Catechism : Prayer

47. Life of Prayer (n. 2697-2794)

1. Making other people’s prayer one’s own (Catechism n. 2700-2704)

The following is a quote from Yielding to Love Chapter 12, pages 120-121)

‘A simple way of praying that is available to anyone is to repeat prayers composed by other people. However, since prayer must come from the heart it is important to find prayers that speak to our heart, prayers that we can make our own and that we can pray honestly and attentively. Repeating prepared prayers can appear simple, but Teresa assures us that such prayers can take a person into the most intimate contemplation. “While you are repeating some vocal prayer, it is possible for the Lord to grant you perfect contemplation … You are enkindled in love without understanding how. You know that you are rejoicing in the one you love, but you do not know how. You are well aware that this is not a joy which you can attain through understanding. You embrace it without understanding how, but you do understand that it is a blessing you are receiving … This is perfect contemplation … In contemplation we can do nothing. God does everything. The work is God’s alone and far transcends human nature (The Way of Perfection 25).

If you find that this way of praying appeals to you, you will find encouragement from Saint Therese of Lisieux who writes: ‘Sometimes when I am in such a state of spiritual dryness that not a single good thought occurs to me, I say very slowly the ‘Our Father’ or the ‘Hail Mary’, and these prayers suffice to take me out of myself and wonderfully refresh me (Story of a Soul, chapter 11).

While any prayer can be helpful, there is, of course, a special place here for the prayer given us by Jesus himself: the ‘Our Father’(see Matthew 6:9-13). Much of Teresa’s Way of Perfection is devoted to showing what a rich prayer this is. Included among her many pieces of advice is the following: ‘If you are to recite the Our Father well, one thing is necessary: you must not leave the side of the Master who taught it to you’ (Way of Perfection 24). Praying the Our Father in this way with Jesus can help us to focus our mind and heart on the movement of Jesus’ Spirit drawing us into his prayer.

2. Meditation (Catechism n. 2705-2708) – see Chapter 46.

3. Examen of Consciousness

The following is a quote from Yielding to Love Chapter 14, pages 131-134:

‘Good musicians take great care of their instruments. Violinists are constantly checking the tension on the strings to keep their violins in tune. In a similar way, if we are committed to a life of prayer we need to monitor our lives, for the quality of prayer is best assessed by examining our attitudes and reactions. As Jesus said: ‘you know a tree by its fruit’(Matthew 12:23).

It is good to take time regularly to reflect on our lives with a view to noticing the movement of the Spirit of God in our hearts, and our attention or lack of attention to God’s presence and inspiration. This practice of regular reflection is sometimes called an examination of conscience. This is accurate, as long as we do not limit our focus to observing where we have gone wrong. We must learn to be sensitive to the light, even more than to the shade, for if we neglect to look for the light we are in danger of stumbling from darkness to darkness, from sin to sin.

A few moments of reflection over our day provide the opportunity to note and relish with gratitude moments of communion with God, which might otherwise be forgotten and leave no trace. Such reflective prayer provides the opportunity also to note and express our sorrow for the times when we were inattentive. It makes us more sensitive to the action of God in our lives and we get to know God more intimately. We also become more sensitive to our habitual ways of responding to God, both positive and negative. We get to know ourselves better, always in the atmosphere of trusting prayer. The following suggestions might prove helpful.

Whatever we are feeling and whatever is happening to us, we begin by placing ourselves trustingly in God’s presence and, in the company of Jesus, we search our memory for something, anything, however apparently insignificant, for which we can feel grateful. This will sometimes be difficult, but there will always be something. Having found it, let us focus upon it, savour the moment, and express our thanks to God. Can we say: ‘Whatever you may do, I thank you’. We open our hearts to receive the Giver of all gifts.

Next, we pray to God to be able to see our day in the light of faith. We ask Jesus to look into our eyes and show us what he sees. We ask his Spirit, dwelling in us, to reveal to us our soul, remembering the words of Jesus: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. The pure in heart will also see themselves as God sees them.

As a third step and in the presence of Jesus, we look back over the day at the places where we have been, the activity in which we have been involved, the people whom we have encountered. We ask God: ‘Please show me now where you were then and what you were saying to me.’ We keep our attention on God, on waiting for God to reveal what God wants to show us. This is not a time for looking in at our lives as though we were an outside observer. It is important to remember from the inside. We pray to recall the feelings, the movements of heart (or lack of them). We are not simply remembering, we are asking the Spirit of Jesus to shine gently in our hearts and to reveal how God was present in the moments of our day. Even when the surface of our lives is being whipped up by storms, there is an undercurrent drawing us into communion with God and ‘guiding us along the right path.’

We will recall moments when what Saint Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit will be apparent. We will recall moments of ‘joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22). These are moments when we were in communion with God and were responding to God’s love. We thank God for them. We will also recall moments when the fruits of the Spirit were absent. We may also recall moments when we rejected grace, when we sinned, when we followed a habitual line of self-gratification, neglecting the deep longing of our hearts. These are moments when we were not in communion with God. We express our sorrow and open our heart to God’s healing and forgiving mercy.

