Mental Prayer; Mystical Rose; Spouse of the Holy Spirit

Author: Fr. William Most

Mental Prayer

Fr William Most

Chapter 21 of Our Father's Plan, by Fr. William Most, published by Christendom College Press.

Prayer in general seeks direct contact or union with God in mind and will. We have already considered liturgical prayer, in chapter 11, and have stressed the essential part of it, the interior participation, while also saying that exterior participation is objectively very good, even though without the interior it is worthless. The importance and value of liturgical prayer comes from the fact that it is the prayer of Christ, or, the whole Christ, Head and members.[1]

But we must not think that since liturgical prayer has this excellence, we could neglect other prayer, especially mental prayer. As we pointed out in other connections, if someone would eat only the one food element that is the best, he would incur deficiency diseases. So too, to limit oneself to liturgical prayer would result in a great loss.

Further, any kind of prayer without the support of mortification and humility would be almost if not entirely devoid of value. St. Jane de Chantal points out that there is even danger of delusion: "A person to whom God gives [special or high ] graces at prayer, should give good heed to accompany them with true mortification and humility ...: if they do not, the graces will not last, or are nothing but illusions."[2] This sound advice is especially needed today, when some are trying to reach advanced stages of prayer almost solely by means of special techniques, without the needed accompanying spiritual development-often because they follow that false spirituality, already discussed, which denies any value in self-imposed mortification; or else they are taken in by the false "angel of light" (cf. 2 Cor 11:14) who deludes them with a false concept of love of neighbor.

So we intend in this chapter to first review the chief time-tested means of mental prayer, and then to consider also some more recent proposals.

To set the stage for any mental prayer, it is highly desirable to first try to recall the fact that we are, even though we are not always aware of it, in the presence of God our Father. If we could live in the constant realization of that presence, what a difference it would make in our lives! This leads logically to the thought of who we are and who He is-let us recall our earlier considerations on His Infinite Majesty. The great St. Teresa of Avila, even after receiving so many extraordinary favors, still liked to refer to Him as "His Majesty". This attitude is really adoration, and is most basic. If we find our thoughts and hearts occupied well with this adoration, there is really no need to move on to any further stages of mental prayer-for this is in itself enormously valuable spiritually and pleasing to our Father. This same thought naturally leads us to pray for light and help to pray well (if we do not mind using that word "help", which, as we saw in chapter 18, is really too weak an expression: it tends to imply we are the chief doers, with God only as a sort of side-line assistant! This is the opposite of the real situation).

Then, realizing our own weakness and insufficiency, we also ask for the help of our Blessed Mother. We ask her to come with her perfect adoration, to supplement our deficient dispositions.

There are many ways to go forward after this point-for there are great individual differences in our response to grace.

Formal method is a rather new thing in the history of the Church. This does not mean there was no meditation in earlier times. There definitely was, but it was not so formal, and often would come in connection with thoughtful reading of the Scriptures privately.

Some will be attracted to very methodical procedure; others will not. The important thing is to try for union of our minds (including imagination) and wills (including even feelings, with the qualifications we saw in chapter 17) with God. Whatever method helps a given person at given time will be good for that person.

One way is what is called discursive meditation. Most people will find a good spiritual book almost necessary at this point. They will read until they find some thought that impresses them. Then they pause either to soak it in, as it were, or to develop it, almost as if they are reasoning with themselves, somewhat as one might do in giving a sermon to another. Further, it is very good to intersperse-or put at the end of the period- attempts at free conversational prayer with our Father, with Jesus, or with Mary, or even with other Saints. This conversation may be purely mental, or even vocalized. In general, people at an early stage find this less easy than the mental part of the prayer. but there are great individual differences here, as elsewhere. Some too like to compare themselves with an ideal they have seen in their reading, in a sort of self-examination- which readily leads into a prayer of regret for not doing too well, and a petition for help to do better in the future.

When one spot in the reading has been exhausted, some will reread it, and try to use it all over again. Others will go on to find another passage that helps them, and so on, for the full period they have chosen for meditation. At each such point, of course, the various supplementary things we have mentioned above will still apply.

As their book, some will use Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels. Those who have a stronger imagination might like to pass the entire scene through their minds. Some can even picture themselves taking part in the episode, even making remarks to the principal actors in it. It is good too to simply gaze at Our Lord in the scene we have pictured to ourselves-watching out that this gaze does not degenerate into mere vagueness or blankness.

Still others may prefer to use some vocal prayer, especially the Our Father, and to go through it a bit at a time, dwelling on one phrase or line after another. This too is a good method, suitable even for more advanced stages of meditation.

Some find it helpful to have pen and paper at hand. They may first write out some opening line, without much idea of what to write next. For some psychological reason this will often, in some people, lead on to a good development of an idea, in a process which is basically meditative.

At the end of the meditation, it is very desirable to add a prayer for help to do better on the matters we have just considered, and even to form a rather specific resolution to improve in the matters we have considered.

In this first type of meditation, with which most persons will begin their experience of meditation, the work of the mind or imagination takes up most of the time and effort; the use of the will and feelings in collloquy, free conversational prayer, is apt to be much less. But there may come-again, souls are different-a period in which these proportions shift, so that now free conversation takes up much or most of the meditation period. This is often called affective meditation.

After these first two stages, discursive and affective, there may come what is sometimes called the prayer of simplicity (unfortunately not all authors use this term in the same way, so care is needed in reading to see what the author has in mind). It comes only in perspnS who are working generously toward making progess in the love of God, especially by detachment, mortification, humility. With these must go much habitual recollection, that is, frequent awareness of the presence of God. The person too should be working for purity of motive ct our remarks on submarine motives-in all actions. Of course, we do not mean a person must be perfect, but it does mean solid sustained effort at spiritual growth. If these preconditions are not present, what might appear to be the prayer of simplicity is more likely to be an illusion-we think again of the prudent remark of St. Jane de Chantal which we saw earlier in this chapter.

The term prayer of simplicity is a very good description. In affective prayer, the work of the mind and/or imagination is simplified, ie., just one thought may serve as a basis for the whole meditation period. But now in the prayer of simplicity, the work of the will and feelings and conversational prayer is also simplified. We mean that a person may take just one suitable thought, along with a matching attitude of heart, and use it repeatedly over the entire period, renewing it each time it sinks down into mere vagueness or reverie, which it does naturally.

