Small Catechism on the Spiritual Life – Part 2
by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.
(text in French published by Le Sel de La Terre)
Chapter III. Preparation and Reading
1. Are there different kinds of preparation for mental prayer?
The Carmelite authors distinguish often a double preparation:
* The near preparation by which the soul puts itself in the presence of God to start the intimate conversation with Him;
* The distant preparation by which the soul uses its powers to gather one’s thoughts before praying.
2. What is necessary for the soul to be disposed for prayer?
It is necessary for one not be absorbed excessively by creatures, and have a tendency to occupy oneself with God. To favor these dispositions there are two parts which constitute the distant preparation:
* The first is to remove obstacles: it’s “negative”;
* The second is destined to produce a quality: it’s “positive”.
3. What is the “negative” element of the distant preparation?
One must absolutely avoid the distractions and [disordered] attachments of the heart. In order to practice the love of God easily, a free heart is necessary. This means one must have a great detachment from creatures. Who wants to love much, must reserve for God the strength and tenderness of his affection, and not spread it to people and things who easily draw a heart which is not protected.
On the other hand, the freedom of spirit is not attained without great mortification of the senses which are open windows to terrestrial things, and the control of the memory which brings us into the world by the memories we have. So, the soul must avoid the useless thoughts. The heart and soul must be watched.
4. What is the positive element of the distant preparation?
It is the exercise of the presence of God that we will look for and to make it continuous as much as possible. By this holy exercise our thoughts and will are recollected in God, and we keep a certain contact with God, even in the middle of the most material occupations; and we converse with Him often in the day. Faithfulness to this practice creates in us a certain facility to speak with God as well as a certain ease to put us in a more intimate contact with Him: this is the near preparation.
5. What spiritual attitude helps the soul the most for this contact with God?
It is the attitude of humble confidence which puts us before God in the position which fits us best. God, in effect is our Father, and He wants that we act towards Him as destitute children. We will anchor in us the sentiment of our poverty by the memory of our numerous faults which bring to light our misery. Far from folding in on ourselves or becoming discouraged at the sight of our nothingness, we will look for refuge in the arms of Our Lord who said to us “Without Me you can do nothing” That’s why saint Teresa of Avila invites us to examine our conscience at the start of the mental prayer, to say the Confiteor, and then to look for the company of Jesus.
6. What is the most practical manner to put the soul in the presence of God?
Any manner to put oneself in the presence of God is useful for this aim, provided that a large application and intensity is used. There are however two manners especially indicated for mental prayer: 1) put oneself in the presence of Most Holy Eucharist (if we do mental prayer before the Blessed Sacrament) and, 2) recollect in one’s soul, keeping in mind the Three Divine Persons who live in the soul that is in the state of grace and offer themselves to the soul to be known and loved. To start this colloquia with (God present) we will remind the subject chosen in the reading.
7. At what moment must the reading be done?
Preferably, before going to mental prayer, meaning during the fifteen minutes granted for the preparation. If we cannot do it at that time, we could do it in the beginning. In some religious communities it is the custom to do a short reading out loud at the beginning of mental prayer.
8. Why is there common reading?
It has as its aim to offer a subject of meditation to those who do not have one. There is no obligation to use what is read. Ordinarily those who meditate come with a prepared subject by the private reading. But if at this moment that which is read draws us more than the chosen subject, we can change it with great liberty.
9. Must the reading serve to prepare a subject of meditation?
Such is the original destination, and it is that which has a larger goal — to instruct us in the spiritual things. The reading we speak about serves to supply us immediately with a Truth that we will penetrate by reflection, to draw a more profound conviction of the love of God for us. For those who no longer do mental prayer in the meditation form, but reach the level that St. Theresa calls “recollection” or to a way even higher, the reading no longer serves to choose a subject, but to recollect the soul in disposing it to sweetly taste to rest in God.
10. What books must we prefer to choose to do this reading?
It depends on the aim of the reading. When it concerns finding a subject of meditation, besides the books for meditation, all those that enlighten the many manifestations of the love of God for us, will be able to serve this aim. It will be, however, good to use books already known. When the aim is to recollect oneself only, any writing which inspires an intense love of God will be useful. The works of the Saints belong to this category. The choice of the book is determined by the immediate aim of the reading, but the culture and spiritual age of the person will have to be considered in this choice. Books too intellectual or spiritual will not be well understood, and necessarily cause dryness.
11. Can the lives of the Saints be read?
These lives are not excluded, especially because many souls are touched by the example of the Saints who have lived the spiritual doctrine, than by explaining it speculatively. However, we must not read them to satisfy our curiosity and not to prolong unnecessarily our reading. Also, it is fitting to not read them as preparation for meditation, a “new” life, because it greatly excites the imagination. It would be better to read a summary of a saint already known.
