Why Prayer Is So Misrepresented and Misunderstood
© Copyright 2010, T. Stanfill Benns (This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author. All emphasis within quotes is the author’s unless indicated otherwise.)
Prayer has become wooden and stereotyped in modern minds, a buzzword that conjures up a pious image of a saint on his or her knees, hands folded and eyes turned heavenward, supplicating God. This is only one possible mental image that corresponds to prayer; there are many others. And thankfully there are helpful resources available, on the Internet and elsewhere, that properly inform Catholics concerning the true nature of prayer. But other individuals professing to be spiritually minded today, who not only do not pray properly themselves, but have never studied the true nature of prayer and its fruits, broadcast their errors for all to read. They leave no doubt concerning the extent of their ignorance on this most important practice. Pride is the source of these errors, because these blind guides so little esteem those great theological giants of the past who wrote so wisely and prolifically on prayer. If they did esteem them, they would quote from them liberally and refer others to these treasures of spiritual direction, so necessary today for spiritual progress among those who have no access to true spiritual directors. So why do these individuals fail to help others learn how to pray and even condemn their habits of prayer?
The answer to this question is both disturbing and quite telling. With some of these guides their ignorance of such matters is not malicious and comes rather from either a lack of experience and education or from a long entrenched simplicity. While this does not excuse them, it serves as at least a sort of explanation. But there are undoubtedly those whose failure to lead others along the paths of true prayer are calculated and deliberate. There is “a method to their madness” so to speak, and the true reasons behind their misrepresentation of prayer only become obvious when the great masters of ascetical theology explain the true nature of prayer. For many decades the type of prayer promoted and generally recognized by most Catholics was the vocal prayers of exterior devotion found in the Tridentine Mass and the recitation of the Rosary. In the early years of the 20th century, an Italian Bishop, Bishop Bonomelli of Cremona, wrote an excellent treatise on the necessity of both interior and exterior devotion. Interior devotion is prayer said silently with meditation and spiritual reading. Exterior devotion is public or vocal prayer, Sunday devotions, and singing. He reminded us that they “must not be considered as separate or separable things, but only distinct from each other…Exterior worship is derived from interior devotion. Both are a necessity and a duty of man towards God…but interior worship comes first in order of time and intrinsic value, exterior worship comes second in both these respects…”
Bonomelli continues: “Excess in exterior religious practices disperses the spiritual forces in too many directions, distracts, fatigues and oppresses the spirit and instead of elevating it and arousing all its energies, relaxes the fibers and suffocates it…Let medals, rosaries, images, sacred symbols…be used with moderation…Do not let us imagine real virtue to exist in them…What are all these devotions, rosaries and novenas, benedictions and visits to altars and famous sanctuaries, processions and pilgrimages, hymns and feastdays and functions worth unless we do our duty and live a real Christian life? What are they but a pretence of virtue?…Am I condemning the use of medals, rosaries, images, sacred symbols? God forbid! They are…means to excite the faith and sustain piety — but let them be used with moderation.” As Peter Michaels wrote in 1949: “It is not inspiration that the modern lay apostle needs so much as basic knowledge and deep spirituality. Novenas and non-theological sermons are mostly on the inspirational level…Today a lay apostle has to aim at the highest spirituality, such as was formerly thought suitable for a cloistered religious…If all Catholics have a moral duty to understand their faith at their level of secular education, few of us are going to be saved.” And today, all of us truly serious about religion are forced to be lay apostles on some level.
As Rev. Raoul Plus. S.J. explains, a basic misunderstanding of prayer is what leads so many to unnecessarily multiply exterior devotions, so it is necessary to correct this misunderstanding. To “pray always,” he says, means not that we constantly, physically engage in some type of specifically religious activity, (Mass, Rosary, Little Office, spiritual reading, etc.,). Rather it means that “In all things, although it might be a question of a secular action, we have no other purpose than to give glory to God. What we will seek along with these secular activities, which often constitute the most obvious duties of our state of life, will be less to have our attention always fixed on God , than always to have an intention directed as much as possible towards God…” Attention is required in pious exercises and yes, the intellect must be engaged, he notes. Yet when it comes to secular activities, “What is asked of me is not so much to think of God but to work for God. To work for God is the intention of desiring His glory in all things. But if to think of God would hinder me from accomplishing perfectly an action by absorbing my mind too much, I ought to force myself to reject the thought of God. Above all I must do what I am doing, and do it well…Let me do as well as possible the work demanded by the duty of my vocation in life.” But he cautions that we should not blame ourselves if we cannot devote as much time to actual prayer as we would like, since this is only a consequence of performing our duties and of human nature. He ends by saying: “Poor human nature has its limits…we cannot be vexed with ourselves if in spite of our ambitions we cannot exceed the limits of human nature, (“Some Rare Virtues,” 1950).
