This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
A summary by Sinner505 of the book Basic Spiritual Means by Fr. Philip E. Dion
Basic Spiritual Means. What are they? Are we making good use of them? A book by Father Dion, of that very title, is an excellent introduction to this subject. He aims "to instruct the reader in the precise nature of certain basic spiritual means of sanctification. Unless one knows the nature of these means accurately, he cannot use them intelligently, and, moreover, he runs the risk of using them badly, and consequently being hindered by what is intended to help." I think this is important for us. Judging from writings prior to the 1960s, and from the condition of the Church since then, there seems to be some difficulty in getting Catholics to sanctify themselves using the means provided by God through His Church. I think it is fairly obvious that the problem is worse after than before the 1960s, but nonetheless the divines of our holy religion have long exhorted the faithful to take them seriously. And we are in fact pledged to do exactly this, through our reception of the sacraments: to make true and diligent use of the means of holy mother Church, to overcome all our faults and to practice virtue. We are interested in union with God, in attaining Heaven, and in being instruments for the salvation of others as well as of ourselves. So, we must learn. We must learn about the basic spiritual means. What happens when we pray the Rosary? Or attend Mass? Or go to Confession? How can we develop ourselves so that these typical aspects of our Faith will have a greater effect on our souls? How can we be more open to the grace of God, which He showers upon us constantly?
"Furthermore, unless their nature is understood properly, there is little likelihood of their being used with much enthusiasm or zeal. Experience proves that no small amount of confusion and fuzzy thinking, if not downright ignorance, about the nature of these spiritual means exists among [those] who sincerely wish to lead holy lives, but fail to achieve results because of faulty or deficient understanding of these matters." He writes this in 1950s. Can it be any less true today? Let us determine to improve our understanding of the spiritual means of sanctification, so that we will not fail.
We start "with the presumption of the presence of sincere desires to love and serve God". Does this apply to us? I certainly think so. It is possible that in some cases a person arrives to TK more or less desperate about the particular sin that is our first focus, but in short order they learn about the larger project of attaining all the virtues and vanquishing all the sins. And if one hasn't yet, let this be the clarion call! "Motivation, in the final analysis, cannot be imposed from without. It is essentially a doityourself process and must be realized within the faculties of the individual himself." This touches a little on an aspect of the problem of the solitary vice: many of us fall repeatedly, partly because we vacillate on this very point. Most of the time we are motivated, but we hit a rough patch, something we haven't learned to handle yet, and our motivation flags. So part of our task is learning to keep our motivation high. I think a key aspect of our motivation is how deeply we understand, and invest in, and really feel, the truths of our holy religion. A way to deepen our understanding, investment, and feeling, is to ponder them in our hearts, as Mary pondered the words of Simeon. We may ponder by cogitating, by praising God, by admiring God, etc., but one way or another, to ponder is to grow. I am certain of it. The only progress I have ever made was during times of pondering. But more on this later. "The normal means from which motivation proceeds is meditation on the virtue to be acquired or the vice to be dispelled. Essential to any progress in the spiritual life is a conscientious, consistent, and systematic struggle against one's predominant passion or fault which keeps one from perfection." There, he now said what I just said. But neither of us can claim credit. The saints have taught this for centuries. And note: conscientious struggle, consistent struggle, and systematic struggle. What do you think these terms mean? A conscientious struggle: I am aware that I struggle. I am aware of the importance of the struggle: God expects it of me; I cannot sanctify myself without the struggle; I cannot be a light on a bushel basket if I fail to struggle myself; I am aware of the truth toward which I strive, and I accept it as True, as Truth; I am aware that it is my struggleI own it. A consistent struggle: I struggle even when I don't want to struggle. However I am fighting, whether I am striving for Mass more than once a week, or for quiet prayer time (e.g. meditation), etc., I do my 4
