Brookline Carmel Bulletin
July 2, 1961
J M J T
Mental Prayer is a loving conversation with God whom we know loves us. When we converse with one of our fellow human beings, someone we love, or someone we find interesting and charming, we never have any trouble keeping the conversation going. Indeed, we find great comfort and delight in it. In this we are helped considerably by the impression that he or she makes upon our senses of sight, hearing, touch, etc. Because these are held fast, so is our attention, and the joy we derive persists as long as we remain in his presence.
But for all His loveableness and His other supremely admirable qualities, it is not easy to remain in loving touch with God in Mental Prayer. We don’t have the assistance of our senses. God transcends space and time and the experience of the senses because He is a pure spirit. Everyone who practices Mental Prayer then, does experience certain difficulties, and it requires effort to overcome them. They are the same in nature for all, though they differ from one person to the next in degree. Experts in the ways of prayer enumerate two kinds, intellectual – inability to fix attention upon God and divine realities, distractions – and that which exists in the will – aridity.
The difficulty encountered in fixing one’s attention upon God may be fleeting or lasting, depending upon the cause that produces it. Persons who have a lively and vivid imagination are especially plagued. St. Teresa compares this kind of imagination to wild, untamed horses, which cannot be controlled. A trial of this sort is congenital and therefore not culpable. Even so, it remains wearisome and bothersome. Some practical device must be employed to enable a person with a volatile fancy to concentrate. St. Teresa suggests three. First, to recite slowly and meaningfully some vocal prayer, dwelling upon every word so as to penetrate the meaning. Second, reading meditatively, i.e., very slowly and interspersed with reflection and colloquy, from some spiritual book. This is an excellent way to foster the habit of prayer, but it must be used with care, lest it degenerate to mere spiritual reading. Third, by looking at some image that excites devotion. Notice, in each of these the help of the senses or of some other faculty is enlisted as an aid to keeping the attention fixed.
Distractions constitute the other form of intellectual difficulty. They are thoughts and desires which intrude upon our payer and which are incompatible with it. Not all thoughts borne in upon us, alien to the theme of our talk with God are incompatible with Mental Prayer. Some can be ‘naturalized’, that is, incorporated into it. If distractions are willful, or, though not willful are accepted and followed up, one is guilty of a venial sin of irreverence to God. (Unless the distraction by its very nature is gravely sinful).
Distractions are either external or internal. The external enters through our senses during the time of Prayer. It is relatively easy to overcome these. We need only to choose a quiet, secluded place in which to pray. To choose a noisy bustling place would also be an act of disrespect against God. Internal distractions proceed from the memory of past experiences and from profound innate and acquired tendencies. When our minds are fresh and our attention is held firmly fastened on Divine truths distractions from within are held in check. But with fatigue, illness and indisposition, the mind weakens and distractions gain the upper hand. Whatever the case, one can still console himself by remembering that perseverance under such circumstances is an occasion of oblation and merit.
Aridity, the difficulty experienced by the will, is the loss of comfort that attends a conversation with one we love. Comfort in prayer is due to two things, novelty (especially in one newly converted to a more devout life) and consciousness of the possession of God, the supreme good. Both of these eventually wear off, and with them sweetness and delight. Aridity usually takes the form of an inability to meditate, and further distaste comes from forcing oneself to persevere in a frustrating task.
There are three causes of aridity: infidelity, circumstances, and incipient contemplation. If we make overt acts of preference for creatures we had formerly renounced for love of God, we lose delight in the things of God, for we cannot have a divided heart. Problems and troubles that besiege a person rob him of comfort because they cloak the consciousness he has, through Faith, of possessing God in the depths of his soul. The remedy is a little better effort. Besides, forgetting about his worries for 15 minutes or a half hour never hurt anyone. Finally, the beginning of a simpler form of prayer, the beginning of the dark contemplation of Faith is also inaugurated by aridity. To know whether God is leading him into a more perfect form of prayer, a man must be sure that his aridity is not the result of infidelity, and that he still nourishes ardent desires to attain perfect union with God and contempt of the world.
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