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The Priest's Way To God

IN our last chapter, we have drawn attention to the connection between progress in prayer and the general fervour of a priest’s life. In particular we drew attention to that fourfold purity of conscience, of heart, of mind and of action upon which the sincerity of prayer depends. Given some measure of this purity, prayer may be expected to develop. It is true there are books which leave one under the impression that there is no medium between discursive meditation in which reasoning plays the major part and a type of infused contemplation which is sometimes described as miraculous. This opinion we reject completely, and confidently assert that there is a progress and a development in prayer. All that we have written here and elsewhere

Cf. Difficulties in Mental Prayer

involves and explains this assertion. Meditation leads to affective prayer. Affective prayer tends to simplify itself as purity of life increases and friendship with our Lord develops. Eventually it may become a sheer loving attention to God’s presence, in which very few words are used. This, however, may sooner or later be replaced by a state of complete aridity for which we borrowed the term ‘Prayer of Stupidity.’

About the nature of these simplified and arid states of prayer and about their further development, there is room for considerable difference of opinion. Here we are not concerned with the theoretical issues involved. Our interest is in the practice of prayer by the priest and in the progress which he should expect. But before attempting to discuss this question, we must try to decide what is the normal vocation of a priest, as such, in regard to the spiritual life, since the whole question of prayer is closely bound up with that of general spiritual progress. Now it is true that the priesthood is not, canonically speaking, a ‘state of perfection.’ A priest, in virtue of his state, is not bound to tend to perfection as is a religious. But—again we must insist—a priest is bound to tend to perfection in virtue of his ordination and his office. As St. Thomas says: By Holy Orders a man is dedicated to the most august mysteries, wherein Christ himself is served in the Sacrament of the Altar; for this there is required a greater interior sanctity than is required for the religious state.’

Summa II-IIae. q. 184 art. 8

‘Holy Orders requires holiness: but the religious state is a certain exercise to attain holiness; the load, therefore, of Orders requires walls already dried by holiness; but the burden of the religious state rather drys the walls—namely men—by removing from them the waters of their defects.’

Ibid. q. 189, 1 ad 3

We do not intend here to prove the thesis that a priest is called to holiness; we only assert the obligation and indicate its origin. St. Thomas is quite definite in tracing it back to the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is of great importance, because if the sacrament obliges us to become holy it also assures us the grace to do so. The character imprinted by ordination is considered to be a participation in the priesthood of Christ. This participation demands holiness. In the previous chapter we quoted Pius X: ‘Est igitur nobis persona Christi gerenda.’ May we again recall his insistence that ‘vitae morumque sanctimonia’ are so necessary to the priest that if these are wanting to him, ‘desunt ei omnia’ and further: ‘Sanctitas una nos efficit quales vocatio divina exposcit: homines videlicet mundo crucifixos et quibus mundus ipse sit crucifixus, homines in novitate vitae ambulantes’ ?

Cf. Letter to the Clergy, Aug. 4th 1908

The very fact that a priest consecrates in the first person singular and offers sacrifice—the sacrifice of Christ himself in which he is both Priest and Victim—should be sufficient to indicate to what holiness a priest is called. Our Lord himself summed it all up when he said: ‘You are the salt of the earth.’

Matt. V, 13

How can men be called to be the salt of the earth, without at the same time being called to holiness?

If we labour the point it is because there is in this matter a lot of misunderstanding, arising from the statements of some writers discussing the priesthood as a state; and also because in comparison with the life of a religious, the life of the priest seems so beset with obstacles to progress that one might well despair of advance.

Yet priests are the salt of the earth. And in this connection may we digress to hint at the special importance of the question at the present time. The most essential need of the Church at the moment is the development of a deep interior spiritual life among the laity. They depend for this upon their priests. And it is for the diocesan priest rather than for religious to work out and teach the way to live a spiritual life in the world. It is the secular priest who shares the layman’s life and lives under similar conditions. The difficulties are obvious but they are not insuperable. And that is all the more evident since Pius XII recognized the Secular Institutes of men living in the world and following their civil avocations as ‘states of perfection.’

Cf. Provida Mater Ecclesia, 1947

Members of such institutes have far fewer aids to holiness than a priest who says Mass and the Office, and administers the sacraments. So that there can be no doubt that it is both possible and of obligation for every priest to tend towards perfection.

That being so, we make no apology for discussing further advance in prayer as part of a practical programme for priests. And we can assure readers that we have seen ample evidence of God’s willingness to be, in these critical times, more than usually generous with his gifts of grace to those who make any reasonable effort to prepare their souls for his mercy. And we speak of those whose circumstances seemed almost directly opposed to the development of spiritual fervour and an interior life.

