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

CHAPTER II. Of the prayer proper to the state of contemplationà

§§ 1, 2. Of the prayer proper to the state of contemplation: to wit, Aspirations; and why they are so called.

§ 3. Examples of aspirations.

§§ 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Agreement and difference between aspirations, and other internal acts.

§§ 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. How a soul becomes ripe for aspirations, and passes to them.

§§ 16, 17. Aspirations may be exercised in external business; and why?

§§ 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. Great variety of aspirations: to wit, with or without words, &c.

§§ 23, 24, &c. The great benefit and fruits of aspirations.

1. Internal prayer proper to the state of active contemplation consists of certain most purely spiritual operations of the will, longing and thirsting after God, and an union with Him in the supreme point of the spirit, where His most proper dwelling is.

2. These perfect operations are by spiritual authors severally named, as elevations, inward stirrings of the spirit, Aspirations, &c.; we will in the following discourse make use, for the most part, of this last term of Aspirations, as most proper in a general notion to express the said operations. For, 1. By them the soul in a holy ambition doth aspire to raise and elevate herself out, of inferior nature, and to mount to the apicem spiritus, which is God's throne.2. By them the soul being inflamed with divine love doth breathe forth her ardent affections to God, as the heart forces the lungs to send forth that air which they had formerly sucked in, that they may draw in fresher air to refrigerate it; so that in both there is a quick reciprocal motion of emptying and filling, of rising and falling; for after every aspiration there is a short descent, and then a mounting higher than before.3. Because, as our outward breathing is an action, as it were, purely natural, performed without any labour at all, or so much as election, so a soul rooted in charity breathes forth these pure Aspirations without any force used upon herself, they flowing from her freely (both as to the matter and manner of them) and in a sort naturally.4. Because, as the motions made in breathing do not hinder (but rather advance) all other motions and operations, so may Aspirations be exercised during other ordinary employments without any prejudice to either, or without any considerable distraction, except they be such businesses that do require a special fixed attention of the mind with serious study. Now in such employments, if they be imposed by necessity or obedience, the soul ought to quit her Aspirations, and so doing she will gain as much by her obedience as she would by prayer.

3. Now these Aspirations are certain short and lively affections of the soul, by which she expresses a thirsty longing after God, such as these are: My God, when shall I love Thee alone? When shall I be united to Thee? Whom have I in heaven or earth but Thee alone? O that Thou wouldst live and reign alone in my soul! O my God, Thou alone sufficest me! Dost not Thou know, O my God, that I love Thee only? Let me be nothing, and be Thou all, O my God. O love! O love! O infinite, universal good! When shall I come and appear before the face of Thee, O my God? Let me love Thee only, and that is sufficient! When shall I die, that my God alone may live in me?' &c.

4. Now the same affections (such as these) that are used in the prayer of Aspirations, may also be used, forasmuch as concerns the expression and sense of them, in the exercise of immediate acts, and even in meditation itself; but yet the manner by which the soul produces the said affections are, in many respects, different in perfect and imperfect souls, and the said Aspirations are of a quite different nature from other forced immediate acts of the will.

5. For, first, such fervorous affections, tending directly and immediately to God, are the entire matter in the exercise of Aspirations; whereas in immediate acts they are only now and then interlaced; but the ordinary matter of such acts is the doing or forbearing anything for God, as in acts of resignation, &c.

6. Secondly, in those immediate acts and affections in which there are no images of creatures involved, but which respect God immediately, He is represented by some distinct image or express notion in the mind, as by some special attribute, perfection, name, similitude, &c. But a soul, after a long practice of internal abstraction and renouncing of all representations of God, contents herself with such a confused notion of Him as may be apprehended by an obscure general faith; that is to say, not simply and absolutely with no kind of image at all (for that is supposed inconsistent with the operations of the soul whilst it is in a mortal body), but not with a distinct, formal, chosen, particular image; for all such offering themselves are rejected by perfect souls; so that if they were to give an account of what they conceive in their minds when they intend to think of God, all that they could say would be, God is nothing of all that I can say or think, but a Being infinitely beyond it, and absolutely incomprehensible by a created understanding. He is what He is, and what Himself only perfectly knows, and so I believe Him to be, and as such I adore and love Him only; I renounce all pretending to a distinct knowing of Him, and content myself with such a blind believing. Now though imperfect souls also (especially such as are learned) do acknowledge this negative apprehension of God to be only truly proper and perfect, yet, by reason that gross images are not yet chased out of their minds, they cannot in their internal operations proceed constantly according to such an acknowledgment. Such an obscure negative object will not ordinarily move their affections, whereas no other but such an object will move the affections of perfect souls.

