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Epiphany: a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 13: Ways to Holiness

The Doctrinal Foundations of Spirituality

The Catholic Church knows various spiritualities, but we must begin by outlining what they have in common. According to Catholicism, the heart of spirituality, prayer, is determined by the structure of the Christian faith itself, where the truth of both God and creature shines out.

Distinctively Christian prayer takes its ethos from the historic revelation. In the Old Testament, the prayer of Israel (most notably in the Psalms, but also in canticles and odes scattered throughout the historical, prophetic, and wisdom books), tells in the first place of God's works on behalf of the chosen people. Not only in creation but also, and especially, in redemption Israel meditates and contemplates these mirabilia Dei, reappropriating them for herself. In the New Testament, the self-revelation of the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit enormously enriches the content of biblical prayer and changes its axis. For Paul, the mystery of God par excellence is Jesus Christ "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3). As the Second Vatican Council puts it, by means of his revelation the invisible God "from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, in order to invite and receive them into his own company."[1] Hence the role in spirituality of the prayerful reading of Scripture (lectio). To meditate is, in the first place, to rehearse the biblical text, constantly repeating, murmuring, its words. The medievals called this ruminare as a cow chews the cud, so a Christian digests the word of God, tranquilly, engrossed. If the biblical word is to be a seed of life germinating within us, we must let it sink down and enter the heart. Such meditatio turns naturally into prayer, a response of self-surrender to God in Christ via this text; on the classical medieval scheme, this is called oratio. Finally, such prayer tends to become silent adoration of God's presence, contemplatio. The movement is not of course inevitable, yet it is self-correcting. When distractions take over, one has a remedy: re­turning to the text, one lets the language pour over oneself again until the prayerful and contemplative spiral resumes.

This is not simply the result of the individual's effort. The missions of the Son and the Spirit enable human beings to welcome and contemplate the words and works of God in the "new and everlasting covenant," and thank and adore him in the liturgical assembly and the "cell" of the heart. Because Christian prayer is always a participation in the prayer of Christ and the "groaning" of the Spirit, it bears a necessary relation to the Scriptures, where these realities are disclosed, and also to the communion of the Church, where they are sacramentally present. Even when a Christian prays alone, his or her prayer remains within the framework of the communion of saints.

Among those "saints" the masters and mistresses of prayer have always constituted an important group. Since the time of the Desert Fathers, teachers warned of spiritual dangers such as the false "gnosis" which hates matter and treats supernatural grace as an attribute of the soul, rather than the free gift of God; or "Messalianism" which deifies spiritual experience, and regards its deprivation, or transmutation into the experience of affliction and desolation, as signs that the Holy Spirit has abandoned the soul; or again that Neoplatonism (in the pejorative sense of that in some ways admirable movement of philosophical thought) which regards prayer as the attempt to ascend to, or immerse oneself in, the sphere of the divine, understood as a realm beyond both sense perceptions and intelligible concepts. Over against these temptations, teachers of the art of prayer in a Christian context also stressed,. more positively, the human and earthly mediation of a divine and unearthly reality, whose center is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal communication of his (characteristic) Spirit. Referring to that model of all praying, the 1989 Letter of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation drew the attention of its readers to the practical test of the authenticity of prayer: from the desert and the mountain, Jesus passed to his saving work in the human city.

"Contemplative Christian prayer always leads to love of neighbor, to action, and to the acceptance of trials and precisely because of this it draws one more closely to God." [2]

Purgation, Illumination, Union

On the basis of a commonplace of late antiquity, various schools of prayer and individual writers on prayer have expounded their sense of the dynamic development of a Christian life in terms of three phases: purgative, illuminative, and unitive. Though such categories can be abused by failure to fill them with a distinctively evangelical and ecclesial content, they are in themselves a helpful way in which to structure an account of this dynamism. First, seeking God through prayer has to be at once prepared for and accompanied by a serious effort to uproot the tares of sin and error: purgation. By (negatively) self­denial, or "mortification," and (positively) exposing oneself to the message of the gospel in an integral and wholehearted way, evil thoughts and passions are to be rooted out: the lack of truth and love, the endemic selfishness that follows from the Fall are to go. In disencumbering the self of sensuous representations and of concepts, an emptiness is created which can then be filled by the richness of God. This emptiness is, however, not a rejection of the creaturely, nor is it simply an entry into the depths of the self: rather is it a re-evaluation of the world in the light of God, who wills to draw us totally into his triune life, his eternal love. Consequently, in orthodox mysticism the human figure of Jesus is not, in this context, something to be left to one side. On the contrary, it is through the manifestation of Jesus, as a figure perceivable by the senses and still so perceivable through the spiritual eye of faith, that the praying person knows the Father.

"After" purification (the stages are to some extent not so much chronological as [theo-]logical) comes illumination. Church tradition links this inextricably to the grace or "unction" bestowed on believers by the Holy Spirit in baptism. On the basis of the grace of baptism, the faithful are called to make progress in understanding of, and witness to, the mysteries of faith, helped by the interior penetration of those realities provided by the Spirit of Christian initiation.

