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Oh! what do I suffer interiorly whilst with my mind I consider
and presently a crowd of carnal thoughts interrupt me as I pray. (Imit., B. III., c. XLVIII., v. 5.)
1. We ought to love meditation and should make it often on the Passion of our divine Lord, striving above all to derive therefrom fruits of humility, patience and charity.
2. If you experience great dryness in your meditations or other prayers, do not feel distressed and conclude that God has turned His Face away from you. Far from it. Prayer said with aridity is usually the most meritorious. *It is quite a common error to confound the value of prayer with its sensible results, and the merit acquired with the satisfaction experienced. The facility and sweetness you may have in prayer are favors from God and for which you will have to account to him: hence the result is not merit but debt. (Read the Imitation, B. II, c. IX.)* The very fact that we derive less gratification from such prayer, makes it all the more pleasing to God, because we are thus suffering for love of him. Let us call to mind at such times that our Lord prayed without consolation throughout his bitter agony.
“All this trouble comes from self-love and from the good opinion we have of ourselves. If our hearts do not melt with tenderness, if we have no relish or sensible feeling in prayer, if we do not enjoy great interior sweetness during meditation, we are at once overwhelmed with sadness: if we find difficulty in doing good, if some obstacle is opposed to our pious designs, we give way to disquietude and are eager to conquer all this and to be free from it. Why? Undoubtedly because we love consolations, our own comfort, our own convenience. We wish to pray immersed in sweetness, and to be virtuous that we may eat sugar; and we do not contemplate our Saviour Jesus Christ, who, prone upon the ground, is covered with a sweat of blood caused by the intense conflict He feels interiorly between the repugnances of the inferior portion of his soul and the resolutions of the superior.”—St. Francis de Sales.
The same teaching is given by another great master of the spiritual life:
“We frequently seek the gratification and consolation of self-love in the testimony we desire to render to ourselves. Thus we are disturbed about our lack of sensible fervor, whereas in reality we never pray so well as when we are tempted to think we are not praying at all. We fear to pray badly then, but we should fear rather to give way to the vexation of our cowardly nature, to a philosophical infidelity, which ever wishes to demonstrate to itself its own operations—in fine, to an impatient desire to see and to feel in order to console ourselves.
There is no penance more bitter than this state of pure faith without sensible support. Hence I conclude that it is freer than any other from illusion. Strange temptation! to seek impatiently for sensible consolation through fear of not being sufficiently penitent! Ah! Why not rather accept as a penance the deprivation of that consolation we are so tempted to seek?”—Fénelon.
3. You will sometimes imagine that at prayer your soul is not in the presence of God and that only your body is in the church, like the statues and candelabras that adorn the altars. Think, then, that you share with those inanimate objects the honor of serving as ornaments for the house of God, and that in the presence of your Creator even this humble rôle should seem glorious to you.
“You tell me that you cannot pray well. But what better prayer could there be than to represent to God again and again, as you are doing, your nothingness and misery? The most touching appeal beggars can make is merely to expose to us their deformities and necessities. But there are times when you cannot even do this much, you say, and that you remain there like a statue. Well, even that is better than nothing. Kings and princes have statues in their palaces for no other purpose than that they may take pleasure in looking at them: be satisfied then to fulfil the same office in the presence of God, and when it so pleases Him He will animate the statue.”—St. Francis de Sales.
4. When you have not consciously or voluntarily yielded to distractions, do not stop to find what may have been their cause, or to discover if you have in any way given occasion to them. This would be simply to weary and disquiet yourself unprofitably. From whatever direction they come, you can convert them into a source of merit by casting yourself into the arms of the Divine Mercy. St. Francis de Sales when asked how he prayed, replied: “I cannot say it too often—I receive peacefully whatever the Lord sends me. If he consoles me, I kiss the right hand of his mercy; if I am dry and distracted, I kiss the left hand of his justice.” This method is the only good one, for as the same Saint says: “He who truly loves prayer, loves it for the love of God: and he who loves it for the love of God, wishes to experience in it naught but what God is pleased to send him.” Now, whatever you may experience in prayer, is precisely what God wills.
