The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter XII: Pondering in Our Hearts with Mary"
TWICE within the second chapter of his Gospel, St. Luke tells us of Mary's habit of meditating on the great mysteries in which she was taking part. After the shepherds had left, we read: "But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart." Again, after the return to Nazareth, when Jesus had been lost, and found in the temple, "His mother kept all these words in her heart."1 These two scanty references give us but a glimpse of the soul of Mary. They show her to us as one whose communion with God in mental prayer or meditation was constant. Actually her prayer was of a loftier kind than meditation: she was engaged in contemplation, the form of prayer to which meditation ought to lead in a fervent and generous soul. For if other saints have enjoyed contemplation, certainly she who was full of grace far surpassed all others in her contemplation.2
In one sense we can correctly say that mental prayer is necessary for salvation: vocal prayer, if said with devotion and attention to what we are doing, includes mental prayer. Still, even if we use the term mental prayer in the more usual sense of a purely interior exercise made without vocalization, its importance is extremely great. Pope Pius XII went so far as to say that for priests,
Nor can laymen, if they are really in earnest about making spiritual progress, afford to neglect this great means. At the end of this chapter we shall discuss some of the problems of meditation for laymen, and suggest possible solutions.
Two dangers in particular are to be avoided when we are learning how to meditate. On one hand, we must not be contemptuous of all method. On the other, we must beware of enmeshing our prayer in needless complications of involved procedure. As so often is the case, the truth lies between the extremes of lack of method and overcomplexity. In the case of most people, lack of method would probably lead to no meditation at all, or else to reverie or self-deception. It is true that some of the saints, especially St. Thérèse of Lisieux, seem not to have followed a specific method, but that simplicity in prayer belongs to a higher level than that of beginners. We can hope to reach that level safely only by passing first through the lower stages, during which some method is needed.
There are many good methods of meditation and many good books.4 that provide detailed and lengthy directions for each method, so that it will be sufficient here to sketch the chief elements of meditation and the principal features of the various methods. All schools of spirituality tell us to exercise a certain freedom in our application of whatever method we may choose.
Meditation, or mental prayer, differs from vocal prayer in that it is essentially a purely interior exercise, carried on by the intellect (mind) and the will, with perhaps some help from the imagination and the emotions.5 It aims at a union of the soul with God. Therefore its two essential parts are, first, the work of the mind, which reasons and ponders; and second, the work of the will, which, deriving motivation from the work of the mind, unites us to God in a loving conversation with Him.6 It is of the greatest importance that we understand this, for no matter what method we employ, this is its purpose. Method is useful or useless to us on any given occasion according as it helps or hinders us in the accomplishment of these ends.
These two essential parts are often referred to briefly as the considerations and the colloquy (conversation). Beginners spend most of their time on the considerations. But as they grow in grace and in experience in mental prayer, they should need to spend less and less of their time in considerations or reasoning.
For the work of the mind should become simplified, so that a mere glance at the subject suffices. As this simplification progresses, a person is able to spend increasingly large proportions of the time in colloquy. Hence a good method of meditation must be flexible, so as readily to allow this simplification and increase of colloquy to take place gradually.
All methods teach us to make some immediate preparation or introduction to our meditation. It is rather generally agreed that the introduction should include at least three elements: prayer for help, realization of the presence of God, and humble adoration. Therefore, after opening with a brief prayer asking Mary to obtain for us the light of the Holy Spirit, we should place ourselves in the presence of God-for if we wish to hold a conversation with God, we must have Him present. Now, of course, God is always present everywhere, and especially is He present in the Blessed Sacrament, but we are not always aware of that fact. Hence we need to recall to mind His presence, and this we may do in many ways.7 We may think of the fact that He is present outside of us, everywhere. Or we may recall that He is present in our souls by grace. Or, making use of our imagination, we may picture Our Lord as looking down upon us from Heaven. Or we may imagine Him in some particular scene in His life.
We need not spend too much time merely recalling the presence of God, but neither should we forget His presence when we move on to the other parts of the meditation. And, since the graces of meditation come to us through Mary, and since she is so intimately associated with her divine Son throughout all the work of redemption, we will do well to try to make our whole meditation in mindfulness of her presence as well as of His. We will resemble a child who busies himself in the same room as his mother: he does not always explicitly think of her, but he is always conscious of her presence, and he often comments to her on what he is doing or asks her help. In meditation, however, even though we are not at every moment calling on Mary, yet her help is constantly supporting us, for all graces come through her.
