In the last two chapters we interrupted our consideration of the effects of man’s incorporation in Christ upon his soul to consider what each one should do that he might find and develop the life of Christ in his own soul. In doing so we did not say much about our union with Christ, even though one of the first effects of that union could be to make us pray with Christ to the Father. But we are considering things rather from the point of view of a person who is trying to find his way into the treasure chamber of his own soul—from outside, as it were. Such a one is not generally very Christ-conscious, and it needs prayer and reading to help him to become so. Another reason for the interruption in our exposition was to insist upon the need for personal effort. For it would be highly dangerous to imagine that, because everything—even every act of our will—depends on Christ, our attitude need be no more than a passive one, as if nothing depended upon our own efforts also.
And because there are so many mistaken notions about some of our duties, we went into some practical details. We are trying to meet the needs of many different types of souls, some of whom may only be at the beginning of the journey, and we wanted to show that there need be nothing burdensome or impossible about starting the practice of the interior life. As a result, our treatment had to be rather ragged, and it may be helpful to summarize here our view of prayer and spiritual reading.
Firstly, because we owe God our homage as our Creator and sovereign Lord, there must be some formal prayer said daily in a formal posture. This prayer need not be long, but is should be sincere and fervent. Naturally, those who go to daily Mass will find this duty is best discharged there. Next, there should be some further prayer, perhaps of a different sort, during the day. What this is will to some extent vary with the individual. Some will find a need for longer vocal prayers; the Rosary, some of the Psalms, some favorite prayers in a book, the Stations of the Cross, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament—some of these will be found helpful. But what we insist upon for all is the effort to develop a habit of talking to our Lord frequently during the day, quite informally. This should be preferred to the addition of long, regular prayers, except where there is some special reason for the contrary.
We also insist upon daily spiritual reading, and we distinguish two different types of reading. The first is to educate ourselves in revealed doctrine by reading expositions of doctrine, rather than apologetical arguments. In particular, the life and teaching of our Lord should be an object of special study, together with the general principles of the spiritual life. The education achieved, the predominant purpose of one’s daily reading will be to keep oneself in touch with the supernatural, to develop a habit of seeing temporal things in their eternal perspective, and to renew one’s remembrance of our Lord, of His love, and of His requirements in one’s own regard. The need for this exercise we have stressed and here stress again because it is so often overlooked or presupposed by those who write in terms of the religious life where such reading is already provided for. In addition, we urge the need for reflection, and suggest that it need not always be done so formally as some methods of meditation might seem to suggest.
Let us now approach this question of meditation and mental prayer. Let us give expression to a personal opinion and say that there are many times when we earnestly wish that both these words, “meditation” and “mental,” could be completely removed from the whole literature of spirituality! There are two important meanings of the word “prayer.” One is the narrow sense of the asking of seemly things from God; this is the prayer of petition. The other is a broader one: the elevation of the mind and heart to God. No prayer in which the mind does not in some way share is prayer at all. No prayer ceases to be mental prayer because words are used to express one’s thoughts or desires. Meditation in the strict sense of the word is not prayer; it may be accompanied by prayer, but in itself it is rather a preparation for prayer. It leads to prayer when acts or affections are produced; but these acts need not be expressed in words, although they may be if one finds it helpful. Meditation in the sense of thinking about God, or the things of God, is an essential element of the spiritual life which must never be omitted. It is what we have called reflection. The word meditation has unfortunately been applied to that exercise in many religious houses, at which the religious devote themselves to mental prayer, which we would rather call private prayer. Because it is called meditation, many feel that they must think about God and not talk to Him; even because it is called mental prayer, many come to the same conclusion. That is sheer nonsense. Whenever a man is talking to God in a rational way, he is praying. Whenever a man is looking at God and loving Him or adoring Him, even though no word pass his lips or form itself at all—he is praying. The essence of such prayer is the interior action of the soul; whether its acts find external expression in words or not, does not make any essential change in it.
