1. I have thought it right to speak of certain temptations I have observed to which beginners are liable -- some of them I have had myself -- and to give some advice about certain things which to me seem necessary. In the beginning, then, we should strive to be cheerful and unconstrained; for there are people who think it is all over with devotion if they relax themselves ever so little. It is right to be afraid of self; so that, having no confidence in ourselves, much or little, we may not place ourselves in those circumstances wherein men usually sin against God; for it is a most necessary fear, till we become very perfect in virtue. And there are not many who are so perfect as to be able to relax themselves on those occasions which offer temptations to their natural temper; for always while we live, were it only to preserve humility, it is well we should know our own miserable nature; but there are many occasions on which it is permitted us -- as I said just now -- to take some recreation, in order that we may with more vigour resume our prayer.
2. Discretion is necessary throughout. We must have great confidence; because it is very necessary for us not to contract our desires, but put our trust in God; for, if we do violence to ourselves by little and little, we shall, though not at once, reach that height which many Saints by His grace have reached. If they had never resolved to desire, and had never by little and little acted upon that resolve, they never could have ascended to so high a state.
3. His Majesty seeks and loves courageous souls; but they must be humble in their ways, and have no confidence in themselves. I never saw one of those lag behind on the road; and never a cowardly soul, though aided by humility, make that progress in many years which the former makes in a few. I am astonished at the great things done on this road by encouraging oneself to undertake great things, though we may not have the strength for them at once; the soul takes a flight upwards and ascends high, though, like a little bird whose wings are weak, it grows weary and rests.
4. At one time I used often to think of those words of St. Paul: |That all things are possible in God.| I saw clearly that of myself I could do nothing. This was of great service to me. So also was the saying of St. Augustine: |Give me, O Lord, what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt.| I was often thinking how St. Peter lost nothing by throwing himself into the sea, though he was afterwards afraid. These first resolutions are a great matter -- although it is necessary in the beginning that we should be very reserved, controlled by the discretion and authority of a director; but we must take care that he be one who does not teach us to crawl like toads, nor one who may be satisfied when the soul shows itself fit only to catch lizards. Humility must always go before: so that we may know that this strength can come out of no strength of our own.
5. But it is necessary we should understand what manner of humility this should be, because Satan, I believe, does great harm; for he hinders those who begin to pray from going onwards, by suggesting to them false notions of humility. He makes them think it is pride to have large desires, to wish to imitate the Saints, and to long for martyrdom. He tells us forthwith, or he makes us think, that the actions of the Saints are to be admired, not to be imitated, by us who are sinners. I, too, say the same thing; but we must see what those actions are which we are to admire, and what those are which we are to imitate; for it would be wrong in a person who is weak and sickly to undertake much fasting and sharp penances to retire into the desert, where he could not sleep, nor find anything to eat; or, indeed, to undertake any austerities of this kind.
6. But we ought to think that we can force ourselves, by the grace of God, to hold the world in profound contempt -- to make light of honour, and be detached from our possessions. Our hearts, however, are so mean that we think the earth would fail us under our feet, if we were to cease to care even for a moment for the body, and give ourselves up to spirituality. Then we think that to have all we require contributes to recollection, because anxieties disturb prayer. It is painful to me that our confidence in God is so scanty, and our self-love so strong, as that any anxiety about our own necessities should disturb us. But so it is; for when our spiritual progress is so slight, a mere nothing will give us as much trouble as great and important matters will give to others. And we think ourselves spiritual!
7. Now, to me, this way of going on seems to betray a disposition to reconcile soul and body together, in order that we may not miss our ease in this world, and yet have the fruition of God in the next; and so it will be if we walk according to justice, clinging to virtue; but it is the pace of a hen -- it will never bring us to liberty of spirit. It is a course of proceeding, as it seems to me, most excellent for those who are in the married state, and who must live according to their vocation; but for the other state, I by no means wish for such a method of progress, neither can I be made to believe it to be sound; for I have tried it, and I should have remained in that way, if our Lord in His goodness had not taught me another and a shorter road.
8. Though, in the matter of desires, I always had generous ones; but I laboured, as I said before, to make my prayer, and, at the same time, to live at my ease. If there had been any one to rouse me to a higher flight, he might have brought me, so I think, to a state in which these desires might have had their effects; but, for our sins, so few and so rare are they whose discretion in that matter is not excessive. That, I believe, is reason enough why those who begin do not attain more quickly to great perfection; for our Lord never fails us, and it is not His fault; the fault and the wretchedness of this being all our own.
