The Unfolding of the Little Flower

A Study of the Life and Spiritual Development of the Servant of God, Sister [now Saint] Theresa of the Child Jesus

by William M. Cunningham

Rector of the Church of Saint Thomas the Martyr, Sevenoaks, Kent, Vicar Forane for the County of Kent, Notary Public and Archivist to the Diocesan Curia of Southwark (1916)

The Unfolding of the Little Flower: Preface

The Unfolding of the Little Flower: Introduction

Chapter I: The Problem of Sister Theresa

Chapter II: Sister Theresa’s Biography – A lifting of the veil of France’s Vie intime

Chapter III: Latin and English-speaking Mentality Contrasted

Chapter IV: The Seed Plot of the Little Flower

Chapter V: the Springtime of the Little Flower

Chapter VI: The Beginning of Sorrows

Chapter VII: the Second Sorrow

Chapter VIII: Our Lady’s Smile

Chapter IX: The First Espousals

Chapter X: In exitu

Chapter XI: The Pilgrimage to Rome

Chapter XII: In the Haven

Chapter XIII: The Ascent of Mount Carmel

Chapter XIV: The Dark Night of the Soul

An Anniversary (1914)

Decree of the Introduction of the Cause of Sister Theresa


Lehodey: The ways of mental prayer, chapter XI


ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS describes the rough ascent which leads to Carmel, the pains which purge the soul and prepare it for the divine union. St. Teresa sets more in relief the joys of contemplation. They do not contradict, but rather supplement each other, and in order to have the whole truth, we must take them conjointly. Besides, St. John of the Cross does not conceal the consolations, and St. Teresa clearly sets forth the crucifying trials of the contemplative way.

I. There are joys of the mind, which, having no longer to labour so hard and possessing the truth, enjoys a sense of repose; the lights the intellect receives are at times so vivid that it remains dumb with admiration. There are the joys of the will : ” the soul experiences in her inmost depths a pure calm, a profound peace, a very great contentment of her will, an interior and exterior satisfaction, a very sweet unction of which she can give no precisf
description. She does not know whence nor how this has come to her, but she finds herself so happy that it seems to her she wants for nothing.” This is what St. Teresa in many places affirms to be the case, even in the state of quiet.  She shows its clearly supernatural and infused character, and points out the differences which distinguish the sweets of contemplation from the consolations which spring from meditation. The soul has found
Him whom she was seeking, and, finding herself in possession of God, she feels that she loves and is deeply loved in return. What a happiness to be clasped to the heart of God in a loving and spiritual embrace, though it were for a few instants only ! But when this delight is prolonged it produces a sort of spiritual inebriation, which sometimes resembles the state of a person half asleep, and at other times is full of ardour. And these joys go on increasing
in proportion as the prayer ascends to the higher degrees ; the union of all the powers is more full of consolation than a simple state of quiet, and ecstasy still more than either. At certain moments the soul believes herself to be at the very gates of Paradise ;
 half-an-hour, or even fifteen minutes, of these de lightful interviews with her Well- Beloved makes her forget all past sufferings, and strengthens her wonderfully for trials to come. For such is the role of these sweetnesses : they detach the soul from earth, and attach her to God; they are the harbingers of new sufferings, and predispose contemplatives to embrace them generously. “I know,” says St. Teresa, ” that the tribulations, through which God makes them pass, are intolerable-, they are of such a nature that if God did not strengthen
these souls by this delightful interior nourishment, they would never have the strength to support them. . . . Thus it is necessary that Our Lord should give them, not the water which refreshes, but the wine which inebriates, in order that, under the influence of a holy inebriation, they in some sort no longer feel their sufferings. . . . Persons who are engaged in the active way, when they witness some favour granted to souls raised to the contemplative prayer, imagine doubtless that there is nothing but sweetness and delight in this state;
but I can tell them that perhaps they could not beareven for one single day the sufferings which contemplatives have commonly to endure.”

Contemplation, then, is not the way of delicate and soft souls, but rather that of brave and generous hearts, who love their crucified Saviour, and have no fear of the cross; tribulation and anguish are their daily bread ; though, from time to time, God sends some sweetness to comfort them, and to show the boundless extent of His enduring love for them.

We may remark with Father Poulain, that “the pleasure experienced in the prayer of quiet is
affected by the dispositions in which the soul is at the time. If she is passing through a period of peace and joy, it is more marked. It is so, likewise, when these graces have a certain novelty. If, on the contrary, she is passing through a state of sorrow and of trial, the pleasure imparted by the prayer of quiet may be in some degree troubled or veiled.”