It is interesting to note St. Teresa’s mind on this point. She discusses it in her Way of Perfection, which is the best book to start with in studying her teaching, and one which we heartily recommend. Because, however, of the difficulty of getting a faithful translation, we quote from William Walsh’s St. Teresa of Avila:
St. Teresa bridges over the gap between mental prayer and vocal prayer, which has puzzled so many beginners, by saying in effect, that when the terms are properly understood, they are one and the same thing. When vocal prayer is properly said—with understanding of what we are doing and with complete sincerity . . . it becomes mental prayer. What is mental prayer, then? It is, “to think and to understand what we are saying, and with whom we speak, and who we are who dare to talk with so great a Lord. To think this and other similar things, of how little we have served Him and how much we ought to serve Him, is mental prayer; do not think it is some Arabic jargon, or be afraid of the name. To recite the ‘Pater Noster’ or what you will is vocal prayer, but see what bad music it will be without the former—even the words won’t go together sometimes!”
Elsewhere she writes: “Know that with regard to our prayer being mental or not, the difference does not consist in keeping the mouth shut; for if uttering a prayer vocally, I do attentively consider and perceive that I am speaking with God, being more intent on this thought than on the words which I pronounce, then I use both mental prayer and vocal prayer together.”
Leaving aside all such words with their association context of truth and error, let us say that some period of private intercourse with God forms an essential exercise for anyone who would live a spiritual life. In all religious houses a certain time is set apart for that exercise; its name does not matter. The layman who wishes to make any progress in the spiritual life will have to do the same. But his case is different. There is no routine or no government to see that he perseveres in this exercise; therefore, at the start at least, he should so arrange time and place, that he is not likely to omit the exercise when he begins to find it difficult to “pray.” If, therefore, we are content to ask, say, ten or fifteen minutes daily, let no reader of St. Peter of Alcantara be scandalized. Ten minutes of genuine prayer every day will certainly affect a man’s life. So will half an hour’s prayer daily—if it is kept up! But—will it be kept up? We would rather make sure of a minimum and let it grow with one’s growth in spirituality than quench the smoldering flax by too much fuel.
It is necessary, then, to make a decision to pray “personally” every day. The place and the hour must be chosen to suit the reader. Most authors prefer the morning; why—is not so obvious. To our mind, the evening time—especially if one can visit a church—will suit many people better. But, choose the time that suits you best, and keep to it! One thing we insist upon. You must make a grim, ruthless resolve, that never, never, never, on any account whatsoever, will you give up the practice of attempting to pray thus daily, no matter how fruitless your attempt may seem. Until you make that resolve, your progress in the spiritual life will never be anything more than that of a cripple. No matter how often you take up the spiritual life, you will sooner or later be faced with the choice of giving it up, or making such a resolution about daily prayer. That is why we only ask you for the minimum.
The place may be the church; it may be a quiet room. You may stand, or you may sit, but it is preferable to start your prayers on your knees. If you can pray better walking, well and good. The essential thing is to talk to God; whatever helps you to do that is good. To talk to God, you have first to call Him to mind. So you must start by an act of faith in God—“O my God, I believe in You, I believe You are listening to me.” Then to show that you know that He is God: “I adore You as my Lord and God”—and then to show that you remember His mercy: “I hope in You as my Father; I trust in You as my Savior”; and finally, because—well—reasons are left to yourself:—“I love You, or rather I don’t love You enough; make me love You more.” That is only a tentative sample. One word is enough if it puts us in touch with God. If we have anything more to say to Him, let us say it. The beginner, however, will generally find that he has very little to say, and so he will have to start thinking or reflecting. But he can at least admit his inability and accept it, and here again we have our five virtues of faith, hope, charity, humility, and abandonment to the will of God.
