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

CHAPTER I. Of contemplation in general; what it is.à

§§ 1, 2. Of contemplation in general; what it is.

§§ 3, 4. Contemplation is twofold, viz. First philosophical, of which there are several sorts.

§§ 5, 6, 7, 8. Secondly, mystical; what it is.

§ 9. Mystic contemplation or union is: 1. Active; 2. Passive.

§§ 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Of active mystic union; the nature and manner of it; whether the internal senses be used in it, &c.

§ 16. A mistake of some concerning this contemplation.

§§ 17, 18. The divine excellency of it.

§§ 19, 20. Whether there be several states of it.

1. Hitherto the exercises of a devout soul have been exceedingly laborious, in which she hath been obliged to use force and constraint (more or less) upon herself to elevate the will above all created things, and to apply it unto God. She hath struggled through terrible oppositions of the devil and corrupt nature, the instability of the imagination, tumultuousness of passions, &c., all which would hinder her perseverance in her recollections; but notwithstanding all this, pursuing them still, sometimes in light and sometimes in darkness, sometimes allured by sweetness, and again sometimes afflicted (but not discouraged) with desolations, in the end God crowns her courage and patience by exalting her to a new, more perfect, and divine exercise of the prayer of union or Contemplation.

2. Contemplation (in the accepted general notion of the word) signifies a clear, ready, mental seeing and quiet regarding of an object, being the result and effect of a precedent diligent and laborious inquiry and search after the nature, qualities, dependencies, and other circumstantial conditions of it.

3. Now according to the nature of the object contemplated, and the disposition or end of the person contemplating, there are several sorts of contemplation (at least so called). For, in the first place, anciently there was a certain kind of false contemplation, which we may call philosophical, practised by some learned heathens of old, and imitated by some in these days, which hath for its last and best end only the perfection of knowledge, and a delightful complacency in it. Others there were (and it is to be feared are still) that contented themselves with an airy vain renown, which they hoped to gain by their knowledge; so that whatsoever was the object of their contemplation (whether things natural, moral, yea, or even divine, as far as by wit and subtilty or tradition they could be known), self-love and pride was the utmost end of all these contemplations. Yea, to this rank of philosophical contemplations may be referred those scholastic wits which spend much time in the study and subtle examination of the mysteries of faith, and have not for their end the increasing of divine love in their hearts; nay, these are indeed more imperfect and culpable (saith Albertus Magnus, Lib. de Adhær. Deo) inasmuch as they offend against a greater and supernatural light.

4. Yea, and those among them that do truly intend, as their last and principal end, the glory of God and seeking His divine love (which is the best sort of scholastic contemplatives), yet since their chief employment consists in much internal discourse and reasoning, which cannot be practised without various and distinct sensible images by which to represent God, &c., the knowledge which they attain to is not properly contemplative, and the highest degree of prayer that they arrive unto is only a perfect kind of meditation.

5. In the second place, there is a mystic contemplation which is, indeed, truly and properly such, by which a soul without discoursings and curious speculations, without any perceptible use of the internal senses or sensible images, by a pure, simple, and reposeful operation of the mind, in the obscurity of faith, simply regards God as infinite and incomprehensible verity, and with the whole bent of the will rests in Him as (her) infinite, universal, and incomprehensible good. This is true contemplation indeed, and as rest is the end of motion, so is this the end of all other both internal and external exercises; for therefore, by long discourse and much practise of affection, the soul inquires and tends to a worthy object that she may quietly contemplate it, and (if it deserve affection) repose with contentment in it.

6. So it is in prayer: the soul aspiring to a perfect union with God, as yet absent, begins with inquiry by meditation; for, as St. Augustine saith, Intellectus cogitabundus principium omnis boni; that is, All good proceeds from the understanding as its first principle. By meditation the soul labours to represent this divine object with all the sensible advantages and motives of admiration and love that it can invent, to the end the will by pure love may rest in Him; but this being done, the will being not yet at free liberty to dispose of itself, is forced with some violence to untwine and withdraw its adhesion from creatures, that it may elevate itself and be firmly fixed to this her only good, and at last, by long custom, the force by little and little diminishing, the object begins to appear in its own perfect light, and the affections flow freely, but yet with a wonderful stillness, to it; and then such souls are said to be arrived to perfect mystical union or contemplation.

