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

CHAPTER IV. Motives inducing to religion to be examinedà

§§ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Motives inducing to religion to be examined. False security of tepid religious persons. Of false and true motives.

§ 6. An habitual state of introversion and recollectedness is the principal end of a religious life; wherein such recollectedness consists.

§§ 7, 8. Perfection in prayer is the perfection of a religious state.

§§ 9, 10, 11. The wonderful sublimity of prayer to which the ancient hermits attained.

§ 12. Advantages thereto enjoyed by them beyond these times.

§§ 13, 14, 15, 16. That St. Benedict chiefly intended by his rule to bring his disciples to purity of prayer.

§§ 17, 18, 19. False glosses and interpretations of St. Benedict's rule in these days.

§§ 20, 21. St. Bernard's excellent declaration of the design of St. Benedict's rule.

§§ 22, 23. That the only sure way of introducing reforms into contemplative orders is by the teaching of true contemplative prayer, and not multiplying of external forms and austerities.

1. It concerns a soul very much to examine well the motives inducing her to enter into a religious state; for if they be not according to God, it is to be feared she will not find all the profit and satisfaction that she promises to herself. For: 1. If such a profession be undertaken merely out of worldly respects, as to gain a state of subsistence more secure (and perhaps more plentiful); 2. or to avoid suits, debates, or worldly dangers, &c. (unless such incommodities have given only occasion to a soul to reflect on the vanities and miseries of the world, and from thence to consider and love spiritual and celestial good things, which are permanent and without bitterness); 3. or if such a state be undertaken out of a general good desire of saving one's soul according to the fashion of ordinary good Christians, and no more, but without a special determinate resolution to labour after perfection in the divine love, either because such souls know nothing of it, or, if they do, have not the courage and will to attempt it, but resolve to content themselves with being freed from worldly temptations and dangers, and with a moderate care to practise the external observances of religion, yet without sufficient purity of intention or a consideration of the proper end of a religious contemplative life, &c. I cannot tell whether persons living and dying in religion, without further designs of purifying their souls, shall find so great cause to rejoice for the choice they have made; since their beginning and continuing is indeed no better than a stable course of most dangerous tepidity.

2. However, as for souls that for external respects have embraced a religious life, let them not therefore in a desperate humour conclude that no good can come to them by it so unworthily undertaken; but rather hope that by a special providence of God they were, even against their own intentions and wills, brought into a course of life to which, if, however, afterward they will duly correspond, it will prove an infinite blessing unto them. For such ofttimes have proved great saints, after that God gave them light to see their perverse intentions and grace to rectify them, by which means they, beginning in the flesh, have ended in the spirit.

3. And as for the third sort of tepid persons, it much concerns them, at least after their solemn profession, to search well into their souls, and there rectify what they find amiss, taking great heed how they rely upon external observances, obediences or austerities, the which, though they be necessarily to be performed, yet cannot, without great danger and harm, be rested in, but must needs be directed to a further and nobler end, to wit, the advancement of the spirit.

4. Neither let them conclude the security of their condition and good disposition of soul from a certain composedness and quietness of nature, the which, unless it be caused by internal mortification and prayer, is but mere self-love. And much less let them rely upon the esteem and good opinion that others may have of them, nor likewise on their own abilities to discourse of spiritual matters and give directions to others; since no natural light nor acquired learning or study can be sufficient to enable any one to tread in contemplative ways without the serious practice of recollected prayer. A sufficient proof whereof we see in Thaulerus, who was able to make an excellent sermon of perfection, but not to direct himself in the way to it, till God sent him a poor ignorant layman for his instructor.

5. What is it, therefore, that a soul truly called by God to enter into religion looks for? Surely not corporal labours; not the use of the sacraments; nor hearing of sermons, &c. For all these she might have enjoyed perhaps more plentifully in the world. It is, therefore, only the union of the spirit with God by recollected, constant prayer; to the attaining which divine end all things practised in religion do dispose, and to which alone so great impediments are found in the world.

6. The best general proof, therefore, of a good call to religion is a love to prayer, either vocal or mental. For if at first it be only to vocal prayer, by reason that the soul is ignorant of the efficacy and excellency of internal contemplative prayer, or perhaps has received some prejudices against it; yet if she observe solitude carefully, and with attention and fervour practise vocal prayer, she will in time, either by a divine light perceive the necessity of joining mental prayer to her vocal, or be enabled to practise her vocal prayer mentally, which is a sublime perfection.