The pitfalls of spiritual direction
Those trying to lead others down spiritual paths these days know the dangers of limiting prayer to exterior devotions. This is what happened prior to the false V2 council that caused so many Catholics to fall into liturgical and other errors. Nevertheless, Traditionalists, in stressing the necessity of “Mass and Sacraments,” have fallen into the same error. They have ignored the very theology that forbids us to receive these spiritual things from men who are not valid or lawful pastors and do not possess jurisdiction, inverting the pre-eminence of exterior over interior religion by virtue of their choice. It is an inversion that has been seized upon by these false guides to their distinct advantage. On the one hand these guides play upon the entrenched ideas of exterior prayer remaining in those who follow them, judging such prayerfulness by whether followers recite the daily Rosary, make frequent novenas, attend daily Mass if available and visit the Blessed Sacrament. On the other hand they are wily enough to know that if they do not stress interior devotion and mental prayer, they will be suspected or criticized by those who might be more devout or better read.
So a compromise is made. They judge prayerfulness by all the common indications of it that most Traditionalists recognize, as mentioned above. They hold followers to this stereotype. But at the same time, they praise the practice of mental prayer without really going into any detail concerning what all mental prayer really involves. Or they encourage only a certain type of mental prayer as described by some directors and Catholic writers, a method of prayer that is dry, difficult and entirely unattractive. They may even insist that those they are directing follow this method. Yet all those well-known authors quoted below who discuss mental prayer agree that while it may be practiced in the beginning using a specific method, the method can be freely chosen by the penitent and in fact no method may be chosen at all, and mental prayer can still be practiced. Fr. Hugo Doyle. S.J. says that the greatest liberty is to be allowed lay penitents in the practice of mental prayer, or meditation. They may freely choose the time, the place, the subject, the posture, the method, and other authors agree on this. And they need a spiritual director to guide them only in the beginning. Rev. Augustine Baker, a 17th century master of the interior life, warns of inept spiritual directors who force their wishes on others, much to the injury of the ones they direct.
“It is a miserable thing to see how this employment of directing souls…out of an ambitious humor, is invaded by persons wholly unfitted for it, and that without any vocation from God voluntarily undertake it; so that no marvel if so little good come from such intruders…It is certain that those who so freely offer themselves to so divine an employment do thereby show themselves to want the most necessary qualifications, to wit, humility and a true knowledge of its difficulty, and therefore their directions are most to be suspected.” Rev. Baker criticizes “those nice, distracting, painful methods of meditation which are described in many books” and calls such methods “a disorder…More distractive and painful than the simple exercise itself, and particularly the expectation that an account is to be given of one’s thoughts during meditation, would afford more business to a soul than the mystery on which she meditates…St. Teresa, with just reason, complains against those directors which fetter and encumber their disciples’ minds with rules which require more attention than the matter of prayer itself.” And Rev. Baker wrote when true directors could still be found.
Dangers of sham directors
Those who cannot even “direct” themselves, and who never have benefited from any kind of direction, cannot possibly presume to direct others. This is the common opinion of ascetical writers. And yet this has been the case for many years in the Traditionalist movement. Many instances of crass ignorance concerning direction and prayer could be cited here, but these examples will suffice. A common complaint of concerned followers is that some clerics unintelligibly race through the Rosary and other public prayers. Rev. J. C. Fenton, in his “The Theology of Prayer,” states that, “Vocal prayer cannot exist without at least the attention requisite for the proper pronunciation of the words of which the prayer is composed… This form of attention…the actual pronunciation of the words…is an absolute minimum.” Many other Trads in the past have complained that direction in the confessional is either abysmal or non-existent. One Trad priest once told a penitent that it was unreasonable to even expect confessors to practice direction considering their many duties, which may have been true. This situation prevailed even before the death of Pope Pius XII, owing to the shortage of priests.
