Friday, January 31, 2014

Ven. Arintero on the Stages of Ordinary or Ascetical Prayer

The first stage is that of vocal prayer, in which conversation with God is maintained with the usual signs of articulated language. It can thus be seen that this is always within reach of all, and will be so long as that external language is not replaced by the heart's silent expression or by the completely supernatural language of the Spirit who is all-pervading: "He searches all things, yea the deep things of God" (1 Cor. 2:10). There are many simple persons who, unless they use words, can scarcely manage to express their humble feelings before the Lord, so that, when they close their lips, as St. Teresa noted, it seems to them that they are also closing the eyes of their mind.

But these very persons, as the Saint adds so expressively, although they feel incapable of meditating all their life long, are not thereby excluded from entering in due course into mystical repose, that is, into the royal mansion of contemplation. [1] On the contrary, if they persevere faithfully in this simple manner of prayer of theirs, even though they confine themselves merely to repeating, but with all their heart, the short petitions of the Our Father, in them alone, and especially in the first three, they will find inexhaustible treasures, such that, when they are least thinking of it, they will thereby be raised to the highest degree of contemplation and union. [2]

But the ordinary way, particularly in persons with a certain degree of education, is that they maintain their fervor and recollection better, if they keep their lips closed and pray only in mind and heart (1 Cor. 14:15); God understands their thoughts, desires, and affections very well, without there being any need for them to express them verbally. This interior conversation, or conversation from the heart, which at this stage is generally carried out "in spirit and in truth," is mental prayer, which can take on many different forms, and constitute numerous stages, as will be seen.

To the second stage of prayer belongs what we call meditation, that is, consideration of the mysteries of God, or discursive prayer, to which almost all those who embrace the spiritual life [3] with a certain amount of religious knowledge devote a shorter or longer period, and in which ordinarily, and particularly at the beginning, it behoves us to proceed methodically and step by step, in order to learn to use that precious time well and with profit. Hence almost always one has to begin by the acts of preparation, namely by composition of place, reading, meditation, reflection, etc., which are, so to speak, instructions for learning how to converse with our Lord and his saints, by means of the affections, petition, praise, offering, thanksgiving, practical resolutions, etc., in which the essence of prayer consists and which, therefore, should never be lacking, even if the rest should be lacking. Thus when the soul succeeds in doing this with a certain skill, and ceases to be an apprentice, it ought then to suppress certain of the acts of preparation which now become useless, and confine itself to the principal part of its prayer, that is, the loving conversation and petitions. [4]

However, almost always the movement of the affections must be acquired through considerations which force us to make strong resolutions by which, aided by the lights and helps which we therein beg God to give us, we can day by day correct ourselves of some particular vice or defect and make progress in virtue, in order to serve God with more fidelity and fervor, which is what we go to prayer to learn and accomplish. But the light, fervor, sweetness, and devotion which we thus derive, and the very firmness of our resolutions, although produced in a human way, that is, after the manner of other ordinary resolutions by means of considerable reflection and consideration, with a labor—to use St. Teresa's attractive image (Life, ch. 11-18)—comparable to that of a man drawing a little water out of a well by the strength of his arms—all this, I say, does not depend so much on our own efforts, although they are normally indispensable, as on God who deposited there with the abundance and depth needed, that mysterious spiritual water—the water of the wisdom of salvation—that we seek for our cleansing and refreshment, that it may fortify us and heal us of our soul's diseases. Like every precious gift, these virtues and precious qualities depend exclusively, as does also the very abundance and right proportion of this water of life, on the most high Giver of all good things and Father of lights (Jas. 1:17; cf. Louis of Granada, De la Devoción, ch. 5, no. 17).

Thus it may happen that in spite of all our efforts, at times we may not succeed in drawing even a single drop of that mysterious water, because the Owner of it has willed that that day it should not flow, or has willed to leave the well quite dry; while on the following day, perhaps at the first effort—and even without any effort—he will provide water in abundance. . . .

Thus it is that although we may be able to as a general rule to use this method of discursive prayer, that is, meditation, whenever we will and at the hour we willfor at all hours, with the ordinary grace that is, as it were, to our hand, we can reflect upon the mysteries of our faith and exercise ourselves more or less successfully in the acts and affections of faith, hope, and charity, which will be an excellent mental prayer [5]—yet we cannot have it as we will, but as it is given to us, with the fervor, sweetness, tenderness, and other feelings which the Lord deigns to bestow upon us together with a certain hidden inflowing of his gifts of fear, piety, knowledge, counsel, etc. This inflowing of the gifts already gives this prayer a certain "supernatural" or mystical aspect.