This is where the process called meditation is of great assistance, and where one will reap the profit of the reading that has been so stressed. One should approach this exercise of prayer with a definite subject as a matter for reflection, chosen to suit one’s needs. The choice of subjects is wide; they will often suggest themselves during reading. The various scenes of the Passion of our Lord, the incidents of His life, the fourteen Stations of the Cross, the mysteries of the Rosary, the four last things, sin, various virtues we need, or bad habits we wish to change; all these would be suitable subjects. If the subject has to do with our Lord, let us represent the incident under consideration to ourselves and think of it as really present. We must never forget that God is in our soul, and we can speak to Him there even under the appearance of any of the mysteries of His human life. Excessive detail of setting in the representation is to be avoided. The story of the good nun who was using the Last Supper as a subject for prayer is classical. She finished her “prayer” quite upset. Try as she would, she could not succeed in placing our Lord out of the draught! Such solicitude is unreasonable and merits the reproof given to Martha. All that is wanted is a sufficient picture to fix our thoughts and suggest some acts to us.
In the case where we choose something of a more abstract type, say the virtue of hope, our procedure is rather by way of discussion and self-examination. “What reason have I for hope? Do I hope in God, or do I hope in myself? What has God not done for me? Do I worry? Do I really trust Him?” and so on. These considerations will suggest acts or “remarks” to be made to God. “I am sorry for being such a fool as not to trust You, who died for me.” “The reason I am so prone to worry is because I am trusting in myself rather than in You,” and so on.
Now these “acts,” or “affections” as they are called, are the important and, in fact, the real part of prayer. The whole purpose of considerations is to lead up to these acts. The word “affections,” which is generally applied to these acts, has a meaning in this context quite different from its ordinary connotation in English. It does not imply feeling, emotion, or tenderness. Affections in prayer are essentially acts of the will, by which it moves toward God, and elicits other acts of the different virtues, such as faith, hope, love, sorrow, humility, submission, gratitude, or praise. Sometimes these acts can be made without great difficulty. More often, however—especially in the initial stages of the spiritual life—they cannot be produced without consideration and effort. That is why the word meditation is so often used to describe the exercise which leads to such acts; and some such preparation is obviously necessary.
On consulting any of the numerous books on meditation, or books of meditations, it will be found that there is a method of procedure which is generally recommended and often considered indispensable. The principle of the method may be outlined as follows: A subject for prayer is chosen and prepared the evening before, probably with the aid of a book. It is divided into two or three “points” for consideration, and each point is to lead to certain conclusions, acts, petitions, and resolutions. These—to some extent at all events—are also arranged in advance. When the time for prayer comes, the exercise is commenced by a definite effort to advert to the presence of God and to banish all distracting thoughts. A short prayer for help is made, and in some cases certain “preludes” are used to fix the faculties; for example, one forms a vivid picture of the incident which is the subject of the prayer. Then one applies oneself to the consideration of the first point. Some writers go into detail and suggest various questions which will help one to make these considerations and to realize the lessons of what is under consideration. This manner of working is often a great help.
From the reflections of the first point, one passes on to self-examination, and certain acts or affections usually suggest themselves. These should be made, formulating them quite simply, repeating them if one feels drawn to do so. Petitions will generally arise from this reflection, and matter for some resolutions will be found. Proceeding in this way through the divisions of the subject, one finally thanks God for His goodness and light and commits to His aid the resolutions that have been made.
We cannot here treat the subject at sufficient length to give adequate practical instruction on the use of such methods and must refer the reader to any of those innumerable works on the subject. But some discretion is necessary in the use of such books and in the use of the method they prescribe. Some simple method is desirable for nearly all beginners. The more complicated methods may help, but if they do not, they should not be employed. Method is a means to an end; and in this case it is the end which justifies the method, and the method is only justified insofar as it leads to the end, to which it must always yield. Methodic meditation for its own sake is not, strictly speaking, prayer.
But it will probably be found that those books which prescribe a detailed method of meditation are aiming at something else as well as at prayer. Their purpose is to produce convictions and to apply those convictions to everyday life. Such a result is obviously essential to a proper spiritual life, and if the means usually used to produce it in this exercise are omitted, it must be provided for elsewhere. That is why we insist that these three things—reading, reflection, and prayer—must be considered together.
