Be a contemplative in the midst of the world

When a young man or woman has discerned a call to the religious life, one of the first things to be considered is what type of religious life will be chosen: contemplative or active? Contemplative orders typically spend a great deal of time in prayer; often cloistered, their primary focus is praying for the needs of the world. Active orders, on the other hand, are more directly devoted to works of charity outside the monastery or convent. These orders, of course, dedicate much time to prayer, but their mission is to perform some service for the Church or the world. Both types of orders have benefited the Church immensely over the centuries, and both have led many people to live lives of holiness.

Lay people, naturally, are not divided into two different groups. With various responsibilities, such as work and family, they are not able to devote many hours each day to prayer like the contemplative orders do. So it might be surprising that St. Josemaría loved to say that lay people are called to be “contemplatives in the midst of the world.” He wrote, “The street does not get in the way of our contemplative life; the hubbub of the world is, for us, a place for prayer.” Even though most people cannot lead what would traditionally be called a “contemplative” life, St. Josemaría was convinced nonetheless that every Christian is called to be a contemplative. Conversation with God was not something to be restricted to certain times and places, but was instead something that could — and should — be done anywhere and anytime.

Live a life of prayer

The fuel that powers a life of sanctity is the interior life — a life of prayer. It is simply not possible to work toward Christ’s desire that we “be perfect” as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Mt 5:48) without a strong interior life. The Sermon on the Mount begins by describing what a life of holiness should look like, climaxing with the command to be perfect (see Mt 5). But immediately following this description of a holy life, Christ details what the proper interior life looks like (see Mt 6). He states, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6) and “when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:16–18). In other words, a relationship with God is primarily an interior one — it is not something we robe ourselves with for others to see, but an ever-unfolding friendship in the most intimate recesses of our heart. The deep wellspring born there will then overflow into all aspects of our life.

Christ himself provides the model of the intimate prayer life necessary for holiness. In the Gospels we often see him at prayer before his most significant tasks. Before Christ chose his apostles, he went out to pray (Lk 6:12–16). Before he gave his life for our salvation, he retreated to the Garden of Gethsemane in order to pour himself out in prayer to his Father (see Lk 22:39–46). As Luke emphasizes, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk 5:16, NIV). And as this intimacy with the Father in prayer was necessary for Christ, our sonship with him means it is also necessary for us. “The foundation of all we do as citizens — as Catholic citizens — lies in an intense interior life. It lies in being really and truly men and women who turn their day into an uninterrupted conversation with God” (The Forge 572).

But how do we have a strong interior life — how do we build a life of prayer? Over the centuries, countless saints and teachers have given the Church ways of praying. Each of them is valuable, and each can lead one closer to God. Respecting each person’s freedom, St. Josemaría did not institute a specific way of praying; instead, he left that up to each person to decide:

There are countless ways of praying, as I have already told you. We children of God don’t need a method, an artificial system, to talk with our Father. Love is inventive, full of initiative. If we truly love, we will discover our own intimate paths to lead us to a continuous conversation with Our Lord. (Friends of God 255)

St. Josemaría did, however, suggest certain guidelines and activities — developed and refined over decades of spiritual direction — that his experience showed him were particularly useful for lay people seeking to be contemplatives in the midst of the world.

Eric Sammons is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Venice in Florida and has a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

This is an excerpt from “Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá.” Read the book to discover St. Josemaría’s guide to sanctity.