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The Body of Mental Prayer

  • FATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.

All sanctity is effected in us by contact with the Sacred Humanity;  this contact is created by our willing contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation.

"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him."St. Matt. xvii. 5.
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We posit the condition of our advancement in the interior life by living with Jesus during His earthly pilgrimage, listening to His instructions, accompanying Him in His journeys, studying His actions, admiring His virtues and assisting at His sufferings.  The nature and number of the considerations to which the exercise will give rise, will correspond to our spiritual condition, that is, to the degree in which the life of Our Lord has been applied to ourselves and is being lived by us.  Every thought which we elicit must be directed to the moving of our will to adhere to God, to accept His will, and so embrace the means of fulfilling it, and to accept the happenings of life in the spirit of Jesus.

# 1.  The Exercise of Prayer for Beginners.

In the beginning when the soul is just emerging from the life of nature, the work of the intelligence is to form strong convictions on the fundamental truths of religion.  Its work is to create no; a mere speculative belief in the necessity of living one's life on earth as a preparation for the next world, but a practical conviction of the absolute necessity of saving one's soul and of adopting the best means to secure that end.  The things of heaven are weighed in the balance against the things of earth and are elected as being of infinitely greater value.  The attraction which the world exercises is recognized to be an obstacle to salvation; therefore that attraction must be combated vigorously.  The principles which pass current in the world are seen to be opposed to those of God and it is incumbent on us to destroy their hold on our minds.  We face the fact that if we are to secure heaven we must learn to regard things differently from the way in which they are viewed by worldlings — and from the way in which we considered them ourselves a short while since.  Our standards of value are to be changed.  In one word, we labor to form in ourselves a deep and practical conviction of the truth of Our Lord's words, "What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?"[1]  Sin must be eliminated and the passions that tend to drag us into offenses against God must be kept in check.

At first our convictions are weak and ineffectual; passions and faults darken our mind and do not allow these supernatural truths to get hold of and penetrate our soul.  Creatures occupy and absorb our affections.  Divine things make little appeal to us.  The will is difficult to move and countless attractions tie it down to earth.  A great deal of reflection, comparison, consideration and petition for Divine help is necessary for us in order that the new ideas, the new standards, the new outlook should be thorough]y grasped and should issue in practical determination to reform our life.  The whole function of meditation at this stage is to create "idees forces,"[2]  in the supernatural order.  The sense of our past disorders, our present weakness, and the possibility of future failure is present with us during all these considerations and it moves us to make strong appeals to Our Lord for His light, help, and encouragement.  These are what are called the affections which it is the object of the considerations to produce.  They are meant to intermingle with the reflections.

At this period most of the time of prayer is given to reflection — and affections arc elicited with difficulty.[3]

But when the intelligence under the influence of grace has perseveringly labored to form in itself Divine Truth, and when the will has repeatedly and even violently forced itself to withdraw from adherence to creatures, and to move towards God, gradually a change takes place — the labor of the intellect becomes less, the need of force (on the part of the will) diminishes little by little.  Thus by the operation of Divine Grace, and in accordance with the law of habit, a change is effected which is a progress.  The soul now experiences the truth of the inspired words, "Draw nigh to God:  and He will draw nigh to thee."[4]  Now the time required for consideration is not so great a part of the whole, and the will more easily turns to God — affections are elicited with less difficulty.  This change continues until, by degrees, the soul passes into the more advanced stage which we have now to consider.

# 2.  The Exercise of Prayer for Those More Advanced.

When the soul has succeeded in definitely breaking with the domination of the passions, and formed the conviction that it must at all costs serve God and preserve itself in sanctifying grace by His aid, then its activities in prayer take a new direction.  As this is the condition of most souls that are aiming at leading a spiritual life, it will be necessary to develop at more length the manner of prayer which is adapted to this stage. 

