Please consider the request of the Author.
“I charge you with love’s authority, if you give this book to someone else, warn them (as I warn you) to take the time to read it thoroughly. For it is very possible that certain chapters do not stand by themselves but require the explanation given in other chapters to complete their meaning. I fear lest a person read only some parts and quickly fall into error. To avoid a blunder like this, I beg you and anyone else reading this book, for love’s sake, to do as I ask”
“Relying on God’s grace to lead and guide you, you will come to this deep experience of his love by following the path I have set before you in these pages.”
Prive Counseling – Author, same as The Cloud of Unknowing
My dear friend in God, this book is for you, personally, and not for the general public, for I intend to discuss your interior work of contemplation as I have come to understand it and you. If I were writing for everyone, I should have to speak in general terms, but as I am writing for you alone, I will concentrate on only those things which I believe to be most personally helpful to you at this time. Should anyone else share your interior dispositions and be likely to profit from this book also, all the better. I will be delighted. But it is you alone I have in mind right now, and your interior life, as I have come to understand it. And so, to you (and others like you) I address the following pages.
When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do. Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil. Do not pray with words unless you are really drawn to this; or if you do pray with words, pay no attention to whether they are many or few. Do not weigh them or their meaning. Do not be concerned about what kind of prayers you use, for it is unimportan whether or not they are official liturgical prayers, psalms hymns, or anthems; whether they are for particular or general intentions; or whether you formulate them interiorly, by thoughts, or express them aloud, in words. See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God. Leave it stripped of every particular ideal about God (what he is like in himself or in his works) and keep only the simple awareness that he is as he is. Let him be thus, I pray you, and force him not to be otherwise. Search into him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground. This awareness, stripped of ideas and deliberately bound and anchored in faith, shall leave your thought and affection in emptiness except for a naked thought and blind feeling of your own being. It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God and said: That which I am I offer you, O Lord, without lookint to any quality of your beig but only to the fact that you are as you are, this, and nothing more.
Let that quiet darkness be your whole mind and like a mirror to you. For I want your thought of self to be as naked and as simple as your thought of God, so that you may be spiritually united to him without any fragmentation and scattering of your mind. He is your being and in him, you are what you are, not only because he is the cause and being of all that exists, but because he is your cause and the deep center of your being. Therefore, in this contemplative work think of your self and of him in the same way: that is, with the simple awareness that he is as he is, and that you are as you are. In this way your thought will not be fragmented or scattered, but unified in him who is all. Yet keep in mind this distinction between yourself and him: he is your being but you are not his. It is true that everything exists in him as in its source and ground of being, and that he exists in all things, as their cause and their being. Yet a radical distinction remains: he alone is his own cause and his own being. For as nothing can exist without him, so he cannot exist without himself. He is his own being and the being of everything else. Of him alone may this be said: and thus he is wholly separate and distinct from every created thing. And thus, also, he is one in all things and all things are one in him. For I repeat: al things exist in him; he is the being of all.
And since this is so, let grace unite your thought and affection to him, while you strive to reject all minute inquiry into the particular qualities of your blind being or of his. Leave your thought quite naked, your affection uninvolved, and your self simply as you are, so that grace may touch and nourish you with the experimental knowledge of God as he really is. In this life, this experience will always remain dark and partial so that your longing desire for him be ever newly enkindled. Look up joyfully, then, and say to your Lord, in words or desire: That which I am, I offer to you, O Lord, for you are it entirely. Go no further, but rest in this naked, stark, elemental awareness that you are as you are.
It is not hard to master this way of thinking. I am certain that even the most uneducated man or woman, accustomed to a very primitive type of life, can easily learn it. Sometimes I smile to myself (though not without a touch of sadness), and marvel at those who claim that I write to you and others a complicated, difficult, lofty, and strange doctrine, intelligible to only a few clever and highly trained minds. It is not simple, uneducated folk who say this either; it is scholars and learned theologians. To these people in particular I want to reply. It is a great pity and a sad commentary on the state of those supposedly committed to God that, in our day, not just a few people but nearly everyone (excepting one or two of God’s special friends, here and there) is so blinded by a mad scramble for the latest theology or discoveries in the natural sciences that they cannot begin to understand the true nature of this simple practice; a practice so simple that even the most uneducated peasant may easily find in it a way to real union with God in the sweet simplicity of perfect love. Unfortunately, these sophisticaded people are no more capable of understanding this truth in sincerity of heart than a child at his ABCs is able to understand the intricacies of erudite theologians. Yet, in their blindness, they insist on calling such a simple exercise deep and subtle; whereas, if they examined it rationally, they would discover it to be as clear and plain as the lesson of a beginner.
Surely it is beginner’s fare, and I consider him hopelessly stupid and dull who cannot think and feel that he is; not how or what he is, but that he is. Such elemental self-awareness is obviously proper to the dumbest cow or most unreasonable beast. (I am being facetious, of course, for we cannot really say that one animal is dumber or more unreasonable than another.) But it is only fitting for a man to realize and experience his unique self-existence, because man stands apart in creation, far above all the beasts, as the only creature graced with reason. And so, go down to the deepest point of your mind and think of yourself in this simple, elemental way. (Others will mean the same thing, but because of their experience, speak of the mind’s “pinnacle”, and of this awareness as the “highest human wisdom”.) In any case, do not think what you are but that you are. For I grant that to realize what you are demands the effort of your intelligence in a good deal of thought and subtle introspection. But this you have done for quite a while with the help of God’s grace; and you understand to some degree (as much as you need to for the present) just what you really are -a human being by nature and a pitiful, fallen wretch through sin. Well do you know this. Yes, and probably you feel that you know only too well, from experience, the defilements that follow and befall a man because of sin. Fie on them! Forget them, I pray you. Reflect on them no further for fear of contamination. Instead, remember that you also possess an innate ability to know that you are, and that you can experience this without any special natural or acquired genius.
So now, forget your misery and sinfulness and, on that simple elemental level, think only that you are as you are. I am presuming, of course, that you have been duly absolved of your sins, general and particular, as Holy Church requires. Otherwise, I should never approve of your or anyone else beginning this work. But if you think you have done your best in this matter, take up this work. You may still feel the burden of your sin and wretchedness so terribly that you are uncertain what is best for yourself, but do as I tell you now. Take the good gracious God just as he is, as plain as a common poultice, and lay him to your sick self, just as you are. Or, if I may put it another way, lift up your sick self, just as you are, and let your desire reach out to touch the good, gracious God, just as he is, for to touch him is eternal health. The woman in the Gospel testifies to this when she says: “If I but touch the hem of him garment I shall be healed.” She was healed physically; but even more shall you be healed of your spiritual illness by this lofty, sublime work in which your desire reaches out to touch the very being of God, beloved in himself. Step up bravely, then, and take this medicine. Lift up your sick self, just as you are, to the gracious God, just a he is. Leave behind all inquiry and profound speculation into your being or his. Forget all these qualities and everything about them, whether they be pure or defiled, natural or grace-given, divine or human. Nothing matters now except that you willingly offer to God that blind awareness of your naked being in joyful love, so that grace can bind you and make you spiritually one with the precious being of God, simply as he is in himself.
