Mount ThaborFATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.
When manifestations of the glory of the Sacred Humanity become frequent and regular the soul has definitely entered on the passive stages of mental prayer.
In the instructions on the interior life, the growth of the soul seems to have been described solely as a progress in dispossession of self. Though purporting to be the science of the development of life, mental prayer has apparently as its term and its achievement nothing else than the complete death of self. The different stages of advancement through which the soul passes were shown to be processes of self-renouncement carried to an ever higher degree of perfection, and penetrating ever more profoundly to the depths of our nature. Now this result, however much to be desired, is merely negative, and considering what it costs, in the way of suffering and mortification it, in itself, holds out no attraction to warm our imagination; it is too chilling an ideal to sustain our courage in the real hardship that the spiritual combat involves. To very many the way of the interior life will appear in this light only. Spirituality will mean the mere negation of nature. The election of supernatural life will be regarded as the renouncement of all joy and happiness.
What is more the soul, not understanding any pleasure except that which is derived through the satisfaction of natural tastes, desires and impulses, is persuaded that once it leaves these, it has to abandon delectation in every form. It does not see and cannot realize that delectation can exist under other forms. The invitation to enter into the spiritual life, is, it believes, an invitation to enter into a region from which is shut out all light and heat, and which is chill with the chillness of the grave. Growth in spirituality seems to be a process of death, which at best, issues in an existence vague, shadowy and intangible — holding out nothing to which our poor nature can cling and in which it can find its rest. The life of prayer thus envisaged, is harsh and forbidding, and it is not surprising that many, understanding it in this manner only, shrink from entering upon it, or, if they have made a beginning relinquish the undertaking at the first strong appeal of nature. The life of prayer was expected to be a growth in intimacy with Jesus and, for those whose courage has not carried them beyond the preliminary stages, it has turned out to be a disheartening revelation of self.
It is not correct to regard mental prayer at any of its stages as a mere process of self-revelation and self-emptying. It is true that, in the description of the gradual perfecting of the soul, a great deal of stress was laid upon the question of the abnegation that conditions this perfection. But there never was an instant in which this abnegation constituted the totality of the soul process. Side by side with the negative movement there went a positive; the relinquishing of oneself was accompanied by the attainment of some-thing infinitely better. There was a passage from nothingness to reality — from darkness to light. In the beginning our vision of the supernatural is almost totally, though not quite, obscured by the presence of the natural. Our soul is enveloped in a mist. The process of self-renouncement is the gradual removal of this curtain of darkness, and as this process proceeds our intuition of the things of God becomes clearer. These are revealed to us in the humanity of Jesus Christ. True self-revelation has always as its counterpart a growth in knowledge of God. For it is only in the light of God that we see ourselves for what we are. Hence self-abnegation in its full import is not a merely negative thing; as self in its destruction disappears from our view the vision of Our Divine Lord takes its place. According as the soul ceases to be self-regarding in its activities, it becomes God-regarding. As the soul is being emptied of what is material, transient and perishable, it is being filled with what is spiritual, enduring and incorruptible.
The soul in itself is, as it were, a void — but an infinite one. It is a capacity for the unlimited. Its characteristic actuality is a yearning and a longing for satisfaction that nothing finite can gratify. Having no resources of its own on which to draw, it cannot find in itself what will supply its native nothingness. It is, therefore, obliged to reach out, to seize something external to itself, in order to satisfy its needs. It is an infinite potentiality. This explains the restlessness and dissatisfaction that all men experience — and from which the saints even, to a certain degree, are not exempt; though, in them, it is found conjoined, as will be seen later, with a certain tranquilizing of their longings. But the majority of people carried away by the attraction that pleasure exercises over their senses, give themselves up to the pursuit of exterior things, in order to appease the soul's desires. Each pleasant object holds out a promise of satisfying the soul's aspirations; but it is found incapable of bringing to an end the restless striving of the soul to complete itself. Satisfaction after satisfaction is sought; one object after another is added to one's possessions, and yet one finds oneself still with that awful feeling of emptiness of being with which all those who do not seek God are familiar.
