PART 3 - The Illuminative Way of Proficients
Ch 27 : The Universal
Accessibility of the Mysticism of The Imitation
At this point in our study, we shall examine in the light of The Imitation of Jesus Christ the question proposed at the beginning of this work: namely, whether the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith and the union with God resulting from it are in the normal way of sanctity, and also what are the dispositions ordinarily required to obtain such a grace.
The Imitation is not a didactic treatise; it is the experimental story of a soul in love with perfection, a story written from day to day, following prayer that is now laborious, now full of light and heavenly inebriation. It is certainly not only an ascetical book but also a mystical book; it leads to the practice of the virtues, but in view of contemplation and union with God. It is manifestly addressed to all interior souls, and in reality all read it. This is equivalent to saying that the true mysticism of which it speaks is accessible to all, if they are willing to follow the way of humility, the cross, continual prayer, and docility to the Holy Ghost. This fact is one of the strongest reasons in favor of the affirmative answer to the question proposed.
As Father Dumas, S.M., writes in his beautiful study on The Imitation: "The Imitation has a beauty, a virtue which touches, moves, and captivates infirm, indifferent, even unbelieving hearts. Yet it is not addressed primarily to sinners or to beginners; it assumes that some progress in virtue has already been made. It eagerly seeks nothing less than to raise us to contemplation and the intimate consolations of the life of union.
"Contemplation, intimate union with God, is the end, the destiny, and consequently the imperious need of our soul, which can find rest and peace only in God. And it is because The Imitation gives a glimpse of this peace and rest, while directing the soul toward union with the supreme Good, that every soul, even though very imperfect, experiences on reading this book - which in reality it only half understands - a comforting sweetness impossible to explain. Our purpose is to show the essentially mystical character of The Imitation, to see whether, according to it, the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith and the union with God resulting from it are highly desirable for all, and then to point out what ascetical dispositions, according to The Imitation, are ordinarily required to receive such a grace.
Is it true that The Imitation is an essentially mystical and not only an ascetical book?
By the mystical knowledge of God we understand that knowledge obtained, not by rational speculations or only by faith, but by a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost in prayer. It is a quasiexperimental knowledge of God, according to St. Thomas,(2) which proceeds from faith vivified by love and enlightened by the gifts of understanding and of wisdom. St. John of the Cross teaches the same doctrine: "Infused contemplation is a certain inflowing of God into the soul whereby God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in the perfection of love, without efforts on its own part beyond a loving attention to God, listening to His voice and admitting the light He sends, but without understanding how this is infused contemplation." (3) St. Francis de Sales speaks in similar terms.(4)
The Imitation continually exhorts the interior soul to humility, abnegation, and docility, which will prepare it to receive the grace of contemplation and of union with God. We see this on every page, and more especially in Book I, chapter 3, and in Book II, chapters 31 and 43.
In Book I, chapter 3, we read:
This is the knowledge, the understanding, and the wisdom, which come from the Holy Ghost, and which, without His divine inspirations, cannot be preserved.
The author of The Imitation also says:
This chapter by itself is most significant and shows that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of salvation is highly desirable, that it is in the normal way of sanctity.
Farther on we find these words put on our Lord's lips:
From these excerpts it is evident that the contemplation spoken of by the author of The Imitation proceeds from a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, which renders faith penetrating and sweet by making us taste how good the Lord is: "O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet." (8) Therefore the contemplation in question here is infused.
It is not a question, however, of extraordinary graces, such as visions, prophetic revelations, and the stigmata, but rather of an increasingly profound and sweet penetration of the mysteries of faith, which are superior to all particular contingent futures, like the end of a war which prophetic light reveals. We see consequently that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, here declared so highly desirable, is undoubtedly an eminent but not an essentially extraordinary grace; it is in the normal way of sanctity. And if at times the term "extraordinary" is applied to it, this is in the sense that it is extrinsically so, because it is rare; but it is not intrinsically so. Far from being essentially extraordinary, it is infused contemplation that establishes us in perfect order. Those only are in this perfect order who penetrate in this way into the inner life of God, who ardently love the One Thing necessary and see all earthly things in their true place. Thus the order of charity is established in all the feelings that are fully subordinated to the love of God and vivified by it.
Therefore, according to The Imitation all interior souls are called to this infused contemplation and the union with God resulting from it, at least by a general and remote call, if not by an individual and proximate call, which may be either simply sufficient, or efficacious and victorious over all resistance.(9)
In Book IV of The Imitation, which is devoted to the Eucharist, the faithful soul asks insistently for the ineffable union with Jesus Christ. We read: "Who will give me, O Lord, to find Thee alone, to open my whole heart to Thee, and enjoy Thee as my soul desireth . . . that Thou alone mayest speak to me, and I to Thee, as the beloved is wont to speak to his beloved, and a friend to be entertained with a friend. For this I pray, this I desire, that I may be wholly united to Thee, and that. . . I may more and more learn to relish things heavenly and eternal. . . . When shall I be wholly united to, and absorbed in Thee, and altogether unmindful of myself? Thou in me, and I in Thee; and thus grant us both equally to continue in one." (10)
We read likewise in chapter 17: "O my God, Eternal Love, my whole good and never-ending happiness, I desire to receive Thee with the most vehement desire and most worthy reverence that any of the saints have ever had or could experience."