"Any subsequent graces of illumination which God may grant help to clarify the depth of the mysteries confessed and celebrated by the Church, as we wait for the day when the Christian can contemplate God as he is in glory."[3]

Through the sanctifying grace of baptism, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are infused within us, to act as the foundation of our disposition towards God. They are, as the last chapter showed, the operative principles of the supernatural life: the rest is icing on the cake. However, given that these gifts are received into our normal human faculties they are to some extent subordinate to rational knowledge and functioning. The "gifts" of the Holy Spirit wisdom, understanding. counsel, fortitude, knowledge, the fear of the Lord (Isa 11:2) are given so as to render our faculties more receptive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. They are bestowed in nuce in that "seal" of baptism which is confirmation. As with all the gifts of grace that make for holiness, however, the sacramental manifestation will often await a more "charismatic" manifestation; it unfolds in our lives when factors, both exterior and interior, are favorable.

Baptism, together with (above all) the Holy Eucharist, forms likewise the sacramental foundation to the state of union. That state must be distinguished from any particular experience of union. All are called to the profoundest union with God by charity, but not all are necessarily called to mystical union: a specific type of union, based on a special grace of the Spirit. Every Christian can quicken the normal gifts of the Holy Spirit through zeal for the life of faith, hope, and charity, and these gifts provide, for any baptized person, a certain experience of God and the other realities of faith. Other charisms are bestowed on persons specifically that they may bear fruit in the life of the Church; every Christian has a specific task (and in this sense a charism) for the edification of the Lord's house. In addition to these, those endowed with mystical gifts experience certain momentary foretastes of the age to come; when their experience is intense, habitual, they lead the person (not without suffering) into that deep union often called in the imagery of the Song of Songs the "mystical marriage." The medieval English Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx would appeal rather to the imagery of the Sabbath:

We are drawn into his glorious light and are lost in his unbelievable joy. Everything that belongs to our human nature, everything that is fleshly and perceptible and transitory is stilled. All we can do is to gaze on the One who is forever changeless, and as we gaze on him we are perfectly at rest. So great is the delight we find in his embrace that this is indeed the Sabbath of Sabbaths. . . . In each Sabbath we find rest and peace and joy for the spirit, but the first Sabbath belongs to a man's own quiet conscience, the second to the community of men living happily together, and the third consists in the contemplation of God [4]

An ecstatic understanding of transcendent verities may be purely natural (as perhaps in the ancient philosopher Plotinus) or enjoy the assistance of the Spirit, but it is not strictly mystical contemplation, wiuch is always based on iove of its own object. indeed, according to Augustine in his Confessions (7.10; see also 9.10, the famous vision at Ostia shared by Augustine and his mother, Monica) such "intellectual ecstasy" discloses to the soul its weakness and distance from God. Union a habitual and steady harmony between God and the soul can only be the fruit of a long and costly process, the appropriation of the Lord's death and resurrection. In describing the state of union, John of the Cross tried to express a level of contact deeper and more comprehensive than that available through any of our faculties something other than ordinary subject-object perception. The "substantial touch" (as he terms it) reflects the soul's protracted reaction to what it is coming to know ever more certainly: it is held in God's love and is being united with his will and work in the very ground of its motivation. This may occasion joy, tears, ardent love, and praise, but what is constitutive of mystical union is not these sensations but the fact of divine action in the heart of the self, so stripped of self-seeking that it erects no barriers to God's loving will.

Christian mystics habitually speak of this condition in terms of what at first sight appears to be quite conflicting imagery: a suffusion of light, or an entering into darkness. The disorientation caused by God's profound activity in the soul (in the case of the mature contemplative), when grasped by the recipient in its thorough pervasiveness, can be called either darkness or light, void or plenitude, depending on traditions of religious rhetoric, exegetical interest, and even temperament.

Through the active and passive purification of its knowledge, the adherence of the believing intellect to God's revelation comes to depend less on its natural operation as a mind and more on the infused light it owes to its engraced sharing in God's own knowledge. However, because the mind's infused understanding comes from the light of faith, its object can be nothing other than the revealed truth to which the assent of faith is given. Therefore, even in the mystical encounter with God of a mind purged thereby of concepts, the adherence of the intellect must still be given to the "substance" of the truths it has already learned through historical revelation. The charity operative in living faith gives the soul the strength it needs to adhere firmly to that gospel "substance" in its interior life of prayer.

It follows that growth in faith can never be equated with increasing clarity in the mind's conceptual knowledge of God. On the contrary, the growing firmness with which faith, vivified by charity, adheres to God must be attributed to the increasing ability of the mind to dispense with a conceptual knowledge of God in its ascent through the stages of active and passive purification. That is why the mind, in journeying from the world to God, must rise above the conceptual science of theology in mystical prayer, a Gregory the Theologian, a Thomas, is not simply thinking about God in order to adhere more firmly to the "substance" of revelation in the non-conceptual wisdom of prayerful contemplation. Yet at the same time, contemplative wisdom retains its source in faith. No knowledge of God's own inner being available to the human mind can be more direct or immediate than the knowledge given by God himself in revelation and humanly accepted through faith. Mystical knowledge can never rise above the historic revelation. The Catholic mystic remains firmly solidary with his "even-Christians," the community of the Church.

The position adopted here belongs to the mainstream of the Catholic theology of mysticism: all may aspire to "acquired" contemplation, the non-discursive "prayer of simple regard" or "prayer of loving attention." But contemplation in the fullest sense infused contemplation is entirely God's gift in such a way that it can never be expected as something quite predictable. Although some may doubt whether the Christian contemplative tradition forms a coherent enough whole for any theological generalizations to be legitimate, that tradition does (consonant with sound doctrine!) expect and encourage all baptized believers to enter into transforming union with God. It does not, however, predict or require that all will become reflectively aware of this condition. All Christians receive a general and (in the language of the Neoscholastic divines) "remote" call to contemplation, but not all have a proximate and immediate call. Given certain conditions and circumstances it may well be impossible even for a saint to reach the higher degrees of contemplative prayer as Gregory the Great recognized in his Pastoral Rule. For the Dominican school, there can be a genuinely mystical life, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in play, when the gift of wisdom exists in a Christian in practical, rather than contemplative, form. Thus the gift of wisdom enabled that eminently practical Church reformer Vincent de Paul to see the suffering members of Christ in the unfortunate; it did not give him contemplative glimpses of that final Sabbath which is the goal of the whole Church in the kingdom.

