Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 07/Section 01
A Collection of Some Counsels and Instructions of Monsieur Vincent on the Topic of Mental Prayer
Holy Scripture, speaking of the prophet Samuel, says that not a single one of his words went unheeded. <Ftn: 1 Sam 3:19.> We might say the same, in some sense, of the words of Monsieur Vincent. They were all animated by the Son of God and blessed by his grace, affecting all who heard them. They were heard by the ear but penetrated to the heart. For this reason we have felt the Catholic reader would be consoled and edified if we would insert here some of the counsels and instructions he gave at various times to his community on the subject of prayer. These were carefully recorded by some among them. Although the servant of God spoke extemporaneously as the occasion demanded, the simplicity with which he spoke like a father speaking to his children gave his words a particular effect, leading well-disposed souls to draw great profit from them.
Those who make their mental prayer well are recognized not only by the way they speak of it, but even better by their actions by which they show the fruit they have gathered from their prayer. We can also say the same thing about those who act unsatisfactorily, because it is easy to see that the first is making great progress, while the latter slips back. To derive profit from mental prayer you must prepare for it. Those who neglect this preparation or who come to prayer simply by habit and because the others are there are greatly mistaken. As the sage says, Ante orationem praepara animam tuam ["before going to prayer, prepare your soul"]. <Ftn: Sir 18:23.> Mental prayer is a raising of the mind to God to present our needs to him and to implore his mercy and grace. It is only reasonable, before appearing before his sublime majesty, that you should prepare yourself. We must think to ourselves, What am I about to do? Before whom am I to appear? What do I wish to say to him? What grace am I going to ask for? Through laziness or lack of energy we may neglect to think of these things, or, on the contrary we may possibly be overly worried other matters and so fail in our preparation. We should remedy this fault. We must also control our imagination, so prone to wander, and focus it on the presence of God, without straining to do this however, for excess in this is not good.
Mental prayer has three parts, and everyone knows their order and method. We should follow this method. The subject may be an object of our senses or an abstraction. If it is sensible, such as a mystery of the faith, we should represent it to ourselves, paying attention to all its parts and circumstances. If it should concern an abstract subject, such as a virtue, we should think of what the virtue consists in, its properties, marks, effects, the acts which compose it, and the means of putting it into practice. It would be good to consider the reason for practicing this virtue, and pay the most attention to those motives which most appeal to us. We should think of passages of Holy Scripture or the fathers which bear upon the subject. It is good to reflect upon these, but we should not seek to recall too many of these passages, for what good would it do to amass many passages and reasons, unless it were to enlighten the mind or to clarify our thought, but then this would become more a study than a prayer.
When you want to start a fire, you use a flint, and as soon as the tinder catches fire you light a candle. You would be foolish to continue striking the flint after the candle is lit. So too, when the soul is enlightened by these considerations, why seek others, and continue to strike our minds again and again for other reasons or other thoughts? Do you not see that it is a waste of time to do this? You should strive to move the will and to excite the affections by the beauty of the virtue to be acquired or the hatefulness of the opposite vice. This is not too hard to do, for the will seeks the light of understanding, and naturally turns to what it sees as good and desirable.
This is still not enough. We have to go beyond good sentiments to make good resolutions to work at acquiring the virtue, to put it into practice, and to do acts proper to it. This is the important point and it is the fruit to be gathered from prayer. We should not take our resolutions lightly, but rather repeat them to ourselves and fix them solidly in our heart. It is good to foresee the obstacles that may arise to stand in our way, and the means that would be helpful for putting them into execution. We should determine to avoid the one and be determined to practice the other.
In this regard it is not necessary and often not expedient to have lofty sentiments about the virtue we are seeking, or even the desire to have these sentiments. This desire to feel the virtues, which are purely spiritual qualities, can sometimes harm and pain the mind. Excessive efforts only upset the brain and cause headaches. In the same way, acts of the will that are repeated too often or too forcefully dry up and weaken the heart. We should be moderate in all things, and excess is to be avoided in all things but especially in mental prayer. We must act in gentle moderation, always preserving peace of mind and heart. <Ftn: CED VI:405-07, 229-32.>
Another time he explained the difference between thoughts that arise spontaneously and those inspired by God.
