Marian Chivalry and the Soul of the Apostolate

Updated below (6/21/10)

Since the new year I have been instructing our MIM Cenacle in Griswold on the spiritual life, on the basis of Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate, a book, I have mentioned here a number of times before.   The book was not really written for laypeople, so I have been adapting it for my class.  Reflecting on this effort, I can see it also needs to be adapted to the needs of Marian Chivalry.

Dom Chautard was a Cistercian abbot, whose service of the Church took him frequently from the monastery and often placed him in circumstances less than conducive to the contemplative life. To a large extent, The Soul of the Apostolate is the fruit of his own soul searching—his effort to make sure that he remained a contemplative when he was forced to live outside of his monastery.

As anyone who is trying to live the interior life knows, there is an inherent tension between the interior and active life, and though in no way mutually exclusive, one can tend to dominate and destroy the other.  In the vast majority of cases it is the active life and encroaches on the interior life, because, in fact, it is easier to be active than prayerful.  In fact, Dom Chautard writes that nothing is more difficult than fidelity to the interior life.  It also may and does happen that certain interior souls adopt unsound habits and allow their personal devotions to impinge upon their responsibilities, for example, a mother to her children, but by far the most common problem is that we sacrifice our prayer to our work.  This problem is critical because of the primacy of prayer over action: without grace our work has no merit and prayer is our conduit to the grace of God.

When teaching the doctrine of Dom Chautard to laypeople, I have to emphasize in a particular way the great spiritual writer says that the idea that action is inherently harmful to the interior life is a heresy.  In fact, the exact opposite is true: when there is the proper ordering of the interior and active life, not only does action not harm prayer, action improves it.  In reality, there should be a reciprocal influence of prayer and action on one another.  Prayer leads us to perform our duties better, and our duty fulfilled is prayer made fruitful and sincere.

In a layman’s life, indeed, in anyone’s life, the primacy of prayer is not necessarily measured by the amount of time spent in prayer, relative to activity, but rather the fidelity with which one strives to cut out a reasonable measure of space and time for prayer, and the holy anxiety with which one gives up that time and space only to fulfill one’s duty.  For someone who strives to maintain this discipline, even a few moments respite from the din of family preoccupations can be of incalculable value.

I thought about how this might be applied to the ideals of Marian Chivalry while reading the third part of the book, where Dom Chautard expounds on the five characteristics that the power of Christ takes on in us.  (The author claims the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure as his source, which I have not been able to verify as the work cited, Compendium Theologiae, is not known to me.  It is likely a pseudo work, that is, something based on the doctrine of St. Bonaventure but not actually written by him.)

The characteristics of Christi’s strength in us are as follows:

The first is that it undertakes difficult things and confronts obstacles with courage: “Have courage and let your heart be strong” [Ps 30:25].

The second is contempt for the things of this earth: “I have suffered the loss of all things and counted them but as dung that I may gain Christ” [Phil 3:8].

The third is patience under trail: “Love is strong as death” [Cant 8:6].

The fourth is resistance to temptation: “As a roaring lion he goeth about . . . who resist ye, strong in faith” [1 Pt 5:8-9].

The fifth is interior martyrdom, that is, the testimony not of blood but of one’s very life crying out to Christ: “I want to belong to Thee alone.”  It consists in fighting the concupiscences, in overcoming vice and in working manfully for the acquistion of virtues: “I have fought the good fight” [2 Tim 4:7].

Courage, contempt of earth, patience in trial, resistance to temptation, and martyrdom are characteristics of the strength of Christ within us, first of all, but also of His strength in our actions.  Dom Chautard says that through the progress of a soul in the interior life the divine action works in inverse proportion to our own effort.  That is to say, in the beginning of our journey, we act under the influence of God’s grace, but it is we who act primarily, while God guides and often restrains us from compromising our life of prayer.  But in one who is more advanced, God’s power manifests itself more fully and directly, the apostle being moved by grace and collaborating more transparently with the Holy Spirit.

The trick here for a knight of Our Lady is to understand that the spiritual discipline of the “strength of Christ,” is a kind of surrender, trust and long-suffering, while the vigor of the active life is generosity and mercy.  The inverse proportion of God’s activity within the soul must not become a kind of quietism, where we just assume that our prayers will supply for our lack of zeal for the works of justice and mercy.  In fact the spiritual life itself is a battle and can only thrive where there is the courage to face and overcome obstacles and enemies.

This has too often been the case among religious men, who have either tried to imitate the piety of women, or who ceased being religious men altogether.  Dom Chautard makes reference to the principle of St. Ignatius, the great soldier saint, whose maxim has been popularly rendered: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you:

Let this be the first rule of your undertakings: confide in God as if the success of those undertakings depended completely upon you and not at all upon God; nonetheless give your whole self to the undertakings as if you yourself would be doing nothing in them but God alone would be doing everything.

What St. Ignatius actually says is considerably more nuanced than the way it has been popularized.  St. Ignatius’ longer statement does more to integrate the active and interior.  He is not really speaking about the interior and active separately. His statement is about how the active life is to be conducted in a contemplative way. He says we must entrust the active life to God so as to be fully cognizant of how much our efforts make a difference and yet be docile enough in the actual doing to realize that our success depends entirely our union with God.

[The following insertion is from my email answer to a reader who had a concern about my lack of sourcing for the above quote allegedly from St. Ignatius and who notes that the CCC [2834] quotes St. Ignatius in a way that seems to him to be at odds with the quote I have used:

I will update the post to reflect the fact that I have not found a primary source. My source was a Jesuit blog. I have seen the passage quoted in a number of places without documentation. The particular site that I used is authored by more than one Jesuit priest, so I considered it safe enough. One may argue whether it meets an acceptable standard for a blog. In any case, I should make the lack sourcing clear.

In addition, I think several things are worthy of note. Maxims by their nature, truncate the truth into a slogan that can be easily remembered. They are by nature, statements of the truth (if they are true) that require some clarification. In this regard, it is a matter completely consistent with Church doctrine and the science of the saints that prayer and action are so integrally related, with the primacy of the former, that they must interpenetrate in order to survive and grow. Grace is always primary and free will always essential. So, there is a sense in which both prayer and action depend entirely upon God’ grace, but at the same time, there is a sense in which progress takes place only to the extent that we are heroically invested in the prayer or work, or better, in both.

So should we pray as though everything depends on God or pray as though everything depends on us?  Should we work as though everything depends on God or work as though everything depends on us?  The fact is that we can do nothing without God.  No prayer or action can happen without grace. Yet every good act also depends on the relative investment of our free will.

The catechism quotes the more well-known and shorter version of St. Ignatius’ words, but also without sourcing the quote. In fact the note says “attributed to St. Ignatius.” As I say, and in part, this is the point of the post in which I used the quote, it is helpful, especially for men, to see both sides of this.]

I have always said that a truly Catholic approach to spirituality that is suited for men will help translate the life of prayer into a plan of action.  But the inverse is true as well, the active knighthood of Christ will also make us men of deeper prayer.

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