The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter X: Aridity, Consolations, and the Presence of Mary"
WE HAVE SEEN that the very heart of the spiritual life is love of God and love of neighbor for God's sake, and thee this love is rooted in an attitude of will which tends to be carried over into action. The more intense the inner love, the greater the difficulties it will surmount externally. And we have pointed out that the presence or absence of emotion with love is an accidental feature -that is, it does not belong to the essence of love. Nevertheless we ought to know what to think and do about the presence or absence of emotion in our religious practices.
Precisely what is the relation of emotion to our soul-life? Spiritual writers make common use of two terms to describe the states of feeling in which we may find ourselves: consolation, and aridity. We are said to have consolation whenever we find any enjoyment in prayer or in the thought of God, or in any religious exercises. If we except the higher levels of the spiritual life, which very few ever reach, this pleasure lies primarily in the emotions or in the senses. Hence it is sometimes called sensible consolation -although along with sensible consolation an actual grace may give a light to the intellect and an attraction to the will. When we lack this enjoyment in religion, we are said to be in aridity or dryness. In dryness a soul may also suffer from distraction, and may not think of God at all, but dryness and distraction in themselves are two different things.
When we read certain spiritual writers, we may get the impression that the normal state for a beginner in the spiritual life, if he is sincerely striving to please God, is a state of consolation. It is true that God is very generous in distributing these consolations to souls who are trying to give themselves to Him without reserve. Yet even such souls sometimes find themselves in dryness, and that without any fault of their own. The classic example of constant aridity in a soul of real generosity is St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.1 For example, in her Autobiography we read:
But we must not make the mistake of supposing that lack of emotion must involve forgetfulness of God: St. Thérèse thought of Him almost constantly even in her dryness. We may also note that a divinely infused purifying trial, the Dark Night, played a large role in the life of St. Thérèse. We shall sketch the nature of this special type of aridity in a later chapter.
Three influences are at work in the production of consolations and aridity-ourselves, the devil, and God.
One important reason for variances in the frequency of consolation is to be found in ourselves. Some persons by natural temperament are much more prone to emotionalism than are others. In general, Americans seem but little inclined to intense emotion in religion. This lack may be due in part to the manifold distractions which our materialistic civilization provides, in part to a failure of generosity toward God, in part to our natural temperament. Then, too, one cannot help wondering if perhaps it may not be part of God's plans for our age or our nation that we should enjoy less sensible consolation. Is it not conceivable that St. Thérèse, one of the greatest saints of our age, was raised up as an example and a model of the way in which it pleases God to work in some souls at the present time? Yet even Americans do experience a degree of emotional pleasure in religion, particularly if they are living in seminaries or in the novitiates of religious orders. It is of capital importance for such persons to learn the correct principles involved, for if they do not know how to handle consolations properly, they may cultivate an illusory, unsolid, and largely apparent spiritual growth, which they may later lose when consolations become rarer after ordination or final profession. Then in their dryness they may sigh in vain for a "first fervor" that cannot be recaptured, and, not finding it, they may settle down into a lukewarmness or mediocrity that frustrates any real progress. But if these persons make proper use of consolations, much profit can be gained from them. For consolations are apt to come to generous souls striving to practice habitual recollection and detachment from all things.3
It is possible for consolations to come from ourselves by way of imagination or self-deception. For example, some persons of strong imagination, after reading the life of a saint, may imagine themselves like this saint-particularly if they happen to have a calm mood in prayer. Then they may take pleasure in "contemplating" themselves as they pray, thinking themselves holy. They may even reach the point of identifying themselves with their saint Of course it happens in a subtle way in the case of consolations of imaginary origin: the person involved does not realize that he is deceiving himself, for it is easier to deceive oneself than to deceive others.
Sins, deliberate imperfections, and, in general, self-indulgence and lack of generosity may cause aridity. Various organic indispositions may also cause it, even without fault on our part Thus, for example, faulty digestion, lack of sufficient sleep, and many kinds of ill-health may help to bring on dryness. The same must be said of various psychological indispositions, even in individuals who suffer from no abnormality. For example, worry or preoccupation with certain business matters may prevent the appearance of consolations. Such preoccupations and worries, however, are often not entirely without fault: they often reflect attachments or lack of confidence in God.
We can readily believe that the devil may contribute to our aridity by causing us temptation or distraction. That consolations in devotion may also come from the devil is somewhat harder to grasp: to think that he would actually make prayer sweet to us, that he would encourage us to form good resolutions! Yet it is true that he does so, and not rarely. St. Paul warns us of this danger when he says, "... Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light."4 Satan can afford to give us pleasurable emotion in prayer,5 for he knows well that emotion is not the essence of love, but is only a resonance that may be beneficial or harmful, according to the use that is made of it. Therefore, if he sees a chance to further some devilish scheme by encouraging pleasure in devotion, he will give us that pleasure. He is even willing to see some solid good results flow from it. When we apply the Gospel principle, "By their fruits you shall know them," we must consider the over-all, long-term results. For just as God is willing to permit evils when He can bring out more good than evil in the long run, so, conversely, the devil is willing to permit some apparent good (consolation) and even some solid good as well, as long as he hopes to produce more evil than good in the long run.