7. This is properly the exercise of angels, for their knowledge is not by discourse; but by one simple intuition all objects are represented to their view at once, with all their natures, qualities, relations, dependencies, and effects; but man, that receives all his knowledge first from his senses, can only by effects and outward appearances with the labour of reasoning collect the nature of objects, and this but imperfectly; but his reasoning being ended, then he can at once contemplate all that is known unto him in the object.

8. Now in Holy Scripture our chiefest happiness and perfection are said to consist in this, that we shall be like unto angels both in our knowledge and love, for we shall (as they) have a perfect view and contemplation of God as He is, not by any created forms and representations; and so beatifical shall that contemplation be, that it will for ever ingulf all our affections. But in this life our perfection will consist in approaching as near as may be to such an angelical contemplation of God without sensible forms, and as He is indeed proposed by faith, that is, not properly represented, but obscure notions imprinted in our minds concerning Him, by which we do perceive that He is not anything that we can perceive or imagine, but an inexhaustible ocean of universal being and good, infinitely exceeding our comprehension; which being and good, whatsoever it is in itself, we love with the whole possible extension of our wills, embracing God beyond the proportion of our knowing Him; but yet even such a contemplation and love in this life, by reason of our bodily weakness and necessities, cannot be without many descents and interruptions.

9. This mystic contemplation or union is of two sorts: 1. Active and ordinary, being indeed an habitual state of perfect souls by which they are enabled, whensoever fit occasion shall be, to unite themselves actively and actually to God by efficacious, fervent, amorous, and constant, yet withal silent and quiet, elevations of the spirit.2. Passive and extraordinary; the which is not a state but an actual grace and favour from God, by which He is pleased at certain times, according to His free good pleasure, to communicate a glimpse of His majesty to the spirits of His servants, after a secret and wonderful manner. And it is called Passive, not but that therein the soul doth actively contemplate God, but she can neither, when she pleases, dispose herself thereto, nor yet refuse it when that God thinks good to operate after such a manner in the soul, and to represent himself unto her by a divine particular image, not at all framed by the soul, but supernaturally infused into her; which grace is seldom, if ever, afforded but to souls that have attained to the former state of perfect active union. Concerning this Passive Union and the several kinds of it, we shall speak more hereafter.

10. As for the former sort, which is active contemplation, of which we have already treated in gross in this chapter, we read in mystic authors, Thaulerus, Harphius, &c., that he that would become spiritual ought to practise the drawing of his external senses inwardly into his internal, there losing and, as it were, annihilating them. Having done this, he must then draw his internal senses into the superior powers of the soul, and there annihilate them likewise; and those powers of the intellectual soul he must draw into that which is called their unity, which is the principle and fountain from whence those powers do flow, and in which they are united. And lastly, that unity (which alone is capable of perfect union with God) must be applied and firmly fixed on God, and herein, say they, consist the perfect divine contemplation and union of an intellectual soul with God.

11. Now whether such expressions as these will abide the strict examination of philosophy or no, I will not take on me to determine; certain it is that by a frequent and constant exercise of internal prayer of the will, joined with mortification, the soul comes to operate more and more abstracted from sense, and more elevated above the corporal organs and faculties, so drawing nearer to the resemblance of the operations of an angel or separated spirit.

12. Yet this abstraction and elevation (perhaps) are not to be understood as if the soul in these pure operations had no use at all of the internal senses or sensible images (for the schools resolve that cannot consist with the state of a soul joined to a mortal body); but surely her operations in this pure degree of prayer are so subtile and intime, and the images that she makes use of so exquisitely pure and immaterial, that she cannot perceive at all that she works by images, so that spiritual writers are not much to be condemned by persons utterly inexperienced in these mystic affairs, if delivering things as they perceived by their own experience they have expressed them otherwise than will be admitted in the schools.

13. Now to this kind of purely intellectual operations doth a soul begin to arrive after a sufficient exercise of immediate acts of the will, and having attained thereto they do grow more and more spiritual and sublime by the exercise of aspirations and blind elevations without all limit.

