Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 07
His Mental Prayer
Meditation is like a precious manna which God gives to his faithful to preserve and perfect the life of their souls. It is like a heavenly dew, causing all the virtues to grow in their hearts. We are not surprised to learn that Monsieur Vincent had such a great esteem for this exercise, and a great desire to give himself to it and to encourage others in its practice.
First, every morning he never failed to devote an hour to his mental prayer, whatever other business he might have to do, or wherever he was. He preferred this practice to all other good works, unless the others were required or were absolutely necessary. He used this time to consecrate the first moments of the day to God, and to dispose himself to use the rest of the day well. He made this prayer in the church together with all his community. Sometimes he was unsuccessful in hiding the gifts of the Holy Spirit in his prayer, with sighs that revealed the ardor of his love of God, enough to move even the most tepid souls to devotion.
He prescribed this holy exercise for his Congregation, and wished that everyone would make his mental prayer each day. He said that even the sick could do so if they used the method he taught. In this prayer more attention was to be given to the affections of the will than to the understanding of the intellect, all done peacefully in the presence of God. Repeated acts of resignation, conformity to the divine will, contrition for sin, patience, confidence in the divine goodness, thanksgiving for God's benefits, the love of God, and similar sentiments were all to be elicited in this prayer.
Besides this scheduled morning mental prayer, he made others during the day and in the evening, depending on the time allowed by his other duties. He first felt obliged to carry out the responsibilities of his position and to serve his neighbor. He looked upon himself as a man for others, not free to use his time and person otherwise than in the fulfillment of the duties of the state to which God had called him.
After his dedication to his own salvation, he gave himself to the service of the Church and the salvation of souls. He recognized, however, that he could not succeed in this service of others or in any of his other work, except by the grace of God received in his mental prayer. When he had even a brief respite in work, or some interruption in sleep, he turned to his practice of mental prayer. He had a special devotion of praying in the presence of the blessed sacrament, where he was in such a devout posture and where he seemed so recollected that he edified all who saw him.
The masters of the spiritual life usually distinguish between two types of meditation (we are speaking here of prayer made privately and solely by use of the mind): the one, called the ordinary form of prayer, which anyone may practice, consists of considerations, affections, and resolutions. The second type of prayer is more subtle, more intimate, and more sublime. To this prayer God calls those he will and when he wills.
This form of prayer depends on the action of the Holy Spirit rather than on the industry or efforts of the human person. We have not been able to discover exactly what form of prayer Monsieur Vincent used, whether the ordinary or the extraordinary form. His humility always hid as much as it could the gifts he had received from God. What we cannot safely say in any detail, however, we can say in general. His prayer must have been quite perfect, as we can infer from the excellent dispositions he brought to prayer and the fruits he drew from it. These are the two marks by which we may judge the quality and the perfection of his mental prayer. He respected the opinions of some modern authors on the excellence of the extraordinary way of praying treated in their books, and he spoke of the admirable influence of God in inexplicable ways upon certain elite souls. Nevertheless, he held to the maxim of the apostle not to believe too easily every spirit, but rather to test them, to see if they are from God. <Ftn: 1 John 4:1.> He understood well that Satan often appears as an angel of light, deceiving many by his specious and evil suggestions.
His long experience in directing souls led him sometimes to say to his close friends that there were methods of prayer which appear elevated and quite perfect, but which in reality are mere illusions. For this reason he ordinarily advised that the more humble way should be followed. The lower was to remain the safest until God directed the soul to another method, which God would then illumine by his own light to allow the soul, as Scripture says, to arrive at a perfect day. <Ftn: Prov 4:18.> He felt that God should make this decision. It was a sign of great temerity, and a sort of presumption and even illusion, to decide for oneself to depart from the ordinary method of prayer to walk the unfamiliar path under the pretext of arriving at a higher level of perfection. Perfection, of course, does not consist in the method of praying a person follows, but in charity. Thus perfection may be greater and more fervent in a soul praying according to the ordinary method, than in another who flatters himself that he is following a more lofty method of prayer, but who neglects to work at the correction of his own vices and the acquisition of the virtues necessary for him. He may even spend his entire life living with some notable imperfections.
