In this stage the soul becomes ardently eager for its own perfection and feels a deep humiliation and shame at its imperfections.
"It is written — thou shalt adore the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve." St. Luke iv. 8.
The soul having thus successfully surmounted the first great trial in the interior life returns to God with the conviction that it must serve Him, not for the delight it finds in the things appertaining to His service but solely for His sake and for the sake of union with Him as the end for which it has been created. It is now clearly seen that seeking God is not a matter of delight but of a steady struggle to overcome defects, root out vices and practice virtues. With this end in view, prayer takes on a new tone. Already in the first stage strong and deep convictions have been formed with regard to fundamental truths. The soul now occupies itself seriously with the means of realizing the consequences that flow from these basic truths. The principal of these consequences is that God must be won at all costs and that the life which does not issue in close union with Him is a failure. Acts of sorrow and regret are still frequent, but they have changed somewhat their tone and character. Formerly they proceeded principally from a hatred of the acts of sin because of the evil consequences they involved, now repentance tends to become a dislike of sin as being destructive of the moral beauty the soul aspires to.
The soul realizes its own fundamental weakness; it sees that the source of its sins lies deeper than it thought at first. It thought it had only to make an act of the will in order to be good. It thought that it had only to will to change and immediately spiritual tastes would replace the earthly ones. It finds that it can will and will very strongly to change and yet no change follows. It believed that there was nothing more in sin than the act, and that with the cessation of the act would disappear the root of the sins. It has not yet realized that the habit of self-will and self-indulgence is rooted out only by a long course of self-denial. The evil that it still finds strong in itself makes it understand that its own conversion to good has not destroyed in it the source of corruption. It has become clear that this source can be dried up only by a laborious pursuit and practice of the acts of the virtues contrary to the vices it finds rooted in itself. It knows too that its own efforts count little but that much can be achieved by the help of the Divine Master. It trusts to His goodness for that help. Its chief aim at this stage, becomes the acquisition of the virtues and it sets itself to a study of the means to acquire these virtues and to overcome the opposite vices.
The soul becomes ardently eager for its own perfection and feels a deep humiliation and shame at its imperfections. It asks the Lord earnestly to assist it to acquire these virtues and to raise it to the perfection it ambitions. Souls at this point often experience an acute spiritual jealousy of others whom they see advanced in the way of perfection; they are pained at the humiliating contrast presented by their own miserable state. This ambition and jealousy show that there is a large measure of self-love and self-esteem in the desire to become perfect. They importune Our Lord, more because they desire to see them- selves perfect, than to see God served. Acts of virtue are frequent. The soul gives itself eagerly to the practice of them, because it has confidence that it can, with God's co-operation, attain the end it has set before itself. The life of Jesus forms the ordinary subject of meditation. The soul desires to contemplate Him in the practice of the different virtues, in order to stimulate itself to the desire of them and to learn how to practice them after the manner of its Divine Model. The Lord, on His side, co-operates more strongly — impressing the imagination powerfully with the details of His mysteries and forming the intelligence to a more perfect understanding of the principles underlying His life on earth. The soul is carried away by the beauty and desirability of a life lived after the pattern He has traced. When in prayer, owing to the strong way it is affected by the beauty of the conduct it contemplates, it believes itself strong against its own weakness and it thinks that it can easily imitate the Lord's virtue. Outside of prayer it finds its weakness. It believes itself at times to be virtuous but fails under test. Pained at its own failure and seeing in prayer alone a remedy, it returns to it with eagerness and multiplies its petitions. The acts of the will become more numerous and gradually replace in prominence the acts of the intellect. The Lord gives good inspirations in plenty. His direction is stronger and more manifest. The virtues begin to grow feebly because the soul is schooling itself to act under the inspiration of grace and is partially successful. The rule of life is carefully observed; the soul is attentive to inspirations, but is still full of the seeds of faults. These escape it on many occasions — especially faults of impatience, irritation and jealousy. The habit of prayer however, grows and the practice of it becomes less difficult.
By the aid of the particular examination it succeeds occasionally for a certain length of time in producing the acts of one or other of the virtues. This temporary success lulls it into security and cheats it into the belief that the virtue in question is firmly rooted in the soul. A sudden surprise, an encounter not prepared for, causes it to relapse into impatience, uncharitableness, irritability, jealousy, etc., and it realizes with keen disappointment that the virtue it fondly hoped that it possessed is yet far from being acquired.
