Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen on the Effects of Imperfections

[133] Because, writes [St. John of the Cross], dryness might very often proceed not from the Night, or purgation of the sensitive part of the soul, but from sins or imperfections, or from lukewarmness, or from some bodily indisposition, I here set down some signs whereby it may be known whether the dryness is owing to the said purgation, or to some other of the causes we have mentioned.

The first sign, he says, is that as the soul feels no pleasure and comfort in the things of God, so neither does it in creatures. This sign allows us to exclude one first cause: sins or recent imperfections. In fact these are often the reason why a soul falls into a sort of spiritual languor.

[134] Let us remember that, when he speaks, the Saint has in mind fervent souls, that is such as have set out eagerly on the spiritual road with a great longing to attain to sanctity. Since he knows that, in order to please God, he must be pure of heart, the novice who has entered religion really desiring to become holy has bravely undertaken the labour of perfect and absolute abnegation. He has definitely renounced certain pleasures, certain distractions, which held his heart in thrall in the world. He now sets himself faithfully to remove from his path everything that might be an obstacle to his spiritual progress. To speak in more concrete language: let us suppose the case of someone who, before entering the monastery, was passionately fond of playing cards. In itself a very innocent thing; in itself, yes, but not always in its consequences and under certain given circumstances. There are persons for whom card-playing is a source of continual imperfections, even sins: impatience, faults against charity, even against justice, are not rare among inveterate card-players. It is no matter for surprise if some soul, anxious to give itself completely to God and having experienced such difficulties, should have decided never to touch cards again. Perhaps he has felt the sacrifice in the early days, but to a spiritual person all these things soon come to appear but foolish trifles and the passion has been lulled to sleep fairly easily. But do not imagine that it is dead!

Since there are certain games not forbidden even to religious, it may happen that, in good company, our novice is invited to take part in a game which, for him, was once upon a time a continual source of failings. Before the urging of others, he gives way. He begins whilst keeping careful watch over himself but, forthwith, he feels that the passion is not dead! He is very quickly drawn into the old faults: impatience, temptations to cheating, anger become perceptible. Moreover, as he afterwards perceives, from beginning to end of the game all spiritual life seems to be forgotten.

When, on the same day, he goes to his prayer, or places himself in the presence of God, he feels that he no longer possesses the same serenity as before. He is a prey to certain agitation. In that hour of silence destined to converse with God, he finds he is pursued by vivid memories of the pleasure [135] felt some hours previously; he is even a little ashamed to perceive that he rather longs for other similar occasions. If the soul is generous, when faced with such an experience it reacts, asks God's forgiveness and renews, more decidedly than ever, its resolution to abstain from games of chance. In that case, it will be able to say: Felix culpa! But it is not always so, however. The first unfaithfulness will be followed by another, and that much more culpable because experience has rendered the subject aware of the consequences. These latter will make themselves felt much more strongly than on the former occasion. The passion will be fully roused and in the silence of prayer the soul will feel it so keenly that it will suffer disturbance and strong distractions from it. How can it hope that it sprayer will not suffer as a result?

"Every time," says the Mystical Doctor, "that the appetite gives way to some imperfection, forthwith it becomes inclined to it, more or less in the measure of the affection wherewith it applied itself to it" (Dark Night, I, c. 9, n. 2).

We have taken as an example at hint very innocent in itself and, already, we see how serious may be the consequences for the good progress of prayer… What will it be when there is a question of consenting to some inclination that is directly sinful, say in a matter of purity or singleness of heart? The religious who allows himself to be caught in the snare of a particular friendship puts a great obstacle in the way of his life of prayer. When we nourish within us a source of continual infidelities, the heart is inevitably drawn away by many inclinations to creatures. Now the more a heart is inclined to creatures the less free it is to occupy itself with the love for God. And as prayer chiefly consists in expressing our love of God, of necessity it will become less intense when there arise within us the evil tendencies aroused by our blameworthy failures. In expressing its love, the soul will speak less energetically; God's company, once its sole desire, will be less relished, will even be found boring, whilst recollection will be rendered difficult thanks to the numerous distractions which will be born spontaneously from the new attraction for creatures. Hence the soul falls into aridity; it no longer [136] finds pleasure and consolation in the things of God. But the same cannot be said with respect to created things. No, it has again taken pleasure in the things of the world and its heart desires to receive consolation from them. In this soul that has fallen into dryness, the first sign mentioned by St. John of the Cross is wanting. 

Many souls, on the other hand, fall into dryness without this having been preceded by any willful imperfection. Unexpectedly they have found themselves transported from a region irradiated by the warm light of the divine Sun into a polar desert; there is no food either for the imagination or for the heart. Yet this heart wants only God and remains faithful to its Beloved. Here distaste for prayer is conjoined with distaste for creatures. The first sign of the Mystical Doctor is verified, but this does not yet suffice to recognize with certainty the aridity sent by God.

"The second sign," St. John goes on, "is that the mind ordinarily turns to God with painful anxiety, the soul fearing lest it is not serving Him but has turned back; seeing that it finds itself with no relish for divine things" (Dark Night, I, c. 9). This sign excludes another cause of dryness: lukewarmness.