best even when I don't feel like it. I look at the results I'm getting. I keep trying. I keep informing myself about options that are available. I fall, I get up again. I believe that Truth exists, that it is for me, that I am expected to embrace it, and that I will keep trying to home in on it however I have been injured in the past. I am not abandoned by my God, no matter what "they" may tell me. A systematic struggle: Here is a hard one. This is where many of us falter. What kind of system do we have? Do we have any system at all? Many of us have a haphazard spiritual battle. We know when we fall, and we know that we have to go to Confession. And we know that we should get to Mass as often as possible, and do some other prayers. But the interior workings, the interior improvements, the interior rejection of sin and the means of building up that rejection: this is very important, and yet we are haphazard about it. We have to be patient as we build up our methods, but nonetheless we begin by recognizing that we are haphazard. And yet, look at the teaching: the struggle must be conscientious, consistent, and systematic. Fr. Dion uses an interesting term in his book: "functional holiness". To me, it gets at the heart of an important question: How does one actually proceed? One hears expressions like, "grow in Christ", or "imitate Christ", or 'frequent the sacraments'. Happy to, happy to, but what do I do when I'm there? How does the spiritual life actually work? "[F]unctional holiness was demonstrated most perfectly by our Divine Saviour on earth in His practice of the three great virtues which characterized His life, namely His obedience, charity, and abandonment. He did what God wanted by obedience and charity; He wanted what God did by the practice of the virtue of abandonment. Perfection for all Christians can likewise be summed up in the practice of the same three virtues. As a corrollary, all lack of perfection and every predominant failing can be viewed as a lack of or violation of one of these three virtues. Because of their transcendent character, the need to understand them well becomes all the more imperative." This is what I mean: Do I really understand the spiritual life? Or do I just hear certain words fairly often, and give them the nod, agreeing that they are important words, but not entirely sure of them? "Weekly confession is a means of spiritual advancement which is rarely used to full advantage, often because of a lack of knowledge of how it should be integrated into the systematic struggle against one's predominant fault, and used as a positive means of growth." The "predominant fault": this is an important term. I don't think we hear it very often. It reflects the beginning of a system of making progress. Fr. Dion is going to show us how to be organized in the spiritual life. When we are in school, are we organized in our attempt to become educated? Do we just blunder around when we are in school, taking a dose of this and a dash of that, supposing that it will add up to an adequate preparation? Yes, we do but.... But not ideally. And in fact people take "majors" and 5
"minors" and other sequences of study that actually do add up to preparation (theoretically!). And in our personal lives, do we just blunder around? Yep, we sure do: and many of us have the scars and wounds to prove it. Many people do not have a sufficiently organized sense of direction and purpose, outside of their latest educational choice and some fraction of their career moves. So it is hardly difficult to imagine that our spiritual life is also fundamentally random. Fundamentally random. We need, nay, we demand, "practical means and instructions for achieving" our sanctification. They exist! It doesn't have to be random! There are ways to take apart, think through, and build up our spiritual progress so that it moves meaningfully and consistently toward the objective: sanctification and Heaven. Again, assuming that we "are truly sincere in [our] desire to seek perfection and live a supernatural life." Fr. Dion offers an additional encouragement, "that much more effort is lacking or misdirected because of ignorance than because of weakness, and that many would rise to far greater heights of perfection if they were but aware of the achievability of the heights". We are not limited to just stopping one ugly sin! We can strive for the heights of sanctity, of integrality, to embrace our vocation of love. Let us learn to "scale the heights".
Fr. Dion begins his book, then, after that optimistic note, by discussing motivation for attaining virtue. To an extent this is a different perspective than the one we often take: we are brought here out of concern to extirpate a particular vice, or several related vices. It is my view that while indeed we must eliminate from our lives the mortal sins we individually commit, it is really a very good idea to think in terms of cultivating virtues. Another point I emphasize is that the term "predominant fault" most probably doesn't refer to the solitary vice, or even to "lust". Our predominant fault will probably turn out to be some sort of selfish tendency rooted in unrealism, which results in stresses that we may have learned to dissipate e.g. through masturbation. Unlearning this is faster if we take the larger view: studying to observe what our real predominant fault is, and working to cultivate virtues generally. But we'll get there eventually. What, then, does Fr. Dion offer us about motivation? He recognizes that disappointed retrospective glances backward, say at the last year, or last decade, are hardly uncommon. Personally I have been working on reducing procrastination for a good while. I also have a problem with temper tantrums. Some of you speak of being chronically impatient, perhaps snapping at others. Gluttony is often mentioned. We go on, probably, for years in these sins, aware of them, interested to stop, but nonetheless sort of stymied. "Why this pitiful progress toward perfection which tends to discourage" us? 6