Notice the difference between the light of a fire and that which comes from the sun. During the night when a fire glows, we see objects by its light, yet we see them only imperfectly because this light is limited. The sun, on the other hand, lights the entire world, giving life to everything. It allows us to see beyond that which is merely exterior, to penetrate into the interior, and it makes all things fruitful and fertile according to their proper nature. The thoughts and considerations which come from our own reflections are feeble lights, showing us only the outside of things, and nothing else. The lights of grace which the Sun of Justice shines into our souls penetrate to the innermost depths of our heart, bringing forth marvelous fruits. We must then ask God to enlighten us himself, and to inspire in us what pleases him. All these lofty and studied considerations are in no way to be called mental prayer. We must act in moderation, and gently, always preserving peace of mind and heart.
Those who stop and delight themselves in these lofty considerations are like the preacher who prides himself on his beautiful sermons. He delights in seeing the audience so taken up with what he says. Evidently the Holy Spirit is not at all present here, but instead, it is the spirit of pride which enlightens his understanding and produces all these fine thoughts. To say it more accurately, in this case the demon himself inspires him and makes him speak as he does. It is much the same with mental prayer when we seek those fine considerations or those extraordinary thoughts, especially when they are sought only for the sake of impressing others when they make a repetition of their meditation. This is a sort of blasphemy, an idolatry of the mind, for when meeting God in mental prayer you are seeking only what will cater to your pride. You take up this holy time of prayer to seek your own satisfaction, and in taking pleasure in your own thoughts, you offer sacrifice to the idol of your own vanity.
Alas, my brothers, be on guard against such foolishness. We must recognize that we are all filled with misery. We must seek only what will further humble ourselves and bring us to the solid practice of virtue. We must abase ourselves in mental prayer to the point of nothingness, and in making a repetition on our prayer we must speak our thoughts most humbly. If some thoughts should come to us which seem good, we should be most cautious in accepting them lest the spirit of pride be their source, or even the demon inspire them. This is why we must always humble ourselves profoundly when good thoughts come to us in our mental prayer, in our preaching or in our conversation with others.
Alas, the Son of God could have overwhelmed everyone by his divine eloquence, but he did not choose to do so. Instead, when teaching the truths of the Gospel he always used common words and expressions, ones that were familiar to his hearers. He preferred to be reviled and despised rather than be praised and esteemed. You see, my brothers, how we must imitate him and control the proud thoughts that come to us in mental prayer and elsewhere. We must follow humbly in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, using simple and understandable words. When God allows it, be at peace when what you say is not accepted or you are rejected or mocked. You must be convinced that without a true and sincere humility you will benefit neither yourself nor others. <Ftn: CED XI:85-87.>
A member of the community gave a repetition on his mental prayer for the day. He said that he doubted that he should make any more resolutions because he was unfaithful in putting them into practice. Monsieur Vincent took the floor and said:
- "We must not neglect making resolutions in our mental prayer just because we have been negligent in carrying out previous ones we have taken. It is similar to eating, for we should not stop doing this even if it seems that we are not drawing any benefit from it. Making resolutions is one of the most important parts of our mental prayer, and perhaps even the most important. We must give our attention to making resolutions, and not to the reasoning or thoughts we might have. The main fruit of prayer consists of personal resolutions strongly and firmly made. They should be resolutions which you are convinced of and which you prepare to execute, taking into account the obstacles to be overcome. And yet, even this is not all we have to do. Our resolutions are by their nature both physical and moral actions. They have to be properly arrived at and fully accepted within our hearts, but we must also recognize that no matter how good they may be, their practice and their results depend absolutely upon God. What do you think is the most common reason why our resolutions fail? Is it not because we rely too much upon ourselves, upon our own good aspirations, and upon our own strength? This is why they produce such little fruit. This is why, after we make our resolutions we should greatly distrust ourselves and turning to God, invoke his grace, so he may be pleased to shower his gifts upon us and bless our resolutions. Even then if we should fall short once or twice, or even fail to keep our resolutions repeatedly, still we must again renew our resolve by having recourse to his mercy and imploring the help of his grace. Our past faults should humble us, but not to the extent of making us lose courage. No matter what fault we fall into, we must not lose confidence that God wishes us to come to him. We must resolve anew with the help of his grace not to fall again, something we must earnestly ask of him. Physicians who see no result from the medicines they dispense to the sick do not stop administering them as long as there is still some hope. If these remedies for the body are continued, until there is some sign of improvement, no matter how long or how extreme the illness, should we not do the same for sicknesses of our souls, since, when it pleases God to act, grace can produce such great marvels in them? <Ftn: CED XI:87-88.>"
In another conference, he spoke about a brother of the Company who stated that he followed a set way of making his mental prayer by dividing the subject into several parts. Monsieur Vincent said:
- "Brother, you did well to divide your mental prayer as you did, but when a mystery of religion is the subject of meditation, it is not necessary or expedient to stop at the consideration of a single virtue, and then to make your customary division based on this virtue. It would be better to look at the mystery as a whole, paying attention to all the circumstances, no matter how trivial they may be, for there are hidden treasures there if you know how to look for them. "
I recall a recent meeting of some priests who had taken as the subject of their conversations the way to use Lent well. This is a common topic, spoken of every year, and yet such good things were said that all those present were touched, I especially. I can truly say that I have never seen a more devout conference than that one, nor one that made a greater impression upon those present. Although several spoke on the same topic more than once, it seemed they were no longer the same people who were speaking, for God had inspired them in their mental prayer with a wholly new way of speaking. See, my brothers, how God hides such treasures of the truths and mysteries of our religion in the most ordinary things and in everyday circumstances. These grains of mustard seed become great trees when it pleases God to give them his blessing. <Ftn: CED XI:89-90.>
On another occasion he spoke on the same topic.