Thus we see that, although meditation (because in it all our faculties concur, working to the fullness of their capacity) is the form of prayer most characteristic of the ascetical life, for it is so even more than vocal prayer itself (which is wont at times to become mystical and wholly in the spirit, without our knowing how); yet with all this there can be noted in it, in the midst of our ordinary activity and all our own initiatives, a certain passive quality, a certain super-human mode, which is proper to the gifts with which the Holy Spirit deigns to intervene to refresh our thirsty souls and give them, even here and now, some rest. [6]

At times he intervenes so quickly and in such a way that we have only to begin to prepare ourselves, or to begin the reading or the consideration, to feel ourselves already filled with an abundance of affections and without the inclination to exercise ourselves in anything else but in following the sweet movements and inspirations with which the divine Comforter then so lovingly forestalls us, so that almost without any labor, we may the sooner succeed in enjoying his sweet fruits. Then, obviously, we ought not to go on painfully seeking what, without labor, we have already found. [7]

If this occurs frequently so that we are seldom able to remain in meditation or even to attend to what we read; or if, forcing ourselves to do so, we become dryer instead of more fervent and end by not understanding what we read or by immediately forgetting it so completely that we cannot think of the point prepared or of anything, nor even reflect—then we ought to content ourselves with offering to God the affections which he himself deigns to put into or suggest to our heart, and keep him company in sweet and loving conversation and petition. [8] This is what constitutes the third stage of prayer, in which something "supernatural" or infused an already begin to be noted.



1. From this will be seen how inaccurate is [Fr. Alphonsus] Rodríguez' statement (Tr. V, ch. 18) that contemplation is "a very special gift from God, which he does not give to all, but to whom he pleases" [....]

"From imperfect vocal prayer," said the Eternal Father to St. Catherine of Siena (Dialogue, ch. 66), "by persevering in the exercise, the soul will come to perfect mental prayer (which is infused contemplation); but it will never be able to reach this point if it merely tries to add to the number of its vocal prayers and deserts mental prayer for them. There are souls so ignorant that when they set themselves to recite a certain number of prayers, although I then visit them in many different ways, they are unwilling to receive my visit lest they interrupt that which they have begun. This (unless such prayers are of obligation) is a manifest error. As soon then as they are aware of my visit, they ought to suspend their devotions. . . . Perfect prayer is not acquired with many words, but with the affection of desire which rises up to me, with self-knowledge, and knowledge of my Goodness, and thus it will be vocal and mental prayer at the same time."

St. Lawrence Justinian (De Perfectionis gradibus, ch. 12) affirms the very great usefulness of vocal prayer as the door or ordinary channel by which we begin to taste the sweetness of contemplation, that is of infused prayer, made entirely in spirit. According to this writer, this already begins in some measure with affective prayer, however much one has to make use in it at times of various devices for remedying dryness and arousing the senses. His words are—"Vocal prayer is very useful, for it is the door and gateway to the experience of mental prayer, the prayer which is wholly in the spirit (John 4). . . .  This clearly is a mode that is wholly spiritual, formed from the heart's affection in the presence of God, not from our own industry, a mode which the Holy Spirit certainly infuses into the mind of him who practices it, as he leads the soul to ask for it. Whatever is asked for in this mode of prayer is easily obtained, for the Holy Spirit co-operates with the heart of the suppliant, teaching him and, beyond all question, moving him to ask—For the rest, when in the meantime (not, however, without the divine disposition) the mind of him who prays is dry and left to its own resources for it has now expended its devotion, he causes it to be lifted up and stirs it to pray to God, not always uniformly but in many different ways, as it feels itself drawn." Thus what is infused becomes blended with what is acquired, the passive with the active.

2. "It is an amazing thing," says St. Teresa (Way of Perfection, ch. 37), "how high in perfection is this prayer of the Gospel; like the Master who teaches it. I was astounded to find here in so few words the whole of contemplation and perfection contained, so that it appears we need no other book, but to study this, for here the Lord has shown us the highest method of contemplation in its entirety, from the beginnings of mental prayer to the most sublime and perfect contemplation." "In this way," she adds further on (ch. 42), "this marvelous prayer contains within itself the whole spiritual path from the beginning until we are wholly absorbed in God and given to drink abundantly from the fountain of living water."