For example, one might picture Jesus sitting crowned with thorns, with spittle on His face, being mocked by the soldiers. The attitude of heart is simply expressed: It is because of me-it is for me-I am sorry-any one of these serves. Or again, one might think of the words of Psalm 8: "O Lord, our Lord, how marvelous is your name in the whole earth!" Along with this goes an attitude of adoration, or admiration.

As we said, this prayer begins when the person takes up one such thought, with mataching attitude of heart or will. How long will this be sustained? Only a rather short time, perhaps even two minutes. Then it begins to dissolve into vagueness. As soon as the person notices this fact, he deliberately recalls the opening thought and attitude, and can then re-use it for another stretch, until that too begins to dissolve. So there is a sort of wave pattern, up and down, for the whole period of meditation. Yet that one thought and one response serves over and over for the entire period.[3]

When the prayer of simplicity first appears, the thought used may be anything at all in the sphere of religious things. But as time goes on, there will be a tendency-if the person continues to grow spiritually in general-to move towards an almost abstract and general thought of the Divinity. We do not mean that one wants to leave aside the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. Not at all, but the soul is still in the process of development. A stage comes when the thought of that Humanity cannot be handled simultaneously with the next emerging stage. Later it will return, most fruitfully. We will see more of this in the next chapter.

During this phase bits of infused light are apt to appear-on which we will say more later. Such light may strike abruptly at any time, even outside the time of formal prayer. It often consists in a deep realization-not just a feeling-of the nothingness of creatures as compared to the things of eternity. In this light St. Paul told the Philippians (3:8) that compared to Christ, everything in this world seemed like so much "dung." St. Teresa of Avila said things of this life seem like mere toys.[4]

It is obvious that good spiritual reading outside the time of meditation provides nourishment for meditation.

The importance of meditation is very great. In fact, Pope Pius XI wrote: "We must say without reservation that no other means has the unique efficacy of meditation and that, as a result, nothing can substitute for it."[5]

Is meditation only for religous and priests? Not at all. As Pius XI said, nothing else can replace it. No one who wishes to grow spiritually can afford to neglect it.

What if one does not have time for it? Long periods are good, but not essential. If only one could take time out for even five minutes per day, there would be much fruit. Many people who are busy find that just a slight nap, only enough to just drift off briefly, refreshes them greatly to go ahead with their work. Similarly, even a short meditation can work wonders.

Today there are many proposals of techniques that are unfamiliar to most people, and are at least in that sense new. Some of these claim to be revivals of ancient traditions; others are more clearly new. What are we to think of them? First, it is good, as usual, to make distinctions.

Especially well known is Transcendental Meditation. But it is neither transcendental, nor meditation. Some practitioners attach many Hindu trappings to it, giving each person a mantra, which is supposed to be secret, designed for just that person. It is often a Hindu word. But this seems to be just mystification. Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard University Medical School, found a group of teachers of TM who were anxious to cooperate. He checked them carefully, and reported first of all, that if one leaves off the Hindu trimmings, it is a purely natural process, which he described, in his book, called <The Relaxation Response.>[6] Dr. Benson says it is very valuable for relaxation, producing measurable effects on mental and even, indirectly, physical health.

The method, as he describes it, is very simple. One should sit in a comfortable chair, but not slouching. If need be, one might relax or let go the tension in one limb after another. But that is only preliminary. One begins the "meditation" itself by closing the eyes. Then the meditator begins to say interiorly, without vocalizing, the word one. (Dr. Benson picked this word merely to show that no mystic mantra is needed.) It is best to say this word with each exhalation of the breath. All attention is focused on that one word. If distractions come, as of course they do, they are brushed aside gently. It often takes about 10 minutes to get into the state, and it is recommended to stay in it for another 10 minutes. Best effects come with two such periods per day. (One may look at a clock just a few times to check on how long the period is running.)

It is obvious that this is not prayer, but a natural relaxation technique. Can it be of any use for prayer? Perhaps it might help develop concentration as a preliminary to meditation, not as meditation itself, for it essentially focuses just on an empty word.

At this point we naturally think of what is called Centering Prayer, especially as promoted by Basil Pennington.[7] It too calls for two 20 minute periods per day. It opens with taking a minute or two to quiet down-for this, the practice of TM could be useful. Then the person thinks of God dwelling in his depths, using just a single simple word, perhaps the word Jesus. This word is repeated, or refocused as needed. If distraction come, one brushes them gently aside-as in TM-and then returns to the single word. At the end one should come out of the relaxed state, by mentally praying the Our Father or some other prayer.

What should we think of this? Two chief comments are in order. First, if one really does focus on the thought of God dwelling within the soul, there is a spiritual content-unlike TM. But one needs to watch out for mere vagueness, almost blankness, which could come in place of the thought of God, especially since the repetition of one word can tend to have a mild hypnotic effect. Secondly, if all these things are done well, we would have something similar to the Prayer of Simplicity which we just described above. But: the repetitions in this proposed prayer are much closer together than those in the true Prayer of Simplicity, and further, that Prayer of Simplicity is not something that just any person can take to at once. No, there is need of a spiritual deepening, by much mortification, humility, some degree of habitual recollection and other things. St. Jane de Chantal's comment which we quoted at the start of this chapter applies well here.

In other words, one cannot use mere technique[8] to substitute for spiritual growth, and get "instant contemplation," as it were. It is apt to be just an illusion-even though the one who practices it may praise it and say it brings deep peace. A feeling of calm, yes, but it is apt to be the calm of a blankness that approaches that of TM. As such it can bring no spiritual growth.

A step farther than what we have just described is proposed by A. De Mello, in his book Sadhana.[9] He asserts:

Many mystics tell us that, in addition to the mind and heart . . . we are, all of us, endowed with a mystical mind and mystical heart, a faculty which makes it possible for us to know God directly and intuit him in his very being, though in a dark manner, apart from all thoughts and concepts and images.... What do I gaze into when I gaze silently at God? . . . a blank.