If something quite significant stands out, either positive or negative, we delay over it, savouring either our gratitude or our sorrow. We are to be especially attentive if we find that something is disturbing our feelings, or if we discover that we are doing something that we don’t want to reveal to our spiritual director but wish to keep secret.

We ask to be more alert to the grace which God is certainly offering us to continue listening attentively and to take steps to avoid the inattentive or sinful behaviour which we have observed. We finish the reflective moments with an act of longing and love, looking forward with expectation to the wonderful ways that God will be loving us in the time before the next reflection.

We will find that regular attention to the state of our soul such as we have described is essential to the fine-tuning of our spirit. It takes only a few minutes, and can save us from wasting our lives in activity that does not come from our heart. In Japanese the expression ‘too busy’ when written in kanji is composed of two radicals, one representing the heart and the other representing destruction. Jesus challenges us: ‘Even if you were to gain the whole world it would be worthless if in doing so you lost your life’. An unreflective life is not a life that is worth living. To summarise:

• Place myself in God’s presence. What do I feel grateful for today?

• Ask Jesus to let me see my day through his eyes.

• Ask Jesus to show me now what he was trying to show me during the day: the good and the bad.

• Delay on anything that stands out, expressing gratitude or sorrow.

• Pray to be more attentive and sensitive to God’s inspiration.

• Conclude with an act of longing and love.’

4. Contemplative Prayer (Catechism n. 2709-2719)

The Catechism begins its treatment of Contemplative Prayer with the following statement:

‘What Is Contemplative Prayer? St. Teresa answers: "Contemplative prayer [oracion mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us"(Life 8.5). Contemplative prayer seeks him "whom my soul loves"(Song of Songs 1:7). It is Jesus, and in him, the Father. We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love, and we seek him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of him and to live in him. In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself’(n. 2709).

We quote from Yielding to Love Chapter 19, pages 159-160.

‘We are made for love. It is our longing to be in communion that drives our basic desire to know. It drives all our ways of engaging the world. It is our longing for communion with God that drives all our praying. Though this longing is natural, our practical, busy, everyday lives, especially in the extroverted world in which most of us live, can mean that we live largely unaware of it. When we do become aware of it, we can wonder what is happening to us and we are tempted to wonder if it is real. Maybe it is something for saints, but not for us.

It is vital that we listen to this yearning, and we may need encouragement to do so. The experience of the Psalmist can help: ‘O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you’ (Psalm 38:9).  ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42:1).

We must trust this longing. Like the deer longing for flowing streams we may not know what direction to take, or we may not have the energy to run. Let us be gentle with ourselves. It is God who has placed the longing in our heart, and, provided we attend to it, we will continue to find ourselves drawn. We do not have to go anywhere to be with God. God is within us. We are simply to say Yes to God as God draws us inwards into our own heart where God longs to be in communion with us. Give in to the longing. Create times of stillness. Learn to ‘waste time’ in prayer, listening to the murmuring of the longing as it washes over the rocks of uncertainty, doubt, inexperience and novelty.

The experience of the Psalmist can help persuade us that in experiencing this longing we are not alone: ‘O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (Psalm 63:1). We are encouraged, too, by the words of Jeremiah, which tell us of God’s response to our longing: ‘When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 29:13).

Teresa tells us that if we wish to grow in prayer we will need the eyes and the heart of an eagle. She assures us beginners that, though great desires for God can mask illusions and pride (we might fancy ourselves as better than others), the answer is to be found in humility and trust, not in the blunting of desire. She prays: ‘No, my God, no; no more trust in anything I can desire for myself. Desire from me what you want to desire, because this is what I want: for all my good is in pleasing you’ (17th Soliloquy). ‘Before the Spouse belongs to you completely, He makes you desire him vehemently by certain delicate means which you do not understand’ (Interior Castle 6.2.1).

To begin a life of prayer we must be attentive to the invitation of God whose Spirit is drawing us into the very centre of our being where God has made a home as in a temple. To persevere in prayer we must, with awakened and attentive heart, stay in touch with the longing of our soul for God, for, as John of the cross reminds us: ‘God does not place his desire and love in the soul except according to its desire and love. Anyone truly loving God must strive not to fail in this love, for you will thereby induce God, if we may so express it, to further love you and find delight in you’(Spiritual Canticle 13.12).’

The rest of the section is a quote from Yielding to Love Chapter 20, pages 163-174.

‘Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross speak of this prayer as ‘passive’ because, in the words of John of the Cross, ‘pure contemplation lies in receiving’(Living Flame 3.36). They speak of it as ‘contemplation’ because there is nothing for us to do except receive in wonder and submit to the transforming effect of God’s gift of union. Of course, all prayer is a response to God, for it is God who creates us and who holds us in existence. It is God who ‘has poured love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’(Romans 5:5). In active prayer, inspired by God’s grace, it is we who are determining our response. In passive prayer, the initiative is entirely with God.