7. Thirdly, proper Aspirations in perfect souls have no precedent discourse at all, as acts have, at least virtually; neither doth the will in Aspirations intend to employ or make use of the understanding, for they are sudden elevations of the will without any previous motive or consideration.

8. Fourthly, immediate acts are not only produced with deliberation and choice, but ordinarily with some degree of force used apon the will. But Aspirations proceed from an interior impulse, indeliberately, and as it were naturally flowing from the soul, and thereby they show that there is in the interior a secret, supernatural, directing principle, to wit, God's Holy Spirit alone, teaching and moving the soul to breathe forth these Aspirations, not only in set recollections, but almost continually. Now this doth not infer that the Holy Spirit is not also the principle of all other good acts and affections of the will (for none of them have any true good in them further than they proceed from this divine principle); but in them the will doth previously and forcibly raise up itself to the producing them, in which, likewise, much of nature is mixed; and so the Holy Spirit is not so completely and perfectly the fountain of them as He is of Aspirations.

9. Fifthly, in case that a soul, whose constant exercise as yet is but immediate acts or meditation, do sometimes merely by an internal impulse produce such indeliberate Aspirations, yet they are neither so pure and subtile, neither will they continue any considerable time; but the present invitation or fervour being passed, the soul must be content to return to her inferior exercises, or if she will needs force herself to continue them, her recollections will become dry, insipid, and without any profit at all.

10. Lastly, Aspirations (when they are a soul's usual exercise) do proceed from a more habitually perfect ground, and, therefore, are far more efficacious and noble than immediate acts; and, moreover, there being no violence at all used in them, they are much more frequently and continuedly produced, and, consequently, do procure more new graces and merits, and do far more increase the habit of charity.

11. No man can limit the time how long souls are to continue in inferior exercises before they will be enabled and made ripe for so sublime a prayer, and, therefore, there is no relying upon the instructions, practice, or examples of any; all depends 1. Upon the industry or diligence of souls in prayer and mortification; 2. somewhat upon their special temper and disposition; 3. likewise upon the advantage that they may have from solitude and abstraction of life; 4. but principally upon the free grace and good pleasure of God, who may and does, by ordinary or extraordinary means, call and enable souls to Aspirations, some sooner and some later.

12. In passing from the exercise of acts to Aspirations there is, as to the manner of the cessation of forced acts, great variety in souls; for some will have their morning recollections to be suddenly and entirely changed from forced acts to Aspirations, and also the ability for a longer continuance increased; whereas, the evening recollections will be little altered. In other souls (and this is most ordinary), their exercising of acts will grow by degrees more and more aspirative, and this will happen sometimes in the beginning, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes in the conclusion of their recollections. And thus they in their recollections will get more and more ground upon acts, diminishing both the frequency and constraint or difficulty of them, and increasing Aspirations, till in progress they become wholly aspirative.

13. Some souls, whose exercise is acts mixed with Aspirations, at their first coming to their recollections, yea, and till they have for some reasonable space exercised themselves, may happen to find themselves in perfect distraction; in which case, if they be called away by occasion of businesses of no great solicitude, they may find much profit by such interruptions, and be disposed thereby to return with much eagerness to their recollections, and with an enablement to exercise Aspirations. Yea, sometimes they will find themselves enabled to exercise them during such employments, their spirits being refreshed by means of such pauses and distances caused by the said interruptions. And experience will teach them that it will be needful sometimes to break off the course of their present internal prayer for some little space, after which they will find themselves better disposed for more frequent and efficacious Aspirations.

14. But as for imperfect souls, this must be no rule for them, for they must not, by reason of distractions, interrupt their mental prayer (or, at least, very seldom), but must with discreet violence force themselves to begin with a serious recollection, by that means driving away, or, at least, abating their present distractions.

15. When the exercise is become wholly Aspirations, all the change that will happen afterward will not be in the substance of the exercise, but only in the degrees of purity, subtilty, and spiritualness of those Aspirations, for there is no active exercise more sublime.