No doubt, when you begin this practice your undisciplined faculties, finding no meat to feed upon, will angrily taunt you to abandon it. They will demand that you take up something more worthwhile, which means, of course, something more suited to them. For you are now engaged in a work so far beyong their accustomed activity that they think you are wasting your time. But their dissatisfaction, inasmuch as it arises from this, is actually a good sign, since it proves that you have gone on to something of greater value. So I am delighted. And why not? For nothing I can do, and no exercise of my physical or spiritual faculties can bring me so near to God and so far from the world, as this naked, quiet awareness of my blind being and my joyful gift of it to God. Do not be troubled, then, if your faculties rebel and plague you to give it up. As I say, it is only because they find no meat for themselves in this practice. But you must not yield. Master them by refusing to feed them despite their rage. By feeding them, I mean giving them all sorts of intricate speculations about the details of your being to gnaw on. Meditations like this certainly have their place and value, but in comparison to the blind awareness of your being and your gift of self to God, they amount to a rupture and dispersion of that wholeness so necessary to a deep encounter with God. Therefore, keep yourself recollected and poised in the deep center of your spirit and do not wander back to working with your facuties under any pretext no matter how sublime. Heed the counsel and instruction which Solomon gave to his son when he said: Worship the Lord with your substance and feed the poor with your first fruits. Thus shall your barns be filled with abundance and your presses run over with wine.
Solomon said this to his son but take it as addressed to yourself, and understand it spiritually, according to the sense in which I, standing in his place, now explain it to you. My dear friend in God, go beyond your intellect’s endless and involved investigations and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer him your very self in simple wholeness, all that you are and just as you are, without concentrating on any particular aspect of your being. In this way your attention will not be scattered nor your affection entangled, for this would spoil your singleness of heart and consequently your union with God. And with your first fruits feed the poor. Here he refers to the most important of all the special gifts of nature and grace bestowed on you at your creation and nurtured through the years until this moment. With these God-given gifts, these fruits, you are obliged to nourish and foster not only yourself but also all those who are your brothers and sisters by nature or grace. The most important of these gifts I call your first fruits. It is the gift of being itself, the first gift each creature receives. It is true, of course, that all the attributes of your self-existence are so intimately bound to your being as to be actually inseparable from it. Yet, in a sense, they would have no reality if you did not first of all exist. And therefore, your existence deserves to be called the first of your gifts because it really is. Your being alone shall be called your first fruits.
If you begin to analyze thoroughly any or all of man’s refined faculties and exalted qualities (for he is the noblest of all God’s creatures), you will come at length to the farthest reaches and ultimate frontiers of thought only to find yourself face to face with naked being itself. And if you were to use this analysis to rouse yourself to love and praise your Lord God who gifted you with being, and such a noble being (as meditating on your human nature will reveal), think where it would lead you. At first you might say, “I am; I see and feel that I am. And not only do I exist but I possess all sorts of pesonal talents and gifts.” But after counting up all these in your mind, you could still go a step farther and draw them all together in a single all-embracing prayer such as this: That which I am and the way that I am, with all my gifts of nature and grace, you have given to me, O Lord, and you are all this. I offer it all to you, principally to praise you and to help my fellow Christians and myself.” Thus you can see that by pursuing your meditation to the farthest reaches and ultimate frontiers of thought, you will find yourself in the end, on the essential ground of being with the naked perception and blind awareness of your own being. And this is why your being alone can be called the first of your fruits.
So it is, that naked being takes first place among all your fruits, all the others being rooted in it. But now you have come to a time when you will no longer profit by clothing or gathering into your awareness of naked being, any or all of its particulars, by which I mean your fruits, upon which you have laboriously meditated for so long. Now it is enough to worship God perfectly with your substance, that is, with the offering of your naked being. This alone constitutes your first fruits; it wil lbe the unending sacrifice of praise for yourself and for all men that love requires. Leave the awareness of your being unclothed of all thoughts about its attributes, and your mind quite empty of all particular details relating to your being or that of any other creature. For such thoughts will not satisfy your present need, further your growth, nor bring you and others closer to perfection. Let them alone. Truly these meditations are useless to you now. But this blind, general awareness of your being, conceived in an undivided heart, will satisfy your present need, further your growth, and bring you and all mankind closer to perfection. Believe me, it far surpasses the value of any particular thought, no matter how sublime.
All this you can verify with the authority of the Scriptures, the example of Christ, and the scrutiny of sound logic. As all men were lost in Adam when he fell from the love which made him one with God, so all those, who, by fidelity to their own path in life, manifest their desire for salvation, will receive salvation through the Passion of Christ alone. For Christ gave himself, all that he was, as a perfect and complete sacrifice. He did not concentrate on the salvation of any one person in particular, but gave himself without reserve for all. With universal intent he made himself a true and perfect offering, giving himself without reserve so that all men might be united to his Father as effectively as he was himself. And no greater love can any other man have than to sacrifice his very self for the good of all who are his brothers and sisters by nature or grace. For the spirit is of greater dignity than the flesh and thus it is of greater value to unite the spirit to God (who is its life) by the sublime food of love than to unite the flesh to the spirit (which is its life) by the food of earth. Of course, it is important to feed the body but unless you nourish the spirit also, you have not done everything. Both together are good, but the first, by itself, is best. For a healthy body alone will never merit salvation; but a robust spirit, even in a frail body, will not only merit salvation but reach its full perfection.
You have reached a point where your further growth in perfection demands that you do not feed your mind with meditations on the multiple aspects of your being. In the past, these pious meditations helped you to understand something of God. They fed your interior affection with a sweet and delightful attraction for him and spiritual things, and filled your mind with a certain spiritual wisdom. But now it is important that you seriously concentrate on the effort to abide continually in the deep center of your spirit, offering to God that naked blind awarenes of your being which I call your first fruits. If you do this, as you may with the help of God’s grace, be confident that Solomon’s charge to feed the poor with your first fruits will be fully accomplished also, just as he promises; and all without your interior faculties having to seek or search carefully among the attributes of your being or of God’s.
I want you to understand clearly that in this work it is not necessary to inquire into minute details of God’s existence any more than of your own. For there is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. God in his very existence is each and all of these. If you spoke of him in a hundred like ways you would not go beyond or increase the significance of that one word, is. And if you used none of them, you would have taken nothing from it. So be as blind in the loving contemplation of God’s being as you are in the naked awarenes of your own. Let your faculties rest from their minute inquiry into the attributes of his being or yours. Leave all this behind and worship him with your substance: all that you are, just as you are, offered to all that he is, just as he is. For your God is the glorious being of himself and you, in the naked starkness of his being.
And thus you will bind everything together, and in a wonderful way, worship God with himself because that which you are you have from him and it is he, himself. Of course, you had a beginning – that moment in time when he created you from nothing – yet your being has been and shall always be in him, from eternity to eternity, for he is eternal. And therefore, I will continue to cry out this one thing: Worship God with your substance and help all mankind with your first fruits. Then shall your barns be filled with abundance. The promise contained in these last words is that your interior affection will be filled with an abundance of love and practical goodness arising out of your life in God, who is your ground of being and your singleness of heart. And your presses shall run over with wine. These presses are your interior spiritual faculties. Formerly your forced and constrained them in all kinds of meditations and rational inquiry in an effort to gain some spiritual understanding of God and yourself, of his attributes and yours. But now they are filled and overflow with wine. This wine holy Scripture speaks of is accurately ad mystically understood to be that spiritual wisdom distilled in the deep contemplation and high savoring of the transcendent God.
