MENTAL PRAYER is a great means to progress in the love of God. It paves the way for this growth in love especially by disposing us to receive an increase in faith, for it seeks to make ever more and more real to us the truths of the Creed. Without mental prayer, the spiritual landscape becomes desolate, and external works wither up for lack of an inner life to nourish them. Beyond the forms of mental prayer that were described in the preceding chapter lies a much higher form of prayer called contemplation. It was in contemplation that Mary united herself so intimately in spirit with her Son in all the mysteries of His life, from the early years of her own life to the consummation on Calvary. And even after Calvary her life of contemplation continued, until one day it changed into the absolute clarity of the direct vision of her Son and her Creator in Heaven. In order that we may more easily learn something about contemplation, we must understand that a soul, in its ascent to the highest kind of perfection to which it can attain in the present life, passes through three ways or stages in the course of its spiritual development. The first is the purgative way, the way of beginners, in which the soul meditates by the means described in the preceding chapter, and labors at the first steps in its purification. The passage from the purgative way to the second way, the illuminative way, is made through what St. John of the Cross calls the "night of the senses."(1) There is both an active and a passive aspect to this night: the active part consists in the preliminary work that the soul itself does by its own activity, with the aid of the more usual graces, in trying to free itself from attachments to things of the sensory order, and to advance toward God. The passive phase is the completion of the work by the action of God Himself (2). It is during the passive night of the senses that the soul is introduced to infused contemplation, a new and much higher form of prayer. Infused contemplation is a simple, loving gaze at God, which is not the fruit of human activity, not even of a human activity aided by grace, but of a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit. After the night of sense comes the dawn of the illuminative way, a time of great blessings, in which, under the strong influence of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the virtues of the soul are made more solid, and contemplation becomes well developed. The soul is still, however, in need of purification: hence a second night is required, the "night of the spirit." Like the first night, this night of the spirit has both an active and a passive side. The passive part of this second night is far more terrible than the first passive night; in the second, the spiritual faculties are purified by God's action, so that the soul will be prepared for the higher contemplation and union with God which mark the unitive way (3).
These are the three ways: purgative, illuminative, and unitive, with two nights-that of sense and that of spirit-forming the transition between them.
The prayer of simplicity, which we discussed in the last chapter, may develop to the extent that it merges with the edge of the passive night of the senses, forming a bridge into the initial stage of infused contemplation (4). In some persons that passage is made so gradually (5) that the soul in which it takes place is not conscious of the change, but in others the change is well defined, and can be identified by certain characteristic signs, of which St. John of the Cross has provided the classic description. According to this description, there are three signs that a soul is passing from the purgative way to the illuminative way, from meditation to infused contemplation (6).
The first sign is a great aridity, which takes from the soul all sensible consolation in the things of God, and does not permit it to find pleasure in created things (7). St. John of the Cross says of a soul in this state that God "... allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever." (8). This lack of sensible pleasure results in great weariness in the soul, even in the practice of virtue. As a result, temptation is very burdensome, sacrifices terrify it, and it suffers from even slight causes. The fact that the soul finds pleasure neither in the things of God nor in created things shows that we are not dealing with the common sort of aridity in prayer which is often caused by deliberate sins and imperfections. For although a person who is imperfect and sinful may and usually does find aridity and lack of pleasure in the things of God, he does not simultaneously lack pleasure in all created things.
The second sign is the fact that the soul has an awareness of God which returns persistently in spite of distractions(9 ). This consciousness of God is indistinct and obscure but nonetheless very real. At the same time, the soul has great need for more intimate union with God and fears that it is not serving Him well. If this second sign is joined to the first sign, we see further proof that the aridity of the first sign is no ordinary aridity, for in ordinary aridity a soul usually will tend to forget God in the midst of many distractions; but in this night, the thought of God is persistent, so as to appear again after distractions without being sought. This persistent reappearance of the awareness of God, coupled with the soul's desire for Him and fear that it is not serving Him, makes it quite clear that we are not dealing with a mere case of lukewarmness.
Finally, the third sign is an inability to carry on discursive meditation (10 ). Abbot Bélorgey gives us a good description of strongly developed cases of this third sign: The mind is as if bound; its imagination will not move, its memory is blurred and it seems empty of understanding. At times this emptiness cannot even comprehend a book. At best the soul tries to correspond with the obscure and indistinct awareness of God.... Its aridity continues as usual. But outside of prayer there is little trouble carrying on with one's duties; though sometimes study is difficult (11). All three of the above-mentioned signs must be present at the same time before a spiritual director can justifiably conclude that a soul is in the transition to the illuminative way.
