Catechism of Prayer

Source: District of Asia

Disciple: What is the best method of prayer? In asking this question, I refer to what is commonly called mental prayer, with its divisions into active and passive, discursive and affective, meditation and contemplation. Concerning vocal prayer and the prayer of petition, we already have the teaching of Christ when He taught us the "Our Father."

But concerning mental prayer and all the rules that are given for making it well, I find nothing in the gospels that could direct me or serve me as a guide in this matter.

Master: It is true that the gospels do not speak explicitly of all the types of prayer, but they do give us a norm for making a good prayer and, more than that, they give us the living example of our divine Savior in whose life we can study and learn all the types of prayer in their most perfect form. I say in their most perfect form because it is evident that Jesus had no need of all those recourses and preparations which we find necessary in the practice of prayer. Actually, it can be said that He had no need of practicing prayer at all, at least not in the sense that we do, because in Him was a vital and continuous prayer at all times. When He did practice prayer as we do, it was to teach us how to pray. Consequently, He frequently passed the night in prayer or retired to a desert place to give Himself to prayer in solitude and silence.  Jesus also taught us the best method of prayer when He stated in His sermon on the mount:

And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard. Be not you therefore like to them, for your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask Him.

This concept of the infinite wisdom of God which penetrates the most profound and hidden depths of our hearts and knows all our necessities and desires, together with a faith and blind confidence in His goodness and mercy, is the best possible preparation for making prayer that is most simple and most efficacious. This will prevent the soul from believing that it must make grandiose discourses and reflections and multiply the acts of its various faculties. Rather, it will reduce them as far as possible to the one activity of recollection, adoration, and love.

For the soul habituated to converse with God, if suffices that it place itself in His presence and keep itself there, saying: "Lord, here I am, to make a perfect prayer." For such a soul, the mere act of placing itself in the presence of God signifies a profound act of adoration before the infinite abyss of divinity and it carries with it the implicit recognition of the wisdom, power, and love of God. And when such a soul says to God, "Here I am," it gives expression to all that it could ask or desire, realizing that of self it is pure nothingness and impotence itself and because of its sins, an unsounded abyss of miseries. But moved by grace, the soul desires to see itself freed from sin and purified and sanctified so that it can be elevated and united with God in the bonds of infinite love.

In this way do we explain the prayers of those saints who spent long hours or even entire nights, repeating a few simple words or phrases: "My God and my all; Lord, that I may know myself and that I may know Thee." In a few words such as these can be found the sum of everything that a man could ask or desire and they like-wise express all the affections which a man can arouse in himself by the use of all his faculties and powers.

Disciple: Then why do we find so many rules and methods of prayer? And why is the use of all our faculties advocated for making a good prayer if, as you say, all this is more than a hindrance than a help in the practice of prayer?

Master: The same thing happens in the practice of prayer as happens in the practice of all the arts. At the beginning, many rules are given to the apprentice and it is necessary to keep them in mind and to apply them until facility in the art makes them unnecessary. At that point he will substitute them by the higher rule which is the art itself incarnate in the artist.

So also the divine art of prayer requires many rules at the beginning, until prayer itself becomes the life and nourishment of the one who prays. That is why I stated that the prayer which is called prayer of simplicity, of which I have spoken, is the best kind of prayer for those who are habituated to converse with God. For other souls, that prayer will be best for each soul which is most suited to its needs and the gifts and graces which it has received from God and from which it derives the most profit. In this case general rules do not suffice, but a particular application must be made in each instance. In general, it can only be stated that the best prayer is that which shortens most the path to sanctity and leads us most quickly to union with God.  Undoubtedly, such a prayer is affective prayer, which some call passive or contemplative; not that it is completely contemplative, a in the mystical state, but because it does not proceed by way of discursus or the exercise of our faculties. Rather, its entire activity is concentrated principally on total abandonment of the soul to God so that He may purify and sanctify it. This prayer is the most efficacious for our sanctification and union with God because this is the work of God exclusively, although it presupposes our cooperation. The fruit of our prayer depends more on that which God works in our souls than in what we do of ourselves.  Therefore, they are in error who believe that the best prayer is that wherein one best observes all the rules and requisites which are prescribed for an active exercise of prayer by means of discursus and the acts of our faculties. They neglect to take into account the principal role which God's activity plays in the soul.  In a word, the whole fruit of prayer depends on the contact of the soul with God. All that we can do in this higher type of prayer is to rid ourselves of all the disturbances which impede this contact and to do all in our power to encourage it. And all other kinds of prayer, even vocal prayer, derive their principal efficacy from this same rule. Why do you think, for example, that the Rosary is such an efficacious means for sanctification? Simply because it is an excellent means for maintaining us in converse and communication with God. As a chain of vocal prayers, it also becomes a true bond which obliges us to remain close to God. This is necessary for many souls because otherwise they would not remain in communication with God for even a quarter of an hour. If to this, one adds the value of the Rosary as a prayer of petition through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, we can see why the Church has recommended it so highly and why so many saints had a great devotion to it.

