When the soul moved by grace resolves to place itself entirely under the direction of Jesus in view of its spiritual advancement, it is, ordinarily speaking, full of imperfections.
"It is written — not on bread alone doth man live, but on
every word that procedeth from the mouth of God." Luke iv. 4
Moreover, it does not realize how imperfect it is. Having as yet no comprehension of perfection it is without understanding of imperfection. It is not alive to all the evil that is active in itself. It comes to Jesus with a natural outlook, independent, passionate, sensual, proud, uncharitable, a lover of ease and se]f- satisfaction. Novices in the spiritual life are all this, without their being aware of the fact of anything being wrong with them in that respect. They know of sin only as a positive violation of God's Law, and are unaware that there is an habitual cast of thought, that is more dangerous than an actual evil act. They come imbued with the spirit of the world and fashioned to the habits, formed by the years of living according to that spirit. Life has been for them a tissue of those ideas, judgments, sentiments, principles, hopes, fears, desires, regrets and dreams which envelop the souls of men, corrupt their vision and little by little hide from them heaven and the eternity for which they are destined. To those entering on the spiritual life, things spiritual have appealed but vaguely, whilst all that can be seen, weighed, touched and handled, alone have had value in their eyes. The spirit of the world is the spirit which considers life, health, glory, beauty, riches, family, country, goodness itself, without referring them to God their author and end; it looks upon these as objects to possess without any reference to God. Under the influence of this spirit they are attracted to sensible things, to honors, pleasures and satisfactions of all sorts and they are averse from heavenly contemplation.
When God gives the call to the interior life, a ray of Divine Actual Grace penetrates through this darkness that surrounds the soul, revealing to it, in a flash of light, the beauty of the ideal of a spiritual or divine life, and at the same time the will, by an additional grace, is captivated by the beauty of this ideal and moved to embrace it. The soul without as yet understanding anything of the ways of God or of the life of union with Him dimly perceives that it is beautiful and happiness-giving. Then the soul resolves to undertake that search for God which, if persevered in, will end in the finding of Him and of itself.
The beginning of the interior life is therefore much occupied with intellectual activity. It is devoted to the consideration of what we are, of what God is. It is a study of the Christian life, its principles and its maxims. The will's activity consists in the endeavor to establish in ourselves the conviction that there should be a necessary connection between the doctrine of the Gospel and our way of living. What is discovered in this study shows a startling contrast between the principles on which most of one's conduct has been based and the principles laid down in the Gospel by Our Divine Lord. There follows on this discovery, feelings of uneasiness, shame, terror and a keen desire to escape from the un-Christian state of soul in which one finds oneself. The newly awakened soul is startled to find that in reality it had been living its life as if the Gospel and its principles were meant to apply only in a partial measure to itself, and were reserved in their literal application only to some rare beings with a special vocation to be saints.
It is truly disconcerting to find that there is but one Gospel for all and that one has to conform oneself to that, or face the most severe consequences here and hereafter. Without deliberately formulating it as a theory, the average person practically works out a comfortable kind of Gospel for himself, bearing but a faint resemblance to that of Jesus Christ. In other words people who are not definitely converted to God, Christians who allow themselves to be carried away by the worldly and false life around them, come to justify views, principles and a course of action which find no justification in the teaching of Jesus Christ. "God is hidden in us, and from us," writes St. John of the Cross. "To find Him we must go to hide ourselves where He is hidden. In other words to find God, we must forget ourselves completely, separate ourselves from all creatures and retire within our own interior. Then having renounced all, we can pray to the Father in secret." The beginnings of the Presence of God are very painful and demand strong efforts, for sin (and the habits it engenders) has sown such discord in the original relations between the soul and its Creator, that we are in truth strangers to God — strangers to Him who is our First Principle and our Last End — as if an abyss separated us from Him in whom we live, move and have our being.
"We have been so accustomed," says St. Teresa, "to follow every whim and fancy, to gratify ourselves in all that we consider not positively sinful (our efforts to live a Christian life have consisted rather in the effort to avoid what was wrong, than to do what was right) that the soul no longer understands itself as a soul. To accustom it to God it is necessary to proceed slowly, with caution and patience."