9. We may also imitate the Saints by striving after solitude and silence, and many other virtues that will not kill these wretched bodies of ours, which insist on being treated so orderly, that they may disorder the soul; and Satan, too, helps much to make them unmanageable. When he sees us a little anxious about them, he wants nothing more to convince us that our way of life must kill us, and destroy our health; even if we weep, he makes us afraid of blindness. I have passed through this, and therefore I know it; but I know of no better sight or better health that we can desire, than the loss of both in such a cause. Being myself so sickly, I was always under constraint, and good for nothing, till I resolved to make no account of my body nor of my health; even now I am worthless enough.
10. But when it pleased God to let me find out this device of Satan, I used to say to the latter, when he suggested to me that I was ruining my health, that my death was of no consequence; when he suggested rest, I replied that I did not want rest, but the Cross. His other suggestions I treated in the same way. I saw clearly that in most things, though I was really very sickly, it was either a temptation of Satan, or a weakness on my part. My health has been much better since I have ceased to look after my ease and comforts. It is of great importance not to let our own thoughts frighten us in the beginning, when we set ourselves to pray. Believe me in this, for I know it by experience. As a warning to others, it may be that this story of my failures may be useful.
11. There is another temptation, which is very common: when people begin to have pleasure in the rest and the fruit of prayer, they will have everybody else be very spiritual also. Now, to desire this is not wrong, but to try to bring it about may not be right, except with great discretion and with much reserve, without any appearance of teaching. He who would do any good in this matter ought to be endowed with solid virtues, that he may not put temptation in the way of others. It happened to me -- that is how I know it -- when, as I said before, I made others apply themselves to prayer, to be a source of temptation and disorder; for, on the one hand, they heard me say great things of the blessedness of prayer, and, on the other, saw how poor I was in virtue, notwithstanding my prayer. They had good reasons on their side, and afterwards they told me of it; for they knew not how these things could be compatible one with the other. This it was that made them not to regard that as evil which was really so in itself, namely, that they saw me do it myself, now and then, during the time that they thought well of me in some measure.
12. This is Satan's work: he seems to take advantage of the virtues we may have, for the purpose of giving a sanction, so far as he can, to the evil he aims at; how slight soever that evil may be, his gain must be great, if it prevail in a religious house. How much, then, must his gain have been, when the evil I did was so very great! And thus, during many years, only three persons were the better for what I said to them; but now that our Lord has made me stronger in virtue, in the course of two or three years many persons have profited, as I shall
13. There is another great inconvenience in addition to this: the loss to our own soul; for the utmost we have to do in the beginning is to take care of our own soul only, and consider that in the whole world there is only God and our soul. This is a point of great importance.
14. There is another temptation -- we ought to be aware of it, and be cautious in our conduct: persons are carried away by a zeal for virtue, through the pain which the sight of the sins and failings of others occasions them. Satan tells them that this pain arises only out of their desire that God may not be offended, and out of their anxiety about His honour; so they immediately seek to remedy the evil. This so disturbs them, that they cannot pray. The greatest evil of all is their thinking this an act of virtue, of perfection, and of a great zeal for God. I am not speaking of the pain which public sins occasion, if they be habitual in any community, nor of wrongs done to the Church, nor of heresies by which so many souls are visibly lost; for this pain is most wholesome, and being wholesome is no source of disquiet. The security, therefore, of that soul which would apply itself to prayer lies in casting away from itself all anxiety about persons and things, in taking care of itself, and in pleasing God. This is the most profitable course.
15. If I were to speak of the mistakes which I have seen people make, in reliance on their own good intentions, I should never come to an end. Let us labour, therefore, always to consider the virtues and the good qualities which we discern in others, and with our own great sins cover our eyes, so that we may see none of their failings. This is one way of doing our work; and though we may not be perfect in it at once, we shall acquire one great virtue -- we shall look upon all men as better than ourselves; and we begin to acquire that virtue in this way, by the grace of God, which is necessary in all things -- for when we have it not, all our endeavours are in vain -- and by imploring Him to give us this virtue; for He never fails us, if we do what we can.
16. This advice, also, they must take into their consideration who make much use of their understanding, eliciting from one subject many thoughts and conceptions. As to those who, like myself, cannot do it, I have no advice to give, except that they are to have patience, until our Lord shall send them both matter and light; for they can do so little of themselves, that their understanding is a hindrance to them rather than a help.
17. To those, then, who can make use of their understanding, I say that they are not to spend the whole time in that way; for though it be most meritorious, yet they must not, when prayer is sweet, suppose that there never will be a Sunday or a time when no work ought to be done. They think it lost time to do otherwise; but I think that loss their greatest gain. Let them rather, as I have said, place themselves in the presence of Christ, and, without fatiguing the understanding, converse with Him, and in Him rejoice, without wearying themselves in searching out reasons; but let them rather lay their necessities before Him, and the just reasons there are why He should not suffer us in His presence: at one time this, at another time that, lest the soul should be wearied by always eating of the same food. These meats are most savoury and wholesome, if the palate be accustomed to them; they will furnish a great support for the life of the soul, and they have many other advantages also.
