Small Catechism on the Spiritual Life – Part 3
by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen O.C.D
(text in French published by Le Sel de La Terre)
Chapter V The Difficulties of Mental Prayer
1. What are the principal difficulties encountered in mental prayer?
As mental prayer consists in lifting the soul to God, in other words occupying oneself with Him by thought and affection, the difficulties arise in mental prayer from all which hinders or makes more difficult this double application of our soul. With regards to thoughts, there are distractions, with regards to affections there is dryness.
2. What is meant by distraction?
We mean by distraction the intrusion into prayer of thoughts incompatible with the exercise that we are doing. They push us so that we occupy ourselves with something else. This assault of foreign and even contrary thoughts to the recollection of the intelligence with God can take place in two ways willingly or unwillingly. There is a great difference between the two ways
3. What do willful distractions consist of?
Willful distractions consist in the willful introduction or consented acceptance of thoughts which deviate our intelligence from the Divine Object of which it was occupied. In becoming distracted willingly, the soul either stops or interrupts mental prayer. If it is done without a sufficient reason, it is culpable of irreverence towards God. More so than a difficulty, the willful distraction in mental prayer makes it an infidelity. If on the other hand a wondering thought comes and is not accepted, the distraction is said to be involuntary.
4. What are the causes of involuntary thoughts?
We must accept two causes, the first occasional the second natural. The first is made by the impressions of the senses, the second by the intimate tendencies of our nature which engender spontaneously in us images and thoughts. We must distinguish, according to their origin, exterior or interior distractions.
5. Can we avoid distractions in mental prayer?
The exterior distractions can be avoided in a large part by the close watch on our senses and especially in choosing to pray in a surer place, as Our Lord suggests in the Gospel. We will avoid many distractions caused by the eyes in closing them or in fixing them on a religious object or a book of meditation. It is much more difficult to avoid interior distractions.
6. Where does this particular difficulty come from?
The particular difficulty of avoiding interior distractions comes from the spontaneity of the natural tendencies which are at the bottom of our being. They are manifested by the easy apparition of images and thoughts which relate to things we either like or fear. When our attention is fixed on an object of our consideration this interior world bound to these spontaneous tendencies remains more or less in obscurity, but as soon as our attention diminishes they are noticed. Then thoughts and memories appear in our mind which can contrast greatly with the mental prayer that we are doing.
7. Can one avoid interior distractions?
Yes, there is a way, at least in a certain measure, to avoid them either directly or indirectly:
* The direct way to resist the distractions consists in bringing back our attention to the religious topic that we are meditating on, or simply on God making an act of faith or love.
* The indirect way consists in intensifying our spiritual life. In becoming more profound one gains new energy which will reinforce the tendency of our soul towards God counter the natural tendencies which distract us. It should be noted that such a result will not be gained very quickly, but will be the fruit of a long application to the interior life.
8. Are the interior distractions sometimes unavoidable?
Yes, because they are spontaneous. Especially when the soul suffers from the difficulty in fixing its attention interior distractions can be very invading, insistent, and annoying. This difficulty in fixing the attention can come from an accidental cause. It can also come from a habitual disposition, as in the case of certain temperaments, very mobile. If the soul continues to suffer seeing itself distracted, and doing its best to remain attentive to God, these sorrowful distractions far from hurting it, transform it into an instrument of moral perfection and are an occasion of supernatural merit.
9. What is meant by dryness?
Dryness is the suppression of comfort that the soul feels often in the spiritual life, especially in the beginning which follows its conversion to a better life. The soul which recognizes that it possesses a more intense spiritual life has a certain joy because it is a psychological law that one is happy when he knows he possesses a great good. The intense spiritual life does not however consist in this comfort nor receive it. Also it can exist and develop outside all consolation, only because true devotion consists only in promptitude of the will to do the service of God.