II. As for sufferings, contemplatives have still to endure many of those which they formerly suffered. Besides physical pains, separation from their dearest friends, loss of temporal goods and other common trials, they have still temptations to overcome, inclinations to subdue, passions to govern, virtues to perfect. They suffer on the part of God who seems to have abandoned them, on the part of their superiors who reprehend them, of their brethren
who have neither the same views nor the same tastes, of the world which misunderstands them, of the demon who tempts them, of the elements which afflict them : all this is the lot of poor humanity, even in the cloister. It may even happen, through a special design of God, who wishes to render these souls more pure, more humble and more detached, that many of these ordinary trials afflict them with an uncommon persistency and severity.

Just as contemplation has its own joys, so also it has its own peculiar sufferings.

We have already sufficiently described the trials, so various and so prolonged, of the passive purgation of the senses, and the rarer, but much more acute, pains of the passive purgation of the spirit. We need not further revert to them here.

Mystical contemplation, taken in general, introduces the soul, in an evident manner, into the midst of the supernatural; it has something mysterious about it which strikes the mind, especially at first, and causes trouble in a soul as yet inexperienced in this way. We become still more anxious, should we meet with no one able to give us an explanation as to what it all means. What, then, will happen if you clip this poor soul s wings, if you hinder her from flying whither God is calling her, under the pretext of preserving her simplicity and avoiding singularity ? At bottom, it is the Holy Ghost whom you are lecturing and forbidding to lead that soul by any other way than such as is in accordance with your own narrow views.

When the state of quietude is weak, the soul suffers. St. Teresa declares that “while her will
was united to God, her memory and imagination waged so fierce a war against her that she conceived a horror of them, and was altogether worn out by their assaults.” We shall, therefore, have to struggle against distractions, weariness and disgust, and to strive to supplement the divine action, which it is not in our power to increase, by the efforts of our own activity ; now, at such a time we shall be able to make nothing but little, dry, short, monotonous acts devoid of all relish. God’s company becomes a downright fatigue, His conversation has no charm for us; yet, if we fly from Him, our state becomes still worse, for, in spite of all, the soul has need of God and cannot do without Him.

The soul hoped to ascend, ever to ascend higher, and now she must remain months, perhaps even years, in the same degree; hence, she is inclined to become discouraged and to look back.

Even when the soul has attained to a high degree of prayer, and when she is passing through one of those periods in which a mere nothing sets her all on fire, she still has to suffer ; for, however closely she may be united to God, she will always long for a closer union. The visits of her Well-Beloved appear to her so short and so few; . . . she thinks she holds Him fast, and, behold, He escapes from her grasp ; it seems to her that she is flying upwards to a higher union, and lo ! she falls back again; . . . her desire is impetuous, her need imperious, but never satisfied. The soul comes at last to experience a real hungering after God, a painful thirst for Him, without being able ever fully to satisfy it; sometimes it is a wound of love, which the entire possession of God alone can heal ; and yet He hides Himself from her, and, by His absence, enlarges the wound and renders it more painful. Should He give Himself to her to the full extent of her desires, she is too weak to bear so excessive a joy. She ends by conceiving such a taste for God ” that she would wish to be at once freed from all necessities; eating is death to her, sleeping is a torment; she beholds the precious time of life consumed in providing for countless necessities, and yet she can find no satisfaction but in God alone.

The contemplative soul suffers also from the ever-varying fluctuations of this state which constantly toss her about, being sometimes raised to the heights of mystical union, at another time brought down to an almost imperceptible union, or even plunged once more into all the horrors of the passive purifications. How full, then, of desolation is this soul so loving, this soul that hungers so after God, desires only Him, and yet nowhere finds Him ! Above all, when these trials are prolonged, and when He, who is the sole object of her love, persists in abandoning her and seems to despise her! At times this is a merciful chastisement, at others, it is an artifice of her Divine Spouse, who wishes to make her seek more earnestly after Him, in order that the increasing ardour of her desire may inflame the fervour of her love.