The usual seminary course for ascetical and mystical theology is four years, and this course has been unavailable from instructors possessing the true faith for at least 45 years. Rev. Charles Hugo Doyle, S.J., in his work, “Guidance in Spiritual Direction,” agrees with Dom Chautard’s estimation of priests’ responsibility for those souls lost for lack of spiritual direction: “ Would it be rash for us to fear that many priests will receive a frightful shock on the Day of Judgment when they find out that they are, to a certain extent, responsible…even for the loss of souls, because they neglected to study the art of spiritual direction and would not take the trouble to practice it?” (“Soul of the Apostolate” — so much for those who say they cannot and do not “damn souls”!) But here we are faced with a different situation. It is not that they will not practice spiritual direction, but that they DO practice it — without ever being ordained valid and/or licit priests, without proper training, without any direction themselves. Dogmatic, moral and ascetical theology, Doyle asserts, “are essential if one is to be an effective confessor, to say nothing of a spiritual director.” But the most important thing lacking in these men, Doyle concludes, is holiness. “If such priests would only aspire to perfection themselves, the problem would be quickly solved.” But it will not be solved for us, because every year various Trad seminaries (and the nut hatcheries run by those without even a pretense to the clerical state) produce new clergy members who really believe they are qualified to hear confessions and direct penitents, when they are not.
Every day, unwitting and well intentioned, Catholic-minded people are deceived by these blind guides, their prayer lives perhaps permanently damaged and their souls scarred for life. This is a serious matter that needs to be better understood so that its dangers may be avoided. In examining what has been gathered here concerning mental prayer, some contrasts should be made. If self-appointed directors of souls are not anxious to encourage true meditation in their charges, is it any real wonder? Because such meditation, as described below, is best conducted on truths of faith. It requires soul searching and knowledge of self, admitting sins, amending lives and embracing truths formerly neglected or not understood. Can “spiritual directors” with an agenda really afford this? Would it really be in their best interests to encourage meditation that could possibly expose them and/or put them out of business? The answer is obvious, and it explains why prayer is so consistently misconstrued and maligned by those who intend to manipulate it. It also explains why those who have left these charlatans are sometimes publicly attacked in an effort to make it appear that lights have not been given them in prayer concerning the errors of those who misled them.
But this should never make us bitter or discourage us from persevering in prayer. If we must leave bad directors, we can commiserate with St. Teresa of Avila, who suffered much from bad direction. By turning to the spiritual classics and ultimately to God Himself, our only Director, we can attain to higher degrees of prayer. Below please find a brief summary of mental prayer, its benefits and its fruits.
The nuts and bolts of mental prayer
The Very Rev. Joseph Simler, in his booklet “Catechism of Mental Prayer,” (TAN Books) gives the simplest explanation of this practice, one that any Catholic could easily follow. He advises us to pray; that is to engage in both vocal and mental prayer in order that we may do a better job of knowing, loving and serving God, knowing ourselves better, and more profitably performing our daily duties. We must perform all these duties, every day, for the honor and glory of God and in reparation for our sins, as we pray in the Morning Offering. Every pious thought, every pious desire, every lifting of our hearts to God is a mental prayer or meditation, and mental prayer is easy, Simler tells us. He defines this sort of prayer as “every prayer performed without aid of any particular formula…Mental prayer essentially consists in thinking of God or of holy things with the intention, at least virtual, of rendering Him homage.”
In his “The Theology of Prayer,” Rev. J.C. Fenton, doctor of sacred theology at the Angelicum in Rome and for the Catholic University of America, defines mental prayer in terms of a theological conclusion as: “the petition of fitting things from God.” He then goes on to provide the proper theological terminology for mental prayer as it exists in its various stages:
1. The obsecration, or statement of the cause that makes the petition reasonable and helps us understand why and how the prayer is answered;
2. The oration, which is the official elevation of the mind to God as the one to whom the petition is addressed (this consideration is elaborated upon in the mental prayer of meditation);
3. The postulation, or the statement of the desire in order to obtain our petition from God, which can be implicit and
4. The thanksgiving, for the gifts God has granted us. This final part of mental prayer is similar to the obsecration in that it refers to the answering of prayer. Thanksgiving is a disposition for that charity which impels us to work for the honor and glory of God.
5. Each of these four parts is properly designated as a raising of the mind to God.
Rev. Fenton continues: “Vallgornera [an eminent theologian] sees spiritual reading as an ordinary prerequisite for meditation…The raising of the mind to God, or the consideration of God in an affair as important as that of prayer, demands the best teaching on God that is available to us. It requires us to use the human means which would be employed in an affair of serious proportions. And it is natural that a man should avail himself of the instruction which is best suited to him, an instruction which is contained in those books which treat of Catholic doctrine. Spiritual reading…is distinct from meditation, but…intimately connected with it…The use of a book of Catholic doctrine is ordinarily a prerequisite for effective meditation…The book which is adapted above all others is the book of Holy Scripture…used according to the objective interpretation which the Catholic Church has given them…Books of theology, in the measure that they are truly and strictly theological, are particularly fitted to this spiritual reading. Catholic theology gives the teaching contained in Holy Scripture as that teaching is interpreted by the Catholic Church…A book is acceptable as an aid for meditation in the measure that it contains and explains adequately, this authentic Catholic doctrine… The principles of meditation are strictly theological. Meditation cannot have any great value except insofar as it is based on the divine revelation, which is accepted on faith and explained in the science of Catholic theology.”