Is there such a faculty? Definitely not-though there is, as we shall see in chapter 22, a lack of image in infused contemplation that has some small resemblance. But there is no blankness in infused contemplation, and it is not something we induce in ourselves, but is given by God when and as He wills. It lasts normally but a few minutes. For certain, it is not the act of a third power of the soul, which can be brought on at will.

Pope John Paul II spoke against such proposals of blankness, in a homily given at Avila, for the Fourth Centenary of the death of the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila. He said that St. Teresa opposed books of her day which presented contemplation as a vague assimilation into divinity or thinking about nothing. The Pope added that her reaction ". . . applies also in our days against some methods of prayer which . . . practically tend to prescind from Christ in favor of an empty mental state." He said that the contemplation taught and lived by St. Teresa was not "a search for subjective and hidden possibilities through technical methods which are without interior purification."[10] This, of course, is precisely what St. Jane de Chantal observed.

St. Teresa herself comments on proposals to suspend the intellect in prayer:

In the mystical theology which I began to describe, the understanding ceases working because God suspends it.... [if we] presume not to think and to suspend it ourselves . . . we remain boobs and arid, and attain neither the one nor the other.[11]

That is, we neither advance towards the state in which God Himself will suspend the working of the mind in infused contemplation, nor do we have the fruit of basic meditation.

Finally, we include here a word on the Rosary. We need not give any proof of the importance of the Rosary-so many Popes so many times have strongly recommended it. Vatican II did so implicitly when it wrote:

This most Holy Synod admonishes all the sons of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin be generously fostered, and that the practices and exercises of piety, recommended by the Magisterium of the Church toward her in the course of centuries, be considered of great importance.[12]

Pope Paul VI, in Christi Matri Rosarii, pointed out specifically that this general recomendation of Vatican II included the Rosary.[13]

Our special reason for speaking of the Rosary here is the fact that it should include meditation on each of the 15 mysteries.

First, we must notice that we are not asked to be fully attentive to the meaning of each word of the 50 Hail Mary's and the 5 Our Father's in the Rosary. No, that would be beyond human ability, even with the help of usual actual graces. Rather, the vocal prayers form a sort of background. Along with those vocal prayers, we are to meditate on the various mysteries.

This is, of course, difficult, as even some of the Saints have admitted. Yet it can be done. There are two chief methods of trying to do it.

One way is to use a set of inserted phrases or lines between the Hail Mary's, so that the narrative of the mystery advances a step with each one. Some can do this on their own; others will find useful one of the several books designed for this purpose.

Others can make a sort of discursive meditation simultaneously with the vocal prayers. This, as we said, is not easy. Yet it is so valuable spiritually that we cannot omit at least trying to do it. As a means of working into this, it is good to take a few moments before each of the decades, to get the meditation started. For some, this will be in one of the forms of discursive meditation described earlier in this chapter. Many will moving from one thought to another, or picture the episode unfolding. Others will find it easier and better to absorb the main thought of each mystery.

For example, in the first joyful mystery, one can dwell on the marvel that God saw fit to take on our nature; in the second, that He was willing to dwell in the womb of Mary for nine months-with awareness too, for even though His physical brain was not yet entirely formed at the early stages, yet His human soul had a spiritual intellect which was joined directly to the vision of God, through which all knowledge was available to Him (as we saw in chapter 8). In the third mystery we try to realize He was willing even to be a helpless baby; in the fourth, we think of His offering Himself to the cross in the presentation in the Temple, and His Mother's joining her <fiat> to His, continuing the acceptance she had made at the annunciation. In the fifth, we admire His restraint in not overwhelming the Doctors in the Temple, and His mysterious way of furthering the spiritual advance of His parents by His puzzling reply when they found Him there. With this kind of start, one can more readily continue during the decade.

Of course, the meditation can develop, as one advances, into the affective form, or that of the prayer of simplicity.

Some[14] have even suggested that the recitation of the Rosary may cease altogether. We distinguish: (1) If infused contemplation comes during the saying of the Rosary, then the Rosary is put aside for that time; all vocal prayer needs to be dropped because of what is called ligature, which we will discuss in the next chapter; but, (2) even if such contemplation does come, the Rosary can and should be continued outside the brief periods of infused contemplation.

One's whole spiritual life can be transformed if this meditation in the Rosary is made habitually and well. The Rosary or other meditative prayer is essential for growing union with God.


1 Vatican II, <On the Liturgy #7.>

2 St. Jane Frances Fremyot de Chantal, <Exhortations, Conferences, and Instructions>, Newman, Westminster, 1947, p. 261.

3 Cf. Poulain, op. cit pp. 8-51.

4 St. Teresa of Avila, <Life,> 28

5 Pius XI, <Menti nostrae>, Sept 23, 1950. #47, NCCW Edition.

6 Herbert Benson, M.D., <The Relaxation Response>, Avon, 1976.

7 M. Basil Pennington, <Centering Prayer>, Doubleday, N.Y., 1980, p. 45. H. Benson has also suggested in his newer, <Beyond the Relaxation Response> (esp. pp. 103-11) that one can add "the faith factor" to his previous proposals, by using a religious word or line, such as the Jesus prayer. Cf. comments above on the ideas of Pennington.

8 Cf Benedict J. Groeschel, <Spriitual Passages>, Crossroad, N.Y. 1983, p. 104, speaks of "the current vogue to learn methods of meditation aimed at producing religious experience apart from the imperatives of moral conversion."

9 A. DeMello, <Sadhana,> Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978, pp. 25-29.

10 Pope John Paul II, Homily at Avila, Nov. 1, 1982, in The Pope Speaks 28 (1983) pp. 114-15.

11 St. Teresa of Avila, <Life> 12.5. BAC edition I. p. 660.

12 Vatican II, <On the Church> #67.

13 Paul Vl, <Christi Matri Rosarii>, Sept 15, 1966. AAS 58.748. Pope John XXIII in his autobiography, <Journal of A Soul,> tr. D. White, McGraw-Hill, N.Y. 1964, 1965, p. 315, says that since 1953 he increased his Rosary to 15 decades daily, and that he continued that even in the busy work of the Papacy.

14 Cf A. B. Calkins, "A Point of Arrival, The Rosary as Contemplative Prayer" in <Civitas Immaculatae>, April, 1987, special edition, p. 11. Unfortunately, some of the ideas of Sadhana, cited in note 9 above, seem to appear in part in this article.


