Human affairs and human relationships seldom stand still—they develop one way or another; and human friendship especially can never be quite static—it either grows or fades. The same is true of our friendship with God, as far as the human side of that friendship is concerned, and it is especially true of that part of our friendship with God which manifests itself in private prayer. We have already noted the course of the development of prayer; we must now return to consider the subject in a little more detail.
The usual manner of praying which the beginner has to adopt is that which is best called discursive prayer. In this prayer, by “discourse” of the reason—that is, by consideration and reflection—we bring ourselves to produce acts of prayer: faith, hope, love, sorrow, resignation, admiration, or gratitude, to name but a few. Needless to say, not all these acts are necessary; any one would suffice if it occupied us for the whole time of prayer. The amount of consideration required depends upon a number of circumstances; but if one is faithful to daily spiritual reading and reflection, one should soon develop a facility to produce acts of prayer after a short consideration.
In the beginning our time of prayer is nearly all given to considerations; as we advance in intimacy with God and in understanding of His ways, the acts, or “affections,” as they are called, take up an ever-increasing part of the time of prayer and eventually predominate. This kind of prayer is generally called affective prayer and sometimes develops to such an extent that hardly any consideration is necessary to produce acts; the acts come quite easily. These acts are the real prayer; the consideration is only an introduction, a means to an end. In some cases, there are occasions when this kind of prayer is possible even with those beginning their spiritual course. When, however, it becomes characteristic of one’s manner of praying, it generally denotes some advance in the spiritual life. But this fact should not prevent beginners from talking to God in their own words as often as they are able to do so. The different stages of prayer are by no means mutually exclusive, nor are they sharply divided from one another.
All prayer, of course, presupposes grace, for it is a supernatural act. Yet its development may follow natural laws, and it seems natural that as one grows in understanding of spiritual things and becomes more intimate with God, long formulae and many words should cease to be necessary in our conversation with Him. Our expressions become less complicated; one act includes many others, sentences are replaced by words, words may even be replaced by looks, and our whole prayer becomes much simpler in its nature. One can remain in God’s presence without the need to use many words; silence, in fact, seems the best expression of the fullness of our heart, and such silence can be a perfect prayer. Prudence and caution are, of course, necessary to avoid reveries and daydreaming, but prudence must not be overdone in this matter, and when one feels the need to pray in this way, there should be no anxiety in doing so, even when it means an absence of distinct acts. The whole question needs a much more detailed treatment than can be given it here, and we would refer the reader to what we have written on it elsewhere.
Everyone who wishes to live a spiritual life should acquire a correct notion of the development of prayer. It is a capital error, and one that can be responsible for much harm, to imagine that there is no intermediate form of prayer between point by point meditation and infused contemplation. And we think it also seems to be a mistake to assume that these stages of prayer—discursive prayer, affective prayer, simplified prayer—are mutually quite exclusive. It would, we think, be a mistake to hold, for example, that before passing on to the use of affective prayer, one should have completely finished with discursive prayer. It would seem that any of these three ways of praying may present themselves—and may even be necessary—at almost any stage of spiritual development. It is the one which predominates that is usually in harmony with the extent of one’s progress and that determines one’s “state” of prayer.
This development in prayer seems, as we have said, to be partly a “natural” process. However, it also depends upon grace and presupposes a certain development of the spiritual life. Simplified prayer, for example, is incompatible with habitual sin, or with frequent refusal to follow God’s grace. Facility in making genuine acts is closely connected with one’s sincerity and fervor, and with the purity of one’s conscience. Prayer is not to be considered as something completely separated from or independent of the rest of the spiritual life. It is but one branch of the tree; and while one tree may differ from another in the relative size and shape of its branches, yet the life of each branch in each tree depends upon the life of the tree itself.
The conditions necessary for advance in prayer are generally considered in relation to the fourfold purity upon which the health of our spiritual life depends: purity of conscience, purity of heart, purity of mind, purity of action. Purity of conscience results from our avoidance of sin and from our general conformity with God’s will. Purity of heart is achieved by keeping our heart for God and avoiding or suppressing all inordinate attachments, that is, attachments that are not according to His will. Purity of mind arises from a continual control over one’s thoughts and memories, and from a frequent but gentle effort at recollection. Purity of action requires that we watch carefully the motives and intentions that animate our actions and endeavor to direct all our intentions in our work towards God so that we may act only for His love and according to His will.