St. Bernard was well acquainted with these painful trials, and bewails them in the bitterness of his soul. ” When we seek Christ our Spouse in watchings and in prayer, at the cost of many efforts, and amidst a torrent of tears, He comes to us; but suddenly, whilst we think to keep Him, he escapes from us. Yielding again to the tears and pursuit of our soul, He allows Himself to be laid hold of, but by no means to be retained; for suddenly He escapes a second time from our hands. If the devout soul perseveres in prayers and tears, He will return again and not disappoint the desires of her heart; but soon again He will disappear and she shall see Him no more, unless she recalls Him again by the whole strength of her desires. Thus, then, even while the soul is in this body, she may taste frequent, but not full, delight in the presence of her Spouse, for, though His visits give her joy, those vicissitudes make her suffer.” 

Finding it impossible to keep her Well-beloved with her, and impossible also to rekindle the fire of her love, she bewails her negligence and bitterly accuses herself in the language of St. Bernard : ” I was running well, but lo ! I struck against a stumbling-block in the way, and I have fallen. Pride has been found in me, and the Lord has turned away in anger from His servant. Hence, this barrenness and this dearth of devotion which I now experience. How has my heart become so dry, like curdled milk, like to a land without water? . . . I can find no tears of compunction, so great is the hardness of my heart. The psalms have lost their savour, reading pleases me not, prayer has no charm, I can no longer make my customary meditations. What, then, has become of that inebriation of the soul ? Where, then, is that serenity of mind, that peace and joy in the Holy Ghost? This is the reason why I am so lazy at manual work, so drowsy at watching, so prompt to anger, so slow to forgive, so weak in my preaching. Alas ! the Lord visits all the mountains round about, but never draws near to me . . .

 “The soul suffers also, when God shows her in contemplation His terrifying justice, the multitude of her personal sins, her own long life so empty of virtues, the countless offences which outrage His sanctity, the rage of those who hate Him, the loss of so many souls, the evils of the Church, the sufferings of His Passion, the little return we make for the love of our Divine Master, and many other such like subjects for sorrow. ” Six years had passed away since St. Teresa had had her vision of hell, and yet such was the terror that seized her, when writing about it, that the very blood froze in her veins.” When the same saint considered what she was, the favours of her God used to throw her into inexpressible confusion ; the memory of her good works seemed to be blotted out, her imperfections alone presented themselves to her mind, and she needed more strength to receive such graces than to carry the heaviest crosses. 2 She used to suffer almost continual pain and look upon herself as the greatest sinner in the world, when she thought how little gratitude she had shown towards Him who had heaped upon her so many favours. 3 She was overwhelmed with shame, that she was able to make only so poor a return to that God who had given her so much, and this inability was for her the greatest of penances. 4 She suffered from being exposed to the complaints, criticisms, and suspicions of some persons, and to the praise and admiration of others, when the favours she had received from God became public. 5 Add to this the fear of losing God and of being a prey to those illusions, which have made so many victims. St. Teresa suffered all this during long years; her humility and the delicacy of her conscience rendered her fears only the more alarming. In the midst of so many afflictions, she sought for a long time in vain for some guide who would understand and console her. If she met with any such who reassured her for the time, her fears quickly revived to assail her once more. It often happens in the designs of Providence that no one can assuage our pains.

To sum up, then, ” at all times, in the beginning, in the middle, at the end of our career, we all have our crosses, though of different kinds; ” for this is the royal way traced out for all by our Crucified Saviour; in this way alone, we shall find Him and become united to Him ; there would be no security in a way always exempt from trials and strewn with roses. Suffering, by purifying the soul, assures advancement in the path of prayer; moreover, it is amply compensated for, and is by no means an un mitigated evil. From the hour that St. Teresa gave herself entirely to God, she never had to endure a pain that did not bring with it its own consolation. If God sent her something to suffer, He afterwards lavished upon her His favours. ” It seems to me,” she adds, ” that to suffer is the only thing worth living for, . . . and I sometimes say to God from the bottom of my heart : O Lord, let me suffer or die.”

Lehodey: The ways of mental prayer, chapter XII




THERE are some dangers when the graces of prayer abound, others when these graces are withdrawn.

I. In the midst of the joys of divine consolations we have to fear vain complacency and spiritual gluttony. These faults may be met with in simple meditation ; but when the soul feels herself sought after by God, tenderly loved by her Divine Master and treated with marked predilection, she has a more specious pretext to look upon herself with complacency, and to believe herself to be something. In another way, spiritual consolations are so sweet, that one is led to seize upon them with a greediness which turns into poison the generous wine of contemplation. Mystical action, however, strongly urges the soul towards humility and detachment. Far from being the cause of those miseries, it is only their innocent occasion, the whole fault comes from ourselves. It would, therefore, be unjust to regard that action with suspicion and to avoid it, on the pretext that it exposes us to the malice of the demon and of nature ; it would, in fact, be just as reasonable to omit the practice of virtue throughfear of pride, which finds therein its most delicate nourishment.