It is a state, therefore, of recollectedness and introversion that every one entering into religion is to aspire unto, which consists in an habitual disposition of soul, whereby she transcends all creatures and their images, which thereby come to have little or no dominion over her, so that she remains apt for immediate coöperation with God, receiving His inspirations, and by a return, and, as it were, a reflux, tending to Him and operating to His glory. It is called recollectedness, because the soul in such a state gathers her thoughts, naturally dispersed and fixed with multiplicity on creatures, and unites them upon God. And it is called introversion, both because the spirit and those things which concern it, being the only object that a devout soul considers and values, she turns all her solicitudes inwards to observe defects, wants, or inordinations there, to the end she may remedy, supply, and correct them; and likewise, because the proper seat, the throne and kingdom where God by His Holy Spirit dwells and reigns, is the purest summit of man's spirit. There it is that the soul most perfectly enjoys and contemplates God, though everywhere, as in regard of Himself, equally present, yet in regard of the communication of His perfections present there, after a far more noble manner than in any part of the world besides, inasmuch as He communicates to the spirit of man as much of His infinite perfections as any creature is capable of, being not only simple Being, as He is to inanimate bodies; or Life, as to living creatures; or Perception, as to sensitive; or Knowledge, as to other ordinary rational souls: but with and besides all these, He is a divine light, purity, and happiness, by communicating the supernatural graces of His Holy Spirit to the spirits of His servants. Hence it is that our Saviour says (Regnum Dei intra vos est), The kingdom of God is within you;' and therefore it is that religious, solitary, and abstracted souls do endeavour to turn all their thoughts inward, raising them to (apicem spiritus) the pure top of the spirit (far above all sensible phantasms or imaginative discoursings, or grosser affections), where God is most perfectly seen and most comfortably enjoyed.

7. Now the actual practice of this introversion consists principally, if not only, in the exercise of pure internal spiritual prayer; the perfection of which, therefore, ought to be the chief aim to which a religious contemplative soul is obliged to aspire. So that surely it is a great mistake to think that the spirit of St. Benedict's Order and Rule consists in a public, orderly, protracted, solemn singing of the Divine Office, which may be full as well -- yea, and for the external is with more advantage -- performed by secular ecclesiastics in cathedral churches; a motive to the introducing of which pompous solemnity might be, that it is full of edification to others to see and hear a conspiring of many singers and voices (and it is to be supposed of hearts too) to the praising of God. But it is not for edification of others that a monastical state was instituted or ought to be undertaken. Religious souls truly monastical fly the sight of the world, entering into deserts and solitudes to spend their lives alone in penance and recollection, and to purify their own souls, not to give example or instruction to others. Such solitudes are or ought to be sought by them, thereby to dispose themselves for another far more profitable internal solitude, in which, creatures being banished, the only conversation is between God and the soul herself in the depth of the spirit, as if besides them two no other thing were existent.

8. To gain this happy state a devout soul enters into religion, where all imaginable advantages are to be found for this end -- at least anciently they were so, and still ought to be. But yet, though all religious persons ought to aspire to the perfection of this state, it is really gained by very few in these times; for some, through ignorance or misinstruction by teachers that know no deeper nor a more perfect introversion than into the internal senses or imagination: and others, through negligence or else by reason of a voluntary pouring forth their affections and thoughts upon vanities, useless studies, or other sensual entertainments, are never able perfectly to enter into their spirits and to find God there.

9. But it is wonderful to read of that depth of recollectedness and most profound introversion to which some ancient solitary religious persons by long exercise of spiritual prayer have come; insomuch as they have been so absorbed and even drowned in a deep contemplation of God, that they have not seen what their eyes looked on, nor felt what otherwise would grievously hurt them. Yea, to so habitual a state of attending only to God in their spirit did some of them attain, that they could not, though they had a mind thereto, ofttimes fix their thoughts upon any other object but God, their internal senses (according as themselves have described it) having been, in an inexpressible manner, drawn into their spirit, and therein so swallowed up as to lose in a sort all other use, -- a most happy state, in which the devil cannot so much as fix a seducing temptation or image in their minds to distract them from God; but on the contrary, if he should attempt it, that would be an occasion to plunge them deeper and more intimately into God.

