PART 2 - The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)
Ch 36: How to Attain to the Life
of Prayer and Persevere in It
We have defined prayer and explained how that of beginners tend to
become increasingly simple in order that it may become the prayer of
simplicity described by Bossuet. We shall now explain how a person can
attain to the life of prayer thus conceived and persevere in it.
We must remember, first of all, that prayer depends especially on the grace of God; hence we prepare for it far less by processes, which might remain mechanical, than by humility, for "God. . . giveth grace to the humble," (1) and He makes us humble in order to load us with His gifts. To remind us of the necessity of humility and simplicity, or purity of intention, Christ said to his apostles: "Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," (2) especially into the intimacy of the kingdom, or into the life of prayer. God Himself is pleased to instruct immediately those who are truly humble of heart; such was the peasant of Ars who remained for a long time in silence near the tabernacle, in intimate and wordless conversation with our Lord. If we love to be nothing, to accept contempt, and not only accept it, but end by loving it, we shall make great progress in prayer; we shall be loaded with gifts far beyond all our desires.
Preparation for the life of prayer depends not only on humility, but also on mortification, which is the spirit and practice of detachment from sensible things and from self. Clearly, if our minds are preoccupied with worldly interests and affairs, and our souls agitated by too human an affection, by jealousy, by the memory of wrongs done us by our neighbor, or by rash judgments, we shall not be able to converse with our Lord. If in the course of the day we criticize our superiors or fail in docility toward them, when evening comes we shall hardly be likely to find the presence of God in prayer. Therefore all inordinate inclinations must be mortified so that charity may take the uncontested first place in our soul and rise spontaneously toward God in distress as well as in consolation.
To attain to the life of prayer, we must, in the course of the day, often lift our hearts to God, converse with Christ about everything, as with the guide who leads us in our ascent; and then when we stop for a moment to chat more intimately with our Guide, we shall have something to say to Him; above all, we shall know how to listen to His inspirations because we shall be on holy and intimate terms with Him. To reach this intimacy, young religious are often taught to "sanctify the hour" when it strikes, that is, to offer it to the Lord in order to be more united to Him during the following period of time. It is also advised, especially on certain feast days or on the first Friday of the month, to multiply from morning until evening acts of love of God and our neighbor, not in a mechanical manner, such as counting them, but as the occasion presents itself: for example, on meeting a person, whether that person be naturally congenial to us or not. If we are faithful to this practice, we shall find when evening comes that we are closely united to God.
Finally, we must create silence in our soul; we must quiet our more or less inordinate passions in order to hear the interior Master, who speaks in a low voice as a friend to his friend. If we are habitually preoccupied with ourselves, seek ourselves in our work, in study and exterior activity, how shall we delight in the sublime harmonies of the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity present in us, of the redemptive Incarnation, and of the Eucharist? The disorder and clamor of our sensibility must truly cease for the life of prayer. Therefore the Lord at times so profoundly cultivates the sensible appetites, especially in the passive night of the senses, that they may eventually become silent and submit with docility to the mind or to the superior part of the soul.
All this work of life may be called the remote preparation for prayer. It is far more important than the immediate preparation, that is, than the choice of a subject; for this latter preparation has as its object only to excite the fire of charity, which ought never to be extinguished in us and which should be continually fed with a generosity sustained by fidelity to the duty of the present moment.
To further this remote preparation, we must advise what has been called prayer while working; in other words, choosing about a quarter of an hour in the middle of the morning or afternoon, in the very midst of our work, whether intellectual or external, with the intention, not of interrupting it, but of accomplishing it in a holier manner under the eye of God. This practice is most profitable. By it we reach the point of no longer seeking self in our work, of renouncing what is too natural and somewhat egotistical in our activity, so that we may sanctify it and preserve union with God by placing all our energies at His service, by freeing ourselves from complacency in personal satisfaction.