We probably don't really need the reminder but just in case"dismiss immediately as the cause of this failure the lack of God's grace in a soul seeking to advance". Take the sacraments as an example: they are all perfect in the grace they confect and afford. At least one saint has said that if we truly knew and embraced the grace that is in just one Eucharistic host, we would drop dead of sheer glorious love. (Don't try that at your parish! We need you here!) No but seriously, God's grace is available to us in superabundant supply. "Failure to advance should be ascribed to deficiency in personal efforts which must cooperate with the motions of grace". So that's what we are doing. Basic spiritual means are things we can consciously learn about and apply, using personal effort. Now some may object: love is without method. We can just bask in the love of God. Our holy religion is not based on steps to follow, like zen meditation. That's certainly true. But there are things to learn, and do. It isn't enough to just marvel at a teaching, or to have a reverie at some notion. There are things we can do to be directly and personally engaged in our spiritual progression. Do we really want to overcome our faults? I am pretty sure that to some extent we would prefer not to. We like our faults because we can hide behind them. We find ways to blame other people for them, and to suppose that other people can solve them for us. But, I also suspect that we are here because we want to change more than we want to stay the same. Good. So, we must avoid the temptation to "admire the virtue speculatively". It's not enough to say that a virtue "would be nice to have". "It is only when I conceive a good as practicable and good for me that my will is moved to do something about getting that good. Not a speculative judgment, but a practical judgment about the goodness of a thing for me, moves my will to action." Note: practicable, and good for me. Nobody will make us overcome our faults. We must want to. And to want to overcome them, and to embrace the sometimes unpleasant battle involved, we have to convince ourselves that it is worthwhile. I feel confident saying that it isn't enough to love God, because to love God means to do His will: to do His will means being holy as He is holy: to become holy what? What do I do to become holy? To become holy, I have to know what my faults are, counter them with mortifications and the practice of virtues, and convince myself that a specific effort is necessary. This is the key point. How do I convince myself? (And, how do I know what virtues/vices are at issue in my case?) How do I cultivate motivation toward an improved understanding of the direction I must follow in my spiritual path?
Previously we looked at the idea of a practical judgment, and moving our will to action. Let us consider different degrees or levels of commitment. One important term is "velleity", which refers to the concept of an incomplete will, or a veiled will. Fr. Dion refers to "speculative desire". He gives the 7
example of a window shopper saying, "Wouldn't it be heavenly to own that". This is "wishful thinking", "merely speculative". I think this is one of our chief problems. We indulge in wishful thinking about purity, and even more generally about being Catholic. We think, effectively, 'Wouldn't it be nice to truly be Catholic, to really believe, to be virtuous, to be as strong as the saints, to not have to say embarrassing things in Confession, to not have to hide my awful habits, to not have to worry about being caught, to not have uncomfortable moments with my wife," etc. Wouldn't it be nice to gain heaven. But we have "not determined to find ways and means to get" that result. With the shopper we "turn reluctantly from the window and stroll on our listless way". Fr. Dion compares this window browser to a determined person, who eyes the item to be obtained, and immediately sets about making the appropriate sacrifice. "She casts about for the means by which she can execute this determination." The item costs $500, and by avoiding coffee at the bookstore, and by going to a less expensive food store, the amount saved will be $500 within six months. The sacrifice is determined and begun. Steps are taken. Fr. Dion asks an important question: "Why did she determine to get the coat while the former was content to wish she had it? The reason: The latter made a practical judgment that it was good for her to have" the item. He observes that perhaps the window browser actually desired the item more than the one who actually procured it! Nonetheless, the browser's "wish remained purely speculative. On the flight to reality, it never got off the ground." "The same thing is true of so many of us [in] dealing with a predominant fault or a virtue to be acquired. We admire a virtue displayed ... see its intrinsic beauty, and think we would like to have it." But thinking we would like to have it does not mean that we do have it. We must "get out of the speculative order". We must "do something". So, a "lack of sufficient motivation" causes failure. And I can hear myself saying, "I am motivated. I have been motivated all the time I have ever fallen." So what gives? Fr. Dion now makes a distinction that is very informative. "As we know, the will is a blind faculty." Did you know that? It's very interesting to consider. "It can operate only on information fed to it by the intellect or mind. The intellect, the 'knowing' faculty, presents to the will motives or reasons in the form of good for doing or not doing what it does. The will is like a stoker or engineer hidden deep in the bowels of a speeding ship." So he is dividing up our faculties, so we can see how they work together. It's almost too vague to say "I want to stop this sin" because that sentence doesn't divide up our faculties in an informative way. We have an intellect, and we have a will. The intellect is the captain, the will is the engine. We must "furnish data to the will". When we sin, the intellect is giving false information to the will. "Thus, in practicing virtue or overcoming a predominant fault, much will depend on motivation." "Lack of motivation must be blamed in the first place for scant progress in overcoming a predominant fault, or in acquiring some particular virtue. Progress is negligible because we have not properly 8
