A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 35: The Mental Prayer of Beginners - Its Progressive Simplification

"Pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee." Matt. 6:6

In our discussion of the efficacy of prayer in general and of the Divine Office, we saw that prayer is a lifting up of the soul to God, by which we will in time what God wills from all eternity that we should ask of Him: namely, the various means of salvation, particularly progress in charity: "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (1) The prayer of petition should be accompanied by adoration, reparation, and thanksgiving. These are the sentiments we should have when we say the Divine Office. But we feel the need of a more intimate prayer, in which our soul, more profoundly recollected, comes into contact with the Blessed Trinity dwelling in us, a contact which is necessary that we may receive from the interior Master that light of life which alone can make us penetrate deeply and taste the mysteries of salvation: those of the redeeming Incarnation, of the Sacrifice of the Mass, of eternal life toward which we are traveling. This light of life is also necessary to reform our character by spiritualizing and supernaturalizing it, by rendering it more conformable to Him who invites us to seek peace of soul in humility and meekness. This more intimate prayer is mental prayer.

We shall see, first of all, what the mental prayer of beginners
should be. In the following chapter we will explain how to attain to a life of prayer and persevere in it.


In the Gospel, Christ tells us: "And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. . . . But thou, when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber and, having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee." (2)

In a statement that is both simple and profound, St. Teresa says: "Mental prayer is nothing else, in my opinion, but being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him who, as we know, loves us." (3) Genuinely simple and pure Christian souls have always been acquainted with this completely spontaneous and intimate prayer. A peasant who was questioned by the Cure of Ars on his manner of prayer, defined it admirably by saying: "I look at our Lord who is in the tabernacle, and He looks at me." This is indeed the commerce of friendship, by which the soul converses alone with God by whom it believes itself loved. This interior prayer, which was so often that of the first Christians in the catacombs, has always existed in profoundly humble and religious souls eager for God. The royal Psalmist was, most certainly, profoundly acquainted with this prayer when he wrote: "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God. My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God. When shall I come and appear before the face of God?" (4)

What is simpler than prayer? Its spontaneity is, however, taken away at times by the use of excessively complicated methods, which draw too much attention to themselves and not enough to God, whom the soul should seek. A method is good as a way of finding the truth, on condition that it can be forgotten and that it lead truly to the end toward which one tends. To prefer the method to the truth, or a certain intellectual mechanism to reality that should be known, would be a manifest aberration, similar to that of the meticulous man or of the pedant. Moreover, an over-complicated method provokes a reaction, and even an excessive reaction in some who, worn out by this complexity, often end up in a vague reverie that has scarcely any true piety about it except the name.

The truth, here as elsewhere, is to be found in the middle and above these two extreme, opposite deviations. A method, or to speak more simply with Bossuet, a manner of making prayer, is useful, especially at the beginning, to preserve us from mental rambling. But that it may not by its complexity become an obstacle rather than a help, it must be simple, and, far from breaking the spontaneity and continuity of prayer, it should be content with describing the ascending movement of the soul toward God. It should be limited to indicating the essential acts of which this movement is composed. We should remember especially that prayer depends principally on the grace of God, and that a person prepares for it far less by processes that would remain mechanical, so to speak, than by humility; "God. . . giveth grace to the humble." (5)


What are the essential acts of prayer? First of all, prayer is not only an act of the intellect, like a simple study or reading. There are speculative souls who are curious about the things of God, but they are not for that reason contemplative souls, souls of prayer. If in their considerations they taste a pleasure which far exceeds that of the senses, this pleasure comes perhaps more from their knowledge than from their charity; they are moved more by the love of knowledge, it may be, than by the love of God. St. Thomas, who distinguishes between these two loves, says that in prayer it is the second which should lead the intellect to the knowledge of God, with the purpose of loving Him more.(6) In this statement is a holy realism, that which is observed in the knowledge of the servants of God.

The pleasure which is born, not of the love of God but of the love of knowledge, often increases pride and makes souls love themselves more; they seek themselves without being aware of it. Study and speculation, even when they do not err, do not necessarily presuppose the state of grace and charity, and do not always cooperate in increasing it.