And how spontaneously, joyosly, and effortlessly shall all this happen through the working of grace. Busy toil of yours is no longer necessary, for in the power of this gentle, blind contemplative work, angels will bring you wisdom. Indeed, the angels’ knowledge is specially directed to his service as a handmaid to her lady.
By its very nature, this practice makes one open to the high wisdom of the transcendent God, lovingly descending into the depths of a man’s spirit, uniting and binding him to God in delicate, spiritual knowledge. In great praise of this joyful, exquisite activity the wise man, Solomon, bursts out and says:
‘Happy the man who finds wisdom
and who gains understanding.
For her profit is better than silver
and better than gold is her revenue.
She is the first and most pure of his fruits…
My son, keep counsel and advice before you:
They will be life to your soul
and beauty to your mouth.
Then you may go securely in our way,
and your foot will not stumble.
When you sleep you shall not fear
you shall rest and your sleep shall be sweet.
Be not afraid of the sudden terror
nor of the power of the wicked falling upon you
For the Lord will be at your side
and he will keep your foot so that you be not taken.
Let me explain the hidden meaning of what he says here.
Happy, indeed, is that man who finds the wisdom which makes him whole and binds him to God. Happy is he, who by offering to God the blind awareness of his own being enriches his interior life with a loving, delicate, spiritual knowledge that far transcends all the knowledge of natural or acquired genius. Far better this wisdom and an ease in this delicate, refined interior work than the gain of gold or silver. In this passage, gold and silver symbolize all the knowledge of sense and spirit. Our natural faculties acquire this gold and silver by concentrating on things beneath us, within us, or like us, in their meditations on the attributes of God’s being or the being of creatures.
He then goes on to tell why this interior work is better when he says that it is the first and most pure of a man’s fruits. And little wonder, when you realize that the high spiritual wisdom gained in this work freely and spontaneously bursts up from the deepest inner ground of his spirit. It is a wisdom, dark and formless, but far removed from all the fantasies of reason or imagination. Never will the straining and toil of the natural faculties be able to produce its like. For what they produce, be it ever so sublime or subtle, when compared to this wisdom, is little more than the sham emptiness of illusion. It is as distant from the truth, visible in the radiance of the spiritual sun, as the darkness of moonbeams in a winter’s night is from the splendor of the sun on the clearest day of high summer.
Then Solomon continues. He advises his son to keep this law and counsel in which all the commandments and laws of the Old and New Testaments are perfectly fulfilled, with no particular effort to concentrate on any single one of them. This interior work is called a law simply because it includes in itself all the branches and fruits of the entire law. For if you examine it wisely, you will find that its vitality is rooted and grounded in the glorious gift of love which is, as the Apostle teaches, the perfection of the whole law. “The fullness of the law is love.”
I tell you, that if you keep this law of love and this life-giving counsel, it really will be your spirit’s life, as Solomon says. Interiorly, you will know the repose of abiding in God’s love. Exteriorly, your whole personality will radiate the beauty of his love, for with unfailing truth, it will inspire you with the most appropriate response in all your dealings with your fellow Christians. And on these two activities (the interior love for God and the outward expression of you love in relating to others) depend the whole law and the prophets, as the Scriptures say. Then as you become perfect in the work of love, both within and without, you will go on your way securely grounded in grace (your guide in this spiritual journey), lovingly offering your blind, naked being to the glorious being of your God. Though they are distinct by nature, grace has made them one.
And he foot of your love shall not stumble. This means that when, with experience, this interior work becomes a spiritual habit, you will not easily be enticed or led away from it by the meddlesome queries of your natural faculties, though in the beginning it was difficult to resist them. We might express the same thing like this: “Then the foot of your love shall neither stumble nor fall on any sort of illusion arising from the insatiable seeking of your faculties.” And this is because, as I said before, in the contemplative work, all their inquisitive seeking is utterly rejected and forgotten lest the human liabillity of falsehood contaminate the naked awareness of your blind being and draw you away from the dignity of this work.
Every particular thought of creatures that enters your mind, in addition to or instead of that simple awareness of your naked being (which is your God and your desire for him), draws you back to the business of your subtle, inquisitive faculites. Then you are no longer totally present to yourself or to your God, and this amounts to the fragmentation and scattering of any deep concentration on his being and yours. And so, with the help of his grace and the light of the wisdom that comes from perseverance in this work, remain whole and recollected in the depths of your being as often as you can.
As I have already explained to you, this simple work is not a rival to your daily activities. For with your attention centered on the blind awareness of your naked being united to God’s, you will go about your daily rounds, eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, going and coming, speaking and listening, lying down and rising up, standing and kneeling, running and riding, working and resting. In the midst of it all, you will be offering to God continually each day the most precious gift you can make. This work will be at the heart of everything you do, whether active or contemplative.
Moreover, Solomon also says in this passage that if you sleep in this blind contemplation, far from all the noise and agitation of the evil one, the false world, and the frail flesh, you shall fear no peril nor any deceit of the fiend. For without doubt, when the evil one discovers you at this work, he will be utterly confused, and blinded by an agonizing ignorance of what you are doing, he will be driven by a mad curiosity to find out. But never mind, for you shall graciously take your rest in the loving union of your spirit with God’s . Your sleep shall be untroubled; yes, for it shall bring deep spiritual strength and nourishment to renew both your body and your spirit. Solomon confirms this shortly after when he says, it is complete healing for the flesh. He simply means that it will bring health to all the frailty and sickness of the flesh. And well it might, for all sickness and corruption came upon the flesh when man fell from this work. But when, with he grace of Jesus (which is always the principal agent in contemplation), the spirit again rises to it, the flesh will be completely healed. And I must remind you that it is only by the mercy of Jesus and your own loving consent that you may hope to attain this. So I add my voice to Solomon’s, as he speaks in this passage, and I encourage you to stand firm in this work, continually offering God your wholehearted consent in the joy of love.
Be not afraid of the sudden terror nor the power of the wicked… Here the wise man says: “Do not be overcome with anxious dread if the evil one comes (as he will) with sudden fierceness, knocking and hammering on the wall of your house: or if he should stir some of his mighty agents to rise suddenly and attack you without warning.” Let us be clear about this: the fiend must be taken into account. Anyone beginning this work (I do no care who he is) is liable to feel, smell, taste, or hear some surprising effects concocted by this enemy in one or other of his senses. So do not be astonished if it happens. There is nothing he will not try in order to drag you down from the heights of such valuable work. And so I tell you, watch over your heart in the day of suffering, trusting with joyful confidence in our Lord’s love. For the Lord is at your side and will keep your foot so that you be not taken. Yes, he will be close by your side ready to help you.
He will keep your foot… The foot he speaks of here is the love by which you mount up to God, and he promises that God will protect you so that you are not overcome by the wiles and deceits of your enemies. These, of course, are the fiend along with his cohorts, the false world and the flesh.