Is meditation mental prayer?
That great theologian and master of the spiritual life, Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey tells us that, “The terms meditation and mental prayer are often interchanged. The former (meditation) enlightens our faith by bringing before our eyes the eternal truths…Through it we hold fast to the truth, and truth, freeing us from our vices, makes us practice virtue. Meditation initiates our union with God…Discursive meditation is that form of mental prayer wherein considerations and reasonings predominate. (Discursive) meditation already contains affections, and affective prayer is ordinarily preceded or accompanied by some considerations…The kind of prayer generally suited to beginners [in the purgative way] is discursive meditation. They need it in order to acquire convictions or to strengthen them…Meditation strengthens our will and makes us practice all the great Christian virtues…(It) initiates our union with God (and) is the most effective means of assuring one’s salvation. This is the teaching of St. Alphonsus, who gives the following reason: that whilst habitually practicing the other exercises of piety like the Rosary, the Little Office of the BVM, fasting, etc… one may, unfortunately, still continue to live in mortal sin, whilst the habitual practice of mental prayer cannot suffer one to remain long in such a state.”
Rev. Tanquerey agrees with Rev. Fenton concerning the importance of theology and its use for meditation: “Dogma…is the true source of real devotion. One may study …theology…merely with the mind or with mind and heart. It is the latter that begets godliness…St. Thomas [teaches] that theology…leads us to a perfect knowledge of God…It is from these very truths that godliness springs. Whoever studies them in the spirit of faith cannot but admire and love Him Whose grandeur and goodness theology reveals. This holds especially if we know how to avail ourselves of the gifts of knowledge and of understanding…The Church has condemned the assertion of Molinos that a theologian is not as well disposed for contemplation as an ignorant man, (DZ 1284). Father Faber writes: “Is not all doctrine practical? Is it not the first use of dogmatic theology to be the basis of sanctity? He who separates dogmatics from ascetics seems to assert this proposition: ‘The knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ was not meant primarily to make us holy,’” (“Spiritual Conferences,” on Death, p. 137). “[Theology] is the best fuel of devotion, the best fuel of divine love…If a science tells of God, yet does not make the listener’s heart burn within him, it must follow either that the science is no true theology, or that the heart which listens is stupid and depraved. In a simple and loving heart, theology burns like a sacred fire.’” (“The Precious Blood,” p. 106). And that fire should not be prevented by hirelings from being kindled.
Study can be joined to prayer — watching to praying — when one meditates on the subjects studied while writing them out for the benefit of others. In fact Rev. A. D. Sertillanges, O.P., (“The Intellectual Life”), tells us that study “is an active prayer to truth,” because like prayer, “study is a desire and invocation of the True,” (ibid.). Rev. Sertillanges also has this to say about knowledge and reality: “In the last analysis, God is our only Master, He who speaks within us, and from Him along with us all instruction comes to us; strictly speaking, thought is incommunicable from man to man…The source of knowledge is not in books, it is in reality, and in our thought. Books are signposts; the road is older and no one can make the journey to truth for us. It is not what a writer says that is of importance to us; the important thing is what it is. Our mind has the task not of repeating but of comprehending, — that is we must ‘take with us,’ cum+prehendere; we must vitally assimilate what we read, and we must finally think for ourselves…We must recreate for our own use the sum total of knowledge,” So basically God speaks to us through our conscience, when rightly formed, and uses human reason to assimilate and apply these truths of Faith.
In Very Rev. Simler’s little work mentioned above, we find the following steps for using a truth as the subject for meditation:
1. “We should direct our attention to the proposed truth.
2. “We should endeavor to understand its meaning by reflecting on the words, by distinguishing this truth from others, by establishing comparisons, by deducing consequences, by grasping the extent, the necessity and the advantages of the truth.
3. “We should endeavor to discover the lessons that it teaches.”