This fourfold purity is endangered by a weak purpose, slack rein on our thoughts, a loose control of our imagination, an only half-hearted resistance to the lead of inclination or impulse, or above all, by an unguarded heart. Custody of the heart is one of the most important rules in the spiritual life. The best way to develop this fourfold purity, this single-mindedness and singleheartedness, is to become enamored of Jesus Christ. One should build up an idea and a memory of Him which will hold one’s attention; one should be resolutely and courageously determined to follow His lead; one should, above all, give Him one’s whole heart. If this is done with generosity and with decision, one’s whole life will soon be purified and advance in prayer will be rapid.
So far we have described progress in prayer as if it were a natural psychological process, depending, of course, upon grace. Somewhere, however, during this process, God may intervene to lead the soul to ascend still higher in the paths of prayer. One is not directly conscious of His intervention, but one is painfully conscious of its effects. One can no longer “pray”! When the time for prayer comes, the mind seems to have lost all its power of action. There are no good thoughts, no good affections; complete sterility and aridity reign, and ordinary effort cannot dispel them. This powerlessness of the mind is only evident at the time of prayer. At other times the mind functions with normal vigor. At prayer, however, it seems dead; the imagination may run riot, and the senses may clamor for earthly things. Put in some obscure way, the will wants God.
This latter point is important. The other phenomena could be the result of sin, of infidelity, of tepidity; and if the powerlessness of the mind were general, some natural cause would probably be its origin. But if the will still wants God, and does not want anything else, then we have a very safe sign of God’s action in the soul. The soul must be careful, henceforth, to second God’s action, and not to interfere with His work by trying to proceed on its own. God has changed His manner of presenting Himself to the soul. His grace no longer carries any appeal or effect for the senses and the imagination, or even for the intellect. He is working deeper in the soul, and only the will is affected by His operations.
The will must second this action by an attitude of loving faith. There is no use whatever in trying to form good thoughts or to stir up pious feelings. In fact, it would be a mistake to make such attempts, as well as being useless. God wants our loving faith, unadorned by anything else. And He wants us to realize that we are completely helpless without Him. “Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5). We can only live by faith, and look at God by faith, and, one might say, love God by faith. We are like a mother sitting in the dark near her sleeping child. And like that mother, we are not inactive. We love. And we love God, not our own piety or prayer. And that is what God wants.
We go to prayer to give ourselves to God. Here in this form of prayer is the way to do so. There is nothing here to pander to self-satisfaction; there is nothing here that would attach us to the gift rather than to the giver. We have nothing to do but to believe in God, and to give ourselves up to His will in our complete helplessness. There is no lower form of prayer which is so sanctifying as this prayer of faith, and it is by no means uncommon.
There is some difficulty in following the literature of prayer at this particular stage. Terms differ, and opinions differ. A book by Fr. de Besse, O.F.M.Cap. The Science of Prayer, is one of the few that really give help at this point. The works of Fr. Gabriel of M. Mary Magdalen, O.D.C., on St. John of the Cross, and especially that on Acquired Contemplation, will be found of great help and encouragement. There are quite a number of books which might be read with profit; but considerable discretion is necessary. i rstly, all writers do not attach the same meaning to the terms used on this subject, and their discussion of prayer is affected by lack of agreement as to its nature. Secondly, even where two writers are in agreement as to terms and theory, their practical suggestions may differ because they may be dealing with different stages of development of the same type of prayer. The reader will have to select what applies to his own case, and remembering that few men travel exactly the same road, he need have no scruple in rejecting what does not apply to him or even what seems to contradict his own decisions. Obviously, advice from a competent and understanding guide, who is ready to adapt his counsel to the particular needs of his client’s case and not to impose upon him his own personal views, should be sought if it is to be had. Where it is not available, constant recourse to God for grace will enable one to solve the problems of prayer sufficiently for the needs of the moment. There will always be a certain obscurity and dissatisfaction in this condition, and there is so little to be done at the time of prayer that one’s fears of wasting time or being deluded are always recurring.
What often happens in this condition of affairs is that one decides that more effort and initiative are needed and makes various attempts at meditation or at affective prayer. Sometimes, by a violent effort which cannot be sustained for long, the attempt succeeds momentarily, but the reaction when that effort fails—as it must fail—is all the worse. Then the really dangerous temptation comes: to abandon all attempt at private prayer as waste of time and devote the time to reading or to good works. Such a decision, if it were adopted permanently, would be fatal, and, unless God interferes by His merciful providence, could easily mean the end of all advance in the spiritual life, if not the beginning of its decay.
