"Before a man chooses his confessor, he ought to think well about it, and pray about it also; but when he has once chosen, he ought not to change, except for most urgent reasons, but put the utmost confidence in his director."

St Philip Neri

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"Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God."

Thomas á Kempis

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

St Philip Neri

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Fifteenth Maxim: Difficulties in prayer

Cling not to sensible sweetness: suffer dryness with a good heart

This maxim refers to contemplative prayer, and to the manner in which those who practise it should act. As a rule, in the beginning, this kind of prayer is most attractive. God gives the soul a certain consciousness of His presence. [82] Having introduced it into His banqueting hall, He inundates it with favours. Here is a paradise of delights of which it had no conception. Here it breathes a different atmosphere, and delights in a liberty hitherto unknown; the heart is too narrow to contain the blessings lavished on it. But when it feels itself abandoned, sighs and tears are intermingled with exclamations of joy. This state may last some time. The Bridegroom does, indeed, hide Himself from time to time, but only so that the soul may long for Him more intensely. Then the soul hastens to recall Him, seeks Him anxiously, and derives fresh comfort when He returns.

In thus giving it a foretaste of those pure and deep joys of which He is the source, God intends the soul to feel an aversion and contempt for the false pleasures incident to the enjoyment of created things. Experience is a better teacher than theory, for the latter onlyappeals to the mind. But what happens then? The wretched self-love which we all have within us makes ill use of God's favours. Hardly has it tasted them than it seeks them eagerly, gloats over them with a complacency which it refuses to acknowledge, and persuades the soul to make them the motive and end of its prayers, of its good works, even of the struggles it has with itself and of the penances it undertakes. So much is this the case that it seeks heavenly delights as ardently as the voluptuary seeks those of this world. By reason of a mercenary and selfish spirit, God is loved solely for the sensible pledges of His love.

And all the time the soul thinks it is loving God for His own sake, with a really disinterested love, whilst deep down it is self and its own satisfaction that is the object of its love. This is proved by the fact that, as soon as God withdraws these sensible joys, the soul becomes unsettled, troubled, despondent and even despairing, and often gives up the struggle, reproaching God for having forsaken it in the first place.

But that is not how God wants to be loved and served. In order to draw and win the soul, He will deign to give it some slight foretastes of its promised happiness, but He will not allow the soul to cling to them or to make them its motive and aim. Most certainly, man is made for happiness, but his real happiness is reserved for the next life. This life is a time of trial, wherein we merit our future happiness. Here below God prepares crosses for His friends, and it is to dispose them to receive them from His hand that He begins by rendering that hand dear to them on account of the favours it bestows. The more delightful and absorbing these favours, the more must we expect the crosses that follow to be heavy and overwhelming.

Let such souls, then, receive gratefully these first favours, and not fear to enjoy them simply. They are milk for babes, food adapted to their frailty. A director who sought to deprive such souls of them, or ordered them to be given up, would be taking away the necessary support and heavenly dew which the soul needs in its present state. But he would be wise to profit by the temporary absences of the heavenly Lover to encourage them to bear such privations calmly. Whilst assuring them that the Bridegroom will return, he must teach them to await patiently His time, and not try to force things to suit their impatience. Let him open their eyes little by little to the meanness of selflove, inspire them with a generous disinterestedness, and lead them to realize that God is infinitely more precious than His gifts; that He must be loved for His own sake, and that in serving Him it is His will alone that the soul seeks. Thus a spirit of detachment will gradually be formed in the soul, so that it will be prepared to accept without fear or danger the time of weaning from sensible sweetness, when God is about to give it more substantial nourishment in the exercise of pure faith.