Matter for meditation
Rev. Simler tells us that in following these steps, we must repeat acts of faith, and ask God to facilitate our faith and increase it. He says we also must ask ourselves “How did our Savior, the Blessed Virgin and the saints think and act in respect to this truth? What difference is there between their conduct and mine?” Rev. Simler then goes onto explain that we then should ask ourselves further questions about the truth we are considering, such as, “Do I adhere to this teaching? Have I taken it for the rule of my conduct in the past and in the present? What would a lost soul do in this regard if it could come back to life? What would a saint advise me to do? What would I like to have done at the hour of death?” When Rev Tanquerey speaks of affective prayer above and the need for such meditation to be affective prayer, he refers to “the good sentiments the heart feels during meditation, and which induce the will to make good resolutions.” And as Rev. Tanquerey says, if theology is studied in a spirit of faith, how could it help but cause us to love and admire God as its true object?
Judgment and self-knowledge necessary to mental prayer
Rev. Doyle, S. J. points out in his “Guidance in Spiritual Direction” that the first Psalm tells us that we should meditate on the law of God. “’On His law he shall meditate day and night…and shall bring forth fruit in due season.’” He explains that the purgative way is nothing more than mortifying the senses and the passions, of doing penance for our sins by coming to know ourselves better and reforming ourselves. This is painful and exhausting work at times. We must patiently submit ourselves to all trials and crosses Providence sends, as well as work to purge ourselves from all vices, to prepare the ground for obtaining the virtues. Rev. Doyle then speaks to the role played by the memory and understanding during meditation that facilitates this process: “Exactness of memory naturally follows discipline of the understanding and in turn memory itself must be mortified and disciplined…The intellective memory does not differ from understanding…Therefore… if the understanding is engaged in considering useful and holy things, the memory will preserve representations of these things and reproduce them when the need arises…The acts of the understanding are (1) counsel and (2) supremacy. Counsel has two acts: inquiry and judgment. Inquiry is an act by which we reason about the means to and end by seeking them and examining how they will avail us in achieving that end. Judgment is an act by which, supposing inquiry by reason, it is decided what is to be done. Supremacy follows, intimating and commanding the thing’s execution.”
“The act called judgment needs discipline and control and these are best accomplished by:
1. A firm and unalterable adherence to the teachings of the Church.
2. Frequent solicitation of advice and counsel from elders, (confessors and spiritual directors, or as is stated below, by obtaining these counsels from well respected spiritual books).
3. Taking time before rendering decisions. “He that is hasty to give credit, is light of heart,” (Ecclus. 19:4).
4. Deferring decisions when we are emotionally upset.
5. Avoiding rash judgments.
6. Praying for the help of God’s grace in rendering just decisions.
7. Making all decisions in the light of eternity.”
Knowledge of ourselves is essential to advancement in the spiritual life, as Rev. Doyle points out, and without it we are doomed to advance little or not at all. “Self-knowledge is the first step for attaining to divine union…Everyone undertaking the pursuit of perfection must incessantly ask God for the light necessary to know himself thoroughly…The reason the number of saints is so small in the world today is that there are very few persons who have the courage to face up to their transgressions of God’s law or are sufficiently constant to continue it long enough for it to prove effective.” As an excellent means to know ourselves better, Rev. Doyle suggests that those engaging in mental prayer learn their particular character type to better know themselves. He devotes an entire chapter to this necessary study. For in mental prayer we cannot successfully face our deficiencies unless we know ourselves well enough to identify them, admit them, ask God’s pardon for them, thank Him for having discovered them and finally overcome them by embracing the truth about ourselves and any truths of faith we have misunderstood. How else could we hope to advance in perfection?
Progress in prayer
In the introduction to a classic written by another great master of prayer, Rev. R. P. Caussade, S. J., (“Progress in Prayer,”) Rev. Joseph McSorely, C.S.P, explains how those individuals practicing mental prayer can then advance to still greater heights. He sums up Caussade’s work as follows: “Spiritual writers give us to understand that the average person after a reasonable time spent in the practice of meditation…can get the fruit of meditation without meditating, that is, can elicit acts of praise, thanksgiving, love, trust and other affections habitually, easily and independently of preceding consideration. This means that by degrees the intellect acts less and the will more; that the mind grows satisfied more quickly and with a lesser variety of thoughts. So the exercise no longer can be regarded as an intellectual one or be called meditation; because the play of affection and will has been substituted almost entirely for that of the discursive powers and analysis is replaced by contemplation. This advanced prayer is marked first by the will’s readier response to the suggestions of each doctrine or fact presented. As progress goes on, less and less study is needed in order to produce the mental illumination that precedes every movement of the soul. In other words, the activity of the will increases; and, in a proportional measure, the range and activity of mental work lessens.”