But the more God elevates us, the more ought we to humble ourselves. These things are graces and not our merits; they are powerful instruments of perfection, not perfection itself; in spite of them, a man may be much inferior to his brethren, may grow tepid, and be lost. God will require more from him to whom He has given more. In the same way, we must renounce our greediness for consolations, and combat it with unremitting energy. It is better to accustom ourselves to will only God’s good pleasure, to remain in a holy indifference with regard to sweetness or bitterness, consolations or trials. Provided that we belong entirely to God and God to us, what signify the ways and the means , consolations or aridities, sweet contemplations or passive purgations ? The one thing essential is to arrive at our end by the shortest and best way. After all, it is God we wantrather than His gifts. His will and not our pleasure is the rule of what is good, the sole road ofprogress, and we should study to serve Him with disinterestedness and at our own expense.

Can the inebriation, produced by the strength and sweetness of divine love, occasion any disorder in the senses? St. Teresa never experienced any thing of the kind ” in the supernatural phenomena ” which she has described, and this kind of thing seemed to her not even possible.  Quite different is the opinion of St. John of the Cross, when there is question of souls imperfectly purified; and that of St. Gregory the Great is not less formal on this point. ” It often happens,” says this latter, ” that the soul is elevated by the Divine Spirit even to the heights of prayer, and, nevertheless, the flesh makes painful assaults upon her. At the very moment when she is led to the contemplation of heavenly things, imaginations of illicit actions present themselves to her, and the sting of the flesh makes itself painfully felt in him, who had been raised above the flesh by contemplation. It seems as if heaven and hell were here mingledtogether, since the same soul finds herself at once illumined by the lights of contemplation and clouded over by importunate temptations.”

In such a case, let the soul strive to avoid all danger of consenting to such temptations; let her moderate, if she can, the excess of sensible devotion ; let her humble herself on account of her misery, and not be discouraged. This purely material disorder is not willed by her, either as an end or as a means, and is superabundantlycompensated for by the fruits of contemplation. This painful condition, therefore, ought not to lead us to abandon so desirable a form of prayer.

For a stronger reason, contemplatives are not exempt from this kind of humiliation outside the times of mystical union. ” Contemplation lifts them above themselves,” says St. Gregory  elsewhere, ” and, behold, immediately temptation comes upon them from their growing vain of these gifts. Compunction, in fact, or contemplation raises them up towards God, but the weight of temptation makes them fall back again upon themselves. Temptation depresses them in order that contemplation may not puff them up ; and contemplation elevates them lest temptation should utterly cast them down.”

An humble and detached soul has nothing to fear in mystical ways. ” God forbid,” says St. Teresa,” that any one could say that there is danger in the ways of prayer. It is the demon, never doubt it, who has invented all these fears. . . . The danger really to be feared is that of failing in humility and the other virtues.” The soul, therefore, should practise humility, detachment, and strive to become better; otherwise God will be obliged to withdraw His favours which we abuse, and to crush our pride under the severest humiliations, and, perhaps, by even allowing us to fall heavily into sin.

II. When the graces of prayer are withdrawn, especially if for any length of time, the resultingaridityexposes the soul to discouragement. One may weary in the pursuit of God, when one constantly fails to get hold of Him. The blessings of contemplation, however precious they may be, lose their relish for a soul that is wanting in generosity, and appear to her to be too dearly purchased at the cost of so many trials. Oh, let us never give way to discouragement; it is the worst of all scourges. Great graces and sublime virtues are not imparted to cowardly souls. Our Lord loves the brave hearts who have no fear of His cross. We are the brothers of the Crucified God, we must be willing to be crucified with Him, if we would resemble and please Him. Besides, if we profit much during the outbursts of divine love, perhaps we may derive as many advantages from trials and abandonments well borne. Let us allow God to lead us by the ways which seem to Him to suit us best ; let us place our perfection in following Him with love and docility, especially when He leads us by paths wherein self-love perishes and falls exhausted for want of food.


