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.”


Comments are closed.