The forces at work in producing these signs are not too difficult to find: God is taking the soul away from its old form of prayer, in which it had formerly found sensible consolations (12). Hence, since it cannot succeed in its accustomed prayer, it lacks the sensible consolation it once found therein, without yet having found the higher pleasure of contemplation. This same lack of sensible consolation tends to make the soul think it is no longer serving God well, but rather is falling back. This impression is heightened by the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul, making it fear sin and desire to be more closely united with God and to serve Him ever better and better. The persistent thought of God is produced by the very contemplation that God is infusing into the soul, while the lack of pleasure in any created thing comes from the action of the Holy Spirit which shows it so plainly how vain all earthly things are.
As we have already noted, this transition to infused contemplation may take place so gradually in some souls that the person himself is not aware of it. In such souls, the prayer of simplicity melts gradually into the newer infused contemplation, for fragments of infused light of the sort that produce the infused contemplation appear little by little, in gradually increasing measure, in the last stages of the prayer of simplicity.
The very nature of the prayer of simplicity makes it a ready background for the infused light. As we saw in the preceding chapter, the prayer of simplicity involves a very simple, loving gaze at God or at divine things. A loving gaze at God is also found in infused contemplation, but the gaze in the prayer of simplicity is active-that is, it is the work of the soul itself, aided, of course, by the more usual sort of graces, while the gaze of infused contemplation is passive-that is, it is produced in the soul by God Himself. As more and more of the infused light is mingled with the prayer of simplicity, the soul becomes less active and more passive; hence the gaze lasts longer, since it is, to an ever-increasing extent, produced passively in the soul by infused light. We must not imagine, however, that this contemplation, even when it is well developed, is so prolonged as to be absolutely continuous for even as much as a half-hour: it is interrupted, and distractions are possible (13) but the thought of God returns persistently. Again, when we say that the contemplation of this night is passive, it must not be thought that the soul is absolutely passive, for it does collaborate in holding itself quiet and attentive to God (14).
The prayer of simplicity may deal with almost any subject that is suitable for lower forms of meditation, and there may be a rather distinct mental image present-but as more and more infused light enters, the tendency of the object of the prayer to be restricted to the Divinity itself increases; and, if an image was formerly present, it now becomes vague and indistinct and gives way to a mere loving attentiveness to God and awareness of Him in a vague, obscure, and general way.15 This awareness is faint at first, and its very vagueness and dimness emphasize the need of the three above-mentioned signs: they serve to show that the soul is not merely blank, doing nothing. They also indicate that it is time to abandon attempts to force the soul to meditate in the old ways.
When the soul arrives at the vague, general, loving attentiveness to God and awareness of Him, in the presence of the three signs, whether strongly marked or not, it has reached the state of obscure, hidden, arid, infused contemplation in the first passive night. It should then content itself with mere loving attentiveness to God, not trying to reason, nor to make any special acts of will unless God should move it to some act. For any reasoning or forced acts would disturb the contemplation that God is infusing into it. A soul at this time must also refrain from seeking sensible sweetness, and muse beware of the devil, who may offer it just such consolations in order to induce it to block the divine infusion by reverting to its old ways.16 For although sensible consolations were useful in connection with meditation, to return to them during the onset of infused contemplation would be to interfere with the change that God is working in the soul. Although contemplation itself, when it first comes to the soul, seems to be arid and dark,17 yet it is really a great light-but the soul is not yet able to discern that fact.
If God so wills, the contemplation will develop further, and be perceived by the soul in a pleasant, clear way; then the soul has but to let itself be held, and to follow the divine action.18 On the other hand, He may permit the transitional arid night to remain for days or years. And in addition to the suffering caused by the aridity, many souls also are assailed by very strong temptations, especially against chastity and patience. Or there may be sickness, fatigue, and various sorts of crosses arising from external conditions. But not all souls receive these additional sufferings, and some have them only to a rather slight degree.
1 The interpretation in St. John of the Cross's writings on certain of these matters, chiefly on the position and the normality of infused contemplation, is disputed. We shall sketch the chief features of the dispute at the end of this chapter. We follow the interpretation of such theologians as Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., one of the leading modern Carmelite commentators on St. John, and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
2 Actually, the night of the senses does not complete the purgation of the sensory part, for the deeper roots of disorders lie in the spiritual part. Hence the first night begins the purification of the sensory part, and the second night completes it, in purifying the spirit. See St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, II, iii (I, 402-4).
