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Introduction: Progress Through Mental Prayer

  • FATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.

The spiritual life may be correctly described as the "cultivation of intimacy with God" and the following pages are an attempt to show how the soul may cultivate that intimacy and how it is to overcome the obstacles it encounters in its efforts to become intimate with its Creator.

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Saint Paul, writing to the Christian converts, addresses them as persons called to be Saints.  It is clear from this mode of address that, in the eyes of the Apostle, the vocation of every Christian, as such, is that he be a saint.  To the Apostle's mind this calling, once one has been baptized, is ineluctable.  To evade it to the end is not merely to risk but actually to incur everlasting unhappiness.  Startling as this thought is, there is not needed much reflection to see that its truth cannot be gainsaid.  Nothing "unsaintly" can find place in heaven.  What is definitely and by irrevocable choice "unsaintly" is for ever excluded from the presence of God, and this is necessarily so by the very nature of things.  It is not in consequence of a stern, arbitrary and, if He chose, revocable decree of banishment issued by God that the unholy soul is banned from heaven.  The unholy soul simply could not exist in heaven.  It would shrive! up in a veritable agony.  It could no more exist there than could a dry twig in a blazing furnace.  Light is not more incompatible with darkness than the sanctity of God with what is unholy.  It is the infinite purity, the perfect sanctity of God that makes heaven impossible for the unsaintly.  Since eternal happiness depends on sanctity, it is important to have a very clear notion of what it consists in and of the way by which it is attained.

What is sanctity?  The philosophers, aiming at making clear what a thing is, very often prepare the way by pointing out what it is not.  This procedure is a great help towards the acquisition of clear ideas, and can be applied in the present inquiry with some advantage.  By very many sanctity would very probably be defined as that which renders a person eligible for canonization.  Such a definition would be too exacting.  Those who are placed on the roll of honor of the Church and are offered to the veneration and admiration of the faithful are heroic saints.  The process of canonization reveals the elements of heroic, not of ordinary, sanctity.  In an army it is not only those decorated with the official insignia of valor who are good, brave and trustworthy soldiers.  In God's army the official saints are the specially distinguished.  There are multitudes of others who make good the vocation of which the Apostle speaks and verify in their lives the notion of Christian holiness.  Therefore sanctity is not to be limited to heroic sanctity.

Neither may sanctity be confounded with ethical perfection.  One cannot be a saint without having all the qualities that go to make a man, but those moral perfections that constitute the perfect ethical man[1]  do not constitute the saint.  One might, abstractly speaking, possess and practice all the moral virtues, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, and all the others that come under these heads — one might realize the ideal of the perfect man traced by the moral philosophers and yet not be a saint.

Christian sanctity is a supernatural thing.  To know what it is, recourse must be had to the eternal source of the supernatural, namely, to God Himself.  God is the supreme Saint.  Holy is His Name.[2]  He is Sanctity Itself, and therefore the exemplar and prototype of all sanctity.  The holiness that is not modeled on His is not veritable holiness.  Hence it was that Jesus said to the multitudes:  " Be ye therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect."[3]  It is as if He said," You must be saints, and if a man is to be a Saint, he must be like God."

In what does God's Infinite Holiness consist?  It consists in His Infinite Charity, that is in His Infinite love of Himself.  This statement needs a little explanation and expansion for, as it stands, it might appear to the superficial to savor of an immense egoism.' God is Holy, not for the reason that He loves Himself but because That which He does love with an infinite intensity is w hat merits to be infinitely loved and chosen for its lovableness.  God Himself embraces in Himself all that verifies the notions of Good.[5]  He loves that Infinite Good infinitely and in that lies His Infinite Holiness.  He loves proportionately every created participation of that all-complete Good.  He loves these created reflections of the Infinite Good, not for themselves, but as being ectypes of that which is the object of His Infinite complacency.  In that lies His Holiness and He loves Himself in these things.