It seems as if the program frequently drawn up for daily meditation is intended to combine these three in the one exercise. We prefer to separate them, partly at least. We would make reading and prayer two separate exercises, by no means unconnected of course; and reflection should be provided for in one or the other, if it is not done at some other time of the day. Therefore, if we urge that mental prayer is an exercise in which one should aim primarily at praying and only use considerations insofar as they are necessary to produce prayer, it must always be understood that we also insist that reading should supply the other fruits of methodical meditation. And if we suggest that the methodical consideration usually prescribed for mental prayer be reduced to a minimum, we expect that it should be replaced by the exercise of spiritual reading and reflection. In fact, the books usually written as “meditations” are the very books that we think should be included in the list for spiritual reading. They must, of course, be read properly, not as one reads a newspaper or a novel, but as a woman reads a catalog, or as a man reads, say, the specification of a new car or an insurance prospectus: with careful consideration. However, this separation of the process into two exercises is by no means intended to be a complete one. Indeed, we hope that in time even spiritual reading will become a prayer; and, even from the beginning, we would suggest that one try to reflect not so much by talking to oneself but rather by talking to Jesus about the subject of one’s thoughts.
But it is impossible to be definite on the point. So much depends upon the individual concerned; his mentality, his spiritual development, his reading, his habits of thought, his temperament—all his circumstances have to be considered. One man’s meat, in this matter as in all others, is often another man’s poison. If we are asked for a personal opinion on the point, we would say that the whole arrangement of these three practices—reading, reflection, and prayer—is a personal matter that should be decided for each individual case by the advice of some competent spiritual counselor. The person chosen as adviser should be someone who has the necessary knowledge and experience of the spiritual life, who knows and understands one’s own circumstances and peculiarities, and who has a sufficiently open mind not to insist upon imposing a ready-made system without any consideration for the needs of the laity in general and of this layman in particular. It is not easy to get in contact with such an adviser, and the point should be the subject of earnest prayer to God. Books are a great help, but sooner or later personal advice may be necessary. However, it must always be remembered that the spiritual life develops, and hence it becomes necessary at intervals to revise one’s arrangements. Therefore, advice once accepted need not bind us permanently. In fact, with regard to accepting and following advice, the laity are not quite in the same position as religious who can unhesitatingly follow the directions of their superior. There is a certain personal responsibility on the layman even in following advice. He is, so to speak, his own superior, and while prudent superiors do not decide things without advice, the responsibility for the decision is their own. The layman has to choose his own adviser and to use considerable prudence in accepting his advice. It is necessary to draw attention to this point, for one not infrequently meets people who are in serious difficulties through trying to follow blindly advice which is obviously un-suited to their individual circumstances, and which was probably the result of a misunderstanding.
The point becomes of further importance when it is remembered that prayer changes as one advances; and the advice of one season is not suitable to the next. Fresh counsel must be sought as one develops. As knowledge increases and convictions grow stronger, the affections in prayer are produced more freely and with less need for considerations. They tend to occupy an ever increasing part of the prayer while considerations are reduced to a minimum and may even become quite unnecessary. Obviously, the methodical program must be altered to suit this development. A further change also occurs inasmuch as one act comes to include quite a number of others, and even one word begins to express a meaning that formerly needed a few sentences. This simplification of prayer may be quite a normal psychological development and should not be interfered with by any attempt to follow out a fixed program of separate acts. Even it may go so far as to remove all need or desire for words, and one simply looks at God and loves Him. This must never be regarded as waste of time. It is the prayer of Mary, not that of Martha. In prayer, it is the movements of the heart that matter. Words are good insofar as they help the movements of the heart. But words for the sake of words, or repetition for the mere sake of repetition, should be avoided. There is no need to keep talking all the time.