A vivid realization of the falsity of its attitude towards life is the first strong grace given to the soul when it resolves to turn to God. The work that is demanded from it, if it is to profit by that grace, is that it should form strong, deep and practical convictions on this one point — namely that the type of life portrayed by Our Lord is the only one that can be adopted by oneself if one is to be Christian. Owing to ingrained habits, the soul finds an active rebellion in itself against the acceptation of this life as its own. Mental Prayer at this point is made up chiefly of considerations; the activity is mostly of the understanding; the role of the will is limited. The acts of the latter are mostly of repentance, an earnest pleading for forgiveness for the past which looms now in horror against the vivid light which God has projected on the background of the previous existence. The soul with a deep sense of its own sinfulness pours itself out in humble petitions for help to improve. The Lord listens patiently, contemplates with pity, says very little on His side (for the soul cannot as yet understand the Divine instructions) but accords an increased taste for spiritual things, a detestation of worldly things, and the grace of strong repentance. The soul begins little by little to see itself as God sees it, because it has learned to make its considerations as if analyzing itself in the presence of the Divine Master. Even when engaged in an examination of its own states and dispositions it must not turn its gaze away from the Lord or lose the sense of His presence. It must examine itself, as it were, through His eyes and in His light.
The soul leaves the presence of Jesus with the resolution to practice the virtues which it has seen in Him and to uproot the vices it has now discovered in itself. It succeeds as long as the movement of fervor lasts and is cheated by this success into the belief that it is already on the high road to sanctity. The soul having an imperfect notion of the action of prayer, falls into the mistake of thinking that it can have virtues for the mere asking of them and rid itself of its defects by praying for such an emancipation. It does not realize that to acquire the former and rid itself of the latter, there is required a long process and much labor and toil. To extirpate a vice requires a constant unremitting reaction against its activity, by continual exercise of the acts of the opposite virtue. The soul does not readily understand this, and very easily, in a sense of false security due to the excesses of fervor it has experienced, it allows itself to drift into ways and modes of action incompatible with the interior life. It yields to dissipation, distraction and immortification without adverting to the fact that these faults rapidly undermine the frail spiritual edifice it has constructed. The old habits have not, as it thinks, been burned away and destroyed in the fervor of sensible devotion. Their activities have been dormant for a time but they have remained strongly rooted in the soul. The consequence is that when the fervor has passed and the normal play of circumstances begins, and occasions arise, things forthwith make the same appeal to the appetites as before.
Very few realize that every mortal sin leaves on the soul a strong tendency to evil — sets up in it a perverse disposition which does not disappear with the tears of repentance and the sentence of pardon. The habits created by years of the self-indulgence of a worldly life do not disappear in the fervor of a well-made retreat. Unless one is on the watch and exercises oneself in mortification, these habits begin to manifest themselves when the circumstances are favorable to their excitation. The things that pleased of old begin to exercise the same attraction again; and in corresponding measure the taste for spiritual things declines. The inexperienced soul is astonished and dismayed at finding as active in itself as ever the evil tendencies which it believed had disappeared for ever. In the renewed contact with the evil in itself, all the period of fervor begins to appear to have been a time of unreality. Having begun the super-natural enterprise under a false notion, it becomes discouraged and loses confidence in itself. It has erred in confusing sensible devotion with spirituality.
God gives sensible fervor in order to enable us to break more readily with our vicious habits. Being immortified we are drawn towards that which is most attractive for us. God, stooping to this weakness and profiting by it in the interests of our salvation, gives us a sensible attraction to spiritual things and shows us natural things in a light which renders them distasteful. By this illumination we are enabled to form a conviction of the superiority of the good of the soul over any merely natural good. This conviction is made to enable us to persevere afterwards when all becomes dark.