For men and angels also, sanctity lies in the love of that which is worthy of most supreme love.  It is synonymous with the love of God, and is measured by that love.  It is scarcely necessary to remark that this love of God is not a sentiment, a feeling, or an emotion.  It is of the will, not of sensibility.[6]  It consists in a deliberate election, choice and preference of the Supreme and Infinite Good, above all else.  God, the Infinite Good, as revealed by faith, is made the supreme object of desire to the rejection of the claims of all other good things that can be selected in His stead and substituted for Him as an object to which the will should adhere.  This adherence of the will to God is nothing else but the conformity of the human will with the Divine; man wills the same things as God wills; he rejoices in what pleases God and is saddened by what displeases Him; he does God's holy Will with all care and accepts from His hands the daily cross.  This total surrender to and conformity with the Divine Will implies that the Soul has willingly yielded to the attractiveness of God, and this willing yielding is love.  That man is a Saint for whom the attraction of God is supreme above all other attractions.  To be a Saint is to be effectively enamoured of the beauty of God, to desire Him and to desire nothing which would conflict with that desire of God.  As for God Himself, so also for man, the love of the Supreme Good carries with it a love of every created participation of that Infinite Good.  But that created good must not be loved for itself.  It must be cherished because it is of God, and because its beauty is a reflection of His.

Amongst these created participations of the Infinite Good which is God, one of the fairest is the supernatural perfection of a rational creature.  God made man to be man.  He made him to be something more.  By the infusion of Sanctifying Grace He made him to be a being whose moral excellence should be touched with divinity.  The man of God's design in the actual order of things is one whose soul should be equipped not only with the moral but also with the theological virtues.  The human participant of the Infinite Good is one in whom exists Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, along with Faith, Hope and Charity.  The state of soul realized by the possession of these seven virtues is good and an object of desire.  Aiming at sanctity means aiming at a life in which all these virtues are steadily and constantly operative.

Jesus Christ was the man who realized this ideal in all its perfection.  He was, in a supreme measure, prudent, just, brave and temperate.  Instead of Faith and Hope He possessed from the first their consummation in Vision.[7]  In charity, that is ardent love of God, the Infinite Good, He could not be rivaled.  In Him, human perfection, as planned by God, was fully and perfectly realized.  God could look upon this handiwork of His Divine Spirit and say that 'it was Good.' As such, it was an object, a thing, lovable and to be desired.  Jesus could, and did, love His own moral and spiritual perfection.  But He did not make it an object of desire for its own sake.  It was God that He loved in this perfect earthly mirror of God's Beauty.  If He wrought in His life and in His actions such a perfect masterpiece of moral and spiritual excellence, it was not for the sake of, or because He was drawn by the attraction of that moral excellence in itself.  He did it because it was God's Will that He should do so.  God's will is identical with Himself.  To seek God's will perfectly in all things is the same as to pursue the Supreme Good in all things.  This Jesus did.  He did not exercise virtue for virtue's sake, but because he apprehended it as God's will.  Through and in the act of virtue He as man kept united with God, His Supreme Good.


The spiritual life is sometimes spoken of as the seeking after perfection.  If this be understood to mean that the man aiming at spirituality is to set before him his own perfection as an object after which he is to strive, it is apt to lead to serious mistakes in the spiritual struggle.  It is true that the development of a full spiritual life involves in its attainment man's perfection; yet it is not precisely at this perfection that he must aim, but at God.  God is the final end of man and therefore the object after which he must strain in all his spiritual and moral endeavors.  The spiritual life may be more clearly, simply and correctly described as the "cultivation of intimacy with God" and the following pages are an attempt to show how, ordinarily speaking, the soul may cultivate that intimacy, and how it is to overcome the obstacles it encounters in its efforts to become intimate with its Creator.  God has smoothed the path for the human soul by becoming man.  To become intimate with God, the soul has only to become intimate with Jesus, who is like to the soul in his humanity, like to it in all things except sin.[8]  Man can grow in friendship with God by growing in friendship with One Who is a fellow-man.  The spiritual life is the process of growth in charity, that is in love of Jesus, true man and yet true God.  This love not only binds the soul to Jesus, but has the intrinsic effect of assimilating it to Him, transforming it to His likeness.  "But he who is joined to the Lord," writes St. Paul, "is one Spirit."[9]

The presence of self-love in the soul is the great obstacle to the action of grace.  Prayer reveals the presence of this self-love and secures the aid of God to its extermination.

