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Progress in Mental Prayer: Its Effect on Method

  • FATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.

There are certain movements of will and intellect which should interpenetrate all our relations with God in much the same way as a fundamental theme runs through all the figures of a piece of music.

"My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God." Ps. Ixxxiii. 3.

Development of Prayer:  Meditation, Affective Prayer, Prayer of Simplicity.

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In the previous chapter were briefly outlined the acts which ordinarily constitute the body of prayer.  Now besides those considerations and affections which are immediately concerned with the subject considered, there are certain movements of will and intellect which should interpenetrate all our relations with God in much the same way as a fundamental theme runs through all the figures of a piece of music.  In all our interchanges of thought and affection with God, we must ever have before our eyes our sinfulness and infidelity.  That we have sinned, and that, in spite of the extraordinary graces bestowed on us, we find it possible still, even daily, to fail in the duties of friendship towards our Heavenly Lord, is a fact that we must never lose sight of; it should impart a certain reserve to our warmest feelings or expressions of affection.  Our love for God must be ever tinged with a sadness arising from the consciousness of our unworthiness to present ourselves before Him.  We must never cast ourselves at His Feet to worship, without recalling that our worship must ascend to Him from hearts that to some degree have disappointed and wounded Him.  This thought will generate an ever present feeling of compunction without which there cannot be true devotion.  This abiding sorrow for sin develops a sensitiveness to the claims of God on us; the nearer we approach to Him, the clearer grows the understanding that those claims cannot be satisfied without sanctity on our part.  This helps to maintain us in a humble and subdued frame of mind, checks all tendency to presumptuous familiarity in our attitude towards our Creator, and effectively curbs all movements of self-will, vanity and uncharitableness.  "And my sin is always before me," says Scripture.[1]

Through all our meditations there should run implicitly this spiritual confession.  It should consist rather in a repentant attitude of the soul with regard to all its sins in general, than in a calling up for avowal any of them in particular.  When the activities of thought and affection belonging to the main theme cease, the activities proper to this spiritual confession should emerge into prominence.  They are a consideration of our guilt before, and ingratitude towards, God:  regret that our sorrow is so imperfect and so wanting in divine love:  a desire that we should have a truly humble and contrite heart, and a yearning for pardon and for the grace of amendment; and all this should be accompanied by a longing to make atonement by sacrifice.

But whilst being filled with regret for our transgressions and shame for our unworthiness, we must never allow ourselves to lose sight of the graces and favors which God has bestowed on us.  It would be a perverse form of humility to blind oneself to the good wrought in our soul by the action of divine grace.  Profound gratitude for the favors God has bestowed on us should color all our implicit pleadings for growth in virtue and holiness:  "Bless the Lord O my soul, and never forget all He hath done for thee."[2]  Many spend their spiritual energies in perpetually bewailing their sinfulness and do not allow themselves to advert to the truth that they have much to be grateful for — even spiritually.  God lilies us to bear in mind with gratitude how much He has done for us and with what loving care He watches over our spiritual welfare.  With all our faults there are many graces which we have turned to profit.  "To make open avowal of what I have received is not pride but devotion," says St. Augustine.[3]  The smallest grace is of a value, St. Thomas tells us that outweighs all the good of the whole created universe; and to arrive at that state in which one is privileged to converse intimately with God there is required a series of special graces which are not given to all.  Those who have made even a little progress in the interior life could not exaggerate in their expressions of gratitude to Almighty God.  That they, in preference to so many others, should be objects of that special providence by which they have been initiated into the life of prayer — of familiar intercourse with the Lord Himself — is a mystery, the mystery of Predestination.  Their hearts should overflow with gratitude in face of this mystery of election.  There are numbers of Christians around about them given the same opportunities as they, perhaps more deserving than they are, oftentimes endowed with much finer natural disposition, who are, nevertheless, destined to remain during their whole life only on the borders of the supernatural world.  Those who have made some progress have only to contrast their present dispositions with those they had when, as St. Paul puts it, they " were serving under the elements of the world,"[4]  to realize what freedom they have acquired and how good God has been to them.  Feelings of deep gratitude towards God should be ever welling up in our hearts.  Our sorrow for sin should not make us gloomy; it should leave room for these feelings of joyous gratitude for what God has made us by His grace.  This sense of gratitude, so far from marring humility, is an element of it.  When the soul has, by frequent exercise, so strongly impregnated its ordinary method of prayer with the affections we have outlined that they come to predominate, then a change that is gradual and yet easily perceptible begins to make itself felt in our meditation.  The soul has now become penetrated through and through with an affective knowledge of the mysteries of faith.  It moves habitually in a supernatural atmosphere.  Instinctively it considers everything from the spiritual point of view, that is, it sees, in the light of faith the circumstances in which itself and those around it move.  The assaults of its lower nature and of the passions have become enfeebled, and it no longer experiences a difficulty in directing its thoughts and affections towards God.  In a word, the hold that the things of earth have had on it is relaxed and it feels a real attraction for God, and the things of God.

