I once spent two weeks in Kolkata on a discernment and mission trip where I worked alongside the Missionaries of Charity. By the end of those two weeks, I was exhausted and only the thought that I was there for a short amount of time helped me to persevere. I was astounded that anyone was able to perform such grueling work decade after decade. How could they do this? Each morning, they would attend Mass at 6:00 a.m. followed by a holy hour. It was only after receiving Christ in the Eucharist and spending time with him in prayer that the sisters would go out to serve him in the poor.
My spiritual reading during this trip was The Soul of the Apostolate. The example of the Missionaries of Charity gave witness to the vision that Dom Chautard proposes in this book. Of course, not everyone is called to be a Missionary of Charity. I certainly was not. What, then, does The Soul of the Apostolate, written by a French Cistercian abbot in 1912 and directed primarily toward priests, have to offer the readers of this blog? Is the apostolate only for priests and religious or do the laity have an apostolate as well?
Two documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium and the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” reveal the apostolate of the laity: to bring the light of Christ into the secular world. Although not a novel concept in the Church, the apostolate of the laity was largely obscure in the early twentieth century. Given this re-proposal of the laity’s apostolate, it is necessary to propose alongside this apostolate the soul that must enliven it. The soul of the apostolate is not different for the laity than it is for priests and religious. In both cases, it is the interior life that must be the source of exterior activity.
The Soul of the Apostolate is a valuable book for anyone who is seeking to perform charitable works. Therefore, it is a valuable book for any Christian. It is a reminder that the active life is only sustainable if it flows from a life of prayer. Not to be read quickly, The Soul of the Apostolate is a helpful book to meditate on and come back to time and again. It’s easy to say that a relationship with God built on a foundation of prayer is more important than the good deeds we try to do by our own effort, but it’s hard to keep this thought in mind day in and day out.
We can sometimes forget how important prayer is when we are wrapped up in the exigencies of the active life. It seems like there’s always one more person we could help if we just miss prayer for one day. It’s true that one day of missed prayer will not have any drastic effects, but one day quickly turns into two, which turns into a week without praying. At the end of that week, we are too exhausted to pray, especially since there isn’t any less to be done the next week. If, however, our efforts are to bear fruit, we must remain united to Christ who is the true vine. Thus, the value of this book: not only does it eloquently make its point with regard to the soul of the apostolate, but it is in itself a tool for adhering closely to he who enlivens the soul.
This book, therefore, is most helpful to the Christian who finds himself or herself constantly drained and wearied from performing charitable activities. Perhaps you see this in yourself or in a friend. Maybe you want to help someone discerning a vocation start off on the right foot. The first time I read The Soul of the Apostolate, I was at the same time discovering the Dominican Order. Convinced by this book that I wanted to live a life where my good works flowed not primarily from my own efforts but instead from the overflow of a life of prayer, I was enthralled by the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted by the author in the book, which so well sum up the Dominican life: “To contemplate and to hand on to others the fruits of contemplation.”