See, my friend! Our mighty Lord, he who is love, he who is full of wisdom and power, he himself will guard, defend, and succor, all who utterly forsake concern for themselves and place their love and trust in him.
But where shall we find a person so wholeheartedly committed and firmly rooted in the faith, so sincerely gentle and true, having made self, as it were, nothing and so delightfully nourished and guided by our Lord’s love? Where shall we find a loving person, rich with a transcendent experience and understanding of the Lord’s omnipotence, his unfathomable wisdom and radiant goodness; one who understands so well the unity of his essential presence in all things and the oneness of all things in him that he surrenders his entire being to him, in him, and by his grace, certain that unless he does he will never be perfectly gentle and sincere in his effort to make self as nothing? Where is a man of sincerity, who by his noble resolve to make self as nothing, and high desire that God be all in the perfection of love, deserves to experience the mighty wisdom and goodness of God, succoring, sheltering, and guarding him from his foes within and without? Surely such a man will be deeply drenched in God’s love and in the full and final loss of self as nothing or less than nothing, if less were possible; and thus he will rest untroubled by feverish activity, labor, and concern for his own well-being.
Keep your human objections to yourselves, you half-hearted folk! Here is a person so touched by grace that he can forsake himself in honest and unreserved self-forgetfulness. Do not tell me that by any rational appraisal he is tempting God. You say this only because you dare not do so yourselves. No, be content with your own calling in the active life; it will bring you to salvation. But leave these others alone. What they do is beyond the comprehension of your reason, so do not be shocked or surprised by their words and deeds.
Oh for shame! How long must you go on hearing or reading of all this without believing and accepting it? I refer to all our fathers wrote and spoke about in times past, to that which is the fruit and flower of the Scriptures. Either you are so blind that the light of faith can no longer help you to understand what you read, or you are so poisoned by a secret envy that you are unwilling to believe such a great good might come to your brethren and not to you. Believe me, if you are wise, you will watch out for your enemy and his insidious ways; for what he wants is to have you rely more on your own reason than on the ancient wisdom of our true fathers, the power of grace, and the designs of our Lord.
How often have you not read or heard in the holy, wise, and reliable writings of the fathers that as soon as Benjamiin was born, his mother, Rachel, died. Here, Benjamin represents contemplation and Rachel represents reason. When one is touched by the grace of authentic contemplation (as he surely is in the noble resolve to make self as nothing, and the high desire that God be all), there is a sense in which we can really say that reason dies. But have you not often heard and read all this in the works of various holy and scholarly men? What makes you so slow to believe it? And if you do believe it, how dare you let your prying intellect rummage among the words and deeds of Benjamin? Now Benjamin is a figure of all wo have been snatched beyond the senses in an ecstasy of love, and of them the prophet says: “There is Benjamin, a young child, in excess of mind.” I warn you: be vigilant lest you imitate those wretched human mothers who slew their newly born children. Watch, lest you accidentally thrust your bold spear with all your might at the power, wisdom, and designs of the Lord. I know you want only to further his plans; yet, if you are not careful, you may mistakenly destroy them in the blindness of your inexperience.
In the early Church, when persecution was common, all sorts of people (not especially prepared by pious, devotional practices) were so marvelously and suddenly touched by grace that without further recourse to reason they ran to die with the martyrs. We read of craftsmen casting away their tools and of school children flinging down their books, so great was their eargerness for martyrdom. In our times the Church is left in peace, but is it so hard to believe that God still can and may touch all sorts of people with the grace of contemplative prayer in the same wonderful and unforeseen way? Is it really so strange that he should desire and actually do this? No, and I a convinced that God in his great goodness will continue to act as he wishes in those he chooses that in the end his goodness may be seen for what it is, to the astonishment of all the world. And anyone so lovingly determined to make self as nothing and so keenly desirous that God be all will most certainly be protected from the onslaught of his enemies within and without, by the gracious goodness of God himself. He need not marshal his own defenses, for with faithfulness befitting his goodness, God will unfailingly protect those who, absorbed in the business of his love, have forgotten concern for themselves. Yet, is it surprising that they are so wonderfully secure? No, for truth and gentlleness have made them fearless and strong in love.
But one who does not dare abandon himself to God and criticizes others who do manifests an inner emptiness. For either the evil one has robbed his heart of the loving confidence he owes to God and the spirit of good will he owes to his fellow Christians, or else he is not yet sufficiently steeped in gentleness and truth to be a real contemplative. You, however, must not be afraid to commit yourself in radical dependence upon God or to abandon yourself to sleep in the blind contemplation of God as he is, far from the uproar of the wicked world, the deceitful fiend, and the weak flesh. Our Lord shall be at your side ready to help you: he will guard your step so that you be not taken.
It is not without reason that I liken this work to sleep. For in sleep the natural faculties cease from their work and the whole body takes its full rest, nourishing and renewing itself. Similarly, in this spiritual sleep, those restless spiritual faculties, Imagination and Reason, are securely bound and utterly emptied. Happy the spirit, then, for it is freed to sleep soundly and rest quietly in loving contemplation of God simply as he is, while whe whole inner man is wonderfully nourished and renewed.
Do you see now why I tell you to bind up your faculties by refusing to work with them and be absorbed instead, in offering to God the naked, blind awareness of your own being? But I say again: be sure that it is naked and not clothed in any ideas about the atttributes of your being. You might be inclined to clothe it in ideas about the dignity and goodness of your being or with endless considerations of the intricate details relating to man’s nature or the nature of other creatures. But as soon as you do this, you have given meat to your faculties and they will have the strength and oportunity to lead you on to all sorts of other things. I warn you, before you know it, your attention will be scattered and you will find yourself distracted and bewildered. Please be wary of this trap, I pray you.
But perhaps your insatiable faculties have already been busy examining what I have said about the contemplative work. They are restless because it goes beyond their skill and they have left you puzzled and suspicious about this way to God. Actually, this is not surprising. For, in the past, you have been so dependent upon them that you will not easily put them aside now, even though the contemplative work requires that you do. At the moment, however, I see that your heart is troubled and wondering about all this. Is it really as pleasing to God as I say? And if so, why? I will reply to all this, but I want you to realize that these very questions arise from a mind so inquisitive that under no circumstance will it give you peace in consenting to this work, until its curiosity has been appeased to some degree by a rational explanation. But since this is the case, I will not refuse. I will yield to your proud intellect, descending to the level of your present understanding, that afterward you may rise to mine, trusting my counsel and setting no bounds to your docility. I call upon the wisdom of St Bernard, who says that perfect docility sets no bounds.
You limit your docility when you hesitate to follow the counsel of your spiritual father before your own judgment has ratified it. See how I desire to win your confidence! Yes, I really do, and I shall. But it is love that moves me, rather than any personal ability, degree of knowledge, depth of understanding, or proficiency in contemplation itself. At any rate, I trust this is so, and pray God to supply where I fail, for my knowledge is only partial whereas his is complete.