It is to be observed that the Savior in tracing for men the path they were to tread in order to enter into this union with Him, did not point to Himself saying, "Behold in me the pattern of, and the living object lesson in every human virtue, prudence, justice, courage, kindliness, truth and the rest." He did not say, "Seek to acquire all these virtues which you see in their perfection in me and then you will become my intimate friends." His instruction was much more direct and simple.  He said, "Learn of Me, that I am meek and humble of heart."[10]  One has only to be humble after the model of Jesus and all else will follow.  How this is so is not immediately apparent; for the full implications of the virtue of humility are not readily seized.  Elsewhere a full analysis of this virtue will be given.  What is there said may be summarily expressed thus.  Humility consists in making God all and oneself nothing in one's life.  [It is, to use a phrase expressive, but, perhaps, of unfortunate associations.]  "God over all." It is the practical acceptance of St. Michael's battle cry:  Quis ut Deus! Who is like unto God! It is the complete obliteration of all the false claims of self, in face of the all pervading sovereignty of God.  All that is required on the part of the Christian to make perfect his calling, is to efface himself before God.  Hence it is that the whole burden of the Savior's teaching to men is the practice of self-abnegation.  Self- abnegation is something much larger than either suffering or mortification.  The instructions on prayer that follow are an exposition of the mode by which this conquest of self is carried to a final and successful issue.  Prayer, properly carried out, will have as its effect the gradual revelation to the soul of this disease of self-love which so intimately penetrates the very fibers of its being as to pass unobserved by the person that does not lead an interior life.  In prayer the soul gradually draws into the radiant purity and truth of the soul of Jesus.  It becomes bathed in and penetrated through and through with that radiance; and in this splendor all in it that is of self and not of God, all that is in it unlike Jesus, stands clearly revealed to that soul's own gaze.  When this unlikeness is purged away by the action of suffering and the sacrament of the Eucharist, then the close union of the soul with God takes place.

Prayer, mortification and silence prepare the soul for the action of the Blessed Eucharist. Once the obstacles are cleared away from the soul this great Sacrament of union accomplishes in its perfection that which is its special effect, namely the creation of a union of spirit between the soul and Jesus.  Prayer prepares the way for this, for prayer that is good must have as its effect the gradual growth in self-abnegation.  The presence of self-love in the soul is the great obstacle to the action of grace.  Prayer reveals the presence of this self-love and secures the aid of God to its extermination.  The grace of Jesus flowing to the soul through prayer and the Sacraments carries out this process of extermination.  As the Christian soul empties of self, it fills up with God, not merely with some thought or aspect of God as visualized by a self-centered spirituality or even as revealed in created reflections, but with God as He is in Himself and as He reveals Himself to " little ones." To be filled with God is to be perfect with the very perfection of our heavenly Father, but this happy result is conditioned by the soul's practical application of the means explicitly stated by Our Divine Guide and Exemplar:  "Learn of Me that I am meek and humble of heart."[11]  It is in no narrow or particular sense that God is said " to resist the proud and to give grace to the humble."[12]

In these words of the Apostle is revealed the connection, not logically immediate, between humility and spiritual perfection.  Humility is not fortitude nor temperance nor yet charity.  But where it exists all these will exist. For the Christian supernatural virtues, the only ones that avail for union with God in this life and in the next, are not acquired but infused.  God gives them.  They are communicated with grace.  They grow with grace and are proportioned in their perfection to the measure of grace.  God gives grace generously to the humble.  To each He gives according to the measure He has predestined, which is not the same for all.  But each one in his own individual case receives according as he is more or less perfectly disposed to receive.  As humility is perfect so is the disposition perfect.  The perfectly humble man will flourish in all virtues.  He will be fearless, temperate, kind, loving, and all the rest. He has not to accomplish acts of temperance to have the virtue of temperance.  He has it already in virtue of grace and in a strength proportioned to that grace.  The acts merely give a greater facility in the exercise of the virtue and dispose the soul for a further increase of grace.  So it is in the case of each of the other cardinal virtues and in the case of the Theological Virtues.