And this must necessarily be so. The capacity of the soul cannot be filled up except by what can be received into it; and, by sensible satisfaction, we can reach only the surface of any created thing. No matter how close to ourselves we may hold it, no matter how intimate the possession, if created, it still remains outside of us and in purely external contact. The soul remains in its emptiness and with its restlessness unsatisfied, — its groping after completeness fruitless. Its thirst after fullness of being, remains unslaked — Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again," says Jesus. The water to which Our Lord makes allusion is created satisfaction in any form whatsoever — it is the whole universe of created things considered as the source of natural delectation. No matter how good these satisfactions may be in themselves, they cannot be our entire and final good, for they cannot complete our being. To do this it would be necessary for them to be capable of being drawn into our souls and united with them, — to become as it were the soul s substance, much as food is transformed into the substance of the body. To realize this affective identification is the aim of all affection and the pain of love consists precisely in the futility of the effort.
This is illustrated in the purest of all human affections, that of a mother for her child. Love always tends to union — and pure love to the surrender to, and union of oneself with the person loved. When the mother strains the child to her bosom, there is in that a passionate desire that their two beings should be fused into one. This desire is ever to be thwarted. The contact though so close, so intimate, still remains an external one — one soul cannot be fused with the other. And this is true, in its own measure, of every affection; we shall find, if we analyze our feelings, that in every case where we pursue or cherish any created being, there is on our part a longing to be one with that object; and the more we love, the more ardent is our desire to identify ourselves in taste, in thought, in feeling with the cherished creature. What is more, this striving goes further, it tends towards and aims at identification in being in as far as that is possible. And of course this aim is always thwarted; hence it is that every created affection even though legitimate is attended by pain. The only thing that could ease that pain, would be the physical possession by the soul of the creature loved. But this cannot be. Hence it is that even though one should accumulate around oneself all the treasures that have come from the hand of God, even though one should taste to the full all the satisfaction that creation is capable of yielding, still, after all that, nothing has really entered into the soul, it still remains in its original state of void — of mere capacity that has not been filled — still a prey to the tortures of infinite yearnings, which have in no way been appeased.
Nothing can fill up the infinite capacity in the human soul except what can physically enter into it and take possession of it — and this privilege belongs to the Creator alone, and to that participation of His life which is given in grace and in glory. "Thou hast made us for Thee, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee," says St. Augustine. Nothing but God and the life of God can enter into the human soul, and therefore, nothing but God can still its restlessness. And though nothing but the complete possession of God (received in the life after death) can fill to the full the measure of its capacity and reduce its strivings to perfect repose, still, the slightest degree of union with the Divinity, gives a degree of satisfaction directly proportionate to the measure of that union — a satisfaction that infinitely surpasses all that could be ministered by the whole created universe. The reason is that God is in the soul, and created things are not; by union with God something is added to the soul, by earthly pleasures, nothing; by the smallest degree of spiritual happiness is given some actuality, whereas, by the highest measure of created satisfaction, is given but the appearance of reality. "But he that shall drink of the water that I will give him," says Our Lord, "shall not thirst for ever."
It is true that the soul shall always feel a longing to enter more and more into the possession of God — or rather to be more and more possessed by God — and this longing is a kind of thirst. But still it is thirst that is being ever satisfied, and as such, is a pleasure rather than a pain. Love, as was said, ever desires union. This is even more true of spiritual than of earthly love. The soul that "is taken with God" ardently desires to be, as it were, one with Him, longs that God should enter more fully into itself, and begs with earnest prayers, that He should take more complete possession of it. As regards its own disposition, it looks for one thing only, namely that everything in itself that prevents the completeness of this possession of itself by God should disappear, and abounds, therefore, with extraordinary earnestness to make to vanish the last vestiges of its own independent life, in order to throb only with the life of God. Its striving is never destined to cease until its every movement is a response to the Divine impulses; until is attained that perfect union which is the very one-ness dreamed of by love in its highest expression.
Yet, still, although the soul in this world, even in its spiritual life, is never at rest, it is never restless; though it is never satisfied it is never dissatisfied; though it is never without movement it is never troubled: because, at each moment it is attaining some degree of that "Reality" for which it is created. Until it has completely drunk into itself God, its thirst is not perfectly slaked, but with each degree of God's life that is taken into it, it is satisfying that thirst. Hence it is that the possession of God granted us in this world gives happiness — and our w ant of possession of Him gives a happiness too, for spiritual delights once tasted both satisfy the appetite and create an appetite for more. The longing for them by one who has experienced them is a happiness in itself. The Saints speak of the delights of the pain of longing for that degree of union with God not yet attained.