In her Interior Castle Teresa begins to speak of passive prayer in the fourth stage of the journey into the interior of the soul where full communion with God is experienced. It is important to emphasise that passing through the seven stages is not like climbing a ladder, when each step gives way to the next. There is progress, but prayer of any kind can happen anywhere along the journey. On the one hand, as Teresa says: ‘There is no stage of prayer so sublime that it is not necessary to return often to the beginning’(Life 13.15).

On the other hand, again in the words of Teresa: ‘While you are repeating some vocal prayer, it is possible for the Lord to grant you perfect contemplation … You are enkindled in love without understanding how. You know that you are rejoicing in the one you love, but you do not know how. You are well aware that this is not a joy that you can attain through understanding. You embrace it without understanding how, but you do understand that it is a blessing you are receiving … This is perfect contemplation … In contemplation we can do nothing. God does everything. The work is God’s alone and far transcends human nature’ (Way of Perfection 25).

The point she is making in her Interior Castle is that in the fourth stage of our interior journey passive prayer is experienced, though intermittently, and that it increases as we learn to yield to the attraction of God’s love and live more intimately and more habitually in communion with God. This often comes after a long period spent in what Teresa calls the third stage, during which in our active prayer our attention moves more and more away from ourselves to focus on Jesus. This process has been the subject of Parts One and Two of this book.

Passive prayer would seem to be the prayer typical of childhood, for a child can do little except receive. A child must mature, however. We have to learn to own our life and develop our ego. We have to explore creative ways of acting in the world and of relating to the mystery that we call God. We have been exploring some of what this means in Parts One and Two of this book. However, there comes a stage in the development of our communion with God when we are called to let go control and allow God to draw us beyond active prayer, at least as an habitual practice. We must learn to yield to God’s love.

John of the Cross likens prayer to the playing of a musical instrument (see Spiritual Canticle 38.4). Inspired by God and enabled by God’s grace, in active prayer we are, as it were, practising the art of playing the strings of our heart and mind, learning to ponder the mystery of God and enjoy the harmony of experienced communion. In passive prayer we leave it to God to guide our fingers over the strings. 

We have already seen how active prayer can become simpler and more recollected. We noted that, having described the prayer of simple awareness, Teresa goes on to speak of a form of recollection that appears similar, but is in fact significantly different: ‘When God grants this favour it is a great help to seek Him within where He is found more easily and in a way more beneficial to us than when sought in creatures, as Saint Augustine says after having looked for God in many places. Do not think that this recollection is acquired by the intellect striving to think about God within itself. Such efforts are good and an excellent kind of meditation because they are founded on a truth, which is that God is within us. But this is not the Prayer of Recollection because it is something which each of us can do - with the help of God, as should be understood of everything. What I am speaking of comes in a different way. Sometimes, before even beginning to think of God … one noticeably senses a gentle drawing inward … This does not come when we want it, but when God wants to grant us this favour’(Interior Castle IV.3.3).

The direction of our prayer has altered. Teresa says: ‘When we let go the attempt to control our prayer, we allow a gentle drawing inward’(Interior Castle IV.3.3). Earlier we were trimming our sails to tack with the gentle breeze. Now we experience ourselves being drawn to let go and yield to an attraction that draws us and over which we exercise no control.

The recollection experienced here is not the result of our decision to simplify our method of praying. It is not the fruit of our controlling our breathing or practising a mantra. It is an experience that we are powerless to induce. Both Teresa and John warn us not to attempt to manufacture this quiet for ourselves (see Ascent II.17.7). There is nothing wrong with practising techniques to quieten ourselves down so long as we don’t confuse this with the quiet that is God’s gift, the quiet that comes with passive prayer. We refer the reader back to the quotation from A Carthusian Miscellany in the chapter on A Silent Heart.

Teresa and John also warn us not to resist yielding to the grace of passive prayer by attempting to cling to accustomed ways of praying. Letting go control of our praying is not always easy, and so it is here that we must learn an important lesson. In passive prayer God is drawing us into a communion that is beyond accustomed thoughts and feelings. Our motivation in praying has not been as pure as we might have imagined. We have been seeking God, but we have also been seeking the pleasure of our thoughts and feelings about God. If we are to be in communion with God we will have to learn to let go these thoughts and feelings, for they are not God. In active prayer we were motivated in part by the desire to think about God, to ‘taste’ God, to ‘feel’ God. Now, says John of the Cross:

You must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God. You must live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel God.  All these desires disquiet the soul and distract you from the peaceful quiet and sweet idleness of the contemplation which is being communicated to you (Dark Night I.10.4).

God alone can bring about the detachment. This is why Teresa speaks of this prayer as ‘supernatural’. We can long for it. We can prepare for it. However, only the gift of the Spirit can cause this prayer to well up from within. It is for us to welcome it and allow the letting go. The difficulty that we experience in letting go depends on the level of our attachment. It is because of the difficulties that John of the Cross speaks of the experience of passive prayer as a ‘dark night’.