10. Is dryness an evil?
The moral quality of dryness depends on the cause which produced it:
* If comfort disappears in the soul but if the resolution to give oneself completely to God remains in the will, far from being an evil, the dryness will be an occasion for good.
* If on the other hand the dryness comes from the weakness of the will it lacks recollection in the spiritual life.
11. Is there blameworthy dryness?
Of course, when they have their source in our infidelity. It can be greater or lesser. The soul called by God to a generous and mortified life who, after corresponding some time to grace, gives itself to look for small human satisfactions is no longer faithful to the invitation of God, and loses its original fervor, and remains weak in the will.
But more unfaithful still is the soul who falls into luke-warmness in committing deliberate venial sins. It is natural that such a soul can no longer forcefully express its love to God, precisely because it is no longer strong. It falls into dryness. The only way to cure the problem is to correct oneself returning to the original generosity.
12. Is there dryness which does not depend on the will?
Without doubt there are. Even the circumstances in which we live in are often occasions of dryness. They can provoke in us a sentiment of discomfort which deprives us of any consolation in the spiritual exercises, physical tiredness, physical problems, worries, small injuries, incomprehensions. All of that signifies for us causes of weight, annoyance, and overwhelming emotions and thoughts, which puts the soul in a sorrowful state where all joy and peace disappear. In this form of dryness the soul must arm itself with patience knowing that in supporting it for the love of God, the soul offers to Him a very agreeable sacrifice which proves its love for Him.
13. Can the dryness come from God?
Definitively, and even in the mentioned ones, we must affirm that it is caused by God since all circumstances in life are arranged by Providence. But sometimes the suppression of comfort that the soul feels in mental prayer is more directly the work of God, and precisely when He makes it impossible for the soul to meditate with the help of the imagination, and to make acts of love as beforehand. It is a common phenomenon to souls after some time of fervent application to mental prayer. St. John of the Cross teaches that by this type of dryness God invites souls to a more simple form of mental prayer that is called an initial contemplation.
14. How must the soul comport itself in this dryness?
The soul must not persist in wanting to continue the meditation as it is often obliged to do. It must, on the contrary, omit it simply and apply itself to remain tranquil in the presence of God looking at Him with a simple regard of faith and wanting to please Him at every moment. Little by little this regard of faith will become easier and more loving and the soul will pass gradually from a painful state of dryness to a peaceful rest in God.
15. How can the soul know that the dryness comes from God?
A sign that the dryness comes from God is that the soul perseveres in the exercise of virtues and prayer although it only feels dryness. As the application to virtues is more difficult in these circumstances the soul will find less success, but its repeated efforts show that its will remains strong. Such dryness cannot come from a culpable weakness of the will, but is the work of God.
16. What aim does God have in sending dryness to the soul?
By this trial God foresees to deliver the soul from the childlike sensitivity, to carry it to a more solid and hard ground of the will. Not finding sweetness for the spiritual life in the representations and sweet emotions as just a little time ago, when all went well, the soul sees itself constrained to hold on with the will to the exercises of faith and love. As this state comes from the Divine Will, the work of grace joins with the effort of the soul. Undoubtedly it will make great progress in the spiritual life. The dryness sent by God, besides the trial, is a great precious grace which the soul, far from being discouraged, will look to correspond generously.
Chapter VI The Presence of God
1. What is the presence of God?
The presence of God is an exercise of the spiritual life destined to maintain us in contact with God in our diverse daily occupations. It is in some way mental prayer which is prolonged during the whole day. As mental prayer it is composed of two elements – thought and affection. It is, in effect to think of God and to turn one’s heart towards Him.
2. What is the principal element of the presence of God?
The principle element is not the thought as most of people believe, but the affection. As in mental prayer, the thought serves to orient the heart or will towards God, and directs towards Him all its actions. It is easier to remain for a while in contact with God by means of the will than by the intelligence.