Some find it helpful to have an imaginary representation of Our Lord in some scene in their mind throughout much of the meditation, but if we use imagination in this way, some authors think it better not to entertain too vivid or detailed a representation, since that might tend to be distracting.8
Our realization of the presence of God should naturally invite us to make acts of adoration and of humility; thus we fall down in spirit before Him, recognizing Him as our absolute Lord (that is the meaning of adoration), and recalling our great unworthiness to speak to Him, our own nothingness and sinfulness (see chapter XI). Then, realizing our inadequacy, we ought to ask Mary to unite her priceless adoration to our poor dispositions, so that she may compensate for our deficiencies.
In offering our adoration, we may think of Our Lord in some particular episode in His life. Thus, for a meditation on humility, we might choose the scene of the Annunciation, in which He humbled Himself to become a child in Mary's womb; or, for a meditation on almost any topic, we might think of the scene on Calvary. The Passion is the most fruitful and important of all subjects of meditation.
If we are inclined to prolong the act of adoration, it is very good to do so, even though the soul does no more than to behold, in silent awe, its own nothingness and poverty as against the majesty or the beauty of God. Such an act may even develop into a brief but loving gaze at God and this, too, is very good, so long as it can be maintained; the soul should not be anxious to move on, for it has, during that time, attained to that very union of mind and will with God for which it is seeking. This adoration may also develop into a conversation with God. Although logically such a colloquy should follow after the considerations, which provide us with motivation and inspiration for it, yet it is profitable, according to the movements of grace at any particular time, to interpose bits of colloquy not only in the adoration, but throughout any and all parts of the meditation. At all times we ought to ask Mary to be with us, to help us. Remember that Mary is the channel of all graces, and that includes the graces of meditation. Even the grace of contemplation-if it is ever given to us-is granted through Mary.9
We have now completed the introduction to the meditation, and turn to the first of the two principal parts of the meditation -the considerations. Most people will find that they need some help from a book, although those who have practiced meditation for some time may need a book during only a small part of any meditation. Those well advanced may find enough help in merely glancing at one sentence, but beginners will probably have to do a great deal of reading Nonetheless-and this is important -even a beginner should try to find what we might call "takeoff points" in the book: that is, he should find a point at which he can put the book down, and then proceed by himself for a while. At such a point, one person will reason and develop the thought further. Another, finding a thought that impresses him in some way, will merely stop to allow it to penetrate more deeply into his mind and will. Still another, if he has been reading a Gospel passage for a while, will let his imagination represent the whole episode to him, so that he seems to see the persons and their actions, and to listen to what they say. Perhaps he may even imagine himself as speaking to Jesus or Mary, or to others in the scene. Of course two or more of these various ways of proceeding at take-off points can be combined.
Those who are more advanced will be less dependent upon a book; their meditation will be simpler; they will tend to reason less and to ponder more; they will incline to spend more time on the colloquy, the second of the principal parts of meditation. All-beginners and advanced-should feel free to indulge in free conversational prayer (colloquy) with Our Lord, with His Mother, or with the saints, at various points throughout the considerations. In any case one should also try, so far as he can, to stir up his will by means of the considerations to such an extent that he can spend some time in mere loving colloquy.
Before proceeding to the section devoted especially to colloquy, some authors would have us insert a bit of self-examination. Thus, we might compare our actual conduct in the past to the ideal we have just been considering in the Gospels or in the life of Mary or of some saint, or in a meditation on the nature and need of some virtue in itself. Obviously the correct principle to follow in this matter is to do whatever, in a given case, disposes us most effectively to a loving colloquy. That may well vary with the individual or with the day. At any rate, the examination, if made, should be short; and it should be followed by acts of sorrow, for true contrition is really love expressing its regret for sin.