The drying up of our thoughts and feelings is necessary, for they are not capable of transforming union. At first we will wonder whether the drying up is the result of our infidelity – and it may be. We may know deep down that we are being called to give up some addictive behaviour, or to rearrange our priorities, but we are not yet willing to do so. Half consciously we avoid intimacy in our contact with God because we know that if we do experience it we will have to look away or be faced with our unwillingness to change our lives. The easiest way to put off repentance is to put off prayer.

As noted in the chapter on Distractions, dryness in prayer can be a lesson in humility. We may well experience a long waiting that impels us to living a life of more consistent virtue, something that is necessary if we are to be ready for passive prayer. However, if we genuinely want to be in communion with God, and if we genuinely live in a way that is consistent with this desire, and if we find that our ‘dryness’ in prayer spills over into other areas of our life, such that we cannot readily distract ourselves from our disappointment in other ways, we can be confident that our lack of feeling and lack of ‘inspiring’ or ‘consoling’ thoughts is the effect of God’s grace. God is beginning to take us beyond the limits of active prayer into a more profound communion. John of the Cross assures us that the very fact that we are turning more and more to God is a sign that the dryness does not come from weakness or from being lukewarm; for it is the nature of being lukewarm not to care greatly for the things of God (Dark Night I.9.3).

Hearing this said is one thing. Truly believing it is another, and that is why this transition from active to passive prayer marks what is for many the most difficult stage in our prayer. We are tempted to give up. This is especially true for those of us who have a poor self-image anyhow. We find it hard to believe that dryness could be a grace. We automatically presume that we are at fault, and since, no matter how hard we try we seem to be getting nowhere, we are severely tempted to give up prayer and do something more practical.

The difficulty that we encounter is compounded by the intermittent nature of the gift in the early stages of contemplation. Though we are beginning to learn to yield control of our prayer to the mysterious initiative of God, we are entering into what is for us uncharted waters. Acquired habits of prayer continue to assert themselves. In the words of Father Marie-Eugène, love has not yet reduced reason to folly or completely submitted it to the light and rapture of the Holy Spirit. The effect of this is that one minute we are engaged in our accustomed prayer, the next minute we experience prayer welling up from the mysterious depths of our soul; then this dries up as suddenly as it appeared, and we are back to our accustomed prayer, reflecting on a scene from the Gospels, or repeating a mantra as we stay with the rhythm of our breathing, or simply holding ourselves in God’s presence as we express our longing, our wonder, our gratitude, our sorrow or our pleading.  Moreover, John of the Cross’s advice is that we should continue in active prayer for as long as we can. If it is passive prayer that God is offering us, active prayer will not be possible for our mind is plunged into darkness precisely so that it will not impede our communion with God.

To the extent that we find it difficult to let go control of our prayer we can find the experience of contemplation quite disturbing. This is especially so when we are not helped to understand the dynamics of what is going on in our prayer. We need a lot of love and understanding at this stage and we need wise counseling. This is where we need the guidance of those like Teresa and John who are offered us by the Church as sure guides along what can be a very dark path.

They assure us that while up to this point we have been finding joy in considering the truths of our faith, God is now drawing us to experience the gaze of the One for whom our hearts long. If we accept the loss of the joys to which we have grown accustomed, and if we abandon ourselves in trust to the action of Jesus’ Spirit in our souls, we will be transformed by the all-consuming love that is God. Like a drop of water we are being drawn into the ocean of God’s love and are being absorbed into it. Accompanying this experience of love, there is joy, as well as a sense of belonging, communion, and peace. This is the love for which we are made and for which we long. We are more aware than before of the fact that the silence, the stillness, the welling up of joy or gratitude or sorrow or pleading, is from God. We are also more aware than before of the fact that there is nothing we can do to obtain it.

This awareness is essential for there could be nothing worse than our taking any credit for the communion that God is now giving us. That is spiritual pride, the most dangerous sin and one that would surely lead to God having to hold back the communion that God was wanting to offer us. God knows how harmful spiritual pride is for us and out of mercy God would have to hold back the grace in which we were taking pride. We might well be able to confect our own form of spiritual silence in order to carry on the self-deception, but it would not be true contemplation. The ‘long winters’ that we experience at this stage of our prayer journey, long winters in which nothing seems to be happening, help preserve us from spiritual pride for we know from hard experience that contemplation is a gift from God. There really is nothing we can do to acquire it, apart, as has already been stressed, from preparing our souls for it. We can clear away the undergrowth and we can dig the well, but we cannot create the spring.

We need to listen to Jesus as he tells us that we will find our selves only when we learn to ‘lose’ our selves (Matthew 16:25), and that we must become like little children if we are to enter into the domain of love into which he is inviting us (Matthew 18:3). There comes a time when we are ready to let go the ego that we have developed and to surrender in love to God. It is when we begin to surrender in this way that we begin to experience intermittent moments of this more profound communion.

