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Holy Wisdom Or Directions For The Prayer Of Contemplation by Ven. F. Augustine Baker

CHAPTER III. Of reading, which is next to prayer.à

§ 1. Of reading, which is next to prayer.

§ 2. Some books may be read for diversion.

§ 3. But spiritual books only for the soul's profit.

§§ 4, 5. Books proper for contemplatives, &c.

§ 6. Not to stop in obscure places.

§ 7. Not to practise directions, but such as are suitable to the spirit.

§§ 9, 10. Extraordinary practices of saints in mortifications not to be imitated without great caution.

§ 11. Why mystic authors seem to write diversely.

§ 12. Some Authors indiscreetly require perfection at first.

§ 13. Reading must give way to prayer.

§ 14. How mortification is to be practised in reading.

§§ 15, 16. Divine inspirations to be observed in applying instructions; and particularly of those in this book.

§ 17. A soul following God may without books or instructors be led to perfect contemplation.

1. A second mean by which the Divine Spirit teacheth devout souls is the reading of pious books. And this exercise I esteem, for worth and spiritual profit, to be next unto prayer.

2. As for ordinary books, as ecclesiastical history, &c., it may be permitted to souls even in religion to read them for an innocent diversion and recreation, so that be not the principal end, but that the intention further be by such diversion to dispose a weary soul the better afterwards to pursue her internal exercises. And this permission now is the more reasonable, since that in religious communities of men bodily labour is almost out of date, and in place thereof reading and study hath succeeded, as now the principal daily employment of religious persons, who, living much less abstracted from the world, are almost forced to comply with the customs of the present times, in which learning is so valued and so abounding.

3. But as for spiritual books, the intention of an internal liver ought not to be such as is that of those who live extroverted lives, who read them out of a vain curiosity, or to be thereby enabled to discourse of such sublime matters, without any particular choice or consideration whether they be suitable to their spirit for practice or no. A contemplative soul in reading such books must not say, this is a good book or passage, but moreover, this is useful and proper for me, and by God's grace I will endeavour to put in execution, in due time and place, the good instructions contained in it, as far as they are good for me.

4. For such souls the books most proper are these following: Scala Perfectionis, written by F. Walter Hilton; the Cloud of Unknowing, written by an unknown author; the Secret Paths of Divine Love; as likewise the Anatomy of the Soul, written by R. F. Constantin Barbanson, a Capuchin; the book entitled Of the Threefold Will of God, written by R. F. Benet Fitch (alias Canfield), a Capuchin likewise; the works of St. Teresa, of B. John de Cruce; likewise Harphius, Thaulerus, Suso, Rusbrochius, Richard de St. Victor, Gerson, &c. And of the ancients, the Lives of the Ancient Fathers living in the Desert, and Cassian's Conferences of certain Ancient Hermits (recommended particularly unto us by our holy father), St. Basil's Rules, &c. Then for souls that tend to perfection in an active life, books most proper are, the works of Rodriguez, of Perfection; the Duke of Gandia, of Good Works; Mons. de Sales, Ludovicus de Puente, &c. And lastly, books of a mixed nature are Granada, Blosius, &c. Indeed, few spiritual books there are wherein there is not an intermingling of such instructions. Now I should advise souls in an active life not at all to meddle with instructions belonging to contemplation, but applying themselves to the precepts and exercises of an active life, to use them in order to the end thereof, the perfection of external Christian charity.

5. In all spiritual books, as likewise in all that treat of Christian morality, such instructions as concern the essential qualities and practice of virtues are to be esteemed proper to all souls, yet not so the motives, manner, and circumstances of exercising the said virtues.

6. In reading of spiritual books, if anything touching prayer, &c., occur (as ofttimes it will happen) that the spiritual disciple understands not, let him pass it over and neither unnecessarily trouble his own brains, nor make it a business to trouble others about the understanding of it. Perhaps in time, after more reading, and especially more experience in prayer, he will come to understand it.

7. And as for those things which he either does indeed, or thinks he understands them, let him not be hasty to apply them to himself by practice, out of his own natural judgment or liking, but let him observe his own spirit, way, and internal guidance by God, and accordingly make use of them; otherwise, instead of reaping benefit, such inconveniences may happen, that it would have been better he had never read, nor been able to read any books at all, but only to have followed his own internal light, as many good souls have done that never could read, and yet seeking God in simplicity of their hearts, and praying without any prescribed methods, practising likewise according to the invitation and impulse of the Divine Spirit, have attained to perfect contemplation.

8. Generally mystic authors write according to their own experience in their own souls, when they treat of the several degrees of prayer and the several manners of divine operations in souls in such degrees, as if the same instructions would serve indefinitely for all others. Whereas such is the inexplicable variety of internal dispositions, that the same course and order in all things will scarce serve any two souls. Therefore, if the indiscreet readers, without considering their own spirits and enablements, shall upon the authority of any book either tarry too long in an inferior degree of prayer, when God has fitted them and does call them to a higher, or in a foolish ambition shall, being unprepared, presume to a degree of prayer too sublime and spiritual for them, there will be no end of difficulties, doubts, and consultations.