When this affection of the soul becomes more or less a perpetual and effortless state, then the individual is said to have “passed beyond the first stage or progress, to have exchanged meditation for affective prayer, and to be entering on the ‘illuminative way,’” or way of the affections. Eventually this leads to yet further progress as the soul focuses on one particular, supreme affection, often signified by some motto or phrase. “With little or no meditative reflection, this affection is now elicited, quietly and almost constantly; for though the soul cannot, indeed, at every instant be multiplying and carefully repeating its act of worship, it can and does acquire a disposition, a habit an attitude, a temper, which is practically permanent and abiding. Catholic teachers of spirituality often call this kind of prayer ‘acquired contemplation,’ and tell us it is the highest state which man can attain without a grace quite beyond the ordinary. At the same time they teach that common souls that are industrious, consistent and wisely guided, may lawfully desire and reasonably hope to advance as far as this.”
And Robert B. Eiten, S. J., in his “A Layman’s Way to Spiritual Perfection,” tells penitents what to do in the absence of a spiritual director. “For one reason or another, it may at times be difficult to find a suitable spiritual director. In this case, good spiritual reading will be the best substitute since in reality spiritual reading is, in a certain sense, written spiritual direction…for achieving sanctity…Besides giving one a certain knowledge of the spiritual life…of spiritual principles and their interrelationships… spiritual reading gives also a certain reliability and dependability which are especially important when a spiritual director is not available.” In another work, “Abandonment to Divine Providence,” Rev. Caussade states that those lacking directors who “feel left on their own” can nevertheless advance if they remain willing to be directed and peacefully await the will of God. “When they are suffering this deprivation, they meet from time to time persons they feel they can trust, although they know nothing about them,” and at times these people give them useful advice. But if they do not come across such people, the maxims they may find in the spiritual reading of the classics will assist them in these times. Caussade warns his readers that “Any soul which has, once and for all, completely submitted itself to God should always interpret everything favorably; the loss of the most able spiritual directors and the mistrust it feels for those who push themselves forward as replacements. For usually these would-be guides who chase after souls should quite rightly be mistrusted. Those genuinely moved by the spirit of God have not, as a rule, so much eagerness and complacency. They prefer to wait until they are summoned, and even then come forward rather hesitantly.”
So when we reach the final step of our meditation, that is, thanksgiving, we thank God for the gifts he has given us in meditation by using these gifts for His greater honor and glory and the edification of our neighbor. This is how thanksgiving disposes the soul to charity. It is not just a mere “thank you” uttered at the end of a meditative discourse. It is much more than that. Rev. Fenton describes it as follows: “We thank God when we have shown him some practical appreciation for the favors He has bestowed upon us. In giving thanks to God we use the gifts He has given us in the way in which He wishes us to use them. We use them to our own advantage and make them contribute to His glory by making them further motives for loving Him with a true love of benevolence. This gratitude is due to God, not only for the gifts which He has given us in answer to previous prayer, but for those things which he has bestowed upon us independently of any petition on our part. We are properly grateful to God in the measure that we utilize these gifts for His honor and glory, when we serve Him with them and love Him because of them.”
One of the obligations of the Third Order of St. Dominic is the practice of mental prayer. The rules of this order also require its members to be “Ardent and zealous promoters, laborers, and valiant defenders by word and by deed, of the truth of the Catholic Faith, the Church and the Pope, joined to an ardent desire for the glory of God and the salvation of souls,” (ibid., Rev. Eiten). In addressing the International Congress of the Third Order of St. Dominic on Aug. 29, 1958, in an audience held at Castelgondolfo, Pope Pius XII told those attending the following: “The work of the apostolate properly understood is the conversion of yourselves, through a ceaseless battle against all that places an obstacle to the full development of your life in Christ, and your conveying this discovery to others. You are invited to this apostolate by the formula, so dear to the sons of St. Dominic, ‘contemplata aliis tradere’ — ‘to transmit to others what we ourselves have contemplated.’ The living of the evangelical life in oneself is the best means of carrying it to others. On this point your task becomes extremely difficult, dear children. We do not hesitate to admit it.” And to this we reply with a resounding “Amen.”
