The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter XIII: Mystical Rose"
MENTAL PRAYER is a great means to progress in the love of God. It paves the way for this growth in love especially by disposing us to receive an increase in faith, for it seeks to make ever more and more real to us the truths of the Creed. Without mental prayer, the spiritual landscape becomes desolate, and external works wither up for lack of an inner life to nourish them. Beyond the forms of mental prayer that were described in the preceding chapter lies a much higher form of prayer called contemplation. It was in contemplation that Mary united herself so intimately in spirit with her Son in all the mysteries of His life, from the early years of her own life to the consummation on Calvary. And even after Calvary her life of contemplation continued, until one day it changed into the absolute clarity of the direct vision of her Son and her Creator in Heaven.
In order that we may more easily learn something about contemplation, we must understand that a soul, in its ascent to the highest kind of perfection to which it can attain in the present life, passes through three ways or stages in the course of its spiritual development. The first is the purgative way, the way of beginners, in which the soul meditates by the means described in the preceding chapter, and labors at the first steps in its purification. The passage from the purgative way to the second way, the illuminative way, is made through what St. John of the Cross calls the "night of the senses."1 There is both an active and a passive aspect to this night: the active part consists in the preliminary work that the soul itself does by its own activity, with the aid of the more usual graces, in trying to free itself from attachments to things of the sensory order, and to advance toward God. The passive phase is the completion of the work by the action of God Himself.2
It is during the passive night of the senses that the soul is introduced to infused contemplation, a new and much higher form of prayer. Infused contemplation is a simple, loving gaze at God, which is not the fruit of human activity, not even of a human activity aided by grace, but of a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit. After the night of sense comes the dawn of the illuminative way, a time of great blessings, in which, under the strong influence of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the virtues of the soul are made more solid, and contemplation becomes well developed. The soul is still, however, in need of purification: hence a second night is required, the "night of the spirit." Like the first night, this night of the spirit has both an active and a passive side. The passive part of this second night is far more terrible than the first passive night; in the second, the spiritual faculties are purified by God's action, so that the soul will be prepared for the higher contemplation and union with God which mark the unitive way.3
These are the three ways: purgative, illuminative, and unitive, with two nights-that of sense and that of spirit-forming the transition between them.
The prayer of simplicity, which we discussed in the last chapter, may develop to the extent that it merges with the edge of the passive night of the senses, forming a bridge into the initial stage of infused contemplation.4 In some persons that passage is made so gradually5 that the soul in which it takes place is not conscious of the change, but in others the change is well defined, and can be identified by certain characteristic signs, of which St. John of the Cross has provided the classic description. According to this description, there are three signs that a soul is passing from the purgative way to the illuminative way, from meditation to infused contemplation.6
The first sign is a great aridity, which takes from the soul all sensible consolation in the things of God, and does not permit it to find pleasure in created things.7 St. John of the Cross says of a soul in this state that God "... allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever."8 This lack of sensible pleasure results in great weariness in the soul-even in the practice of virtue. As a result, temptation is very burdensome, sacrifices terrify it, and it suffers from even slight causes. The fact that the soul finds pleasure neither in the things of God nor in created things shows that we are not dealing with the common sort of aridity in prayer which is often caused by deliberate sins and imperfections. For although a person who is imperfect and sinful may and usually does find aridity and lack of pleasure in the things of God, he does not simultaneously lack pleasure in all created things.
The second sign is the fact that the soul has an awareness of God which returns persistently in spite of distractions.9 This consciousness of God is indistinct and obscure but nonetheless very real. At the same time, the soul has great need for more intimate union with God and fears that it is not serving Him well. If this second sign is joined to the first sign, we see further proof that the aridity of the first sign is no ordinary aridity, for in ordinary aridity a soul usually will tend to forget God in the midst of many distractions; but in this night, the thought of God is persistent, so as to appear again after distractions without being sought. This persistent reappearance of the awareness of God, coupled with the soul's desire for Him and fear that it is not serving Him, makes it quite clear that we are not dealing with a mere case of lukewarmness.
Finally, the third sign is an inability to carry on discursive meditation.10 Abbot Bélorgey gives us a good description of strongly developed cases of this third sign:
All three of the above-mentioned signs must be present at the same time before a spiritual director can justifiably conclude that a soul is in the transition to the illuminative way.
The forces at work in producing these signs are not too difficult to find: God is taking the soul away from its old form of prayer, in which it had formerly found sensible consolations.12 Hence, since it cannot succeed in its accustomed prayer, it lacks the sensible consolation it once found therein, without yet having found the higher pleasure of contemplation. This same lack of sensible consolation tends to make the soul think it is no longer serving God well, but rather is falling back. This impression is heightened by the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul, making it fear sin and desire to be more closely united with God and to serve Him ever better and better. The persistent thought of God is produced by the very contemplation that God is infusing into the soul, while the lack of pleasure in any created thing comes from the action of the Holy Spirit which shows it so plainly how vain all earthly things are.
