TREATISE ON PRAYER AND MEDITATION
St. Peter of Alcantara
If you ask me, by what means so powerful and noble an affection of devotion is attained, the same holy teacher answers that it is by meditation and contemplation of diving things; for from deeply meditating and pondering over these things there springs up this disposition, and affection in the will, which is called devotion; and this stirs and moves us to all good. It is on this account that this holy and religious exercise is so extolled and commended by all the Saints, as being The Means of acquiring devotion, which, though it is but one virtue only, yet it disposes and moves one to all the other virtues, and exists as a general stimulus to them all.
If you would see how true this is, hear how plainly St. Bonaventure declares it in these words:
Thus far the words of St. Bonaventure.
"If you would suffer patiently the adversities and miseries of this life, be a man of prayer. If you would gain power and strength to overcome the temptations of the enemy, be a man of prayer. If you would mortify your will with all its affections and lusts, be a man of prayer. If you would understand the cunning devices of Satan, and defend yourself against his deceits, be a man of payer. If you would live joyfully, and with sweetness walk in the path of penitence and sorrow, be a man of prayer. If you would drive out the troublesome gnats of vain thoughts and cares from your soul, be a man of prayer. If you would sustain your soul with the richness of devotion, and kept it ever full of good thoughts and desires, be a man of prayer. If you would strengthen and confirm your heart in the pilgrimage with God, be a man of prayer. Lastly, if you would root out from your soul every vice and in their place plant the virtues, be a man of prayer, for in this is obtained the unction and grace of the Holy Spirit who teaches all things.
"And besides all this, if you would climb to the height of contemplation, and delight in the sweet embraces of the Bridegroom, exercise yourself in prayer, for this is the way by which the soul mounts up to contemplation and to the taste of heavenly things.
"You see, then, of how great virtue and power is prayer, and for proof of all that has been said (to say nothing of Holy Scripture) let this now be sufficient assurance that we have seen and heard, and see, day by day, many simple persons who have attained to all these things above mentioned and to others greater, through the exercise of prayer."
Then, what richer treasure? What field can be found more fertile, yielding more abundantly than this? Hear also what another most religious and holy doctor, speaking of this same virtue, says:
This now is sufficient to show in some way what is the fruit of this holy exercise.
"In prayer the soul is cleansed from sin, pastured with charity, confirmed in faith, strengthened in hope, gladdened in spirit. By prayer the inward man is directed aright, the heart is purified, the truth discovered, temptation overcome, sadness avoided, the perceptions renewed, languishing virtue restored, lukewarmness dismissed, the rust of vices done away; and in it there do not cease to come forth living sparkles of heavenly desires, with which the flame of divine love burns. Great are the excellencies of prayer, great are its privileges! Before it Heaven is opened, secrete things are made manifest, and to it the ears of God are ever attentive." (St. Lawrence Justinian, In Signo Vitae)
seen what fruit may come of Prayer and Mediation, let us now see what are
the things on which we should meditate. To which the answer is, that
inasmuch as this holy exercise is ordained to create in our hearts the love and
fear of God, and to lead us to keep His Commandments, the most fitting subject
for this exercise will be that which should most surely lead to the end
proposed. And although it be true that all created things, whether earthly
or heavenly, may move us to this, yet, generally speaking, the Mysteries of our
Faith which are contained in the Creed, are the most efficacious, and
profitable. For here are treated the subjects of the Divine blessings, the
Last Judgment, the pains of Hell, and the glory of Paradise, where there are the
most powerful stimulants to move our hearts to the love and fear of God;
and in it are treated also the Life and Passion of Our Savior Christ, in which
consists all our good. These two subjects especially are treated of in the
Creed, and are those on which we for the most part make our Meditations.
And therefore, with much reason it is said, that the Creed is the most fitting
subject for this holy exercise, although at the same time, there may be with
every one some subject which might more especially move his heart to the love
and fear of God.
Agreeably, then, with this, in order to help on the young who are now entering upon this path, to whom we should give food which has been, as it were, already digested, I will now briefly set forth two kinds of Meditation for all the days of the week. Taken, for the most part, from the Mysteries of our Faith, some are for the evening, and some for the morning; so that, as we give our bodies their two meals each day, so should we give our souls, whose food is Meditation and the consideration of things Divine. Of these Mediations, some are upon the Mysteries of Sacred Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and some upon the other Mysteries of which I have spoken. Those who have not time to make such retirement twice in the day, will, at least, be able to mediate one week upon the former mysteries, and another week upon the latter. Or, they may fine themselves entirely to those on the Passion and Life of Jesus Christ, which are the principal ones; although it would not be well, in the beginning of the soul's conversion, to omit the others, seeing that they are especially suitable at such time when the fear of God and detestation of our sins are to be chiefly desired.