Prayer, on the contrary, should proceed from the love of God and should end in Him. Through love of God, one seeks to contemplate Him, and the contemplation of His goodness and His beauty increases love. We read in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena: "Knowledge must precede love, and only when she has attained love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth." (7) In the same work, we read: "With this (supernatural) light the souls in the unitive state love Me, because love follows the intellect, and the more it knows the more it can love. Thus the one feeds the other." (8)

Moreover, as St. Thomas says,(9) here on earth the love of God is more perfect than the knowledge of God; charity is more perfect than faith. Why is this? Because knowledge, as it were, draws God down to us and imposes on Him the bounds of our limited ideas, whereas love draws us toward God, lifts us up toward Him, unites us to Him.(10) Besides, as long as we are deprived of the beatific vision, it is chiefly by charity that union with God is made; this is why perfection consists especially in charity, which ought to have the uncontested first place in our soul.(11) This is equivalent to saying that in prayer the soul should rise toward God on the two wings of the intellect and the will, aided by the influence of grace. Prayer is, therefore, a wholly supernatural movement of knowledge and love.

Hence we can readily enumerate the essential acts of prayer. To be this lifting up of the whole soul toward God, prayer must be prepared for by an act of humility and proceed from the three theological virtues, which unite us to God, animate the virtue of religion, and obtain for us the lights and inspirations of the Holy Ghost. The generous soul flies, so to speak, like a bird by the effort of its wings, but the breath of the Holy Ghost sustains this effort and rather often bears the soul farther aloft than it could go by its own virtues. Not in vain are the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost found in all the just without exception.(12)

We shall consider these various acts of prayer. In the perfect, they are often simultaneous and continuous; but to describe them, we must enumerate them one after the other, as they present themselves in beginners.

Normally we should begin our prayer with an act of humility, for it is fitting that, when about to converse with God, we should recall what we are. Let us think of our Lord's words to St. Catherine of Siena: "I am who am, thou art she who is not." Of ourselves we are nothing, and even less than nothing, because our sins are a disorder inferior to nothingness itself. This act of humility is normally accompanied by an act of repentance and an act of adoration, like that which prompts the genuflection made on entering a church. These acts remove pride, the chief obstacle to grace, and this true humility, far from depressing us, reminds us that in a fragile vessel we bear a precious treasure, sanctifying grace and the Blessed Trinity dwelling in us. Thus begun, prayer does not proceed from vain sentimentality, but from the life of grace, which is immensely superior to our sensibility.

After this act of humility, we should make a profound and prolonged act of faith in some fundamental truth or other: God, His perfections, His goodness, or Christ, the mysteries of His life, His passion, His glory, or again our great duties, our vocation, our last end, sin, the duties of our state to be accomplished with ever greater holiness. These subjects should recur. On feast days the liturgy itself gives us the subject. If the feast commemorates a mystery in the life of Christ, such as that of His passion, we should consider it first of all under its sensible aspect, then under its spiritual aspect, dwell on what makes its infinite value, rest in this gaze of fruitful faith. For this consideration and adherence of faith, some words of the Gospel or of the liturgy often suffice. For more advanced souls, they are like grains of incense on the fire of charity. It is not necessary to reason much; the simple act of theological faith is superior to reasoning, and becomes more and more a simple gaze, which, when accompanied by admiration and love, merits the name of contemplation. This infused faith, superior to all philosophy and to the discursive work of theology, makes us adhere infallibly and supernaturally in obscurity to the mysteries which the elect contemplate openly in heaven. As St. Paul says, it is "the substance of things to be hoped for." (13) Its obscurity does not hinder it from being infallibly sure. It is the first light of our interior life. "Credo in unum Deum. . . ." And at a given moment, this Credo seems almost to become a video, as if we saw from afar the fountain of living water to which our soul aspires.