The norm for most devout Christians is nonetheless for periods of conscious loving attention to become longer and steadier, according to the helpfulness of circumstances. (This, in the Sanjuanist scheme, is the threshold of "infused contemplation," the night of sense.) It was the great contribution to Catholic spirituality of Francis de Sales to insist that such a "devout life" is in principle open to all, whatever their station or situation. As Abbot Cuthbert Butler put it, "A contemplative life does not lie in the absence of activity but in the presence of contemplation." Any devout layperson can live a genuinely "contemplative" life, though without the dramatic commitment (and the helpful concomitants) of the full monastic life, lived at the heart of the Church as a celebration of, and witness to, just such contemplation.

Various attempts have been made in the history of spiritual theology to "grade" the Christian ascent up the ladder of spiritual perfection. It is characteristic of the Carmelite school (and especially Teresa of Avila) and those influenced by the great Carmelite mystics of the sixteenth century to distinguish states of soul by the criterion of psychological accessibility. This has its place, but it is not the whole story. A typical medieval text such as De septem gradibus contemplationis, with its steps of fire, unction, ecstasy, speculation (contemplation), taste, quiet, and glory, is more concerned with the objectivity of the Spirit's gifts (seven being the number of his fullness), and less with our capacity consciously to experience them.

The Diversity of Spiritualities

How, then, do spiritualities differ? Not only in the sense that there is in the Church a variety of spiritual schools; there are also different states of life. The individual Christian life, founded in every case on the evangelical charity revealed by Christ, is nevertheless lived out in differing mediations of his work of recapitulation which nothing escapes save the sin he came to destroy. The indispensable subjective condition without which an objective mediation of Christ's recapitulating work would remain sterile for spiritual progress must always be charity. But charity means not only attention to the concrete needs of our neighbor in the most elementary, pragmatic sense of the word "need." Those who work to bring to the world more intellectual light or greater aesthetic beauty can also be moved by charity, as can those who consecrate their lives to prayer as a service to humanity. The chief loci at which the Lord's transfiguring presence makes itself available for contemplative appropriation may be said to be, first, oneself; second, one's neighbor; and third, the world at large in which one's life is set, and all these modes of his epiphany are operative in the classical spiritualities of the Church. Reaching the God who is actively present in the embodied soul, seeing God in the neighbor, and finding God in nature. and all things: these three are found time and again in the his

tory of Christian spirituality. Let us look at each more closely.

Hunger for God-a deep desire of the soul to seek the Lord whom she wishes to possess fully is a dominant theme of all spirituality, appearing most clearly in the Carmelite school. It has its roots in Paul's desire "to go away and to be with Christ" (Phil 1:23). This desire for the life everlasting can be, if God wills, directly illuminated by him, nourished with the very life of grace the Spirit gives at baptism. Though God cannot be possessed except beyond death, as the "reward" of a life of loving obedience, the soul can seek him (above all) within. Since "the love of God has been spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given us" (Rom 5:5), the active presence of the Spirit of Father and Son in the human soul is a privileged mediation of the divine being itself. The interior life, founded on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, testifies to the real inauguration here and now of the life eternal. As Paul puts it in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: "Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day" (4:16). While the body, like the soul, is preparing for the resurrection, life in the body, during the present age, carries with it a consciousness of exile from the life of the age to come (cf. 2 Cor 5:6-8).

The fourteenth-century English hermit Richard Rolle wrote:

O honeyed flame, sweeter than all sweet, delightful beyond all creation! My God, my Love, surge over me, pierce me by your love, wound me with your beauty. Surge over me, I say, who am longing for your comfort. Reveal your healing medicine to your poor lover. See, my one desire is for you; it is you my heart is seeking. My soul pants for you; my whole being is athirst for you. Yet you will not show yourself to me; you look away; you bar the door, shun me, pass me over; you even laugh at my innocent sufferings. And yet you snatch your lovers away from all earthly things. You lift them above every desire for worldly matters. You make them capable of loving you and love you they do indeed. So they offer you their praise in spiritual song which bursts out from that inner fire; they know in truth the sweetness of the dart of love. Ah, eternal and most loveable of all joys, you raise us from the very depths, and entrance us with the sight of divine majesty so often! Come into me, Beloved! All ever I had I have given up for you; I have spurned all that was to be mine, that you might make your home in my heart. Do not forsake me now, smitten with such great longing, whose consuming desire is to be amongst those who love you. Grant me to love you, to rest in you, that in your kingdom I may be worthy to appear before you world without end.[5]

Of all mediations, the interior life is the one where the transforming action of grace is at its most immediate. Despite its risks of delusion, error, false mysticism, and self-absorption, the Church's tradition prizes it as the best way to union with God in his own action, in the manifestation of his presence. Starting from this luminous truth, it becomes possible moreover to look at all things in a transfigured way, after the fashion of the seraphic father, Francis.

