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The Priest's Way To God

IN the last chapter we made an attempt to clear the ground before discussing mental prayer and its place in the life of a priest. We insisted that every priest is called to high holiness and that, therefore, the graces necessary to achieve such holiness must be available despite the handicaps that may arise from the circumstances of a priest’s life. It is important to remember this vocation to holiness for there is a close connection between the prayer of a priest and his progress in the spiritual life; a duty to advance in holiness almost necessarily implies a duty to advance in mental prayer.

And yet, for more than a few priests, the whole subject of mental prayer is a problem. Many a fervent priest will tell you that his mental prayer is a burden, and that he performs it just as a duty, almost even as a penance. Some may question its usefulness; others find it so difficult that they may be tempted to give it up altogether. This is a state of things which calls for some explanation. It is true, of course, that mental prayer, like everything else worth while, is not altogether an easy thing. It demands an effort. But the intrinsic difficulties are by no means insuperable, and if so many priests find mental prayer hard, it is natural to ask whether there are extrinsic factors which contribute in no small way to the problem.

Such a factor, for instance, might be a misunderstanding of the technique of prayer. In order to illustrate what we mean, let us take a somewhat unlikely and extreme example. A clerical student makes his first acquaintance with mental prayer in the seminary exercise of meditation. Customs vary in regard to this exercise, but in many seminaries meditation is made in common on a subject which was read publicly the previous evening. In the morning the ‘points’ are repeated at intervals during which the student is expected first to apply himself to the consideration of what he has heard, and then to produce suitable affections and resolutions. In the beginning it is probable that ‘considerations’ will predominate and that ‘affections’ or real prayer will play a comparatively minor part. And this is as it should be—in the beginning. As a sound foundation for a spiritual life, the student’s knowledge of supernatural things must be developed, strong convictions must be formed, and consideration of divine truths is the natural means for these ends. But, little by little, his familiarity with the things of God grows; it grows through his attempts at prayer and through his studies. In prayer, therefore, considerations become less necessary, and should be replaced, to a very large extent, by ‘acts’ of various kinds. Now if such a student were to cling rigorously to the method of prayer by which he began; if, approaching his ordination and afterwards as a priest, he were to give as much time to considerations as in the beginning, he would be acting in a manner calculated to retard his advance in mental prayer. He would be like a grown or growing boy trying to walk with the tiny steps of a child. And just as a boy would find the effort to walk in such a manner irksome in the extreme, so it will be with a priest who continues to use a method of mental prayer no longer suited to his state.

This, of course, is an extreme case and is scarcely fully applicable to any priest. But it is possible that an individual priest might make this mistake in some degree. Of the normal path of progress in prayer and of the signs which indicate that one should leave a lower plane for a higher, we shall have more to say in later chapters.

Most priests, however, have a knowledge of the ways of prayer that makes this mistake unlikely, and will agree that this does not provide a solution for their own personal problems. Where, then, are we to look for the solution? To try to answer that question is our purpose in all that follows.

It is easy, too easy, to look upon our mental prayer as an isolated exercise, whose success depends on the regularity with which we perform it and the amount of effort we put into it. This, of course, is an error. Our whole priestly life is a unit; our love of God, of our neighbour, our growth in virtue and our progress in prayer are things which will always bear a proportion to each other. At the moment, however, we are concerned only with what is commonly described as the interior life of the priest and we shall concentrate on that. But even in this limited sphere, mental prayer does not stand apart by itself as something that can flourish independently; it is but one of those three fundamental elements of a healthy spiritual life, the other two being spiritual reading and reflection. What we mean in the present context by prayer is best summed up in the classic definition of St. Teresa: ‘Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than being on terms of intimate friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with him, who, we know, loves us.’ What we mean by reading and reflection we shall strive to explain in the course of this chapter.

Meditation, as it is commonly understood, is a condensation of these three actions into one exercise. Our suggestion is to divide them into at least two exercises. One of these is to be, principally, spiritual reading; the other is to be, principally, mental prayer as we have described it. Reflection, the third element, can be associated with either or both or may be done in an informal way at some other hour of the day.

Within the limits of the present chapter, only a summary discussion of spiritual reading is possible; those interested in a fuller treatment we would refer to what we have written on the subject elsewhere.

Cf. This Tremendous Lover and Difficulties in Mental Prayer (Gill)

It has two main purposes; the first is to instruct us: the second is to keep us in contact with the supernatural world, above all in contact with the centre of that world, the Person of our Saviour.

Spiritual reading is necessary for our instruction. At first sight it might appear that a priest has little or no need of such ‘educative’ spiritual reading. Every priest has studied theology and scripture, and some, at least, have acquired a profound knowledge of these sacred matters. But it is well to remember that, even in these subjects, there can be two distinct lines of approach, the purely speculative on the one hand, and on the other an approach which seeks to apply the truths learned to one’s own life. Once again, for the sake of clarity, let us take an extreme example. A student, let us say, studies his theology solely with a view to preeminence in examinations. If he has ability and diligence he will succeed; when he finishes his studies he will have a good but purely speculative knowledge of theology. To put it in a popular phrase, he knows all the answers. But that knowledge could remain superficial in the sense that what he has learned has no effect on his outlook, his attitude, his life; he has more knowledge but he keeps it sealed off in the purely speculative department of his mind. It does not sink in and become part of himself, an active factor in his life. This case, where there is no point of contact between the sacred knowledge and the student’s life, is, of course, next to impossible, but the hypothesis suggests a danger against which we priests must be on our guard. In our ministry, for instance, we must teach, preach and direct souls. For this we need knowledge, very considerable knowledge, which we can acquire only through reading and study. And there is always at least the possibility that the priest should make an unconscious distinction between his professional mind, so to speak, and his personal outlook.