What are the ways in which the devil hopes to produce evil? It would be presumptuous for us to try to list all his wiles, for he has the brilliant mind of an angel-a fallen angel, yes, but still possessed of an intelligence far more powerful than ours. But we can give some typical examples of the way in which he works. The most common deception he uses in consolations is to make us think that we are already saints, or practically so; or, if the temptation does not go quite that far, it at least makes us believe that we are making fine progress toward sanctity. For there is a strong tendency in the minds of many to identify emotions with sanctity; and now that they themselves have the rather new (to them) experience of emotion in devotion, they compare themselves favorably to the saints of whom they have read. The truth is that even in the case of the saints, sanctity consists in the love of God, which resides in the will: any emotion is an accidental accretion. Further, this thing we call sensible consolation is not at all rare among beginners in the spiritual life. Even if it be sent by God, it proves nothing as to the state of progress of the soul receiving it. It comes closer to being a proof that one is still on the lower levels of the spiritual life, for at the very highest levels things are much different. Hence we must take care to avoid the temptation to pride in consolations. Consolations that cause pride bear the stamp of the devil.
Another common snare laid by the devil through consolations lies in a presumptuous urge to undertake projects beyond our strength. The normal law of the spiritual life is that each one should make gradual progress: the rate of speed is greater for some than for others, and in everyone it should increase as one approaches more closely to the goal. But progress should be gradual-not in broad jumps. Especially does the devil counsel us to take on great mortifications. He knows well that these over-ambitious projects are beyond our strength, at least at that time, though we may and should hope to advance in mortification gradually, in due time. Hence, if we try to jump too high in one leap, we will probably fail to make it, and, as a result, fall down to a point lower than that from which we started. The remedy against such dangers as these is simple: no one, with or without the urging of consolations from the devil or even from God, should undertake any major or long-range change in his spiritual program without the approval of his spiritual director. It is very desirable that souls should have the assistance of a spiritual director. The guidance of a prudent director protects us against many an error and imprudence. We should pray earnestly that Mary, who knows all the artifices of the ancient serpent, may guide both the director and us.6
There is another very subtle danger that the devil may seek to exploit in consolations-and he may even attempt in this way to pervert consolations inspired by God: he may lead us to love the consolations of God more than the God who sent them. In other words, consolations are a means; we ought to profit by them, but not become attached to them. They should help us to God, not replace Him. We should serve Him for His own sake, not merely for the pleasure we get out of it. Otherwise we are merely indulging in a refined form of self-seeking, telling ourselves that we are serving God, when really we are just pleasing ourselves. This is not to say that it is wrong to enjoy consolations: no, but we must keep them in true perspective, and take care that we really use them to help us serve God better, lest we accept the service of God to help us the better to obtain consolation.
Finally, consolations may come from God. We understand, of course, that He regularly operates through secondary agents. Every grace is given through Mary, as we have seen, and Mary herself may employ any of the angels to serve her purposes, for she is Queen of Angels. Why does God grant us consolations? Chiefly as a temporary help to encourage us in His service, and to wean us more easily from earthly pleasures. St. John of the Cross aptly compares sensible consolations to toys.7 He says that if we wish to induce a child to let loose an object that he holds in one hand, we do so by putting something else into his other hand. So also sensible consolations help us to detach ourselves from earthly things. If we are sufficiently generous with God in detaching ourselves from all things, including consolations (this does not mean that we may not enjoy them), we will reach a point at which God will complete the work of detachment by putting us into the passive night of the senses, in which infused contemplation supplants the sensible consolations (see chap. XIII). Meanwhile, however, if we know how to use consolations well, they may be of great help to us.