3. From where does the difference come?
The difference between the ease of application of the intelligence and of the will comes from the fact that it is not practically possible to think of God in an uninterrupted way, given that many times our occupations take all our attention, and that we do not have the possibility to think at the same time about two different things. On the contrary when the intelligence is occupied with work that we are doing, the heart can remain turned towards God because even if the work is distracting in its nature, we can do it for God, meaning in order to fulfil His Will and to glorify Him.
4. How can we more easily hold our heart oriented towards God?
We can do it in nourishing the attention by small affective exercises as short prayers, pious invocations, the offering of our actions, asking God’s help, or short conversations with God in which we manifest to Him our love and our confidence. This will not however be possible for us if thoughts of God are not often present.
5. Is there a way to frequently recall the presence of God?
There are many diverse ways. We distinguish ordinarily the forms of the exercise of the presence of God using the means to recall this thought to our souls; so we speak of the presence of God external, imaginative, and intellectual.
6. In what does the practice of the thoughts of God external consist?
It consists in using an exterior object to often think of God. A crucifix that we always carry with us putting it before us during work, kissing it, venerating it, will maintain living in us the memory of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and will give us the occasion to speak affectionately to Him. Even the thought of the Eucharistic Presence which we come back to without stopping, can help hold us in contact with God and incite us to speak with Him. It is the same for pious images, etc.
7. In what does the practice of the presence of God imaginative consist?
This practice consists in representing to us by the imagination that God, Our Lady or some Saints are close to us, near us, and accompany us everywhere. We look to address ourselves to them by short spontaneous words or by diverse affectionate exercises to which we have already alluded to. Everybody however cannot practice this type of the presence of God which requires a lively imagination and a complete mastery of this faculty.
8. Does such a representation lack truth?
Not in any way because if the humanity of Our Lord or Our Lady or the Saints are not present to us physically, they are morally present in the fact that the Saints and Our Lady see us in the Divine Essence that they contemplate, and are in relation with us, and because the humanity of Our Lord exercises on us a physical influence in the communication of grace. This spiritual relation we can easily represent to us in putting ourselves in the company of God and the Saints.
9. Can we make the exercise of the presence of God in turning ourselves towards the Saints?
Evidently, because the thoughts of Our Lady and the Saints help orient our heart and our actions towards God. And in this orientation of the will is found the most necessary element of the presence of God.
10. What is the practice of the presence of God intellectual?
The practice of the presence of God intellectual is that by which we recall to our mind the memory of God by means of a thought of faith. The soul remembers, for example, of the continual presence of the Most Holy Trinity in it, and looks to please its Divine Guests, or it considers that its duties are the manifestation of the Divine Will, and the soul unites itself constantly to the Divine Will. With the supernatural light, it sees that all the circumstances of life are dispensed by Providence, and the soul tells its Heavenly Father “I am happy with all”, or knowing that God looks after it always, the soul looks to do something to make it agreeable in the eyes of God.
11. What is the best way to make the exercise of the presence of God?
The best way to do this exercise is the one which fits best our mentality, and it is not determined by reasons but by experience. It is to be remarked that we must not attach ourselves to an exclusive way or a determined formula, but we can very well vary them according to the circumstances. Ordinarily we will prefer a particular form of this exercise, and we will choose the one which is most useful for us. It is praiseworthy to use a holy freedom.
12. Can the exercise of the presence of God be united to the natural ordinary actions and even those of recreation?
Undoubtedly, we will find in this exercise the most practical way to sanctify these actions. Even in eating we can elevate our heart towards God, and in place of looking for satisfactions we eat food with a holy indifference with the goal of restoring our strength to serve God with more energy. St. Paul taught us “Whether you eat or drink, do all for the glory of God”. It must be the same for our recreations. We must offer them to God having in view to obtain new force to give in His honor. We must even put our sleep to this end. We will prepare it making an explicit offering to God. So the exercise of the presence of God will allow us to live the whole day and our life of love.