Spirituality itself has no attraction for nature; on the contrary nature is repelled by it. Our progress in the spiritual life is in direct proportion to the degree in which nature has been brought into subjection. Now, if the sensible attraction for spiritual things were to continue to exist, our nature, that is, the appetite for self-gratification in us, would be nourished by it and would not die. God, to wean the soul from seeking its gratification in creatures, offers it in the beginning a gratification of a superior kind derived from spiritual things. But the soul cannot make progress unless it aims at spirituality independently of any gratification it finds in it. Hence to cure it of its "spiritual sensuality," God withdraws sensible delight in the interior life and leaves the soul to go forward in faith. The soul then finds itself faced with the evil habits and tendencies fostered by a life lived for the gratification of self. To conquer these habits and develop the supernatural virtues of religion, humility, charity and mortification, God leaves the beginner in the spiritual life with merely the firm conviction, based upon faith, of the necessity of acquiring the virtues just mentioned, of advancing in the grace of God and saving his soul.
In this state it is evident that things will act upon the individual in the way in which they were wont to act. The soul is affected by things precisely in the same way as it was affected by them previous to its conversion. It is readily drawn towards what is opposed to the life of the spirit, and it has no attraction towards the acts and habits that pertain to the life of virtue. It has nothing to move it to the practice of christian virtue except the rational conviction, enlightened by faith, of the utility and the necessity of virtue if it is to attain to union with God.
This is a moment of serious danger in the spiritual life. It is a point where great numbers turn aside and quit the path that leads to intimacy with God. Mortification, the avoidance of occasions that tempt to dissipation or sensuality and the strong resolve to cling to God even though His service involve only hardship and distastefulness — these are the safeguards against failure. But if one is weak, if one allows oneself to drift into the ways frequented before, if one seeks the same satisfactions in pleasant companionships and indulges in the practices of the previous immortified life, if one permits sensuality, waste of time, self-indulgence and self-seeking to invade one's life, the inevitable happens. The supernatural becomes a vague unreal memory, a dream from which one has awakened to reality. The conviction of its importance is obliterated and all the good effects produced during the period of fervor disappear. Having been accustomed to doing always that which is agreeable and to avoid what is disagreeable, the soul gives up spirituality as soon as it ceases to exercise an attraction on it. The soul longed to find in spirituality a bread pleasing to the sensible palate and so falls victim to the temptations of sensuality. The soul at this juncture undergoes a struggle that bears a resemblance to the first temptation of Our Savior in the desert. The temptation is to renounce the pursuit of union with God when there is no longer any " felt " or experienced satisfaction in that pursuit. It is the temptation to ask that the stones that go to make up the rugged path that leads to God, the hard stones of mortification and self- denial, change their nature and be turned into something agreeable to the palate of the natural man.
This temptation is very strong and many souls fall victims to it. It is all the more subtle because it seems so reasonable. To the soul, finding in itself a positive distaste for what appears to be the cold forbidding deserts of the spiritual life and finding in itself on the other hand a very strong inclination for and a drawing towards the pleasures of the natural life, it seems absurd to continue the pursuit of an ideal for which its experiences apparently manifest its unfitness. The former efforts after a practice of Christianity above the ordinary now appear the effect of a vain and mistaken ambition. The soul does not "feel" itself to be spiritual, why should it continue to act in the way spiritual persons act? Why not satisfy the natural longings (of course always within the limits of the Ten Commandments) — why not "command the stones to be made bread" and live like everybody else? Carried away by these reasonings the soul gives up the practice of the interior life altogether or becomes slack and perfunctory in the exercise of that life. Its ambition gradually dwindles down to what it thinks to be the observance of the decalogue; the observance of the ordinary law of God as interpreted by itself is sufficient spirituality, it thinks, for one of its humble attainments and unspiritual tastes; it is effort enough to keep within the limits of the main points of Christian law. It persuades itself that salvation may be secured by these limited efforts without facing the hardships of an austere interior life. For a soul that has received the call to close intimacy with God such a resolve may prove fatal.