And this happiness is the state towards which mental prayer of itself tends. It is not the end at which we should aim in entering on the interior life. For we must be careful to seek God alone and not the happiness that is found in His service, and be ever ready to seek Him though this pursuit be attended with pain and aridity. But in fact the happiness referred to is always found conjoined with the cultivation of the interior life — and is its connatural term.
We are created to know God with a supernatural knowledge. This supernatural knowledge of God implies a knowledge of God as He is in Himself — by faith in this life and by the light of glory in the next. Further supernatural intellectual knowledge through faith that worketh by charity implies possession, in this case not mere representative possession but physical possession. For God the Holy Spirit has His Habitation in the souls of the just, and this habitation means presence not in the ideal but in the real manner. When faith is animated by charity God is held and possessed by the soul in the very substantiality of His being. It is true that the intellect operating through faith sees Him only by means of ideas derived from created things. Its knowledge in this life remains always of the abstractive kind. The intellect as yet cannot have an idea which adequately manifests God to it.
But nevertheless it is God Himself that it is contemplating in such ideas of divine things as it is capable of forming under the light of faith and theology. But dim and obscure and imperfect as is this abstractive knowledge of God it gives to the prayerful soul a deep contentment, a profound peace, and a tranquil satisfaction. The soul is knowing God to some extent and it knows too that it possesses in itself, in the reality of His Divine Being, the object which it is knowing. Even in the natural order our purest pleasure is derived from intellectual insight. When the mind has at last seen light on some problem that perplexed it, when its doubts and hesitations disappear as the shadows before an illumination, there is felt a kind of exaltation which carries with it the keenest satisfaction. We are said to grasp, to hold, to possess the truth. The object itself does not become intimate to us, but its ideal representation. We possess not the object itself, but an idea of it, and yet this shadowy possession is capable of giving deepest pleasure. How much greater is the contentment that is experienced by the interior soul as it knows that in apprehending God by faith and loving Him by charity, it possesses really within itself That which it knows and loves.
It is a far different thing to know God (to have knowledge about Him) and to 'sense' God — even though both kinds of knowledge be of the supernatural order and belong to the realm of faith. It is the former kind of knowledge we acquire by meditation on the mysteries of the human life of Our Lord. By successive contemplations on that life, our outlook upon Almighty God, the world and ourselves undergoes a profound change. Each of these objects appears to us in an entirely new light, and takes up its proper position in our field of vision. This study reveals to us the meaning and purpose of our earthly existence, and the attitude we must adopt towards it in order to please God. Considering the perfection of Our Lord s life, we learn how to make our own human life a perfect one, and acquire a knowledge of the dispositions in which our existence should be fulfilled, if it is to come up to the ideal which faith and reason set before us. All this consideration is supernatural, because it is taken in view of and directed towards the attainment of our final supernatural end. It makes known to us a great deal about ourselves, our origin, our destiny, about God and His relations with us. But this knowledge does not teach us to know God with that knowledge that comes of His 'realized' loving presence in the interior and the sense of His friendly companionship with His creature in the vicissitudes of life.
The knowledge acquired in the ordinary ways of mental prayer teaches us rather to know about Him. Such knowledge is little more, in itself, than a deepening of one's understanding of the ordinary truths of faith and of the mysteries of religion, an apprehending of the transformation in mind and will and conduct that conditions intimacy with God here and vision of Him hereafter, and a forming of the resolute determination to effect by the aid of grace that change in oneself which makes for close union with God. The contemplation of the Sacred Humanity is the regular means employed to achieve these objects. But if we were to think that once we had studied His Human Life, grasped the principles of His human activity, admired His virtues and lovingly tried to reproduce in our own conduct, His way of acting towards God and man — we have thereby reached the end of mental prayer, we should be mistaken.
What we have done is merely to realize those human supernatural conditions in ourselves, which make union with the Divinity possible. We are meant to pass through the Sacred Humanity, to the Divinity which it veiled and clothed. All this study of the Sacred Humanity reveals God to us. It teaches us to know more and more about God in Himself and in His relations with and in His designs on us. But the knowledge we thus acquire is but feeble in comparison with that which comes when God Himself acts and by a touch makes the soul sensible of His presence. In this touch is given not only an apprehension of the fact of the divine presence, but also a more intimate knowing of Him Who is present. Jesus has promised this as a reward of faithful love. "He that loveth Me, shall be loved of My Father: and I will love him and manifest myself to him." This manifestation of Jesus, true God and true Man, wherein the initiative is all on the side of Jesus, is the normal crowning of the life of mental prayer and gives a vivid foretaste of the joys of paradise.