5. St. Francis de Sales teaches us that merely to keep ourselves peacefully and tranquilly in the presence of God, without other desire or pretension than to be near him and to please him, is of itself an excellent prayer. “Do not exhaust yourself,” he says, “in making efforts to speak to your dear Master, for you are speaking to Him by the sole fact that you remain there and contemplate Him.”
“Remember that the graces and favors of prayer do not come from earth but from heaven and therefore that no effort of ours can acquire them, although, it is true, we must dispose ourselves for their reception diligently, yet withal humbly and tranquilly. We ought to keep our hearts wide open and await the blessed dew from heaven. The following consideration should never be forgotten when we go to prayer, namely, that we draw near to God and place ourselves in His presence principally for two reasons. The first is to render to God the honor and the homage we owe Him, and this can be done without God speaking to us or we to Him, for the duty is fulfilled by acknowledging that He is our Creator and we are His vile creatures, and by remaining before Him, prostrate in spirit, awaiting His commands. The second reason is to speak to God and to listen to Him when He speaks to us by His inspirations and the interior movements of grace.... Now, one or other of these two advantages can never fail to be derived from prayer. If, then, we can speak to our Lord, let us do so in praise and supplication: if we are unable to speak, let us remain in his presence notwithstanding, offering him our silent homage; he will see us there, our patience will touch him and our silence will plead with him and win his favor. Another time, to our utter astonishment, he will take us by the hand, and converse with us, and make a hundred turns with us in his garden of prayer. And even should he never do this, still let us be content to know it is our duty to be in his retinue, and that it is a great favor and a greater honor for us that he suffers us in his presence.
In this way we do not force ourselves to speak to God, for we know that merely to remain close to him is as useful, nay, perhaps more useful to us, though it may be less to our liking. Therefore when you draw near to our Lord speak to him if you can; if you cannot, stay there, let him see you, and do not be anxious about anything else.... Take courage, then, tell your Saviour you will not leave him even should he never grant you any sensible sweetness; tell him that you will remain before him until he has given you his blessing.”—St. Francis de Sales.
6. The same Saint gives further valuable advice as follows: “Many persons fail to make a distinction between the presence of God in their souls and the consciousness of this adorable presence, between faith and the sensible feeling of faith. This shows a great want of discernment. When they do not realize God’s presence dwelling within them, they suppose He has withdrawn himself through some fault of theirs. This is an ignorant and hurtful error. A man who endures martyrdom for love of God does not think actually and exclusively of God but much of his own sufferings; and yet the absence of this feeling of faith does not deprive him of the great merit due to his faith and the resolutions it caused him to make and to keep.”
7. Your vocal prayers should be few in number but said with great fervor. The strength derived from food does not depend upon the quantity taken but upon its being well digested. Far better one Our Father or one Psalm said with devout attention than entire rosaries and long offices recited hurriedly and with restless eagerness.
8. If you feel whilst saying vocal prayers—those not of obligation—that God invites you to meditate, gently and promptly follow this divine impulse. You may be sure that in doing so you make an exchange most profitable to yourself and agreeable to God from whom the inspiration comes.
9. Prepare yourself for prayer by peaceful recollection and begin it without agitation or uneasiness. St. Francis de Sales has this to say on the subject: “Some little time before you are going to pray, calm and compose your heart, and be hopeful of doing well; for if you begin without hope and already devoid of relish, you will find it difficult to regain an appetite.... The disquiet you experience in prayer, accompanied by great eagerness to discover some object that can fix and satisfy your thoughts, is of itself sufficient to prevent you finding what you seek. When a thing is searched for with too great eagerness, one may have his hands or his eyes almost upon it a hundred times and yet fail to perceive it. This vain and useless anxiety in regard to prayer can result in nothing but weariness of mind, and this in turn produces coldness and apathy in your soul.”