As we have already noted, this transition to infused contemplation may take place so gradually in some souls that the person himself is not aware of it. In such souls, the prayer of simplicity melts gradually into the newer infused contemplation, for fragments of infused light of the sort that produce the infused contemplation appear little by little, in gradually increasing measure, in the last stages of the prayer of simplicity.
The very nature of the prayer of simplicity makes it a ready background for the infused light. As we saw in the preceding chapter, the prayer of simplicity involves a very simple, loving gaze at God or at divine things. A loving gaze at God is also found in infused contemplation, but the gaze in the prayer of simplicity is active-that is, it is the work of the soul itself, aided, of course, by the more usual sort of graces, while the gaze of infused contemplation is passive-that is, it is produced in the soul by God Himself. As more and more of the infused light is mingled with the prayer of simplicity, the soul becomes less active and more passive; hence the gaze lasts longer, since it is, to an ever-increasing extent, produced passively in the soul by infused light. We must not imagine, however, that this contemplation, even when it is well developed, is so prolonged as to be absolutely continuous for even as much as a half-hour: it is interrupted, and distractions are possible,13 but the thought of God returns persistently. Again, when we say that the contemplation of this night is passive, it must not be thought that the soul is absolutely passive, for it does collaborate in holding itself quiet and attentive to God.14
The prayer of simplicity may deal with almost any subject that is suitable for lower forms of meditation, and there may be a rather distinct mental image present-but as more and more infused light enters, the tendency of the object of the prayer to be restricted to the Divinity itself increases; and, if an image was formerly present, it now becomes vague and indistinct and gives way to a mere loving attentiveness to God and awareness of Him in a vague, obscure, and general way.15 This awareness is faint at first, and its very vagueness and dimness emphasize the need of the three above-mentioned signs: they serve to show that the soul is not merely blank, doing nothing. They also indicate that it is time to abandon attempts to force the soul to meditate in the old ways.
When the soul arrives at the vague, general, loving attentiveness to God and awareness of Him, in the presence of the three signs, whether strongly marked or not, it has reached the state of obscure, hidden, arid, infused contemplation in the first passive night. It should then content itself with mere loving attentiveness to God, not trying to reason, nor to make any special acts of will unless God should move it to some act. For any reasoning or forced acts would disturb the contemplation that God is infusing into it. A soul at this time must also refrain from seeking sensible sweetness, and muse beware of the devil, who may offer it just such consolations in order to induce it to block the divine infusion by reverting to its old ways.16 For although sensible consolations were useful in connection with meditation, to return to them during the onset of infused contemplation would be to interfere with the change that God is working in the soul. Although contemplation itself, when it first comes to the soul, seems to be arid and dark,17 yet it is really a great light-but the soul is not yet able to discern that fact.
If God so wills, the contemplation will develop further, and be perceived by the soul in a pleasant, clear way; then the soul has but to let itself be held, and to follow the divine action.18 On the other hand, He may permit the transitional arid night to remain for days or years. And in addition to the suffering caused by the aridity, many souls also are assailed by very strong temptations, especially against chastity and patience. Or there may be sickness, fatigue, and various sorts of crosses arising from external conditions. But not all souls receive these additional sufferings, and some have them only to a rather slight degree.
There are higher forms of contemplation in the illuminative way, which follows after the first night. The most characteristic prayer of the illuminative way is the prayer of quiet, in which the presence of God is felt experimentally, and with great pleasure.19 The soul seems to be immersed in God, saturated with Him, so that it has an obscure but very perceptibly real contact with Him -as real as that of a hand laid on the table. The feeling seems first to fill the soul itself, and then to overflow on the body. At the same time, the soul feels as it were bound, so that it is impeded more or less from producing the interior acts that it ordinarily would make at will during prayer.20 In fact, the person may fear to move at all, lest it hinder this wondrous pleasure.21 Yet distractions in the intellect and in the imagination are not only possible but are not rare during the prayer of quiet, for the divine action is holding captive only the will, not the other faculties.22
At first the prayer of quiet usually appears only occasionally, and for but a few moments at a time-perhaps for the length of a Hail Mary. In some, this great grace appears abruptly, and when they are not expecting it. They are suddenly seized with an unusual recollection which they cannot help noticing. The divine seems to penetrate them. They remain motionless-and then, as suddenly as it came, it vanishes. But in others these graces appear to come gradually. The intensity of the prayer also varies from time to time.
