The main point of Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate is that if you want to live an active life of Christian service, you need to attend seriously to your spiritual formation and relationship with God. (He says it in more 19th-century Trappist style, which I’ve summarized in evangelical vernacular.)
But Chautard’s book doesn’t just recommend centering your interior spiritual life on God; and it’s not just written from the author’s own God-centered spiritual life. It also, in an important way, depends on some presuppositions about God’s own God-centered spiritual life.
Here’s what I mean.
The apostolate referred to in the title is an extended sense of sentness that can characterize the lives of all committed Christians, as they pick up the forward momentum of the apostles, who in turn carry on the work of Jesus (“so send I you,” John 20:21), who was himself the Sent One (“As the Father sent me, so send I you”). Chautard makes the point that the church “carries on, down through the ages, the apostolic work of her Divine Model” (26). File this book under “theology of sending” and come back to it when you want an overarching theme that bridges Christology and discipleship.
But Chautard repeatedly goes behind the sending, to draw attention to the source. The Son, he says, was sent forth from the “sovereign liberality” which is “inseparable from the divine Nature;” the divine nature has sovereign liberality because “God is infinite goodness. Goodness seeks nothing except to give itself and to communicate the riches which it enjoys.” (26)
What Chautard has to say about these riches is that they are unspeakably great, and that they are in fact the Trinitarian life itself:
There is no metaphor capable of giving any idea of the infinite intensity of the activity going on in the bosom of Almighty God. Such is the inner life of the Father, that it engenders a Divine Person. From the interior life of the Father and Son proceeds the Holy Ghost. (45)
You see what Chautard is indicating here: in a book about how your busy outer life needs a strong inner life (your apostolate needs a soul), he is saying that God’s outer works, including the Father’s sending of the Son, are anchored in an unimaginably rich interior life. Prior in every way to God’s outer works, God has an “infinite intensity of …activity going on” within the divine life; the internal actions of the Trinity transcend the external actions.
Again, most of the book is not about the richness of this inner life of God, but nothing in the book works without it. So at several points, it becomes thematic:
In God is life, all life. He is life itself. Yet it is not by exterior works, by the creation, for instance, that the infinite Being manifests this life in its most intense form, but rather by what theology calls operationes ad intra, by that ineffable activity of which the term is the perpetual generation of the Son and the unceasing procession of the Holy Spirit. Here, pre-eminently, is His eternal, His essential work. (60)
There is a very old debate, mainly in monastic theology, about the relative value of the contemplative life over against the active life. Chautard, as a Cistercian of the strict observance, can be expected to argue on the side of the contemplative life. But this book is not for Trappists; it’s for active Christians working hard in the world. Here, Chautard’s main point is that there is a union between the contemplative and the active, and that it’s only in that union that it’s worth talking about how the interior life has priority.
Once he gets to the superiority of the contemplative life, or even of the contemplative side of a life that is mostly active, he gladly spends several pages expounding it. He makes use of Bonaventure’s list (“Bonaventure accumulates comparatives”) of the ways the inner life excels the outer life: It is “more sublime, more secure, richer, pleasanter, and more stable.” (Vita sublimior, securior, opulentior, suavior, stabilior.” (62) This is a great section of the book, and even more so when you recognize the deep trinitarian background: Consider the ways in which the interior life of God excels all creation and all redemption in sublimity, security, wealth, pleasure, and stability. In all these, ways, how good it must be to be God!
But the apostolate is all about God moving toward us on the trinitarian mission of intervening in our self-inflicted misery. Here Chautard returns to the key words in his title: “By contemplation the soul is fed; by the apostolate, it gives itself away. Sicut majus est illuminare quam lucere solum, ita majus est contemplata aliis tradere quam solum contemplare. (For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate. Aquinas, ST 2a 2a4, q. 188, a. 6, respondeo) (78)
And here Chautard, on purpose, bumps into the paradox that the Son is sent to us without leaving the Father, and the Father sends out the Son without losing him:
To man, God does more than grant exterior gifts: He sends him also His Word. But here again, in this act of supreme generosity which is nothing else but the gift of Himself, God abandons and can abandon none of the integrity of His nature. In giving us His Son, He keeps Him, nevertheless, even in Himself. ‘Take, as an example, the All-highest Father of all, sending us His Word, and at the same time keeping Him for Himself.’ (citing Bernard’s De Consideratione II:3) (65)¹
This was what Chautard was after all along: a self-giving that does not diminish the self, but flows out into active life without emptying itself of life. If you are looking for the ultimate instance of a rich interior life that makes a difference in the world, you can look to God.
It’s a remarkable claim, and though Chautard only occasionally makes it explicit in the book, he does actually begin with it, in a prologue which is a prayer to God in exactly this respect:
O God, infinitely good and great, wonderful indeed are the truths that faith lays open to us, concerning the life which Thou leadest within Thyself: and these truths dazzle us.
Father all holy, Thou dost contemplate Thyself forever in the Word, Thy perfect image –Thy Word exults in rapt joy at Thy beauty– and, Father and Son, from your joint ecstasy, leaps forth the strong flame of love, the Holy Spirit.
You alone, O adorable Trinity, are the interior life, perfect, superabundant, and infinite.²
Goodness unlimited, You desire to spread this, Your own inner life, everywhere, outside Yourself. You speak: and Your works spring forth out of nothingness, to declare Your perfections and to sing Your glory.
… Your Word offers Himself for the fulfillment of this work…
And yet, O Word, Thou has not left the bosom of Thy Father. It is there that Thy essential life subsists, and it is from this source that the marvels of Thy apostolate are to flow. (23-4)
Here is the secret of your own interior life: Confessing to God that “you alone, O adorable Trinity, are the interior life.”³
¹Do you know this book, On Consideration by Bernard of Clairvaux? It’s a classic. John Calvin’s review was: “Bernard, in his book De Consideratione, speaks in the language of truth itself.” Bernard wrote it as advice to a new Pope, a monk who was about to become extremely busy. Bernard’s advice is that even when contemplation isn’t possible, consideration is, and he gives a well-rounded account of how to consider things which are beneath you, things which are on a level with you, and things which are above you.
²Original: “Vous seule, ô Trinité adorable, êtes la Vie intérieure parfaite, surabondante, infinie.”
³The particular kind of trinitarian spirituality represented by Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate can also be seen, in Jesuit garb, in Jean Daniélou’s God’s Life in Us. I am seeking classic Protestant versions of this spiritual emphasis, and expect to find them in due course.