On this day, you shall enter upon the memory of your sins, and upon the knowledge of yourself, to see how many evil things you have done, and to see that you have nothing that is good save from God. For this consideration is the means of acquiring humility, the mother of all the virtues.
For this purpose you must first think of the multitude of the sins of your past life, especially of those committed in the days when you knew not God. For if you consider them well, you will find that they are more in number than the hairs of your head, and that you lived in that day like the Gentile who knows not God. Consider then, briefly, the Ten Commandments, and the Seven Deadly sins, and you will see that there are none into which you have not often fallen, in deed or word or thought. Let your mind, then, rest upon the Divine Blessings, and upon your past time, and consider how you have made use of them. For you have to give an account of all these before God. Tell me, then, how have you used the days of your childhood, your youth, your manhood, indeed all the days of your past life?
In what way did you use your bodily senses, and the powers of your soul, which God gave to you for the purpose of knowing and serving Him?Then what will you answer on that day of reckoning when God shall say unto you: "Give an account of your stewardship." O withered tree, destined for eternal torments! What will you answer on that day, when there shall be required from you the account of your whole life, and of every point and moment in it?
In what did you use your eyes, except in things of vanity?
In what did you use your ears, except to hear things of falsehood; in what your tongue, except in all manner of rash oaths and murmurings? and your taste and all your senses, except in sensual pleasures and flattery?
How have you profited by the Holy Sacraments, which God ordained for your assistance?
What thanksgivings have you made for all His benefits?
How have you responded to His inspirations?
How have you used your health and strength, your natural talents, your earthly goods, your opportunities and occasions for living well?
What care have you taken of your neighbor whom God commended to you, and what works of mercy towards him can you show?
Think, next, of the sins which you have committed, and do each day commit, even after your eyes have been opened to the knowledge of God, and you will find that the old Adam still lives in you, with many of the old roots and habits. See how you have stood aloof from God, how unthankful you have been for His benefits, how rebellious against his inspirations, how slothful in things concerning His service, which you never performed with that readiness and diligence and purity of intention which you do owe Him; nay, think of how you have discharged them even for the sake of human respects and interests!
Consider, also, moreover, how hard you are towards your neighbor, and how gentle with yourself; how you love your own will, your self, your flesh, your honor, and your own interests!
See how you are always proud, ambitious, quick to anger, vainglorious, envious, malicious, prone to amusement, inconstant, full of levity, sensual, given to recreations, laughter and idle talk. See, too, how inconstant you are in good purposes, how inconsiderate in your words, and imprudent in your deeds, and how cowardly and half-hearted in any matter of importance.
And further, after you have taken note of the multitude of your sins,
consider then their gravity, so that you may see how on all sides your misery
has grown upon you. For this you should, in the first place, think of
these three circumstances in your past life, namely,
Against Whom have you sinned?If you think, against Whom you did sin, you will find that it was against God, whose goodness and majesty are infinite, whose blessings and mercies to man are more in number than the sands of the sea-shore. Or if you think, for what end you did sin, it was for some point of honor, some foul lust, or some trivial interest, or very often for something of no interest whatsoever, for no other reason than habit, and disregard for God. Or if you think, in what way you did sin, it was with such ease and audacity as to be without scruple or fear; nay, at time with such ease and content as if you were sinning against a god made of wood who neither knew nor saw anything that was done on earth. Is this the honor which is due to so great a Majesty? Is this the thanks you gave for so great blessings? Is this the return you make for that most Precious Blood shed upon the Cross, for those scourgings and buffetings endured on your behalf? O miserable you, for what you have lost, and more for what you have gained for yourself, and much more still, if with all this, you do not sense your impending perdition!
For what end did you sin?
And in what way?
After all this it is most profitable to let your thoughts rest a while on the consideration of your nothingness; that is, how you have by yourself nothing, but sin, or in other words, nothingness; how all else is from God alone. For it is clear that as all natural gifts, so those too, of grace, which are greater, are His only. From him is the grace of predestination, which is the source of all other graces; from Him the grace of our vocation, and all the grace accompanying it; from Him the grace of perseverance, and that of life eternal.
What have you, then, from which to glory, save your nothingness and sin?
Rest, then, awhile in the consideration of that nothingness, and take note that this, and all else, comes from God; so that you may see clearly and manifestly what you are, and what He is; how poor you are, and how abundant in riches he is; and, consequently, how little you can trust in and esteem yourself, and how greatly you can trust in Him, love Him, glory in Him!
