In the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, contemplation is a very active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions. (Note that in other spiritual traditions, contemplation has quite a different meaning: it refers to a way of praying that frees the mind of all thoughts and images.)
Ignatian Meditation is prayer with Scripture. You may pray with the same story for many days in a row before you feel the prayer is complete, that God has spoken to you, that you have heard God, and worked through what it means for you. It is a wonderful, rich experience.
Last week a very respected and loved priest friend of mine said whether someone chooses the Carmelite form of mental prayer or the Spiritual Exercises, one is not better than the other. I want to counter that. Not, merely because I have the heart of a Carmelite, but because I have tried out both forms in Carmel and this topic goes above and beyond a simple preference of prayer. I discovered through experience that Ignatian Meditation is a stepping stone to mental prayer, but if you never go beyond that stepping stone, using your imagination will hinder your progress to what very special saints call transforming union or mystical marriage. This is so important, because not all, not even all saints reach this level. Why? Because, many souls settle for the form of prayer that is a wonderful, rich experience or stirs up emotions.
Before entering Carmel I would see many young Catholics and Priests using the form of Ignatian Meditation or Lectio Divina as their form of mental prayer. My director recommended the Spiritual Exercises all the time, saying even Teresa of Jesus used this form of prayer and taught it to her daughters. However, when I entered Teresa’s order of Carmel I found the exact opposite to be true, because I chose to enter the Discalced Carmel reformed by Teresa herself. Not just Teresa, but my all time favorite male Saint John of the Cross- who Carmelites tenderly call Our Holy Father. Teresa? Our Holy Mother. Not only did we follow these great founder’s exact customs and rigorous mortifications, but their very prayer technique. I went into Carmel thinking all the nuns did the Spiritual Exercises and Lectio Divina. I never really cared for those forms, but it was truly what I believed mental prayer to be. I was fresh, young and totally new to mental prayer. (This post is not intended to slander the beloved Saint Ignatias, who is a great Saint whom I love and admire.)
Some posts ago in Discipline Your Mind, I mentioned how the only prayer I typically did in the world was vocal prayer, multiple rosaries and various forms of devotions. I read a book as a Novice called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and he said something I will never forget. We must let go of all forms of devotion and embrace one thing. The presence of God! Everything else is but a stepping stone, once we embrace that presence, we must let those devotions go. Why I love Our Holy Father John so much is because he is so practical, straight forward and utterly simple in his approach to reaching perfect union with the Beloved. In His famous map that shows three paths that point up where the top of the mountain awaits, where Christ Himself dines at the banquet- only one path leads to where the Prince awaits with your seat reserved. The path of nada. Nothing!
The first path is pretty obvious- why it does not lead to the banquet- the path of worldly consolations. The third is a hard one to let go of and even to grasp. It is unsettling and unthinkable. Our Lord uses this path as that stepping stone I mentioned. This path is for beginners, but like all beginners we want to move to intermediate and eventually advanced. This third path is spiritual consolations. This is the stage where the soul has just had a big conversion with God, He spoils them prodigiously at this stage to show them how good He is. He fills their prayer with nothing but sweetness. Often during this stage the beginner tends to feel like they are advanced and striving toward the heights of holiness. God intends this, of course. However, the soul is still far from perfection. He fills them with consolation to prepare them for the great battle ahead. On the other side of the battle is the great and rare mystical marriage with God. The battle that must be fought if they want to reach the advanced level, if they want to reach the top of the mountain. This is where most souls lose hope and give up.
What I want to share next is my own personal experience with Ignatian Mediation and how Jesus brought me to it, through it… and then stripped me of it to show me that perfect contemplation is beyond the imagination. Let’s backtrack for a brief moment. Remember the side note in the first paragraph defining the actual definition of contemplation? Contemplation has quite a different meaning than Ignatian Meditation: it refers to a way of praying that frees the mind of all thoughts and images. Thoughts and images. What we know about Ignatias’ Exercises are they all entail using the imagination. A placing yourself in a scene from the Gospel, imagining yourself there and doing that for as long as it takes until you get a clear understanding of the image- message from God or even a sort of consolation. About 11 months into Carmel, a holy and lively Italian priest came to give the nuns a retreat on Ignatian Meditation. What I found odd was some of the sisters after the retreat ended, said “finally, I can pray again!”
What did they mean by that? We prayed the Spiritual Exercises the whole retreat, we did nothing but pray. It was not until later, until I underwent much violence and a crisis of faith through the overuse of the imagination, did I realize what she meant. That Ignatian Meditation is not mental prayer. To say this quite lightly before I begin- the imagination is truly for beginners and belongs to the third path that simply does not reach to the mountain of perfection. Do not take that lightly. I say this humbly and after much reflection and experience. After the lively Italian left I put into complete practice, the Exercises. I did not exactly use scripture all the time, mainly it was imagining myself in the interior castle Our Holy Mother Teresa talked about in her book of mansions. Seeing Our Lord as a Glorious King inside this castle of my soul. All sorts of emotions were stirred, that wonderful enriching experience that was mentioned earlier. That feeling of the Lord’s sweet presence. It almost became a drug for me.