Chapter 22 of Our Father's Plan, by Fr. William Most, published by Christendom College Press.

Beyond the realm of the meditations we have described lies a much longer stretch of spiritual growth, leading even to infused contemplation.

At this point we must admit that there is a large difference in the pictures given by reputable theologians. All agree that there are three stages or ways in the spiritual life: the purgative way, the illuminative way, the unitive way. All would agree that the forms of meditation we have just described belong within the first, the purgative way. But after that, disagreement begins.

The key question is this: is infused contemplation[1] a normal part of spiritual growth, such that if a person advances very far, he must inevitably meet with it? We find some theologians saying it is a necessary part of growth;[2] others deny this, and say that contemplation is something extraordinary,[3] not necessarily part of normal development. Both sides try to claim the support of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, who are clearly the greatest mystical theologians the Church has produced.

Those who say infused contemplation is a necessary stage say it first appears at the transition from the purgative way into the illuminative way; this first passage they name the dark night of the Senses. Still higher forms of contemplation are found in the illuminative way. But at the end of that way, as a transition again, there is found the dark night of the Spirit, leading into the highest forms of contemplation to be found in this life.

The other school tend to say that the purgative way is the period in which we, and God's grace, are working to cleanse ourselves of our faults; the illuminative way is the period of receiving graces of light; the unitive way is one of rather constant union with God in this life. If infused contemplation appears at all, they say, it is extraordinary, and would be found in the unitive way. These theologians sometimes do speak of the two nights, but they understand them in a much reduced way.

In this chapter we will follow those who hold that infused contemplation is a necessary step in spiritual growth. The reasons for this view will become clearer throughout the chapter.

To make the connection to chapter 21, we recall that at the end of it we saw the prayer of simplicity. We noted too that that prayer tends to develop in such a way that the topic used tends more and more to be restricted to the divinity in an almost abstract way-whereas in the early phases of the prayer of simplicity, almost any religious subject could serve for meditation. We noted too that, temporarily, the soul will find itself unable to meditate much if at all on the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. This is because the soul at that stage is too weak to do that and at the same time advance another step. Later, devotion to His Humanity returns, with great spiritual profit.

Simultaneous with this development in prayer must go growth in humility and mortification. If these do not accompany the development of prayer, that growth in prayer will be mere illusion-we recall again the helpful words of St. Jane de Chantal quoted in chapter 21.

Besides these things there will appear-at quite unpredictable times, even when one is at work-bits of the infused light of the Holy Spirit, sent through the Gifts (we will speak more of these Gifts in chapter 23). One very frequent effect of this light is to give the soul a deep realization, not attainable by usual meditation, of the awful nothingness of all things, even ourselves, compared to God. When such bits of light come, the soul needs to know that if at all possible, it should drop other things, and simply pay attention to and receive the full effects of the light. Other prayer, especially vocal prayer, might disturb this special favor. How long will it last? Only a couple of minutes, ordinarily, although there often are trail-off effects for a still longer time.

Next, if the soul advances further, three signs should appear of approaching infused contemplation.

The first sign is a great aridity, such that the soul finds no pleasure in either the things of this world, or even in spiritual things.[4] This can be very wearisome to the soul, and can leave it open to temptations. It can suffer from relatively slight causes. It is important to distinguish this aridity from the aridity that comes from spiritual sluggishness in general. The difference is that one who is spiritually slothful or very sinful does still find pleasure in things of sense, but not in the things of God.

The second sign is the fact that the soul has an awareness of God that returns persistently in spite of distractions[5] No one can have a constant awareness of Him in this life-apart from very special graces-but yet in this second sign, the thought of God returns as it were spontaneously as soon as one is free from necessary occupations that demand one's full attention. This consciousness of God is indistinct and obscure, but yet very real. It leads the soul to want closer union with God. The soul may be inclined too to think it is not serving Him well enough-which will be very true, for the soul even at this point is still only in the purgative way, and has a long road to travel before reaching the peak of spiritual devepment possible in this life.

Again, we can see the difference between this condition and the ordinary aridity coming from laxity or sin. The ordinary aridity does not lead to the increased desire to serve God, or to the persistent return of the thought of Him.

Finally the third sign is inability to carry out the older form of discursive meditation, in which the mind or imagination moved from one point to another.[6] In strongly developed cases, it will seem as though the mind and imagination will not move. A person might even be unable to comprehend a book. Yet, outside of prayer, one can carry on ordinary duties well enough.[7] However, in many cases, especially less well developed cases, the soul will find it possible at times-still within the area of the three signs-to return to the older forms of discursive meditation.[8]

This great aridity betrays the fact that God Himself is at work in the soul. Humans by their own efforts, aided by the usual actual graces, can go only so far in the work of purification of the soul. Then, for further development, God must take over, in such a way that the soul is more passive. (We will see more of this activity/passivity question in chapter 23.)

When the stage is thus set by the three signs, infused contemplation itself may appear. It can come about in either of two patterns. In one pattern, the prayer of simplicity may as it were melt into infused contemplation, blending with it. For the prayer of simplicity, in its more developed forms, involves a loving gaze at God. However, that gaze in the prayer of simplicity is produced actively by the soul, with the aid of ordinary actual graces; the gaze of infused contemplation is passive, produced by the operation of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In the other pattern, there is a more sharply defined pattern of the onset of infused contemplation. The soul suddenly finds welling up in it from the depths of the spirit a perception of contact with God which is much different from the consolations we saw in chapter 17, which are basically from the sensory realm. There is no image of Him, nor is there any sound from Him. It is all obscure, and in the darkness of faith, yet it comes in such a way that we could almost say the soul feels the presence of God. We hesitate to use the word feels, for this is not at all in the region of sense, though there may be an overflow into the sensory area, if the contemplation comes in what is called a sweet, as contrasted with an arid, form.[9]

This experience can come during a time of prayer; it can equally well appear during other times, even when the person is somewhat busy-though not totally absorbed-with routine things. We note here that the tendency for the thought of God to recur persistently sets the stage for this happening.