Meditation is still necessary for the soul when in this condition, but considerations and reflections now play a very minor part in this exercise.  The ordinary subjects chosen are still taken from the life of Our Lord, or deal with the Christian virtues, studied in themselves or as seen in exercise in His life or in the lives of Our Blessed Lady and of His Saints.  But no activity of the reasoning powers is required to persuade the soul of the necessity of practicing those virtues; nor is any activity of the imagination required to beget an attraction for them.  The soul habitually aspires after perfection which it realizes to be a condition of close friendship with Jesus.  Prayer, therefore, becomes extremely simplified.  A few thoughts having reference to the spiritual life are taken to occupy the intelligence and imagination, because this is a means that it is necessary to take in order to enter into a state of recollection.  One act of reflection is made on those ideas, one glance, as it were, of the intelligence, when the exercise begins and the whole soul, without any effort, persuasion or reflection, is possessed of the truth which they contain.  Instantly the will, without feeling any contrary appeal or counter attraction, is drawn to desire with all its strength that perfection of life which the living of those truths would mean.  It does not seek that perfection as an end, but as a means of making its union with God more intimate.  Though the soul knows that it will fail when the time for action comes, still, at the actual moment at any rate, it enters into a state of conformity in mind and heart and volition with the truth it has meditated on.  In this state of conformity it places itself directly and deliberately under the action of God, with a view to receiving into itself the outpouring of that grace which will enable it later on to shape its conduct according to the truth which it is contemplating.  This prayer is called affective prayer because the acts of the intelligence being simple and rapid, the acts of the will, called affections, predominate.  The prayer of affection, which is the ordinary development of prayer in souls who are generous, may receive a further simplification.  The affections themselves cease to be multiple and varied and tend to unity.  In this prayer the soul recollects all its powers.  It stills their activity and throws all its being, and all the energies of that being, into a calm, simple, loving look directed to God.  All multiplicity in the acts of the will gradually disappears.  From time to time it elicits acts of love and of desire to be nearer to God — acts of aspiration after that union which it feels to be yet so far off.  These acts of love are made without vehemence; they are more like the breathing of the soul than positive acts.  They are almost mere pulsations.  They resemble the slight heaving of the ocean when it has subsided into a relative calm.

The sense of the remoteness of its objective, namely, a very close union with God, provokes a longing in the soul which is a strange mingling of distress and contentment.  Union with God is discerned to be far off and utterly unattainable by any efforts that the creature can make.  It is clearly recognized to be a divine and gratuitous gift.  It is impossible to know how it will be imparted and when.  The soul recognizes that a still more thorough transformation must take place in itself before deep and intimate union becomes possible, and yet it is only too well aware that no efforts of its own, however praiseworthy, can effect that transformation.  The soul sees in a certain sense in what consists this perfection to which it aspires, but does not know how it can ever attain to it.  All this causes a certain anxiety in its patient longing.  But in its expectancy there is no sadness, it is content to hold itself before the Lord in a humble attitude of dumb pleading.  Knowing that the Holy Ghost alone can purify it, it offers itself to His Divine operations, keeping itself silent and recollected and laboring to divest itself of all that could present an obstacle to the operations of the Divine Spirit.  It does nothing but submit itself to the action of God.  This is the prayer of simplicity.  It is not without its inconveniences; for those who have attained to it, oftentimes do not understand their own state.  Finding in themselves a cessation of considerations and of distinct movements of the will, they think that they are doing nothing in prayer.  The whole exercise takes place in the obscurity of faith; hence there is little for the imagination to fix itself on, or anything to keep the understanding in activity.  As a consequence distractions are very frequent, though the distractions are only apparent.  The regard of the soul remains all the time fixed in God, while the images that rise in the imagination may even set the understanding in motion and draw it away to alien topics.[5]

