"Those who love God are always happy, because their whole happiness is to fulfill, even in adversity, the will of God."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about it."

St Philip Neri

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"The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you."

Thomas á Kempis

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Tenth Maxim: Recollection, active and passive

Listen to Him Who teaches the heart without sound of words. Receive His peace, and guard it faithfully

The delights of God are to be with the children of men. He loves to speak to the heart of man. Hence the secret of the spiritual life consists in knowing how to retire into one's own heart, and dwell therein with God. How does God convert sinners? By calling them to enter into their own hearts, where, their sins appearing before their eyes, they experience the greatest remorse, salutary thoughts arise in their minds, and they are filled with good intentions. If they do not shrink from dwelling within themselves, if they do not flee from themselves and seek relief or diversion in external objects, a change will soon take place in their lives.

If a soul is well meaning but unsettled, frivolous, prone to many faults, clinging to certain venial sins; or, if having once been fervent it has fallen into lax ways, God makes use of these same means to draw it away from its imperfections, and restore it to its former zeal. He calls it into itself. There it hears His reproaches and realizes that they are just and severe, yet gentle. If it listens with a docile spirit, it will make progress, and if it continues thus dwelling within itself with God, it will infallibly advance from virtue to virtue. [57]

This turning within to listen to the voice of grace is called recollection. This term expresses the act whereby the soul gathers and collects into itself those powers of attention hitherto scattered and divided among many objects. There are two kinds of recollection: the one which is active and is the work of the will aided by grace, and the other which is passive and is the gift of God. The latter is usually the reward of the former, after it has been faithfully practised over a period of time.

The first object of active recollection is the custody of the senses, especially of sight and hearing, which are, as it were, the windows through which the soul looks out and busies itself with passing things. When the soul is thus for the most part attentive to all that is going on outside itself, it cannot keep watch within, nor give heed to the interior Master, Who seeks to instruct and correct it: it cannot so much as hear His words.

Therefore it is necessary to accustom oneself to exercise great restraint over one's eyes, so as to acquire the power of turning them, not only from dangerous but from distracting and diverting objects. By restraining the restless mobility of the eyes, we at the same time quieten the levity and moderate the vivacity of the imagination. Passion is checked at its source, and the soul is wonderfully disposed to meditation, and still more to silent prayer. Eagerness to hear and know everything is no less fatal to solid piety, and cannot be too assiduously repressed. Through the ears, the soul finds itself occupied with any number of things, which afterwards distract and fill it, in spite of itself, even in the time of prayer. We should, therefore, choose some quiet place for our meditations, and especially for prayer, away from the tumult and noise of men. Curiosity, also, should be watched, otherwise it will lead to visits here and there, long and profitless conversations, indiscreet questionings, suspicions and conjectures, rash judgments, and endless conversations on public and private matters. In these things God is often offended, and they are incompatible with a spirit of prayer and true devotion.

Thus he who would embark on the interior life must renounce everything that excites his curiosity: all, that is, which affects the senses too vividly and conspires to agitate false excitements and dangerous passions. He should avoid concerning himself with the affairs of others, with public or private news, unless he is obliged to do so by virtue of his position or from personal interest. Not that one may not casually and occasionally see and hear such things, where there is no danger, but they should not be sought or desired or clung to, or their memory will loom too large in the mind.

Intellectual curiosity is equally dangerous, and if we would foster the habit of recollection we must learn to keep it within bounds. By intellectual curiosity I mean that immoderate desire to acquire knowledge, which causes people to study avidly the various sciences, and nearly always superficially. They devour every book as it comes out, more to show off than to improve their minds. I do not see how recollection can be compatible with such a disposition, which generally indicates a shallow mind.

Beware, then, of this defect. Or, if you are prone to it, do all you can to overcome it. Be content with such learning as is necessary to, or befits, your state. Confine your reading to such books, even religious ones, as are highly esteemed, and do not imitate those who flit from one book to another, and finish none. This is not the place to explain how such books should be read: I would merely state that in this matter one cannot guard oneself too carefully against idle curiosity.

There is another kind of temperament, which at first sight would seem to be favourable to recollection, but which is actually the reverse. It is that of persons of a romantic nature, whose imagination takes a firm hold of things and creates a happy hunting ground, based on memories of the past and dreams of the future. Such natures build castles in the air, complete with all due circumstance of person, place and action. These romantic imaginations enable their possessors to live in a state of great excitement, so much so that from their room they entertain the world. They love solitude, but for the wrong reason. They appear to be recollected, but are in fact merely preoccupied. They find the greatest difficulty in acquiring an habitual sense of the presence of God.

The practice of ejaculatory prayer is an excellent aid to recollection, because it tends to recall us often to ourselves and to God. It is a very good thing to form this habit, but we must be careful not to let it become a mere matter of routine. Such prayers must rise from the heart rather than from the lips, and are all the better when they consist of a simple turning of the soul towards God, unaccompanied by any words expressed or understood. We cannot take too much pains to acquire this method of prayer, and if by daily practice it becomes more frequent and grows into a habit, it will dispose the mind until we 'pray without ceasing' as the apostle commands us to do. [58]

Whether we are reading or meditating, or repeating vocal prayers, it is good to pause from time to time and let the soul quite suspend its own action to give place to the action of the Holy Spirit. If we feel at all touched by grace at such moments, we cannot do better than give way to it, and quietly rest in the feelings God gives us. When that impression has passed, we can resume our book or our prayers.