When it does come, the person, even without instruction, will seem to know almost instinctively that it is important to drop all else and simply pay attention. Even vocal prayer, even interiorly worded prayer, would be an obstacle. This phenomenon is called <ligature>, meaning a sort of binding.[10]

We said the soul should hold itself attentive, for it is quite possible for it to interrupt the contemplation by doing other things, or even by distractions, which are possible even at this point.[11] (Even though the soul may enjoy the contemplation, especialy if it is in sweet form, yet the body may find no comfort in it unless there is a strong overflow, as it were, into the sensory region.)

How long does this contemplation last? A rather short time ordinarily, much like the case of the bits of infused light we spoke of earlier. When will it return again? It will come when God wills-for we can do nothing to bring it on. In fact, we should not even attempt to do so-out of fear of illusion, or going counter to the will of God. For while we should desire to grow ever more in pleasing Him, we should not desire a particular means at a particular time-as we saw in chapter 20. That we must leave up to Him.

St. John of the Cross, in a context in which he speaks of infused contemplation, even says:

When the soul empties itself of all things in this way and comes to be empty and detached from things-which is, as we said, that which the soul can do [actively], it is impossible . . . that God would fail to do His part, communicating Himself to the soul at least in secret and in silence.... Just as the sun gets up early to enter your house if you open the window, so God . . . will enter into the soul that is emptied and fill it with divine goods.[12]

These words imply of course, that infused contemplation is a normal part of spiritual growth, for if the soul does its part, God will not fail to grant it.

Do only those in monasteries or convents experience this contemplation? Not at all. Some persons in the world meet with it, those who are devoted to God and who use, so far as is compatible with their state in life, the means we have been explaining. Obviously, there will be differences in the form these things take between souls in contemplative houses, and those engaged in the world.[13]

After this passage is completed in the way in which God wills, the soul enters into the illuminative way, in which a higher form of contemplation appears, which is called the prayer of quiet, in which the perception of contact with God is comparable to that of a hand placed on a table.

At first this kind of prayer appears only occasionaly, and for a few moments at a time, perhaps for the time needed to say one Hail Mary In some persons this grace comes abruptly, when not expected. They are suddenly seized with an unusual recollection, so that the divine seems to penetrate them. Then suddenly it vanishes. The intensity of this prayer also varies from time to time.

After the first appearances of this grace it may not be had again for a long time, even for some years. The interruption may come from lack of fidelity in the soul, or simply because God so wills. In others there are not these interruptions.

Even when this stage is reached, the soul is still far from the peak of growth that is possible in this world. Hence a further, more terrible purification, largely passive, is needed, which is called the dark night of the Spirit. In it commonly great trials and temptations come-against any virtue, even faith or hope or purity. Not a few comentators think temptation against purity was the "thorn of the flesh" of which St. Paul speaks in 2 Cor 12:7.

This night may run for years. It is needed because the first night, that of the senses, worked chiefly on the faults that are rooted in the sensory area, still leaving in place many faults whose roots lie deep in the spirit. The object is to bring the soul to such a point that it can be moved only by the Holy Spirit, though the Gifts (more on this in chapter 23).[14]

When the soul finally emerges from this severe night, it moves on into the highest forms of contemplation possible in this world, leading to the transforming union, in which not only the will, but all faculties of the soul are in effect taken over by the divine action.

As we indicated in passing, there are some souls in which the contemplation comes in an enjoyable or sweet form; in others, it is arid, that is, lacking in pleasure, though this does not exclude a sort of satisfaction at least on the fine point of the soul (cf. chapter 17 on this latter). St. Therese of Lisieux sems to have been that type of soul, and she liked to think the Blessed Virgin was such also.

Another kind of contemplation is often referred to as "Marian contemplation." We can use the term either to mean that which the Mother of God had, or the contemplation in which other souls may perceive her.

St. Luke tells us more than once that Mary pondered these things in her heart. <Ineffabilis Deus>, in which Pope Pius IX, defined the Immaculate Conception makes the matter clearer. Speaking of her holiness at the very beginning, at the moment of her conception, the Pope tells us that the Father attended her with such great love, more than for all other creatures, that in her alone He took singular pleasure. Therefore He so wonderfully filled her, more than all angelic spirits and all the Saints, with an abundance of all heavenly gifts taken from the treasury of the divinity, that she, always free from absolutely every stain of sin, and completely beautiful and perfect, presented such a fulness of innocence and holiness that none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it.

That is: Even if we say that God could make a creature capable of understanding her holiness, yet, as a matter of fact, He has not done that. Not even the highest of the archangels or the seraphim can comprehend it-only He Himself can. It is evident then, that she began where other souls leave off at the end of a life of surpassing virtue. What her contemplation must have been is, then, beyond our ability to grasp. And yet this did not keep her from doing her duties in the home at Nazareth in such a way that those who saw her would not suspect, even though she was clearly a specially good person.

There is also a contemplation, reported by a few souls, in which the Blessed Mother seems to be part of the object of infused contemplation. Theologically, this is clearly quite possible. If a soul in infused contemplation is given as it were direct contact[15] with God, then, since Mary is more closely united with Him than any other being, more closely than the highest angels and the Seraphim, it follows that if God so wills, the soul could be given a perception of her along with that of God. This clearly happened in the case of Venerable Marie of St. Therese, a 17th century mystic in the Netherlands. She writes that she was given "a contemplation, an enjoyment of Mary inasmuch as she is one with God and united to Him. In tasting God, I taste also Mary, as if she were but one with God."[16] Father Emil Neubert, in his outstanding work, Life of Union with Mary, says that since the definition of the Immaculate Conception, there have been more souls than before favored with special union with Mary.[17] His book is a splendid guide for those who wish to develop, on any level, a Marian spirituality.

Venerable Marie even says she at times experienced a contact with St. Joseph in a similar way.[18] This is clearly theologically possible, since now in the glory of Heaven, St. Joseph is most closely united with God. In fact, there is no reason why God could not, when and if He so willed, grant a contact with even lesser souls that have reached the divine vision.

When and whether a soul attains this special favor of Marian contemplation, is, of course, entirely the decision of our Father. It is obviously not a necessary part of the spiritual ascent the way basic infused contemplation is. In regard to Marian contemplation, as in all things, we should be entirely pliable and conformed to His will.