Thus generous and simple souls, in the wide sense of the term, will reach an uninterrupted conformity with the divine will and will practically always preserve the presence of God, which will render the immediate preparation for prayer less necessary. They will be already disposed, inclined to turn to God, as the stone turns toward the center of the earth as soon as a void is created beside it. They will thus reach a true life of prayer, which will be for them a kind of spiritual respiration.
With perseverance much can be gained; without it, everything can be
lost. Perseverance is not easy: a struggle must be carried on against
self, against spiritual sloth, against the devil, who inclines us to
discouragement. Many souls, on being deprived of the first
consolations which they received, turn back; among them are souls that
had made considerable advance. We may cite the case of St. Catherine
of Genoa, who from the age of thirteen was drawn by God to prayer and
made great progress in it; after five years of suffering, she
abandoned the interior life, and for the next five years led a
completely exterior life. However, one day when, on the advice of her
sister, she was going to confession, she experienced with anguish the
profound void in her soul; the desire of God revived in her.
Some souls, after struggling for a long time, become discouraged when they are perhaps only a few steps from the fountain of living water. Then, without prayer, they no longer have the strength to carry the cross generously; they let themselves slip into an easy, superficial life, in which others might perhaps be saved, but in which they run the risk of being lost. Why is this? Because their vigorous faculties, which were made to seek God, will incline them, in their search for the absolute which they desire, to look for it where it is not. For certain strong souls, mediocrity is not possible; if they do not give themselves entirely to God on the road of sanctity, they will belong wholly to themselves. They will wish to spend their life enjoying their ego; they run the risk of turning away from God and of placing their last end in the satisfaction of their pride or of their concupiscences. In this respect, certain souls somewhat resemble the angels. The angel, says St. Thomas, is either very holy or very wicked; there is no middle course. The angel makes a choice either of ardent charity or of irremissible mortal sin; venial sin is impossible for a pure spirit, since immediately seeing the end, its will is completely engaged. Either it becomes holy, forever established in supernatural good, or it turns away from God forever.(3)
Some souls absolutely need prayer, intimate and profound prayer; another form of prayer will not suffice for them. There are very intelligent people whose character is difficult, intellectuals who will dry up in their work, in study, in seeking themselves therein with pride, unless they lead a life of true prayer, which for them should be a life of mental prayer. It alone can give them a childlike soul in regard to God, to the Savior, and to the Blessed Virgin. It alone can teach them the profound meaning of Christ's words: "Unless. . . you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." It is, therefore, important, especially for certain souls, to persevere in prayer; unless they do so, they are almost certain to abandon the interior life and perhaps come to ruin.
To persevere in prayer two things are necessary: to have confidence in Christ, who calls all pious souls to the living waters of prayer, and humbly to allow ourselves to be led by the road He Himself has chosen for us. First of all, we must have confidence in Him. We fail in this regard when, after the first slightly prolonged periods of aridity, we decide that prayer is not for us, nor we for it. On this score, we might as well say, as the Jansenists did, that frequent Communion is not for us, but only for a few great saints. Our Lord calls all souls to this intercourse of friendship with Him. He compares Himself to the good shepherd, who leads his sheep to the eternal pastures, that they may feed on the word of God. In these pastures is the fountain of living water of which Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman, who was, nevertheless, a sinner: "If thou didst know the gift of God, and who He is that saith to thee: Give Me to drink; thou perhaps wouldst have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water." (4) Likewise at Jerusalem on a festal day, "Jesus stood and cried, saying: If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. He that believeth in Me, as the Scripture saith: Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Now this He said of the Spirit which they should receive who believed in Him." (5)
The fountain of water (fons vivus) is the Holy Ghost, who has been sent to us, who is given to us with infused charity which unites us to Him. Moreover, He has been given to us as interior Master and Comforter to make us penetrate and taste the inner meaning of the Gospel: "The Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you." (6) This was realized for the apostles on Pentecost, and for us, proportionately, on the day of our confirmation. Therefore St. John writes to the simple faithful in his First Epistle: "You have the unction from the Holy One. . . . Let the unction, which you have received from Him, abide in you. . . . His unction teacheth you of all things" (7) useful to salvation.
