Of Two Sorts of Mental Prayer: Internal Prayer and Contemplative Prayer

by admin on July 17, 2011

LEAVING apart vocal prayer, a thing so holy and in such common use in the Church of God, we will for the pres­ent treat only of mental prayer, of which St. Paul writes: I will pray, sing, and cry to God in spirit and with my heart (I Cor. xiv. 15). There are two sorts of mental prayer, one common and easy, the other very special, extraordinary, and advanced, something received rather than made, according to the saying of ancient saints well versed in prayer. St. Denis the Areopagite says of his master, Hierotheus, that erat patiens divina, that is to say, he rather received what God gave than did things for himself. There is a very great difference between these two sorts of prayer; the former may in some measure be taught by words, the second we cannot so teach because no words are able to express it. It is a hidden manna, which no man knoweth but him that receiveth it (Apoc. ii. 17). Even the receiver cannot explain how it is nor even properly under­stand how it is, as Cassian well observes, quoting to this effect what he calls a divine and heavenly saying of the blessed St. Anthony Abbot: “Prayer is not perfect so long as the monk at prayer is aware of the very fact that he is praying.” This high and exalted prayer does not leave room for the person to bethink himself, nor reflect on what he is about, “suffering,” we should say, rather than “doing.” It happens not unfrequently that a man has his mind so tak­en up and absorbed in some business that he remembers not himself, nor where he is, nor reflects upon what he thinks, nor observes how he thinks. It is the same in this perfect prayer, wherein man is so ravished and lost in God that he thinks no more of himself, nor understands how this is, nor what way it goes, nor what way it comes, nor keeps any account of methods, preambles, or points, nor how he must now do this and now that. This is what happened to St. Anthony himself, of which Cassian makes mention, that oftentimes having set himself to prayer overnight, he remained in it till the next day, when, the light falling upon his eyes, he complained that the sun rose too soon to deprive him of those lights which God interiorly communi­cated unto him. St. Bernard, speaking of this kind of prayer, says that we very seldom find it, and when we do, its stay is very short. Rara hora parva mora; so that how long time soever it lasts, it seems to us all to have been done in a moment. St. Augustine, experiencing in himself the effects it produces, says: “Lord, Thou leadest me on to a tenderness very unusual, and a strange sweetness, such that if it were to go on, I know not where it would stop.” Even in this most special prayer and contemplation St. Bernard marks three degrees. The first he compares to eating; the second to drinking, which is easier and pleasanter than eating because there is no labor for the teeth; the third in inebriation. And he quotes the saying of the spouse in the Canticles: Eat, my friends, and drink and be inebriated, my dear ones (Cant. v. 1). All this is a case of receiving rather than of doing. Sometimes the gardener draws water from his well by force of his arms; at others, standing with folded arms, he sees the flood from heaven soaking the earth without his doing anything else but receive it and guide it to the roots of the trees to make them more fruitful. So there are two kinds of prayer: the one is sought with industry, aided by God; the other is found ready made. By the first you go toiling and beg­ging, and living on what you beg; the second sets before you a full table, which God has spread for you to satisfy your hunger, a rich and abundant table, signified by those words of the spouse: The king hath led me into his cellars (Cant. i. 3). And again: I will gladden them in the house of my prayer (Isaias Ivi. 7).

This prayer is a particular gift of God, a gift which He bestows upon whom He pleases; sometimes in reward of services done and much mortification practised and suffer­ing borne for His love; at other times as a gracious gift of sheer liberality irrespective of previous merits, as it is said in the Gospel: Is it not lawful for me to do what I please ? (Matt. xx. 15). Anyhow, it is not a thing that we can teach. And so certain authors have been reproved and prohibited for having undertaken to teach what cannot be learned nor taught, making a matter of art what is above all art, as though in their way one could infallibly arrive at becoming a contemplative. Gerson severely reprehends this in a book he composed against Ruysbroek, in these words: “You have torn the flower from the root.” As the flower cut from the root and taken in hand soon withers and loses its beauty, so these intimate communications of God to the soul in this high and lofty prayer are of such a nature that in the attempt to take them out of their place and explain and share them with others, they lose their lus­ter and splendor. So do they act who try to explain and teach what cannot be explained or understood. These analogical acts, these transformations of the soul, this silence, this self-annihilation, this immediate union, this depth of Tauler—what is the use of talking of such things if you understand them not, nor know what you are talking about? Nay, some say, and say well, that there is this difference between this divine science and other sciences, that in other sciences, before you learn them, you must learn their terms, whereas in this you cannot understand the terms till you perfectly possess and are master of the science. In others, the theory precedes the practice; in this, the practice goes before the theory.

I say still further that not only we cannot express what this prayer is, nor teach it to others, but you must not seek to apply yourself to it nor raise yourself to it if God does not raise you, apply you, and lift you up to it. That would be great pride and presumption, and you would deserve to be deprived of the grace of prayer that you have and be left without any. He hath led me, says the spouse, into his cel­lar (Cant. ii. 4). This entry which God gives to the soul into His privacy and into His wine cellar, to sate and inebri­ate her with His love, is a most particular gift of the Lord; the bride did not go in by herself, no, not until her Beloved took her by the hand and led her in. That lifting of your­self up to the kiss of His mouth is not a thing that you can or ought to do unless He Himself lifts you up. It would be great impertinence and audacity. Even the bride does not dare do that—she is too bashful and humble for that —but she begs of her Beloved to give her this kiss: Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth; meaning, as St. Ber­nard says: “I cannot of my own strength attain to such love and such high union and contemplation as this unless He give it me.” It is His goodness and gracious liberality that must raise us to this kiss of the mouth, to this so high prayer and contemplation, if He be pleased that we should reach it. It is not a thing that we can teach or that we can or ought to lay ourselves out for.


B Heyrman July 18, 2011 at 3:25 PM

Seems to be what St. Therese’ seems to have meant when she was writing about the garden which, after making great labors in trying to water herself…. finds that the gardener is watering w/out her working at it at all…

admin July 18, 2011 at 10:45 PM

Centering Prayer is like this, too. Entering into the quiet of our souls to let God speak to us in the Silence.

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