At all costs, the decision to persevere in devoting a set time to private prayer daily must be made and carried out inflexibly. It does not matter if one can do no more than remain on one’s knees for the period and only battle with complete lack of success against distractions; one is not wasting time. There is no use whatever in making violent efforts to engage the imagination and the mind with good thoughts and ideas; God no longer makes any appeal to these faculties. There is nothing left for the soul to do but to fall back on the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. And in practice it is faith that should be one’s aim; it will lead to love.
What most of us overlook is that these three are the fundamental virtues of the spiritual life. The other virtues derive their full vital value from the influence of these three in various ways; these three are really the life of the soul and of its virtues. And God, as it were, strips off all else and only leaves us the essentials. And whatever we might desire to achieve, there is nothing else we can do at the moment but to use these essential virtues, leading as they do to humility and abandonment to the will of God. one might describe this condition by representing God as peeling off the outer shell and rind—which is ourself—to expose and free the real divine interior of our soul; because these theological virtues are the fruit of the divine life of our soul. The process is really a “denial” and a crucifixion of ourself, and an “assertion”—one might almost call it a resurrection—of Christ in our stead.
This process is but typical of the plan of the whole spiritual life, and a comparison might help us to visualize it. When a prepared photographic film is properly exposed to the action of the light coming from a certain object, certain parts of that film are transformed so as to become capable of forming an invisible or latent image of the object. Under the action of a developer, this transformation is made actual and stabilized. After development, the untransformed material in the film is removed by another chemical solution. Something of this sort occurs in the spiritual life and, in a special way, in the life of prayer. There is, for example, in our prayer, an element that comes from God. Under the influence of the divine light and the divine action there is a living image of the divine prayer produced in us, inside our own prayer, so to speak, by a transformation of part of it. This is “developed” and actualized by the action of God’s grace, and then He “dissolves” away the untransformed part of our prayer by a long purifying action, during which the divine “image” may as yet be invisible. Meanwhile we have to live and pray by faith until the shadows retire and the day of the divine image dawns. When the dark night is over, we shall see the glory of God’s mercy and love in the new life and prayer He has wrought in our souls. And in this, prayer is only typical of the rest of the spiritual life: a divine infusion, a transformation of part of ourself into Christ, and a removal, in this life or in the next, of what is left of our old self.
Our own notions of perfection are often full of error. We imagine holiness as the perfecting of our own life; whereas, in fact, it is the perfecting of the life of Christ within us. We imagine that the really important part of a life of holiness is the good works we perform and the fruit they produce; whereas the thing that primarily matters is the love, the supernatural love, with which they are performed. There can be very much self-seeking, even in a quasispiritual way, in good works. God wishes to change all that and to make our works originate in Him and tend towards Him. He is the Alpha and the Omega; He must be the beginning and the end of everything, as indeed we profess Him to be every time we assist at Mass. Let us never forget St. Augustine’s marvelous summary: “There shall be one Christ loving Himself.”
Our prayer is really a continuation of what we try to say at Mass; it should be the expression of our whole life, which in turn should be in accordance with what we express by the Mass. There is very little solid worth in protestations of love and submission made in prayer if the rest of our actions during the day are done from self-love and by self-will. One might say that just as God gives us the Mass as an expression of our complete submission to Him and expects us to conform our life to what we profess in the Mass, so, to a certain extent, in this prayer of faith, He so moulds our prayer that it tends to become a true expression of what should be the really important part of our life: faith, hope, charity, humility, and abandonment to God’s will.
Our very inability to pray is a perfect prayer; our very inability to express ourselves is the best expression of ourselves; our very inability to see God, to hear Him, or to “feel” Him, is the very best vision of God, the very best hearing of God, the very best “feeling” of Him. For God is above all we think Him to be. As the mystics say, we know Him by not knowing Him. So that even this failure in prayer gives us truer knowledge of God and of ourselves than did the prayer of former days when God was so vividly present to us, and when our love for Him was seemingly so full that it defied words.
What we have to do at the hour of prayer in these times of aridity and helplessness, is to be gentle with ourselves. We make a quiet act of faith; we believe in God, we believe in God’s interest in us, and we believe that He sees and hears us. We accept His will in all its details, especially in the dereliction which we experience. We put our whole reliance on the prayer of Christ of whom we are members, and with whom we have all things in common, especially His prayer; we rely on the spirit of Christ, who is within us and prays in us in an ineffable way. In other words we quietly and gently begin to abandon ourselves, and to unite ourselves to Christ, by relying on Him alone. He is our all!