If the intimacy of the divine indwelling is the most immediate way to serve and find God, the approach to God through our neighbor is the most accessible. This "neighbor" may be a fxiend, a spouse, the poor, the sick. Neighbors, though mediations, are not means: precisely as persons, they are ends. One does not use neighbors: one serves them, and in serving them one is united to Christ the Savior. Realities always exercise their mediating function according to their own structure, and with their own inalienable value. Persons, therefore, do not merely offer occasions for doing good; rather, as made to the divine image, God is present in them as in his icons, though some be engrimed. To see our neighbors as mediations of the Lord presupposes that we have already grasped the spiritual significance of fraternal relations with others.

That great contemplative, John the Divine, asks rhetorically:

"If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth". (1 John 3:17­18).

As the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, my "neighbor" is anyone I pass on the highway or, more precisely, the needy towards whom I go. The love of others for the sake of the Father is a share in the love of the Son for human beings; it is to open oneself in the Spirit to the benevolent influx of the charity of Christ. In the consequent "wasting" of energies on the poor, sick, and old is seen the supernatural reality of the Church as "holy mother Church": and every Christian should take after this mother.

Epiphanies in spiritual experience are not restricted to the flaring of the "spark of the soul" or glimpses of treasure in the earthen vessels that are our neighbors. The wider world, too, both as nature and as creatively affected by human beings, addresses itself to the contemplative awareness of human beings, while also inviting them to contribute to its own movement by their actions. Since the same Logos is disclosed in both Scripture and nature, both must be spiritually "read," deciphered. The medieval Doctors frequently speak of the "twofold book." Scripture, as a new world of meaning, is given to sinful humankind by the divine mercy, to help it rediscover the sense of the primal world. Though the heavens proclaim God's glory, carnal ears cannot hear their music until the book of the re-creation, Scripture, received by faith, restores to us an understanding of the primordial creation. Only so are both the pagan deification of nature, and its naturalistic reduction, equally avoided. In the same perspective, the world of art also rediscovers its just meaning. If human beings, in their aesthetic self-expression, perceive themselves as without relation to the God who alone maintains their dignity, they will naturally reproduce in art their own distorted image. Again, their marked tendency to assert their own autonomy engenders, when unchecked, a narcissistic attitude to the rest of creation, and so a disfigured portrait of the world in art. To find its mediating function, art demands considerable ascetic and spiritual effort as the Byzantine tradition is especially aware.

So much for contemplative activity via the world (though art is at once contemplation and productive action). But what of practical activity? In all the variety of their daily occupations, Christians try to live the will of God. But more than this: they attempt to revalorize the world spiritually by consecration. Every Christian, as one sharing in Christ's priesthood, can be the locus of the offering of the world to God. This can take receptive form, as in Teilhard de Chardin's Mass of the Universe a becoming thankfully conscious of creation as participation, with the gift of being at its beginning and the prospect of being's fulfillment at its end. Or it can take transformative form­infusing gospel values into the human milieu, making the human environment, accordingly, a sign of the world's relation to God. Spirituality practiced as consecration of the world made possible the ramifying sacramental sense of the Middle Ages, and, in modern idiom, the work of such very different poetic thinkers as Paul Claudel and David Jones. Such world-consecrating (from which our word poetry arises) is not itself salvation, but it is a condition of salvation in a world of signs. The stuff of the world is only rightly called "profane" if we abstract from its origin and its goal, for it is within the wider, if diffuse, sacramentality ascribed by human agency to the world as a whole that the Savior steps forth as salvation's sign. Since God himself is continually at work in creating and re-creating his own world, it should be possible for us to rediscover him there. We can associate ourselves therefore with that divine action which leads the world by countless tracks and paths from wasteland to paradise.

This principle underlies the spirituality of the "sacrament of the present moment," beautifully brought out by the seventeenth-century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade in his Abandonment to Divine Providence:

The designs of God are the fulfilment of all our moments. They manifest themselves in a thousand different ways which thus become our successive duties, and form, increase and perfect the "new man" in us until we attain the full stature destined for us by divine wisdom. This mysterious growth to maturity of Jesus Christ in our hearts is the end and fulfilment produced by the designs of God; it is the fruit of his grace and his divine goodness. This fruit . . . is produced, fed and increased by the duties which are successively presented to us and are filled with the will of God [6]

Or as the Second Vatican Council puts it in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

All of Christ's faithful . . . whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives, will grow in holiness day by day through these very situations, if they accept all of them with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father, and if they co-operate with the divine will by showing every man through their earthly activities the love with which God had loved the world. [7]

Though in many areas of human engagement the concrete will of God cannot be determined in an absolute way, it is all the more necessary to seek it wholeheartedly in the outworking of a history where the good wheat and the tares still grow together.

Ways of Prayer

The Prayer of the Heart

The simplest understanding of prayer known to Catholic Christendom is that characteristic of the Desert Fathers of the early centuries. It is the attitude of one who stands before God "with his mind in his heart": a resting in the presence of God in pure faith. At the same time (and this distinguishes it from the heretical quietism of later centuries in the West), there is no attempt to annihilate the will, but an active love for the Savior and an ardent longing to share more fully his divine life. Though the intelligence cannot be forced to cease its restlessness ("distractions"), its activity may be simplified and unified by the continual repeating of a short ("ejaculatory") formula of prayer. Generally, this takes the form of some kind of invocation of the name of Jesus.