 If we are willing to remain open to these graced moments when God draws us into divine communion beyond all our thoughts and feelings, and if we resist the temptation to take control of them or to possess them or to attempt to reproduce them by our own efforts or techniques, God’s longing to be in communion with us is such that transient experiences of recollection tend to deepen so that the soul finds itself wrapped in quiet prayer. John of the Cross assures us that the surest sign that this prayer is from God: ‘is that we take pleasure in being alone and wait with loving attentiveness upon God, without making any particular meditation, in inward peace and quiet and rest’(Ascent II.13.4).

Teresa calls this the ‘Prayer of Quiet’. When we were in control of our prayer we worked for such quiet, now the quiet wells up from the mysterious depths of the soul. We are drawn into an experience of prayer from within.

Earlier we found ways to quieten our imagination, memory and mind. Now, surprised by grace, these same faculties ‘are absorbed and are looking as though in wonder at what they see’(The Interior Castle IV.2.6). It is this ‘looking as though in wonder’ that explains the word ‘contemplation’. Now, the only water that is refreshing the garden of the soul ‘comes from its own source, which is God’(The Interior Castle IV.2.4; see IV.2.3). From the centre of our soul, the fire of God’s love radiates out and ‘the warmth and the fragrant perfumes spread through the entire soul’(The Interior Castle IV.2.6).

This touch of God leaves us dissatisfied with any other pleasure. In those moments when God gives us the gift of contemplation we cannot use our imagination or meditate in the ways we used to, nor do we want to. We long only for the communion experienced in the silence and stillness granted us by God. God is purifying our imagination, memory and understanding in ways that we simply could not do in the earlier stages of active prayer however zealous we might have been. God is transforming our souls so that, like Saint Paul, we will be able to say: ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’(Galatians 2:20). Our mind is being transformed into the mind of Christ. Our heart is becoming his heart. It is his communion of love which we are being invited to experience. Like a log in a fire this will require a profound purification, with much blackening and hissing, till our whole being is transformed by the all-consuming fire of God’s love.

As noted in an earlier chapter, communion with God requires a heart that is willing to be detached from all that is not God. We must work at this detachment, but there are limits to what we can do however courageously we respond to grace. Only God’s love can detach us and only the communion offered us in passive prayer can bring about the radical detachment needed for transforming union. The letting go that is an essential element in passive prayer is God’s way of delivering us from attachments to our desires, our feelings, our thoughts, our growth in grace, our selves.

It needs to be repeated that this letting go of our ego can be painful. We need to know what to do in this crucial stage of our inner journey when we find ourselves drawn into passive prayer. Let us listen to John of the Cross as he speaks of a mistake that is commonly made by those who are being drawn from active to passive prayer: ‘Many spiritual persons, after having exercised themselves in approaching God through images, forms, and meditations suitable for beginners, err greatly if they do not determine, dare, or know how to detach themselves from these sense methods. For God then wishes to lead them to more spiritual, interior, and invisible graces by removing the gratification derived from discursive meditation. They even attempt to hold on to these methods, desiring to travel the road of consideration and meditation, using images as before. They believe such procedure is a permanent requirement. They strive hard to meditate, but draw out little satisfaction, or none at all; rather their lot becomes aridity, fatigue and restlessness of soul. This aridity grows as their striving through meditation for that former sweetness, now unobtainable, increases. We will no longer taste that food for the senses but rather enjoy another food, more delicate, interior and spiritual. We will not acquire this spiritual nourishment through the work of the imagination, but by pacifying the soul, by leaving it to its more spiritual quiet and repose’(Ascent II.12:6; compare Night I.10.4 and Living Flame 3.32).

The key is to keep our heart awake, alert, attentive, and directed towards God. Longing for communion, we are to yield to the gentle drawing of grace when it is offered, and when it is not we are to take up again the active prayer to which we are accustomed.

In passive prayer our attention is not on insights received, important though these are. Nor is our attention on any accompanying psycho-somatic phenomena that we may experience, however impressive these might be. Our attention is to be on God who brings about the transforming union effected by love. In contemplation we are purified, illumined and united to God in love. We are being transformed into love by the all-consuming love that is God, like a log being transformed into flame by an all-consuming fire. In contemplation God communicates a secret wisdom that God infuses into the soul through love. Supernatural contemplation is sustained above all by peaceful surrender and humility. In the words of Teresa: ‘The important thing is not to think much, but to love much … Love does not consist in great delight, but in desiring with strong determination to please God in everything’ (Interior Castle 4.1.7).

In offering us the sublime gift of transforming union, God is offering us what our deepest spirit ultimately desires. What used to give pleasure to our unpurified senses, imagination and emotions gives pleasure no longer. Our feelings may rebel, but God is granting us an immense favour. God is offering God’s very self to us. We should not be surprised that whatever is not God loses its appeal. This includes our own pious thoughts about God, the images of God that have helped us at an earlier stage, and the feelings that warmed our heart when we thought of God’s love. These are all good, and they have assisted us as we were drawn to God, but they are not God. Even in prayer we can no longer arouse feelings of devotion at will. Thinking about the mysteries of faith - something that used to give us consolation - now leaves us dry and distracted. We can no longer achieve a sense of quiet communion with God the way we used to. This is because God is weaning us off such attractive, but not yet fully purified, pleasures. God is drawing us beyond the limits that we can attain by our own efforts. God wants to take us where our hearts wish to be but where we cannot go while we are in control.