Now to satisfy your proud intellect I will sing the praises of this work. Believe me, if a contemplative had the tongue and the language to express what he experiences, all the scholars in Christendom would be struck dumb before his wisdom. Yes, for by comparison the entire compendium of human knowledge would appear as sheer ignorance. Do not be surprised, then, if my awkward, human tongue fails to explain its value adequately. And God forbid that the experience itself become so degenerate as to fit into the narrow confines of human language. No, it is not possible and certainly will never happen; and God forbid that I should ever want that! Whatever we may say of it is not it, but only about it. Yet since we cannot say what it is, let us try to describe it, to the confusion of all proud intellects, especially yours, which is the actual reason for my writing at this time.
Le me begin by asking you a question. Tell me, what is the substance of man’s ultimate, human perfection and what are the fruits of this perfection? I will answer for you. Man’s highest perfection is union with God in consummate love, a destiny so high, so pure in itself, and so far beyond human thought that it cannot be known or imagined as it really is. Yet wherever we find its fruits, we may safely assume that it abounds. Therefore, in declaring the dignity of the contemplative work above all others, we must first distinguish the fruits of man’s ultimate perfection.
These fruits are the virtues which ought to abound in every perfect man. Now, if you study carefully the nature of the contemplative work and then consider the essence and manifestation of each separate virtue, you will discover that all the virtues are clearly and completely contained in contemplation itself, unspoiled by twisted or selfish intent.
I will mention no particular virtue here for it is not necessary and besides, you have read about them in my other books. It will suffice to say that the contemplative work, when it is authentic, is that reverent love, that ripe, harvested fruit of a man’s heart which I told you about in my little Letter on Prayer. It is the cloud of unknowing, the secret love planted deep in an undivided heart, the Ark of the Covenant. It is Denis’ mystical theology, what he calls his wisdom and his treasure, his luminous darkness, and his unknown knowing. It is what leads you to a silence beyond thought and words and what makes your prayer simple and brief. And it is what teaches you to forsake and repudiate all that is false in the world.
But even more, it is what teaches you to forsake and repudiate your very self according to the Gospel’s demand: “Let anyone who wishes to come after me deny himself, carry his cross and follow me.” In the context of all we have been saying about contemplation, it is as if Christ were to say: “He who wishes to come humbly after me – not with me, but after me – to the joy of eternity or the mount of perfection..” Christ went ahead of us because this was his destiny by nature; we come after him gy grace. His divine nature ranks higher in dignity than grace, and grace higher than our human nature. In these words he teaches us that we may follow him to the mount of perfection as it is experienced in contemplation, only if he first calls us and leads us there by grace.
This is the absolute truth. And I want you (and others like you who may read this) to understand one thing very clearly. Although I have encouraged you to set out in the contemplative way with simplicity and boldness, nevertheless I am certain, without doubt or fear of error, that Almighty God himself, independently of all techniques, must always be the chief worker in contemplation. It is he who must always awaken this gift in you by his grace. And what you (and others like you) must do is make yourselves completely receptive, consentign and suffering his divine action in the depths of your spirit. Yet the passive consent and endurance you bring to this work is really a distinctively active attitude; for by singleness of your desire ever reaching up to your Lord, you continually open yourself to his action. All this, however, you will learn for yourself through experience and the insight of spiritual wisdom.
But since God in his goodness stirs and touches different people in different ways (some through secondary causes and others directly), who dares to say that he may not be touching you and others like you through the instrumentality of this book. I do not deserve to be his servant, yet in his mysterious designs, he may work through me if he so wishes, for he is free to do as he likes. But I suppose after all that you will not really understand all this until your own contemplative experience confirms it. So I simply say: prepare yourself to receive the Lord’s gift by heeding his words and realizing their full meaning. “Anyone who wishes to come after me, let him forsake himself.”And tell me, what better way can one forsake and scorn himself and the world than by refusing to turn his mind to either of them or to anything about them?
But now I want you to understand that although in the beginning I told you to forget everything save the blind awareness of your naked being, I intended all along to lead you eventually to the point where you would forget even this, so as to experience only the being of God. It was with an eye to this ultimate experience that I said in the beginning: God is your being. At that time I felt it was premature to expect you to rise suddenly to a high spiritual awareness of God’s being. So I let you climb toward it by degrees, teaching you first to gnaw away on the naked awareness of your self until by spiritual perseverance you acquired an ease in this interior work; I knew it would prepare you to experience the sublime knowledge of God’s being. And ultimately, in this work, that must be your single abiding desire: the longing to experience only God. It is true that in the beginning I told you to cover and clothe the awareness of your God with the awareness of your self, but only because you were still spiritually awkward and crude. With perseverance in this practice, I expected you to grow increasingly refined in singleness of heart until you were ready to strip, spoil, and utterly unclothe your self-awareness of everything, even the elemental awareness of your own being, so that you might be newly clothed in the gracious stark experience of God as he is in himself.
For this is the way of all real love. The lover will utterly and completely despoil himself of everything, even his very self, because of the one he loves. He cannot bear to be clothed in anything save the tought of his beloved. And this is not a passing fancy. No, he desires always and forever to remain unclothed in full and final self-forgetting. This is love’s labor, yet, only he who experiences it will really understand. This is the meaning of our Lord’s words: “Anyone who wishes to love me let him forsake himself.” It is as if he were to say: “A man must despoil himself of his very self if he sincerely desires to be clothed in me, for I am the full flowing garment of eternal and unending love.”
And so, when in this work you become aware that you are perceiving and experiencing self and not God, be filled with sincere sorrow and long with all your heart to be entirely absorbed in the experience of God alone. Cease not to desire the loss of that pitiful knowledge and corrupted awareness of your blind being. Long to flee from self as from poison. Forget and disregard your self as ruthlessly as the Lord demands.
Yet do not misunderstand my words. I did not say that you must desire to un-be, for that is madness and blasphemy against God. I said that you must desire to lose the knowledge and experience of self. This is essential if you are to experience God’s love as fully as possible in this life. You must realize and experience for yourself that unless you lose self you will never reach your goal. For wherever you are, in whatever you do, or howsoever you try, that elemental sense of your own blind being will remain between you and your God. It is possible, or course, that God may intervene at times and fill you with a transient experience of himself. Yet outside these moment this naked awareness of your blind being will continually weigh you down and be as a barrier between you and your God, just as in the beginning of this work the various details of your being were like a barrier to the direct awareness of your self. It is then that you will realize how heavy and painful is the burden of self. May Jesus help you in that hour, for you will have great need of him.
All the misery in the world taken together will seem as nothing beside this, because then you will be a cross to yourself. Yet this is the way to our Lord and the real meaning of his words: “Let a man first take up his cross” (the painful cross of self) that afterward he may “follow me into glory,” or, as we might say, “to the mount of perfection.” But listen to his promise: “There I will let him savor the delight of my love in the unspeakable experience of my divine person.” See how necessary it is to bear this painful burden, the cross of self. It alone will prepare you for the transcendent experience of God as he is and for union with him in consummate love.
And now as this grace touches and calls you, may you see and appreciate more and more the surpassing worth of the contemplative work.
Tell me now, do you still expect your faculties to help you reach contemplation? Believe me, they will not. Imaginative and speculative meditations, by themselves, will never bring you to contemplative love. Be they ever so unusual, subtle, lovely, or deep; be they of your sinful past, the Passion of Christ, the joys of our Lady, or the saints and angels in heaven; or of the qualities, subtleties, and states of your being, or God’s, they are useless in contemplative prayer. For myself, I choose to have nothing except that naked, blind sense of my self which I spoke of earlier.