10. And this was the effect of pure, spiritual, contemplative prayer; which was not only practised by the holy ancient hermits, &c., in the most sublime perfection, but the exercise thereof was their chief, most proper, and almost continual employment, insomuch as the perfection thereof was by them accounted the perfection of their state. A larger proof whereof shall be reserved till we come to speak of prayer. For the present, therefore, I will content myself with a testimony or two related by Cassian, out of the mouths of the two most sublime contemplatives. Thus, therefore, speaks one of them (in the ninth conference, chap.7), Finis monachi et totius perfectionis culmen in orationis consummatione consistit, that is: The end of a monastical profession and the supreme degree of all perfection consists in the perfection of prayer. And (in the tenth conference, chap.7) another saith: Hic finis totius perfectionis est, ut eo usque extenuata mens ab omni situ carnali ad spiritualia quotidie sublimetur, donec omnis ejus conversatio, omnisque volutatio cordis, una et jugis efficiatur oratio, that is: This is the end of all perfection, that the mind becomes so purified from all carnal defilement, that it may be raised up daily to spiritual things, till its whole employment and every motion of the heart may become one uninterrupted prayer.

11. Now what a kind of prayer this was that they aspired to, how sublime in spirit (though ofttimes joined with their vocal prayers), may appear from that description given of it by a holy hermit in these words (in the tenth conference, chap.20): Ita ad illam orationis purissimam pervenit qualitatem, quæ non solum nullam deitatis effigiem in sua supplicatione miscebit, sed nec ullam quidem in se memoriam dicti cujusdam, vel facti speciem seu formam characteris admittet, that is: Thus by much practice the soul will arrive to that most sublime purity of prayer, wherein no image at all of the Divinity is mingled, and which will not admit the least memory, nor a character or representation of anything either spoken or done. The strange subtlety and spirituality of which prayer considered, there is applied unto it that saying of St. Anthony (in the ninth conference, chap.31): Non est perfecta oratio, in qua se monachus, vel hoc ipsum quod orat, intelligit, that is: That prayer is not a perfect one, unless the religious person that exercises it, be not able to give an account of his own thoughts that passed in it (or does not perceive that he prays).

12. What great advantages the ancient hermits and other religious persons enjoyed for the more certain and more speedy attaining to this internal purity of prayer and wonderful cleanness of spirit (the end of their profession), how much more able their bodily complexions were to support that most rigorous solitude, those long-continued attentions of mind, &c.; and how much more efficacious hereto were their manual labours beyond our employments in study; and lastly, how by such like means they, with the only exercise of vocal prayer, attained to perfect contemplation, shall be shown more fully when we come to the last treatise concerning internal prayer.

13. In this place I will content myself with showing that, by the Rule of our holy Father St. Benedict, all his disciples are obliged to propose to themselves no other end of their religious profession, but only such purity both of soul and the operations of it in spiritual prayer; so that how exact soever they be in outward observances, unless they be referred unto, and efficacious also for the producing of, this internal purity in some reasonable measure, they shall not be esteemed by God to have complied with their vocation and profession.

14. To this purpose we may observe that it is from those ancient holy hermits and religious that our holy Father borrowed the greatest part of his Rule and ordinances, which, in the conclusion, he professes to be meant only by him as a disposition whereby we may be enabled to imitate them in their most perfect internal practices. It is from them that he borrows the phrase of (oratio pura) pure prayer (in the 20th chap.). The exercise whereof, besides the reciting of the office, he appointed daily, as appears both by the same chapter of the Rule and also by the story related by St. Gregory, of one of his monks whom the devil in the shape of a blackamore, tempted out of the community in the time of such recollections. By which may be perceived the great fruit and efficacy of such prayer; for the devil could be contented he should be present at the office, because during that exercise he could more easily distract his mind; but knowing the force of internal prayer, how recollective it is, and what light it affords to discover the inward defects of the soul, and to obtain grace to correct them, his principal aim was to withdraw him from so profitable an exercise. And, therefore, to countermine the devil's malice, our holy Father thought it worth a journey expressly to cure the infirmity and prevent the danger of one of his seduced monks.