In fact, it may be harmful to do so. Prayer is a conversation with God, and if we call it a heart-to-heart conversation, we are giving the adjective a new depth of meaning. For in prayer heart speaks to heart as nowhere else. But God has His part in this conversation, and often He wishes us to listen to Him. Sometimes the effort on our part to keep on saying something is the result of a bad conscience; we do not want Him to remind us of some infidelity or some obvious inconsistency which we are unwilling to change. In fact, the normal result of progress in virtue and devotion to God’s will is to lead us to that type of prayer where words are insufficient. Silence alone is eloquent, and a smile—even a smile of the heart—can speak volumes. This simplicity of prayer, at least in a protracted form, generally presupposes a fair degree of advance in the spiritual life and a considerable purity of conscience. Of the connection between prayer and the spiritual life we have written at great length elsewhere, and we would refer the reader to that book. It is not a subject that can be safely summarized, although we shall have to return to the point in these pages.
For the moment, however, we are dealing with beginners, and there are some points we would like to stress. From the very beginning the beginner should try to bring our Lord as much as possible into his prayer. Even in making considerations, he should do so by discussing the point with our Lord. We would suggest that the prayer be commenced with a simple spiritual communion, which would focus one’s attention upon Christ present in the soul, and the prayer could be made as if one had just received our Lord in Holy Communion. A few words to our Lady will often make it much easier to find her Son; and for those to whom the grace is given, our Lady’s presence in their prayer will often be a great help. These, however, are personal questions and at the risk of being quite impractical we refuse to impose any system. One thing we wish to repeat. It must never be thought that the application of the word “mental” to prayer means that the notion of talking to God is excluded. It merely means that in talking to Him, we should mean what we say. Our words should come from our heart and mind, and must be quite sincere. Even if there are no words at all there must be sincerity. And if we are making use of some well-known formula for prayer, provided we make it sincerely our own, it is still mental prayer.
This talking to God, with or without words, should not be confined to the time of prayer. That cannot be repeated too often. At various moments of the day we should make “remarks” to our Lord—petitions, thanks, admiration, comments on His providence, aspirations; anything that will keep us in contact with Him. These aspirations should either be in our own words, or in some set formula which we have made our own, so that we mean it every time we use it. Further, one should try to cultivate a habit of recollection, a constant memory of the presence of God. This involves a certain guard on one’s thoughts to the extent, at least, of keeping God’s law in our imaginings as well as in our deeds. This sort of interior mortification is of great assistance to spiritual progress.
Those who find it hard to do anything at the time of prayer, either in consideration or affections, may get help from the use of a book. They could take some prayer and read it slowly, stopping frequently to let the sentiments expressed sink in and become their own. Or they could read a few lines of some suitable work, and pause to think over what has been read and try to make some comment upon it to our Lord. Each one has to find the way that suits him best. There are times when no way will suit; everything is dry, dull, and insipid, even positively distasteful. All one can do is kneel there, quite helpless. That can be a most effective prayer, and may draw down great graces from God. If a man is doing all he can reasonably do, God expects no more, and He is quite satisfied with such service. There is never any need to follow a method slavishly to the extent of insisting upon completing all the points, etc. In fact, when acts or “affections” come and continue, one should not interrupt them to complete a predetermined program. If daily spiritual reading is made as we insist it should be, there need never be any anxiety about omitting considerations at prayer. On the other hand, if affections do not come, it is good to remember that the heart often says things that cannot be put into words, and that even during consideration the heart may be praying quite fervently.
There is one particular type of reflection that should be made every day—namely, self-examination. At the end of the day, a short glance over the day’s work will reveal in what one has offended God. Having noted any sins or infidelities, one should repent of them and decide upon suitable measures to prevent them in the future, at least to prevent their becoming habitual. There is another type of self-examination that is a most effective means of advance. In it one examines oneself upon some one particular point, some particular weakness that one wishes to overcome. A daily glance at one’s performance in its regard—for example, at a habit of talking about oneself, or indulging in sloth—will soon have an effect upon one’s behavior. Some writers advise a detailed numerical examination of the number of falls and a comparison with previous performances. This may be helpful; but it will not always be necessary or prudent to go into numbers. In fact, it might be misleading to do so.
