"He who wishes to be perfectly obeyed, should give but few orders."

St Philip Neri

* * *

"It is well to choose some one good devotion, and to stick to it, and never to abandon it."

St Philip Neri

* * *

"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

* * *


John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Fourteenth Maxim: Contemplative prayer

When God bids you be still in prayer, humble yourself silently before His Majesty

It is well known that there are two kinds of mental prayer: meditation and contemplation. Meditation is to contemplation what active recollection is to passive. In meditation, all the powers of the soul, the memory, understanding and will, and even the imagination, have full scope, and from each is drawn what is most suitable to the end in view. A distinct subject is presented before the mind, on which reflections are made, and affections and resolutions formed. There are many good books on the subject, and I shall say little here respecting it.

In contemplation, or prayer properly so called, the soul neither reflects nor forms affections and resolutions. Yet neither are the understanding and will idle. For if the contemplation be distinct, the understanding sees, though without reasoning, the object presented to it by God. If it be confused, and offers to the soul no special object, the understanding holds itself in the presence of God, humbles itself before His supreme Majesty, and listens silently to the instruction given without sound or distinctness of words (which is the manner in which God's instruction is usually given). This attention is itself an act of the understanding, unperceived because so simple, but not therefore less real. The confused, general and indistinct object, which is then presented to the soul, is God Himself, but hidden in a cloud of faith; whereas in distinct contemplation, God unfolds one of His perfections or some particular mystery of religion.

We may form some idea of these two kinds of contemplation, if we remember the different ways in which we look at things about us, sometimes fixing our eyes on a certain point, at other times regarding vaguely without noticing anything in particular.

Nor is the repose of the will in contemplation to be considered as inaction. In the first place, its freedom is being continually exercised, since we are at prayer because we choose to be so, and frequently have to resist the temptation to give it up on account of distractions, dryness, or even evil thoughts which assail us at such times. Secondly, the will is either in a state of union, or in a constant tendency to union, with God, since it is only with that purpose that it perseveres in this kind of prayer. In the third place, it receives a sense of divine sweetness which gives place to joy and peace. Lastly, if the soul experiences nothing, and the time of prayer is spent in suffering, the will is then in a state of sacrifice, which it accepts in submission to God's good pleasure. Moreover, in that true repose which God bestows on the soul, as in the false repose which is the result of delusion, there is always some action on the part of the understanding and will.

The difference between the real and false repose is, not that the soul acts in true prayer and is silent in false, but that in the former God is the agent, whereas the second is due either to the imagination or the devil. However it may be--and I do not wish to press the matter here--it would be wrong to call the holy repose in which God holds the soul during contemplation idleness, and no one should feel obliged to give it up on that account. But what one should do is this. One should examine by the rules laid down by the saints whether or not this repose comes from God. If it does, who would be rash enough to dare to disturb the peace of a soul in which God's action is taking place? If it does not, then the soul must be undeceived and set right.

These rules are as follows. In the first place, so long as we have the free use of our powers and can meditate with ease, we ought not to leave off. But it is the advice of spiritual writers that when we have sufficiently absorbed the truths we have been meditating on, and have considered them under every aspect, we should either wholly or in part cease from acts of the understanding and pass on to those of the will, which are much more essential, and lead us to love the truths we have already learned. For the aim of meditation is to move the will, and rouse it to shun vice and practise virtue.

Secondly, after meditation has been practised for some time, and the proper fruit has been derived therefrom, one begins to be aware that God is drawing the will to a particular state of rest. The will now produces no distinct affections or, if it wants to do so through long habit, it is gently checked and drawn to enjoy rather than to act. It is then that the soul is entering into the passive way. God Himself is leading it, and it would be harmful to the soul's advancement if it offered any resistance.

Thirdly, it is sometimes the case that a person truly devoted to God finds his efforts to meditate all in vain. If, after many attempts to do so, he finds himself unable to succeed, whether by reason of the simplicity of his mind which takes things in at a glance, or because of the bouyancy and vivacity of his imagination, or from any other cause, he would do well, on the advice of his confessor, to try simply to remain quiet in the presence of God, entreating the Holy Spirit to teach him to pray; or, like Samuel and David, listening to whatever God has to say to him in his heart. If this method suits him, if he feels calm and at peace, and comes away from such times of prayer more devoted to God's service and more determined to overcome himself, then he may take it that his prayer is good, and that God is acting in it. The effects will be the guarantee, and these are always peace, spiritual joy, the love of God, and an effectual desire to advance in virtue, which are always the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [80]

Fourthly, it may occur that when we betake ourselves to prayer, we feel the powers of the soul fettered, so that we cannot bring them to bear on the subject on which we proposed to meditate. For instance, we take up a book such as the Imitation, or one of similar character, but we have no sooner laid it down that we lose all recollection of what he have been reading, and the mind remains as it were in a vacuum. Now if this inability to think is accompanied by a sweet peace, which fully occupies the soul, it is one of the most assured signs that God is placing the soul in a state of passive prayer, and we must beware of making any effort to withdraw from that way. Even if this inability to meditate is accompanied by perplexity, darkness and temptation, yet if the soul is true and stands firm against these storms, they will soon pass and be followed by a great calm, and may be regarded as a preparation for the most signal favours of God.

