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Brookline Carmel Bulletin                        

April 9, 1961

 

Cogitatio Sancta

(Holy Meditation)

 

The Prayer of Beginners

 

In the way of beginners, it is necessary that a man give himself seriously and perseveringly to certain indispensable exercises:  examination of conscience, sacramental confession, penance and mortification.  Otherwise he can never hope to achieve the goal of the first stage of his spiritual journey:  complete and permanent withdrawal from sin.  He is not required to give himself so assiduously to prayer, the characteristic exercise of the more advanced stages, it is true, but neither can he afford to neglect it. For, in the words of Our Lord, we need to ‘pray always’.  In fact, there is incumbent upon him a very special obligation to pray, one that is imposed by the very psychological consequences of abandoning sin.

 

After a sinner has made a complete break with sin, he cannot help feeling that the bottom has dropped out of his world.  In pretty much the same way as the man who has had his legs kicked out from under him, he experiences a terrible let-down; he has nothing to support him; there is nothing for him to cling to.  A sinner is a man who either knowingly or unknowingly seeks to find the fulfillment of his profound and legitimate longings exclusively in creatures and creature comforts.  These he has made the sole support of his soul, and upon them he pours out all the affections of his heart.  When he gives up sin, therefore, it is inevitable that a feeling of emptiness and loneliness begins to dawn within him, and he begins to yearn for his old, familiar way of life.  It had become like old wine to which his palate had become accustomed, and in which he used to take great delight.  Our Lord referred to this phenomenon when He said, “And no man, after drinking old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better’.” (Luke 5, 39).  Thus, as pointed out when speaking of mortification, a man in this state of soul is in great danger of lapsing back to his former habits.  If he does, it will be almost impossible for him to overcome them again.  This explains why, at the very outset of the spiritual life, God is accustomed to grant spiritual sweetness and consolation.  They compensate for the lack of corporal delights until such time as one has become habituated to living without his sins, and the possibility of turning back has become correspondingly slimmer.  But eventually, even these disappear and long periods of desolation return.  It is then that he must turn to prayer as the only adequate remedy.

 

When he becomes acutely aware of his need for support, and for someone or something upon which to center his affections, then there is no recourse open but to turn to God and direct his longings and affections towards Him.  For he has already been convinced that creatures cannot give him the fulfillment he craves.  This may be the least he is able to do in the midst of his struggles, but it is enough, for the mere turning toward God and reaching out to Him with the desires is the essential element of all forms of prayer.

 

The best way to escape the occasions of former sins is to make a complete break with one’s environment.  If a man cannot enter upon a new way of life or go to live far from his former haunts, then his need for prayer is even greater.  In that case he would have to detach his heart from his erstwhile sins while still obliged to continue frequenting the persons, places and things that occasioned them.  This is especially true when his sins consist of disorderly love for necessary creatures and usages, even though they are not as heinous as attachment to unnecessary ones.  So he has to pray and pray explicitly for the light and strength he needs to keep his affections from getting tangled up in them all over again.  He has to beseech God earnestly and persistently for the grace to win a complete victory over sin.

 

These considerations help us to understand St. John Damascene’s classic definition of Prayer:  An ascent of the mind to God, or, asking of God seemly (fitting) things.  When we raise our minds to God we are acknowledging Him as the unique source and fountainhead of all that is good and lovable.  When we ask Him for seemly things we implicitly profess Him to be the Lord and Master of our destiny, the One Who holds supreme dominion over us, upon Whom we are dependent for all our needs.  It tells us, in other words, that prayer is an act of worship.  As such, it is diametrically opposed to sin, which is a kind of idolatry.  It is idolatry to ascribe to a mere creature a perfection or attribute that is found in God alone, or to expect to obtain from a creature what God alone can give.  That is exactly what every mortal sin does.  The man who abandons sin has to pray because that is the only way he can open his empty heart to God.

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