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THERE are some dangers when the graces of prayer abound, others when these graces are withdrawn.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