When these manifestations of the glory of the Sacred Humanity become frequent and regular the soul has definitely entered on the passive stages of mental prayer. In the beginnings of this experience, the soul, in spite of the happiness it undoubtedly enjoys, suffers a great deal of anxiety. In the stage of ordinary meditation it experiences scarcely any misgivings. It is always able to render an account to itself whether it has well or ill acquitted itself of its exercise. The whole process is carried on in the senses, in the imagination, and in the understanding, and in the will (the rational appetite that acts in conjunction with the understanding). Everything falls within the region of ordinary consciousness and the different thoughts and affections can be noted without any difficulty. The soul grasps the reasons by which the will is moved to embrace that pattern of life and action traced by Our Divine Lord. The attraction of the will is towards the exercise or the possession of those virtues portrayed in His life. The soul knows about God, and about itself, all that is necessary to direct its life according to His desires and according to the pattern of perfection that He has traced and enjoined. In the processes of ordinary prayer, the intellect and the will function according to their regular human mode; the imagination furnishes images: the intellect abstracts ideas from these images and the will is stirred up to love what is presented by these ideas — in exactly the same way as if the objects of the operations of the faculties belonged to the natural order — to the order of things subject to sense and to reason. Even when prayer has attained a high degree of simplification and the work of the understanding has become almost negligible in comparison with the work of the will, still the functioning of the faculties is perfectly natural.
This functioning can be apprehended and is a definite object of consciousness. But the revelation of God of which there is now question takes place in a mode that transcends the natural and ordinary mode of the functioning of the understanding, and is attended necessarily with a certain darkness. In this world we can never see God except through the dark veil of faith. He cannot be the idea of our intellect without faith disappearing and yielding place to vision, and this happens only in the life to come. What takes place then? God makes His presence felt, as it were, to the intellectual part of our soul. The intellect has no clear intellectual vision of its object but it has nevertheless a perception of God's presence. It is a spiritual feeling, a kind of awareness rather than a spiritual sight. It is impossible to see God as He is in Himself and live.
God does not actualize the soul to such a vision in this world, except perhaps transiently, as some say was the case with Moses and St. Paul. Why then does He impart this vague, dark, indefinable sense of His presence? It is because the will cannot be set in motion except in consequence of an excitation of the intelligence. And at this perception of the presence of God the will is moved with an ardent impulse towards the lovable object perceived or felt to be present in the soul. The movement of love excited, is not an affection towards any created thing, e.g. virtue — act — disposition, etc., or any created representation of the Uncreated, but towards God as He is in Himself. For though we cannot in this world see God, as He is in Himself, we can love Him as He is in Himself. In this spiritual experience of which the passive character is very pronounced, the activity is nearly all of the will, and consists for the most part in a longing for union with God — and in a desire to express love of Him and to increase in that love. The action of the intellect is obscure, and is not capable of being analyzed or rendered in terms of the understanding. The soul is conscious of nothing but movements of love of God in the will, whilst the faculty of thinking and reasoning, not having ideas to foster and so excite these movements, is inoperative.
According as God's direct action tends to replace the normal exercise of intellect and will, the soul in the beginning of this new state becomes haunted with the suspicion that it has become idle and inert. It believes that progress is arrested because it cannot mark any longer in itself these energetic exercises of its faculties which, for it, constituted signs of well executed mental prayer. Consequently it is plunged in uneasiness and unrest. In the way of meditation it was perfectly easy to follow the gradual change of disposition that takes place, to note the increase in knowledge of and love of Divine things, to trace the growing familiarity with the ways and mind of Jesus, and to mark the disappearance of taste for earthly things. The soul could, therefore, find perfect satisfaction and contentment in this state. But this satisfaction is denied it when meditation ceases and the higher form of affective prayer with the character of passivity takes its place. God touches the intellect and enters into and seizes the will — causing the soul to enter into a kind of activity which it can understand but vaguely, for it is to a great extent above all understanding But still the joy is immense because at last and only in this way, by the intimate realization of the physical presence of God in the soul, the soul experiences that its cravings after infinite happiness are beginning to be satisfied. The soul must yield itself up to the happiness of this touch of God and be content not to understand what it is going through, and it must cease from all anxious questionings as to whether it is advancing or retrograding in intimacy with its Creator. It must submit to be in darkness with regard to everything and follow with docility the advice given it by its Director regarding the way it is to comport itself during and after prayer.