But on the whole the soul enjoys a great measure of peace when it has passed the stage of ordinary meditation and entered into that of affective prayer, or the Prayer of Simplicity.  It is not unaware, in spite of its consciousness of its utter weakness and powerlessness for good, that a great revolution has taken place in itself, a revolution which it recognizes by its effects.  It lives in the sense of God's pervading presence, and in the perception of God's action on it through creatures.  The gradual deepening of its faith, has put it in contact with the reality underlying the external aspect of created objects.  It is no longer led away by appearances:  the transitoriness of things has come home to it:  — external, sensible objects though still capable of soliciting, have lost their power over its affections.  Gradually, everything has dissolved and left it face to face with the only reality, God Himself.  It has been brought to God the Father through meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.  "No man cometh to the Father but by Me."[6]  God has become for it the supreme reality; life holds for it no other, except what brings it into relation to Him; existence without Him means nothing and holds out no prospect.  Life empty of God is empty of everything and the thought of such a life inspires it with horror.  As the compass needle trembles, wavers and is agitated, being drawn in different directions until it finally steadies itself and takes up its definite position under the force of magnetic attraction, so the soul ceases its vacillations at this stage and steadily points towards God.

The end is not yet; but the soul looks forward confidently to that consummation.  As Faith grows in strength and vigor the theological virtue of Hope develops with it.  And acting under the influence of that virtue, the soul, in spite of its nothingness and its deep sense of that nothingness, looks forward with confidence to the moment when God will stoop to it, lessen the distance that separates it from Him, and impart to it an increasingly perfect union with Himself, and, if He so will, carry it from the state of active into that of passive prayer.

Endnotes:

  1. Ps. l. 5.
  2. Ps. ciI. 2.
  3. Comm. on Pater Noster.
  4. Gal.  iv. 3.
  5. Bossuet describes very accurately the characteristics of the prayer of simplicity.  The greater its (the soul's) knowledge of God is, the purer will be its love, the more upright its intention, the more pronounced its hatred for sin, the more thorough its recollection, the more sustained its humility and mortification . . . The light of faith grown stronger reveals to us our least imperfection and enables us to conceive a deep regret for them combined with a strong aversion from them. . . .
    The best prayer is that in which one most completely abandons oneself to the sentiments and dispositions that God puts into the soul and in which one strives simply, with humility, candor and fidelity to conform oneself to His will and to the example of Jesus Christ." Bossuet:  "Prayer of Simplicity."
    "The Prayer Of Simplicity," says Fr.  Poulain, "is a mental prayer in which (1) intuition in a great measure replaces reasoning; (2) the affections and resolutions show very little variety and are expressed in few words.  In the prayer of simplicity there is a thought or a sentiment that returns incessantly and easily (although with little or no development) amongst many other thoughts, whether useful or not.  This dominant thought does not go so far as to be continuous.  It merely returns frequently and of its own accord.  We may compare it to . . . a piece of wood which, carried along by a torrent, continually goes under the surface, disappears and reappears." "The Grace of Interior Prayer," Ch.  ii. Republished by C.T.S.E.  under the title:  "Prayer of Simplicity."
  6. "Nemo venit ad Patrem nisi per me." St. John xiv. 6.

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. "Progress in Mental Prayer: Its Effect on Method." chapter 13 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 191-201.

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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