Some have good thoughts and sentiments, but do not apply them to themselves and do not reflect enough upon their own interior state. This happens even though they have often heard the recommendation that when God gives a person a light or grace or a good thought in one's mental prayer, it should immediately be put to good use by applying it to one's own particular state in life. One's own faults must be considered, confessed, and acknowledged before God and even before the entire community as an aid to humility and self-denial, and as an incentive to the resolution of correcting oneself. There is always some benefit in doing this. Sometimes, during the repetition of mental prayer, I ask myself why this particular person or that one progresses so little in the holy exercise of meditation. I fear the cause of this is that they are not dedicated enough to mortification and they give too much freedom to their senses.
When the most noted writers on the spiritual life write about the practice of mental prayer, they unanimously declare that the practice of mortification is absolutely necessary to progress in mental prayer. For a person to be well disposed for such prayer, one must not only mortify the eyes, tongue, ears, and the other external senses, but also the faculties of the soul: the understanding, memory, and will. Mortification is the way to prepare for mental prayer, and reciprocally, mental prayer helps the person practice mortification. <Ftn: CED XI:90-91.>
One of the brothers of the Company once threw himself upon his knees before the others to ask pardon for the fault of not having made his mental prayer for some time. He found it painful even to attempt it. Monsieur Vincent said to him:
- "Brother, God sometimes allows us to lose the taste and attraction for mental prayer, and even allows us to find it distasteful. This is usually a test that he sends, a trial for us, but it should not discourage or dishearten us. Many good people have been tried in this way, even some of the saints. Yes, I know several pious persons who have felt this dryness and distaste for mental prayer. Yet they were faithful to God, and used this experience well. As a result, they derived great benefit in their advancement along the way of virtue. As we begin to practice mental prayer, it is true that when this distaste and dryness comes, there is reason to think it may come from our own negligence. You must be on your guard, my brother, that this is not your situation. <Ftn: CED XI:91-92.>"
Later, he asked a brother if he had a headache, and he simply replied that he had, coming from his attempt during his last retreat to feel something in mental prayer. Monsieur Vincent responded:
- "Brother, you must not act this way, attempting to feel something beyond feeling. This attempt comes from self-love. In mental prayer we must act in a spirit of faith, quietly and simply meditating on the mysteries and virtues with no attempt at imagining. Instead we must apply the will to respond by affections and resolutions rather than have the mind try to respond by understanding. <Ftn: CED ibid.>"
In the repetition of his mental prayer, another brother complained about not being intelligent enough to pray well. He could exercise only one faculty of his soul, the will. At the very beginning of his prayer and without any reasoning, he began to make acts of affection. He would thank God, or ask his mercy, or arouse feelings of confusion and regret for his sins, or would ask for the grace to imitate our Lord in the practice of some virtue, and then move on to some resolutions. Monsieur Vincent said to him, "Brother, you must not try to change any of this. Do not worry about trying to understand, even though this is ordinarily necessary to move the will. In your case, you move directly to these affections and to the resolutions of practicing some of the virtues. May God give you the grace to continue as you have been doing, and make you more and more responsive to his holy will." <Ftn: CED XI:92-93.>