One of the first illusions is to believe ourselves more advanced than we really are. We possess a theoretical knowledge of mystical ways, and then we let ourselves believe that we are already in these ways, merely because we have received some more vivid light in prayer, or some more marked devotion. The holy mountain of contemplation is still really very far away, and yet we think we have already reached it; we have hardly begun to ascend this mountain when we imagine we are upon its summit. This illusion is the daughter of pride. St. Bernard tells us  that  “if there are amongst monks contemplatives who imitate Mary, they are not to be looked for amongst novices,  who, having only just died to sin, are labouring, in groanings and the fear of judgment, to heal their still fresh and bleeding wounds. No, but they are found to be those who, after a long co-operation with grace, have arrived at a better state, wherein they are less occupied in turning over and over the sad picture of their sins than in making it their joy to meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, without ever being able to have enough of it.” Generally speaking, therefore, a person must havepractised meditation and affective prayer for a long time, and must have made great progress in virtue, before contemplation is reached. The slow and painful passive purgation of the senses is the gate of contemplation ; its every degree is a long stage, which usually requires years for its accomplishment; and very few are the souls that get beyond the simple state of quietude. Progress in prayer should give rise to an ever-ascending progress towards perfection. If tangible results are not obtained, the soul is nursing herself in illusions, or she is abusing grace ; and, instead of feeding herself with vain fancies, she has need to strengthen herself in humility, in self-renunciation, and in obedience.

It is an illusion to think that these mystical states cannot come to an end. Actual contemplation is always of short duration. The severities of the passive purgations alternate with the sweets of consoling prayer. The mystical state itself may be lost, either by infidelity in corresponding with it, or by the special will of God, who ever remains master of His gifts, and alone knows whether they are injurious or useful to us. It is an illusion to dream of visions, revelations, locutions, and the other phenomena of distinct contemplation. Usually the lives of the saints are full of these facts which entertain both the writer and the reader. Certain modern authors go to the opposite extreme and suppress the supernatural, as far as possible, in the life of a saint. The truth is, that the greater number of the great servants of God have been favoured largely with these gifts. Heaven honoured its elect, in order to accredit the mission with which they were charged, to awaken the faith of the masses, or in view of their own personal sanctification. Their sanctity did not consist in these extraordinary favours, but in their being completely dead to self, and in the heroism of their virtues; and the graces of prayer contributed much more than visions, to lead them on to perfection. Besides, visions, revelations and other facts of this nature, easily open a door to a thousand illusions; even canonised saints in their life-time have not always been able to avoid the deceits of the demon or the reveries of the imagination. Who does not know how urgently St. John of the Cross exhorts his readers to distrust visions, revelations, or locutions; to resist them, and to get rid of them ? St. Teresa gives her readers the same counsel : ” In such matters there is always reason to fear, until the soul is certain that they proceed from the Spirit of God. This is why I say that, in the beginning, the best course to adopt is always to combat them. If God is their author, this humility of the soul in guarding herself agains such favours will only the better dispose her for receiving them, and the more she puts them to the test, the more they will increase.” The saint, when speaking of Our Lord’s apparitions, adds: “Never ask Him, never even wish Him, to lead you by this way. This way is, no doubt, good, and you ought to hold it in high esteem and respect ; but it is unseemly either to ask or desire it.”

It is an illusion to dream of mystical states, in which there will be nothing but enjoyment ; for in them there will always be a much greater share of suffering; or, again, of states, in which the soul will have nothing to do but to passively receive favours. The soul, indeed, at times, will be more passive than active, yet, even then, she must keep her mind in a state of simple attention to God, and her heart in a loving disposition, or in acts of love. Far from remaining merely passive, she is really more active than at other times, but in a simple way and by direct acts, even when the mystical union is at its height. When the contemplative act has passed away, the soul should return to active prayer and exercise herself therein, in spite of the dryness she may experience.

It is an illusion to believe that in this state we cannot fall into sin any more. These favours do not confirm a soul in grace ; she remains always weak, and even capable of being lost through mortal sins, except, perhaps, when she has reached the state of spiritual marriage. She must, therefore, distrust herself, take care to avoid the danger, and keep herself in humility and detachment. Let us not forget what St. Teresa says of the union of all the powers : ” The soul in this state is not strong enough to expose herself without peril to occasions of sin.”