We should be wary of setting strict guidelines for what to do when God grants us the gift of contemplation. God is directing us now, and God’s light is lighting our way, however faintly and intermittently. Furthermore, people differ greatly. We should offer ourselves in peaceful and silent surrender to God. Saint Teresa writes: ‘Abandon yourself into the arms of love, and His Majesty will teach you what to do next. Almost your whole work is to realise your unworthiness to receive such great good and to occupy yourself in thanksgiving’(The Interior Castle IV.3.8).

The Spirit that moves us in prayer is the Spirit that Jesus shares with his Father. Through this gift we are being drawn to share Jesus’ own prayer-communion with God. This communion always comes as a surprise and as a gift of love. We experience it when we yield to the divine attraction drawing us into God. We can long for this communion with God, and we can prepare for it, but there is nothing we can do to bring it about. Only the gift of the Spirit can cause to well up within us the spring of living water promised by Jesus. When the water is flowing, all striving ceases, words are no longer relevant, and we find ourselves caught up in the silent wonder of communion. Like a drop of water we are being drawn into the ocean of God’s love and are being absorbed into it.’

The Night of Faith (Catechism n. 2719)

The following is taken from Yielding to Love chapter 23, pages 187-195.

‘In the early stages of passive prayer, God draws us into a communion that is beyond the reach of the imagination, memory or thoughts. Though we are in communion with God in the depth of our soul, our consciousness insofar as it depends upon the senses can no longer guide us. John of the Cross speaks of the confusion and sense of deprivation as a kind of darkness. To trust the gift of prayer being offered us we have to learn to let go the pleasure we experience through holy thoughts and feelings of closeness. We have to learn the discipline of trusting that the communion being experienced in our will is what really matters, and that we are praying in order to be in communion with God not to feel close to God. In this darkness we learn to focus on God’s action within, without being distracted by our senses, by our memory and imagination, or by the mind searching for understanding. We come to a certain harmony in which our bodies and our senses submit to our longing to be in communion with God in the way willed by God.

With the deepening of contemplation in what Teresa speaks of as the Prayer of Quiet and the Prayer of Union, the inflowing of God is experienced, and with it a deep peace and a profound joy. But often the tide of love seems to ebb. God, who has touched our soul in such an intimate way, seems to withdraw and to be absent. We have seen that this is in order to stretch the soul by desire, making us capable of more love. It also purifies us of all attachments, making our love more pure. This is a painful experience. It is as though we are in darkness in the very centre of our soul. We long to see the one who has drawn us into love but we cannot. No longer is it our senses and the faculties that depend upon them that are being purified; now it is the core of our ego. God is calling us and we are being drawn into a prayer that relies solely on faith. The light with which God illumines the soul cannot be registered by any of our faculties. They are plunged into darkness. We are journeying in the darkness of faith. Divine warmth and fragrance are not registered in the normal way, for the flowing in of love coming from God draws us beyond ourselves into communion with God in the inmost dwelling places of the soul. The attraction and the union occur in a darkness that John of the Cross speaks of as the ‘night of the spirit’.

In a letter composed in 1890, Therese of Lisieux wrote: ‘Jesus took me by the hand, and He made me enter a subterranean passage … where I see nothing but a half-veiled light, the light which was diffused by the lowered eyes of my Fiancé’s face! My Fiancé says nothing to me, and I say nothing to Him either except that I love Him more than myself.’ Six years later she wrote: ‘If at times you seem to hide yourself, it is you yourself who come to help me search for you.’ And she continues the same theme just months before her death in 1897: ‘If you leave me deprived of your caresses, I will not cease to smile. In peace, I will wait for your return, and never stop praying my canticles of love.’

This darkness brings its own special suffering. First and foremost is the suffering caused by the profound but passing touch of God’s love. This passing is a cause of pain – the pain of longing for the union to be granted again (see Interior Castle V.2.9). Teresa writes: ‘It is as though from the fire enkindled in the brazier that is my God, a spark leapt forth and so struck the soul that the flaming fire was felt by it’(Interior Castle VI.2.4). The spark, however, was not enough to set the soul on fire – hence the pain of longing: ‘The soul is left so full of longings to enjoy completely the One who grants these wonderful favours that it lives in a great, though delightful, torment … Everything it sees wearies it. When it is alone it finds some relief … yet when it does not experience this pain, something is felt to be missing’(Interior Castle VI.6.1).

A little further on she writes: ‘The soul feels a strange solitude because no creature in all the earth provides it company, not being the One it loves. The soul sees that it is like a person hanging, who cannot support himself on any earthly thing; nor can it ascend into heaven. On fire with this thirst, it cannot get to the water; and the thirst is not one that is endurable but already at such a point that nothing will take it away. Nor does the soul desire that it be taken away save by that water of which our Lord spoke to the Samaritan woman. Yet no one gives such water to the soul’(Interior Castle VI.11.5). God seems silent, hidden, absent. This is so that, with our heart thus pierced and hurt by desire, we may finally open up to God with a greater capacity for receiving the communion that God is offering us.