To take another unlikely example, one could conceive the case of a man who studies ascetical and mystical theology in order to guide saintly souls, but who fails altogether to apply the principles he has learned to his own life. To put it in a word, the fact that a priest knows, speculatively, every proposition of theology is, in itself, no guarantee that his knowledge is of such a kind as will influence his life. That is why it may sometimes be necessary even for learned priests to take a ‘refresher’ course in theology and scripture with a view to applying the eternal truths to themselves.

But there is another and even more important reason for the necessity of spiritual reading. The world which we know by our senses and our intellect is ever palpably with us, proclaiming its presence with a thousand voices; the world of the supernatural we know only in the obscurity of Faith. As we have said elsewhere:

This Tremendous Lover

‘We read to keep the supernatural before our minds, to develop and maintain the sense of reality of the things we know by Faith, to keep our attention on the eternal life of our soul rather than our own interests and above all to keep alive within us the memory of the presence of our Lord so that we may live in touch and in union with him, talking to him, working with him, resting with him, always praying to him and in him.’

Pius X, in reminding priests that they are the friends of Christ, tells them in what their friendship must consist. ‘To desire and to abhor the same things, that is the essence of friendship. Being friends of Christ, we are bound to have the mind of Christ.’ ‘To have the mind of Christ,’ to see all things through the eyes of Christ, that, in a word, is the second great purpose of spiritual reading. Spiritual reading alone will not, indeed, give us the mind of Christ; reflection and prayer must play their part, but as we see it, daily reading is the foundation for the other two exercises.

Regular spiritual reading is an excellent, even an essential, preparation for prayer. If our minds, through reading, are steeped in a knowledge of God, of Christ and of ourselves, if the whole world of the supernatural is a vivid reality to us, prayer becomes comparatively easy. St. Francis de Sales wrote that ‘if prayer is the flame of the sanctuary lamp, reading is the oil which feeds it.’ A priest who neglects spiritual reading and seeks to pray is trying to have flame without oil and cannot succeed. In some ways we regard daily spiritual reading as more important than prayer itself. Sometimes, of course, it cannot be done, but under ordinary circumstances a priest who neglects regular spiritual reading relinquishes all hope of progress in prayer.

Two questions may be asked in regard to spiritual reading: what are we to read and how are we to read. The answer to the first question depends upon so many variable factors that we can make little or no attempt to give a positive answer here. Individual needs and tastes must be taken into consideration. If a man, for instance, were fighting against discouragement, books which stress the difficulty of salvation or of perseverance would certainly be inadvisable, though they might be a healthy corrective for an individual takings things too casually. Tastes, too, should be considered; it does not serve any good purpose to read books which are completely uncongenial. To do so consistently might lead in time to a disgust for and even the abandonment of the exercise. Caution, however, is necessary in estimating the unsuitability of a book. There may be things which we are not always ready to have pointed out to us, and a consequent tendency to regard as unsuitable or uncongenial books which remind us of these things. We must be on our guard against self-deception and, as a precaution, the opinion of a competent friend who is willing and able to see things from our point of view is well worth having.

Pride of place, of course, must be given to the sacred scriptures, especially to the Gospels. There, above all, we meet and learn to know the historical Christ, and there is no need to emphasize how supremely important this is for every priest. We might give, in fact, a general principle for our guidance in spiritual reading: that we should concentrate especially on such books as are calculated to build up in our minds a living idea of Christ and our relations with him. If this purpose dominates the general tendency of our choice of books, they will be well chosen.

There are certain classics that should be read at one time or another. It would be pointless to turn this chapter into a bibliography and so we shall refer to only one of these—to the Imitation. It can tell us a lot about ourselves in an amazingly short time and men who read it for a few minutes daily will never regret the practice. Attention should be paid, too, to books which apply the truths of dogmatic theology to our spiritual lives. The theology of grace and the divine indwelling in particular is especially a section that should be read and re-read with a personal purpose in view. In fact we would regard this as the basis of all sound spirituality, and, for a most helpful summary of this doctrine, we cannot recommend too highly the book of Fr. de Jaegher S.J., One With Jesus.

Burns, Oates & Washbourne

Finally, in this matter of the application of dogma to our spiritual lives, the works of Dom Marmion are unexcelled.

