The Transforming Effect of Mental PrayerFATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.
In last analysis then, Mental Prayer is the act of the soul seeking the society of Our Divine Lord, with a view to receiving His direction and coming under the control of His Sacred Humanity.
His life stands revealed in the Gospel; the soul enters into contact with it, by a loving study of its mysteries. The mother of Jesus has given us the example, she herself passed her life doing what we are called to do. The Sacred writer assures us of this twice. saying, "But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart," and again he says — "And His Mother kept all these words in her heart." In Hebrew "word" means "event" or "happening" usually of a striking or mysterious nature. It must not be forgotten that the life and actions of Jesus were mysteries for Mary as they are for us. The meaning of the text, then, is that she reflected on and turned over in her mind the actions and words of her own Child, studying the events of which He was the center, with a view to probing further into their inexhaustible depths of meaning, in order to be penetrated with the sentiments, emotions and dispositions of Jesus in all these. Mary meditated on the life of Jesus as it unfolded itself before her, exactly as we are asked to do, and for the same purpose — to be steeped in and assimilated to the spirit of that life.
For meditation on the Mysteries of Jesus is not merely an idle speculation followed by a barren admiration of the truth revealed in the mystery. It must be undertaken with an object in view, namely to become good, avoid vice and grow in virtue as a means to union with God. We practice prayer in order to be assimilated to Our Head and Lord Jesus, to reproduce His life in ours.
When the soul, touched by grace, determines to abandon the routine practice of religion and to cultivate a real interior life, a beginning is ordinarily made by passing from the mechanical recitation of vocal prayers to the practice of Meditation. The first effect of Meditation is to awaken the soul to the realization that it has a "mentality," an outlook on life, an evaluation of things totally different from that of the Person whose life it has begun to contemplate. This unlikeness in view, in tastes, in tendencies between the soul and Jesus causes the influence of the Savior to be felt but slightly in the beginning.
We are powerfully moved and affected only by those towards whom we are attracted sympathetically. If we are out of sympathy with a person, it is unlikely that we should be carried away or elevated or inspired to a higher ideal by that person no matter how gifted or virtuous he may be. And it must be confessed that there are comparatively few that have not been at some time of their life out of sympathy with the principles of Jesus and on a very imperfect under- standing with Him. Before their conversion men are worldly-minded; and this worldly-mindedness manifests itself in that uneasy feeling they experience when they hear of the maxims of holy men and ascetical writers. The words of the Saints, their appreciation of things, their outlook on life — all is, for worldly men, very chilling and uninspiring. The appeal of humanism is felt to be much warmer. There are few of us in whom these words of Father Faber have not at some time of other found their verification — "There are many who when they hear or read of the spiritual life, or come across the ordinary maxims of Christian perfection, do not understand what is put before them. It is as if some one spoke to them in a foreign language; either the words are without meaning or the ideas are far-fetched and unreal. They stand off from persons who profess to teach such doctrines or live by them, as if they had some contagious disease, which they might catch themselves."
When a soul fresh form this condition opens intercourse with Jesus, it is obvious that it would be useless for the Lord to speak too much to it. The uniquely in its sanctification. He is not concerned about its earthly prospects except in so far as they have a bearing on spiritual issues. His inner communications to the soul, then, will always have reference to the process of sanctification, and the poor soul, on its side has as yet but little comprehension of what sanctification means and of what its pursuit involves. The soul is therefore not capable of understanding the Lord's intentions unless very imperfectly. But anxious to advance and multiplying its visits to, and its moments of contact with the Divine Master, it begins to enter more and more into the views of its heavenly Director and falls more and more under His influence. At first the soul is in continual activity, the acts that make up the exercise of prayer are practically all its own. It speaks to Our Lord with a dim perception of its wants and a certain realization of its shortcomings. Acts of petition and contrition form the burden of its communications. The growth of the soul in Divine Grace, that is, in Divine Life, is imperceptible. Yet these pious acts produced by a good will have promoted its development and have imparted a certain amount of spiritual vigor. What is taking place spiritually may be illustrated by the process of bodily nourishment. The sensible, evident part of this process is the introduction of the food into the mouth, its mastication and deglutition. All these operations are capable of observation and control. But it is only when these observed operations are completed that assimilation begins, vitality is imparted and growth promoted. The process which is really life-giving is not an object of consciousness, nor does it fall under observation. In a similar way is it in the beginning of prayer. One is conscious of one's activities of imagination, intellect and will. But there is no perception of the effects that, by the action of grace, follow for the soul on these activities of the faculties. So after the soul has elicited and multiplied its acts, the Lord illumines the intelligence to truth and excites the will to good — in the beginning in an imperceptible way and afterwards perhaps more plainly.