It is sad that of all those who start out with such confidence and such goodwill on the supernatural life, so very few attain to any marked degree of spirituality.  The causes of this very general failure are known only to God.  They are necessarily inscrutable to us from whom are hidden the secret resistances of the created will.  Resistance to grace is the reason of the absence of growth in the spiritual life.  Yet it would be hard to say that the resistance is in the majority of cases deliberate.  It is quite possible that it may proceed from want of spiritual enlightenment, and that great numbers of failures are to be attributed not to bad will but to an imperfect understanding.  It is quite possible that souls do not succeed simply because they employ faulty methods or make a faulty use of good ones.  Self-knowledge is needed for growth in the spiritual life.  St. Catherine of Siena stresses this point with great emphasis in her writings.  Now perhaps the concentration of the soul's attention on the constituent elements of the virtues that it ambitions to attain and of the vices it longs to eradicate may impede the growth of self-knowledge.  One who has some experience in dealing with souls cannot fail to remark that very many good and promising beginning send in disappointment and discouragement.  Such a one will observe that generally speaking — not absolutely speaking — there is a common cause for this.  It is due to the soul's being continually occupied by the symptoms of its spiritual state, be these symptoms healthy or the reverse.  Its gaze ranges over the whole field of the virtues and the whole field of the vices and it brings its own daily conduct into relation with these.  It aims at development by striving after the practices of the virtues and by eliminating the activities of the vices.  In this it can fail to go to the radical cause of its growth or rather of its absence of growth in virtue.[13]  An example from medicine will make this clear.  When a patient presents himself to a doctor and reveals that he is suffering several kinds of pain and in different parts of his body there are two courses of action open to the medical man.  He may deal with each form of suffering and by the resources of his skill bring alleviation to one after the other.  In due time the patient is discharged from the hospital free from suffering, but only to fall back into his old state in a short time.  If he has found a very skilled doctor his experience will be different.  The expert physician will set himself to find out in his patient the "focus of infection", which is the source of the various ills the sufferer complains of.  If this 'focus' is discovered and eliminated the patient leaves hospital not temporarily but permanently cured.  In the spiritual world there is an unerring and divine Physician.  It is Christ Himself.  He has diagnosed the "focus of infection" in every soul.  It is "self" in its varying forms and manifestations.  Eliminate this and there ensues necessarily a healthy spiritual life.  Hence it is that He preaches self-abnegation in the first place, He preaches it in the second place:  He preaches it all the time.  On it all depends.  Self-abnegation is but humility in act:  it is the practical carrying out in action of the precepts of that fundamental virtue.

Jesus is the perfect type of humility of soul:  He is the perfect model of self-abnegation in act.  Mental prayer is the means by which the soul grows into the spirit of Jesus, developing in itself "the mind of Christ." If the soul that practices mental prayer does not grow in humility and self- abnegation it is a sign that its prayer is badly made and is not fulfilling its purpose.  It is essential for spiritual progress that one should have a clear vision of the role that prayer has to play in this progress.  That role is the development, through loving contemplation of the Man-God, of the fundamental dispositions of the Sacred Humanity.  Little by little the soul grows in that basic humility so characteristic of Christ; complete dependence on and loving subjection to God become as it were the leaven which spreading by imperceptible degrees pervades its every action, it is marked by a self-abnegation which aims at purging from it everything that is not God, so that "conformed to the image of His Son" it may live its life in full accord with the designs of Providence in its regard.

