Active life and contemplative life
We must all seek God in everything, but each person must do so according to his or her own vocation.
According to the Second Vatican Council, there are only two types of religious vocation and they are characterized by the Institutes in which they are incarnated. The same thing can be said both for vocations “in the evangelical counsels” and also the lay vocation. Some Institutes are “devoted entirely to contemplation, in such a way that their members relate solely with God in solitude and silence.” In other Institutes “apostolic action […] takes place within the very nature of religious life.”
In the first type of vocation, only prayer and penance are essential components; in the second type, along with prayer and penance, apostolic action is also essential.
The difference, therefore, is not rooted in the idea that in one vocation you pray while in the other you do not pray; in both there must be prayer, since they are Christian vocations. The difference lies in how prayer and action relate to the essential nature of religious life, and also – consequently – in the mutual relationship between prayer and action.
The problem, typical of the active life, but not found in contemplative life, is that all active persons must discover that relationship in their personal life and live it: we refer above all to the relationship, in each of us, between prayer and action.
The spiritual problem of the active life
Therefore, the spiritual problem of the active life – its distinctive richness, which is not the case in a contemplative life – is not that of the quantity of prayer, but that of quality of the prayer; and, above all, that of the relationship between prayer and action, since both belong to the essence of the active life.
Let us consider two ways of solving this problem: one is offered by St. Ignatius, and the other by Blessed Peter Faber. Since the latter was a very close disciple of St. Ignatius, we will present his solution first.
The solution is basically the same in both cases, but the difference in the way of expressing it can help us in understanding and, above all, in putting into practice its fundamental aspects.
The solution of Peter Faber
An entry in the spiritual diary of Peter Faber, his Memoriale, on October 4, 1542, offers this solution: “Your life [he was addressing Jesuits, whose vocation is active and not purely contemplative] must follow that of Martha and Mary together [classical models of the active and contemplative life], be based on prayer, but also on good deeds, be active, but also contemplative. If, however, one type of life must be practiced in view of the other and not for itself, as often happens, that is, if you undertake prayer as a means to act better, or on the contrary the action is in view of prayer, it will be more convenient, all things considered, that you direct your prayers toward the treasures of good works than the contrary and, vice versa, that you aim to focus on the treasures that are won through prayer. It would be different for those who lead a purely contemplative life: their purpose is to gather treasures of the knowledge and love of God, and they do not need to ask in every circumstance for the graces that those who are in a life of action need.” Shortly before, he had written: “Those who seek God spiritually in good works [as is proper to the active life], then find him better in prayer than if they had abstained from them.”
Therefore, Faber’s solution to the spiritual problem of the relationship between prayer and action in an active person is twofold: first, to order prayer to action (and not the opposite, as a contemplative would do); second, to find God in action, before also doing so in prayer.
The solution of St. Ignatius
St. Ignatius develops the second part of Peter Faber’s solution much more thoroughly, but he also speaks, albeit in different terms, of the first part.
He says, for example, that everyone must ensure that their prayer “extends to the exercises – or activities – in which they are engaged.” This means that while the prayer of the contemplative has no reason to become – we could say to turn into – activity, the prayer of the active person must become or turn into action.
With regard to the second part of Faber’s solution – “seeking God in action” – Fr. Nadal, in the “order of prayer” he presented in the name of St. Ignatius during his second visit to Spain (1553-54), said to the Jesuit students: “All must strive in the Lord […] to find God in all their ministries and works […] and make use of the fruits of meditation, prayer and the habit of it [this is the meaning of the phrase we mentioned earlier, to ‘extend prayer to action’] in all their ministries.”
Or, as Fr. Nadal states elsewhere, summarizing – in terms he attributes to St. Ignatius – his famous phrase simul in actione contemplativus (“at the same time contemplative and in action”): God is to be found in everything. How?
An ‘active’ conception of God
We can say a conception of God that we could call “active” is inherent in the Ignatian expression, that is, the one that Fr. Nadal attributes to St. Ignatius.
