previously posted in 2017
“Jesus has merited everything for us, even the power to make His merits our own. He only needs our goodwill and humility to make us enter into the fruits of His labors. . .”
Today we offer some penetrating insights on mental prayer from one of the Twentieth century’s best spiritual writers, the Irish Cistercian Abbot, Dom Eugene Boylan. I’ve found his book, “Difficulties in Mental Prayer” a rich source of practical wisdom and I hope you will find it useful.
Our essay, from the conclusion of Dom Boylan’s book, is offered in response to questions from readers, some of whom have said they have not been able get much help elsewhere. Although his writing is primarily aimed at priests and religious, Dom Boylan states that it is also meant to be beneficial for laity who seek perfection, as we all should.
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Dom Boylan offers a quote from “The Living Flame of Love”, by St. John of the Cross, the authority par excellence on the subject of mental prayer. In when treating of the development of the prayer of meditation, St. John writes:
“The state of beginners… is one of meditation and of acts of reflection. It is necessary to furnish the soul in this state with matter for meditation, that it may make reflections and interior acts, and avail itself of the sensible spiritual heat and fervor, for this is necessary in order to accustom the senses and desires to good things, that, being satisfied by the sweetness thereof, they may be detached from the world.
“When this is in some degree effected, God begins at once to introduce the soul into the state of contemplation, and that very quickly, especially in the case of religious, (italics are ours) because these, having renounced the world, quickly fashion their senses and desires according to God; they have, therefore, to pass at once from meditation to contemplation.”
“This passage, then, takes place when the discursive acts and meditation fail, when sensible sweetness and first fervors cease, when the soul cannot make reflections as before, nor find any sensible comfort, but is fallen into aridity, because the chief matter is changed into the spirit, and the spirit is not cognizable by sense. As all the natural operations of the soul, which are within its control, depend on the senses only, it follows that God is now working in a special manner in this state, that it is He that infuses and teaches, that the soul is the recipient on which He bestows spiritual blessings by contemplation, the knowledge and the love of Himself together; that is, He gives it loving knowledge without the instrumentality of its discursive acts, because it is no longer able to form them as before.
“At this time, then, the direction of the soul must be wholly different from what it was at first. If formerly it was supplied with matter for meditation and it did meditate, now that matter must be withheld and meditation must cease, because, as I have said, it cannot meditate, do what it will, and distractions are the result.
“If before it looked for fervor and sweetness and found them, let it look for them no more nor desire them; and if it attempt to seek them, not only will it not find them, but it will meet with aridity, because it turns away from the peaceful and tranquil good secretly bestowed upon it, when it attempts to fall back on the operations of sense. In this way it loses the latter without gaining the former, because the senses have ceased to be the channel of spiritual good.”
The primary purpose in quoting this long passage is to draw attention to the words in which the Saint indicates for us the fundamental disposition for the passage to contemplation, namely: that one has fashioned one’s senses and desires according to God, which disposition, with its result, He expects to find quickly reached in the case of religious. But the whole passage has been quoted because it sums up in pregnant language, weighted with all the authority of the Church’s Doctor of Prayer, all that these pages have been trying to say.
The holy doctor’s opinion of the effect that may be naturally expected from life in the religious state, both as to formation in virtue and advance in prayer, will be found to be quite similar to the hopes held out by St. Teresa in her writings. The essence of the religious state has not changed since their time; it is a state of tending to perfection.
Now, it is impossible to tend properly and completely to perfection without leading an interior life. We may go further and say that without an interior life it is impossible for a priest or a religious to live an exterior life that is not ruined by sterility, supernatural uselessness and inefficacy. If there be anything wrong with our priests and religious of today – if there be any failure even on the part of the laity to live up to the faith that they undoubtedly possess – if our resistance to the infiltration of a pagan civilization, of pagan manners, and of pagan principles into our minds and hearts, into our public and our private life, is not as vigorous, as sturdy, as resourceful, as it should be–the cause is surely to be found in the lack of an interior life, and, fundamentally, in the lack of such a life in its proper measure among priests and religious.
With the best will in the world, it is not easy to be assured that all is as it should be. There are not wanting voices – competent voices – crying out in warning; there are not lacking signs – unmistakable signs – giving them support; it is even said that supernatural admonitions are not unheard of, all deploring the lack of due fervor and interior life in religion. It is not for us to attempt to pass judgment upon the state of affairs. But it is for each of us to examine his own condition, and see whether it is in harmony with the wonderful spiritual equipment that God has given each one of us in Baptism.