The Saints on prayer
As might be expected, the saints, who inspired much of what the authors above have presented, confirm what these authors have said. Treating of the devotion necessary to prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas writes under the heading “Of Religion”: “The internal acts of religion take precedence of the others and belong to religion essentially, while its external acts are secondary, and subordinate to the internal acts,” (Summa Theologica, Pt. II-II, Q. 81, Art. 7, Obj. 3). Under the heading “Of Devotion,” he writes: “The interior acts of religion are seemingly devotion and prayer. Accordingly we shall treat first of devotion and afterwards of prayer…Those persons are said to be devout who, in a way, devote themselves to God so as to subject themselves wholly to Him…Devotion is apparently nothing else but the will to give oneself readily to things concerning the service of God. Wherefore it is written (Ex. 35: 20,21) that, ‘the multitude of the children of Israel…offered first-fruits to the Lord with a most ready and devout mind.’ Now it is evident that the will to do readily what concerns the service of God is a special kind of act. Therefore devotion is a special act of the will…It is written, (Ps. 38:4): ‘In my meditation, a fire shall flame out.’ But spiritual fire causes devotion. Therefore meditation is the cause of devotion…The extrinsic and chief cause of devotion is God of Whom, St. Ambrose says, commenting on Luke 9:55: ‘God calls whom He deigns to call, and whom he wills He makes religious: the profane Samaritans, had He so willed, He would have made devout.’…
“Devotion is an act of the will to the effect that man surrenders himself readily to the service of God. Now every act of the will proceeds from some consideration, since the object of the will is a good understood. Wherefore St. August says, (De Trin. 9, 12: 15, 23) that ‘the will arises form the intelligence.’ Consequently meditation must needs to be the cause of devotion, insofar as through meditation man conceives the though of surrendering himself to God,” (Summa Theologica, Pt. II-II, Q. 82, Arts. 1-4,). St Thomas then goes on to explain that two considerations in meditation fuel devotion: that of God’s loving goodness and kindness and that of our own shortcomings and our dependence on God, which “shuts out presumption.” Also, St. Thomas states that matters relating to the humanity of Christ are the best sources for meditation. In his article “Of Prayer,” the saint observes: “The voice is employed [in vocal prayers] for three reasons: First, in order to excite interior devotion, whereby the mind of the person praying is raised to God, because by means of external signs, whether of words or of deeds, the human mind is moved as regards apprehension, and consequently also as regards affections. Hence Augustine says (Ad probam, Ep. 130, 9), that ‘by means of words and other signs we arouse ourselves more effectively to an increase of holy desires.’ Hence then alone should we use words and such like signs when they help to excite the mind internally. But if they distract or in any way impede the mind, we should abstain from them; and this happens chiefly to those whose mind is sufficiently prepared for devotion without having recourse to those signs…We read of Anna that ‘she spake in her heart,’ (I Kings 1: 13). Therefore we are obligated to praise God vocally in prayer at liturgical functions and at other set times. But vocal prayer is intended to spur the devout on to higher forms of prayer.
The great doctor St. Alphonsus Liguori has contributed much to the understanding of prayer in the little work, “Twelve Steps to Holiness and Salvation” by Rev. Paul Leick and Cornelius J, Warren, given to me by a dear friend. “Not only the pronouncing of the words, says St. Gregory, but also the devotion of the heart is required for true prayer; for in the eyes of God, our sentiments are of greater worth than the sound of our voice…To please God, we must pray not only with the lips but also with the heart…Prayer without recollection is insulting and offensive to God and calls down His wrath on the offender…’Before prayer prepareth thy soul and be not as a man that tempteth God,’ (Ecclus, 18:23).” St. Alphonsus goes on to teach that “St. John Chrysostom says that he who frequently utters ejaculations closes the door against Satan and prevents his constant annoyance with wicked thoughts. It is by acts of love, conformity and self oblation, together with the invocation of the holy names of Jesus and Mary, that we give the greatest pleasure to God.” On mental prayer and meditation the good saint writes: “’He,’ says St. Bernard ‘who does not meditate will scarcely ever perceive his faults, and as a result will have no horror of them…’ Without meditation or prayer we are lacking in strength to resist the assaults of the enemies of our soul and to practice Christian virtues…Without mental prayer, we shall never practice the prayer of petition as we ought, and the prayer of petition is absolutely necessary for eternal salvation…A soul that loves meditation, says the Royal Psalmist, is like a tree that is planted by the running waters; it bringeth forth fruit in due season, and all its acts are meritorious before God, (Ps. 1:2-3).”