The days as they pass, witness a constant alternation of these successes and failures. The spiritual combat is a series of beginnings. After much effort little progress is to be noted, apparently. The soul finds itself as prone to criticism, ill temper, sensuality, etc., as ever. It begins to wonder why the Lord shows Himself so deaf to its appeals and allows it to remain a prey to its vices and defects. It cannot reconcile the continued refusal, as it seems to it to be, to accord it the virtues it pleads for so humbly, earnestly and perseveringly, with the Lord's promise to give whatever should be asked for in prayer. Tested by actual experience how can His words, "Ask and you shall receive" be found to be true? The soul has asked again and again, and it has not received.
This is the ordinary state of good souls. Their faults are numerous enough but their conscience is delicate and reproaches them for any want of generosity in God's service. The source of their failures is to be traced to their want of detachment from creatures but especially detachment from themselves. Their notion of holiness evinces that, for they pursue not so much the service of God as their own perfection. They do not want to be miserable and imperfect, their self-love rebels against that. Hence, they pursue virtue for its own sake, and they hate vice because it is degrading and ugly. Nevertheless the action of the Lord is strong upon them and increases continually whilst the action of the soul, hitherto somewhat feverish and full of natural effort, becomes calmer and less complex. The prayer tends to become more affective and has fewer and simpler considerations. In the light of the illuminations the soul receives from its Divine guide and director, it observes in itself defects which would before have passed unobserved or which would have been regarded as not worth considering. The Lord reproaches it for any infidelities and especially for any natural attachments that it tends to allow itself to contract. It is given clearly to under- stand that the Lord will not have a divided heart and that His love demands perfect detachment.
It has not yet realized that the habit of self-will and self-indulgence is rooted out only by a long course of self-denial.
The danger for the soul at this juncture is serious, for it can become ensnared by its own striving after perfection. It is sincere in its belief that it is actuated by an earnest desire to draw closer to God. But in reality since it has as yet made little progress in detachment. its love of God is not pure. It contains a heavy mixture of alloy. It is its own goodness, its own perfection, its own purity that the soul is enamoured of. The ideal of "itself perfect" draws it and inspires its efforts. God of course is not excluded from this ideal for the call to perfection comes from God, and it is in obedience to this call that the spiritual enterprise has been engaged in. But not having as yet a clear idea of what constitutes its perfection, the soul unwittingly is drawn on, mainly by the anxiety to see itself equipped with virtue. Its own moral beauty, seen in thought as an object capable of being realized by the aid of God, is what the soul is in love with. It thinks that this moral excellence is what God has appointed to it as an end to strive after. The snare is a subtle one. It is not easy for the inexperienced to see that there is a refined self-love involved in this struggle after virtue, or rather after "oneself virtuous." It is God, not virtue, that must be loved since virtue is a means not an end. Not seeing this clearly, the soul is, unawares, really captivated by an ideal that is human and created. The weakness generated in the soul by this, leaves it exposed to be captivated by other forms of created good and to seek its satisfaction therein. The devil seizes his opportunity to ensnare it by one of its predominant tendencies. The soul is easily led to form an obstinate attachment to its own excellence proposed to it under the guise that makes the strongest appeal to its temperament. The ambitious soul is carried away by the desire of praise, of success, of position. The pursuit of all this will be made to appear as in line with one's progress in perfection and the service of God. The affectionate and attractive soul will be tempted to exercise its power and to attach others to itself — ostensibly in the interests of God. The cold and upright will be easily betrayed into a spirit of self-righteousness, domineering, harshness of judgment, uncharitableness and want of consideration for others. Because of the love of self that has insinuated itself into its pursuit of virtue the soul may readily fall a victim to one or other of these temptations.
There is still another and a common danger to which it is exposed through this base alloy of self-love that is mixed with its love of God. Just as it is attracted by that created object — its own excellence, so it may easily be drawn to the real or fancied good in other creatures. At this stage the soul owing to its imperfection can easily form attachments to creatures. These attachments are usually based upon the discernment of real excellence in the object. The soul accustomed to love its own excellence easily succumbs to the attraction of excellence in others. The affection called forth by what is really good, will appear to be justifiable and according to God. It often has, in fact, spiritual beginnings. But such attachments to creatures, no matter how good, will, at this stage of the soul's progress, eventually degenerate into something really harmful. The good that is loved remains a created good. An idol is set up on the heart alongside of God. The inordinate love of the created cannot exist by the side of the love of the Creator. The Holy Ghost is driven from His rightful place and the soul becomes insensible to His inspirations. Spiritual progress is impeded and retrogression begins. What is more dangerous still is that this retrogression is imperceptible and will have reached an advanced stage before it arouses attention. The reason is that the soul, having acquired, by its previous efforts, habits of regularity of prayer and of other pious practices, does not lose these habits immediately. It can continue for a considerable time invested with the outward form of spirituality, after the inner spirit has taken its departure.