For God Himself has come to live in our souls, to be our Guide, our strength, our Life and our Love. The real root of the trouble is that we do not realize, nor have we a lively practical faith in, the effects of Baptism and the possibilities of the Christian life. We do not realize that the Christian life is the life of Christ lived by Christ in us, not merely our own paltry existence, dragged out in lonely weakness. We do not estimate the interior life at its proper worth nor give it its due place in our scale of values. For many of us the spiritual life, and especially the religious life, is a life of external practices and works, in which greatness and success is measured in much the same way as in any other walk of life.
As a result, our spiritual program is closely and narrowly limited–limited by a feeling that when all is said and done, our progress will depend upon our own selves, upon our own strength of character, our own will–power, our own resources; and knowing these to be so poor, we cannot help feeling that such things as progress in holiness and advance in prayer are not for us.
This, of course, is one of those half–truths that are the greatest of all errors. It is true that God has told us that without Him we can do nothing, but has His Holy Spirit not also written for our consolation that we can do all things in Him Who strengthens us? It is true that the world is in us and is dragging us down to its own level, but have we not heard Our Lord’s assurance that He has overcome the world?
Now, is there any closer union of strength than that of Baptism–where the Spirit of God so unites Himself to the soul as to make it a living member of the Body of the Son of God–where God divinizes the soul in its strength and in its possibilities? If the Sacraments effect what they signify–and that is the official formula for their action–what conclusion must be drawn from the fact that in the Sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist the Body and Blood of Christ is given to us for our food? — what limit may we set to the strength or to the possibilities of a soul which is nourished by the living Flesh of God Himself?
The wonder is, not that a priest or a religious should be expected to aspire to high perfection and to the graces of prayer, but rather that any priest or religious, or even any Catholic, should fail not only to aim at them but even, as a general rule, to attain them! Perhaps this failure to realize the “talents” that they are leaving buried in their souls is the reason why so many religious take such a distorted view of their religious life. For many the day’s work consists of some special duty–teaching or preaching or nursing or study, for example–as its principal and essential part, with a number of devotional exercises inserted as a sort of accidental coloring, a necessary concession to one’s state of life, but for all that, something by no means of first–rate importance–something which is often a considerable handicap to the main task and at times rather a nuisance!
As for the interior life–well, that is a matter, they say, of a special vocation, which has nothing to do with the ordinary religious. Here we have a complete reversal of the true scale of values coupled with a capital error as to the nature of the primary and essential purpose of the religious state, which–no matter what may be the nature or particular purpose of a particular congregation–is always the sanctification of the individual members, to which everything else must, in a general way, be subordinated.
To these two errors one can trace most of the surprise that many readers will feel on seeing the above words of St. John of the Cross applied to modern religious; in fact, much of what has been written in this book will appear to many as far–fetched and unpractical–as a mistaken application to the religious life in general, of what they say, is really peculiar to the contemplative life. This view is really a result of the erroneous opinions which have just been pointed out. The essential nature of the Christian life and of the religious state have not changed one whit; and all conclusions based on those natures are as valid now as they were in all ages of the Church.
Holiness is still a primary duty, and a practical possibility. Our Lord’s exhortation to be perfect as the Father in Heaven is perfect is still just as insistent and just as feasible as it was the day He uttered it. Every single Christian soul can say:
During every moment of His life Jesus thought of me, and loved me; in all His sufferings He had my needs in His mind, and in His view; in all His joys, His Heart was set on sharing these joys with me; in all His labors, in all His teaching, He never ceased to have my holiness in view; one of His greatest tortures was His longing for my happiness and my love; He knew that He had done and suffered more than a hundred times enough to make me holy, to make me a saint.
He saw clearly that the only obstacle to the achievement of His cherished purpose for me was my own refusal to trust Him, to believe in Him, to cast all my cares upon Him–to take Him at His word, and to submit to His easy yoke and to the light burden which He had specially planned for me; for He, seeing my poverty, had, as it were, lived my life for me with His own perfection, and was longing for the day when I would make my own the result of His labor and suffering, by doing what He asked me to do.”