12. How must we read?
We must read with attention, since the aim of the reading is to find a subject of conversation with God. It is necessary to read it carefully, to not let any light escape us. It will be read with devotion and recollection because this good disposition of the heart favors in us the seeking of something useful for the soul, making us attentive and sensible to good ideas. We will be able to foresee more easily and prepare in some way the affections that we want to express and the resolution to be taken. All of it without binding us too much, because the aim of the reading is simply to help us according to our needs. Let us add a last remark: if it is done in common before the mental prayer, the reading must be short so as not to annoy those who do not use it ‑ and they are many.
13. Can we take again our book during mental prayer?
It is not excluded and can even be indicated in particular occasions. St. Theresa never went to mental prayer without a book with her. It will happen sometimes that we will find ourselves so distracted that the most practical manner to return to God will be to gain another good thought by reading again. Also, when in mental prayer and in the company of God, our affection becomes difficult by tiredness. It is often good to read again our theme of mental prayer. It is an exterior aid for our attention. One must be careful not to turn it into a simple reading. It must remain at least a meditative reading in which we stop to allow affections and resolutions to enter. So, the reading itself becomes an instrument of our conversation with God.
Chapter IV. Meditation and Colloquia
1. Is the meditation always explained in the same way by the Carmelite authors?
The Carmelite authors have some differences in their explanation of the meditation, but all are in agreement on the essential. Some do not explain the different parts; some others make a distinction between the meditative reflection and the affectionate colloquia which is the aim of the reflection, which they call contemplation. Others separate in the meditative part the representation and the reflection. Those who do not classify explicitly these diverse elements refer more or less to them.
Most of the Carmelite authors distinguish three elements in the meditation:
* The representation as an act of the imagination,
* The reflection as an act of the intelligence,
* And the colloquia as an act of the will.
2. What is the representation?
It is an activity of the imagination by which we form: 1) an image or representation of the mystery we want to meditate on, or 2) sensible objects which lift our thoughts to God.
3. What is the usefulness of the representation?
The aim is to render easier the work of reflection which leans on natural representations of the imagination. It is easy to think of the scourging [of Our Lord] before an image. It offers the advantage to fix in some way our thoughts which, without an object to look at, easily digresses. A certain stability of imaginative knowledge helps our intellectual knowledge to have fewer distractions.
4. Is the representation always necessary?
The same authors do not insist on its necessity in mental prayer, but they explain to us in what way it can be useful. Its usefulness is evident when we consider the life of Jesus Christ or of the Saints. Even in the consideration of the most abstract mysteries, for example the Divine attributes, the intelligence can start by thinking of sensible things represented by the imagination. It is also praiseworthy to elevate ourselves from the beauty of nature to God, Supreme Beauty. The Carmelite Theologians distinguish different cases one can find himself in, when he meditates. Some have a lively imagination easily able to represent the mystery, others are almost unable to do it. The former should use their faculty of representation, the others should know that it is not an exercise at all cost. To be useful, the imaginative representations must not be very perfect, a vague representation is enough.
5. In what way must the representation be formed?
1) One must apply oneself to it, otherwise nothing serious will be done. But it is not fitting to excite the imagination too much in order to see what we are meditating on too quickly. Those who have an especially lively imagination will try to proceed with a great simplicity because, otherwise, the imagination would be led to illusion and make them believe that they are having visions.
2). As to those who look at the perfection of the representation, the details should not be too precise. The Carmelite authors have equally said that a representation schema can be enough for someone with little imagination. A representation that is more precise is more useful because it fixes more easily our thoughts. The Carmelite authors never speak of the application of the senses.
3) It is not necessary to consecrate much time to form the representation. Some instants are enough, but it is necessary that we have it present during the whole time of meditation. If we can do it, we will find it easier to avoid distractions.
Let us conclude in saying that, without being absolutely necessary, the representation is often useful and those who succeed, must not deprive themselves of this help. Those who, on the other hand, find it difficult, can omit it, and start directly the reflection.
6. Is the reflection or consideration more important?
Reflection is the first of the elements that directly make the meditation, which consists in a certain work of the intelligence. This must remain secondary in comparison with the affectionate conversation with God, which must find in the meditation the stimulating base.
7. Must this work of the intelligence remain a long time?
Its subordination to the affectionate conversation indicates that it must only last as long as necessary to lead the soul to this conversation, meaning until it produces in the soul a profound conviction that it is loved by God and invited to love Him in return. We would however be in error if we believed that we had to interrupt or put to the side the reflection as soon as we feel some pious affection which would suddenly vanish leaving us empty. We must on the contrary insist and continue until the will is completely stable and can remain at least some time in the affectionate attitude.
8. Must the reflection be done methodically?
It can be. St. Theresa following in it other contemporary authors, advices, in the meditation of the Passion of Our Lord, to consider who suffers, what does He suffer, why, with which dispositions? It is not however necessary that there is such a rigorous order in the order of the arguments and one can think without harm to go freely from one thought to the next, provided that it leads to the goal proposed to better understand the love of God for us which is manifested in the mystery meditated on.