Notice that I said of my self and not of my activities. Many people confuse their activies with themselves, believing them to be the same. But this is not so. The doer is one thing and his deeds are another. Likewise, God, as he is in himself, is quite distinct from his works which are something else again.
But returning to my point, the simple awareness of my being is all I desire, even though it must bring with it the painful burden of self and make my heart break with weeping because I experience only self and not God. I prefer it with its pain to all the subtle or unusual thoughts and ideas man may speak of or find in books (though to your clever and sophisticated mind these may seem ever so sublime and pleasant). For this suffering will set me on fire with the loving desire to experience God as he really is.
All the same, these sweet meditations do have their place and value. A newly converted sinner just beginning to pray will find in them the surest way to the spiritual awareness of himself and God. Moreover, outside of God’s special intervention, I believe it is humanly impossible for a sinner to come to peaceful repose in the spiritual experience of himself and of God until he has first exercised his imagination and reason in appreciating his own human potential, as well as the manifold works of God, and until he has learned to grieve over sin and find his joy in goodness. Believe me, whoever will not journey by this path will go astray. One must remain outside contemplation, occupied in discursive meditation, even though he would prefer to enter into the contemplative repose beyond them. Many mistakenly believe that they have passed within the spiritual door when, in reality, they are still outside it. What is more, they shall remain outside until they learn to seek the door in humble love. Some find the door and enter within sooner than others, not because they possess a special admittance or unusual merit, but simply because the porter chooses to let them in.
And oh, what a delightful place is this household of the spirit! Here the Lord himself is not only the porter but the door. As God, he is the porter; as man, he is the door. And thus in the Gospel he says:
‘I am the door of the sheepfold
he that enters by me sall be saved.
He shall go in and go out
and find pastures.
He that enters not through the door
but climbs up another way
the same is a thief and a robber.’
In the context of all we have been saying about contemplation, you may understand our Lord’s words like this: “As God, I am the all-powerful porter and therefore, it is up to me to determine who may enter and how. But I chose instead to make a common, clear way to the sheepfold, open to everyone who wanted to come. So I clothed myself in an ordinary human nature and made myself utterly available so that no one could excuse himself from coming because he did not know the way. In my humanity, I am the door and whoever comes in by way of me shall be safe.”
Those who wish to enter by the door should begin by meditating on the Passion of Christ and learn to be sorry for their personal sins, which caused that Passion. Let them reprove themselves with painful remorse and stir themselves to pity and compassion for their good master, for they have deserved to suffer but did not; while he did not, and suffered so wretchedly. And then let them lift up their hearts to receive the love and goodness of their God, who chose to descend so low as to become a mortal man. Anyone who does this enters by the door and shall be safe. Whether he goes in, contemplating the love and goodness of the Godhead, or goes out, meditating on the sufferings of his humanity, he shall find the spiritual pastures of devotion in abundance. Yes, and should he advance no further in this life, he will have plenty of devotion, and more than plenty, to nourish the health of his spirit and bring him to salvation.
Yet some will refuse to enter through this door, thinking to reach perfection by other ways. They will try to get past the door with all sorts of clever speculations, indulging their unbridled and undisciplined faculties in strange, exotic fantasies, scorning the common, open entry I spoke of before and the reliable guidance of a spiritual father as well. Such a person (and I care not who he is) is not only a night thief but a day prowler. A night thief he is, for he works in the darkness of sin. Full of presumption, he trusts his own personal insights and whims more than sound advice or the security of that common, clear path I described. A day prowler he is, for under the guise of an authentic spiritual life he secretly steals and arrogates to himself the outward signs and expressions of a true contemplative, while inwardly his life bears none of its fruits. Occasionally, too, this young man may feel a slight inclination toward union with God, and blinded by this take it as approval of what he does. In reality, by yielding to his unruly desires and refusing counsel, he is on the most perilous course possible. Even greater his peril, when he is full of ambition for things high above himself and well outside the ordinary, clear path of the Christian life. This path I have already explained in the light of Christ’s words, when I showed you the place and necessity of meditation. I called it the door of devotion, and I assure you it is the safest entry to contemplation in this life
But let us return to our subject, to what concerns you personally and those others who may share your dispositions.
Tell me now, if Christ is the door, what should a man do once he has found it? Should he stand there waiting and not go in? Answering in your place, I say: yes, this is exactly what he should do. He does well to go on standing at the door, for up till now he has lived a crude sort of existence according to the flesh, and his spirit is corroded with a great rust. It is fitting that he wait at the door until his conscience and his spiritual father agree that this rust has been largely rubbed away. But most of all, he must learn to be sensitive to the Spirit guiding him secretly in the depths of his heart and wait until the Spirit himself stirs and beckons him within. This secet invitation from God’s Spirit is the most immediate and certai sign that God is calling and drawing a person to a higher life of grace in contemplation.
For it will happen that a man reads or hears about contemplation and increasingly feels in his ordinary devotions a gently mounting desire to be more intimately united to God, even in this life, through the spiritual work he has read or heard about. Certainly, this indicates that grace is touching him, because others will hear or read of the same thing and be quite unmoved, experiencing no special desire for it in their daily devotions. These folk do well to go on standing patiently at the door, as those called to salvation but not yet to its perfection.
At this point, let me digress a moment to warn you (and anyone else who may read this) of one thing in particular. It is something that applies always, but especially here, where I make a distinction between those called to salvation and those called to its perfection. Whether you feel called to one or the other is unimportant. What is important is that you attend to your own calling and do not discuss or judge God’s designs in the lives of others. Do not meddle in his affairs: whom he stirs and calls and whom he does not; when he calls, whether early or late; or why he calls one and not another. Believe me, if you begin judging this and that about other people you will fall into error. Pay attention to what I say and try to grasp its importance. If he calls you, praise him and pray that you may perfectly respond to his grace. If he has not called you as yet, humbly pray that he will, when the time is right. But do not presume to tell him what to do. Let him alone. He is powerful, wise, and full of desire to do the best for you and for all who love him.
Be at peace in your own calling. Whether you wait outside in meditation or come within by contemplation, you have no cause to complain; both are precious. The first is good and necessary for everyone, though the second is better. Lay hold of it, then, if you can; or rather I should say, if grace lays hold of you and if you hear our Lord’s call. Yes, I speak more truly when I say this. For left to ourselves, we may proudly strain after contemplation, only to stumble in the end. Moreover, without him, it is all so much wasted effort. Remember, he himself says: “Without me you can do nothing.” It is as if he were to say: “Unless I first stir you and attract you, and you then respond by consenting and suffering my action, nothing you do will completely please me.” And you know by now that the contemplative work I have been describing must, of its nature, be wholly pleasing to God.
I make this point on purpose to refute the ignorant presumption of certain people who insist that man is the principal worker in everything, even in contemplation. Relying too much on their natural cleverness and speculative theology, they say that God is the one who passively consents, even in this work. But I want you to understant that in everything touching contemplation, the contrary is true. God alone is the chief worker here, and he will act in no one who has not laid aside all exercise of his natural intellect in clever especulation.