3 Unfortunately, the term "contemplation," without the adjective "infused," is used in quite a variety of ways by different authors. For example, St. Ignatius Loyola at times uses it as synonomous with meditation, even certain forms of beginners' meditation. See A. Brou, S.J., Ignatian Methods of Prayer, pp. 130-45, esp. note A, pp. 143-44. St. Peter of Alcantara has a somewhat different use; see his Treatise on Prayer and Meditation, pp. 112-18. Needless to say, neither of these authors restricts the term to infused contemplation. It is important, then, in reading any author who uses the term without the adjective "infused" to determine what sense he gives to the word contemplation. Some authors also speak of "active" or "acquired" contemplation. On this, see note 4 below.
4 The term "acquired contemplation" is sometimes used as synonomous with the term "prayer of simplicity," and sometimes to designate the initial infused contemplation of the first night. Gabriel combines both uses of the term. Garrigou-Lagrange does not approve the term "acquired contemplation." This fluctuation in terminology is confusing, and one must be extremely careful in reading any author to note what meaning he attaches to his terms.
5 See Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, II, 328-30.
6 Judgment on the presence of the three signs must be left to an experienced director. On these signs, see: St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, I, xiii-xiv (1, 114-27), and Dark Night, I, ix-x (1, 373-81). See also: Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, St. John of the Cross, pp. 132-39; Garrigou-Lagrange, (op. cit.), II, 43-53; Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, pp. 201 ff.; Bélorgey, The Practice of Mental Prayer, pp. 105-19.
7 The aridity and other features are more intense in some souls than in others. In general, the higher God plans to lead the soul, the more intense they will be. Certain trials and temptations, especially against chastity and patience, often come in this first night. See Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, II, 59-61.
8 St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, I, ix, 2 (I, 373).
9 In Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, xiii, St. John of the Cross gives the three signs in a somewhat different form from that which we are following (we follow his Dark Night, I, ix-x). Commentators consider the two sets as substantially identical. The chief difference is that the second sign above is replaced, in the Ascent, by: "The third and surest sign is that the soul takes pleasure in being alone, and waits with loving attentiveness upon God, without making any particular meditation, in inward peace and quietness and rest, and without acts and exercises of the faculties—memory, understanding, and will—at least without discursive acts ... the soul is alone, with an attentiveness and a knowledge, general and loving, as we said, but without any particular understanding, and adverting not to what it is contemplating" (I, 116). Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen (op. cit., p. 54) says of the difference: "Both denote the presence of the same contemplative love, but whereas the sign in the Night shows it still inchoate, that of the Ascent considers it as already formed."
10 See Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., II, 58 (quoting from Ascent, II, xv): "'The beginning contemplative is not yet so far removed from discursive meditation that he cannot return occasionally to its practice,' when he is no longer under the special influence of the Holy Ghost, which facilitates recollection." See also II, 56; Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, op. cit., p. 139; Ascent, II, xv, 1; Dark Night, I, ix, 9. See also note 16 below.
11 Bélorgey, op. cit., pp. 110-11.
12 See Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., II, 47-53.
13 On distractions in contemplation, see Ascent, II, xiii, 3, and Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., II, 50, n. 30, and pp. 344-45.
14 See Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, op. cit., pp. 119-22, 143-44, 169-71 and Bélorgey, op. cit., pp. 126-27.
15 There are many differences between the prayer of simplicity and infused contemplation: in the prayer of simplicity the gaze is not so prolonged, it is maintained by our own efforts (with the help of the more usual graces), and it can deal with a wide variety of subjects and may be associated with a rather distinct mental image. But in arid infused contemplation the gaze is confined to a vague general awareness; it is not the result of the soul's own efforts (though there is some slight co-operation in holding the soul attentive), but it is produced by a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it lasts longer. In addition, the prayer of simplicity is often associated with sensible consolations—while the first well developed instance of this infused prayer is normally arid, and commonly hidden from the one who receives it.
16 See St. John of the Cross, Living Flame, III, lxiii-lxiv. Sensible consolations are useful in accord with the principles given in chap. X until the night comes. Then they are harmful, and one must not accept them. In this connection, we must note that the onset of this purgative aridity is apt to be intermittent (see Ascent, II, xv, 1, and Dark Night, I, ix, 9); that is, the soul on some occasions has infused contemplation, but on other occasions must return to meditation. When the infused light is not there, the sensible consolations may be useful. See also note 10 above.
17 See Ascent, II, xiii, 7. Note also Dark Night, I, ix, 6 (I, 375 - 76): " ... although at first the spirit feels no sweetness ... it feels that it is deriving strength and energy m act from the substance which this inward food gives it, the which food is the beginning of a contemplation that is dark and arid to the senses ... and ordinarily together with the aridity ... it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so. If those souls ... knew how to be quiet at this time ... they would delicately experience this inward refreshment.... So delicate is this refreshment that ordinarily, if a man have desire or care to experience it, he experiences it not." [Emphasis aided.]
18 See Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, St. John of the Cross, p. 121.