All this is no exaggeration: Jesus has merited everything for us, even the power to make His merits our own. He only needs our goodwill and humility to make us enter into the fruits of His labors. . .Every act of Christ’s life was one of intense longing and passionate love for me. Nor has that love lessened in His life in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Still more can I be sure that it is no less in His life in my soul. In that awful moment in the Garden, in the depths of what in anyone else would be called despair, when He uttered that cry of bitterest agony, of which the Psalmist speaks in the words: “What is the use of My Blood?”–
… it was from my failure to correspond with His grace that He was suffering; it was my sins, my refusal to trust Him, my rejection of His pleading, my disbelief of His love, my distrust of His power and of His plans, my hardheartedness and my selfishness, my self–sufficiency and my sloth, that were in His mind and that caused Him to pour out the sweat of His precious Blood.
He still implores us to let His work bear fruit in our lives, to set some value on His Precious Blood, to have some trust, some faith in His power and in His love. Truly, only too truly, can He still say to us: “Oh! ye of little faith: why do you doubt?” The charity of Christ urgeth us; the love of Him Who first loved us cries out to us; let us stir up the grace, the faith, the hope, the love that is in us by the Sacraments of water, of oil, and of the Body and Blood of God.
Let us think of what our daily Food is, and see what our strength and our life should be. Let us cease saying that these things are not for me, and remember that it is no longer I who live, but Christ who liveth in me. Let us realize that our strength is Christ’s strength, that our hopes and our possibilities are Christ’s possibilities, that our needs are Christ’s needs, that our merits are Christ’s merits, that our spirit is Christ’s Spirit, the Paraclete, the “Strengthener,” the Spirit of God, and we shall renew our courage and our earnestness, and filled with fresh hope and complete confidence in the word of God, remembering that we are the Body of Christ, we shall launch out again into the deep, where we have long been laboring without success, now determined to seek with confidence for that perfection which the Heart of Jesus longs to find in us, to produce in us and with us.
In particular, let each soul renew his hope and his intention of persevering in prayer. First, he must resolve with determination, never under any circumstances to give up his attempt to progress in prayer. Let him take up prayer as he should take up the whole of the spiritual life, as a quest for Jesus, a striving for close union with Jesus.
Let him meditate as long as is necessary–during spiritual reading, if needs be–but let him proceed to pray to Our Lord in his own words as soon as he can and as often as he can. Let him not be afraid to talk to God without words whenever he can, and so all the time he is coming nearer to Jesus. Let him throughout the day make frequent aspirations to Jesus; they should not be long, they need not be verbal; a sigh or a smile of the heart is sufficient.
Let him seek Jesus in all things; let him unite himself to Jesus by doing what pleases Him–by doing the will of God. That is the way to lay hold of Jesus.
When the time comes, when he can feel Jesus near, let him make full use of it; but he must not be so attached to this sensible presence of Jesus as to refuse to let Him go when the Master decides it is expedient for the soul that He should deprive it of His sensible presence and send it another Comforter.
If all power of prayer seems to be lost, if the time of prayer becomes a period of distraction and aridity, let him not lose courage, nor change his resolution. His prayer then is made by submitting to the will of God as completely and as generously as he can. He need not be afraid to make use of any available expedient to help him to fight distractions.
Many get great help by using a book, but this must not be done in such a way as to turn prayer into spiritual reading; one must stop frequently and turn one’s heart to God, and listen to see if He has not something to say to him. Perseverance under this heavy trial has a great reward, and touches the heart of God. The soul should try to be ready to accept any suffering that God sends him, for union with Jesus is sealed in the fellowship of His sufferings and by our patient endurance we are made partakers of the Passion of Christ.
But our chief aim must be humility. The Kingdom of God is already within us, but we make it our own by our poverty of spirit. This is our title to union with God, and it is the first principle of the spiritual life that Our Lord taught in public.
The soul, then, must never, never trust in itself, and, above all, it must never, never, under any circumstances, cease to trust Jesus absolutely;
God became man to save sinners, to give life to those who are dead in sin, to give strength to the weak and weary, to give Himself to the humble, to the poor in spirit. Let us take Him at His word, let us take Him at His Name, let us submit ourselves to Him in obedient humility and loving confidence, let us say to Him with Mary: “Be it done by me, be it done to me, according to Thy word,” and then we shall be filled with Christ, through Whom and with Whom and in Whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is all the glory of God.
I apologise for the excessive length, and will forego comments.
Thank you for reading!
Please, Pray the Rosary and confound satan and those who serve him!
† . Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of our hearts, Mother of the Church, do thou offer to the Eternal Father the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the conversion of poor sinners, especially our Pontiff.
† . Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Thy kingdom come! Viva Cristo Rey!
~ by evensong for love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, King.
Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O Sacred Virgin! Give me strength against thine enemies!