The second of the principal parts of the meditation, the colloquy, is sometimes termed the "affective" aspect, but we must remember that, although the term suggests emotion, emotion is nonessential, as we saw in chapter X. In this conversation we speak to God, expressing the attitudes and acts of various virtues, especially love. We express our desire to love Him more, to prove our love. We vary it in many ways, taking our theme from the mystery we have been considering We may speak not only to God Himself, but also to the saints, and especially to Mary.10 We may speak freely, not only making acts of love but of other virtues as well. As we have already noted, beginners will find it necessary to spend most of their time on the considerations and will spend but little on pure colloquy. But their aim should be to shift the proportion gradually, so as to give more and more time to the colloquy.
In this colloquy we may form the words vocally if we wish, or we may speak interiorly with the movement of the heart or the will. Nor is it necessary that we speak all the time: we ought to listen to God's answer. Of course we do not expect Him to speak audibly: His answer comes in the form of graces of light to understand His ways and His truths better, or graces of love, urging us to serve Him better.
It is a good practice to stop for just a few moments toward the end of the colloquy to engage in a simple loving gaze at God. For this purpose we will ordinarily have to represent Our Lord to ourselves by our imagination. The picture we use is best taken from a Gospel scene related to the subject of our meditation. For just a moment or two we try merely to gaze on Him, letting our will express itself, with or without words (ordinarily with words, especially when we first adopt this practice). The will makes acts of any virtue that is appropriate to the scene-love, humility, sorrow, desire for amendment, confidence, admiration. As soon as we see that we can no longer hold our attention in this gaze, we return to the remaining parts of our meditation. The reason for practicing this moment of gazing will be clear later on: it is the opening wedge toward a simplified form of meditation.11
By way of concluding the meditation, there are various other acts which we may make, though not all are essential We may make acts of thanksgiving, acts of self-offering, and also we may ask for various graces. Whether or not we make these various acts, we ought to form some very specific resolution as a conclusion, and beg Mary to obtain for us the grace to be faithful to it. In adopting this specific resolution, we ought to be careful to avoid dissipation of energy by letting it deal with too wide a variety of subjects on various days; this danger is easily avoided if we let our resolution be concerned each day with improvement in matters with which we are currently having difficulty. Naturally we should try to bring the resolution into relation with the subject of the meditation, so as to gain strength from the motivation provided by the considerations. Thus meditation will become a valuable help to our progress. In addition, it is worth our while to reflect often on the subject of the meditation during the day.
This, then, is meditation-in brief review. We shall not, however, be very successful in meditation unless we live our whole lives in such a way as to be disposed to meditate; we need to practice detachment from worldly things, mortification, humility, and habitual recollection, and we should never let the thought of God and His blessed Mother be far from us. For we all carry on an interior life, which some writers describe as a sort of intimate conversation with ourselves. Not that we are literally talking to ourselves, but we do consider present problems and turn them over in our mind, and we recall past events, and look ahead to coming things. This very natural tendency can be spiritualized, so that it is turned into a loving awareness of God and of Mary, to whom we often comment on whatever we are doing, even on commonplace, routine things, or on things going on about us. We cannot explicitly think of God or of Mary at every moment, but we can to a considerable extent, and the habit will grow in time. Such an interior conversation need not hinder our work. A certain train dispatcher in a large metropolitan center developed this sort of abiding consciousness of God, and yet did not make an error in his work for many years. Those whose work requires less mental effort will find such an interior life still more easy, and even pleasant, in the midst of occupations that are dull in themselves. Especially those engaged in humble tasks can think of the lowly housework that filled so much of the life of our blessed Mother. We should not forget to ask her frequently to offer up our ordinary actions to the Eternal Father, uniting them with the priceless merits that she and her divine Son won in their humble daily occupations. The ideal would be never to let our recollection be completely interrupted by anything In this sense St. Thérèse advises us:
Spiritual reading, outside of the time of meditation, is also very helpful, as it prevents our going dry, so that we are unable to form thoughts or considerations on the things of God. In addition to this remote preparation, it is important, if our meditation is made in the morning, to look over the next meditation the night before, so that, on arising, we may at once begin to turn our thoughts to the subject on which we intend to meditate.