motivated ourself." I think this is very reassuring, because it begins to suggest that the problem is soluble. It gives a clear reason, and begins to provide a solution. This is helpful because often when we are falling a lot, we get frustrated, and don't understand what to make of it. We have velleity. We must instead have a wellformed will, being fed correct information by our intellect. We must work on our intellect when we are falling. We must ensure that it has correct information. (We must also exercise our intellectwill connectionthis is why fasting, and mortifications of every kind, are so helpful: they allow us to practice the skill of making our will obey, or, they improve the ability of our intellect to exert itself meaningfully.) "Motivation is do it yourself work." It comes "from within the individual. Until it is present, little progress will be made in acquiring virtue or overcoming faults." The question then becomes, "How do we motivate ourself in a practical way, so that our will will spring into action seeking any particular good?" Fr. Dion proceeds to lay it on the line for us. He states quite plainly, "we must meditate". How does he come to this conclusion? Recall that it is our intellect that has the task of instructing our will, which is a blind faculty. Our intellect has three tasks: "apprehension, judgment, and reasoning". So, in order to conquer vice and improve virtue, we must strengthen the intellect so that it will give correct instructions to the will. Without veering into sinand you may want to avoid this little experimenttry to think back to the time prior to a fall. Don't you recall how your intellect vacillated and started to send conflicting messages? Do you recall a kind of battle, in which you tried to reason out a good basis for sinning, as if you needed to give your will the 'correct' motive? I recognize this in myself. For a pagan, to sin is nothing, because they are so far from the truth that their conscience is like a swiss cheese: very holey. But when we try to become holy, we can see the relationship between intellect and will more clearly. AND, once we are trying to strengthen the intellect>will connection, we have to ask, what strengthens the intellect itself? It helps us to perceive that it is broken down into apprehension, judgment, and reasoning. However, now the work begins! To apprehend, to judge, to reason: this is work! No wonder there are problems for us. It isn't enough to go to confession and to mass. We have homework assignments that we may not even be aware of. "We must mull over, ruminate, and think about all the compelling reasons for and benefits of having the virtue or not having the vice, until the result becomes appealing and beautiful enough to trigger our will into action to get it." I suspect that some of us have given more organized thought to acquiring a worldly good than we have applied to attaining the virtues. Now we will move on to clarify our understanding of what meditation is. It will help us to recall, I think, that there are stages in the spiritual life. Often, these stages are broken down into the "purgative, illuminative, and unitive" ways. In my opinion, anyone who has sinned mortally within the last 12 months cannot but be in the purgative way. I haven't read that anywhere, but it just seems ludicrous to 9
me in light of what I have read that one could consider himself as not having some major purging to do, if a mortal sin is so recent. Keep in mind that we live in an instant culture. We have instant food, instant sex [don't think about that!], instant entertainment of absolutely every stripe, instant information, instant or very rapid travel, it goes on and on. What we have access to today would make Queen Isabella blush. I think that in the Pentecostal movement, which is infecting the Catholic Church to some extent, we can detect a desire for instant holiness, or instant 'spirituality'. People want to feel their religion. I don't think it works that way. Rolling on the floor, or less dramatically, waving arms in the air, is not doing the will of the Father. The consistent Catholic point of view about all this is that how you feel doesn't matter. Acts of the will are what matter. Actions speak louder than words. Physical feelings are unimportant, as are emotional feelings. We must unite our will to God's will, even if we don't feel like it. Anyway this trend influences our understanding of the three "ways" in the sense that many people are probably inclined to suppose that because they feel a love for God, they must surely have passed into a higher spiritual plane. The tendency to bypass the hard work of faith is surely active in us today, just as we bypass the work of entertainment, food, friendship, travel, and so on. Today we even bypass death. It's called bypass surgery. It's no sin, of course. But we have to suppose that maybe some things do require work. We commit serious sins. We commit less serious sins. We have a poor understanding of the virtues, and probably can't even name them. We have poorly