Over and above this pain of unfulfilled longing, there are other causes for suffering that can accompany the deepening of contemplative prayer. Teresa names the following in her Interior Castle (VI.1). People may accuse us of posing to be holy, and we may wonder if they might be right. Others may praise us, when we know that all is gift, and that the only proper response is gratitude to God and not praise of ourselves. Teresa assures us that we have to learn to take both blame and praise lightly, and quickly turn from both to God. We can find ourselves being misunderstood by a spiritual director, who may be incapable of giving us wise help. We can be disturbed by thoughts that we are being deceived and are deceiving others. Our reason may assure us that this is not the case, but reason is powerless to help us against such thoughts. Teresa’s advice is clear: ‘If the Lord has granted you the touch of this love, you should thank him very much. You do not have to fear deception. Your only fear is that you might prove ungrateful for so generous a gift. So strive to better your entire life, and to serve’(Interior Castle VI.2,5).

Our sins are probably our greatest source of pain. Teresa writes: ‘Suffering over one’s sins increases the more one receives from God … God’s favours are like the waves of a large river in that they come and go; but the memory these souls have of their sins clings like thick mire. It always seems that these sins are alive in the memory, and this is a heavy cross’(Interior Castle VI.7.1,2).

God is now working in the soul for its final purging from all imperfection till all that remains is love. When all resistance to love is conquered, when the soul has fully surrendered to love, then and only then there is experienced the peace of being fully in God’s love. Let us listen to John of the Cross: ‘The dark night is a certain flowing in of God into the human creature, which purges it of the ignorance and imperfections belonging to its very nature. God teaches it in a strange, secret way, educating it to perfect love. He does this himself; all the creature can do is be lovingly attentive, listening, receptive, allowing itself to be enlightened without understanding how’(Dark Night II.5.1). ‘There is nothing in contemplation or the divine inflow which of itself can give pain; contemplation rather bestows sweetness and delight. The cause for not experiencing these agreeable effects is the soul’s weakness and imperfection at the time, its inadequate preparation, and the qualities it possesses which are contrary to this light. Because of these the soul has to suffer when the divine light shines upon it’(Dark Night II.9.11).

With Prayer of Union comes a need for a psychological revolution in which we have to learn to surrender all control to God to be guided by God in the depths of the soul. We must learn to receive and obey rather than determine our own activity. We are so used to being active, even in our searching for God and in our commitment to prayer. In this enforced passivity it will seem to us that God has abandoned us and left us in darkness. We are being purified till there is no longing in us except to be with God and to do God’s will. God is digging out the deep roots of sin, and purifying us in order to re-create us in the pure fire of divine love.

Teresa knows how gentle we must be with a person suffering the pain of this purifying love: ‘Oh, Jesus, how sad it is to see a soul thus forsaken’(Interior Castle, VI.1.12). This suffering makes the soul more tender, more compassionate to others, more open to love. We learn to identify with Jesus in his cry: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’(Mark 15:34)

Our experience at this time is one of light and darkness. The measure of each depends on our need for purification and on the courage with which we open ourselves to God’s purifying love. John of the Cross writes: ‘The soul never remains in the same state for long, but is continually up and down. This is because we cannot be in the state of perfection … without knowing God and ourself. And so we are given a taste of one – that is exaltation, and then of the other – that is humiliation’(Dark Night, II.18.4).

How are we to sustain the pain of this ‘strange solitude’(Interior Castle VI.11.5), the pain of longing and the pain of knowing our own sinfulness? We must first of all remember that the pain is brought about by the flame of love coming from the brazier of the heart of God (Interior Castle VI.2.4). Nothing stands between us and the one we love. The journey, though at times painful, is a journey into the arms of one who has promised himself to us. Whatever sufferings we have, ‘the soul knows they are great favours’ (Interior Castle VI.1.15). ‘The soul feels that the pain is precious’(Interior Castle VI.11.6): ‘The wound satisfies the soul much more than the delightful and painless absorption of the Prayer of Quiet’(Interior Castle VI.2.2).

The only one who can remove the pain is ‘the true comforter who consoles and strengthens the soul’(Interior Castle VI.11.9).  When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night he was told that he had to be ‘born from above’. This was not something which he could achieve. He was to allow God’s Spirit to engender this new life in him (John chapter 3). This is the Spirit poured out from the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross. We have to learn resignation. We have to learn to surrender our will to the will of God. More than resignation and submission, we are actively to cooperate with grace, to want only what God wants. All asceticism now is to respect the divine initiative. We need to learn to cooperate energetically with grace.John of the Cross writes: ‘It is a great grace from God when God so darkens and impoverishes the soul that the senses cannot deceive it. And that it may not go astray it has nothing to do but to walk in the beaten path of the law of God and of the Church, living solely by faith, dim and true, in certain hope and perfect charity, looking for all its blessings in heaven; living here as a pilgrim, a beggar, an exile, an orphan, desolate, possessing nothing and looking for everything from God’(Letter to Dona Juana Pedraca). Teresa writes: ‘There is no remedy for the tempest but to await the mercy of God’(Interior Castle VI.1.10). ‘The best way to endure these afflictions of the spirit is to engage in external works of charity and to hope in the mercy of God’(Interior Castle VI.1.13).

