier are co-patron saints of the missionary work of the Catholic Church. 

Therese, a contemplative religious saving souls from within the four walls of her monastery and Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, saving souls in the mission lands of the Church.   

Is there a conflict between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity?

The beautiful example of Saint Therese of Lisieux demonstrates the both/and of Catholicism.

As a contemplative nun she discovers that her vocation is love precisely because the most intense response of a person to this charism of love is contemplation.  Moreover, her immersion into the gift of contemplative prayer nourishes her profound zeal for the salvation of souls. 


Father James Farfaglia is a contributing writer for Catholic Online and author of Get Serious! - A Survival Guide for Serious Catholics.  You can visit him on the web at 


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