"When we have blocked all the outlets of the mind by means of the remem­brance of God, then it will require of us at all costs some task which will satisfy its need for activity. Let us give it, then, as its sole activity the Lord Jesus." [8]

In the Byzantine tradition, the "Jesus prayer," so understood, helps to focus the dis-integrated personality of the fallen person upon a single point, assisted by the use of a prayer-rope (in Greek, komboschoinion, or in Slavonic, tchotki). Such an approach to prayer where it is accepted that the flow of images and thoughts will persist but the persons praying are gradually enabled to detach themselves from that flow is also found in the monastic West of the Middle Ages. In his treatise on the anchoritic life, Aelred advises his sister:

"She must apply herself very frequently to prayer, throw herself repeatedly at Jesus' feet, and by repeating his sweet name very often draw forth tears of compunction and banish all distraction from her heart." [9]

Among the English Cistercians, Aelred prefers the prayer formula O dulcis Domine; Gilbert of Hoyland, O bone Jesu; John of Ford, Domine Jesu. Dominic's prayer was very much a prayer of "immediate acts," marked by hundreds of prostrations. As Augustine had written in his On the Care for the Dead:

I do not know how it is, but though such bodily actions can only be due to mental acts that precede them, it is a fact nonetheless that by the repetition of such visible external actions the interior invisible movement that produced them is thereby increased, and those affections which had to precede if those actions were to be performed grow by the very fact that were so performed. [10]

The Prayer of the Memory

The most common account of prayer in the medieval monastic sources, however, follows the quadripartite division of labor lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio mentioned at the outset of this chapter. However, these categories shade imperceptibly into one another. The heart of the monastic ideal was continual prayer, or the habitual thought of God, termed most commonly the "memory of God," memoria Dei, in Latin, and in Greek, tou Theou. The powers of the soul have fallen away from God, and the way back is founded on meditation on the Scriptures. It is a re-actualization of the mysteries of salvation and a sacramentalizing of the action and events of Scripture (and above all the Gospels) so that they may become really present for us, hodie, "today," that clarion call of realized saving time in both Bible and liturgy.

"The bride finds Christ through her desire for him; she holds him by retaining him in her memory; she will not let him go because she gazes on him with continual contemplation." [11]

So lectio and meditatio provide the atmosphere or setting for oratio, whose aim is ultimately contemplatio: God himself contemplated in the vision of his glory.

The Prayer of the Imagination

Such prayer of the memory lent itself, especially with the advent of the more psychologically aware sense of subjectivity in the Renaissance, to a further development. This we can call the prayer of the imagination. Its clearest expression is perhaps the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. The aim of the Spiritual Exercises is to convert the soul by therapy from worldliness and selfishness to a state of unhesitating obedience to God's will and the cause of Christ. They propose to harness together all the natural faculties of a person to that end. Intellectual considerations about God and Christ, on the one hand, about the soul and its condition, on the other, are put forward; affective attitudes follow, on the one hand wonder and thanksgiving, on the other, confusion and contrition; then, by the mediating role of the imagination which pictures God speaking to the soul via a biblical scene or a moral allegory, the will translates these affections into resolutions about what one must do in one's life. The meditation habit which the success of the Exercises engendered in Counter-Reformation Europe was perhaps predictable in an age passionate about method (as the French historian of spirituality Henri Bremond pointed out). The purpose was, in Ronald Knox's words, to

"make the thoughtless, whose attention was all directed to outward things, turn back upon themselves and see their own souls in the light of eternity; he [Ignatius] would turn extroverts into introverts." [12]

The Prayer of the Will

But perhaps because the succeeding age was itself so given to introversion, thanks to the "anthropocentric turn" and the morally analytic interest in distinctively human awareness, there was a danger that the mind could not make its affectionate acts of the will happily while watching to see whether it was making them successfully. Hence the reaction against formal meditation which took the spiritual teachers of the seventeenth century back to the medieval Western tradition, and also to the Carmelites Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, for whom prayer was essentially a loving attention to God as present to the soul. The new teachers recommended the "prayer of simple regard," a sort of natural counterpart to the prayer of quiet of which those mystical saints conscious of a bonding to God not of their making had made so much: a Francois de Sales, a Jeanne de Chantal. In this prayer of simple regard there was an, elemental "heaving up of soul" to God, as the Cloud of Unknowing had put it. Recommended in many "short methods" of interior prayer its success was startling; mysticism was widely diffused indeed in the seventeenth-century Church.

The orthodox mystic has a sense of being carried away by a power greater than one's heart, by infused charity, yet one is not just passive, automated. In Knox's words, the recipient of mystical grace "remains in an attitude of bewildered sacrifice." The apprehension of God becomes at once more direct and less distinct. In trying to love God more, the soul makes less apparent use of its affections, for more of its activity goes on in the apex, center, or foundation of the soul, where it springs from the divine creative act. The will, increasingly, is the center of prayer, yet its acts become decreasingly perceptible. What remains is a sense of dependence overflowing into daily occupations as described so graphically by Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection in his "practice of the presence of God." Some contemplative saints have found that the more they pray, the less they ask for even spiritual concerns are left to God by an exercise of holy indifference (this produced the controversy over "disinterested" love, whose chief protagonists were Bossuet and Fénélon). The more the soul enters into itself the less it is self-conscious: the Salesian school was particularly hostile to repli sur soi, which Francois de Sales himself compared to the bride looking at her wedding-ring instead of the groom who gave it. The soul, moreover, as it advances in contemplation becomes less not more conscious of living virtuously; Francois de Sales, again, counsels against supposing we can rest content with wanting the virtues so that they may be ours.