1 Some speak also of acquired contemplation. Unfortunately, not all use terms the same way. Some use it to mean the prayer of simplicity (we favor this way, if the term is used at all). Others use it even for the initial infused contemplation of the first night, which we will describe in this chapter.

2 E.g., R. Garrigou-Lagrange, in <Christian Perfection and Contemplation,> tr. T. Doyle, Herder, St. Louis, 1946 and in <The Three Ages of the Interior Life,> tr. T. Doyle, Herder, St. Louis, 1949, and Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, St. John of the Cross, tr. A Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey, Newman, Westminster, 1951.

3 E.g., Poulain, <op. cit.> and A. Tanquerey, <The Spiritual Life>. B. Groeschel, <Spiritual Passages> at least seems to hold a position similar to this. He has many helpful things from the standpoint of experimental psychology.

4 The aridity and other features are more intense in some souls than in others. In general, the higher God wills to lead a soul, the greater the trial.

5 In <Ascent> 2,13 St. John of the Cross gives the three signs in a different form from that which we are following (we follow his <Dark Night> 1.9-10). The chief difference is on the second sign, which in the <Ascent> is replaced by the fact that the soul takes pleasure in being alone and waiting on God without any specific meditation. Probably both versions are for the same thing: the picture given in <Night> is still inchoate, in Ascent it is fully formed.

6 As we see from St. John of Cross, <Ascent> 2.15, the soul is still able to return at times to discursive meditation when there is no active special influence of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit at the moment.

7 G. Belorgey, <The Practice of Mental Prayer,> tr. E Boylan, Newman, Westminster, 1952 gives a helpful description on pp. 110-11.

8 All three signs should he present at once before the director can he confident a soul is in the transition to the illuminative way.

9 Cf St. John of the Cross, <Ascent> 2.13.7 and <Dark Night> 1.9.6.

10 On ligature see Poulain pp. 178-99 and Belorgey pp. 125-26.

11 Cf St. John of the Cross, <Ascent> 2.13.3.

12 St. John of the Cross, <Living Flame> 3.46. BAC ed. p. 1239.

13 There are cases of persons engaged in busy active life who have had some experiences of infused contemplation.

14 Cf St. John of the Cross, <Ascent> 3.2.10

15 Cf W. Most, "Maria Conservabat Omnia Verba Haec" in <Miles Immaculatae> 21, 1985, p. 164.

16 Marie de Sainte-Therese, "L'Union Mystique a Marie," <Cahiers de la Vierge> 15, Cerf, Juvisy, 1936, p. 50, translated as: "Union with Our Lady," Marian Writings of Ven. Marie Petyt, tr. T. McGinnis, Scapular Press, NY, 1954, p. 33. Cf Also Michael A. S. Augustino, <Introductio ad Vitam Internam,> Collegio S. Alberti, Rome, 1926.

17 Emil Neubert, <Life of Union Wth Mary>, tr. S. Juergens, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1959, pp. 243-46.

18 Cf. Marie de Sainte-Therese, <op. cit.> in note 16 above, p. 78, or McGinnis translation, p. 50.


Chapter 23 of Our Father's Plan, by Fr. William Most, published by Christendom College Press.

Infused contemplation, of which we spoke in chapter 22, comes through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, chiefly wisdom and understanding. But there are other functions of these Gifts, especially in letting us be guided by the the Holy Spirit Himself.

To make the matter clear, we notice that there are three guides, or levels of guides, that we may follow in making our decisions.

The first and lowest level is that in which the soul is led by the whim of the moment, by that which gives pleasure. The great pagan philosopher Aristotle said that to make pleasure our guide is to have a life "fit for cattle."[1] A dog's life is a helpful comparison. Dogs are completely predictable. If a dog has something to eat, and happens to feel like eating, he will surely eat. If a dog has a chance to sleep, and happens to feel like sleeping, he will surely sleep. And so on for sex, and everything else. A dog always does whatever he happens to feel like at the moment; he follows the whim of the moment, in pursuit of pleasure.

Not a few humans have greatly misunderstood this: they have thought that to do what they want, when they want, as they want it, is the glorious "freedom of the sons of God" of which St. Paul speaks. Far from the truth!. They are living, literally, a dog's life, or a life fit for cattle.

Clearly, we ought to go higher than a dog's life. On the second level the guide a person follows is reason. This is a life more fit for humans. Of course, thanks to the goodness and generosity of our Father, when a person tries to follow reason sincerely, he or she will in practice also have the help of actual graces, the kind of which we spoke in explaining St. Paul's words in Philippians 2:13 (chapter 18).

But there is a much higher level: that of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.[2] On this level, one has the higest kind of guide. Let us compare the second and third levels, to make the difference clear. On the second level, one follows reason, with, as we said, the help of actual graces. On this level one commonly has to think things out step by step. For example, suppose I come to see that since I have sinned, I ought to do penance, in reparation for the pain I have caused our Lord, and to help rebalance the damage my sins have done to the objective order, which the Holiness of our Father loves, and to help correct the pulls of creatures (ct chapter 19) which make it less easy for my thoughts and heart to rise above creatures to the level of our Father Himself. After coming to realize that I need mortification or penance, I would next ask myself: How much do I need, considering my sins? What sort of mortification is prudent considering my whole life situation? I would go through several steps to finally reach the conclusion of what I should do. As we said, this is a process carried on basically by human reason, with the help of actual graces, which the generosity of our Father always offers, which we actually have if we do not reject them. After I have reached my conclusion, if someone should ask me: Why did you decide on this? I could give a rational explanation, precisely since I arrived at the conclusion by a step-by-step process of reasoning.

But when guidance comes to us through the gifts, there is no such step by step process. Rather, the answer is, as it were, dropped readymade into the hopper of our brain. It is the Holy Spirit Himself who provides it. He does this, we might say, on the special wavelength of His gifts. They make it possible for me to receive such guidance. As a result, if someone should ask me why I propose to do what I have come to see in this way, I would probably reply: "I don't know how to explain. I just know it is good." This happens since I did not reach the conclusion by a step-by-step process.

Clearly, we can see both a great advantage and a danger here. The danger is that a person might just deceive himself, and mistake feelings for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Some writings on this subject speak of instincts or impulses from the Holy Spirit. There is a sense in which this is true, but we must not take it to mean one waits for a feeling to jab him, and then decides it is the Holy Spirit.)