14. I call them pure intellectual operations, in opposition to actuations imaginative, produced by mean of gross sensible images, and not as if the said operations were in the intellect or understanding; for, on the contrary, they are exercised in a manner wholly by the will, for in proper aspirations the soul hath no other use of the understanding but only antecedently to propose an object, which is no other but only a general obscure confused notion of God, as faith darkly teaches, and this rather virtually than directly and expressly, the main business being to elevate the will and unite it to God so presented.

15. In which union (above all particular images) there is neither time nor place, but all is vacuity and emptiness, as if nothing were existent but God and the soul; yea, so far is the soul from reflecting on her own existence, that it seems to her that God and she are not distinct, but one only thing; this is called by some mystic authors the state of nothingness, by others the state of totality; because therein God is all in all, the container of all things. And the prayer proper to this state is thus described by a holy hermit in Cassian (collat. x. c. ii.): Ita ad illam orationis incorruptionem mens nostra perveniat, &c.; that is, So will the mind ascend to that pure simplicity of prayer, the which is freed from all intuition of images, undistinguished with any prosecution of words or senses, but uttered internally by an inflamed intention of the mind, by an unutterable excess of affection, and inconceivable quickness and alacrity of spirit, which prayer, the spirit being abstracted from all senses and sensible objects, doth pour forth unto God by sighs and groans that cannot be expressed.

16. It is an error, therefore, of inexperienced persons, who think and say that all the exercises and thoughts of contemplatives are actually in heaven, in interior conversation with angels and saints, tasting of the joys of paradise, or wholly employed in sublime speculations about divine mysteries of the Trinity, Incarnation, &c.; true it is, that in a Passive Union, God may, after a clear and distinct but wonderful manner, represent any or all these things by a supernatural species imprinted in the soul. But as for the proper exercise of active contemplation, it consists not at all in speculation, but in blind elevations of the will, and ingulfing it more and more profoundly in God, with no other sight or knowledge of Him but of an obscure faith only.

17. This happy state of active contemplation is, for substance, the most perfect that the soul is capable of in this life, being almost an entire reparation and restitution of the soul to the state of primitive innocence for as long as it lasts; because then the soul is freed from all sinfully-distracting images and affections that would separate her from God. Hereupon a holy hermit, in Cassian, says that, except in the very actual exercise of contemplation, a soul is not only in an imperfect state, but also in an immediate disposition to a sinful defect, by reason that where God doth not wholly possess the soul, the very images of creatures cannot but more or less defile her. How comfortable, therefore, and how only secure is a life of prayer!

18. Those that are inexperienced may, and often do, call this a state of idleness and unprofitable cessation, as Martha complained against her sister Mary; but those that have attained to a taste of it know it to be the business of all businesses, as St. Bernard calls it. True it is they do not, without a special and certain inspiration from God, interest themselves in external businesses, nor perhaps employ much of their time and devotions in express prayers for common necessities; yet those inexpressible devotions which they exercise, and in which they tacitly involve the needs of the whole Church, are far more prevalent with God than the busy endeavours and prayers of ten thousand others. A few such secrets and unknown servants of God are the chariots and horsemen, the strength and bulwarks of the kingdoms and churches where they live.

19. I know that some mystic authors do constitute several distinct states following active contemplation. As Barbanson makes mention of the state of the Divine Presence in the soul, and after that of the Manifestation of God to the spirit, &c., and in all these great variety of ascents and descents, &c.; likewise F. Ben. Canfield, in his last and most perfect state of the essential and supereminent will of God, makes mention of several distinct exercises, as denudation, an active and passive annihilation, &c. These authors, perhaps, spoke according to the experience of the divine operations in their own souls, and with regard to their particular manner of prayer. Therefore, I conceive that what they deliver needs not be esteemed a common measure for all; neither will I deny but that there may be distinct states (some of which I will mention), as the great desolation, &c.; but it will be to no purpose to search closely into then. Those happy souls whom God shall so highly favour as to bring them to the mount of vision and contemplation will have no need of light from any but God to conduct them in those hidden divine paths, and the inexperienced will reap but little profit from such curious inquiries.

20. I will therefore content myself with delivering in a general manner, 1. the nature of the prayer proper to the state of active contemplation; 2. and from thence I will proceed to treat modestly concerning Passive Union, and the several kinds of it; 3. to which I will add a brief discourse of that great desolation which usually follows the said union; 4. and then I will conclude the whole book with a very short description of the state of Perfection.

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