A priest then—and it is the diocesan priest out in the world that we have particularly in view—has by his ordination and office acquired an obligation to be holy and a right to expect all the graces necessary to reach that holiness in those very circumstances, however unsuitable they may appear, in which he has to live and work. He has therefore—it seems to us—no right to say that progress in prayer is not for him, that it is something for monks and nuns but not for secular priests. Quite the contrary! No one, we believe, has as much right as he to look with confidence for the graces needed to live a life of prayer. No one needs it more than he does and hardly anyone (with the exception of the episcopate) is called by his state to higher perfection than that which a priest’s office requires. That being so, let us face the question of progress in prayer.

In practice—whatever be the theory of the nature of development—progress in prayer sooner or later means aridity, aridity prolonged and plentiful. Such aridity may, of course, be due to unfaithfulness; it may be due to a want of a sufficient degree of that fourfold purity of which we have spoken. Bad health, too, may bring it about for a time. Aridity does not necessarily mean progress, but progress does definitely mean aridity. (This, we may add, is written for your consolation!)

To decide what is to be done when one finds this complete aridity at prayer, one must first investigate its origins. An examination of conscience, aided perhaps by consultation with a sympathetic, wise and experienced director, will either show us a cause for our state in our infidelity or else reassure us that there is no need to be anxious on that score. If we are at fault, we must first remove the causes of our spiritual disease and then return to our attempts to advance. If, however, there is no obvious fault we may use the three tests indicated by St. John of the Cross. The first is inability to meditate. When we apply ourselves to prayer we can produce no thoughts or ideas; all our powers, otherwise quite vigorous, seem paralysed. God seems far away and so remote that we cannot make contact with him. Secondly, not merely is our mind inert but our heart is also quite dry. Not only does it find no attraction leading to God, no sentiments of fervour or devotion, but it even experiences a sense of aversion and disgust. The third sign is that there is a general sense of our need of God and no peace can be found elsewhere. In fact, if we could but see our innermost dispositions we would realize that what we want is not thoughts about God but God himself; we are not satisfied with talking to him, we realize our need of union with him. But all that is hidden and we cannot see it; we only sense our paralysis and feel like a dumb animal in the desert. This paralysis arises only in connection with God. With regard to creatures we are by no means powerless. In fact our imagination runs riot at prayer and we may even be strongly tempted to intoxicate ourselves with creatures or with work in order to escape from this emptiness. But there is a deep drawing of the will to God.

This is a roughly sketched picture of the state to which progress leads. On the way thither, the three symptoms may not be quite clearly present and the condition not so definitely established. But to try to return to meditation or affective prayer is not only useless: it is quite harmful, for it means turning back and refusing to co-operate with God’s gifts of grace.

For one thing, God’s grace is not using our imagination at all. This faculty is free to roam off on its own with a hundred and one distractions. There is no use in going after it to bring it back. To attend to it at all is to give up praying. The proper thing to do is either, so to speak, to look over the shoulders of the distractions as one does when a crowd is in the way at a match, or else to realize that these distractions are on the surface, as it were, while our prayer lies deeper. Such distractions do not interfere with this obscure type of prayer of faith; in fact, they are characteristic of it in certain phases. Again, there is no use in trying to think thoughts or ideas about God. Our mind is blank, for God’s grace is directly concerned only with our wills, and it is with our wills that we must pray. This we do, as Fr. Piny writes, ‘by willing to spend all the time of prayer in loving God, and in loving him more than ourselves; in willing to pray to God for the grace of charity; in willing to remain abandoned to the Divine Will. One must clearly understand that if we will to love God (abstracting from the part played by grace), by that very action we actually do love him ; if, by a real act of the will, we choose to unite ourselves to the Will of him whom we love, or desire to love—by that very act of the will we immediately effect this union. Love is in truth nothing else but an act of the will.’ Since all the grace that God is giving us in this obscure prayer is directed to our will there is little good in trying to use any other faculty. And what is given is given in such an obscure fashion and works so secretly that we can hardly perceive it even by reflection. We feel quite foolish at prayer and are almost certain that we are wasting our time. This is a feeling to which we must never yield. We can do nothing else with regard to prayer except to give up our attempt at prayer. To do this would be fatal. We must grimly resolve never to give up and still more grimly persevere in our attempt at prayer, such as it is. We are out in the desert. To turn back to the fleshpots is disastrous; we must keep on until we see the Promised Land, and it has been promised. ‘Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock and it will be opened unto you.’