It is an illusion to believe that the mystical state dispenses us from cultivating Christian virtues, from discharging the duties of our state, from observing our rules, &c. On the contrary, the more God gives us, the greater must be the return we make Him ; if He confides ten talents to us, He rigorously requires that this capital shall not remain unproductive. Humility, abnegation, obedience, recollection, the spirit of prayer, and, above all, charity towards Himself and towards our brethren should increase in proportion to our gifts; these virtues are the end to which God wishes to lead us, mystical states are only the way; if our means of locomotion are more perfect, all our virtues also should increase their pace towards perfection. An elevated state of prayer, without this well-marked progress, is either an illusion or a buried talent. We must, therefore, accept of these mystical states with humility, correspond to them with generosity, fear them while desiring them, abase ourselves in proportion as God elevates us, hide the divine gift from those who have no right to be informed of it, love more than ever our rule, which is our safeguard, fly exemptions and singularities, put our trust not in mystical graces, but in humility, self-renunciation, obedience, and the other virtues which should be their fruit.
It is an illusion to neglect the duties of our state, in order to give more time to contemplation.  “It is certain, on the contrary,” says Father Balthasar Alvarez, ” that we ought to quit contemplation to fulfil the duties of our charge or to help our neighbour in his necessities. … I have come to know by experience,” he adds elsewhere, “that God gives more to a mortified soul, in one hour of prayer, than in many hours to another that is not so, and that the occupations, with which obedience burthens us, are more profitable to my soul than spiritual reading or repose.”

It is an illusion to believe that, in the guidance of mystical souls, everything should be out of the ordinary course, as if God had taken upon Him to guide them Himself by interior inspirations, and that they have no need of a superior or a spiritual father. Deplorable illusion, the daughter of pride !  Very presumptuous is he who believes himself to be inspired, and presumes to lay down the law for himself and others ! Very foolish he, who welcomes inspirations but little conformable to common sense and to faith ! Very rash he, who bases his conduct upon so shaky a foundation ! ” This person,” says St. Teresa, speaking of herself, ” never regulated her conduct by the inspirations she received in prayer; and, when her confessors told her to act in a way opposed to them, she used to obey without the least repugnance.”  She teaches elsewhere, that “such is the will of Our Lord,” but adds: “Whenever interior words tend only to console you, or to admonish you of your faults, whoever be their author, and even were they an illusion, they cannot do you any harm.” God loves contemplative souls with predilection, is prodigal of His graces in their regard, and leads them, more than He does others, by the royal road of suffering and humiliation ; but He has not undertaken to guide them miraculously. It is the law of Providence that men should be guided by other men. Have not these souls at their service the spiritual writers with all their knowledge and experience? Above all, God has given them superiors and a spiritual director, and to these they ought to manifest their interior with docility, in order to subject what passes therein to due control. God sent an angel to Cornelius to refer him to St. Peter. Our Lord Himself appeared to Saul, but sent him to consult Ananias.

Many other illusions might be pointed out. It is easy to see that they all arise from pride, or from an inordinate desire of enjoyment. A soul in such dispositions is exposed to a thousand errors, to the most diverse faults. With humility, detachment and docility she has less to fear in the state of obscure contemplation than in meditation. God,  who leads by these ways men of good will, owes it  to Himself not to let them go astray.

Lehodey: The Ways of Mental Prayer, chapter XIII


WE have just said what we are to think of visions, revelations, and the other phenomena of distinct and particular contemplation. The saints recommend us to reject such things, as far as it is in our power, if they occur to us of themselves ; for a stronger reason, they should not be desired. The same line of conduct should be followed as to ecstasies in public, miracles, and other open manifestations.

But with regard to the graces of mystical union, whose nature and degrees we have described, may we desire and pray for them ?

If a soul has already received a beginning of mystical union, it has always been admitted that she may desire further progress in these ways. God has given a true vocation and deposited a germ ; to desire that this should be developed is to will what God wills. This is applicable even to those who are as yet in the passive purgation of the senses; they have only one foot in the ordinary kinds of prayer, the other is already planted in the mystical way; God is calling them, and wishes to lead them on to further heights.
Many authors clearly assert that it is not permissible to desire ecstasy. We do not see why a soul, already arrived at the state of quiet, or at that of full union, might not desire an increase of light and of infused love, even though the alienation of the senses should be the result. Her intentions are pure, this hope animates her to practise virtue, and, after the favours already received, is in no way presumptuous, nor does she desire this to take place in public ; in what, then, is she to be blamed ?