The danger that a mysticism of the soul alone with God would by­pass the humanity of Christ was a real one in such austere theocentrism. In reaction, the French Oratory and the "French School" which it inspired devised a scheme of praying which Knox regarded as a compromise between meditation and the prayer of simple regard. Its aim was that the Christian could so identify in intention with the states of Christ's life that he or she would enter the presence of God by contemplative prayer but "with the mantle of the incarnate Christ thrown about us."

The Prayer of Devotion

The ordinary Catholic will, however, understand prayer much more straightforwardly, as the saying of certain devotions. The day of the good Catholic takes on a certain rhythm from moments where set prayers are said or at any rate a brief set period is left for praying. Morning prayers and night prayers a quarter of an hour given to God at the start and close of the day form the basic skeletal structure of such devotional praying. The "morning offering" of the day in union with the Sacred Heart; acts of faith, hope, love; the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory to the Father; such Marian prayers as the Rosary, the Angelus, the Salve Regina, the Memorare; the kind of commonplace formal prayers found in Catholic prayer books for the multitude; a simple examination of conscience; intercessions for one's loved ones: all of this can release a genuinely contemplative life, for after all, as Thomas Merton remarked, the important thing is not to live for contemplation but to live for God. One can turn to God with devotion at many suitable times: We should pray when we are about to do something, or when we have just finished something. . . . We should pray while we are reading and studying, or when we see something going wrong. . . . We should especially pray when we have just received any grace or blessing from God, because that is a time of great risk. We should pray in accordance with what is actually going on in our lives. If we cannot pray without ceasing in any literal sense, at least we can make sure that every thing that we do is permeated by prayer.[13]

It is not a matter of trying to bring about ideal conditions of prayer, but of "breaking through" whatever conditions actually obtain, and finding God there. "There is a proper time for everything except prayer; as for prayer, its proper time is always."[14] This is well illustrated in one of the Gaelic prayers collected in the Hebrides by the late Victorian Celticist Alexander-Carmichael:

Jesus! Only-begotten Son and Lamb of God the Father
Thou didst give the wine-blood of thy Body to buy me from the grave.
My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler.
Each day, each night, each light, each dark,
Be near me, uphold me, my treasure, my triumph.
In my lying, in my standing, in my walking, in my sleeping.
Jesu, Son of Mary! my helper, my encircler
Jesus, Son of David! my strength everlasting

In such daily praying, the Catholic makes prudent use of helpful external aids to devotion. In the Catholic home, the crucifix, the image of the mother of God, and other holy pictures (icons) should be prominently displayed. In the Byzantine tradition, it is a recognized practice to venerate the icons in the host's home on arriving for a visit. The family, after all, is a "little church" of its own. Images of patron saints are especially meaningful to children. It is good to have a light burning before the holy images, at least at special times such as meals. It may be an oil lamp, or a votive candle. Holy water is also a sacramental of the devotional life of Catholics. It is sprinkled when a house is first blessed by a priest, but this "aspersion" can be renewed by the lay members of the Church wherever they feel the need to invoke God's protection of the home, his care for the sick, and even for animals. Among Byzantine Catholics it is customary to offer incense with a small hand censer traditionally on the eves of major feasts and name days. A Catholic home will also have a Church calendar, and a missal and lectionary for keeping up with the Eucharistic worship of the Church, as well as an Office book or other prayer book containing some of her chief canticles and prayers, whether for the sanctification of time, for preparation for and thanksgiving after Holy Communion, or for other occasions. A memorial book or list of those for whom the family or individual wishes to pray frequently is also useful.

Grace at meals unites the family in the presence of the Creator, and reminds us that every meal is an echo of the Eucharistic feast. Numerous graces in fact link the ordinary meal, via the Holy Eucharist, to the banquet of the Messiah at the end of time. A traditional Gaelic grace asks,

"May the blessing of the loaves and fishes which our Lord shared among the multitude, and Grain from the King who made the sharing, be upon us and on our partaking," while a Latin table-prayer petitions "the King of Glory to bring us to his heavenly Table."

The making of the sign of the Cross at the day's opening and close, at grace, when setting out on journeys, and at other significant times, roots family and individual in the mystery of the Trinity revealed on the redeeming tree. As the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood puts it,

Lo! the Prince of glory, the Lord of heaven, honoured me
beyond the trees of the forest
even as almighty God
honoured his mother Mary
above all the race of women. . . .
none there need fear
who bears in his heart
that best of signs,
the Rood;
by that Rood
shall all who seek the kingdom
come from earthly life to dwell
for ever with the Lord of the Rood.

The Prayer of Petition

It is the teaching of Christ that we should ask God for the things we need, that he delights to give us what is in his will for us by way of response to such petitioning. This does not, however, excuse us from the attempt to discern what we should be praying for. Good petitionary praying does not stem from wanting one's own way no matter what, but rather flows from a waiting on God, where we are able to look at matters as objectively as possible, only wanting his will to be done. Next we ask ourselves to which side of this matter we seem drawn; we then go forward believing that the whole matter is now in the hands of One who can make it all come right in his own time.

Thomas Aquinas gives petitionary prayer a central place in his spiritual doctrine because it is a particularly pure expression of dependence on the Creator.