By pure faith I mean that state in which one serves God without any pledge or assurance of being pleasing to Him. This state is extremely painful to self-love, and so it must be since it is meant to undermine it imperceptibly, and in the end to destroy it so far as is possible in this life. If we were to enter suddenly and without preparation a state so crucifying to nature, we would not be able to bear it, and we would soon be repelled and give up all idea of leading an interior life. And so God, with infinite wisdom, arranges for this transitional stage, and the soul is not weaned until it has achieved a certain growth. And although God may afterwards keep it in an habitual state of privation, yet He tempers its rigours by frequent tokens of His love. The soul, on its part, long remembers the first graces God bestowed upon it, and this remembrance serves as a support in times of desolation. Besides, this state of pure faith has its degrees, and one only arrives at the final stage after many years.

Yet, in spite of this wise economy of grace, few overcome these initial difficulties. Most souls are so soft, sensual and self- centred, that they cannot resolve to give up the consolations of their spiritual childhood. They do their utmost to hold on to them, and when deprived of them for any length of time imagine all is lost. But God takes no notice of their fears. Once He has withdrawn these delights, He restores them only for short periods and at long intervals. He even appears the less disposed to grant them in proportion to the eagerness with which they are sought.

Most persons, therefore, seeing that these privations last longer than they like, lose hope and give up the practice of contemplative prayer, under the plea that the attempt is a waste of time. They relax their vigilance, allow their minds to become distracted, and, despising their Creator, turn back to created things. It is something if they do not fall below what they were when God took them in hand, and merely resume the former practices which they relinquished to follow the leadings of grace. Frequently enough, they become worse than they were before, as a punishment which God allows as a result of their secret despite, pride and despair. They not only give up the interior life, but often enough pious exercises altogether. The senses and passions resume their sway, since they have less strength to resist them. Those who knew them in the time of their first fervour are amazed and scandalized by these falls, which they unjustly attribute to the practice of contemplative prayer, as if it were responsible for the errors consequent upon their having given it up. There are few Christians who run so grave a risk as those who have lapsed from their fervour.

Therefore it is important that those who are called by God to the interior life should know that pure faith is, strictly speaking, the essence of that life, and that the pleasurable state in which they are first placed is only the prelude to and preparation for it. This pure faith glorifies God most, because He is thereby served in a manner worthy of Him, which yields no gratification to self-love, and no opportunity for self-seeking. On the contrary, the soul forgets itself, sacrifices itself, abandons itself to bear whatever rigours it may please a merciful justice to exercise in its regard. If, as St. Paul teaches, the elect are those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son; [83] if their holiness increases in proportion to that conformity; if the interior life is that which most resembles the divine pattern: then those who, by God's special favour, are intended for this life must expect that, while on earth, God will treat them as He treated His only Son, having regard to the greatness of His plans and the glory He wishes to receive through them, as well as the glory wherewith He wills to crown them.

Therefore, the sweet peace of the prayer of delight will be followed by long periods of disgust, dryness and weariness, which will render the exercise of prayer as painful as it was formerly pleasant. Perplexity, darkness, anguish and even terror will take the place of light, joy and confidence. We shall feel ourselves the sport of temptations in the matter of purity, faith and hope. We shall continually fancy that we have consented, and nothing will persuade us to the contrary. But we must go on blindly, maybe for a long time, led by obedience, hoping against all hope, loving God without knowing that we love Him or are loved by Him, feeling ourselves rather the object of His displeasure. Not till we have passed through utter darkness shall we find ourselves born again to a new life, which will be the precious pledge of our eternal happiness.

Not all interior souls pass through trials of the same length, or involving equal suffering. God regulates the measure for each as He wills, but all must pass through some form of trial, and indeed are pledged to do so. Their longing for suffering is even greater than their fear; for fear is part of our nature, whereas desire is in the will. The love of the cross is one of the first things God implants in the soul, and that love goes on ever increasing.