After the first appearance of this grace, it may not be experienced again for a long time-even for a period of years; such interruptions may be due to the infidelities of the soul receiving it. In other cases the prayer does not suffer such prolonged interruptions: it becomes more and more frequent, and the soul reaches a state in which quietude is habitual. This sweetness may last for a long period, and may come even outside the time of prayer: any mention of God may be enough to invite it.23
After the illuminative way there follows the more terrible-and much more rare-purgation of the second passive night, the night of the spirit. This leads into the unitive way, with its higher forms of contemplation, in which not only the will but all the faculties are taken captive by the divine action.
There are some souls, such as St. Thérèse, in whom contemplation seldom appears in a sweet form: most of their contemplation is in an arid form.24 St. Thérèse must have liked to think that Mary herself walked in this largely (if not entirely) arid way. This thought emerges in her poem, "Why I Love You, O Mary":
I know that at Nazareth, Virgin full of graces,
You lived in great poverty, not wishing anything more;
No raptures, no miracles, no ecstasies
Embellished your life, O Queen of the elect.
The number of little ones is very great upon the earth
They can, without trembling, lift up their eyes to you.
It pleases you to walk along the common way,
Incomparable Mother, to guide them to the heavens.
Whatever may be the truth as to the aridity or sweetness of Mary's contemplation, it is certain that she passed far beyond the level accessible to any other saint.25
All authors agree that infused contemplation is something that a soul cannot procure for itself, not even with the help of the usual actual graces. It is received only when God Himself chooses to give it. When it is given, it comes by a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit, received through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. But is this infused contemplation normal? It is not normal in the sense of being found in many persons. That much is dear. But is it part of the theoretically normal development for souls? The answer is hotly disputed. The view of such theologians as Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen and Garrigou-Lagrange26 seems far more probable: that it is theoretically normal, and that therefore every soul may legitimately desire to attain it. But in such a desire two points are to be observed: first, it should not be desired as an end in itself, but as a means of union with God; and, second, it is best that the soul refrain from desiring the arid or the sweet forms as such: that decision should be completely surrendered to God through the hands of Mary.
Is it possible to arrive at sanctity without infused contemplation? Again, as Fr. Gabriel and Garrigou-Lagrange think, the answer seems to be No. But there are authors who insist that a soul may develop in other ways, by other paths, and so come even to great sanctity without infused contemplation. Such is the opinion of G. Bélorgey,27 A. Poulain,28 A. Tanquerey,29 and some others. It is true that St. Teresa of Avila states that some persons arrive at sanctity without contemplation.30 But, as Fr. Gabriel well shows, she has in mind contemplation of an experimentally felt, sweet kind.31 She does not seem to think of the arid forms. Some saints, as we have already said, seem to have received most, if not all, of their contemplation in hidden or arid forms.32
It is good for us to keep this ideal of contemplation before our eyes, even in the knowledge that the majority of souls will never attain it. Actually a considerable number of souls do reach it: it is known to occur not only in monasteries, but even among simple lay persons in rural districts, and among working girls in large cities. The very knowledge of its possibility is a useful stimulus to generosity. It is also good to know the direction in which meditation aims, for the light which that knowledge sheds on the normal course of development. For all of us can hope that meditation will gradually become simplified for us, moving toward contemplation, even if we do not reach it.
It is with reluctance that we have refrained from the mention of Mary's role during the description of contemplation. This procedure was suggested by the fact that there are still problems on the role of Mary in contemplation which theologians have not completely solved. Some things are quite clear. We know that Mary herself is undoubtedly the great model of contemplative souls, for her contemplation reached to heights far beyond the reach of the ordinary saints. We know that it is through her that even the graces of contemplation are given to souls, for she is the Mediatrix of all graces, without exception. It is likewise clear that even souls whose spirituality is not of the more intimate Marian form often enjoy her association during the illuminative and unitive ways, as well as in the purgative way.33 In fact, in souls whose every act is guided and moved by the Holy Spirit in the unitive way, their very love of Mary is produced in them by the action of the Holy Spirit.34 But souls especially devoted to Mary report particular kinds of favors in which Mary's presence is felt in a remarkable way. Thus St. Thérèse reports an experience in which,
And again the same saint, during the terrible dark night in which she spent the last part of her life, when she was asked: "Have they succeeded in hiding the Blessed Mother, too?" answered:
But the really difficult problem concerns the consciousness of the presence of Mary at the very moment in which infused contemplation is being given to a soul.37 A considerable number of Marian souls have reported just such an experience: but the information they have given is, for the most part, so scant that it is difficult to construct a complete theological explanation.38
Whatever the answer to the above-mentioned problems may be, it is certain that if we are faithful to Mary, she will make our meditation more fruitful and our progress more rapid. Furthermore, although the grace of contemplation is rare, yet a most faithful practice of the perfect devotion to Mary (which we shall explain in chapter XVIII) will give to all a better chance of reaching it, for Mary makes the path through the dark night of sense much easier and more rapid.39