Nevertheless, in every other good work man acts in partnership with God, using his natural wit and knowledge to the best advantage. God is fully active here also, but in a different capacity, as it were. Here he consents to the act and assists man through secondary means: the light of Scripture, reliable counsel, and the dictates of common sense, which include the demands of one’s state, age, and circumstances in life. In fact, in all ordinary activities a man must never pursue an inspiration – be it ever so pious or attractive – until he has rationally examined it in the light of these three witnesses.
Certainly it is reasonable to expect a man to act responsibly. Holy Church expects this and by law and decree permits no one to become a bishop (the highest degree of the acive life) until she has detemined by rigorous examination that he is capable of this office.
Thus, in all ordinary activities a man’s native wit and knowledge (governed by the light of Scripture, good counsel, and common sense) take responsible initiative, while God graciously consents and assists in all these matters belonging to the domain of human wisdom. But in all that touches contemplation, even the loftiest human wisdom must be rejected. For here God alone is the chief worker and he alone takes the initiative, while man consents and suffers his divine action.
This, then, is the way I understand the Gospel’s words: “Without me you can do nothing.” They mean one thing in all ordinary activities and quite another in contemplation. All active works (whether pleasing to God or not) are done with God, but his part is, as it were, to consent and allow them. In the contemplative work, however, the initiative belongs to him alone, and he asks only that a man consent and suffer his action. So you may take this as a general principle: We can do nothing without him; nothing good or nothing evil; nothing active or nothing contemplative.
Before I leave this point, let me add that God is with us in sin also, not because he co-operates in our sin, for he does not, but because he permits us to sin if we so choose. Yes, he leaves us so free that we may go to damnation if, in the end, we choose this over sincere repentance.
In our good actions he does more than simply permit us to act. He actually assists us; to our great merit if we advance, though to our shame if we fall back. And in what touches contemplation he takes the complete initiative, first to awaken us, and then, as a master craftsman, to work in us, leading us to the highest perfection by uniting us spiritually to himself in consummate love.
And thus when our Lord says: “Without me you can do nothing”, he speaks to everyone, since everyone on earth falls into one of these three groups: sinners, actives, or contemplatives. In sinners he is actively present, permitting them to do as they will; in actives, he is present, permitting and assisting; and in contemplatives, as sole master, awakening and leading them in this divine work.
Alas! I have used many words and said very little. But I wanted you to understand when to use your faculties and when not to; and to see how God acts in you when you do use them, and when you do not. I felt this was important because this knowledge might prevent you from falling into certain deceptions which could otherwise have ensnared you. And since it is written, let it stand, thought it is not particularly relevant to our subject. But we shall return to that now.
With all I have said about the two callings of grace, I sense a question rising in your mind. Perhaps you are thinking something like this: “Tell me, please, is there one sign, or more, to help me test the meaning of this growing desire I feel for contemplative prayer, and this delightful enthusiasm which seizes me whenever I hear or read of it? Is God really calling me through them to a more intense life of grace such as you have described in this book, or does he give them simply as food and strength for my spirit that I may wait quietly and work on in that ordinary grace which you call the door and common entry for all Christians?”
I will answer you as best I can.
You will notice, first of all, that I have given you two kinds of evidence for discerning whether or not God is calling you spiritually to contemplation. One was interior and the other exterior. Now it is my conviction that for discerning a call to contemplation, neither one, by itself, is sufficient proof. They must occur together, both indicating the same thing, before you may rely on them without fear of error.
The interior sign is that growing desire for contemplation constantly intruding in your daily devotions. And there is this much I can tell you about that desire. It is a blind longing of the spirit and yet there comes with it, and lingers after it, a kind of spiritual sight which both renews the desire and increases it. (I call this desire blind, because it resembles the body’s faculty of motion – as in touching or walking – which as you know does not direct itself and is, therefore, in a way, blind.) So carefully observe your daily devotions and see what is happening. If they are filled with the memory of your own sinfulness, considerations of Christ’s Passion, or anything else pertaining to the ordinary Christian way of prayer I have described before, know that the spiritual insight accompanying and following upon this blind desire originates in your ordinary grace. And this is a sure sign that God is not stirring you or calling you to a more intense life of grace as yet. Rather, he is giving you this desire as food and strength to go on waiting quietly and working in your ordinary grace.
The second sign is exterior and it manifests itself as a certain joyful enthusiasm welling up within you, whenever you hear or read about contemplation. I call it exterior because it originates outside you and enters your mind through the windows of your bodily senses (your eyes and ears), when you read. As for the discernment of this sign, see if that joyful enthusiasm persists, remaining with you when you have left your reading. If it disappears immediately or soon after and does not pursue you in all else you do, know that it is not a special touch of grace. If it is not with you when you go to sleep and wake up, and if it does not go before you, constantly intruding in all you do, enkindling and capturing your desire, it is not God’s call to a more intense life of grace, beyond what I call the common door and entry for all Christians. In my opinion, its very transience shows that it is simply the natural joy any Christian feels when he reads or hears about the truth and more especially a truth like this, which so profoundly and accurately speaks of God and the perfection of the human spirit.
But when the joyful enthusiasm which seizes you as you read or hear about contemplation is really the touch of God calling you to a higher life of grace, you will notice very different effects. So abounding will it be that it will follow you to bed at night and rise with you in the morning. It will pursue you through the day in everyting you do, intruding into your usual daily devotions like a barrier between you and them.
Moreover it will seem to occur simultaneously with that blind desire which, in the meantime, quietly grows in intensity. The enthusiasm and the desire will seem to be part of each other; so much so, that you will think it is only one desire you feel, though you will be at a loss to say just precisely what it is that you long for.
Your whole personality will be transformed, your countenance will radiate an inner beauty, and for as long as you feel it nothing will sadden you. A thousand miles would you run to speak with another who you knew really felt it, and yet when you got there, find yourself speechless. Let others say what they will, your only joy would be to speak of it. Your words will be few; but so fruitful and full of fire that the little you say will hold a world of wisdom (though it may seem nonsense to those still unable to transcend the limits of reason). Your silence will be peaceful, your speech helpful, and your prayer secret in the depths of your being. Your self-esteem will be natural and unspoiled by conceit, your way with others gentle, and your laughter merry, as you take delight in everything with the joy of a child. How dearly you will love to sit apart by yourself, knowing that others, not sharing your desire and attraction, would only hinder you. Gone wil be all desire to read or hear books, for your only desire will be to hear of it.
Thus the mounting desire for contemplation and the joyful enthusiasm that seizes you when you read or hear of it meet and become one. These two signs (one interior and one exterior) agree, and you may rely on them as proof that God is calling you to enter within and begin a more intense life of grace.
You will learn that all I have written of these two signs and their wonderful effect is true. And yet, after you have experienced one, or perhaps all of them, a day will come when they disappear, leaving you, as it were, barren; or, as it will probably seem to you then, worse than barren. Gone will be your new fervor, but gone, too, your ability to meditate as you had long done before. What then? You will feel as if you had fallen somewhere between the two ways having neither, yet grappling for both. And so it will be; but do not be too discouraged. Suffer it humbly and wait patiently for our Lord to do as he will. For now you are on what I might call a sort of spiritual ocean, in voyage from the life of the flesh to life in the spirit.