Disciple: According to that, it would seem that the best prayer for all is that which is a combination of vocal and mental, or even contemplative, prayer.

Master: I have already stated that the efficacy of prayer depends on the converse and communication of the soul with God. Therefore even vocal prayer taken in this sense, and not simply as a prayer of petition, is good so far as it serves this purpose. Sometimes vocal prayer is necessary for us and sometimes souls even arrive at contemplation through its use. As St. Teresa states, it may happen that at times an "Our Father" well recited may be the means by which God raises the soul to contemplation.

But if the soul has passed beyond vocal prayer to a state where its prayer is more passive than active, that is to say, where it consists more in the action of God than in the soul's proper activity, then vocal prayer or any other use of the soul's faculties would defeat its very purpose, because it would impede the divine action. Obviously, this is to be understood when the soul would attempt to practice the two types of prayer at the same time. Souls that have been very accustomed to active prayer should keep this fact in mind. The reason for this is that active prayer of its very nature tends to become more and more passive. That is why in the measure that souls advance in the life of prayer, their acts become more and more simplified. They reach a point where they scarcely need any preparation at all to practice prayer because their souls are now habitually prepared; they need no other exercise or practice than to keep themselves in the presence of God in a total submission to the working of His Holy Spirit. Therefore, when they resist the interior impulse to the prayer of recollection or quiet and attempt to return to the former practices and exercises of prayer in order, so they think, to pray well, instead of fervor they experience anguish and distaste. It is as if one were to undertake a forced task from which he expects no profit whatever.

Disciple: There is no doubt that this passive prayer must be much easier and more pleasant than active prayer, but I do not see how it can be more efficacious and profitable for arriving at perfection, for it seems that in passive prayer there are no acts, resolutions, intentions, or reflections which are so helpful in practicing virtue.

Master: That objection would have some value if it were simply a question of acquiring natural perfection which can be accomplished by our own efforts and with the ordinary helps of faith and grace. But here we are concerned with the attainment of a supernatural perfection which is above all human powers and which only God can give us.

Yet, even the purely human perfection which is acquired through active prayer is attained in a manner incomparably more perfect and easy through the use of passive prayer. This can be proved by the parallelism which exists between the three principal grades of prayer and the three stages of perfection. In the first stage of perfection one makes many propositions and resolutions and generally fulfills them well; in the second stage, there are also many intentions and even heroic resolutions, but they are either not fulfilled or they are fulfilled badly, at least in the estimation of the soul itself; in the third stage, there are few resolutions; rather, there is but one resolution or intention which embraces all others, and it is fulfilled.

The third stage of perfection corresponds to passive prayer or what St. John of the Cross calls a general loving attention to God. The other two stages are but a preparation for the third. In the first stage, God grants the soul the fulfillment of its resolutions and a sensible fervor to strengthen it in virtue and attract it to friendly intercourse with Him. Without this, since the soul is still weak and an infant in the spiritual life, it would become discouraged and disheartened on the road to perfection. In the second stage of perfection, which corresponds to the journey through the great desert of the spiritual life, God usually withdraws His sensible favors and makes the soul feel its weakness and its inability to attain perfection by its own efforts. For that reason, He lets the soul experience the shattering of all its resolutions and efforts to reach perfection. In this way the soul arrives at the complete eradication of its self-love which, in turn, is the base on which rest true perfection and sanctity.