Endnotes:

  1. By "ethical man" is meant the man who possesses all the natural virtues in perfection without grace.  Needless to say that in the present order this is purely an abstract idea.
  2. Cf.  Isaias vi. 3.  And they [the seraphim]  cried to one another and said:  Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God of hosts.
  3. St. Matt.  v. 48.  cf.  Levit.  xi. 44.  " For I am the Lord your God.  Be holy because I am holy."
  4. Egoism is disordered love of self God's love of Himself is not disordered since He loves in Himself that Divine Goodness which merits to be infinitely loved and is the reason why anything else is worthy of love in any degree.  Theologians speaking of God's love of Himself call it "most pure love," to signify that it cannot be tainted by the disorder of egoism.  When, in full submission to the Divine Will, we labor to realize in ourselves the designs which God has for us, we may be truly said to love ourselves.  Neither is this love egoism, for it is an ordered love — we love ourselves, as it were, in God.  But when we seek to gratify ourselves independently of God, when our self love does not spring from (and is not nurtured by) the true love of God, then we are guilty of egoism.
  5. This means that (in scholastic language) the formal reason of God's holiness is that He loves infinitely what is worthy of being infinitely loved.  Concretely that which He does love is Himself, therefore it is only materially speaking (to use a scholastic expression) that God is holy because He loves Himself.
  6. Too often the word "love" is associated exclusively with the emotional movements that accompany natural affection.  This is a mistake.  True love, even though it be natural, is not in the emotions but in the will, and the emotional movements that often accompany it must not be mistaken for it, nor are they necessary for its existence.  St. Thomas gives the true notion of love when he says that 'to love is to will that good should befall a person'; "amare est velle bonum." If all this is true of natural love, with how much more force can it be applied to love that is supernatural.
  7. Faith and Hope are virtues belonging to the state of the wayfarer.  In our celestial Fatherland, belief will have found its perfection in knowledge, Hope will have passed into possession.  But because Charity unites us to God even in this life, its perfection in the next is not something specifically different but is a closer and more intense union with the divinity:  "Charity never passeth away."
    As regards the Beatific Vision, Christ was never a wayfarer; He enjoyed the sight of God from the moment His human soul sprang into existence.  Faith and Hope when He could not have, for He already possessed something more perfect.  But His Charity was most intense.
  8. Heb.  iv. 15. 
  9. I Cor.  vi. 17.
  10. St. Matt.  xi. 29.
  11. St. Matt.  xi. 29. 
  12. St. James iv. 6.  cf.  I St. Peter v. 5.
  13. It seems to me from practical experience that this is very often the case.

Progress Through Mental Prayer
by Edward Leen, C.S.Sp.

Part I
The Nature of Prayer

                  Introduction
Chapter 1 - The Aim of Mental Prayer
Chapter 2 - Perseverance in Prayer
Chapter 3 - Vocal Prayer
Chapter 4 - The Ordinary Process of Mental Prayer
Chapter 5 - The Transforming Effect of Mental Prayer
Chapter 6 - The First Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 7 - The Second Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 8 - The Third Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 9 - Mount Thabor

Part II
Method in Mental Prayer Considered
in its Fundamental Principles

Chapter 10 - The Vision of Faith Purified by Mental Prayer
Chapter 11 - The Preliminary Acts in Mental Prayer
Chapter 12 - The Body of Mental Prayer
Chapter 13 - Progress in Mental Prayer: Its Effect on Method

Part III
Elements that make for
Progress in Mental Prayer

Chapter 14 - Dispositions Requisite for Mental Prayer
Chapter 15 - Spiritual Reading
Chapter 16 - Mortification: A Condition of Life
Chapter 17 - Silence: A Means to Recollection


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Acknowledgement

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "Introduction." from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 3-15.

Progress Through Mental Prayer is in the public domain.

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The Author

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. was born in Ireland in 1885 and entered the Holy Ghost Fathers being ordained in 1914. He was president of Blackrock College in Ireland from 1925 to 1931 and then became professor of philosophy at Kimmage Manor, Dublin. During this time he gave many retreats and conferences, especially to religious communities and he became widely known as a master of spiritual matters. His conference and lecture notes became the basis for his many books on prayer and the spiritual life. He visited the United States once in 1939. He died in 1944 in Dublin. He is the author of Progress Through Mental Prayer, The Holy Spirit, Why the Cross?, In the Likeness of Christ, The Voice of a Priest, and In the Likeness of Christ.

Copyright © Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP.
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