It is no longer the warnings of Jesus with regard to the dangers of the world, the difficulties of salvation and the dreadful fate that awaits those who misuse the chances offered them, that constitute the theme on which the understanding exercises itself; the soul dwells, preferably, on His Personality and on the virtues through which that personality manifests itself.  Jesus is no longer listened to as a teacher of morals, but rather studied as a model of perfection.  The soul realizes that being as yet but poorly established in virtue it is exposed at each instant to lapse into sin or imperfection.  It knows that unless it has acquired those fixed and settled dispositions in mind and w ill by which it can with some facility elicit right acts, it can have no stability in the way of holiness or abide in the friendship of God.  Until habits of virtue are formed, sustained virtuous action for any length of time is morally impossible.  The soul sighs after that condition in which it can be strong to resist the assaults of Satan, and in which it can serve God with facility, without having before it the dread prospect of being dragged back into sin and severed by its own frailty from the society of God.  It realizes with keen anxiety that as long as it is under the influence of bad habits and not possessed of good ones, it has but a precarious hold on the spiritual life.  There is no effort of thought required to be convinced of this.  The soul having once tasted the peace and happiness that accompanies the feeling of being at peace with God and the object of His love, is all eagerness not to forfeit that peace and happiness.  Yet, at each moment of the day it is being called upon to act.  Life must be lived, the hourly task demands speech, or judgment or action; and the first clash of contact with practical life reveals to the poor soul — now supernaturally sensitive — the futility and imperfection of much of its activity.  That activity is seen to be, not such as will bind it closer to God, but such rather as will separate it from Him, because, for the most part, ii has no claim on His approval.  The soul feels keenly that its thoughts, actions and judgments in a multitude of cases are utterly unlike what Jesus would say or do if placed in similar circumstances.  And it knows as well that it can please God and be united with Him in the exact degree in which it resembles Jesus in dispositions, judgments and conduct.  In order to keep close by God the soul is anxious to do what is pleasing to Him, but in spite of its best efforts it fails.  It knows that it must be so until it has acquired the Christian virtues, and it is filled with an ardent longing to be possessed of them.

Instinctively it turns to the study of the life of Jesus Christ on earth, in order to penetrate itself with an understanding of the manner of acting or suffering of Our Divine Lord.  It is not content to view the mystery in its external aspect as it strikes the senses; it aims at piercing through this to the interior movements, emotions, feelings and thoughts of the Man- God.  It strives to trace back the word or the action to the virtue in which it has its source; and labors to form to itself an idea of that human character which thoroughly pleased — satisfied, if the expression be permitted, Almighty God.[5]  The Gospel lays before us a picture of a perfect human life which, whilst remaining human, is all divine.  Its pages present us with a picture of virtue in act.  We see portrayed, Adoration, Prayer, Service of God, Zeal for His Service, Reverence in His Presence, Love of Souls, Devotedness, Disinterested Charity, Prudence, Temperance, Benignity, Kindliness, Simplicity, Condescension, Humility, Obedience and Fortitude carried to the utmost limit.  In Our Lord's soul was every human virtue compatible with His state, and every incident of His earthly existence calls one or more of them into activity.  Meditation consists in dwelling upon those incidents, studying their details and from those rising to an understanding of the perfect dispositions of Heart and Soul of Him Who is the center of each scene.  We consider how perfectly Our Lord acted in each case, and then under the influence of His grace we are led to turn back upon ourselves and contrast with His our manner of acting; for instance, a consideration of His patience reveals our own impatience; we set His forbearance over against our intolerance; His humility against our pride; His fortitude against our weakness; His firmness in good against our repinings and even rebellion, and so on.  This or some such return upon ourselves is necessary if meditation on the life of Our Lord is to produce abundant Fruit.[6]

Dwelling by thought on Our Lord in the actions of His Life, and grasping by our faith the truth that those thirty-three years were one long act of love for us, it is impossible that we should not be moved to love one who is so lovable, or at least to desire that we should have some love to give in return to one who has been and is so devoted to us.[7]  The charm of the personality of Jesus wins us to the admiration of the virtues which that personality exhibited and to long to possess those virtues.  The ideal set before us by Our Divine Lord stands clear and radiant and against its radiance is seen the dark picture of our vileness and continued infidelities.  This fills us with shame and confusion.  An acknowledgment of our unworthiness, of our want of virtue, and an act of profound humility in which we prostrate that unworthiness before the Infinite Purity, Justice and Goodness of Our Divine Lord, spontaneously rise from the soul when confronted with the contrast which our dispositions and way of acting present to His.  And not only do we realize in the light poured on us from the Holiness of the Heart of Jesus, that we are destitute of all goodness, but also there comes to us the harassing thought that this absence of virtue is due to ourselves, due to our resistance to grace, and to our multiplied sins and infidelities in the past. This reflection will cause the sincere soul to be penetrated through and through with compunction.