9. What will the souls who “cannot meditate” do?
For souls who, because of a certain mobility of the imagination and of thought, have great difficulty stopping at a determined idea to go deeper by deep reflections, St. Theresa teaches another way to excite thoughts which excite love. This method consists in reciting slowly a vocal prayer full of substance stopping to consider with attention the sense of the words and taking the opportunity to form some reflections and express affections.
10. When does the affectionate colloquia start?
It starts when the soul has the strong conviction that it must answer wilt love for the love God gives to it. It all depends on how easy it is for the soul to put itself in this necessary disposition. It is acquired by practice.
11. What is said in the colloquia?
The soul expresses especially to God its will to love Him and show Him its love, taking the motive of its purpose in a particular mystery. It can be done in many different ways and the colloquia will be done in many ways as well. The soul can express its love not only to the Holy Trinity, but also to Jesus. It is also praiseworthy to speak affectionately to the Saints.
12. In what way is the colloquia done?
It can be done in many different ways. We can express our affection with words pronounced vocally, but we can also do it with interior expressions of the heart or will. These expressions can be short and happen with a certain frequency, or be prolonged for some time, saying them at longer intervals. The soul also can be happy only keeping company with God [without any expression].
13. Must the conversation be continuous?
We can answer yes in the way that the soul must remain in conversation with God, but no in the manner of “speaking” continuously. Also the Carmelite authors teach expressly that the conversation done by the soul must not be too long or agitated, but peaceful and many times interrupted, as to permit the soul to listen to God’s answer.
14. Does God speak in the colloquia?
If we were the only one to speak, it would not be a colloquia. On the other hand St. Theresa taught that God speaks to the soul when it prays with all its heart. One must not believe that God is heard in a material way. He answers the soul in sending it graces of light and love by which the soul understands better the ways of God and feels greatly inflamed to follow them with generosity. Listening consists in, for the soul, to accept these graces, and thinking how to look for profit.
15. Why is the colloquia called “contemplation”?
Because, when the soul speaks with God and listens, the soul stops reasoning as it did in meditation and now is happy to pay attention in a general way to the mystery better understood because of the meditation. Or even the soul looks simply at God the Father, or Son with Whom it speaks. In this simple look is realized the traditional notion of contemplation ( a simple look which penetrates the Truth). And as in the colloquia, God communicates to the soul His light. Under this aspect is realized in some way which is more fully the essence of the true contemplation: an infusion of heavenly light.
16. How long can this colloquia last?
There is no limit. It can occupy the whole time of mental prayer. Even more, the simplification of mental prayer consists to make the reflections shorter, to give more time to affections and to give them, little by little, a calmer form by prolonged acts. It is not easy for the soul in the beginning to stop from time to time to express its love. This is why we can have recourse to the last acts of mental prayer: thanksgiving, offering and asking.
17. Why do we need to thank God?
Many reasons push the soul to express its gratitude to God. We have received much from Him either in the natural or supernatural order: to be born of Catholic parents and to have been baptized without delay, to have been raised in the True Religion, and especially to have been given a vocation; so many free gifts from God for which we cannot thank Him enough. And also how many graces God surrounds us with, without stopping. Even the exercise of mental prayer is a call to Him to penetrate further into us. We must show ourselves grateful to these favors. Let us add to that the goodness of God towards those for whom we show an interest for: our friends, benefactors, those confided to our care. We can thank not only God but also the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints for their intercession in our favor.
18. What can we offer to God?
Having received all from God, it is praiseworthy on our part to offer ourselves to Him, wanting to use all our strength for His service. As our holy profession is a consecration of our whole life to God 1, we will be able to renew it. We should not be satisfied with general offerings which, because of their vagueness, do not exercise a large influence on our way of acting. It is good to take a particular resolution and to offer to God our will to practice such a virtue or to fight generously against a temptation or to willingly accept a trail of suffering. By these firm resolutions we put our mental prayer in contact with our daily life; this is why it is good for all to finish with a particular resolution even if an offering has not been done.
19. Whom must we pray for?
Our large spiritual destitution forces us to have recourse continually to prayer. After having told that “without Me you can do nothing”, Our Lord added, “ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened to you.” Our spiritual progress depends extremely on the prayers that we will say with confidence and insistence.
We must pray for others: for their temporal and spiritual needs and especially for their sanctification and salvation.
We will have an interest in not only souls in particular but also our country, Religious Orders, our Spiritual Family, and Holy Church.
Knowing that the souls dear to Our Lord are more powerful on His Heart, desirous to obtain much from Him, we will try to make ourselves agreeable to His Majesty by a life detached from the world and oriented only to the research of intimateness with Him. In this way one will realize the ideal proposed by St. Theresa to her daughters: to become an intimate friend of God who uses this intimateness to make His Divine Graces overflow on this world.
(To be continued)
1 ‑ He is speaking here to religious.