He preferred to judge the quality and goodness of mental prayer by the dispositions brought to it, and by the fruits it produced. He used to say: "the best virtues are humility, the recognition of one's nothingness before God, the mortification of the passions and the unregulated movements of nature, interior recollection, uprightness and simplicity of heart, attention to the presence of God, entire dependence upon his will, and frequent reminders to oneself of God's goodness."
As much as he recommended these holy dispositions to others, he himself put them into practice, preparing his soul to receive in prayer the lights and grace which God was ready to pour out upon him. The primary and most excellent fruits of his mental prayer are unknown to us, for he drew a veil of silence over them all. We would have to be resigned to this lack of knowledge were it not that he sometimes appeared like another Moses, if not totally radiant. He at least had the same fervor and love as Moses when he came from his encounter with the divine majesty. It would be easy to judge from the words that came from the abundance of his heart as he left this holy exercise, what must have been the effects of his prayer. Besides that, we can truly say that the virtues he practiced throughout his life, his humility, patience, mortification, charity, and in general all he did for the glory and service of God, were fruits of his prayer.
Since he knew from his own experience how profitable and salutary the holy exercise of mental prayer was to help in advancing in the spiritual life, and of perfecting oneself in all the virtues, he was very concerned to extend this appreciation to others. He recommended this exercise, and had others recommend it during the ordination retreats, to those who were about to receive the sacrament of holy orders. He believed the candidates would never succeed if they were not men of prayer. He did the same for those who came to Saint Lazare to make their retreat, since he saw as one of the main fruits they could take away with them was to have been well instructed in how to make mental prayer, and having the firm resolution of being faithful to it all their life. He showed this same enthusiasm in his Clergy Conferences, and with the Ladies of Charity in their meetings, not to mention his own Congregation.
He wanted his missionaries to be men of prayer, as much for their personal advancement as for the ability to be of real service to others. He was most anxious that his confreres should progress in their practice of this holy exercise.
Give me a man of prayer, and he will be able to do everything. He will be able to say with the apostle that he can do all in him who strengthens him and who gives him support. <Ftn: Phil 4:13.> The Congregation of the Mission will continue in existence only as so long as mental prayer shall be practiced. Mental prayer is the impregnable ramparts which will protect the missionaries from all sorts of attacks. It is like a mystical arsenal, a tower of David, which will be the source of their arms, not only to defend themselves, but to attack and rout all the opponents of the glory of God and the salvation of souls. <Ftn: CED XI:83-84.>
He was not satisfied just to recommend this holy exercise to his confreres but he took the trouble to train them himself, despite the press of so much other business with which he was preoccupied. He arranged for them, from time to time, usually twice a week, to "repeat" their mental prayer before the assembled community, that is to share the lights and sentiments they had experienced in mental prayer. On each occasion he would call upon three or four confreres for the mutual edification of all, as well as to give the newcomers not yet adept at this exercise a model of how to practice it.
He was deeply moved by these repetitions of mental prayer. He never failed to attend them and often spent many hours in this exercise. Whenever he was on a trip in the company of some lay people, he would persuade them to spend a little time in mental prayer, and then share the good thoughts and sentiments they had received during the prayer. This closed the door to useless conversations, and opened it to pious conversations in which the fruits of the meditation were shared among all the travelers. A lady of great virtue learned this practice from Monsieur Vincent, and later put it into use with her own domestic servants. She recounted once how a manservant reporting on his prayer, told how he thought about our Lord's love for the poor. He felt that he ought to do something for them, but not having anything to give them, he felt he could at least show them greater consideration. He resolved to speak more graciously when he had the opportunity to meet any of them, and even doff his hat to them. Monsieur Vincent sometimes used this example to show that persons of all ranks could learn to meditate, and that those who were faithful to this prayer became better at it. Also, in this holy exercise God inspired virtuous actions which were often unheeded at other times.