This temptation to love a created excellence in oneself or others — an excellence that is wrongly thought to be closely connected with the attractiveness of God — marks a decisive moment in the interior life. Our Divine Lord has shown us how to resist it. We must be always on our guard and never rely to any extent on the progress we have made. Attachments to self in any of the ways above mentioned have slight and often imperceptible beginnings and before it is aware the soul is entangled. To avoid this disaster the soul must never allow itself to rest in any created thing no matter how good. Even its own holiness and excellence is not to be pursued as an end. Even that must remain simply a means to God. "And Jesus answering said to him: It is written; thou shalt adore the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve." Satan unveiled to the Savior's gaze the whole realm of created loveliness. There was much in that vision to attract and subjugate the human heart. The appeal of beauty is very strong and it is not the ignoble but the gifted and idealistic that are most sensitive to that appeal. There are few that would appreciate as the Savior did the attractiveness that stood revealed to Him in the whole realm of nature that was spread before His gaze. The tempter thought that the Man who stood before him would be conquered by that attractiveness, made a slave to it and weaned thereby from the charm of the Creator of it all. He thought that by an inordinate affection Jesus would be made the slave of the creature and withdrawn from subjection to God. He was utterly mistaken. Jesus loved what He saw, but loved it in God and not as a substitute for or in the place of God. Before God only would He prostrate Himself. To Him only would He offer the worship of His love. To His beauty only would He acknowledge Himself a slave.
The soul that is determined to go forward in the interior life must be on its guard against all attachments to creatures. There are, of course, human affections which are in the plan of God and blessed by Him. There is no question of these legitimate affections, but of the ones that are called inordinate. These latter either not being according to God or not observing the measure ordained by God, necessarily oust God from the soul and take His place. Even good souls are susceptible to beauty in the various forms in which it presents itself. They are susceptible to beauty of mind, to beauty of soul and to beauty of the external form. The beauty in inanimate nature and the splendors of art in its various forms can exercise a strong sway over them. Pious souls are prone to be strongly drawn towards those whom they think have been for them an inspiration to good and whose qualities of mind or soul they admire. In all these cases, there is the appeal of created beauty to the soul most sensitive to that appeal. There is danger of enslavement. As long as there is a strong attachment to self in the soul — and at this stage there is such an attachment — it is almost morally impossible that its love for others will not be tainted with selfishness. It is almost certain therefore that it will be inordinate and impair the friendship with God. We can love creatures properly only when our love is disinterested. We love them as we should, when we love them in God and for His sake. As long as we are lovers of self in our tendency towards God, there is danger that the affection we contract for creatures will be inordinate. We shall love creatures purely when we love God purely. That will be when we love God with perfect detachment from self. It is then and then only that we can safely pour out our affections on creatures. We attach ourselves to creatures without danger when we are perfectly detached from them and from ourselves. The inordinate affections of which there has been question can have relation to every created attraction that can warm the human imagination. Those who have made headway in spirituality by the overcoming of their sensuality can become enslaved to riches, honors, distinctions, positions, the esteem of others, as well as to the beauty, mental or physical, of those who have charm of mind or body. If the soul is to advance, it must be jealous of its freedom. It must maintain complete liberty with regard to all creature charms at any cost. It must be resolute in the determination not to allow itself to be subjugated by any charm except the charm of God.
- St. John xvi. 24.
- The form of vanity described here and which is such a common obstacle (especially for women) is ruthlessly denounced by St. John of the Cross. Max. 314. "There are many Christians in our day who have certain virtues and who do great things, but all of no use to them in the matter of everlasting life because in them they do not seek that honor and glory which belongs to God alone, but rather the empty satisfaction of their own will."
- "The sources of the waters of interior joy are not on earth; the mouth of desire must be opened heavenwards, utterly empty." St. John of the Cross, Letter ii.
- cf. St. Fr. de Sales. Love of God, iv. 9.
- St. Luke iv. 8.
- (a) "The immense treasures of God can only be contained in a heart which
is empty and solitary." St. John of the Cross. Max. 349. (b) The
solitariness or detachment which is needed is well summarized by St.
Francis de Sales: — "Indifference ought to be practiced in everything which
relates to natural life, such as health, sickness, beauty, ugliness,
weakness or strength; in all things concerning civil life, honors ranks
and riches; in all the varieties of the spiritual life: as dryness,
consolation, sweetness in prayer, aridity; in all our actions, sufferings
and every kind of happening." Love of God, ix. 5.
Progress Through Mental Prayer
Chapter 10 - The Vision of Faith Purified by Mental Prayer
Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "The Second Stage in the Transformation." chapter 7 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 82-92.
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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