organized practice of growth in holiness. We have work to do. It isn't enough to vaguely love God. The purgative way requires work. But it's very rewarding work. It has the greatest reward of all. As for me, I'm going to believe what the saints have always believed, done, and taught. Some people in the Church today will inadvertently or deliberately bypass the work of meditation. But the saints spent years meditating. A good grounding in the truths of the faith is essential. Now, the truth is that the three "ways" are not absolutely separate. While in one there will be moments of experience in the other two. But we are at any one time predominantly in one of the three, and we must act accordingly. Otherwise we are running before we can walk. The Purgative way is much ignored by people today. We ignore it at our peril. A quote by St. Teresa of Avila may appear to confuse matters somewhat. I'd like to take a moment and address it. She writes, "It is better to love much than to think much". Or perhaps, "It is not so important to think much, as to love much." That's from memory, but it's pretty close. Some might say, "What's all this about thinking, ruminating, apprehending, judging, and reasoning? Can't we love without all that?" Well, consider mere human love. How do we love each other? If we love our children, do we not think about how they are coming along, ruminate about how they might be taught better, apprehend the things that seem important to them, judge those things, and reason in many other ways besides? Since when is love devoid of intellect? Love and thought are not opposed, as may initially seem to be the implication of St. Teresa's quote. And Fr. Dion hits the point squarely. First, he observes that "the realm of faith will provide the most fruitful supernatural motives to move 10
the will to action". It is that realm which we will ponder. Second, he observes that there is always "a hierarchy of motives" for action, and that "love is God's own motive". "Therefore, if we are truly serious about overcoming a predominant fault, the most powerful motive we should try to arouse is the love of God" which requires "persistent and conscientious meditation" to cultivate. We must "realize" make real, if you will that love, in our understanding, in our intellect. I think that for many of us, it is somewhat imaginary. Conversion is partly apprehending, and then deepening our understanding of, God's love for us. By applying ourselves we can effect this deepening. And to apply ourselves effectively, we can learn the means the basic spiritual means. "We must have clear ideas about" meditation. So our course shall be, to learn about mental prayer, and then to proceed to a discussion of identifying and combating our predominant fault.
I know that when I have fallen into sin, I have wondered why my faith didn't prevent it. I may not have wondered in such simple terms, but I know I have been somewhat dumbfounded and perplexed. I want to be faithful, but for those moments I wanted to sin. How will I ever resolve the conflict? In selfhelp sections of bookstores you can read about all kinds of ways to get motivated and get ahead. I always thought such material was hokey, and it turns out it may be a pale copy of what the Catholic religion has taught forever. Fr. Dion explains that gaining conviction is key when one is eager to gain virtue and leave behind a life of sin. That's just the sort of thing you might expect to find in a selfhelp shelf: gaining conviction. But this goes back centuries. This is not a fumbling rediscovery of truth among those who rejected it centuries ago. "What we need in general are real convictions about the supernatural that will regulate all our actions. But the problem is how to get them?" Fr. Dion brings out an important distinction: knowing something, vs. realizing it. We know many of the basic truths of our holy religion. But if we are breaking the commandments, if we are sloppy in our exercise of our religion, then we have failed to realize that knowledge. I pray that this comes to you as an insight. I don't think many of us Catholics today are introduced to this distinction. There is some catechesis for children, and in RCIA if we enter that way. But it is a bit spotty, especially in this day and age when modernism seems to run riot in the Church. Not only that, the knowledge doesn't seem to be realized, because people don't follow it. Some might draw the distinction in terms of knowing something, and putting that knowledge into practice. But this is a bit flat: how do you 'put it into practice'? The point, rather, is to make that knowledge real. Doesn't that sound like work? What work is it? How do we make some knowledge real? Do you recall 11
being in school? How did you make knowledge real to yourself? Ah you studied. Right. Effort. You had to work the material in your mind. If you studied something that you were able to put into practice, then you have an even better idea of this. (Oftentimes in the 'humanities', knowledge only has to be 'real' for a few weeks) ;) . So, we must make the faith real within ourselves. Fr. Dion gives us an impression of the interior arena where this realization occurs. "We have within us a whole world hidden from all but ourselves. It is the world of spirit in which we share in the likeness of God. It is the realm of thought where we can escape from the prison of our external surroundings and fly out beyond the trammels of our senses to soar freely in the world of our mind up to the very throne of God." The realm of thought. Effort. Not