This gaze of faith on the truth and goodness of God gives spontaneous rise to an act of hope. The soul desires beatitude, eternal life, the peace promised by the heavenly Father to those who follow Jesus Christ. But we know for a certainty that by our own natural powers we shall never reach this supernatural end. Then we have recourse to the infinitely helpful goodness of God and beg Him for His grace. Petition, inspired by hope, relies on the divine help.(14) Having said Credo, the soul spontaneously says: desidero, sitio, spero, I desire, I thirst, I hope. Having glimpsed from afar the fountain of living water, the soul desires to reach it that it may there drink long draughts, "as the hart panteth after the fountains of water." (15)

But the act of hope, in its turn, disposes us to an act of charity. As, indeed, St. Thomas says: "From the fact that man hopes to obtain a benefit from God, he is led to think that God, his benefactor, is good in Himself (and better than His gifts). This is why hope disposes us to love God for Himself." (16)

Thus, the act of charity rises spontaneously in us, at first under an affective form. If, in these affections, our sensibility offers its help to the will vivified by charity, it may be useful on condition that it remain subordinate. But this help is not necessary; it disappears in aridities. Here we need a calm but profound affection, which is surer and more fruitful than superficial emotions. It consists in saying: "My God, I no longer wish to lie when I tell Thee that I love Thee. Grant me to love Thee and to please Thee in all things." "Diligo te, Domine, ex toto corde."

This affective charity should finally become effective: "I wish to conform my will to the divine will. May Thy will be accomplished in me by fidelity to the commandments and to the spirit of the counsels. I wish to break all that renders me the slave of sin, of pride, of egoism, and of sensuality. I wish, O Lord, to share more and more in the divine life that Thou dost offer me. Thou hast come that we may have life in abundance. Increase my love for Thee. Thou dost ask only to give; I wish to receive as Thou dost wish that I should receive, in trial as well as in consolation; whether Thou comest to associate me with the joyful mysteries of Thy childhood or the sorrowful mysteries of Thy passion, for they all lead to the glorious life of eternity. Today I resolve to be faithful on a certain point that I have often neglected. Volo." As St. Teresa (17) suggests, the Pater noster may be slowly meditated in this manner.

Here, in this culminating point of prayer, the fruit of the theological virtues, the knowledge of faith, the love of hope, and that of charity tend, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, to fuse in a gaze of faithful and generous love, which is the beginning of contemplation: Christian contemplation which bears on God and the humanity of Christ, as the contemplation of the artist on nature, and that of a mother on the countenance of her child.

This prayer begins to penetrate and to taste the mysteries of salvation: the nature of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in our souls, the mystical body of Christ, and the communion of the saints.

Gradually it introduces us into the intimacy of Christ, the intimacy of love. Nothing can better correct our defects of character, give us a lively desire to resemble Him who said to us: "Learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls." Prayer thus made renders our hearts more and more like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for one imitates, even without being aware of it, those whom one loves truly and deeply. There are difficult characters who will succeed in reforming themselves only by the loving contemplation of Christ in prayer.

These ideas should give us a better understanding of St. Teresa's definition of prayer, which we quoted at the beginning of the chapter and repeat here: "Mental prayer is nothing else, in my opinion, but being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him who, as we know, loves us."


In proportion as the soul grows, the acts of humility, faith, hope, and charity, which we have enumerated, tend, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, to fuse in a gaze of ardent love. Hence a simple method, useful at the beginning, should gradually give place to docility to the Holy Ghost, who breathes where He will. Prayer thus tends to become a prolonged spiritual communion, as the peasant of Ars, whom we quoted above, defined it: "I look at our Lord, and He looks at me." The prayerful soul says much in a few words, which he often says over and over without ever repeating himself. This prolonged spiritual communion is like the breathing of the soul or its repose in God; by faith and hope it breathes in the truth and goodness of God, and it breathes out love. What the soul receives from God under the form of ever new graces, it gives back to Him under the form of adoration and love.

Consequently, to ask for the grace of Christian contemplation is to ask that the bandage of pride, which still covers the eyes of the spirit, may fall away completely in order that we may be able truly to penetrate and taste the great mysteries of salvation: that of the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated by the Mass, that of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the food of our soul.

Surely without any danger of quietism, Bossuet invites us to this simplified affective prayer in his substantial little work, Maniere courte et facile pour faire l'oraison en foi, et de simple presence de Dieu. We shall quote the principal part.