In the last place, the usual proof that our prayer is good is the generous and continued practice of interior mortification. There is no cause for apprehension concerning the prayer of a person who is singlehearted, straightforward, docile, humble, capable of great selfcontrol, endowed with good will, ready to undertake cheerfully all the means suggested to it for overcoming faults, acknowledging them frankly and taking rebukes all in good part. If the spirit of God guides the rest of his conduct, we can hardly imagine that it will forsake him in the time of prayer.

But the application of these rules is a matter for the director. We should not judge ourselves, else we shall run the risk of deceiving ourselves. Humility and obedience are the two cardinal points on which the interior life turns. Therefore, when we believe it to be God's will that we should leave the ordinary way, we should in all simplicity represent our state to our spiritual guide, and thus enable him to decide. This is all the more necessary, since without his advice we cannot maintain ourselves in the different states of prayer. We ought also to keep him informed of all that takes place in our souls, in order that he may shield us from delusion, and strengthen us against temptations and trials.If, through lack of knowledge or prejudice against contemplative prayer, the director should mistakenly decide regarding our state, we must at once acquiesce in his decision, and do as he wishes. Thus St. Teresa abstained for a whole year from contemplative prayer by order of her confessor. Nevertheless, should we feel a certain discomfort, an inward constraint, which seems to us a sure sign that the director was taking us out of our proper sphere and making us go against God's action, then we might consult other confessors more enlightened and follow their advice. Thus St. Teresa, condemned as we have said by the doctors of Alcala, was reassured by St. Peter of Alcantara and St. Francis Borgia. God always blesses obedience and submission of the judgment. He will either, in His own way, cause the confessor to see our state in its true light, or else direct us to some other person.

I have said that God alone can, and may, bid the reason be silent in time of prayer. He has endowed the soul with powers, in order that they may be used so long as He grants them liberty. It was the false and heretical doctrine of Molinos that man ought to annihilate them himself: that is to say, reduce them to inaction. But any such inaction, voluntarily produced, would render us a prey to every freak of the imagination and every delusion of the heart.

Besides, according to the principles of true philosophy, the soul cannot of itself fetter its powers. This requires a superior agent, distinct from itself, and acting upon it with irresistible force. When God binds the soul in this way, it is amazed by the power brought to bear upon it, and perceives clearly that it comes from without. Sometimes it attempts with all its own strength to resist it, but all to no purpose. Anyone who knows this state and speaks of it, will tell you that one can do nothing: neither use one's memory, make any reflection, or excite any emotion. I am become as a beast (of burden) before Thee [81] says the Psalmist, and that is perfectly true; we become like a log of wood, waiting for God to kindle it.

These are the usual expressions on the part of persons who have experienced this state. They do not place themselves in it, for that would be a contradiction. Moreover, when sensible tokens of grace are withdrawn, which frequently happens, this state is far from giving pleasure to the soul; it is, on the contrary, very painful, being absolutely contrary to nature. We can only continue in this condition by sheer fidelity, because we cannot doubt that it is God's will. If we listened to our own promptings, we should renounce it altogether.

A confessor who is not on his guard may be deceived, and may lend an ear to the description of fictitious states of the soul. But if he knows what contemplation is, and if nothing is kept back from him, he cannot possibly confound real inability to pray with that state of inaction for which one is oneself responsible.

Let it not be supposed that true contemplation is an act which, being once entered upon, continues naturally and needs no renewal. This error, if taught by any mystic, lapses into the heresy of Molinos. I say, if taught, for it may well have happened that those who opposed it were mistaken, and took for contemplation the act by which the soul gives itself to God, and consecrates itself to His service in order to fulfil His will in all things. This latter act has no need of renewal, so long as we are faithful and do not go back on it, for it always subsists in intention and in fact. That does not mean to say that it is a continuous act, which is never suspended nor interrupted. It is an act, transitory in itself but abiding in its effects, so long as it not annulled by a contrary act. It is as though I formed the intention of making a journey and set out on the road. There is no need for me to be continually renewing my intention: I just carry on towards my journey's end, without stopping on the way or turning aside from it.

80. Cf Gal. v. 22
81. Ps. lxxii. 23