If a person has not yet entered upon mystical contemplation, may he desire and ask it ?

Some celebrated authors maintain that not only he may, but that he ought to do so. Scaramelli admits that this desire is permissible, but immediately surrounds it with a multitude of restrictions. St. Liguori teaches  that it is safer for souls, who have not yet been raised to mystical union, to desire only the active union. But the common and almost universal opinion is, that they may desire and ask the gift of supernatural contemplation, provided that this desire does not arise from pride or sensuality, and that it is accompanied with an humble submission to the Divine Will.

These graces of prayer spring in fact from love; they have for principle the Holy Ghost and His better gifts; for object, God ; for end, divine union, God tasted and possessed; they enrich the soul with many merits, urge it on to heroic virtues, dispose it to do great things for God and for one’s neighbour, are a powerful lever to raise her from earth and to unite her to the sovereign good; they are even a foretaste of the occupations and the happiness of our heavenly home. How, then, is it possible not to desire them ?

It is objected that these favours make us quit the common ways and indulge in strange familiarities with God; ought not humility then prompt us to avoid them ? No more than it should prompt us to avoid Holy Communion and all commerce with God by prayer. For, who would venture to believe himself worthy to converse with Infinite Majesty, or to be united intimately with the God of the Eucharist ? The voice of our needs cries out more loudly than that of our respect. Let us adore, and let us also desire.

Contemplation introduces us into a world so very supernatural. In this state, indeed, the supernatural is certainly more manifest. But is it not true that a merely Christian life, grace, the sacraments, infused virtues, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, are all a supernatural world quite as real, though not so manifest ?

In contemplation, God shows us so much love ! Should we dare to receive His caresses? We dare to receive Holy Communion. During prayer, too, as well as at the Holy Table, we adore, we humble ourselves, we make ourselves quite little; but, nevertheless, we love and eat because we need to do so.

One may misuse contemplation ! One may also misuse the consolations of ordinary meditation. Poverty and riches, offices and employments, rest and work, consolations and aridities, health and sickness, life and death, the sacraments, the Holy Scripture, all the gifts of God, without exception, may be abused and turned aside from their end. It is supremely unjust to condemn what is good on account of possible abuses. Let us guard against
dangers and illusions, by humility, abnegation and obedience to a wise director. Let us keep our intention right, our heart detached, our will submissive to Divine Providence, and then we may desire ardently, and ask with confidence these graces of prayer.

But there is a danger for humility. ” On the contrary, no kind of prayer is better calculated to crucify self-love and to penetrate a man with the sense of his own nothingness, none other is more apt to exclude every movement of pride.” 

” At present,” says Father Louis Lallemant, ” if any one aspires to some gift of prayer a little above the common way, he is clearly told that these are extraordinary gifts which God gives only when He pleases, and to whom He pleases, and that we must neither desire nor ask them ; thus the door is closed for ever upon these gifts. This is a great abuse.”

This, too, is the opinion of St. Thomas. St. Teresa maintains the same in more than twenty passages of her writings. St. John of the Cross composed his work for the sole purpose of  leading souls to the summit of mystical union. We must also mention St. Peter Damian, Richard of St Victor, Louis of Blois, Blessed Albert the Great, Ruysbroeck, Lanspergius, St. Ignatius, Alvarez de Paz, the Ven. Louis da Ponte, &c.

Let us be satisfied with citing our own great St. Bernard. Everywhere he admits the lawfulness of this desire. He extols it, arouses it, gives it as one of the dispositions which attract the visits of the Spouse; he even admits that one who has been unfaithful may still hope to attain to mystical union. For the sake of brevity, we refer the reader to his sermons, especially those on the Canticle of Canticles.

However, it is to be noted, that the more a soul advances the better she knows the greatness and sanctity of God and her own nothingness and misery. The graces of prayer appear to her in the highest degree precious and she has an ardent desire of them, while at the same time she feels that she does not deserve them. Sometimes this desire predominates, and she exclaims: “Oh that He would give me one kiss of His mouth ” ; at other times, humility prevails, and she says: ” O Lord, I am not worthy.” It is this alternating rhythm of desire and humility, which ravishes the heart of God.

The view of the responsibilities which so elevated a state entails, the humble fear of failing to correspend sufficiently with its graces, the danger of illusions, may all serve to lead the soul to moderate this desire by a complete abandonment of herself into the hands of God who knows what is best for us. This filial and loving abandonment does not exclude desire ; but, fearing to be deceived in a matter so far above her own feeble lights, she leaves herself to the wisdom and goodness of Him, who possesses all her love and confidence. No other disposition seems to us so calculated to charm God and induce Him to bestow His gifts.