The subject of this particular examination, as it is called, should not be changed too frequently, and each point should be retained until some result has been achieved. The choice of subject for this examination is a matter for prudence. Obviously, the more important failings should be dealt with first, especially those key failings that are at the root of many others. But there are times when the best way to capture a “strong point” is to bypass it for the moment, and build up a new front from which to attack it with greater strength. It may be necessary to develop first some positive virtue or practice to deal with the situation. For example, by concentrating on developing the habit of daily Mass, one might find strength to overcome some deeply rooted habit. There is, of course, no use in worrying over trifles and letting serious faults go unchecked. That is straining a gnat and swallowing a camel. But, in the beginning especially, it would be a good plan to choose something that is not too difficult, and which admits a reasonable hope of successful warfare. By doing so, a certain degree of confidence in the method is developed; whereas to tackle a strongly rooted habit first of all might easily lead to failure and consequent discouragement. Prudence is an essential quality of all virtuous acts.
This particular examen is only a special part of what we have called reflection. The three practices of reading, reflection, and prayer are closely connected and interdependent. They are the fundamental part of a man’s own effort at his spiritual development, and the beginning of the road that leads to journey’s end—the finding of Christ. There is one particular purpose that should be aimed at in using them. It arises out of the very common habit of dividing our life into watertight compartments. Some keep their religion for Sunday and let business and pleasure rule the rest of the week. Others do indeed devote a certain time daily to some exercises of piety, but the rest of the day is regulated by quite different principles. Men and women tend to follow the code of their associates, and in business and in pleasure this is often more pagan than Christian. What has been written in the earlier part of this book makes it quite clear that religion applies to every moment of our life. Christ wants to share every single action which we perform, and what He cannot share is well nigh worthless. To enable Him to share everything, all this division and inconsistency must be removed from our life and everything brought under a uniform ideal. That a suitable ideal is supplied by the aim to do God’s will in all things will be shown in one of the following chapters.
But frequent reflection and self-examination are necessary as a means to break down these divisions. It may be granted that the problem for the laity is not an easy one to solve. The layman has to work and play on equal terms with his fellow men and still spiritualize his habitual outlook. His problems are not to be solved by a rigid application of the regime of the religious life to the lay state. They are peculiar to that state, and need very sympathetic handling. And, we may add, the solution of this general problem of making Catholicity a vital force in the everyday life of the laity is one of the most urgent needs of the day. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the fate of Christendom depends upon it. A considerable degree of prudent adaptability is called for to solve the problem. Our own view would be that only the necessary minimum should be insisted upon, and further development left to the spontaneous goodwill of the people concerned. If an atmosphere of encouragement and sympathetic consideration is created, we feel sure the necessary development will take place. And if a soul is put in regular, daily contact with our Lord, His charm will soon have its influence.
There are many things that are settled for a religious by obedience, which have to be left to the personal judgment and prudence of the layman. Our own idea would be to get him to develop the power of solving his own problems and applying sound principles to the regulation of his day. Advice and counsel, of course, are invaluable and necessary, but the decision should be his own. After all, every baptized person in the state of grace has the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. They are meant for use. And the sacramental graces, as we shall see, are always at the disposal of any earnest soul. If encouraged along these lines, it would seem that one is more likely to develop that sound instinct, which will go far to supernaturalize all the actions of the day.
That is another reason we are so anxious to put the beginner in touch with our Lord as soon as possible in prayer, and urge him to try to develop a sense of continual partnership and friendship with Jesus in all the works of the day. For Christianity is not a set of rules; it is a Person—the Person we call Christ. And it is in Christ that all things are to be re-established and reunited and reconciled to the Father. And since Christ came on earth to do the will of the Father, He can always be found where that will is being done; and the ordinary round of the day’s work is part of that will, so that this personal friendship and continual search for Christ is an excellent way to restore the unity of one’s life and to supernaturalize all one’s work. In fact, it will be found that if one does one’s part by reading, reflection, and prayer, as we have indicated, the ordinary things and events of the day begin to speak to one of God and keep one in continual mind of Him. Before, however, considering submission to God’s will as a means of union with Him, let us first discuss another important means which He has provided—the sacramental system.