18. I will explain myself further; for the doctrine of prayer is difficult, and, without a director, very hard to understand. Though I would willingly be concise, and though a mere hint is enough for his clear intellect who has commanded me to write on the subject of prayer, yet so it is, my dulness does not allow me to say or explain in a few words that which it is so important to explain well. I, who have gone through so much, am sorry for those who begin only with books; for there is a strange difference between that which we learn by reading, and that which we learn by experience.
19. Going back, then, to what I was saying. We set ourselves to meditate upon some mystery of the Passion: let us say, our Lord at the pillar. The understanding goeth about seeking for the sources out of which came the great dolours and the bitter anguish which His Majesty endured in that desolation. It considers that mystery in many lights, which the intellect, if it be skilled in its work, or furnished with learning, may there obtain. This is a method of prayer which should be to everyone the beginning, the middle, and the end: a most excellent and safe way, until our Lord shall guide them to other supernatural ways.
20. I say to all, because there are many souls who make greater progress by meditation on other subjects than on the Sacred Passion; for as there are many mansions in heaven, so there are also many roads leading thither. Some persons advance by considering themselves in hell, others in heaven -- and these are distressed by meditations on hell. Others meditate on death; some persons, if tender-hearted, are greatly fatigued by continual meditations on the Passion; but are consoled and make progress when they meditate on the power and greatness of God in His creatures, and on His love visible in all things. This is an admirable method -- not omitting, however, from time to time, the Passion and Life of Christ, the Source of all good that ever came, and that ever shall come.
21. He who begins is in need of instruction, whereby he may ascertain what profits him most. For this end it is very necessary he should have a director, who ought to be a person of experience; for if he be not, he will make many mistakes, and direct a soul without understanding its ways, or suffering it to understand them itself; for such a soul, knowing that obedience to a director is highly meritorious, dares not transgress the commandments it receives. I have met with souls cramped and tormented, because he who directed them had no experience: that made me sorry for them. Some of them knew not what to do with themselves; for directors who do not understand the spirit of their penitents afflict them soul and body, and hinder their progress.
22. One person I had to do with had been kept by her director for eight years, as it were, in prison; he would not allow her to quit the subject of self-knowledge; and yet our Lord had already raised her to the prayer of quiet; so she had much to suffer.
23. Although this matter of self-knowledge must never be put aside -- for there is no soul so great a giant on this road but has frequent need to turn back, and be again an infant at the breast; and this must never be forgotten. I shall repeat it, perhaps, many times, because of its great importance -- for among all the states of prayer, however high they may be, there is not one in which it is not often necessary to go back to the beginning. The knowledge of our sins, and of our own selves, is the bread which we have to eat with all the meats, however delicate they may be, in the way of prayer; without this bread, life cannot be sustained, though it must be taken by measure. When a soul beholds itself resigned, and clearly understands that there is no goodness in it -- when it feels itself abashed in the presence of so great a King, and sees how little it pays of the great debt it owes Him -- why should it be necessary for it to waste its time on this subject? Why should it not rather proceed to other matters which our Lord places before it, and for neglecting which there is no reason? His Majesty surely knows better than we do what kind of food is proper for us.
24. So, then, it is of great consequence that the director should be prudent -- I mean, of sound understanding -- and a man of experience. If, in addition to this, he is a learned man, it is a very great matter. But if these three qualities cannot be had together, the first two are the most important, because learned men may be found with whom we can communicate when it is necessary. I mean, that for beginners learned men are of little use, if they are not men of prayer. I do not say that they are to have nothing to do with learned men, because a spirituality, the foundations of which are not resting on the truth, I would rather were not accompanied with prayer. Learning is a great thing, for it teaches us who know so little, and enlightens us; so when we have come to the knowledge of the truths contained in the holy writings, we do what we ought to do. From silly devotions, God deliver us!
25. I will explain myself further, for I am meddling, I believe, with too many matters. It has always been my failing that I could never make myself understood -- as I said before -- but at the cost of many words. A nun begins to practise prayer; if her director be silly, and if he should take it into his head, he will make her feel that it is better for her to obey him than her own superior. He will do all this without any evil purpose, thinking that he is doing right. For if he be not a religious himself, he will think this right enough. If his penitent be a married woman, he will tell her that it is better for her to give herself unto prayer, when she ought to attend to her house, although she may thereby displease her husband. And so it is, he knows not how to make arrangements for time and business, so that everything may be done as it ought to be done; he has no light himself, and can therefore give none to others, however much he may wish to do so.