This return upon ourselves will be still more effective if we particularize it, that is, if we contrast Our Lord's way of acting with ours in similar circumstances of daily occurrence, or when brought in contact with certain persons with whom we are often associated.  Our self-seeking and our want of Charity will stand out with great distinctness and will appear detestable when we have established loving, sympathetic contact with the selflessness and charity of Jesus as revealed in some incident of His life.  There easily follows a resolution to be more Christ-like on these particular occasions (in which we have formerly failed), to deal more charitably with those persons, to be more considerate and less selfish.[8]  As it is always more profitable to consider our want of virtue not merely in the abstract, but also as exhibited in certain concrete cases, so, too, our resolutions should be of two kinds: first, a general one, to strive to imitate Our Divine Lord in His ways of life — to constitute Him our way — and then, in the second place, to determine to reproduce the features of His conduct in some selected circumstance of our life, where we signally fail.  Having had so frequently experienced the ill success of our efforts in the way of virtue, we are deeply conscious of our inability to give effect of ourselves to our resolutions and we turn in confidence and humility to our Lord to beseech Him to give us in abundance the graces that He has merited for us in order, that we may be able to conform ourselves to Him, as His heavenly Father has enjoined on us.  We can plead that injunction as a reason why our, prayer should he granted.  The Father has asked us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus: we must obey His word: we have tried and have not succeeded; it is incumbent on the mercy and compassion of Him Who became Man for our sakes to help us to fulfil that divine command.  And then, if we have been called to stand in special relations to Jesus, as priests or as religious, there is another and stronger reason why He should not refuse us His graces, in order that we may be more worthy of the exalted position we occupy with regard to Him.  And if we have been called to guide, to instruct and to be an exemplar for others, holiness is still more incumbent upon us, and our position makes a still stronger appeal to the mercy of the Lord for His efficacious grace.  In this way, reflections on our various needs will suggest reasons which we may urge with God in order to persuade Him to hear us. 

Our demands should be made with fervour, with confidence and with a strong insistence combined with reverence.  We may use a certain boldness though we should not allow any undue familiarity to appear in our relations with our Creator.  We may be bold because even if He is our Creator He is also our Father, and is ready to give all good gifts to His children.  We shall please Him best by not being niggardly in our demands: we must dare to ask a great holiness, a great purity of heart, and a high degree of prayer and union.  We shall be heard in proportion to the ardour of our desires.  In all these affective acts we may address ourselves directly to Jesus, Who is God as well as Man, or we may direct our petitions to God the Father, asking Him to grant them through the merits of His Divine Son made Man.  The prayers of the Church take this latter form.

In conclusion we should invoke the advocacy of the Blessed Virgin and that of those Saints towards whom we may have a devotion.  It is a useful thing to combine our prayer with the liturgy; hence our desires should be in harmony with the spirit of the liturgical season as expressed in the prayers of the Mass and in The Divine Offices: in union with the Church we should implore the help of the saint of the day, in order to obtain through his intercession the grace to be able to practise those virtues which he exhibited in his life.

Such is ordinary prayer in its main outlines — with its introduction, its conclusion and its principal theme.  The Body of the Prayer consists of Consideration, Admiration, Contrast, Self-Abasement, Regret, Desire, Resolution and Petition.  This is the logical order of the acts, and in mental prayer that is successful, all of them will usually be made, at least implicitly.  But this is not necessary:  if the soul feels attracted to abide in any one single affection without feeling an inclination to pass on to another it is better for it to follow its attraction and pass the whole time in the exercise of that particular affection.  Those acts of the will should not be allotted a time distinct from that given to the considerations; there should be no rigid line of demarcation between the two:  the considerations should always merge naturally into the affections.