Lukewarmness is a cooling-off of the spiritual life, a diminution of the energy wherewith the soul was following after perfection. It is often found in unstable persons, in emotional and changeable temperaments, ruled chiefly by imagination and in whom their actions are the consequences of impressions rather than of real decision of the will. It is not rare to find a soul that at the beginning of the spiritual life seemed fire and flame, but in which all this ardor was seated only in the sensitive part. Its fancy had pictured sanctity as a sort of charm, as a life not without suffering, indeed, but one wherein the divine consolations so far surpassed the trials as to render them all very light. In short, it has imagined the spiritual road to be a path of roses, the perfume of which so consoled the soul as to prevent its feeling the pricks of the thorns. It was urged to the quest of this [137] imagined ideal more under the impulse of some strong emotion than as a result of a serious decision of the will. Now, however, that it has come into contact with the realities of life, and finds from experience how much energy is required in order to go forward, it becomes tired of the continual mortification imposed upon it. It would like to take a holiday and, since this is not granted, it takes it for itself and then … these holidays never end! So it returns to a life more free, less recollected, in search of little human satisfactions and, naturally, all the fair energy of its early days disappears.

Moreover, not only the emotional souls are exposed to lukewarmness. This happens in every soul that, after a period of generous life, grows weary of mortification and allows itself to be recaptured by its self-love. How many young clerics, for instance, lose their devotion by letting themselves be overcome by a passion for study! Instead of considering study as an instrument of the apostolate, they seek therein the natural satisfaction of their intellect, or even, if they are very successful, an occasion of compliments and applause that ministers to their vanity. How can it be expected that the soul that permits itself to be caught again in the snares of its self-love will succeed in saying to God with conviction: "I love Thee with all my heart"? It is simply not true! That heart is divided. Whereas in the early days of conversion, or the entrance not the novitiate, it beat for God alone, now it follows its desires of personal happiness, personal glorification. Naturally such a soul is overtaken by dryness. When love is feeble, prayer is necessarily tepid; and when the soul is cherishing another ideal than that of pleasing God, it loves itself far too well to be able to love God intensely. Prayer will be full of distractions, it will seem too long, it will be easily neglected… We are far from the soul that, amidst aridity, turns its thoughts to God in loving anxiety, fearing lest it should be no longer serving Him.

"Hence there is great difference between purgative aridity and tepidity," writes St. John, "since tepidity implies no [138] little sloth of the will and weakness of soul, without diligent care to serve God; whereas what is simply purgative aridity carries with it ordinary care, together with painful doubt lest the soul is not serving God" (Dark Night, I, c. 9).

A soul that remains full of longing to please God, that suffers at the thought that it is not serving Him as once it did, that notwithstanding all the trials it experiences in prayer goes to it faithfully, as to an appointment with God, and would not shorten even by a moment the time which it has decided to consecrate to His service, that soul may be tranquil; its dryness does not arise from lukewarmness. That soul loves God. Its carefulness, its painful anxiety are unmistakable signs; they are the proper effects of the love that is ever anxious for its object, for the Beloved. Yea, it is a precious anxiety which keeps love awake in the soul amidst aridity. Happy the soul that is aware of it within! It may thereby rest assured that its trial is not unto death but unto salvation.

Besides the two former signs, St. John mentions a third, which has also its special importance. It is: "Inability to meditate and make reflection, and to excite the imagination as before, notwithstanding all the efforts we may make" (Ibid.). 

This inability to meditate is scarcely distinguishable from the actual aridity; rather it seems to constitute an element of the latter. In fact the soul that is suffering from dryness is just precisely a soul that can no longer practice meditation. Therefore, for this to be a sign of the purgative aridity, it must be found conjointly with the two preceding signs; then, however, its value as a "sign" lies especially in the fact that this incapacity for reflection assumes a form that is ever more general, more thoroughgoing and more continuous. There is, indeed, a certain incapacity for meditation which results from temporary physical or psychological conditions. When we have risen very early in the morning, after a very hot summer night during which we have had very little sleep, we find our eyes heavy with sleep and, undoubtedly, this sleepiness will hinder the mental work of meditation.

[139] He who generously fights against sleep need not fear, for that reason, that he is not praying! He is doing even more than expressing his love, he is actually showing it in this trying struggle. We are supposing, however, that he resists the sleep; if he does not, and lets himself give way, he does not pray … he sleeps! The faithful soul knows how to profit by all the circumstances of life, whereas the lukewarm soul is continually losing opportunities. Hence he who is assailed by drowsiness is unable to meditate and suffers from dryness, but when the cooler weather comes and, with it, refreshing sleep at night, the obstacle will disappear and he will be able to return to his meditation. On the contrary, if the inability to meditate arises from the purgative aridity, it will tend rather to become permanent. At first there may be a certain alternation; sometimes the soul will feel inclined to practice meditation and at others will find it quite impossible to do so; finally, however, the distaste for meditation will become permanent.


Source: Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, St. John of the Cross: Doctor of Divine Love and Contemplation, trans. Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey (Cork: Mercier Press, 1947), 133-139.

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