And from another great doctor, St. Francis de Sales’ “The Love of God,” we hear: “When we think of divine things, not to learn but to make ourselves love them, this is called meditating and this exercise, meditation…in which our spirit, as a sacred bee, moves over the flowers of holy mysteries, to extract from them the honey of divine love…Many are only attentive to these thoughts inadvertently…Many also study, and by a most laborious occupation fill themselves with vanity, not being able to resist curiosity: but there are few who meditate to inflame their heart with holy, heavenly love…Our Lord Himself gave this command to Josue: ‘Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayest observe and do all things that are written in it,’ (Josue 1:8). What in one of the passages is expressed by the word, meditate, is declared in the other by, think over again, and to show that reiterated though and meditation tend to move us to affections, resolutions, and actions, it is said, as well in the one passage a the other passage, that we must think over and over again, and meditate in, the law, to observe it and practice it… ‘Oh how I loved thy law O Lord!,’ says David: ‘It is my meditation all the day,’ (Ps. 118, vs. 97). He meditates on the law because he loves it and he loves it because he meditates on it.” Those presenting as priests and bishops believe themselves to have learned all they need to know of the laws and teachings of the Church in the seminary. They have bothered to confirm these teachings only occasionally when they wish to answer some objector, not consider them repeatedly in the heart; so apparently they have never heeded God’s command to Josue. Nor, it seems, have they ever cried devoutly from their hearts in unison with King David, because today the law is so little loved and esteemed. This despite the fact that they profess to read the Breviary and other liturgical prayers.
Mental prayer is not required of everyone for salvation, but it is a great means today to not only learn about ourselves, but to study the faith and develop a close and loving relationship with God. If we are to “pray always,” spontaneous meditation is the best means of accomplishing this. In these times it is impossible to understand what we face and what is required of us without some primitive level, at least, of meditation. That it is not explained to us as meditation or not encouraged as a regular practice does not mean that we have not benefited from it in the past and cannot benefit from it in the future. It is up to us to educate ourselves in the means to engage in mental prayer and to ask others for assistance in finding materials on this subject if we cannot find them ourselves. “Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find…”
Those eager to direct others are quick to point out that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Rather than applying to a relaxation of Canon Law or Church teaching, this applies most especially to the spiritual life. We are waging an intense spiritual warfare on this earth for our very souls against Satan unloosed. During wartime, ordinary duties are set aside in order that life itself be preserved, but today this is frowned upon by pseudo-directors who insist on strict adherence to what once was considered duty, even though the landscape has changed beyond recognition. Yet Rev. Caussade tells us that this was not even the case when the Church was yet the Church. Even in the 18th century, Caussade was telling readers that, “For some, God wills only that they should attend to the duties of their everyday life and to what other matters He confronts them with. They need to do nothing else to achieve perfection. For others, God may demand the accomplishment of things which go beyond their ordinary duties. Those upon which He makes this demand will recognize it because they will be attracted by it, and will, as it were, feel inspired. If we are one of these, the best thing we can do is go where the inspiration leads us, without ever neglecting to do what we are commanded to do and always obeying those commands which God may unexpectedly give us.
“Saints are made by God just as He wishes. They are made according to His plan and every one of them falls in with this plan. This submission is a real self-abandonment and nothing could be better.” He goes on to speak of how the saints could not go back to observing only the duties and laws expected of others once God has summoned them to a higher calling without disobeying His will for them. They must manage somehow to balance their regular duties with these additional ones. To obey His inspirations, “they have to exert themselves to meet the demands of God…They are bound by these [usual] laws, but must also obey that other law, that law working on their inmost being, which is imprinted on their heart by the Holy Ghost…We are sometimes impelled to read various books and prompted to make some comment and give our opinion on the most trifling matter…We are drawn to this particular action without knowing why. All we can say can be reduced to this: ‘I feel drawn to write, to read, to question and to examine. I obey this feeling and God who is responsible for it thus builds up within me a kind of spiritual store which, in the future, will develop into a core of usefulness for myself and others…’ Do you want to think, write and live like the prophets, apostles and saints? Then you must surrender, as they did, to the inspirations of God,” (“Abandonment to Divine Providence”). No one may count themselves as saints on this earth, but neither may they ignore inspirations of grace without disobeying God’s signified will.
We belong to God, not to those men who would have us believe that in His name, they guide us down those very paths that lead to Hell. We are never allowed to ignore inspirations of grace to please them or anyone else. We must stop up our ears when they scream that we are following our own evil will and practicing only self-love; if, that is, we have followed all the directions of those proven and tested directors gleaned from our spiritual readings. As Rev. Caussade explains, we are all lost in the dark night of faith. “The light of reason can only deepen the darkness of faith…Now Lord, can I not say that you carry all your sleeping children during the night of faith?” This is why there is only one set of footprints in the sand; yes, the footprints story was taken from the theology of Rev. Caussade. It also may have been borrowed in part from Our Lady of Guadalupe’s words to Juan Diego, when she said she carried her children in her arms. We must not be terrified by this dark night of faith. Faith may be all we have left, but it is enough for us. God and His Blessed Mother carry us in their arms as our own parents once carried us as children. That is why, as one popular author once wrote, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”
The rivers and oceans of the world may be breaching their banks, the torrents swirling ever higher. But through it all, God presses us close to His heart.