Great storms and temptations shall doubtlessly arise during this journey, leaving you bewildered and wondering which way to turn for help, for your affection will feel deprived of both your ordinary grace and your special grace. Yet I say again: fear not. Even though you think you have great reason to fear, do not panic. Instead, keep in your heart a loving trust in our Lord, or at any rate, do so as best you can under the circumstances. Truly, he is not far away and perhaps at any moment he will turn to you touching you more intensely than ever in the past with a quickening of the contemplative grace. Then for as long as it remains, you will think you are healed and that all is well. But when you least expect, it will be gone again, and again you will feel abandoned in your ship, blown hither and yon, you know not where. Still, do not lose heart. I promise you he will return and soon. In his own time he will come. Mightily and more wonderfully than ever before he wil come to your rescue and relieve your anguish. As often as he goes, he will come back. And if you will manfully suffer it all with gentle love, each coming will be more marvelous and more joyful than the last. Remember, all he does, he does with wise intent; he desires that you become as spiritually supple and shaped to his will as a fine Roan glove is to your hand.
And so he will sometimes go and sometimes come, that by both his presence and his absence he may prepare, educate, and fashion you in the secret depths of your spirit for this work of his. In the absence of all enthusiasm he will have you learn the real meaning of patience. With your enthusiasm gone you will think you have lost him, too, but this is not so; it is only that he wishes to teach you patience. For make no mistake about this; God may at times withdraw sweet emotions, joyful enthusiasm, and burning desires but he never withdraws his grace from those he has chosen, except in the case of deadly sin. Of this I am certain. All the rest, emotions, enthusiasm, and desires, are not in themselves grace, only tokens of grace. And these he may often withdraw, sometimes to strengthen our patience, sometimes for other reasons, but always for our spiritual good, though we may never understand. Grace, we must remember, in itself, is so high, so pure, and so spiritual that our senses and emotions are actually incapable of experiencing it. The sensible fervor they experience are the tokens of grace, not grace itself. These our Lord will withdraw from time to time to deepen and mature our patience. He does so for other reasons, also, but I will not go into them right now. Instead, let us get on with our subject.
Now although you will call the delights of sensible fervor his coming, strictly speaking, this is not so. Our Lord feeds and strengthens your spirit by the excellence, frequency and deepening of those favors sometimes accompanying grace so that you may perseveringly live in his love and service. But he works in two ways. On the one hand you learn patience in their absence and on the other you grow strong with the life-giving, loving food they provide in their coming. Thus our Lord fashions you by both until you become so joyfully supple and so sweetly pliable that he can lead you at last to the spiritual perfection and union with his will, which is perfect love. Then you will be as willing and content to forego all feelings of consolation, when he judges best, as to enjoy them unceasingly.
Moreover, in this time of suffering your love becomes both chaste and perfect. It is then that you will see your God and your love, and being made spiritually one with his love, nakedly experience him at the sovereign point of your spirit. Here, utterly despoiled of self and clothed in nothing but him, you will experience him as he really is, stripped of all the trappings of sensible delights, though these be the sweetest and most sublime pleasures possible on earth. This experience will be blind, as it must be in this life; yet, with the purity of an undivided heart, far removed from all the illusion and error liable to mortal man, you will perceive and feel that it is unmistakenly he, as he really is.
Finally, the mind which sees and experiences God as he is in his naked reality is no more separate from him than he is from his own being, which, as we know, is one in essence and nature. For just as God is one with his being because they are one in nature, so the spirit, which sees and experiences him, is one with him whom it sees and experiences, because they have become one in grace.
See then! Here are the signs you asked for. If you have any experience of them, you will be able to test (partially at lest) the nature and meaning of the summons and awakening of grace which you fell touching you interiorly during your spiritual devotions, and exteriorly whenever you read or hear about contemplation. As a rule, few people are so singularly touched and confirmed in the grace of contemplation as to have an immediate and authentic experience of all these tokens together, in the very beginning. Yet, if you think you have really experienced one or two of them, test yourself against the rigorous criteria of Scripture, your spiritual father, and your own conscience. If you feel they all approve as one voice, it is time to lay aside speculative reasoning and profound imaginative reflections on the subtleties of your being or God’s, of your activities or his. Formerly, they fed your intellect and led you beyond a worldly, material existence to the threshold of contempation. But imagination and reason have taught you all they can and now you must learn to be wholly given to the simple spiritual awarenes of your self and God.
In Christ’s life we have a powerful illustration of all I have been trying to say. Had there been no higher perfection possible in this life beyond seeing and loving him in his humanity, I do not believe he would have ascended into heaven while time lasted, nor withdrawn his physical presence from his friends on earth who loved him so dearly. But a higher perfection was possible to man in this life: the purely spiritual experience of loving him in his Godhead. And for this reason he told his disciple, who were loath to give up his physical presence (just as you are loath to give up the speculative reflections of your subtle, clever faculties), that for their own good he would withdraw his physical presence from them. He said to them, “It is necessary for you that I go”, meaning, “It is necessary for you that I depart physically from you.” The holy doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, commenting on these words, says: “Were not the form of his humanity withdrawn from our bodily eyes, love for him in his Godhead would never cleave to our spiritual eyes”. And thus I say to you, at a certain point it is necessary to give up discursive meditation and learn to taste something of that deep, spiritual experience of God’s love.
Relying on God’s grace to lead and guide you, you will come to this deep experience of his love by following the path I have set before you in these pages. It demands that you always and ever strive toward the naked awareness of your self, and continually offer your being to God as your most precious gift. But I reming you again: see that it is naked, lest you fall into error. Inasmuch as this awareness really is naked, you will at first find it terribly painful to rest in for any length of time because, as I have explained, your faculties will find no meat for themselves in it. But there is no harm in this; in fact, I am actually delighted. Go ahead. Let them fast awhile from their natural delight in knowing. It is well said that man naturally desires to know. Yet at the same time, it is also true that no amount of natural or acquired knowledge will bring him to taste the spiritual experience of God, for this is a pure gift of grace. And so I urge you: go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.
Yet you may say: “Rest? What can he possibly be talking about? All I feel is toil and pain, not rest. When I try to follow his advice, suffering and struggle beset me on every side. On the one hand, my faculties hound me to give up this work, and I will not; on the other, I long to lose the experience of myself and experience only God, and I cannot. Battle and pain assail me everywhere. How can he talk of rest? If this is rest, I think it is a rather odd kind of rest”.
My answer is simple. You find this work painful because you are not yet accustomed to it. Were you accustomed to it, and did you realize its value, you would not willingly give it up for all the material joys and rest in the world. Yes, I know, it is painful and toilsome. Still, I call it rest because your spirit does rest in a freedom from doubt and anxiety about what it must do; and because during the actual time of prayer, it is secure in the knowledge that it will not greatly err.
And so persevere in it with humility and great desire, for it is a work that begins here on earth but will go on without end into eternity. I pray that the all-powerful Jesus may bring you and all those he has redeemed by his precious blood to this glory. Amen.
The Book of Privy Counseling (public domain – domínio público)
Do mesmo autor de “A Nuvem do Não-Saber”, anônimo, sec. XIV.