As the temptation bears a resemblance to that of Jesus in the desert, the resistance to it must be such as His was. "Not on bread alone doth man live but on every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." Bread is undoubtedly the staff of life. But the life that it maintains is not the only one that is given to man to live. Life can have a higher form, and nourishment of another kind. If we seek for a " life that is truly life " — and that is what we are really seeking — we must give up looking for it in the eating of bread, that is, in the pursuit of those things that are agreeable to the appetite of the natural man. This seeking after and the giving oneself every possible gratification, short of those that involve a grave breach of God's law, does give a certain kind of life, but this life is as nothing compared with that which is enjoyed by feeding our souls on the word of God. Life is to be sought only where it is to be found lastingly; it is so found in intimacy with God, in converse with Him, in nourishing our souls on His communications. Life is to be found for us in the words that proceed from the mouth of God and are addressed to the spirit within. Convinced of the fundamental truth that we are created to praise, revere and serve God, convinced that we belong to Him absolutely whether we will it or no, we must be resolved to persevere in fulfilling His will in our regard, — which will is our sanctification  — even though everything that the fulfillment of that will involves, prove distasteful to us. We must be ready to pursue the work of our own sanctification, even though we are sorely tried by hunger after the satisfactions of a life lived for the indulgence of every gratification not positively sinful. We must be strong to rise superior to our feelings and to follow not that which is more pleasant, but that which conducts us most surely and securely to God's friendship.
The discipline of the religious life, resolutely submitted to, is a great help in this crisis. The rule calls to the exercise of prayer several times in the day; it enjoins an attention and a reverential posture at these exercises; in this way it saves the soul from a complete surrender to itself. If the sorely tempted soul were free to regulate the activities of its day, it would, probably, abandon the practice of mental prayer altogether as being tedious and unfruitful.
Spirituality itself has no attraction for nature; on the contrary nature is repelled by it.
There is a definite course of conduct to be followed in this trial if the danger it carries with it is to be escaped. The person that has begun to walk in the way of the interior life, must continue to acquit him- self of his exercises of prayer with fidelity and with all the perfection, at least material and exterior, that he brought to their acquittal when carried away by a strong movement of devotion and fervor. He must do them even though he finds no apparent good in his prayer, even though he has no satisfaction in it, even though he has a positive distaste for it. In a word though he finds himself in no way 'prayerful,' he must 'act as if' he were. Those who are at this point in the interior life must not allow themselves to be betrayed into making their outward bearing reflect what they think to be their inner attitude of soul. Though they feel as if all their spirituality had oozed away from their soul, they must continue to bear themselves in their relations with persons or things, and especially their spiritual exercises, as they did when fervent. The salutary effect of this will be felt speedily, for there is a natural reaction of the exterior on the interior. There is a great virtue in this principle of "acting as if." Men tend to develop feelings corresponding to their actions. The successful effort to wear a smiling countenance induces an inner disposition of pleasantness and amiability. Thoughts in their turn are influenced by feelings and finally actions bear the impress of thoughts. It is by the working of this psychological law that a spiritual bearing and deportment, as, for instance, a deliberately reverential attitude in the presence of God, a christian dignity and elevation in speech, and a courteous attitude towards others, are instrumental in producing a true, inward devotion. For all this, of course, there are needed, courage, energy and self-discipline.
The earnest and upright soul must not allow itself to be betrayed into the belief that in acting in the manner outlined it will be behaving in ~n unreal and hypocritical manner. It is a common temptation to judge that it is dishonest not to bear oneself outwardly as one is (or believes one is) inwardly. This judgment contains a profound error. There are in us two selves, the true and the false. We are more conscious of the latter than the former, and that is the reason why the false appears to us to be the real self. By Baptism we have been made children of God and have ceased to be children of wrath. The true self in us, in consequence, is the child of grace, the brother of Jesus Christ. The alien from God has been thrust out by Baptism, ostracized, and condemned to death. "You are not," says St. Paul, writing to the Romans, "in the flesh, but in the spirit . . . and if Christ be in you, the body indeed is dead because of sin, but the spirit liveth because of justification . . . therefore, brethren, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh." We are really false in our bearing and untrue to ourselves when we act and speak according to the unspiritual promptings in us. That character is not acting hypocritically but acting in the very reverse manner, who carries himself outwardly in all the relations of life, as a being that is spiritual, of heavenly tastes, though he " feels" anything but that interiorly. Furthermore, by constantly acting " spiritually " he becomes " spiritual."