16. A soul may come to that state that she may constantly breathe forth Aspirations, and yet, sufficiently to the discharge of her obligation, either work, read, hearken to a lesson recited, say or hear Mass, communicate, &c.; neither is there any negligence or irreverence committed by so doing; for by no operation so much as by Aspirations doth a soul enjoy a sublime and perfect union in spirit with God, which is the end of all exercises and duties. And this is the meaning of that saying of mystics, In God nothing is neglected;' yea, some of them do affirm that there may be souls so perfect, that even amidst the noises and disorders of a camp they may, without neglecting their present duty there, most efficaciously exercise themselves in Aspirations to God.

17. Now the reason why Aspirations are less hindered by external businesses than are meditation or immediate acts is, because in Aspirations the understanding is scarce at all employed, and, therefore, may well enough attend to other businesses; and, moreover, the will, abounding and even overflowing with divine love, will not find herself interested in affection, and, consequently, not distracted by such employments.

18. There is great variety in the manner of producing Aspirations; for, first, some are purely mental, being certain indeliberate quick elevations and springings up of the spirit to Godward, as sparkles of fire flying from a burning coal (which is the expression of the author of the Cloud of Unknowing). And of these some are more gross and imaginative, especially in beginners, and, therefore, not difficult to be expressed; others, in more perfect souls that are come to a higher degree of spiritual abstraction, grow more subtle and intellectual, insomuch as ofttimes the person himself cannot express what passed in his spirit, which was, indeed, nothing but a blind and almost imperceptible elevation of the will exercised in the summity of the spirit, as it happens ofttimes in the great desolation. Now this growth of immateriality in Aspirations is not easily perceptible, though it be real and certain, as we know that corn grows though we cannot perceive its growing, and, indeed, it is no great matter whether we observe such degrees or no; yea, the examination thereof were better neglected.

19. Again, other Aspirations are, moreover, externally expressed by the tongue, and in such expressions sometimes there is a proper sense and meaning, as Deus meus et omnia (which was St. Francis's aspiration), or, Noverim Te et noverim me (which was St. Augustine's); and in these sometimes a soul doth abide a good space, reiterating again and again the same aspiration; sometimes she doth vary, always proceeding according to her interior impulse from God's Holy Spirit: other aspirations have no sense at all, as were those practised by Br. Mussæus, a disciple of St. Francis, who, when, he was full of interior affection, could usually cry out nothing but U. U. U. Such unusual aspirations as these do show a great excess of interior fervour, which, bursting out, forces the soul (not able to contain itself, nor yet to find out words by which to express its affection) to pour forth itself after such an insignificant manner.

20. Moreover, Aspirations and forcible elevations of the will there are which are signified, not by the tongue, but by some extraordinary action of the body, as clapping of hands, leaping, &c. To this purpose we have an example of another disciple of St. Francis, called Br. Bernard, who, out of an inward boiling fervour, was forced to run over mountains and rocky places, being agitated with a kind of holy frenzy. In such cases as these, tears are very rare, God's Holy Spirit not usually moving thereto, because they would then flow immeasurably, to the great prejudice of corporal health.

21. Now such actions and motions, though they may be yielded to sometimes when one is alone, yet in company they are to be suppressed. To which purpose Blosius gives this good instruction out of Thaulerus, that albeit these things be good, as flowing from a divine principle, yet they are not the things principally to be commended, for these unions of the spirit with God, to which corporal nature concurs, are not to be equalled to that most perfect union which some souls do experience in pure spirit; and, therefore, it is observable that such violent agitations do chiefly befall such souls as have had their exercise much in sensible devotion, as women and devout ignorant men; and on the same grounds such are more disposed to rapts, ecstasies, &c.

22. Lastly, to these several expressions of Aspirations may be added that of saying the Divine Office or other vocal prayers aspiratively, which is a far greater proof of sublime contemplation than any of those unusual motions, &c. This was the contemplation of many of the ancient hermits, and is, no doubt, of some in these days. As a certain spiritual writer says of himself, that being in the constant exercise of aspirations, using daily two recollections consisting of them, on a time he found himself invited to produce them vocally, and thereupon he took in hand the saying of our Lady's Office, choosing that because he could say it perfectly without book; he repeated it nine or ten times a day with a perfect attention of spirit, the which mental attention or operation was, in effect, but Aspirations (taking the word, as here we do, in a large sense); and so for a few days, as long as that invitation and enablement lasted, he used no other internal exercise, finding great benefit by this; but that invitation ceasing, he found himself again obliged to return to mere mental Aspirations.