What, then, should be our attitude when we receive consolations? First of all, let us realize that they prove nothing of our spiritual state. We may even receive them when we are in the state of mortal sin. We must make it our immediate concern to avoid any pride. We need not be overanxious to determine from which source they come. Our chief concern is to make good use of them with humility.8 If we do this, then, even though the consolation may have been sent by the devil, God will turn it into a grace for us. Let consolations help us to pray with more attention, let them help us to wean ourselves from earthly pleasures,9 let them encourage us to make good resolutions to better our life in the future (always remembering that any notable change must be approved by our director). Let us also realize that consolations will not last forever: most likely they will be of short duration in us. Let us prepare for our usual dryness, and recognize that although prayer offered in a state of consolation may seem better to us, it may easily be of less value than one made in dryness, for the chief measure of the value of an action is the amount of love we put into it. Now love is an affair of the will, not of the emotions. It is fervor of the will that counts. Hence, when we struggle against dryness or distaste for prayer or for serving God in some other way, we may actually have to put more will, more love, into it than when it is all pleasant for us.10
St. Francis de Sales has some excellent advice in this matter of consolations:
St. Francis apparently fears that we may become attached to consolations if we never deny ourselves in this direction, or if we give ourselves over to them too completely or too eagerly. In the same chapter, he also cautions that if we should have an extraordinary abundance of consolations, or if there is anything at all extraordinary in them, we should consult our director.
We should certainly thank God when He sends us consolations, but we should also thank Him if He sends us dryness. For, as St. Paul says, for those who love God, "all things work together unto good."12 We should try to determine whether the dryness is really sent by Him or whether we have brought it on by our own fault-by sin, imperfections, lack of generosity, lack of recollection. But whether it is a result of a personal failing, or has been sent by God and is inculpable, He will turn the dryness into a grace for us if we humbly ask pardon for the fault (if it is a fault), and then work at least as hard at loving and serving God as we would if we had consolation.
There are certain advantages to be had from dryness. For one thing it is easier to exclude self-seeking from our prayers when there is no pleasure in them. It is also easier to avoid many a subtle plot of the devil-although the devil can plot even in dryness to make us feel proud. For he may make us think, "We are strong souls who can walk in dryness: consolations are for the weak."
Dryness is simply a lack of consolation in our prayer-life. It is not the same as distraction. We may experience dryness with or without distraction, though the two tend to go together. As to distraction, we need constantly to remind ourselves-for we naturally keep forgetting it-that involuntary distractions do not destroy the essential value of prayer. We refer here to vocal prayer; special comment on distractions in mental prayer appears in chapters XII and XIII. In face, if we struggle against distractions, even though they keep returning, we may actually be more pleasing to God than when we abound in consolations. But observe that distractions may be voluntary in an indirect way- that is, we may invite them by our lack of recollection, by our sins, imperfections, and attachments. When we are especially preoccupied with any matter, we ought to spend a minute or two recollecting ourselves before attempting to pray.13
All souls are spiritually close to Mary their Mother whether or not they realize it. Many souls succeed in developing a more or less constant loving consciousness of her presence. This is very conducive to a spirit of union with Jesus and Mary. In our treatment of mental prayer, we shall give some very specific suggestions on how to cultivate this realization, but now we must ask: In what sense can Mary be present to souls?
Any mere spirit, an angel, or God Himself, is present wherever he acts. Wherever God's power makes itself felt, He is present Now the presence of Mary is not precisely like this. Mary's soul, since the Assumption, is united to her body in Heaven. Hence in that sense it is present there and there only. Yet there is a virtual or dynamic type of contact between Mary and us, insofar as she distributes all graces to us. The exact nature of this contact is difficult to determine: the idea one forms will depend on what view he holds as to the manner in which Mary works in the distribution of all graces (see again chap. V). It is obvious that if Mary is a physical instrument of grace, the contact is especially close. Furthermore, although in one sense the soul of Mary and our souls as well are present only where our bodies are, yet, in another sense, the soul, insofar as it is a spirit, transcends the body, and is not, as such, in a place. Hence Garrigou-Lagrange writes:
But there is also what is called an affective presence of Mary. The deeper our love for her, the more intimate does this become. For love has a unitive force. There are two ways in which this affective presence takes place: 1. We go out of ourselves, as it were, to be in Mary: this is true inasmuch as we rejoice greatly in seeing her interests furthered, and in promoting them in ourselves and in others; 2. Mary is in us by the pleasure she gives us through the thought of her. It is obvious that the first form of the affective presence is the safer, the more disinterested, the more valuable. The second is also good, but since sensible con solation tends to be strong in it, we will have more need to observe the cautions we have just outlined. Especially must we beware, as to the second form, that we do not, by our own imagination, and out of self-love, counterfeit this sort of affection, or fall into a kind of spiritual greediness in it: that would consist in loving the consolations we derive from the thought of Mary rather than loving Mary herself.
Of course, we must not suppose that a loving realization of the presence of Mary is merely a kind of consolation: actually this awareness may be either arid or consoled. It is best considered as a form of recollection or informal mental prayer, but we have thought it opportune to discuss certain aspects of it at this point because of its relation to consolations.15
In conclusion, consolations and aridity are both useful means to the love of God, if we use them well. But there are also, as we have seen, many dangers to be avoided; to avoid these, and to make the best use of whatever God wills to send us, we must rely both on the direct help of Mary and on the help of a good director, who must also be guided by her.