You, then, who are entering on the state of pure faith, gird yourself to endure bravely the first absences of your Beloved, and thus merit His support when He visits you with His crosses. Rest assured that if you are faithful, He will lead you as far as you are able to go and He will lay more crosses on you than you will ask for. He tries severely those who love Him, in order that they may love Him more. At the same time, He communicates to them an unseen strength. And it is certain, though it sounds incredible, that the more they suffer, the more these souls enjoy a peace which, as St. Paul says, surpasses all understanding. [84] Besides supporting them, God inspires them with words which have the power to support others weaker than themselves. St. Paul bore witness to this in his own case, when he said: Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them who are in distress. [85]

But do not let what I have said frighten you: it is but a picture of the purgatory of love. What would it be like if I traced for you a picture of the purgatory of justice, which all must pass through after death, if they have not been purified before? One must be purified in one or the other, and we cannot thank God enough if we are able in this life to arrive at that degree of purity which the soul must acquire before it can see God.

You dread trials. But they are absolutely unavoidable if you are to enter heaven; and the willing acceptance of them will make them sweet. You do not appreciate the all-powerful work of grace, and the wondrous changes it brings to pass in the mind and heart. Yield yourself up to it, have no fear for your own weakness: you will be weak only in so far as you rely on yourself. If you place your whole trust in God alone, you will be able to say with St. Paul: I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me. [86]

You will ask me: why must we suffer so many interior and exterior trials? Can we not be saints at a lesser price? The answer is No. The Gospel affirms that sanctity is only to be attained through suffering; or at least, by the will to suffer. It consists in the readiness to embrace all the crosses that it may please God to send us. God does not require that we should forestall crosses, but it is His will that we should expect them with a firm heart, and accept them bravely when they come.

At such a cost, then, you will say, I would rather not be a saint, provided I can be saved. Foolish soul! You dwell on the fleeting evils of this life, and are blind to the exceeding weight of glory and happiness awaiting you. [87] Niggardly in what concerns your best interests, you would barter heaven for what costs you little, afraid to bid too highly for it. Base and sordid soul! You only consider yourself, and will do nothing for God. Do you realize what your salvation cost Our Lord? And yet you complain of what it will cost you! You are content to be saved, but will you, if you refuse to be a saint? Are you sure that you will do enough, and only just enough, to ensure your salvation? Ought you not rather to fear doing too little than too much?

Besides, supposing you do manage to be saved, does that mean that you will escape suffering? Is there no Purgatory; and who is it meant for if not for you? Can you enter heaven without the purification of that fire, which must consume all that remains of your self-love? I cannot insist too much on this point, which to the eye of faith is conclusive.

To return to the subject of dryness, I would only add this. Those who suffer from it are very subject to distractions. But these are inevitable, and torture many good souls who fancy them wilful, and cannot get rid of them, no matter what they do.

For the comfort of such persons, I would beg them to remember that no distraction is sinful unless it arises in the will, and is fostered in the heart. It is not a real distraction if, contrary to our will, the mind wanders on to another subject than that on which it intended to dwell. I go to my prayer fully intending to adore God and to unite myself to Him. Without any warning, my imagination goes off at a tangent, and is occupied with a thousand different things. If I do not want these distractions, and they distress me; if, as soon as I am aware of them, I recall my thoughts gently to the subject of my meditation or, better still, remain quietly in the presence of God, then they are not voluntary, because my intention to adore God and be united to Him has never changed. Even if the whole time of my prayer passes in this way, my prayer is none the less pleasing in God's sight.

We are not responsible for the thoughts that enter our minds, but it does depend upon our will whether we entertain them or not, and also on the general disposition of our mind at other times. If we allow too much freedom to the senses and imagination, or let the mind get excited by all sorts of subjects, and dissipate our energies by the exercise of foolish curiosity, or by frivolous conversations and idle thoughts; if we are not careful to keep our heart free from all desires and undue attachments, we must not be surprised if in time of prayer we find it difficult to be recollected, and that all these thoughts come back to us. For such distractions we are responsible, even if at the moment we yield no consent to them, because we have caused them knowingly.