The reflections are to be made as if we were studying the subject and giving expression to the thoughts to which it gives rise in us, in the presence of a sympathetic listener, who is ready to aid us by the illumination and strengthening of His grace.  This Divine Listener, as has been said, may be regarded as dwelling in the interior of our being, or may be considered outside of or in front of ourselves, if that way is more helpful.  To receive this aid from Him it is well to make certain pauses or complete cessations in the activities of will and understanding (as far as that is possible) and to hold the soul in an attitude of attention to the inspiration of the Divine Spirit.  The Divine Spirit operates powerfully during those moments of silence and recollection, though such action remains, in normal conditions.  imperceptible to us.[9] 

In our consideration we should not be content with one view of the subject, but should turn it over and consider It under its various aspects; first, we should study it in itself, in order that it may lay secure hold on the imagination.  If this faculty is gripped forcibly by the theme we shall have a strong help against distractions, and shall experience little difficulty in recalling our faculties whenever they stray from God.  In the second place, we must study the subject in relation to ourselves, in relation to the supernatural qualities we need to develop, the defects that we wish to overcome and the vices that we desire to extirpate.  But the end of prayer being not the mere acquisition of virtues, but union with God, and union with God being the effect of charity, it is the acts of the will, in which faculty charity resides, that arc of primary importance; the operations of the intellect are subordinated to them and are of value in so far as they call forth these acts of the will.  These are the affections.  The word should not mislead us into thinking that these should manifest themselves in an emotional way.  The will is spiritual and its activity need not necessarily cause any feelings.  It is quite possible to produce a strong affection and remain entirely unmoved as far as our sensitive nature is concerned.

# 3.  Application and Example.

At the commencement of our prayer we are to represent to ourselves Our Divine Lord as He was in the mystery which we are contemplating, retracing in our memory and in imagination some of the circumstances which were the setting of that mystery.  It is not necessary, and could be harmful, to retrace those circumstances in too much detail; they might divert us from the main consideration; for the regard of our soul should be fixed on the person of Our Divine Lord Himself.  With the eye of Faith we must picture Him, to ourselves, according to the dispositions in which He was at the time as revealed to us by His own words on the occasion, or by the words of the Evangelist. His interior attitude thus reproduced in our imagination aids us to pass beyond the veil of external historical circumstances and penetrate into the secrets of His soul.  By grace and faith we can discern what passes there.  This effort to read the Heart of Jesus should be made with the same eager sympathy with which we strive to interpret the thoughts and feelings of those whom we love, when we are in their company, and perceive that they are laboring under some strong emotion.  What our love reveals to us will excite us to adoration, respect, compassion, thanksgiving, etc., according to the subject.  These acts will spring naturally from our souls if we realize vividly to ourselves the presence of Our Lord.

This proximity to Him is not a fiction of the imagination; it is a reality.  We can converse with Him, address our thoughts and aspirations towards Him, express sympathy with Him, as we should have done were we near Him when He was on earth.  This can be made clear by a concrete example.  Let us, for instance, represent Our Lord as He was presented by Pilate to the people.  The imagination easily pictures the immense crowd that thronged the space before the Pretorium; it can conjure up the cruel expression on those faces upturned to see the Savior led forth by the soldiers from Pilate's hall, and the horrid execrations that burst from their lips, as He appeared.  One can see Jesus crowned with thorns, covered with wounds, streaming with blood, and clotted in the miserable mockery of a royal mantle.  His head is bent slightly forward and His Divine eyes range with pity over that hostile crowd.  In spite of the cruel extremity to which He is reduced, His presence dominates the scene; a tranquil majesty, rising superior to outrage and insult, radiates from His figure.  In His Heart is the resolve to endure all for the salvation of men, even for those howling for His blood, and to carry out to its last exigency the will of that Heavenly Father to Whose service He had devoted every moment of His mortal life.  No anger against His undeserved fate, no hatred of those who hated Him to death, only compassion for their waywardness, found place in His magnanimous Heart.  His love for them triumphed over the worst efforts of their hostility.  One instinctively prostrates oneself before a person who is so high-souled.  After the act of adoration the soul asks itself why our Lord, though worthy only of glory, praise and honor, accepted to undergo such humiliations.  He who is the source of all gladness is plunged in desolation; the All- powerful Who could, with a simple act of the will, destroy His persecutors, stands there with His hands bound and at the mercy of His creatures.  Why all that?  To expiate sin, and our sins amongst the number.  What gratitude do we not owe for such disinterested love, and what horror should we not have for that evil which has caused such suffering! The soul should be penetrated through and through with a hatred of sin, and bitter sorrow for ever having committed it.  Humility, Contrition, Love, are the fruit of those reflections.  Furthermore, He Who was innocent endured all this unjust treatment without a murmur, and we rebel against all harsh treatment, even when we deserve it.  And in fact we who have sinned can never be dealt with unjustly by creatures, since we are real criminals.