Sometimes one finds that he cannot meditate. In the case of one who has long been faithful to meditation, and who practices great purity of heart, habitual recollection, and thoroughgoing detachment, this may be an indication that God wishes him to take up a simplified form of meditation, such as we shall describe later. But in others, the inability may come from many other causes, such as lack of preparation, recent sins, imperfections or self-indulgence, physical indisposition. At times of great difficulty in meditation we shall probably suffer not only from dryness ( for it is often possible to meditate well in dryness) but especially from distractions. Now if the distractions are voluntary, the thing to do is to ask pardon for them, and beg Mary to help us to banish them. But if they are involuntary, we must make a distinction. Ordinarily distractions come and go: they are not long-lived, and we in some way manage to get back to the subject in a reasonable time. But at other times the distractions, even though involuntary, will persist, monopolizing most or all of our meditation period.
Now the first pattern, in which the distractions are brief, and in which we are somehow recalled to the subject after each distraction, is normal, and we need only exert ordinary care, especially asking Mary for help against them. But when they run on and on, and we cannot return to the subject, we should ordinarily take an alternative for that particular day. At times, however, we do not really need an alternative: just a slight change in procedure may help us. For example, instead of so much reasoning, we may use the imagination more, or we may stop to ponder more, to allow truths to soak in, as it were. We should be slow to change to an alternative, lest our laziness generate endless distractions every day, and so keep us from normal meditation for an indefinite period of days. In any case, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola suggest a very good alternative: it is to recite any vocal prayer, such as the Our Father13 or the Anima Christi, just a phrase at a time, drawing all the thought we can out of each phrase, perhaps even rising to a little colloquy in the intervals. Another alternative is to say the Rosary, with all attention on the mysteries (see chapter XXII). Or we might make the Way of the Cross. Some even find it useful to produce pencil and paper and write their meditation: curiously enough, they are able to meditate more easily with a pencil in their hand.14
Thus far we have attempted to describe only the first level in the development of meditation. This first level is often called discursive meditation. Two other levels of meditation are within the reach of all, with the more usual graces: affective meditation and the prayer of simplicity. All three kinds-discursive, affective and simple-belong to the level of beginners, the purgative way.15 It is part of the normal, expected development that meditation should, in due time, reach the second and third levels, provided, of course, that the soul is working with all the generosity it can muster to advance in the love of God.
There is no sharp line of division between affective and discursive meditation. In discursive meditation the considerations, the work of the mind and imagination, predominate, and consume the larger portion of our meditation period. This proportion should gradually shift, so that the colloquy tends to increase at the expense of the considerations. When finally the colloquy, or affective part, becomes dominant, we have affective meditation. In some persons this shift takes place very early in their development. Temperament may favor this shift. The final phase of affective meditation is reached when the considerations become thoroughly simplified-that is, when a mere glance at the subject, or perhaps one sentence out of our book, is enough to activate colloquy with Our Lord or His blessed Mother which will last for the entire period. Of course, the initial consideration may have to be recalled many times during the period, and there may be some little development of it. And there are still distractions. Basically, however, the intellectual side is simplified, while the acts of the will are luxuriant.
The prayer of simplicity is not at all likely to be found, except on rare occasions, in persons who are not working generously toward progress in the love of God. A person who regularly possesses the prayer of simplicity must have great purity of conscience. He must have a firm will never to consent deliberately to the slightest offense against God. He must have made considerable progress in detachment from earthly pleasures and possessions, even though the objects of the attachments may be innocent in themselves.16 He should also be advanced in habitual recollection, trying never to allow the thought of God to be far from him, trying also to restrict thoughts on subjects that do not help him to go to God, so far as the duties of the moment permit. He should be striving for purity of motives in all his actions, watching not only the motives with which he begins an action, but also being careful lest he slip into a merely natural way of doing things in the midst of an action well begun. Of course it is not required that one be perfect in all these points, but it is necessary to be striving hard, and to have made some progress.17
We have already noted that in affective meditation the activity of the intellect is simplified, especially in the fully-developed form of that prayer. The prayer of simplicity is reached when the activity of the will also becomes simplified. There is a single dominant thought and a matching attitude and act of will that run all through the prayer of simplicity on any given occasion. The mind gazes at this thought, and finds that it can easily hold its attention on it. The will, at the same time, with or without the use of words, is occupied in simply repeating, with little or no development, a single act (such as love, desire, humility, sorrow, admiration). We must not think, however, that this thought is absolutely continuous for as much as a half-hour. It will be interrupted more or less often in various ways. Sometimes it merely fades, and must be consciously brought back before the mind, renewing the gaze. Sometimes it is interrupted by brief distractions-which, however, ought to vanish almost spontaneously. Sometimes the interruption comes from a slight development or variation in the thought. Similarly, the acts of will are not perfectly continuous: though for the great part they are merely repetitive, there may be some little variety in them.