"Man pays God reverence by praying, in as much as he subjects himself to God and confesses, by praying, that he is in need of God as the source of all his good."[16]

Aquinas also points out that

"We do not pray with a view to changing God's purposes, but to win from God in prayer those things which God purposes to bring about through prayer."[17]

Petitionary prayer can make a difference not in the sense of doing something to God, but "by being part of creation as willed by him, and an essential part at that."[18] Of course it is common experience for such prayers to go apparently unheard. The inability to ascribe a ground for this in many cases is not theologically troubling. The goodness of God means that he (unlike us) never wills evil directly and for its own sake. It does not enable us to determine what positively he will do. But petitionary prayer lost in the divine silence is never futile. Often enough it is an act of charity and has its own beauty; always it bears intrinsic value as an acknowledgment of the creation relationship, the bond between creature and Creator.

Extraordinary Visitations

If we take the theologically realist view that in spirituality and prayer we are caught up into and enfolded by the divine persons themselves, so that in us through grace God himself communes with God, we shall not be surprised to find that there are from time to time some dramatic consequences of praying.

Mystical visions are those whose content concerns the personal religious life and perfection of the visionary. By contrast, prophetic visions lead, or even commission, the visionary to address those around him or her and ultimately the Church at large with a message that instructs, warns, demands, or foretells. What they have in common is the presupposition that God, since he is free and personal, can make himself perceptible to the created spirit, not only through his works, but also his word free and personal like himself. He can do so, in the words of Karl Rahner,

in such a manner that this communication of God is not simply himself in the direct vision of the Godhead, or in the dimension of a blessed intellect emptied of all that is finite, but also and for a Christian who believes in God's incarnation this is essential in such a way that this communion is bound up with a particular place and time, with a concrete word or command, with an "apparition" of an object presented to the internal or external senses, which object represents and manifests God, his will, or the like.[19]

Rahner emphasizes that this adherence to God in a sign is more appropriate to the economy of the redemptive incarnation than would be a mystical union devoid of images.

The Catholic Church, however, does not regard revelations given to her members in the postapostolic period as in any way constitutive of her faith. After Christ, no further revelation which would essentially change the conditions of salvation is thinkable for Catholicism. "Private" revelations (the word must be used carefully, for what is at stake is the, prophetic element in the corporate Church), are imperatives showing how the Christian people should act in some concrete historical situation. They are essentially new commands, not fresh assertions.

Such imaginative visions must largely conform to the given structures of our spiritual faculties of understanding and willing. Yet if they are to be deemed authentic, they must be God-given, in a supernatural fashion which goes beyond the laws of our physiology and psychology. Even then it is not as a rule the vision as such that is primarily and directly effected by God; the vision is an overflow and echo of a more intimate process. For John of the Cross, the "forms, images, and figures" are husks; the kernel is the "spiritual communications." And since in the nature of the case such communication is a two-way process, there is a difficulty in disentangling the divine from the human component. In Rahner's terms, the "graphic content" of a vision is a "picture" of not only the divine contact but the person who receives it as well. Since that contact cannot impinge on the recipient's consciousness until it is already a synthesis of the divine influence and the seer's subjective limitations, proof that the imaginative content is really intended by God could only be offered through examining external criteria. (In the history of visions in the Church, even saints and beati report what, to the Church's informed judgment, are distortions historical, theological, aesthetic.) As one professional explorer of such apparitions, John Cornwell, has written of their Marian genre:

"To the extent that apparitions symbolise Mary's promised availability, they offer the promise of her living participation in the narrative of the children who see and address her. Such apparitions could be said to be the language, the theatre, the liturgy of folk mysticism, the authentic imaginative perceptions of people steeped in traditions of local spirituality."[20]

Certain extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit such as prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues have been associated with the church of Corinth in the Pauline Letters, with a number of the lives of the saints, and with a deliberate movement of revival (the "charismatic renewal") started in the Catholic Church in 1967. The Church officially recognizes the importance of such gifts, bidding us receive them "with thanksgiving and consolation," but she also warns against seeking them with a wrong attitude, and against presumptuously exaggerating the fruits to be hoped for. In Catholicism, the reception of the Holy Spirit belongs with the common initiation of Christians which is why in the early Church baptisteries were decorated with paradisal imagery, for the baptized are enfranchised in heaven (Phil 3:20). But without, then, falling prey to the (heretical) Pentecostalist notion that there is a "baptism in the Holy Spirit" (by laying on of hands, and manifested in tongues) distinct from the sacrament of the Church, we can say that in the baptismal life, God seeks to create in his disciples an ever-greater capacity to receive the fullness of Christ.

What is the significance, then, of an extraordinary gift such as the gift of tongues? A tradition in the early Church (especially in the Syriac Odes of Solomon) saw salvation as including the opening of human mouths by the Holy Spirit, himself released into the world thanks to the incarnation and atoning work of the Son, so that we may utter God's Word with Christ, in praise of him and proclamation of his triumph, and in that way escape the baleful silence of death and damnation. The Anglo-Saxon poets called the human being "the bearer of speech." Pentecost is the definitive reversal of Babel for it allows human beings to share once again in the holy speech to which, in the beginning, man was privy when he named the animals a continuation of the creative act. The gift of speaking in tongues, in this perspective, is a celebration of our salvation from dumbness by the Word of God, who allows us to express our identity in him through the worship of faith.

The tradition is well aware indeed that there can be a very distinct experience in the Holy Spirit, a "manifestation of baptism," whether in tears or in shouts of joy, an experience of spiritual purification or exultation lacking at sacramental baptism because of the candidate's own lack of faith or carelessness about the commandments, his or her deliberate sin, heresy, or psychological bondage. But unlike Pentecostalism, Catholicism locates such a "baptism of the Spirit" in the initial total gift of grace in baptism of water. It seeks, moreover, to keep us always open to further gifts of the Holy Spirit, and to preserve us within the Church's unity, in the fellowship of those who have received the same baptismal grace, even if not all have experienced that grace in the same way. To claim some definitive "fullness" is always mistaken. As Bernard remarks in his second homily for the feast of Andrew the only sure sign of the Spirit's presence is our desire for yet more.