He particularly recommended the practice of mental prayer to those obliged to preach to others, to catechize, or to give spiritual direction to souls. This is how he expressed himself, in writing to one of his priests:
- "Mental prayer is the great book for the preacher. In this prayer you will descend into the depths of the divine truths of which the Eternal Word is the source, to give them to the people. It is greatly desirable that the missionaries deeply love this holy exercise of mental prayer. Without it, they will produce little or no fruit. By prayer they will make themselves fit to touch hearts and convert souls. I pray that our Lord confirm you in the practice of this virtue. <Ftn: CED VII:156.>"
Above all, he counseled the prayer of affection and of practical application. This form of prayer results in forming good resolutions based on simple considerations, but does not stop at these, except by a positive influence of the Holy Spirit directing the soul to rest there. To convey the difference between the application of the mind made in mental prayer to the movements of grace, he used the comparison of a ship powered either by oars or by sail. He said the oars were not used except when the wind failed. When the wind was favorable, the ship moved more easily and more quickly. In the same way, considerations of the mind were to be used when there was no obvious inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When this heavenly wind did blow, the proper course was to abandon oneself to its direction.
On another occasion he compared the subjects of meditation to different kinds of shops: in some, only a single kind of merchandise was on display, while others carried many different sorts of goods. In some subjects of meditation, only a single virtue is stressed while others refer to a whole treasury of virtues. An example of this would be the mysteries of the nativity, and the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. To profit from these subjects, our Lord should be adored in the state in which the mystery presents him. He should be admired, praised, and thanked for the graces he merited for us, at the same time that we also present to him our misery and our needs, asking the help and grace we need to imitate and practice the virtue he has taught us.
He encouraged those who endured a dryness or sterility in their mental prayer to persevere, in imitation of our Lord who factus in agonia, prolixius orabat, in his anguish prayed with all the greater intensity. <Ftn: Luke 22:43.> He said we must look upon mental prayer as a gift from God, and urgently ask the grace to make it well, saying with the apostle, Domine, doce nos orare: Lord, teach us to pray. <Ftn: Luke 11:1.> We should await this grace from his divine goodness with humility and patience.
Once, speaking to his community on prayer, he said:
- "Prayer is a sermon we preach to ourselves, to convince ourselves of the need we have to turn to God, to cooperate with his grace, to root out vices from our souls, and to replace them with virtues. In mental prayer we must particularly apply ourselves to combating the passion or evil inclination to which we are especially addicted, and we must mortify this tendency, for when we do, the rest is easy. We must fight forcefully, but act calmly, not breaking our head in trying to force anything or to be too subtle. Though we have to lift our minds to God, we must above all listen to him speaking to us, for one single word from him is better than a thousand reasons and all the speculations of our minds. We must from time to time raise our hearts to God, conscious of our nothingness, awaiting his speaking to our heart, uttering a word which leads to eternal life. It is only what God inspires, what comes from him, that is useful for us. What we receive from God we must give to our neighbor after the example of Jesus Christ who, speaking of himself, said: "I say only what the Father has taught me." <Ftn: John 8:28. CED XI:84.>"
He had the custom of never failing to make an annual retreat of at least eight days, no matter what pressing business or duties he had. During this time he put the affairs of the house into other hands, so as to give himself completely to mental prayer and recollection. He did so in imitation of our Savior who went into the desert as an example to those who were later to preach the Gospel.
Once, when he asked for prayers from his confreres for some priests making their retreat, he spoke of these spiritual exercises. Although he did not speak of himself on this occasion, we can infer the esteem he had for these practices:
- "Let us pray to God for those who have begun their retreat, so that he may be pleased to renew them interiorly, making them die to their own selves, to be filled with his Holy Spirit. Yes, a retreat well made is a total renewal. The one who makes it well should be entirely renewed. He no longer remains what he was, but becomes a new man. Let us pray that God will give us this new spirit of revitalization, so that by his grace we may put off the old Adam to be clothed with the new, Jesus Christ, and so that in all things we might accomplish his most holy will. <Ftn: CED VI:94-95.>