automatic. Not enough just to got to Confession and Mass. Not enough to go through RCIA or catechism class. It's not enough to read books. If this realm of thought is undeveloped, then it is scarcely any wonder that we fall into sin, and then become perplexed or disturbed. You see? That's it! That is absolutely it. The reason why we fall into sin is because the interior realm of thought is a jumbled mishmash of confusion, ignorance, bad example, rationalization, error, doubt, selfishness, and worldliness. When we remain mired in faults and sin "we have failed to realize the privilege that God has bestowed in giving us those very mental powers and faculties and the ability to exercise them on infinite truth and goodness and wisdom itself." The cure for this is mental prayer, which requires: Effort. Even reading books is insufficient. Without interior processing, all these exercises and activities are only halfmeasures. Generally "we do not appreciate our ability to think about God. We don't realize that we haven't even begun to tap our own mental resources." Fr. Dion declares that mental prayer is "the greatest kind of intellectual acvitity possible". This culture of ours is extremely superficial. People are constantly interacting with others, or entertaining themselves with commercial products, in order to avoid themselves, in order to stay out of that interior realm that is such a confusion. The benefits of solitude are not widely appreciated. But we are only to be in the World, not of the World. Hence it is an act of faith for us to "retire into ourself and pursue mental activity with at least the same effort as we do physical activity". The World is against us in this. I think that for many of us, our own faith is not real. To some extent it is real, but, perhaps it is like a flickering light bulb. You know how a light bulb behaves when the filament is broken but occasionally completing the circuit. Sometimes we have a strong faith. Sometimes we set aside our faith. We talk of this quite frequently. People will say, "I feel so strong after Confession. Then within a few days I have fallen again." How can this be? Has God weakened? I think it can only be we ourselves who weaken and falter. So how are we to make ourselves strong? Suppose at work we discover that we do not know how our company's inventory processing is 12
managed. And suppose we discover that this ignorance causes us to misunderstand critical company communications. We might at that moment feel strongly that we must learn about our company's inventory processing system. If we lose that feeling, we will not bother to learn about it, and we will continue to misunderstand critical company communications. We might even fail to be promoted, or worse, we might be fired at the first downturn. Suppose we discover that we have a muscle ache that doesn't go away. We finally go to the doctor, who, upon inspecting the results of a blood test, concludes that we have a dietary deficiency. We may feel very strongly at that moment that we must remedy the situation with vitamin pills and proper diet. But unless we maintain our understanding we won't bother, and the ache will persist. I apologize for giving such trite examples. Obviously any of us here will proceed with basic professional advancement, and will follow the advice of our doctors. So why is it so difficult to understand that the spiritual life, too, requires understanding and motivation? It is difficult to understand because the cultural milieu is infected with wideranging apostasy, in which even the very existence of our Creator is doubted. The existence of absolute moral principles is doubted, of truth, of free will, etc., all is doubted. The existence of the invisible is doubted. We have to think about our faith, to the point that it becomes real to us. Consider the word "meditation" in those simple terms. To "meditate" simply means 'to think about'. When I say I'm going to meditate, all I mean is that I'm going to actively think about something. Sometimes the term meditate is used in the eastern mystical sense, in which one unites oneself to nothingness, but that's not what I mean. I could as well say "cogitate". I'm going to "cogitate", or engage in "mental prayer" (another key term). I'm going to think until I understand. And I'm going to do it regularly. I eat regularly, I sleep regularly, I work regularly, I talk to my family regularly: I take care of myself on various planes of existence and obligation, regularly. So, I'm going to take care of my spiritual development regularly. If I don't act with foresight, organization, and regularity, I will flounder. This is true in every aspect of our life. This is not to say that we can never be spontaneous. Indeed during meditation I will make discoveries that I wasn't expecting. But I will approach God regularly. We have spiritual powers that involve this kind of thought. We have to engage them. If we do not, it is on the spiritual plane as it would be on the physical plane to never move a muscle: atrophy the certain result. We know that we get hungry. I don't think that we know that we have an interior need to ponder the things of God. "Often spiritual writers tell us that daily mental prayer is like a mirror which we hold up to our souls. It shows us our spiritual reflection. But while the material mirror can only show us our physical face, the mirror of mental prayer shows us our defects and points out to us the remedies for the defects." Slight paraphrase of Fr. Dion. The word "meditation" may seem to reflect something complicated to which 13