An active person is concerned – especially in action – not so much with God’s “being” or God’s “essence,” but especially with God’s “action” in us and in our neighbor. As regards other terms – which Saint Ignatius uses many times in the Spiritual Exercises (ES) and in the Constitutions – one can say that the active person must “seek and find the will of God” (ES 1, this is the goal of his Spiritual Exercises) both in prayer and – and above all – in action.
In Pauline terms, it is important for the active person to experience, in himself and in others with whom he relates, “the action of the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18), both in prayer and – and above all – in action.
The search for God in events
God’s action must therefore be discerned in the ordinary events of our life. How? Events provoke “reactions” in us (as do prayer, reading or recitation of the word of God). We feel happy or sad, anxious or free; we feel desires or repugnance, we make judgments…
- A) First of all, therefore, we must be fully aware of these “reactions.” If you are accustomed to it, this is almost immediate; but if you are not used to paying attention to such “reactions” – attending to them is challenging! – you must try to do so in the examination of conscience (mid-day, and in the evening… or at any time of the day).
But it could also happen that, for a long time, we do not feel any inner “reaction” to events. This would mean that in all that time, we had lost the desire for “more”; because, if that desire is present, there is always – as Faber attests – a “variety” of reactions in us (some from the good spirit and others from the bad spirit). The solution would be to arouse in us this useful desire, to return to experience the “variety” of inner movements.
- B) Secondly, we should ask ourselves which spirit speaks in each of our reactions (joy or sadness, anxiety or freedom, desire or repugnance, and so forth). It cannot happen that the good spirit – or the bad spirit – provokes at the same time reactions of opposite kinds: either joy is God’s and not sadness, or vice versa .
St. Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits can help us not only to “feel,” but also to “know” the significance that the different inner reactions have. The spirit of God, St. Ignatius tells us, penetrates “those who go from good to better […] in a gentle, delicate and sweet way, like a drop of water that enters a sponge; on the contrary, the evil angel acts pungently, with noise and disturbance, as when a drop of water falls on a stone. In contrast, in the case of those who go from bad to worse, these two spirits act in the opposite way” (cf. ES 335).
Or, as St. Ignatius says in another rule, “it is of the nature of the good spirit to give courage and energy, consolation and tears, inspiration and serenity, diminishing and removing all difficulties, in order to move forward on the path of good,” while, on the contrary, “it is of the nature of the bad spirit to induce remorse, to sadden, to pose difficulties and upset with false reasons, in order to prevent progress and moving forward” (ES 315).
The same ideas return in other rules for discernment that St. Ignatius presents in his Exercises. Reading them calmly – at times of examination of conscience or reviewing the day – can help us to become aware of the two spirits that move us in the events of our life, and to know which is the good spirit and which is not
We can conclude by saying that “spiritual movements, such as consolation or desolation [and the agitation] of any spirit” are important, both in the life of prayer (cf. ES 6) and especially in action: thanks to these differences every Christian – but especially those with an active vocation – can know God’s will and fulfill it in their lives, thus finding God in all things.
This is the Ignatian message of the Spiritual Exercises, the Constitutions, Letters, the Autobiography and the Spiritual Diary. The solution that St. Ignatius and his disciples give us to the spiritual problems of the active life, is that of establishing the relationship – which is of integration – between prayer and action in an active vocation.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 1 art. 3, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0121.3
 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree Perfectae caritatis (PC), No. 7.
 PC 8.
 We recall that Peter Faber was canonized by Pope Francis on December 17, 2013.
 P. Faber, Memoriale, No. 126.
 Cf. J. Nadal, Epistolae Hieronymi Nadal Societatis Jesu Ab Anno 1546 Ad 1577, vol. IV, 681.
 Id., Regulae pro scholaribus Societatis, 490, 14.
 Id., Epistolae…, op. cit., vol. V, 162; 31.
 Cf. M. A. Fiorito, Escritos, Rome, La Civiltà Cattolica, 2019, vol. IV, 237-239.
 Ibid., 222-239.
 Arrupe, “Letter on the Integration of the Spiritual and Apostolic Life” to the whole Society of Jesus, Acta Romana Societatis Iesu, XVI, 1976.
 This article, originally published in Boletín de espiritualidad, No. 64, January 1980, 27-31, is now collected in Miguel Ángel Fiorito, Escritos, op. cit., vol. V, 56-59.