9. But of all errors the greatest and most dangerous is the indiscreet imitating the examples and practices of saints in particular extraordinary corporal mortifications, voluntarily (yet by God's special direction) assumed by them, as labours, fastings, watchings, disciplines, &c. For such a forwardness in others not called thereto, to be extraordinary likewise, it is much to be feared proceeds merely from pride and self-love, and will produce no better effects than the nourishing of the same inordinate affections. And if such have not the courage and patience (as it cannot be expected they should have) to persevere in such exercises, this will cause infirmity of body, dejection of mind, and weariness, if not an utter casting off a spiritual course.

10. The benefit that we ought and easily may reap from the reading of such extraordinary practices of others, is to admire God's ways in the conducting of his saints, and to take occasion from thence of humbling and despising of ourselves, seeing how short we come of them in the practice of their virtues; but no further to imitate them in such things than we may be assured that God directs us by a supernatural light, and enables us by an extraordinary grace, yea, and moreover, till we have obtained the leave and approbation of a prudent director. Till this be, let us supply with a good will what our forces will not reach unto. And above all things, we must take heed that we do not entangle ourselves by laying obligations or vows upon our souls about such matters, the which we shall have difficulty to discharge ourselves from when by trial we find the inconvenience.

11. Mystic writers, in expressing the spiritual way in which they have been led, do oft seem to differ extremely from one another; the which difference, notwithstanding, if rightly understood, is merely in the phrase and manner of expression. And the ground hereof is, because the pure immaterial operations of perfect souls in prayer, and especially the operations of God in souls in which they are patients only, are so sublime that intelligible words and phrases cannot perfectly express them, and therefore they are forced to invent new words the best they can, or to borrow similitudes from corporal things, &c., to make their conceptions more intelligible; and thus does each one according to the mariner that he finds or conceives in himself, or according to his skill in language. No wonder, therefore, if there seem to be diversity among them. Hereupon the author of The Cloud observes, that great harm may come by understanding things literally, grossly, and sensibly, which, howsoever they be expressed, were intended and ought to be understood spiritually.

12. Some good spiritual authors, intending to recommend certain duties necessary to be practised, forasmuch as concerns the substance of the duties (as an entire self-abnegation, purity of intention, &c.), do urge the said duties in the greatest perfection universally upon all, and with such phrases of absolute necessity as if upon any defect in practising that virtue (so by them extended to the full, to the end to prevent all the most secret ways and shifts in which nature is apt to seek her own satisfaction) all the whole design of an internal life were ruined; they do by this overmuch exactness and care, instead of exciting the courage of their readers to the serious practice of so necessary a duty, quite dishearten them; yea, perhaps they make them suspect the state of their souls, who being conscious of their present infirmity and imperfections, lose all heart to adventure upon an attempt so unproportionable to their weak abilities. Whereas, if instructions had been tempered with regard to the capacity of each practiser, they would have gone on with courage and good success.

13. Voluntary reading must give place to prayer, whensoever the soul finds herself invited thereto.

14. The virtue of mortification may, and sometimes ought, to be practised in reading in this manner. When any book or subject is very gustful to a soul, she must be watchful over herself not to pour herself wholly upon it with an intemperate greediness, nor to let curiosity or delight too much possess her, but let her now and then stop the pursuit of reading, lifting up her mind by interruptions to God, and afterwards continue at least in a virtual attention to Him, so mortifying and qualifying the impetuosity of nature. And by no means let her give way to an unwillingness to quit reading for performing her appointed recollections or other exercises of obligation.

15. To conclude: whosoever in reading, &c., doth not chiefly observe his own spirit and divine call, and makes not the books, sayings, and examples of others to serve the said spirit and call, but, on the contrary, makes the divine inspirations subject to books, &c., it were better for him never to read such books, or receive human instructions, but that he should cleave only to God, who in case of necessity will most assuredly supply all other wants and defects.

16. And the same liberty that I have recommended to souls in the reading of other books, I advise them to use in these instructions also, that is, to apply to their own practice only such directions as their spiritual instructor and their own experience and reason, enlightened by grace, shall show them to be proper for them. Indeed, in all this book I know scarce any one advice which I can confidently say to be properly belonging to all souls that lead an internal life generally, except this, that they who aspire to perfection in contemplation must not content themselves nor rest finally in any inferior degree of prayer, but following the divine light and invitation (without obliging themselves to any forms or methods) they must from the lowest degree of internal prayer (which is ordinarily meditation) proceed to a more sublime prayer of immediate affections and acts of the will, and from thence ascend to the infused prayer of aspirations.

17. Yea, I dare with all confidence pronounce, that if all spiritual books in the world were lost, and there were no external directors at all, yet if a soul (sufficiently instructed in the essential grounds of Catholic faith) that has a natural aptness, though otherwise never so simple and unlearned (being only thus far well instructed at first), will prosecute prayer and abstraction of life, and will resignedly undergo such necessary mortifications as God shall provide for her, observing God and His call exteriorly and interiorly, and so forsake herself, and propose Almighty God, His will, love, honour, for her final intention (which she will certainly do if she attend unto His inspirations), such a soul would walk clearly in perfect light, and with all possible security, and would not fail in due time to arrive at perfect contemplation. These are the two external means by which God teaches souls, discovering to them His will, to wit, instructors and books. And to these we might add another, to wit, laws and precepts of superiors (for God teaches also this way, and never commands contrarily). But of these we shall speak hereafter.

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