10. Be careful not to overburden yourself with too many prayers, either mental or vocal. As soon as you feel uncontrollable weariness or distaste, postpone your prayers, if possible, and seek relief in some pleasant pastime, or conversation, or in any other innocent diversion. This advice is given by St. Thomas and other learned Fathers of the Church and is of the utmost importance. Follow it conscientiously, for lassitude of mind begets coldness and a kind of spiritual stupor.
11. Never repeat a prayer, even should you have said it with many distractions. You cannot imagine the innumerable difficulties in which you may become entangled by the habit of repeating your prayers. Therefore I beg of you not to do it. *In St. Ignatius’ time there was a certain religious of the Society of Jesus who was a victim of this kind of scruple. The recital of the daily Office always kept him much longer than was necessary because he would repeat again and again and for hours at a time any passage that he suspected had not been said with sufficient attention. St. Ignatius tried to correct him by various means, but in vain. At length the thought occurred that one scruple might be cured by another. He therefore commanded the poor Jesuit, under pain of sin and in virtue of religious obedience, to close his breviary every day at the end of a specified time, this being just enough to allow him to read the Office through once and rather quickly. The first day the religious was obliged to stop before he had half finished. This caused him such intense regret that ere long the fear of not being able to say the entire Office made him contract the habit of finishing it within the allotted time.* Begin your prayer with the desire of being very recollected. This is all that is necessary. “A desire has the same value in the sight of God as a good work”, says St. Gregory the Great, “when the accomplishment of it does not depend upon our will.” During these involuntary distractions God withdraws the sensible feeling of His presence, but His love remains in the depths of our hearts. St. Theresa, in the midst of dryness and distractions, was wont to say: “If I am not praying I am at least doing penance.” I should say: you are doing both the one and the other: you do penance by all that you are suffering, you pray by the desire and intention you have to do so.
12. You should never repeat a prayer nor a point in your meditation even if you have had in the inferior portion of your soul ideas and feelings at variance with the words pronounced by your lips or with the sentiments you wished to excite in your heart. Nay, do not be induced to do it, even were these ideas and feelings injurious to God. Under such conditions, be careful not to give way to anxiety and agitation and do not try to make reparation for an imaginary offence. Continue your prayer in peace as if nothing had disturbed it, not taking the trouble to notice these dogs that come from the devil and that can bark around you while you pray in order to distract you, if may be, but that cannot bite you unless you let them.
“This temptation should be treated exactly the same as temptations of the flesh: do not dispute with it at all, rather imitate the children of Israel who made no attempt to break the bones of the paschal lamb but cast them into the fire. You need not answer the enemy, nor even pretend to hear what he says. Let the wretch clamor at the door as much as he wants to, it is not even necessary to call: Who is there? What you tell me is no doubt true, you say, but he annoys me and the uproar he makes prevents those within from hearing one another speak. That makes no difference. Have patience, prostrate yourself before God and remain at his feet. He will understand from your very attitude, although you utter no words, that you are his and that you crave his help. Above all, however, keep yourself well within and do not on any account open the door, either to see who it is, or to drive the importunate fellow away. Eventually he will tire of shouting and will leave you in peace.”33St. Francis de Sales.
St. Augustine says that the devil is a formidable giant to those who fear him, but only a miserable dwarf to those who despise him.
13. Should it happen that the whole time given to prayer be passed in rejecting temptations or in recalling your mind from its wanderings, and you do not succeed in giving birth to a single devout thought or sentiment, St. Francis de Sales is authority for saying that your prayer is nevertheless all the more meritorious from the fact of its being so unsatisfactory to you. It makes you more like to our divine Lord when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemani and on Mount Calvary. “Better to eat bread without sugar, than sugar without bread. We should seek the God of consolations, not the consolations of God: and in order to possess God in heaven, we must now suffer with him and for him.”
“When your mind wanders or gives way to distractions, gently recall it and place it once more close to its Divine Master. If you should do nothing else but repeat this during the whole time of prayer, your hour would be very well spent and you would perform a spiritual exercise most acceptable to God.”—St. Francis de Sales.