15. For this end it is that our holy Father, in the 58th chap., ordains superiors in the examination of the spirits and dispositions of new-comers, that they should most especially have an eye to this most necessary condition (Si deum vere quærit): If he be such an one as truly seeks God. And more particularly (Si solicitus est ad opus Dei): If he have a solicitous care duly to perform the work of God, which he interprets to be prayer; and this so principal a work that he ordains that (Nihil operi Dei præponatur) Nothing must be preferred before it.

16. For the advancing of this prayer, that it may become such as is suitable to a contemplative state, all other exterior observances are appointed.1. By the twelve degrees of humility, by frequent prostrations, acknowledging of secret imperfections, &c., pride, self-love, and all other our corrupt affections, hindering our union in spirit with God, are subdued and expelled, and (as our holy Father says at the end of the last degree) that perfect charity which most immediately unites the soul to God is produced in the soul.2. By perfect obedience, self-judgment and self-will are abated.3. By fastings, watchings, and other austerities, sensuality is mortified.4. By religious poverty, all distracting cares about temporal things are expelled.5. And for the gaining of an habitual state of recollectedness and introversion, so great silence and solitude were so rigorously enjoined and practised, all objects of sensual affections removed, all conversation with the world, all relating or hearkening to news severely prohibited. All this surely for no other end but that souls might be brought to a fit disposition to imitate those solitary and devout saints (proposed by our holy Father for our examples), in their continual conversation with God, attending to His divine inspirations, and uninterrupted union of spirit with Him by pure spiritual contemplation.

17. Therefore, though our holy lawgiver doth not in his Rule give his disciples any special instructions for ordering their interior spiritual prayer (touching such matters referring them to the inspiration of the divine Spirit, as himself saith; as likewise to the advices of the ancient fathers and hermits professing contemplation), yet it is evident that His principal design was to dispose His disciples by His ordinances to aspire and attain to such internal perfection, without which the external observances would be of no value, but rather (being finally rested in without further application to the spirit) empty hypocritical formalities. And more particularly as touching the Conferences of the Fathers (written by Cassian, and expressly recommended to us by our holy Father), we reasonably may and ought to judge that his intention was, we should in a special manner make use of the instructions and examples there delivered by prudent, holy, and experienced contemplatives, as a rule and pattern to which we should conform ourselves, principally in our internal exercises, as being much more useful and proper for as than any instructions about such matters to be found in the writings of others, far more learned holy fathers of the Church, who generally direct their speeches to such as lead common lives in the world.

18. This obligation being so manifest and unquestionable, how can those new interpreters of our holy Rule be excused, that extend the profession of a religious person no further than to the performance of exterior obediences and observances literally expressed in the Rule, or signified by the express commands of superiors? Surely they forget that it is to God only that we make our vows, and not to man, but only as His substitute, and as appointed by Him to take care of the purifying of our souls. For the destroying, therefore, of so unreasonable an interpretation (yet too likely to be embraced by the tepid spirits of this age), it will suffice only to look upon the form of a religious profession instituted by our holy father in the 58th chapter, in these words, Suscipiendus autem, in oratorio, &c., that is, Let him that is to be received to a religious profession promise in the presence of the whole community assembled in the church, before God and His saints: 1. a constant stability in that state; 2. a conversion of his manners; and 3. obedience. Now of the three things so solemnly and with such affrighting circumstances vowed, conversion of manners can signify no other thing but internal purity of the soul; obedience, indeed, seems to regard the outward observances of the rules, yet surely with an eye to the principal end of all external duties of all Christians, and much more of those that aspire to the perfection of divine love. And as for stability, it regards both these, adding to them a perseverance and a continual progress in both to the end.

19. These things considered, if God so earnestly protested to the Jews, saying, My soul hates your new moons, your solemn feasts and sacrifices (which yet were observances ordained by Himself); and this, because those that practised them with all exactness rested in the outward actions, and neglected inward purity of the heart, typified by them; much more will God despise and hate an exact performance of regular observances commanded by man, when the practisers of them do not refer them to the only true end regarded by the Instituter, which was by them to dispose and fit souls to internal solitude, aptness to receive divine light and grace; and, lastly, to the practice of pure contemplative prayer, without which a religious state would be no better than a mere outward occupation or trade; and if only so considered, it is perhaps less perfect than one exercised in the world, by which much good commodity may be derived to others also.