When the will is thus powerfully drawn towards God, by a movement impressed on it by God Himself, it sometimes happens that the soul becomes, as it were, intoxicated with the happiness that it experiences and with the pain accompanying it. For the more it loves, the more it desires to love, and the more keenly alive it is to the amount of perfection its love lacks and which it needs to make union complete. But the pain it experiences in its anxious desires to supply what is needed to attain the utmost measure of affection, is itself a kind of happiness. The soul no longer makes use of sustained reasonings — all it does is to express in every way it can invent, its love for God, and for Him alone. It never judges it has said enough, and it never tires as long as the movement lasts. When this urge is less evident in its effects, the soul rests peacefully in God, in an attitude of self-surrender, sinking as it were into Him in silent adherence to His loving action. And in the fire of its pure love for God affection for everything out of relation to God is burned away. Not only does it choose God before and above all things, but in these movements every earthly thing fades into absolute insignificance. The soul struggles to possess the unique object of its choice more and cannot; it yearns to make its love transform it more into God, and its desires are baffled. And the pain it feels at the futility of its efforts, is an act of love which carries its charity to a higher pitch. It is intoxicated with God, and there is scarcely a return on itself. There are many souls that pass through this experience, though its intensity varies much, and in some cases the experience may be only slightly perceptible and of short duration.
May not that which fell to the lot of Peter and James and John on the heights of Thabor be assimilated to the spiritual experience outlined in the preceding pages? These three had been constantly with Our Lord, had enjoyed His intimacy, had grown to love His human qualities and had in their humble way striven to imitate His ways and conform their own way to His. It was for them the ordinary way of mental prayer. But one day Our Lord took them apart and led them up into a high mountain away from the sounds and sights and attractions of earth. And there before their eyes, He allowed the Divinity to shine through the transparent robe of His Sacred Humanity. The vision of His Divinity threw them into a stupor — transcending as usual the operations of the understanding — the Scripture says, "they were struck with fear."
This was evidently not the ordinary passion of fear which is accompanied by sadness and distress, for the Apostles were, on the contrary, transported with joy. Their fear was the bewilderment that the human always experiences at contact with the Divine. But this first instinctive movement past, there followed the impulse of the will to embrace, possess and hold for ever the object dimly perceived. Time disappeared, the earth faded away, their worldly ambitions vanished — and they desired nothing but to continue for ever in the enjoyment of the vision vouchsafed to them, "Let us build here," said St. Peter, "three abiding places where we can remain for ever." Consumed with love, desire, vision, intoxicated with the happiness that he felt at the first glimpse of the Divinity through the sacred veils of the Humanity, he uttered nonsense, as lovers do in the delirium of their love: the Scripture tells us, "He knew not what he said." But this was not to last. God spoke from heaven saying: "This is my beloved Son: hear ye Him"; explaining that life was not to be spent in the enjoyment of Thabor but in a faithful adherence to the doctrine of Jesus, walking in the obscurity of faith.
Then the vision passed, and they were contemplating 'only' the human lineaments of Jesus, they had to descend from the mountain, return to the ordinary ways of life and resume their existence; to walk by the way of faith and self-denial. But one moment of the happiness they had enjoyed surpassed all that earthly joys extended over centuries could yield; and that scene they had witnessed was never to be effaced from their memories and was destined to be a support to them in the rude contests they were to endure later for Christ — "for," said St. Peter, "we made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ (but), having been made eyewitnesses of His Majesty . . . when we were with Him on the Holy Mount."
So it must be with us. These transient visitations of God must be for a memory and a help to walk with courage in the way of self-denial when the light goes out and is replaced by the obscurity of faith. We must not cling to these favors; we must be very grateful when they are given us; but we must not think that all is lost when they are withdrawn. We must be content to see no one, only Jesus in His life and actions, and be satisfied with walking in His footsteps in simplicity, humility and self-denial. And though the joys of Thabor are no more, in the depth of our souls there will be profound content. For just as Jesus was as really with the Apostles in the plains below as on the mountain above, and just as this ordinary presence was to them a continual source of happiness, so too He remains with us when we tread the beaten ways, and His abiding presence brings to us that unruffled peace which is the hallmark of souls that live for God alone.
Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "Mount Thabor." chapter 9 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 121-139.
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