For example, one might picture Our Lord crowned with thorns, as He sits before the mocking soldiers who spit in His face. He gazes at Our Lord in this state (he does not imagine that he sees the actions of the soldiers-only the resultant picture). His mind is absorbed at the thought. His will makes an act of sorrow or love, in few if any words: "Because of my sins," or "My God, I am sorry," or, "My God, I love you."
The gaze tends to fade at times, and must be recalled, and the acts of will are repeated many times. Or a distraction may interrupt briefly, or a bit of development of thought or affection may intervene. When the gaze fades, care must be taken not to sink into mere blankness, doing nothing. Whatever the interruption, there is a constant return to the dominant thought and the dominant attitude and act of will, in which the person actively and deliberately maintains himself.
Or, to take another example, the mind might be impressed with the general thought of the immense majesty of God, while the will repeats: "O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth!"18
The prayer of simplicity may deal with practically any subject available for meditation: the virtues, our own nothingness, the four last things, the vanity of earthly things, the Blessed Virgin, the mysteries of the life of Christ, the divine nature, the Blessed Trinity. It has a tendency to develop, however, from such specific aspects of faith or the Sacred Humanity of Christ to a more abstract and general consideration of the Divinity.19
Should the prayer of simplicity be prepared in advance? Ordinarily the answer is yes, though the preparation may consist only in a bit of meditative reading And not infrequently the Holy Spirit will suggest a different subject when the time comes. If He does so, it should by all means be accepted: for it is a cardinal rule in all forms of meditation that we must look for and follow the current attraction of grace. We must follow this attraction not only as to the subject of the prayer, but also during the prayer: we may make many or few acts or considerations, just as grace leads us.
The same principle helps us to determine whether one is called to this prayer of simplicity as his regular form of prayer. When grace moves one to this prayer, he should certainly follow its lead, but it would be wrong to attempt to force one's way into this prayer without the call of grace. Final judgment on a call to the prayer of simplicity as our regular prayer should come from our director. In general, there are two signs of a call to this prayer: an attraction for it, together with some facility and success in it; and profit resulting from it. (We are assuming that habitual recollection, detachment, and other general conditions mentioned above are present in the person's life. ) As to the first sign, it does not seem to be required that the soul find it impossible to meditate discursively, though this condition will often be present. As to the second sign, this is in accord with the Gospel principle, "By their fruits you shall know them." The fruits may not, however, be apparent at once, but if a soul has been faithful to this prayer, within a reasonable time a general spiritual improvement will appear. Especially notable should be an increase of humility and contempt for earthly things, as well as more generosity in mortification. St. Teresa of Avila says that as a result of this prayer worldly things appear to the soul as mere toys.20
It is well to make resolutions at the end of the prayer of simplicity, but they will be quite general-for example, "I will be more recollected or generous to God today."
This prayer does not, as a rule, appear suddenly in the life of an individual: it is normal for it to evolve gradually from the other forms mentioned. As a rule, a number of more or less isolated occurrences of it will be experienced before it finally becomes the prevailing mode of prayer.21
By nature the prayer of simplicity is especially exposed to distractions. If it is accompanied by consolations, distractions will be no real problem. But if it is made in aridity, we must distinguish two cases: aridity with recall, and aridity without recall. In the first case, distractions come, and may last a little while; yet there is a certain attraction of grace which persistently brings the soul out of them, and draws it back to the dominant thought. If this is the case, it is obvious that no special measures are needed. But in the second case, when recall fails, distractions continue indefinitely, without any persistent return to the dominant thought. The soul then tends to slip into mere reverie, which must be carefully distinguished from simplicity, for reverie is vague, with no dominant thought or persistent return. When the recall fails, the person should revert to affective prayer or even discursive meditation. If this proves impossible, he must mercy continue to work patiently against the distractions, begging for light and help, but being resigned to suffer the affliction so long as God wills it Sometimes it may help to keep repeating some brief vocal prayer, for example, "My God and my All," pausing each time to try to dwell on it.