Being addicted to the richness, the emotions and the feelings that come with the use of the imagination. For at least 8 months a vivid and profound battle took place within my soul as I approached the dangers that lead to the overuse of the imagination and using it only for the delight one feels in this sort of exercise. Something that grew quite alarming for me is there came a time when I started feeling nothing in my exercise of the imagination. That pleasure and joyful consolations started being withdrawn by our Lord, and like the average drug addict, you start to have withdrawals. You see a side in yourself you have never seen before, and really don’t like it. You see your lack of control. In that moment you really see what you are of yourself. You realize that you are actually far from holiness and truly have been and are a beginner in prayer. How humbling! And frankly, discouraging. After a while Our Lord asks- do you like Me or the sweetness? When the drug addict wants the drug all they see is the one taking it from them as their enemy. The one removing the danger is doing it out of love, and as the child no longer needs the training wheels, the Father removes them.
All of this comes as a very disturbing shock to the beginner. They think God is punishing them, abandoning them and even rejecting them. The only thing they begin to feel in prayer is dryness or distaste. This makes them believe they are back tracking on the road to perfection and even temps them to give up on prayer all together. What they don’t know, are these souls are actually making more progress than they ever did before. Especially if they keep praying despite the nothingness they receive in prayer- they are praying for the pure love of God and nothing else! This is the very path of nada, that leads to ordered consolation and love of God. When I finally realized this 8 long months later, I had a clear image of what disorder is caused in the imagination. I finally understood Teresa when she explained all the “reptiles and monsters” that are found in the mansions prior to reaching the seventh. Overtime, I grew exhausted, looking for that spiritual enrichment and waiting for God to speak to me through my imagination. All of my faculties were totally disordered and it was only after this great struggle of letting go of the consolations, passions and disordered emotions that come with the use of the imagination, did I see clearly in the distance- the mountain of perfection. Which, is when the sun rises for the soul and they have renewed hope in their progress!
I had the strength and most importantly the grace, to set aside the use of my imagination for good. I saw how God was not punishing me, but leading me Himself through the battle of purification and the Dark Night to lead me to perfect contemplation. His definition of mental prayer, which is not grasped by many modern day Catholics. Ignatian Meditation is not mental prayer. Many Catholics attached to that form of prayer might want to bite my head off for saying that, but it is not. That doesn’t mean it is not a form of prayer or devotion that is holy. But, as Brother Lawrence said, once you see clearly the perfect form of contemplation, you don’t back track, you drop those devotions and come empty handed. I think of the mighty Saint Therese! God, seeing that you come with nothing, fills your hands with a more perfect gift. Many, and myself included, shy away from mental prayer when we realize that it is not Ignatian Meditation or Lectio Divina; where we tend to get some sort of consolation in what we feel may be God’s voice. Mental prayer is truly a discipline of the mind, clearing out all images, EVERYTHING, words etc. It is a practice on solely focusing on the presence of Jesus and Mary in the very center of our souls.
What is so brilliant about Brother Lawrence is he said once we make the practice of the presence of God a habit, it becomes as natural as breathing. He used to be “bathed in tears” almost daily before doing much violence to himself to make this habit his whole life’s focus. In his famous letters, he wrote- when we turn every little deed into a conversation with God by making it a habit at every second in being aware of the presence of God in our duties, laying down to rest our heads, recreation etc. it becomes second nature. So, when we come to the Feet of Our Lord in mental prayer- in utter silence- it is so easy to immediately become 100% recollected in the presence of the Lord; totally absorbed in His presence. Mental Prayer is an awareness. That’s why in my Discipline Your Mind post, I include Brother Lawrence’s “ten commandments” on how to practice the presence of God throughout the course of the whole day. The main issue many of we Catholics have is our fear of silence. That is really what mental prayer is. It’s where we close our mouths and open our hearts to the language of silence, as Our Holy Father John calls God’s first language. It’s scary, because our world doesn’t know silence, so even in prayer we tend to fill our minds and hearts with a dozen different devotions, use of the imagination, vocal prayer and extensive reading- when the Teacher of our soul only speaks in silence and WE are the ones that avoid HIM.
I know it is hard, slightly terrifying and might go against all you thought mental prayer was. I urge you to take that leap of faith and have confidence that God is going to take you by the hand down the path of Nada Nada Nada, which leads to untold joy this world can’t even begin to fathom. Our imaginations don’t do God’s Kingdom justice. What do we really know of it? Ponder that for a moment. All we know of princes and royalty are what we have seen in a Disney movie or in our world. Jesus told Pilate He is a King and His Kingdom is not of this world. The only way we can begin to penetrate the type of throne our Lord sits on, is if we set aside our depiction of it and let Him show us from His perfect perspective. So, if you start feeling bitterness and no more consolation in the use of your imagination in the Spiritual Exercises, have courage- you are ready to see what He has intended to show you all along. Even though you can’t feel His hand on the journey, what untold joy He has waiting for you at the top doesn’t even come close to any of the “wonderful, rich experience” you thought was perfection. Let Him show you and I promise, if you set aside your senses-He will open your eyes:
I will bring them into my Holy Mount, and will make them joyful in My house of prayer; their holocausts and their victims shall please Me upon Mine altar. -Isa. 56.7.