In this way should our considerations be intermingled with affections — each thought should suggest an appropriate act of the will.  The whole exercise should thus end in an ardent longing to reflect in our own conduct what we have seen in Our Divine Model, and in a disposition to remain in a sympathetic union with Him in the state in which we have contemplated Him.  This disposition of ours should not be allowed to lose its hold on us once we have quitted prayer; during the whole day, we should from time to time retrace in our memory the image of Our Lord as we saw Him in the morning's meditation.  And when the moment of reducing to practice the good resolutions we have made presents itself, this mental picture will be of great assistance to us in exercising the act of virtue required.

Besides those acts of the will which arise naturally out of the subject, there are others which should form, as it were, the web on which should be woven the pattern of our intercourse with God.  These we shall now consider.

Endnotes:

  1. St. Matt.  xvi 26.
  2. Meaning "ideas calculated to induce action."
  3. Teresa's words contain useful advice:  — "These souls are almost always occupied with the work of the understanding, in discourse of meditation, and they do well, because more is not given to them.  Still, it would be good sometimes, to employ themselves in making acts of love and praise of God, doing it as best they can, for these acts powerfully excite the will." (Interior Castle.  4th Mansions.  chap. I. 7.)
  4. St. James iv. 8.
  5. "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." (St. Matt.  iii. 17.)
  6. It must always be remembered, however, that return upon ourselves is not the essential activity and such return must be interwoven with abundant petition for Divine Light.  Any concentration on self not directed and controlled by a supernatural impulse and movement of grace is likely to beget mere natural activity if not to degenerate into morbid self-analysis.
  7. The soul need never fear to spend much time in such movements towards love.  They are supremely efficacious in the process of sanctification.  Since Our Lord is "the Way" not only because He exemplifies and merits holiness for us, but also, because He communicates it, the soul's response to these impulses of love (a response which for the most part consists in a 'yearning' and a 'listening') will carry it far and quickly on the path of prayer towards union with God.
  8. In these returns on ourselves it is on the clear light of Jesus rather than on the activity of our own intellect that we must rely for the true vision of what we are.  Intellect may and should be exercised in reflections on the actions, emotions, etc., of Our Lord, but having thus drawn near, we seek the vision of self especially as He reveals it in the light of His love.  "He that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness." (St. John viii. 12.) Having done our part we may rely on Him to give the necessary light.  It usually comes in flashes without much activity on our part.  Drawing near to Our Lord in sincerity — by an earnest prayerful study of Him — we become conscious of our vileness; as a child is aware of its limitations in the presence of "grown ups," as a savage realizes his inferiority in the presence of the civilized man.
  9. In this connection Fr.  Lallemont's words are of interest:  — "It is an error in prayer to constrain ourselves to give it always a practical bearing.  We excite and disquiet ourselves in resolving how we shall behave on such and such occasions, what acts of humility, for example, we shall practice.  This way of meditating by consideration of virtues is wearisome to the mind, and may even possibly produce disgust. Not but that it is well to do this when we pray, to foresee occasions and prepare ourselves for them; but it should be done with freedom of mind, without refusing to yield ourselves to the simple recollection of contemplation when we feel ourselves drawn to it.  For then Our Lord in the course of one single meditation will endow a soul with some particular virtue and even with many virtues in a far higher degree than would be acquired in several years by these external acts." "Sp. Doctrine," Prin.ii. Sec. ii. ch. iv.

Endnotes:

  1. St. John iv. 13.
  2. St. John iv. 13.
  3. cf. Homily of St. Gregory in the Gospel of the Sunday within the Octave of Corpus Christi.
  4. Not in its esse physicum but in its "esse intentionale."
  5. The word 'feels' is of course by analogy with bodily perception.  It is one that is commonly used by mystical writers to describe this 'experience' of God indwelling in the soul.
  6. St. John xiv. 21.
  7. St. Luke ix. 33.
  8. St. Mark ix. 6.
  9. 2 Pet.  I. 16-17. 

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. "The Body of Mental Prayer." chapter 12 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 1176-190.

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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