These transitory touches are but the beginning of infused prayer, and we ought to correspond to them with great fidelity. They are momentary visits, wherein God communicates Himself to the soul. Short though they are, they do us more good than any of the thoughts and affections of our own making. Why do we read or pray, except to attain to union with God? When, therefore, He comes and bestows on us a certain secret sense of His presence, we have what we desire. We should, therefore, yield to this sense as long as it lasts. It would be irreverent to go on with our previous occupation. By so doing, we would deprive ourselves of the effect of His visits, and cause them to be less frequent. St. Francis of Sales insisted very much on this point.

Passive recollection is not a passing visit from God, but an habitual sense of His presence in the soul. We feel that presence within us, and its effects are so deep and gracious that we feel no doubt that they can only come from God. The soul is filled and strengthened by an indefinable calm and peace, and a suspension of its natural powers, with which no natural pleasure of any kind is to be compared. It is not only in times of prayer that the soul experiences this peace, but in almost all it does. No matter what our occupation or company may be, we have only to enter into ourselves to experience God's presence in our soul as a faithful Friend.

And do not let those who have never experienced this peace, and cannot imagine it, pass it off as a fond dream. All the saints would rise up against them and tell them that they are wrong. And not only the saints, but all who follow the way of interior prayer. Nor is it a delusion of the devil. That could not be in the case of an habitual presence of God, in which imagination plays no part.

The chief effect of this prayer of recollection is to turn our vision inward, detaching us from external things and deadening their effect, so that, occupied with all that is passing within us, we cease to be moved by outward impressions. By that I do not mean what we are oblivious of them as happens in the case of ecstasy, where one is deprived of ordinary sensation. We feel, but we do not pause or reflect on the fact, since we are held by an inward delight more powerful than anything that could attract us from without. God thus withdraws the soul from communion with creatures, and binds it wholly to Himself, so that it feels itself alone with Him and pays no attention to anything else. This state of recollection is, properly speaking, the entrance to the interior life, and is the surest sign that a soul is in the passive state.

This presence is at first such as may be felt, because the sense of it is necessary in order to detach the soul from conversation with created things, and to inspire it with supreme contempt for the pleasure that is derivable from them. Once this effect is produced, the recollectedness leaves the surface of the soul and sinks deeper. The presence of God is no longer felt; we are merely aware of it, since for a time we retain the habit of reflecting on it. But at last we cease to perceive it, because, as we advance, we go out of ourselves and enter into God, and are less taken up with what passes within us.

As this habitual presence of God is the foundation of all the graces which He subsequently bestows on the soul, we cannot be too faithful in preserving it The love which the soul feels towards God in these early days leads it to constancy in prayer and to other devout exercises, to frequenting the sacraments and to the practice of bodily mortification. But good as these things are, we must pass further and withdraw altogether from created things, resorting to them only when absolutely necessary. As far as may be, we must put aside most of the good works which would draw us to external interests. For the one thing essential in this state is an entire yielding of oneself to God's action, and this requires retirement, silence, and withdrawal from all affairs except such as are called for by the duties of our state. These, needless to say, take precedence over everything else. Later on, we can resume these good works, and indeed add to them, when God gives the signal, and they no longer involve the risk of distracting the mind. Meanwhile, no liberty must be allowed to the senses, no curiosity indulged in, all idle thoughts must be rejected, and the heart kept free from all attachments. In a word, nothing must come between the soul and God.

Let it not be supposed that all this is necessarily painful. As long as sensible recollection persists, nothing is difficult. God asks of us what He wants in a manner so gracious and persuasive that it is almost impossible to refuse Him anything. We receive so many graces from Him that we feel that we shall never be able to do enough for Him in return. In short, we are in the first fervour of our love, and more than eager to prove our love to Him. The practices that, on account of their constant repetition, seem and are hard to one in the active way, are nothing to one in a state of passive recollection. Hours of prayer pass like minutes. The pleasures of the world cease to have any attraction, contacts with others that are unavoidable become wearisome, while one's friends that formerly seemed so delightful lose their charm. Even the demands of nature are yielded to with regret. What has brought about so remarkable a change? A faint foretaste of the joys of heaven. If this is the beginning of the spiritual life, what will be its consummation?

One word more. You want to be instructed concerning the things of God. You consult men, and thewritings of men; yet you do not apply to Him Who in one moment can give light to the humble soul, teaching it without sound of words, and imparting more in one single prayer of contemplation than could be obtained in years from the most spiritual of men. You weary your mind in order to be recollected in prayer, and no more is necessary than a good will and the use of such measures as shall prepare your soul aright. For it is absurd to expect to be recollected in time of prayer, if the mind is distracted at other times. You seek to make your prayer by your own efforts. God makes it within the soul so soon as, convinced of our powerlessness, we cease from action on our own part, and yield to His. He Himself calls us to this surrender, when He intends to act in us. You wish to enjoy peace, and you agitate and distress yourself to obtain it. You grieve at not feeling it, while you are doing everything that is calculated to drive it away. You forget that the God of peace dwells not in agitation nor in turmoil, but causes Himself to be felt like a soft wind [59], which is produced by and maintains a state of calm. You seek self when you think you are seeking God, and so you do not find Him.

Oh how astonished some persons would be if they knew how little labour is required for the attainment of simple recollection. But man is jealous of his own powers of action, and loves to attribute all things to himself. God is infinitely more jealous of His powers, and will have all attributed to Him. This is the cause of all the false ideas men have of the interior life, and of their poor attempts at it. God does nothing in anyone who fancies himself, and who wants to do everything. But He acts, well- pleased, in a soul that dwells quietly and humbly in His presence, drawing Him gently by its desires, expecting nothing from its own efforts, but all from His loving-kindness. In the moral world, as in the physical, God brings all things out of nothing. If only we will be humble and abase ourselves before Him, He will soon reveal His power.  

57. Ps. lxxxiii. 8.
58. I Thess. v. 17
59. Cf. 3 Kings xix. 12