In the third stage of perfection the soul is convinced of its utter powerlessness to reach the ideal which it has proposed for itself and as a result, it places itself entirely in God's hands and puts all its trust in Him. Now it is no longer anxious about multiplying resolutions and efforts but all is reduced to the unconditional surrender to God and cooperation with His divine will as it is manifested by interior lights, conditions of the soul's exterior life, or situations in which it finds itself. In conformity with this stage of perfection, the soul's prayer is reduced to remaining in the presence of God in an attitude of love and confidence, hoping that the influence of the divine presence will purify and sanctify it.

This is actually what happens, because without knowing how, one's whole being is softened, like wax in the rays of the sun. What formerly was difficult, now becomes easy and pleasant. And the soul's prayer, which formerly was so tasteless and laborious, has now become its natural atmosphere, outside of which it is difficult to live. The hard and bitter struggle against self-love and its allies: the world, the flesh, and the devil, has had such a victorious outcome that they no longer disquiet the soul nor disturb its interior peace. Their attacks no longer penetrate to that lofty refuge where the soul is well protected nor do they have the power or means by which they can wrest the soul from its safe place.

Now the soul realizes very keenly how impossible it is for anyone to reach perfection by his own efforts and that it is a pure grace of God. And yet, as a general rule, this grace is given only to those who do not abandon the path which leads to God as they make the long journey through the desert of the spiritual life. For it is during this difficult phase that souls are proved and those are selected who will reach perfect union with God. Those who become dismayed or discouraged during this journey across the desert and decide to turn back, will never enter the promised land. Those who do not heed the call of God which invites them to interior silence and recollection but prefer to remain always in the active exercises of the interior life will never see the excessive breadth and length of the ways of the Lord.

By way of conclusion, then, the best prayer is not that in which the soul is most active, but that in which God works most in the soul. This is that affective prayer or prayer of quiet which is also called passive or contemplative in the wide sense. It is the prayer in which the soul practices a general loving attention to God, without any discursive activity or distinct acts. In a word, it is to be with God, loving Him.

Disciple: From what you have said, the question is sufficiently answered. But now I would like you to resolve for me a doubt concerning the danger of incurring Quietism if one abandons oneself to that passive prayer of which you have spoken. Therefore, I would like to know the signs whereby one may know when he should pass from active to passive prayer.

Master: St. John of the Cross lists the signs or manifestations, and it is not necessary for me to repeat them here. But even if they had never been listed, prayerful souls would realize them very vividly, and especially by the strong inclination they would experience to be alone with God and occupied solely with loving Him. At the same time, they would realize the futility and repugnance in trying to converse with Him in any other way or by means of any of the exercises of prayer which they formerly practiced. For such souls, to pray is to love, and nothing more. But in every case, they should put themselves under an experienced director and if there be none, they can assure themselves by speaking with other souls who have passed through these stages.

It is important to keep in mind that the error of Quietism consisted in proposing and advising the practices of the mystical life to the worldly and profane who were not truly mystics at all. They gave the impression that the mystical state could be attained by hu man methods or exercises and not by the movement of the Holy Ghost. For that reason, they must be classified as intruders in the mystical state who sought to enter it by the false gate of their own illusions and imaginations and not by the true gate pointed out by the Church and the saints.

To reach the mystical state in truth it is necessary that we first exhaust all our efforts and use all the means at our disposal to attain it. Therefore, before arriving at passive prayer, it is normally necessary that one have practiced active and discursive prayer for the time that the Lord specifies; and this means that as long as we derive fruit from that lower type of prayer, He will not call us to another. No general rule can be given in this matter. Some remain in active prayer for a long time and others for a shorter duration. God is not subject to our rules and the only one we can follow is the way He leads us, whether it be to active or passive prayer. At the end, all our perfection will consist in loving God and doing His will.