St. Paul says also: "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us." (8) The Holy Ghost is thus in all the just, in every soul in the state of grace. He, who is subsistent Love itself, dwells in us, not to remain idle but to operate in us, to be our interior Master by His seven gifts, which are permanent, infused dispositions given to assure our docility to Him. These dispositions grow in us with charity. Therefore, if we do not better hear the holy inspirations of the interior Master, it is because we are listening too intently to ourselves and are not sufficiently desirous of the profound reign of God in us. To persevere in prayer, we must, therefore, have confidence in Christ and in the Holy Ghost whom He has sent to us.
Finally, we must allow ourselves to be led by the path which our Lord has chosen for us. There is, to be sure, the common and indispensable way, that of humility and conformity to the divine will; hence we must all pray as the publican did. But on this common road, one part is shaded, the other has nothing to protect it from the burning rays of the sun; one section is flat, followed by long, steep hills that lead to high plateaus where we may enjoy a marvelous view. The good Shepherd leads His sheep as He judges best. Some He guides by the parables, others by the way of reasoning; to others He gives, in the obscurity of faith, simple and penetrating intuition, great views of the whole, which are the distinctive characteristic of wisdom. He leaves certain souls for a rather long time in difficulties in order to inure them to the struggle. For several years St. Teresa herself had to make use of a book in order to meditate, and the time seemed very long to her. Our Lord raises the Marys rather than the Marthas to contemplation, but the former find therein intimate sufferings unknown to the latter; and if the latter are faithful, they will reach the living waters and will slake their thirst according to their desire.
We must, therefore, allow ourselves to be led by the road which the Lord has chosen for us. If aridity is prolonged, we should know that it does not spring from lukewarmness, provided that we have no taste for the things of the world but rather concern for our spiritual progress. Aridity, on the contrary, is very useful, like fire that must dry out the wood before setting it ablaze. Aridity is needed precisely to dry up our too lively, too impetuous, exuberant, and tumultuous sensibility, so that finally the sensible appetites may be quieted and become submissive to the spirit; so that, above these passing emotions, there may grow in us the strong and pure love of charity, which has its seat in the elevated part of the soul.
Then if we are faithful, as St. Thomas teaches,(9) we shall gradually begin to contemplate God in the mirror of sensible things, or in that of the parables. Our soul will rise from one of these parables to the thought of infinite mercy, by a straight movement, like that of a lark soaring directly from earth toward heaven.
At other times we shall contemplate God in the mirror of the mysteries of salvation, aiding ourselves, for example, by recalling the mysteries of the Rosary. By a spiral (oblique) movement analogous to the flight of the swallow, we shall rise from the joyful to the sorrowful mysteries, and to those which announce the life of heaven.
Finally, on certain days we shall contemplate God in Himself,
holding fast in the obscurity of faith to the thought of His infinite
goodness which communicates to us all the blessings we receive. By a
circular movement similar to that of the eagle high in the air, we
shall repeatedly come back to this thought of the divine goodness.
And, whereas the egoist always thinks of himself and refers everything
to himself, we shall begin to think always of God dwelling in us, and
to refer everything to Him. Then, even when the most unforeseen and
painful events occur, we shall think of the glory of God and of the
manifestation of His goodness, and we shall glimpse from afar the
supreme Good toward which everything, trials as well as joys, should
converge. This is truly the life of prayer, which allows us to see all
things in God; it is the normal prelude of eternal life.
1. Jas. 4:6; I Pet. 5:5; Prov. 3:34.
2. Matt. 18:3.
3. St. Thomas, Ia IIae. q.89. a.4.
4. John 4: 10.
5. John 7:37-39.
6. John 14:26.
7. Cf. I John 2:20, 27.
8. Rom. 5:5.
9. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 180, a.6.