The prayer of simplicity brings a soul to the end of the purgative way, the first of the three stages in a soul's spiritual development If a soul is generous in corresponding to all the graces that Mary will obtain for it, she can bring it across the border into the realm of infused contemplation. We shall describe that transition in the next chapter.
A note on some objections to formal meditation, and the problems of laymen
Some rather formidable objections are often made to formal meditation-that is, meditation carried on at a set period and by means of some definite method. Let us list these objections in order:
1. Formal meditation may be all right for priests and religious, but how could a working man or woman or a housewife manage to undertake so complex an exercise?
Answer: As to the complexity of meditation, all methods look far more complex on paper than they do when translated to practice Essentially, formal meditation requires only the union of the mind and will with God for a fairly protracted time, so that the mind is occupied with thinking about God or divine things, and the will reacts accordingly, expressing its attitudes in the form of a free conversational sort of prayer. The length of time required for this exercise is quite flexible. There are few laymen who cannot find a way to spend at least fifteen minutes at it in a day if they make the effort. Unmarried persons, and even married couples before the arrival of the first child, should find no difficulty in setting aside a brief period either before work in the morning, or in the evening. For married persons with children, the only difficult years are those from the birth of the first child until the time when older children have reached an age at which they can take care of the younger children and keep them quiet at certain times. Even during this difficult period, the wife may be able to meditate while the children are having their naps. The husband may, in difficult cases, have to resort to making his meditation on the way to work, in the bus, train, or subway, or afoot. After these strenuous years have passed, the whole family can be taught to have a brief meditation period in the evening. If some of the children are too young to join in, they can be trained at least to be obedient and to play quietly during this time.
2. But formal meditation is, relatively speaking, an innovation in the Church.22 Some of the older religious founders, such as St. Benedict, provided no place in the daily program for a meditation period.
Answer: The early monastics had almost continuous informal prayer of a simplified kind. This was carried on during both the community recitation of the Office, and also during the day, in which they practiced an habitual awareness of the presence of God, often stopping for short prayers. Furthermore, it is not quite correct to say that St. Benedict did not provide for any meditation periods: according to his rule, several hours of the day were devoted to holy reading. Concerning these periods, an early Benedictine abbot, Smaragdus, says in his commentary on the rule: "Prayer does not differ from reading, nor is reading different from prayer."23 Strictly speaking, meditation and meditative reading are not quite the same, but it seems that these monks were using their books much in the manner in which we use meditation books. In any case, whatever the practice of early monasteries may have been, it does not prove that formal meditation should never have been introduced: there are many different forms of spiritual attractions, and there are many developments in the history of the Church. The Holy Spirit is to be with her until the end of time. This fixed time for meditation is far more necessary today than it would be for an early monk, in view of the very different conditions of our times. Much external activity today makes the constant prayer and the habitual recollection of the monks difficult to imitate, especially for persons living in the world. Hence we have great need of these periods of concentration, to help provide a wellspring that will feed recollection throughout the rest of the day.
3. St. Thérèse, who is so important a model for our times, had no method of meditation, and seemed to have little success with meditation.
Answer: We admit that St. Thérèse did not use a complex method, but recall again that methods look much more complex on paper than in practice. She certainly did, from an early age, apply her mind and heart to God for long periods, and that is the very essence of mental prayer. Later, in persistent dryness, she leaned heavily on reading the Gospels, she thought about them, and indulged in colloquy with God about her thoughts. Abbé Combes points out that chapters IX and X of her Autobiography are "a direct transcription of her meditations, suggested or fully developed, upon verses of St. Matthew and St. John."24 And her whole day was filled with the thought of God, much as with the early monks. Hers was a naturally contemplative soul, and her prayer inevitably became simplified. Yet it seems that she reached the highest levels of contemplation, in a hidden form for the great part.25 Let those who can come close to imitating her enclosed way of life and her great virtues also imitate her in the simplicity of her prayer. Care must be taken lest someone be tempted to use her apparent lack of method as a pretext for giving up all attempts at formal meditation: she herself never abandoned her efforts, however difficult they became.