As to our minds and imaginations, we may find it possible to quiet them by use of a book, or some formula of prayer, or by fixing them upon some good object. Even if they are occupied with divine things, they have very little to do with our real prayer. It is, however, much more likely that we cannot anchor them; in which case all we can do is to try to see that our will does not follow their wanderings, but is brought back gently to God by a simple act of faith. Until God gives us more grace, there is nothing much more that we can do at prayer except to be patient with God and to be patient with ourselves. Patience has a perfect work, which in this case is to detach ourselves from ourselves and unite us to Christ; His life, His merits, His prayer, are what we must rely on.
Our best hope of helping ourselves lies outside the time of prayer, by humility, detachment, great purity of intention in all our works, and a ready correspondence with God’s grace and providence. He is working for our detachment from all creatures—even from ourselves. All His providence is directed to that end. We can be just as much attached to our spiritual goods and attainments, to our spiritual joys and powers, as we can be to the temporal. For complete union with God, and for the bearing of “more fruit,” these attachments must be purged.
This process is described in two famous books by St. John of the Cross: The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. They can be of great help to souls who are faced with such difficulties at prayer. But there are certain points about these two books that should be noted if one is to read them with profit. First of all, St. John is describing the plenitude in order to show the participation; as he tells us: “here we have described the highest that may happen, because in that is comprehended all else.”Secondly, he is dealing with a soul who is determined to reach the summit of divine love and who is prepared to stop at no sacrifice necessary for that end. Thirdly, he has a habit of saying things in quite an absolute fashion in one place and qualifying them elsewhere; so that isolated texts may mislead if they are not taken in conjunction with the rest of his works. Fourthly, the relations between The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul must be properly understood.
These two books are not two separate and successive chapters of a continuous story, such that the first must be ended before the next is commenced. They are rather two different aspects of the same process of advance towards God, and of detachment from all else. The Ascent describes the soul’s own part in the work—the active part; The Dark Night describes God’s work, which is the passive part of the process. These two parts dovetail in with one another and mutually interact in such a way that one cannot be completed without the other. In fact, there are certain stages of the active part that cannot be even commenced until the necessary stages of the passive part have occurred. To put it in another way: the soul is not expected to perform all different works of detachment (or attachment to God, as we prefer to regard it) outlined in The Ascent, without getting considerable help from God, which help only comes in course of the process of purification wrought by God which is described in The Dark Night. The two processes dovetail into one another. As one advances by the grace already given and one’s own strength, God comes to one’s assistance by His work in the soul and adds new strength to one’s forces. He is the principal agent in the work and His part is an ever increasing one. Therefore, no difficulty whatever, real or imaginary, should ever deter us or shake our confidence. We must never forget our Lord’s words; “With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). Is not the very name that the prophet gave to the Redeemer: “Emmanuel—God with us?”
It is true that the whole process of advance may be summed up in one word—detachment. This word, however, only hides the real truth; for detachment is but a means to an end, or rather, it is the reverse side of the real end and process, namely attachment. If we have to detach ourselves from various creatures and from our own self, from our own will, from our own ways, from our own judgment, from our own strength, from our own pleasure, from our own achievement, from our own life, spiritual as well as temporal—it is only in order to become completely attached to Jesus. Attachment to Jesus is the royal road to detachment from self. A bride does not leave her mother—she rather goes to her husband. Still for practical purposes, especially when it is remembered that our own attachment to our tremendous lover is to be made in the darkness of faith, it is well to keep both aspects of the transformation in mind.
One of the best ways of understanding the process is to look at its purpose. The purpose of this detachment is to achieve complete union of love with God. St. John of the Cross tells us: “This state of divine union consists in the soul’s transformation, according to the will, in such a manner that there may be naught in the soul that is contrary to the will of God, but that in all and through all, its movements may be those of the will of God alone. . . . The union and transformation of the soul in God does not always exist, but only where there is equality of love. . . . This takes effect when two wills, the will of God and the will of the soul are conformed together, neither desiring aught repugnant to the other.” “In this state of union, all the operations of the memory and of the other faculties are divine. God then possesses the faculties, being completely master of them by their transformation into Himself, and it is He himself who moves and commands them according to His divine spirit and will, and this is done in such a manner that the operations are not distinct, but those that the soul operates are of God and are divine operations.”
What else is this but the full development of the life of the Mystical Body of Christ in His member? And this full development must take place before one enters heaven. We say this lest it should be thought that such a union is only for very special souls. In his prologue, St. John of the Cross says: “We propound a doctrine substantial and solid, which will serve for everyone who wishes to attain the spiritual spoliation here described.” The pity is that we do not wish; to us, as to Jerusalem, our Lord can address His heart-broken complaint: “and thou wouldst not!”