But if, in the course of the day, we keep a curb on our senses and imagination, if we attend carefully to the duties of our state, if we suffer nothing to divert us from the sense of God's presence, which is what should occupy our hearts, then we may disregard all distractions that intrude on our time of prayer, provided we do not consent to them. Moreover, it may be assumed that we do not consent to them, if we live in a state of habitual recollection. These rules are simple and adapted to cure any scruples with regard to attention at prayer, whether vocal or mental.

Usually we bring to our prayer the same state of mind in which we are accustomed to live. God will not work a miracle to keep us recollected, and we will in vain endeavour to be so if at other times we suffer our mind and heart to wander as they please.

I must add a word for those who have been raised by God to passive prayer, and are in a state of dryness. First, it is impossible in this state to be absolutely free from the wanderings of the imagination. If God inspires no holy thought in the mind and kindles no warmth in the heart, we are bound to feel, as it were, lost, with the result that the imagination has a free field. But if we watch, we will notice that these thoughts are vague and inconsequent, and do not affect the will, and leave no trace behind them. Afterwards, we find it difficult to recall them, which is a sure sign that they were involuntary.

In the second place, these distractions, far from being harmful, can be profitable to the soul, since they try it and encourage it, both to feel its own misery and to bear with it patiently. It is very painful for a devout soul to feel that it has become the sport of the imagination, to lose its recollectedness, and to be given over to all sorts of vain thoughts during prayer. But these things keep us humble, by showing us what we are, and making us realize that of our own endeavours we cannot obtain one good thought or feeling. Involuntary and habitual distractions are a proof of this, and prevent us from taking any credit to ourselves, when we experience a little relief.

Self-love creeps in everywhere. If we feel any sensible emotions during prayer and communion, we are apt to grow self-complacent; to take pleasure in them, and so spoil the purity of our intention. In a state of dryness, self-love has no support, and is therefore wounded and perturbed. But we must take no notice of its complaints and grumblings, and the false reasonings whereby it endeavours to perplex us. Let it cry out against an interior state where all is for God, and nothing for itself. The proof that this aridity is profitable to our spiritual advancement is that, under its action, nature suffers and is gradually exhausted and destroyed, while the life of grace increases and gains strength.

In the third place, these distractions form part of God's plan. He makes use of them to hide His action in the soul, which is thus deterred from looking at itself, and seeing what is going on. When it enjoys any sensible peace, and all its powers are held in a deep calm, it is sure to dwell upon its state with feelings of too strong attachment and pleasure. This is not what God wants. And that is why He gradually removes all that induces this condition, and allows the soul to become apparently a prey to distractions, while He works within it secretly, without the soul being aware of its progress.

Beware, then, of losing patience or hope when the imagination thus runs wild. Do not suppose that your prayer is worse or less pleasing to God. Do not listen to yourself or to the devil, who would like to induce you to give it up as a waste of time. Do not take up a book for the purpose of occupying your mind. Directors should never recommend such a practice to souls in this state. That would be to want to lead them back to meditation from which God has already called them. Neither should you strain yourself or weary your mind or body in order to drive away these distractions. Such efforts are useless. Far from calming the imagination, they only irritate and excite it all the more, just as flies perpetually driven away only return all the more persistently. Despise these things, let them drop of themselves, and do not let them disturb your peace. Be content with mentioning them to your confessor, but not as sins. Above all, do not worry yourself as to whether you have given your consent to them or not.

If you keep your mind thus at rest in the midst of your ordinary distractions, you will be given the grace to remain at peace when you are assailed by sterner temptations, which God may permit, for your greater good, in the time of prayer, which is the time the devil usually chooses for his worst attacks. If you act as I have advised (for the rules are more or less the same for temptations as for distractions), you will have nothing to fear. The devil will be put to rout, and all his attempts to make you give up will only cause you to hold on all the more firmly, and advance more surely.

But this question of temptations calls for a maxim and explanation of its own.

82. Cf. Ps. xxxiii. 9
83. Rom. viii. 29
84. Phil. iv.
85. Cf. 2 Cor. I. 4
86. Phil. iv. 13
87. Cf. 2 Cor. iv. 17