14. It is well to bear in mind that in commanding us to pray always our Saviour did not mean actual prayer, as that would be an impossibility. The desire to glorify God by all our actions suffices for the rigorous fulfilment of this precept, if this desire be habitual and permanent. “You pray often,” says St. Augustine, “if you often have a desire to pay homage to God by your actions: you pray always if you always have this desire, no matter how you may be otherwise employed.”
“Need we be surprised that St. Augustine often assures us that the whole Christian life is but one long, continual tending of our hearts towards that eternal justice for which we sigh here below? Our only happiness consists in ever thirsting for it, and this thirst is in itself a prayer; consequently if we always desire this justice, we pray always. Do not think it necessary to pronounce a great many words and to struggle much with one’s self in order to pray. To pray is to ask God that his will may be done, to form some good desire, to raise the heart to God, to long for the riches he promises us, to sigh over our miseries and the danger we are in of displeasing him by violating His holy law. Now this requires neither science nor method nor reasoning; one can pray without any distinct thought; no head-work is necessary; only a moment of time and a loving effusion of the heart are needed; and even this moment may be simultaneously occupied with something else, for so great is God’s condescension to our weakness that he permits us to divide it when necessary between him and creatures. Yes, during this moment you can continue what you were doing: it is sufficient to offer to God your most ordinary occupations, or to perform them with the general intention of glorifying him. This is the continual prayer required by St. Paul ... thought by many devout persons to be impracticable, but in reality very easy for those who know that the best of all prayers is to do everything with a pure intention, and frequently to renew the desire to perform all our actions for God and in accordance with his divine will.”—Fénelon.
15. You should never omit or neglect the duties of your state of life in order to say certain self-imposed prayers. These duties are a substitute for prayers and are equally efficacious, St. Thomas teaches, for obtaining the graces you stand in need of and which are promised to those who ask them properly. It is even more meritorious to perform some work for the love of God, to whom we offer it, than merely to raise the soul to Him by actual prayer.
“Every person is bound to observe strictly the duties of his particular calling. Whoever fails to do this, although he should raise the dead to life, is guilty of sin and should the sin be grave deserves damnation if he die therein. For example, bishops are obliged to make a visitation of their diocese in order to console and instruct their flock and to rectify whatever may be amiss. If I, a bishop, neglect this duty I shall be lost even though I spend my entire time in prayer and fast all my life.”—St. Francis de Sales.
16. Make frequent use of the prayers called ejaculations,—which are short and loving aspirations that raise the soul to its Creator. According to St. Francis de Sales, ejaculations can in case of necessity replace all other prayers, whereas all other prayers cannot supply for the omission of ejaculations.
“Acquire the habit of making frequent ejaculations. They are sighs of love that dart upwards to God to sue for His aid and succor. It will greatly facilitate this custom if you keep in mind the point of your morning’s meditation that you liked best and ponder it over during the day. In sickness let pious ejaculations take the place of all other prayers.—St. Francis de Sales.
17. Ejaculatory prayers can be made at all times, wherever we are or whatever we may be doing. They might be compared to those aromatic pastilles, which we may always have about us and take from time to time to strengthen the stomach and please the palate. Ejaculations have a like effect on the soul by refreshing and fortifying it.
18. The monks of old, of whom St. Augustine speaks, could not say long prayers, obliged as they were to earn their bread by daily toil. Ejaculatory prayers, therefore, took the place of all others for them, and it may be said that although laboring unceasingly they prayed continually.
19. I cannot too earnestly urge you to accustom yourself to the profitable and easy practice of making frequent ejaculations. It is far preferable to saying many other vocal prayers, for these when too numerous are apt to employ the lips only rather than to reanimate and enlighten the soul.
20. St. Theresa’s opinion is that the body should be in a comfortable position when we pray, as otherwise it is difficult for the mind to pay the proper attention to prayer and to the presence of God. Do not then fatigue your body by remaining too long prostrate or kneeling: the important thing is that the soul should humble itself before God in sentiments of respect, confidence and love.
Read Chap. XIII, Part II, of the Introduction to a Devout Life.
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