Then, having considered all these things, think of yourself with thoughts most lowly. Ponder that you are nothing but "a reed shaken in the wind." of no weights, or virtue, or firmness, or steadfastness or anything else. Ponder that you are another Lazarus, dead for four days, a carcass foul-smelling and abominable, so much that they who pass by cover their noses, and shut their eyes. Judge on your own that this is what you are before God and His angels, and hold yourself to be unworthy to lift your eyes up to Heaven, or that this earth should bear you, or that creatures should serve you; unworthy of the bread which you eat and of the air which you breathe. With that sinner of the street, cast yourself down at the Savior's feet, with your face covered in confusion and shame like the woman taken in adultery; and with much sorrow and compunction of heart, beg of Him pardon for your sins, and that, out of His infinite pity and mercy, He may vouchsafe to turn to you, and receive you into His house.
THE greatest trouble those persons suffer from who give themselves to Prayer is the failing in Devotion which they so often experience in it. When there is no such failing, there is nothing sweeter, or more easy that to pray. For this reason, now that we have treated upon the subject-matter of Prayer, and upon the manner of praying, it will be well to consider the things which help Devotion, and also those which hinder it, and the temptations which most often assail devout people in it; and certain other points that are necessary to observe in this exercise. But first it will greatly help the matter to set forth what Devotion is, that we may know to begin with, what is the precious thing for which we are contending.
Devotion, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is a power which makes one prompt and ready for any virtue, and stirs and helps one to do well. (Summa II, II, Q. 82, Art. 1.) This definition declares manifestly the great necessity and usefulness of this power, for it contains in itself more than some would think. We have on this account to consider that the chief hindrance to living a good life is the corruption of human nature which came to us through sin, and from which comes the great inclination we have towards evil, and the difficulty and unwillingness we have in respect to what is good. These two things make the path of virtue most difficult to us, while in itself it is the thing most sweet, most beautiful, most to be desired, most honorable in the world. It is against this difficulty and unwillingness the Divine Wisdom has provided this most complete remedy in the power and succor of Devotion. For as the north wind disperses the clouds, and leaves the sky clear and serene, so true Devotion drives away from our mind all that unwillingness and difficulty, and leaves it then free and disposed for all that is good. This virtue so become as power within us as being at one a very special gift of the Holy Spirit, a heavenly dew, a succor and visitation of God attained through Prayer. Its very nature is to contend against the difficulty of which we have spoken, and to overcome this luke-warmness, to give us readiness and fill the soul with good desires, to enlighten the understanding, to strengthen the Will, to kindle in us the Love of God, to extinguish the flame of evil desires, to teach hatred of worldly things, and abhorrence of sin, and to give us new fervor, new spirit, new power, and incentive to well doing.
For as Samson, wile possessed of his hair, had greater strength than any man in the world, and when this was taken away from him, became as weak as other men; so is the Christian soul strong when he has this Devotion, and weak when he has it not.
And this is what St. Thomas desired to show in his definition, and, without doubt, this is the greatest praise one could give to this virtue, that, being of itself only one virtue, it is a stimulus and incentive to all others. Let not him then that would travel by the path of virtues, go without these spurs; for without them he will never be able to arouse the evil beast of his nature form is sluggishness.
From what has been said it will be clearly seen, then, what is true and real Devotion. For Devotion is not a certain tenderness of heart, or sense of consolation which those who pray feel sometimes, unless there be also a promptitude and disposition for good works, for, when at times God would prove who are His own, it often happens that the one is found and not the other. The truth is that form this Devotion and readiness there often arises the consolation spoken of: and, on the other hand, that very consolation and spiritual delight will increase the Devotion itself, which is the readiness and incentive to well-doing. And, therefore, God's servants may, with good reason, desire and ask for these joys and consolations, not for the pleasure they give, but because they are the means of increasing the Devotion which fits them for well-doing, as the Prophet showed when he said, "I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou has set my heart at liberty," (Ps. 119:32) that is, with the joy of Thy consolation which was the cause of my readiness.
And now let us proceed to treat of those means by which this Devotion is to be attained, and, since with this virtue are united all others leading to the special knowledge of God, we will consider the means of attaining to the perfection of Prayer and Contemplation, to the consolations of the Holy Spirit and the love and wisdom of God, and to that union of our souls with God, which is the goal of all spiritual life.
And this, lastly, is to consider the means by which we may attain to the possession of God Himself in this life, which is that Treasure of the Gospel, the "Pearl of great price" for the possession of which the husbandman joyfully despoiled himself of all that he had.
Hence it is we see that the highest aim of our theology is, that from it we may learn the way to the Supreme Good, and may make this life to become a ladder by which we may advance step by step to the eternal happiness awaiting us.