23. I will conclude this point with setting down some of the great and inestimable benefits that accrue to souls by this sublime exercise; as, first, in regard of the interior senses and sensitive faculties: the dominion that the superior soul has over them is now become very great, for inasmuch as it is God that helpeth, moveth, and directeth souls in their operations during this exercise of Aspirations, the heart also being estranged from the love of creatures and replenished with divine love, distractive thoughts and images of creatures either do not press into the mind, or if they do, yet they pass no further than into the imagination; or if the understanding do sometimes busy itself with them, yet they do scarce or not at all touch or affect the will, which is not by such extravagant thoughts interrupted or diverted in her pursuit of Aspirations and blind elevations; whereas, in immediate forced acts greater force is to be used against such distractions, which do not only busy the understanding, but likewise, more or less, withdraw the will from God.

24. Secondly, in regard of sensible devotion: though the devil may have great influence upon it in meditation, or even sometimes in immediate affections and acts, seeking thereby to seduce souls to extravagances and a spiritual gluttony, it is otherwise in the exercise of Aspirations, which are so much elevated above the imagination and sensitive nature, that here he has no advantage given him for such deceits; and if during that sensible devotion, which in some souls, during this exercise, flows from the spirit into inferior nature, he should endeavour to inject his baits, an humble and perfectly mortified soul will easily turn his malice to her own good and the enemy's confusion.

25. Thirdly, in regard of the understanding: whereas it was before all bepainted with images of creatures, yea, when it regarded God, it saw Him by an image of its own creating, now the soul loses all remembrance of itself and of all created things, and all that she retains of God is a remembrance that He cannot be seen nor comprehended. All creatures, therefore, being removed, and no particular distinct image of God admitted, there remains in the soul and mind, as it were, a nothing and mere emptiness, which nothing is more worth than all creatures, for it is all that we can know of God in this life; this nothing is the rich inheritance of perfect souls, who perceive clearly that God is nothing of all that may be comprehended by our senses or understanding. The state, therefore, of such souls, forasmuch as concerns knowledge, is worthily called the cloud of unknowing' and the cloud of forgetting' by the author of that sublime treatise so called; and this is the most perfect and most angelical knowing that a soul is capable of in this life. Now this perception of this nothing doth appear more clearly and comfortably the longer that a soul remains under this cloud and darkness, where God's dwelling is; for, as the Psalmist saith, this darkness is immediately under his feet; this knowledge of nothing is, by F. Benet Canfield, called an active annihilation.

26. Fourthly, in regard of the will: it is in this exercise so wholly possessed and inflamed with divine love, which doth so intimely penetrate into the very centre of it, that it is become like fiery, burning steel, clean through shining with this fire. It is now a will deiform, and in a manner deified, for it is so closely united and hidden in the Divine Will, that God may be said to will and do all things in and by her.

27. Fifthly, in regard of the whole person: till a soul be arrived unto this exercise, she never attains to a perfect possession of all virtues universally; they are, indeed, all in an inferior degree and with much mixture of natural, sensual ends, produced by the former exercises; and if some special virtues seem to be in a high degree, it is either because nature disposes more to them, or because the practice of them may be more suitable to some designs of nature; but as soon as by the exercise of Aspirations divine love is far more perfectly exercised, the very root of all sin (self-love) is destroyed, and purity of intention is practised to God for Himself only, and only by His instruction and motion. The divine love that the soul exercised before was immediately upon herself with relation to God, and not directly and immediately to God Himself; or if so sometimes, yet it was with reflections upon herself; but in Aspirations she exercises love only to God Himself without reflections, which cannot be exercised but by souls perfectly mortified, being the highest mystic contemplation possible to be exercised in this life; for, as Alphonsus Madriliensis saith, a soul is never able to produce a proper act of love to God till she have first got a perfect hatred of herself, which is the supreme degree of mortification, which once attained, she is ripe for a passive union, and perhaps at the very door of it.

28. The author of the Cloud, and likewise Barbanson, do with great reason teach, that after a soul is mounted to this degree of exercising love constantly by Aspirations, she is not in any difficulty, aridity, &c., to descend to any inferior exercise; herein differing from F. Benet Canfield and some others, who require some exercise of the Passion in all estates.

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