The touches of Divine Grace are very delicate and normally speaking escape our consciousness. The soul is at the stage when its perceptions of material and natural things is keen, and its perception of spiritual things extremely dull. Still the process of growth in the soul-state, which conditions the supernatural life, goes on. Those acts, that have been spoken of, develop the soul inasmuch as they posit the conditions of development. The development in divine life is of course entirely due to God, the sole source of the supernatural. According as the activity of God on the soul is being exercised in an increasing measure, the soul's own activities diminish. Those of the Lord increase in proportion. The soul simply enters into the Presence of its Director and Guide, who begins to operate powerfully by instructions, illuminations and encouragements. When this arrives at a point where the greater part or almost all the conversation is carried on by the Lord, the soul leaves the ordinary course and enters into the state of mental prayer which is called passive.
Hence we see that mental prayer is active or ordinary and passive or mystical. In the former kind the action of the soul predominates; in the latter, the action of God. When almost the whole activity is God's, the soul has entered into the extraordinary states and has to undergo those fearful purgations which wipe away the last traces of the effects of the original revolt. These purifications remove the final elements of that resistance to the Divine, which is found in our nature since the Fall, and thus God is free (so to speak) to evolve His own life in the soul, and the soul becomes almost powerless to resist the Divine influence.
We make mental prayer therefore, to be converted from evil to good, from good to better, and from better to perfection; its object as has often been stated, is to create in us those conditions of human mind and heart, which are the conditions of the inflow of the Divine into us through the Sacraments; "For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." The end (to the attainment of which, for adults, mental prayer is an almost indispensable means) is the end of our supernatural being, namely, union with God. Prayer aims at inaugurating that union on earth in the conditions and limitations of mortality. Prayer is not, then, the mere asking of things, but a willing associating with Jesus, in order to pass through Him as man to God — "I am the Way . . . no man cometh to the Father but by me." The adoption of His principles of life and the application of them to our own life, is the sole way by which we can arrive at that life of which He as man has the plenitude — the Life Divine. A mere intellectual knowledge of the Gospel story doe, not bring us to this; it is only humble meditation on it, inspired by love, that will bring us to the determination to conform ourselves to the Lord Jesus.
Many give up prayer in disgust because they do not understand its meaning, its nature and its end. They believe prayer consists in asking for graces, spiritual and temporal, the acquisition of virtues or the extirpation of vices, and they pray in the belief that God will bestow virtues just as we make presents of books, or take away our vicious habits as we remove dangerous instruments from the hands of children Virtue is a growth and follows the laws and conditions of growing things; the same is true of vice ; in the ordinary ways of Providence the sole mode of its removal is by the growth of the contrary virtue. God does not take away our vices as the surgeon severs a gangrenous limb from the body. We do not get virtues or lose vices merely for the asking. The desire prompting and inspiring our prayer should be the desire of growing in all respects like to Jesus. It is in that growth that vices vanish and virtues make their appearance. We pray to God through Jesus not so much to get something as to become some- thing, namely to become " conformable to the image of His Son." The ultimate object of prayer is to glorify God and we glorify God by being as we should be.
The real end of prayer therefore is to be good, to effect in ourselves the dispositions to sanctification, that is, to purify our souls and replace our natural views by the views of Jesus Christ and to substitute for our natural life, His mode of life. This is done by frequenting the society of Our Lord, by dealing in converse with Him, whatever be the form this converse may take. It may be a seeking for advice and instruction, a communing on common interests, an expression of feeling or. sympathy with His sufferings, an exposition of one's own wants and interests, a tribute of praise, admiration or love. The familiar conversation with Jesus may vary very much as to its themes; the effect aimed at must be always a growing conformity to Him. In a word prayer may be considered a going to Jesus for spiritual direction — a direction on the way that is to lead to God. We pray not to dispose God to give, but to prepare ourselves to receive — to receive that plenitude of Divine life which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.
Note. The brief outline given in this chapter will be developed in the next three.
Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "The Transforming Effect of Mental Prayer." chapter 5 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 58-65.
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