20. Again, when such condescending interpreters do further say that all our obligation by virtue of a religious profession is to be understood only (secundum regulam) according to the Rule, we must know that this phrase (secundum regulam) is to be annexed to the vow of obedience only, importing that a religious superior hath not a vast unlimited authority, but confined to the Rule; whereas, there are no limits prescribed to conversion of manners, to Christian holiness and perfection, in which we are obliged daily to make a further progress. To the which duty, as by becoming religious we have a greater obligation, so likewise have we a greater necessity. For though by entering into religion we do avoid many occasions and temptations to outward enormous sins, yet we can never be freed from our thoughts, which will pursue us wherever we are, and more impetuously and dangerously in solitude than in company, being indeed the greatest pleasure of man, whether they be good or bad. For in solitude the soul hath her whole free scope without interruption to pursue her thoughts. So that a religious person that can think himself not obliged, and that actually doth not restrain and order his thoughts, by diverting and fixing them on heavenly and divine objects, such an one, if, for want of opportunity, he guard himself from outward scandalous crimes, yet he will more and more deeply plunge himself in corrupt nature, contracting a greater obscurity and incapacity of divine grace daily; and such inward deordinations will become more dangerous and incurable than if he had lived in the world, where there are so frequent diversions. Now a poor and most ineffectual remedy against these will he find in an exact conformity to any external observances whatsoever, yea, perhaps they will serve to increase such ill habits of soul, by breeding pride and security in it.

21. A much better and more profitable interpreter of our holy Rule, therefore, is devout St. Bernard, in many passages in his works, and particularly in those words of his in an epistle to William, an abbot of the same order: Attendite in regulam Dei, &c., that is, Be attentive to the rule of God. The kingdom of God is within you; that is, it consists not outwardly in the fashion of our clothes or manner of our corporal diet, but in the virtues of our inner man. But you will say: What? dost thou so enforce upon us spiritual duties as that thou condemnest a care of the external observances enjoined by the Rule of St. Benedict? No, by no means. But my meaning is, that the former spiritual duties must necessarily and indispensably be done, and yet these latter must not be omitted. But otherwise, when it shall happen that one of these two must be omitted, in such case these are much rather to be omitted than those former. For by how much the spirit is more excellent and noble than the body, by so much are spiritual exercises more profitable than corporal.

22. Neither will it avail the fore-mentioned interpreters to say that their meaning is not to prejudice the obligation of religious persons to internal duties, but only to show that such obligation is grounded on the divine law imposed on them as Christians, and not on an external law made by man and voluntarily undergone. For in opposition to this excuse, besides what hath been said concerning the making of our vows to God, and the express obligation therein to an internal conversion of manners, we are to know that, by virtue of our religious vows, we are obliged to a far greater perfection of internal purity than we were formerly as Christians, answerable to the greater helps and advantages thereto afforded in religion; and particularly we have an obligation to aspire to the perfection of internal contemplative prayer, the practice whereof is (at least) of extreme difficulty in an ordinary, distracted, solicitous secular state.

23. And from what hath been said may be collected this most true and profitable observation, to wit, that whosoever would attempt the restoring of the true spirit of religion (which is contemplation), miserably decayed in these days, will labour in vain if he think to compass his holy design by multiplying of ceremonies, enlarging of offices, increasing of external austerities, rigorous regulating of diet and abstinences, &c. All which things will have little or no effect, unless the minds of religious persons be truly instructed in the doctrine of contemplative prayer, and obligation to attend and follow the internal guidance of God's Spirit, which is rather hindered than advanced by the excessive multiplication of outward observances. And for this reason St. Benedict (who surely had a most perfect light and an equal zeal, at least, to advance the spirit of contemplation) was very moderate in these things, and, on the contrary, very severe in requiring the observation of silence, solitude, and abstraction of life, which do most directly and efficaciously beget an habitual introversion and recollectedness of spirit. The ineffectualness, therefore, of these new ways of reformation we see daily proofs of, by the short continuance of them. For minds that are not enlightened, nor enabled by the spirit of contemplative prayer suitable to their state to make a due use of such great austerities for the increasing of the said spirit, become in a short time, after that the first zeal (much caused by the novelty and reputation gained in the world) is cooled, to grow weary, not finding that inward satisfaction and profit which they expected, and so they return to their former tepidity and relaxation.

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