How avoid the danger? Experience shows that when guidance comes through the gifts, it sometimes gives an interior certitude, sometimes does not. Usually it does not give a certitude, but leaves some doubt. This is because the Holy Spirit wants us to ask the advice of a superior or prudent spiritual director. St. Teresa of Avila received a commission from the Holy Spirit-by way of a special revelaton-to found a stricter branch of the Carmelites. Yet she did not dare to begin without consulting more than one spiritual director.[3] In general, the more important or far-reaching the proposal that one seems to receive is, the more need of consultation. Further, one should not readily suppose he or she has received such an inspiration unless he or she is already far advanced in the spiritual life. These gifts do not make their influence felt much, if at all, in the earlier stages, though there may be a latent effect, as we will explain shortly.

It is only when something must be decided, and yet there is no chance to check with a superior or director, that the Holy Spirit gives real certitude. Even when He seems to do so, we must be careful, for the seeming certitude could come from self-deception. If one is humble, cultivates mortification and meditation, and asks the help of our Blessed Mother, there is great protection against such deception.

We mentioned that there is a latent operation of the gifts at times. In the full instances of the operation of the gifts, the soul is largely passive-its faculties do little more than assent to be moved by the Holy Spirit. In contrast, under ordinary actual graces, of which we spoke in chapter 18, the soul is more active: the movement of grace causes the person's faculties to turn out the results actively. In the latent mode there is an intermediate picture, more passive, yet not as fully passive as when the gifts work in the fullest way. For example, a soul that is in the gradual transition from the prayer of simplicity to the first experience of infused contemptation may have the light from the gifts intermingling with human activity aided by actual graces. The contribution of the gifts will probably not be noticed, at least not clearly. Or suppose one is deliberating using the infused virtue of prudence. An inspiration from the gifts might add a sudden light, or might put before him a thought from the Gospels. This sort of aid could blend in so well with the work of deliberation by reason as to pass unnoticed.

In any case, we said there is a great advantage in having this highest kind of guidance, since it comes from the Holy Spirit Himself. St. Thomas Aquinas holds that the help of the gifts is indispensable for eternal salvation, since the goal of salvation is the direct vision of God-a thing entirely beyond the natural capabilities of any conceivable creature. Hence the need of a "superhuman" mode of acting, provided by the gifts.[4] The Holy Spirit will lead a soul to decide on things that are not contrary to reason, but are higher than the point to which reason would reach. Jesus Himself, even though divine, even though His human soul had the direct vision of God, yet was habitually led by the Holy Spirit, as we find many times in the Gospels, e.g., the Spirit led Him into the desert for His 40 day fast before he began His public mission: Lk 4:1. Again, on another occasion, Lk 10:21 tells us that He "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit."

Since our Father loves to observe good order in all things, He willed that the human faculties of Jesus be guided and moved through these Gifts, even though His divinity could have done all directly.

A specially clear instance of the fact that this guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead one not to points contrary to reason, but to things above reason, is to be seen in the conduct of our Blessed Mother right after the Archangel had asked and obtained her consent, her fat, to be the Mother of the Redeemer. If she were acting in a merely natural way, following just reason-which St. Paul would call the mode of the "natural man" in contrast to the "spiritual man" (1 Cor 2:14-15>she probably would have thought the following way: "My people have been waiting for centuries for this day; they have desired the coming of the Messiah. Now I know from the words of the Angel that He is already conceived within me.[5] I should not just keep this joy to myself; I should tell our people; especially I ought to tell the authorities in Jerusalem. And what of Joseph my husband-it is only a question of time until he will have to see that I am with child. What would he suspect! I really ought to tell him right away."

But yet we know from the Scriptures what she really did: none of these things at all. The Holy Spirit led her higher, on the lofty path of humility. She told no one, not even Joseph who, quite reasonably, was worried. God had to send an angel to Joseph to keep him from divorcing her quietly.

St. John of the Cross speaks eloquently on her fidelity to the Holy Spirit:

God alone moves the powers of these souls . . . to those deeds which are suitable, according to the will and ordinance of God, and they cannot be moved to others.... Such were the actions of the most glorious Virgin, our Lady, who, being elevated from the beginning [of her life] to this lofty state, never had the form of any creature impressed on her, nor was moved by such, but was always moved by the Holy Spirit.[6]

Creatures do make their imprint on ordinary souls, and the attractions of creatures often lure them to act on the level of animals, or at least to fall short of the highest level. But as for our Blessed Mother, we recall the words of Pope Pius IX in his document defining the Immaculate Conception, in which he taught:

He [our Father] attended her with such great love, more than all other creatures, that in her alone He took singular pleasure. Wherefore He so wonderfully filled her, more than all angelic spirits and all the saints, with an abundance of all heavenly gifts taken from the treasury of the divinity, that she, always free from absolutely every stain of sin and completely beautiful and perfect, presented such a fulness of innocence and holiness that none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it.[7]

If such was her holiness even at the start, what must it have been after a long, most difficult life of absolute fidelity to the Holy Spirit![8] So it is quite fitting that many theologians today speak of her as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a few hours before his final arrest on February 17, 1941, leading to his martyrdom, wrote down on paper these theologically splendid and beautiful comments:

Who is the Holy Spirit? The flowering of the love of the Father and the Son. If the fruit of created love is a created conception, then the fruit of divine Love . . . is necessarily a divine 'conception.[9] The Holy spirit is, therefore, the "uncreated eternal conception" ... this thrice holy "conception", this infinitely holy Immaculate conception. This eternal "Immaculate Conception" (which is the Holy Spirit) produces in an immaculate manner divine life itself in the womb (or depths) of Mary's soul, making her the Immaculate Concepbon [for thus she named herseffat Lourdes], the human Immacaculate Conception. If among human beings the wife takes the name of her husband because she belongs to him, is one with him . . . and is, with him, the source of new life, with how much greater reason should the name of the Holy Spirit, who is the divine Immaculate Conception, be used as the name of her in whom He lives as uncreated Love, the principle of life in the whole supernatural order of grace?[10]