To what extent we may hope for advance towards this union is a question we shall consider in the next chapter. Here we would stress the absolute necessity of resolutely persevering in devoting the set time to prayer daily, no matter how unsuccessful our attempts may be. And we must be careful not to waste our energy in fruitless attempts to pray. Let us be satisfied with our failure. That is our prayer. The whole spiritual life at this period may become completely arid and repugnant. Any attempt to produce “fervor” by violent efforts will only result in a reaction that will make things worse. We have to look to God for our salvation, and to live by faith; and to learn by faith something of the full meaning of the words: “My God and my All.”
There is a dialogue between an enquirer and a statue cited in The Love of God by St. Francis de Sales, which will bring comfort to those souls who are powerless at prayer, for St. Francis makes the statue typify the soul in this condition. To the question why it stays there doing nothing, the statue replies: “Because my master did not place me here to do anything but simply remain motionless!” Asked what advantages it has from such a proceeding the statue replies: “I am not here for my own interest or service, but to obey and to accomplish the will of my master and maker, and that is enough for me.” Asked how it can be satisfied to content a master whom it cannot see, it replies; “I do not see him . . . but my master sees me here and likes to see me here, and that is all I want to make me happy.” To the protest that it should at least desire to have the power to do some better service for the master, the reply is that it desires nothing except to do the will of its master: “I desire nothing else as long as ever my master wishes to leave me here, because my sole happiness is in contenting Him to whom I belong, and by whom I am what I am.”
This quaint comparison from the great Doctor of Devotion should encourage us. Such a state is one in which there is nothing left for self love. There is activity—faith, hope, charity, humility, and abandonment are in full action; but the activity is such that the soul is unable to take any complacency in its own achievements, and that is an enormous gain; for until we become detached from this self-complacent pleasure of achievement even in spiritual things, our union with God cannot be complete.
This way of praying perfectly expresses the Christian way of living, stripped of all unessentials. In it we find the five virtues that we regard as fundamental: faith, hope, love, humility, and confident abandonment to the will and good pleasure of Him who is our God and our all.
Those who seek help in the literature of prayer may be confused by the different meanings attached to the word “contemplation” and the different opinions expressed about the possibility of achieving certain forms of prayer for which the word can stand. As to its meaning, one should note that some Ignatian writers use the word to denote a certain concentration of one’s attention on, say, an incident in our Lord’s life, by forming a vivid mental picture of the incident, and applying one’s different faculties to it. In this sense we say, in the Rosary, “let us contemplate in this mystery how our Lord suffered in the garden, etc.” This is quite an ordinary form of meditation and is available even for beginners.
There is another use of the word contemplation to denote an infused form of prayer, given to us by God, which represents a great advance from the elementary ways of making mental prayer. In St. Teresa’s works, the word is always confined to those forms of prayer in which God’s action is perceived by the soul. St. John of the Cross uses the word in a much wider sense than St. Teresa, to include also a state of prayer in which there is indeed a special action of God upon the soul, but in which this action is generally unperceived by the soul. The only apparent effect of God’s action is to produce aridity and difficulty in prayer. One of the best treatments of this subject will be found in the work of Fr. Gabriel, O.D.C., already mentioned.
The same author gives a very good and helpful discussion of the question: Who are called to these higher forms of prayer? He sums up his own conclusion, which, however, should be taken in its context, thus: “Infused contemplation, even of a very high order, is not a grace to be excluded from the outlook of spiritual persons; it does not belong to the realm of the extraordinary; it is wholly desirable because it is a very great help to sanctity and, in this world, it is the ‘connatural’ crown of a holy life. But, for all that, it would be wrong to teach souls that without this contemplation they will never be saints. Also, it would be rash to promise souls graces and spiritual consolations which, perhaps, in His all-wise counsels, for some reason unknown to us, God does not intend to grant them. Hence there is a contemplation which is never, or scarcely ever, wanting after due preparation; there is another which is simply connatural and ordinary. Both may be called ‘normal,’ but this same word must be understood in two senses.”
Our chief aim in quoting Fr. Gabriel is to draw attention to his works, which we consider of the utmost practical value and importance. Our own view is that there is a type of prayer of very great value, which may be properly called contemplation, to which no particular baptized person who is willing to cooperate with God’s grace can say that he is not called. Every one so disposed may laudably and properly hope and work to reach such a height of prayer, even in the world; and even though God may, perhaps, withhold, or seem to withhold, the grace of this prayer, one may rest assured that in faith, hope, charity, humility, and complete acceptance of God’s will even on this point of prayer, one can achieve the highest form of union with God, for by these virtues we can live the life of Christ, who is our holiness, and in whom is God, reconciling and uniting us to Himself.