When Satan, urging this argument of hypocrisy, bids us be such as we find ourselves, he must be met by a counter argument. He said to the Lord, " Why depend on God for your food, why not use the power that is really yours and make these stones be bread ? " The Savior answered that though there was in Him a life that was sustained by bread, there was another and a higher life that was sustained by loving dependence on and union with God. So likewise, when Satan whispers to us that we are really but sinful creatures, with earthly tastes and likings, and that we should, if sincere and honest, act as such, our reply should have a parallelism with that of the Savior's. " True," we should say to him, " we are sinful creatures, but we are not only that. We have been redeemed. By right and title we are children of God." That is what we really and truly are; the other we have been. To act then as it becomes us to act, truly to reflect in our conduct what we are, we must in all things comport ourselves as having heavenly tastes and ideals. It is to be admitted that years of seeking after gratification have developed in us tastes the very opposite of those that befit a child of God. At present, owing to the habits formed by the years of self-indulgence, I find interiorly a contradiction between my true and my false self, and the latter seems to be predominant. Yet by the cultivation of a truly spiritual bearing in all things possible to me by ascetical effort aided by grace, I know that this contradiction will ultimately disappear. The exterior will finally affect the interior; the old habits will wither away and I shall end by finding satisfaction in God alone. My life will be the living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. When the soul has in this manner rejected the wiles of Satan, she has taken a decisive step onward in the. interior life.
It is because many souls are persuaded that they should reflect in their exterior what they conceive to be their true, but what is in reality their false self, that there is the too common spectacle of those who having begun well end by being complete failures spiritually. The arguments of Satan, condemning as hypocrisy, this effort to " act as if spiritual," must be treated as a temptation and met by counter arguments. The truth is that the Christian is by Baptism a child of God and should therefore have an interior disposition corresponding to that state. He should have affection only for God and for all else in God. When conversion is at its beginning, the evil habits that have been contracted by a past life lived for self, give us tastes quite opposite to the tastes that should be those of a child of God. Those heavenly tastes and instincts cannot become rooted in the soul until the contrary ones have been rooted out. That rooting out will involve time and labor. But in the meantime whilst awaiting the successful termination of the process of destroying the perverse tendencies, the Christian can school himself to act as if the process were complete. He must so bear himself as if his tastes were all spiritual, avoiding such speech, such acts, such judgment, such courses of conduct as mark the non-spiritual.
- St. John of the Cross. 1st Strophe of The Dark Night of the Soul.
- The words in parenthesis are mine.
- "Way of Perfection" — St. Theresa. chap. xxvi.
- In speaking of adopting the type of life led by Our Lord, the words are not to be taken in a materiel sense. To adopt the Lord's life does not involve taking up the occupation of His earthly existence, but it means living our life after the principles which guided his.
- The word 'nature' here is to be taken in the ascetical, not in the exact philosophical sense. It means what St. Catherine of Siena calls sensuality It is the 'ensemble' of these tendencies both of the spirit and the senses in which man aims at procuring his own satisfaction, independently of the law both of reason and of faith.
- St. Matt. iv. 4.
- "This is the will of God, your sanctification." (I Thess. iv. 3)
- Rom. viii. 9-l.
- It may be noted that it is equally true according to this psychological
law that by exteriorly acting in an "unspiritual way" one becomes
unspiritual. This fact frequently becomes of practical importance in the
spiritual life. The tendency to take the line of least resistance, to be
accommodating, to respond to the dictates of human respect, often leads
souls to assume a course of action or agree with a course of thought which
is distinctly unspiritual and even worldly. Such "putting on" is meant to
be "for the time being," but apart from the fact that it means a definite
relinquishing of principles it has the sad result of developing the
facility to be worldly and unspiritual and of producing a mentality that is
by no means Christ-like. The truth of this is exemplified in the case of
religious who in contact with the world (the parlor or hospital) assume
the ways and line of thought of those who are not in religion and whose
lives are not completely influenced by the principles of Christ Our Lord.
If spiritual progress is to be made the soul must adopt the advice of St.
John Berchmans: Make open profession of aiming at the interior life.
Progress Through Mental Prayer
Chapter 10 - The Vision of Faith Purified by Mental Prayer
Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "The First Stage in the Transformation." chapter 6 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 66-81.
Progress Through Mental Prayer is in the public domain.
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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