3. "Meditation, particularly on the Passion," says St. Teresa (Life, ch. 13), "is the way of prayer by which all have to begin, proceed and end, and a very excellent and sure way, until the Lord raises them to supernatural things." 

4. "Returning to those who use discursive prayer, I say that they should not let all the time slip away on this, because although it is very meritorious, they do not realize, for it is a prayer in which there is pleasure, that there ought to be . . . a time in which one should refrain from work. Therefore it appears to them that the time is lost, but I consider this loss a gain. As I have said, they should imagine themselves in the presence of Christ, and without weariness of the mind, should be speaking with him and delighting in his presence, without tiring themselves by composing speeches to him, but presenting their necessities. . . . As I spent much time in this stage, I have pity on those who begin with books alone, for it is strange how differently one understands (from books) from what is afterwards learnt by experience" (St. Teresa, Life, ch. 13).

"This loving conversation," remarks St. Louis Bertrand (De la Oración, ch. 8, no. 1), " the saints call the practice of aspiring to divine love. To this end, meditation and prayer and all other good exercises are ordered. Wherefore it is given as a general rule to all those who pray, that they should strive as far as possible to raise the mind to this divine conversation, that is, to speak and converse with God himself, especially in converse of love and exercises of aspiration."

"To pray well," said the Curé d'Ars (Life, by Monnin, vol. 5, ch. 4), "much speaking is unnecessary. Since we know that God is there, in the sacred tabernacle, let us open our hearts to him, let us delight in his holy presence. This is the best prayer."

"On going to prayer," says M. Olier (Catéchisme chrétien, pt. 2, conf. 10), "the only thing the soul has to do is to unite itself with Jesus Christ, who is the prayer and praise of the whole Church; so that if the soul is united to our Lord and gives heartfelt assent to all the praise which he gives his Eternal Father and to all the petitions that he makes, it does not lack profit; on the contrary, it makes much more progress than if it were to pray of its own initiative, wanting to persist in adoring, loving, praising, and praying to God, of itself and by its own acts. Through this union, the soul becomes wider than the sea, for it expands like the soul and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who prays throughout the whole Church."

5. "Faith believes, hope and charity pray, and by praying, they obtain" (St. Augustine, De orando Deum, Epist. 121, ch. 8).

6. "In the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the human mind does not behave as moving but as moved" (St. Thomas, Summa Th., 2-2æ, q. 52, a. 2, ad 1). In this way meditation itself might be regarded as an initial form of contemplation. "Meditation," says Vallgornera (Théol. myst., q. 2, d. 6, a. 2), "is the first stage of the life of contemplation and ordinarily we cannot rise to contemplation without it."

7. "As the discursive prayer," remarks the Ven. Palafox (Varón de Deseos, pt. 3, Sent. 5), "is practiced to move the will, when the latter is aroused, it would appear to be superfluous, so that in this case it is not necessary to suggest motives for loving what is already loved. But (ordinarily) it is always good to begin one's prayer by setting before oneself motives or holy considerations, so that the soul may not delay to recollect itself and also so that it does not become over-confident. Although the most ordinary way is for God to lead souls to perfection beginning by discursive prayer, 'some, nevertheless,' notes Álvarez de la Paz (De Inquis. pacis, bk. 4, pt. 3, ch. 2), 'he is wont to place in the state of affective prayer right from the beginning of their conversion and without meditation, and to burn away all that is impure and sinful in them with the fire of his love. Then, indeed, meditation is not to be insisted upon, but the soul should move quickly along the path of affective prayer. . . .  We recognize that someone has been called to affective prayer if he is unable to meditate . . .  and, conversely, if he easily rises to affective love, if he finds peace of heart in it, . . . and if he makes progress in every virtue. He to whom this applies is not to be bound to meditation, nor to thinking out points beforehand and preparing discourses, but to be taught gently according to his vocation and method of prayer."

8. [...] "Although all the time of prayer," says P. Massoulié, O.P. (Traité de la véritable oraíson, pt. 3, ch. 3), "be passed in the exercise of a single virtue, for instance of divine love at the sight of a crucifix, it would be very perfect, for the soul would possess what is the end of all prayer, namely, union with God, which is effected by love."


Source: Fr. John G. Arintero, Stages in Prayer, trans. by Kathleen Pond (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1957), 9-15.

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