It is natural that people who are seriously embarked on the spiritual life and especially those who have received (or think they have received) such extraordinary visitations will look for assistance and counsel from time to time. They will find this in various ways: in providential events or encounters, in books, in priests or laypersons who are gifted in the advising of others on the way of holiness. So far as the latter are concerned, the Church expects certain qualifications of them. First and foremost, they must have a good grasp of the dogmatic essentials of Catholic Christianity, for spirituality is but dogma lived and prayed. They must be deeply soaked in the Scriptures as the word of God, and in the spirit of the liturgy as the living response of God's bride, the Church. They must have a reasonable acquaintance with the classical literature of Catholic spirituality, to be able to advise on reading, in accordance with need and ability, and to inform their own response and give it depth. At the same time, the spiritual director should have some understanding of human psychology not necessarily of a bookish kind, for many of the great spiritual teachers of the Church showed a remarkable grasp in practice of the unconscious motivations of conduct. Above all, the spiritual counsellor needs personal humility, freedom from self-seeking, possessiveness, and authoritarianism, as well as the capacity to make genuine contact with others.

Such things as levitation, the stigmata, and the incorruption of the body after death appear very often in the lives of the saints, and have sometimes been regarded as a normal condition of pronouncing someone a genuinely God-possessed person. Some of the greatest of the saints have protested against this belief, but none has disputed that such phenomena occur. Catholic writers usually hold them to be strictly supernatural and even miraculous in origin signs and wonders worked by God to attest his invisible working in the souls of the saints. For these commentators, to question this assumption smacks of rationalism: a refusal in principle to accept the possibility of miracles. A second school of thought is more cautious. Because the relationship between soul and body, or mind and brain, is so intimate, if God were working on the soul of a mystic then strange things might happen to the person's body even though God may not have willed this directly. On such a view, these phenomena are side-effects of grace, the body reacting in abnormal ways under the stress of divine action in the soul.

The construction one puts on these phenomena will depend partly, perhaps crucially, on one's basic picture of reality. If one believes that this world is set within a wider order of reality, one may allow that surprising things might sometimes happen. If the ultimate agent in history is a God who has created the human person, body and soul, and wills the transfiguration, body and soul, of that same being, then these phenomena do not look so bizarre. They can be considered as hints, clues, pointers; consolations; anticipations of the final destiny of the person in the total self-surrender of the soul to the loving purposes of an infinite God and the raising up of the body, which in baptism was sacramentally conformed to the crucified Christ, to share the soul's glory.

Spiritual life is life anchored in God, where all we do comes from the center; it is a life soaked through with God's reality and claim and given over to the movement of his will. This is why prayer is vital to it, since the heart of prayer is throwing ourselves away in self-oblation. Its "waste" of time enables us to share in the absolute "waste of time" which is the interior life of the Holy Trinity. Such prayer molds the human being into the Trinitarian pattern, relating him or her by adoration and surrender to the Father; by communion, and closeness, in a prayer of wanting to be with him to the Son; and by co-operation in the purposes of God to the Holy Spirit. In this way, the spiritual experience of the Church reintroduces the believer into that union with God which was Adam's before the Fall, and more than that as heaven is more than paradise into a participation in the sense of God's nearness enjoyed by the blessed. To say that every member of the Church is called to spiritual perfection is simply to say that every Christian is called to share in the redemptive work of Christ as he restores the lost grace of Eden and promotes humankind to the vision of God. The soul's transfiguration is also its fullest personalization.

The mystery which [Ezekiel] saw was that of the human soul as she is hereafter to receive the Lord and become herself the very throne of his glory. For the soul that is thought worthy to partake of the Spirit of his light and is irradiated by the beauty of his ineffable glory (he having, by that Spirit, prepared her for his own seat and habitation) becomes all light, all face and all eye. . . . She . . . appears to be altogether face, by reason of the inexpressible beauty of the glory of the light of Christ that rides and sits upon her. [21]


1. Dei Verbum, 2.

2. On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, 13.

3. Ibid., 21.

4. Aelred, Mirror of Charity 6.

5. Richard Rolle, The Flame of Love 2.

6. J.-P de Caussade, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence (London, 1959) 10.

7. Lumen gentium, 41.

8. Diadochus of Photike, On Perfection 59.

9. Aelred, On the Life of Recluses 11.

10. Augustine, On Care for the Dead 5.

11. Gilbert of Hoyland, Homilies on the Song of Songs 9.2.

12. R. A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford, 1950) 246.

13. W. Peraldus, "De justitia" 7.6, in Summa virtutum ac vitiorum (Antwerp, 1588) 1:162-63.

14. Antiochus of St. Saba, Pandect of Sacred Scripture, 91.

15. Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 3:76-77.

16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2-2.83.3.

17. Ibid., 2-2.83.2 and ad 2.

18. B. Davies, Thinking about God (London, 1985) 319.

19. K. Rahner, "Visions and Prophecies," in Studies in Modern Theology (Freiburg and London, 1965) 95-96.

20. J. Cornwell, Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light: Travels in Search of the Miraculous and the Demonic (London, 1992) 386.

21. Pseudo-Macarius, Macarian Homilies 1.2.

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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