A person must become accustomed to nourish his soul with a simple and loving gaze on God and on Jesus Christ our Lord; and to this end, it must be gently separated from reasoning, discourse, and the multitude of affections, in order to hold it in simplicity, respect, and attention, and thus to bring it nearer and nearer to God, its unique, sovereign Good, its first principle and last end.

The perfection of this life consists in union with our sovereign Good; and the greater the simplicity, the more perfect also is the union. This is why grace interiorly solicits those who wish to be perfect to become simple that they may finally be rendered capable of the enjoyment of the one thing necessary, of eternal unity. . . . Unum mihi est necessarium, Deus meus et omnia! . . .

Meditation is very good in its time and very useful at the beginning of the spiritual life; but we should not stop there, since the soul, by its fidelity in mortifying and recollecting itself, ordinarily receives a purer and more intimate prayer, which may be called the prayer of simplicity. This prayer consists in a simple view, a gaze on God, on Jesus Christ, or on one of His mysteries. Therefore, leaving reasoning behind, the soul makes use of a sweet contemplation which holds it peaceful, attentive, and susceptible to the divine operations and impressions which the Holy Ghost communicates to it. It does little and receives much. . . and, as it draws nearer to the source of all light, grace, and virtue, it is also proportionately expanded. . . .

We should observe that this true simplicity makes us live in a continual death and a perfect detachment, because it makes us go to God with perfect uprightness, without pausing over any creature. However, this grace of simplicity is not obtained by speculation, but by a great purity of heart and true mortification and self-contempt; whoever flees suffering, humiliation, and death to self will never enter it. This is also the reason why there are so few who advance in it, because hardly anyone wishes to give up self; and unless he does so, he experiences great losses and deprives himself of incomprehensible goods. . . . Fidelity which makes one die to self prepares. . . for this excellent type of prayer. . . .

The enlightened soul dearly esteems the guidance of God, who allows it to be exercised by creatures and overwhelmed by temptations and abandonment. . . . After the purgation of the soul by the purgatory of sufferings, through which one must necessarily pass, will come illumination, rest, and joy through intimate union with God.

The purgatory of sufferings, which Bossuet speaks of here as necessary before illumination, is the passive purification of the senses which we shall discuss farther on: it is, in fact, at the threshold of the illuminative way, like a second conversion.



1. Matt. 6: 33.

2. Ibid., 5 f.

3. Life, chap. 8.

4. Ps. 41:2 f.

5. Jas. 4:6.

6. Cf. IIa IIae, q.180, a.1: "Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matt. 6: 21), 'where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also'; sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory (Hom. XIV in Ezech.) makes the contemplative life to consist in the charity of God, since through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense."

7. Chap. I.

8. Chap. 85.

9. Cf. Ia, q.82, a.3: The love of God is better than the knowledge of God. IIa IIae, q.27, a.4: "Whether God can be loved immediately in this life." "Charity loves God immediately, and other things through God. . . . With regard to knowledge, it is the reverse."

10. The reason for this is that the good, the object of love, is in things, in reality exterior to ourselves, in this case in God Himself. On the contrary, the true formally considered, that is, the conformity of our judgment with the real, is in ourselves. Cf. St. Thomas, ibid.

11. Ibid., q.184, a.1; Ia IIae, q.66, a.6.

12. Prayer, under the name of discursive meditation, has at times been transformed into an exercise which seems to be an act of prudence, foreseeing what must be done, rather than the union of the acts of the three theological virtues, which find their nourishment in God alone. Doubtless it is fitting in prayer to give a place to the resolution inspired by faith, which directs prudence from above, but prayer should not be transformed into an examination of conscience or an exercise in foresight. We must maintain here in a practical manner the superiority of the theological virtues, among which charity excels especially under the form of the love of God, which is superior to love of neighbor, although the second may be the great indication of the first.

13. Heb. 11: 1.

14 :The formal motive of hope is the all-powerful and helpful divine goodness: Deus auxilians. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 17, a.4.

15. Ps.41:2.

16. Cf. Ia IIae, q.62, a.4.

17. The Way of Perfection, chaps. 27-38.