What then are we to do? First of all, we must be reasonably sure that our failure at prayer is not due to laziness, tepidity or psychological depression. Here our confessor or our friends may help.

This precaution having been taken, we apply ourselves to our prayer as best we can. At the beginning of it a few lines of a book, a few familiar words, may help to get us started. But it must be clearly understood that, no matter how we start, we are not going to be able to continue either thinking or talking. When we have got to this stage where we cannot fix our thoughts on any subject at prayer, or where we cannot attempt to understand our words without feeling that we are ceasing to pray by doing so, then we are meant to cease thinking and to pray by faith with our will. There is no need to force acts. All must be done gently. Let acts come if they will in their own way without any excitement, strenuous effort or ‘fervour.’ They will probably be ‘calm, simple, unmeaning and unfelt.’ These are Dom Chapman’s words

Cf. Appendix to his Spiritual Letters

and the last two are the key words of the whole thing: ‘Unmeaning and unfelt.’ There are going to be no feelings, that day is done. There is going to be little or no variety in our acts. These will generally be some expression of our need of God, even though God seems to mean nothing, to be miles away and quite heedless of us. Still we believe in him. And that is why we call it the prayer of faith. Readers will get great help at this period from a book by Fr. Ludoirc de Besse O.S.F.C., The Science of Prayer. And the classical reference is to St. Francis de Sales’ example of the statue in his Treatise on the Love of God. We have to be content to remain like statues before our Lord and Master, quite satisfied to do so as long as we are pleasing to him.

Progress at this period is to be sought for in our general spiritual lives rather than at our times of prayer. Humility in particular is the virtue we require. As there are many wrong notions of this virtue we would suggest the reading of the chapter on humility in Dom Marmion’s book, Christ, the Ideal of the Monk. His treatment of the subject is one of the best we know of, based as it is on St. Benedict’s teaching which was adopted by St. Thomas. St. Benedict divided progress in interior humility into seven degrees, starting with obedience to the will of God and developing by increasing acceptance of the will of God and ever-deepening reverence for him. The fourth degree is ‘to keep patience in the exercise of obedience, and not to lose it or depart from it, either because of the difficulty of the thing commanded or the injuries to which one may be subjected, according to what is said in the Scripture: He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved,

Matt. XXIV, 13

and again: Let thy heart take courage: and wait thou for the Lord.’

Ps. XXVI, 14

This, as we have mentioned above, has has been called the Pons Asinorum for those seeking God in the spiritual life.

It generally happens that at this period, when our prayer seems to go all wrong, other things begin to ‘go wrong’ also. There come various trials: difficulties with our neighbour, misunderstandings with our superiors, failures in our work, opposition to our plans, frustration of all our hopes. They may even be so severe as to seem to amount to genuine injustice. Even God seems to have let us down; at least we are no longer conscious of that providential co-operation with our plans and our progress that attached us so much to him. And the result is we begin to rebel, or at least to give up seeking him. We are not quite so enthusiastic about his service when it appears to hold so little hope for ourselves, so we let go and turn away instead of following the ideal of St. Benedict: ‘In duris et contrariis rebus, vel irrogatis injuriis, tacita conscientia patientiam amplectans et sustinens.’

This is the critical point of the spiritual life. Our Lord has warned us that our Father, the good husbandman, will purge us that we may bear more fruit. He himself has insisted that we must be ready to deny ourselves and to take up our cross daily. And the Holy Spirit has given us the story of Job, which, we must realize, is full of meaning and, significance for all who seek God. With Job, we who have joyfully received good things from the hands of God must be prepared to accept less pleasing dispensations of his fatherly providence with no less joy and gratitude. With St. Paul, we have to learn to abound and to be in poverty. For our poverty of spirit is our title to the kingdom of heaven. As a preparation for union with God we must learn by experience that we can do nothing without him. This is the reason of our paralysis at prayer. We pray henceforth by accepting our powerlessness to pray. We pray by glorying gladly in our infirmity and hoping with a sure hope against all hope that the power of Christ will dwell in us.

Daily we must offer ourselves in the Mass in union with him who is our Victim and who offers us up with himself. And we must try to accept every detail of our daily lot in the spirit of a victim in union with Christ on the Cross, hoping to receive all things—even the power to pray—from our Father in heaven. All this is to be done in obscurity, without any consciousness of our own acts. Yet we must persevere to the end. In a word, we must do as the Psalmist bids us: ‘Let thy heart take courage: and wait thou for the Lord.’ He himself will come to save us.

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