Again he says: "A lover of Jesus and the truth, a true interior person, who is free from inordinate affections, can freely turn himself to God, elevate himself above himself in spirit, and enjoy a delightful repose (ac fruitive quiescere)." (11) This is the quiet of fruition, a foretaste of eternal life.
To receive the special grace of infused contemplation and of the union with God resulting from it, the author of The Imitation demands especially the following dispositions: humility, consideration of the immense benefits of God, abnegation, purity of heart, and simplicity of intention.
The humility he requires is that which leads the soul to "love to live unknown and to be counted as nothing." (12) It disposes us to consider the benefactions of God, all the graces that come to us from our Lord, through His passion, His death, the Eucharist. In the light of this consideration, the soul discovers its ingratitude and sincerely begs pardon for it.
In this way the soul is led to the abnegation of all self-will. Consequently in Book III, chapter 13, the Lord is made to say: "Learn to break thy own will and to yield thyself up to all subjections. Kindle wrath against thyself, suffer not the swelling of pride to live in thee; but show thyself so submissive and little that all may trample on thee, and tread thee under their feet as the dirt of the streets. . . . But Mine eye hath spared thee, because thy soul was precious in My sight; that thou mightest know My love, and mightest always live thankful for My favors." Abnegation thus understood puts self-love to death; it is a disappropriation by which the soul ceases to belong to itself that it may belong to God, ceases to seek tself that it may tend continually toward Him. The same doctrine is expressed in Book III, chapter 21. We read also in chapter 37 of the same book: "Forsake thyself, resign thyself, and thou shalt enjoy a great inward peace."
Purity of heart and simplicity of intention wholly directed toward God prepare the soul to receive the special grace of infused contemplation.(13) This grace makes the soul understand the profound meaning of these words: " Whoever findeth Jesus findeth a good treasure, a good above every good." (14)
From this contemplation are born the trusting abandonment and union, expressed in the following petition: "Thou dost will, O my God, that I receive Thee and unite myself to Thee in love. Wherefore, I beseech Thy clemency, and I beg of Thee to give me a special grace, that I may be wholly dissolved in Thee, and overflow with Thy love, and no more concern myself about seeking any other consolation." (15) With this in mind, one may grasp the depths of the splendid chapter 5 of Book III on the marvelous effects of divine love which "carrieth the burden without being burdened, and maketh all else that is bitter sweet and savory. The noble love of Jesus impelleth us to do great things, and exciteth us always to desire that which is the more perfect. . . . Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or in earth: for love is born of God, and it cannot rest but in God."
In a mortified soul which no longer seeks itself, such is the fruit of the contemplation of the sovereign Good: that union with God which is truly the normal prelude of the union of eternity.
The passages we have quoted clearly demonstrate the truth of the statement made at the beginning of this chapter: namely, that The Imitation is not only an ascetical but also a mystical book; it leads to the practice of the virtues in view of the infused contemplation of the goodness of God and of union with Him. Manifestly addressed to all interior souls, The Imitation is, in fact, read by all of them. In other words, the true mysticism of which it speaks is accessible to all, if they are willing to follow the way of humility, abnegation, persevering prayer, and docility to the Holy Ghost.
This is one of the strongest reasons in favor of the doctrine we set forth
in this work on the normal prelude of eternal life.
1. Introduction a l'union intime avec Dieu, d'apres
l'Imitation (4th ed.;
2. Cf. I Sent., disc. 14. q. 2, a.2 ad 3 umn; Comm. in Ep. Rom., 8: 16. Cf. IIa IIae, q.180, a.1, 2, 4, 7; q.45, a.2; q.8, a.6, 7, 8.
3. The Dark Nigbt, Bk. II, chap. 5.
4. The Love of God, Bk. VI. chaps. 3, 5. 7, 10.
5. Ps. 54:7.
6. Bk. III, chap. 31.
7. Bk. III, chap. 43.
8. Ps. 33:9.
9. The general and remote call is expressed in the Gospel and preaching; the individual and proximate call comes from a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, which an enlightened and experienced director may rather easily recognize. We explained this subject at greater length in Christian PerfectIon and Contemplation, pp. 337-45, 372-436.
10. Bk. IV, chap. 13.
11. BkII, chap. 1.
12. The Imitation, Bk. I. chaps. 2 f; Bk. III. chaps. 4. 8.
13. Bk. II. chaps. 4. 6. 7, 8; Bk. III. chap. 5.
14. Bk. II, chap. 8.
15 Bk. IV, chap. 4. This is the union of enjoyment through
Communion. The Latin version brings out the thought more clearly: "Vis
ergo, Domine, ut te suscipiam, et me ipsum tibi in caritate uniam.
Unde tuam precor clementiam et specialem ad hoc imploro mihi donari
gratiam, ut totus in te liquefiam et amore pereffluam, atque de nulla
aliena consolatione amplius me intromittam."