26. Though learning does not seem necessary for discretion, my opinion has always been, and will be, that every Christian should continue to be guided by a learned director if he can, and the more learned the better. They who walk in the way of prayer have the greater need of learning; and the more spiritual they are the greater is that need. Let them not say that learned men not given to prayer are not fit counsellors for those who pray: that is a delusion. I have conversed with many; and now for some years I have sought them the more, because of my greater need of them. I have always been fond of them; for though some of them have no experience, they do not dislike spirituality, neither are they ignorant of what it is, because in the sacred writings with which they are familiar they always find the truth about spirituality. I am certain myself that a person given to prayer, who treats of these matters with learned men, unless he is deceived with his own consent, will never be carried away by any illusions of the devil. I believe that the evil spirits are exceedingly afraid of learned men who are humble and virtuous, knowing that they will be found out and defeated by them.
27. I have said this because there are opinions held to the effect that learned men, if they are not spiritual, are not suited for persons given to prayer. I have just said that a spiritual director is necessary; but if he be not a learned man, he is a great hindrance. It will help us much if we consult those who are learned, provided they be virtuous; even if they be not spiritual, they will be of service to me, and God will enable them to understand what they should teach; He will even make them spiritual, in order that they may help us on. I do not say this without having had experience of it; and I have met with more than two.
28. I say, then, that a person who shall resign his soul to be wholly subject to one director will make a great mistake, if he is in religion, unless he finds a director of this kind, because of the obedience due to his own superior. His director may be deficient in the three requisites I speak of, and that will be no slight cross, without voluntarily subjecting the understanding to one whose understanding is none of the best. At least, I have never been able to bring myself to do it, neither does it seem to me to be right.
29. But if he be a person living in the world, let him praise God for the power he has of choosing whom he will obey, and let him not lose so excellent a liberty; yea, rather let him be without a director till he finds him -- for our Lord will give him one, if he is really humble, and has a desire to meet with the right person. I praise God greatly -- we women, and those who are unlearned, ought always to render Him unceasing thanks -- because there are persons who, by labours so great, have attained to the truth, of which we unlearned people are ignorant. I often wonder at learned men -- particularly those who are in religion -- when I think of the trouble they have had in acquiring that which they communicate to me for my good, and that without any more trouble to me than the asking for it. And yet there are people who will not take advantage of their learning: God grant it may not be so!
30. I see them undergo the poverty of the religious life, which is great, together with its penances, its meagre food, the yoke of obedience, which makes me ashamed of myself at times; and with all this, interrupted sleep, trials everywhere, everywhere the Cross. I think it would be a great evil for any one to lose so great a good by his own fault. It may be some of us, who are exempted from these burdens -- who have our food put into our mouths, as they say, and live at our ease -- may think, because we give ourselves a little more to prayer, that we are raised above the necessity of such great hardships. Blessed be Thou, O Lord, who hast made me so incapable and so useless; but I bless Thee still more for this -- that Thou quickenest so many to quicken us. Our prayer must therefore be very earnest for those who give us light. What should we be without them in the midst of these violent storms which now disturb the Church? If some have fallen, the good will shine more and more. May it please our Lord to hold them in His hand, and help them, that they may help us.
31. I have gone far away from the subject I began to speak of; but all is to the purpose for those who are beginners, that they may begin a journey which is so high in such a way as that they shall go on by the right road. Coming back, then, to what I spoke of before, the meditation on Christ bound to the pillar, it is well we should make reflections for a time, and consider the sufferings He there endured, for whom He endured them, who He is who endured them, and the love with which He bore them. But a person should not always fatigue himself in making these reflections, but rather let him remain there with Christ, in the silence of the understanding.
32. If he is able, let him employ himself in looking upon Christ, who is looking upon him; let him accompany Him, and make his petitions to Him; let him humble himself, and delight himself in Christ, and keep in mind that he never deserved to be there. When he shall be able to do this, though it may be in the beginning of his prayer, he will find great advantage; and this way of prayer brings great advantages with it -- at least, so my soul has found it. I do not know whether I am describing it aright; you, my father, will see to it. May our Lord grant me to please Him rightly for ever! Amen.
1. Ch. xi. section 24.
2. Philipp. iv.13; |Omnia possum in Eo.|
3. Confess. x. ch.29: |Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis.|
4. St. Matt. xiv.30: |Videns vero ventum validum, timuit.|
5. Ch. vii. sections 27, 31.
6. Ch. vii. section 16.
7. See ch. xxxi. section 7, and ch. xxxix. section 14.
8. Ch. xii. section 3.
9. See St. John of the Cross, Living Flame, pp.267, 278-284, Engl. trans.
10. See ch. xv. section 20.
11. Section 18.
12. Prudence, experience, and learning; see section 24.
13. Dan. xii.3: |Qui autem docti fuerint, fulgebunt quasi splendor firmamenti.|
14. Section 19.