Lehodey: The Ways of Mental Prayer, chapter XIV



If the reader has had the patience to read to the end this unpretending work of ours, he has seen how God leads the soul from meditation to affective prayer, and from this, to the different degrees of mystical contemplation, in order, by means of this ladder of prayer, to raise her up to the sublime heights of perfection. It only remains for us, dear reader, to express our sincere desire that God, in His infinite bounty, may deign to lavish upon you graces of prayer, which may enable you to lay down steps of ascent in your heart, and make you rise from virtue to virtue. May it pkase Heaven, that every one of our brethren in religion may walk in the footsteps of our wiser forefathers, who were great in holiness because they were eminent in prayer ! May it please God, that they may apply themselves to purify their conscience, their mind, their heart and their will, that they may avoid pouring themselves forth entirely upon external things, that they may attend to these rather only through a sense of duty, and, their task once done, they may hasten to re-enter the solitude of their soul ! There, closing the doors of the sanctuary, and banishing from God’s house the tumult of cares and preoccupations, may they place their happiness in being alone with God alone, in pouring forth their heart in His presence, and altogether united to Him may they taste how sweet is the Lord. Earth has so little to say to him, who knows how to listen to God’s voice ; it is so easy to despise the vile things of this nether world, when one has once relished the Sovereign Good; and a heart, which is enamoured of the divine love, finds so great a charm and so much facility in conversing with Him whom it loves and serves !

Those who aim at perfection,” says the Ven. Louis Dupont, ” ought to commence and continue their career, by walking in the way of meditation (and the other kinds of ordinary prayer), until God, by a special vocation, raises them to a more elevated degree ; but as soon as this call is certain, it should be faithfully obeyed. To wish to raise oneself to contemplation, without being called thereto, or, to resist this attraction when God has deigned to give it, are the two extremes between which are to be found truth and virtue.” One must therefore beware of wishing to abandon too hastily meditation for affective prayer, or, prematurely, to leave this for mystical contemplation. The form of our prayer is an instrument of perfection, and every instrument should be proportioned to our size and our strength. No doubt we may desire and ask progress in prayer; but we should much more earnestly ask and desire progress in virtue; and, while waiting in humble patience for the divine invitation, the spouse should employ her time in healing her wounds and adorning herself with all virtues, to the end that, when the hour of the spiritual banquet comes, she may not be found unprovided with the nuptial garment.

We would also exhort our brethren not to lose courage, not to turn back, notwithstanding the difficulties, the aridities, the disgusts and other pains, which are wont to beset the man of prayer. Does it cost a warrior nothing to win glory, a labourer nothing to fertilise the soil, a merchant nothing to make a fortune? Should we then fear fatigue and sacrifice, when there is question of working the golden mine of prayer? “If there are many who begin well, there are but few who reach the term, and yet, perseverance alone shall be crowned, it alone shall receive the prize. There is no virtue to be had without trouble, great rewards are not to be obtained but by great labours.”

Above all, we wish in conclusion to remind our brethren, that prayer, whatever be its kind or degree, is not perfection ; it is only a most potent means, a wonderfully fertile soil; hence, we must labour to make it produce, both while it lasts and after it is ended, the rich harvest of virtue it promises. It is a tree, that should always bear an abundance of flowers and fruits. The various, and sometimes very intense, acts, which are made during it in great numbers, are fruits already garnered, merits really acquired ; but, moreover, we are instructed as to our duty, we have taken resolutions, our petitions have made grace abound, and all these are blossoms to be afterwards developed into fruits. The best prayer is not that which is most savoury, but that which is most fruitful; not that which consoles, but that which transforms us ; not that which elevates us in the common or the mystical ways, but that which makes us humble, detached, obedient, generous, faithful to all our duties. Assuredly, we highly esteem contemplation, provided, however, it unites our will to God’s, transforms our life, or, at least, advances us in virtue. As the Sovereign Judge has declared: ” the tree is known by its fruits.” We should, therefore, desire to advance in prayer, only in order to make progress in perfection. Instead of curiously examining what degree our communications with God have attained, we should rather consider whether we have derived from them all possible profit, in order to die to ourselves and  develop in our soul the Divine life.



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