No wonder then that Pope Pius XII could write of her in the cenacle before the first Pentecost: "She it was who, by her most mighty prayers, obtained that the Spirit of the Divine Redeemer, already given on the Cross, should be bestowed on the newborn Church on the day of Pentecost, in the company of miraculous gifts."[11]

It is obvious too how her prayers can gain the riches of the workings of these same gifts for those devoted to her. As St. Louis de Montfort said: "When the Holy Spirit, her Spouse, has found Mary in a soul, He flies there, He enters there in His fulness, He communicates Himself to that soul abundantly, and to the full extent to which it makes room for His Spouse."[12]

We all receive these gifts at baptism, or even earlier; if baptized in adult life, we receive when we first gain the state of grace. Why then, we must ask, is there not more effect from them in our lives? It is basically a lack of receptivity, of needed dispositons. Only when a soul is rather advanced will the effects of the gifts show clearly (as contrasted with the latent action described above). It follows that whatever promotes spiritual development favors also the activity of the gifts. The chief things of course are humility, mortification, meditation-all of which make room for love. To these we add deep devotion to the Mother of God.

A particularly important obstacle is what is sometimes called affection to venial sin, which we spoke of in chapter 15. As we have seen, this is a kind of gap in the person's resolve to please God, the attitude that given a certain degree of difficulty, one fully intends to offend Him by venial sin. Of course, little or no progress can be made in this context. Lesser but similar is the obstacle from attachments to any creatures. We recall the dramatic comparison given by St. John of the Cross of the bird on a string[13] and our comparison of the mental meter (chapter 19).

St. Therese of Lisieux made it a practice to obey any Sister in the convent, even those without authority. The reason seems to have been mortification, and this was also a means to avoid acting on the low, first level which we spoke of earlier in this chapter, the level on which one follows the whim of the moment. In obeying another she would at least stay clear of that low way of deciding. Those who do not live in circumstances like hers cannot of course use such a means. But one can follow the spirit of the Beatitudes and related ideals presented in Matthew 5, which urge us not to press our own will.

Further, it is a great help to have what we might call a set of private policies (it used to be called a private rule). For this one works out, with the help of a good spiritual adviser, a set of policies: what devotions, specifically, one will follow each day, and perhaps even the times for each, so far as the life situation of each one permits; it will also include definite general principles on what kind of mortification and how much a person will cultivate. Such a policy on mortification is much needed, precisely because it is especially hard to be objective about mortification; people tend to do nothing, or to do too much. Obviously, the advice of a good director is priceless here. Once such a set of policies has been prudently determined, it should be held to without wavering until the time comes when it seems a general change is in order-again, to be worked out with a good director. What of exceptions to such policies? Of course, exceptions are possible, but if we recall the astute comment made by St. Teresa of Avila[14] that our body tends to find it needs more and more, we will be inclined to be very tight, to reject reasons for exceptions unless they are very strong and very clear. Otherwise, the exception tends to become the rule.

One final note, on a phenomenon called natural inspiration, is in order. The very first thing the action of the gifts does is to cause the soul to see something as good which mere reason would not be likely to show. Then, as needed, the gifts provide the strength to carry out this good-which is most conspicuous in the case of martyrs, who hold up with cheer, even seeming joy, under the most atrocious physical tortures.

As we said, the gifts can lead one to strictly superhuman heights. Now in natural matters there is also a kind of action of God, not through these gifts, but in the natural order, which can and does lead some to see things in a superhuman way. This is what we mean: His action can cause a musician to see a vision of musical beauty, and to write it down for performance by an orchestra, or a single artist, or a group. It is in this way that great masterpieces seem to be created. Let us take an example. Suppose we would take a young child and give that child the maximum possible musical training from the earliest years on up. Could we in that way produce another Beethoven, or Mozart or other great composer? Hardly. Yes, there is work involved, often hard work, on the part of great composers. Yet the vision of beauty they see and capture for us is at least at times above and beyond what ordinary human powers could reach-it is, strictly, superhuman.[15] Really, it is a touching act of special goodness on the part of our Father to provide such inspirations, to give us an elevated perception beyond ordinary human reach.[16] We ought to thank Him when we hear great music-or see other great art forms. There can be parallel superhuman virtue in the natural order shown also in courage, as Aristotle points out:

As the opposite of beastlike behavior, it is very suitable to speak of virtue that is above us [above ordinary humans], just as Homer repesents Priam saying of Hector that he seems to be exceedingly brave, "He did not seem to be the son of a human, but of a god."


1 Aristotle. <Nicomachean Ethics> 1.5.

2 We might compare the Gifts to receptors, fitted on top of the infused virtues, making them receptive to the special wavelength of the Holy spirit.

3 Cf. St. Teresa of Avila, <Cuentas de Conciencia> (Spiritual Relations) 4.10: "She never acted on what she has learned through prayer, if her confesssors said the contrary, she always then acted [on what they said] and told them everything." She had a healthy fear of self-deception and deception by the evil one. <Ibid.> 4.6. BAC edition II, pp. 520 and 518.

4 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa I-II 68.1.

5 On her knowledge, cf. W. Most, <art. cit.> on chapter 22, note 15.

6 St. John of the Cross, <Ascent> 3.2.10; cf. <Living Flame> 1.4; 1.9 and 2.34.

7 Pius IX, <Ineffabilis Deus>.

8 Even though she was full of grace at the start, yet her capacity could grow.

9 The Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and of the Son for each other.

10 Cited from H. M. Manteau-Bonamy, <Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit>, Prow Books, Libertyville, 1977, pp. 3-5.

11 Pius XII, <Mystici Corporis>, June 29, 1914 3. AAS 35.248. We note again the Father's love of objective order: Mary's prayers provided a special added title for the sending of the Holy Spirit.

12 St. Louis de Montfort, <True Devotion> # 36.

13 St. John of the Cross, <Ascent> 1.11.4. (cited in chapter 15 at note 8).

14 Cited in chapter 20 at note 8.

15 Cf. St. Thomas, <Summa> I-ll 68.1.c.

16 Cf. Pius Xll, Encyclical on Music. In <The Pope Speaks> 3. 1956, esp. p. 13.

17 Aristotle, <Nicomachean Ethics> 7.1.1, citing Homer, <lliad> 24.258-59.