God sustains us by the virtue of hope, so that we continue to tend towards a communion with God that we know by faith but that we do not yet possess in the full measure of love’s longing. Our spirit groans because we seem not to be going forward, but we continue to long and to trust in the One who loves us and whom we love. Beyond the storms and the darkness we are to keep our gaze fixed on God, who we know by faith is drawing us into the intimacy of divine love.

Teresa recognises that sometimes the darkness is such that we feel abandoned by God, including having no sense of the presence of Jesus. If this is so, we must accept it. At the same time she firmly resisted the teaching of those who said that because God is spirit we have to deliberately leave behind the humanity of Jesus if we wish to draw closer to the transcendent God. ‘If we lose our guide, the good Jesus, we will be unable to find our way’(Interior Castle VI.7.6).

Jesus suffered. Should we expect to be with him and not suffer? Even though we seem to be in darkness, we are walking with the one who is the light of the world: ‘If you walk with me, you will not walk in darkness’(John 8:12). Jesus experienced a profound sense of being abandoned by his Father. It may well be the same for us, but we can be confident that in the darkness Jesus is drawing us to himself and so into communion with his Father: ‘If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself’(John 12:32). Suffering with Jesus is purifying.

There are certain fruits that grace the person who remains faithful to the prayer of faith. The last cords holding us back from flight to God are broken. The last deflections of the will under the impulse of desire cease. Nothing now holds us back from a complete surrender to love. John of the Cross writes: ‘You remain in this condition until your spirit is humbled, softened and purified, until it becomes so delicate, simple and refined that it can be one with the Spirit of God, according to the degree of union of love that God, in his mercy, desires to grant’(Dark Night II.7.3). ‘Oh spiritual soul, when you see your appetites darkened, your inclinations dry and constrained, your faculties incapacitated for any interior exercise, do not be afflicted. Think of this as a grace, since God is freeing you from yourself and taking from you your own activity. However well your actions may have succeeded you did not work so completely, perfectly and securely – owing to their impurity and awkwardness – as you do now that God takes you by the hand and guides you in darkness, as though you were blind, along a way and to a place you know not. You would never have succeeded in reaching this place no matter how good your eyes and your feet’(Dark Night II.16.7).

The experience of the ‘night of the spirit’ leads to a profound humility. John of the Cross writes: ‘The first and chief benefit that this dry and dark night of contemplation causes is the knowledge of self and of one’s own misery. Besides the fact that all the favours God imparts to the soul are ordinarily wrapped in this knowledge, the dryness and emptiness of the faculties in relation to the abundance previously experienced, and the difficulty encountered in the practice of virtue, make the soul recognise its own lowliness and misery, which was not apparent in the time of its prosperity ... Now that the soul is clothed in the garments of labour, dryness and desolation, and that its former lights have been darkened, it possesses more authentic lights in this most excellent virtue of self-knowledge. It considers itself to be nothing and finds no satisfaction in self because it is aware that of itself it neither does nor can do anything’(Dark Night I.12.2).

We are experiencing the triumph of divine Wisdom, for the transformed soul, united to God in undistracted love, radiates the divine light to those with faith to discern and so is a powerful instrument in bringing about the kingdom of God in the world.

In the midst of these aridities, God frequently communicates to the soul, when it least expects, spiritual sweetness, a very pure love, and a spiritual knowledge which is sometimes most delicate. Each of these communications is more valuable than all that the soul previously sought. Yet in the beginning one will not think so because the spiritual inflow is very delicate and the senses do not perceive it (Dark Night I.13.10).

Our faith assures us that the darkness which we are experiencing is the consequence of our being drawn by God into more intimate communion. During the period that both Teresa and John liken to a betrothal, the work of the purifying darkness is completed and there is a special quality to the experience of delight which at times overwhelms the soul: the soul knows that perfect union has been promised. John of the Cross assures us: ‘In that sweet draught of God, wherein the soul is immersed in God, it wholly surrenders itself most willingly and with great sweetness to Him, desiring to be wholly His and never again to have anything in itself that is alien from God … Inasmuch as God transforms the soul into Himself, God makes it to be wholly His and empties it of all that it possessed and that was alien from God. Wherefore the soul is indeed completely given up to God, keeping nothing back, not only according to its will, but also according to what it does, even as God has given Himself freely to the soul. So these two wills are surrendered, satisfied and given up the one to the other, so that neither shall fail the other, as in the faithfulness and stability of a betrothal’(Spiritual Canticle 27).’

Finally, we would do well to reflect on the advice given us in the Catechism n. 2725-2745. It needs no explanation.