Reading, of course, should be begun with a short prayer. We are going to listen to God and prayer is the proper approach to him. The practice of kneeling down for a moment is well worth while. We should read with care and attention; it will help us to form a right idea of how to read if we visualize a man examining the specifications of a new car or studying the details of an insurance policy. We shall discuss the question of reflection separately in a moment, but, as we have already said, it can easily be associated with spiritual reading—so, indeed, can prayer. During our reading, therefore, we should never be unwilling to pause and think when something strikes us, and, of course, any movement to pray by aspirations or silent looks at our Lord should always be given full play.

Mere reading, of course, is not enough; knowledge must be digested. This is the purpose of reflection, the second element in our interior life. It is very desirable that this reflection should be associated as closely as possible with our reading, but we should prefer to see it done quite informally and, if possible, quite spontaneously. Much, however, depends on individual temperament. Some men are reflective by nature and, if their reading interests them, they cannot help thinking it over in their spare moments. Much will depend too on a man’s interest in divine things—an interest which itself will be the outcome of reading, reflection and prayer, for all these things are so closely connected and influence each other so intimately that it is only in theory that we can altogether separate them. Some priests, however, may find that the process of reflection is not, for them, at all spontaneous; these should apply themselves deliberately to the consideration of what they have read. This could be done while out for a walk, while smoking before a fire or in any other circumstances that lend themselves to thought. We find it hard to agree with the idea that reflection is something which must be done in the early morning, before breakfast, in the most uncomfortable circumstances. Perhaps we are biassed by our own total inability to think anything out at such a time. But we are so convinced of the need of reflection for a healthy spiritual life that we should prefer to see each priest choose for himself the time and place that is most congenial. The main thing is to think daily. When or where is of secondary importance. Reflection, or reflective reading, if carried out daily, takes the place of ‘meditation.’ We do not at all wish to do away with this exercise. Rather do we want to make it more elastic and more tolerable so that it can be suited to each man’s circumstances and may come in time to dominate all his waking hours.

This thinking things out can easily develop into prayer. Some men think things out by talking them over with a friend. It should be possible for us, priests, to talk things over with him who has called us his friends. Our success in doing so will, indeed, depend on our habitual degree of intimacy with him, but we can at least do our best and very often we shall succeed in establishing with Christ a contact that is an excellent prayer. If we remember that it was by the companionship of Christ that the apostles were ‘formed’ spiritually, we shall realize how valuable is any exercise which puts us in touch with our Saviour. It does not seem that the apostles stood upon any ceremony with him. St. Peter even rebuked him. It is true, of course, that, we are not in the same position as the apostles. To them Christ was physically and sensibly present, while we can make contact with him only through Faith. Our point of view is also quite different, for, unlike the apostles, we know the whole of the story which they were only gradually learning. But we have need of him no less than they and anything that brings us into his company is well worth while. Indeed our very need of him is our reason for being certain that he is seeking us. Did he not tell us that he is the Good Shepherd, come to seek that which was lost?

Our attempts, then, to turn our reflections into a discussion with Christ can be the beginning of a life of close union with him. And it is not at all necessary that we should always be talking to him of high and holy things. He who created everything is surely interested in all that he has made and we may therefore comment to him on all that comes under our observation. The conversation of two friends may be of quite trivial things, yet it serves as an expression of friendship and helps to develop it. Our Lord himself insisted that we are his friends. We can surely pay him the compliment of taking him at his word.

The development, however, of this type of informal conversation with our Divine Lord depends greatly on the sincerity of our friendship. If we insist on following our own will in opposition to his, we cannot feel at our ease with him. But there is something else which can interfere with the comradeship of which we have been speaking. We may have formed a wrong picture of him or we may have an exaggerated notion of what he expects from us. We must be careful to see that such is not the case. He is our Saviour, not yet our Judge; he ‘receiveth sinners,’ and is not surprised to find that we are not saints. He never expects us to do more than is prudent, nor does he demand that we should attack all our imperfections at once. This is why a sound grasp of the principles of the spiritual life is so important for us. There are enough real obstacles to the divine union without our adding imaginary ones, of our own making, to the list. Anything savouring of Jansenism or rigorism would be disastrous. If, for example, a priest imagines that a life of intimacy with Christ precludes all human pleasures, he will not persevere long in such intimacy. Our Lord does not break bruised reeds or extinguish smoking flax.

Our discussion on reflection has brought us far afield, has brought us, in fact, into the realm of mental prayer itself. This is not surprising, for just as reading gives rise to reflection, so reflection merges almost naturally into prayer. The relations of these three elements of our interior life, one to another, are many, subtle and delicate; reading and reflection will have their effect on our prayer and prayer, in its turn, will have a profound influence on the spirit in which we read and reflect. But the fundamental connection between them can, perhaps, be best made clear by a metaphor. If reading is regarded as a root, then reflection is the stalk which springs up from the root; prayer is the flower which, while depending on root and stalk, is the crowning and the glory of both. And so, if priests sometimes find mental prayer almost impossible, we think that, instead of longing vainly for the petals of prayer which fail to appear, they should concentrate rather on the root and the stalk. If we take care of reading and reflection, mental prayer will, broadly speaking, take care of itself.

But the great test is the test of practice, and if priests do as we suggest, we have little doubt that they will soon experience the truth of what we say for themselves. Of mental prayer itself we shall speak in our next chapter.

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