only some are called. On the contrary, "mental prayer is simply the talking over of ourselves with God each day. It is a conversation with God about Him and us." That's all I mean. We can talk with our Creator. And while we can do that throughout the day, talking with Him, as He loves us to do (St. Liguori), our daily meditation is a more deliberate session. It's like sitting down to talk, rather than bumping into a friend on the street and exchanging a few words. Mental prayer works on our interior, much as food and exercise work on our exterior. By digesting mentally the truths of our faith, and working them over in our minds, the faith becomes real to us. None of us is excluded from this opportunity, this richness of the true religion. And as our faith becomes more real, we will burn more consistently, no matter what may happen around us which is exactly what we want. We want to be faithful, no matter what. And we can be, to the extent that our faith becomes real within ourselves. Okay, that pretty much takes care of the exhortatory phase. Maybe I've convinced you. Perhaps you're still thinking. Maybe when you see all that meditation can do as a means within the spiritual life you will be enthusiastic. I do think that believing it to be important is about half the battle. The rest is divided up between selecting some helpful 'starter' material, being consistent, getting through the dry periods that inevitably come, and putting the meditation to use. Rest assured that it's not complicated. Meditation is not for some select few. We all have an interior realm, and a need to more deeply appreciate the truths of God. Thinking is a key aspect of how our will is engaged in the spiritual life. "May my mind, my heart, my body, my life, be wholly animated by You, my sweet Life!" (St. Augustine). "O Holy Spirit, grant that I may be rich with the [tt]fullness of understanding, unto the knowledge of the mystery...of Christ Jesus[/tt]" (Col. 2:2) (from Fr. Gabriel). I think we generally leave our minds out of it, and there's no need to do that. But to the extent that we do, we remain unstable. We don't want to be unstable. Like any learning, it is not instantaneous (unless by some miracle one of us is singled out as Saul was). And some of it probably happens piecemeal by those who haven't taken a closer look at it. But what we can do now is proceed to consider aspects of meditation with a view to putting them into practice. I already posted one introductory outline here. Once I had some practice meditations under my belt, I pretty much knew the basic pattern, and it didn't feel like a rigid procedure to me.
Once or twice I have mentioned "starter material" that is used in meditation. This generally refers to a prayer book of some kind, normally one that is laid out in a series of meditations. How should we use this material? The object in a meditation session is not uninterrupted reading! This is very important. No book should 14
carry us through our prayer session (unless it is a liturgical prayer session, of course). Reading a book is not sufficient. "A practice of continuous reading during mental prayer time is a flagrant abuse sometimes indulged by those unwilling to make the continued effort involved in pursuing mental prayer." Note how Fr. Dion continually emphasizes effort. I don't know how you are currently pursuing your meditations, but the essential thing to keep in mind is that from starter material, we begin to use our faculties. We apply ourselves to the meditation starter material. For example, we use our memory and our imagination. Then "we begin to think of and consider the ideas that are brought up". We might consider the virtues or teachings, or the attributes of God, implicit in what we envision. "We think about it. We ask: What is the lesson in this truth for me?" Our mind works the problem actively. For from reading uninterruptedly, we engage the material, stopping the reading frequently to ponder, just as soon as we have something to ponder. Don't become a bump on a log: ponder actively. At any time when you run out of mental steam, return to the starter material. Recall what you were imagining. Consider other aspects of it. Read on, absorb another sentence or two. But wait. "All of this is really only the preparation for true mental prayer." "We have not begun to pray until we start to use our will." Fr. Dion instructs us to make acts of the will during this prayer time. You're not going to believe how easy this is, nor how important. I never heard of this from any living Catholic, but it's in numerous books about ascetical theology, and it's true. "What is meant by acts of the will? Here are some examples: to tell God that we love Him; to tell God that we are sorry for having hurt Him; to tell God we want to make reparation; to tell God how wonderful he is..." These acts can be made wordlessly, or with movement of the lips. Whatever you prefer, however the Holy Ghost moves you to act. Now: here is a very important point. You won't believe this at first. It's really amazing. But, here it is: How you feel during these acts is completely unimportant. That's right. You don't need to feel a tingly shiver of excitement when you tell God that you love Him. You don't need to feel affectionate or warm. You are making an act of the will. Have you ever willed to do something despite, or without regard to, your feelings? Precisely! There is no necessary connection between the two. It must sound like nothing, but really it's so much, and so rich. We ponder actively, we make acts of the will, and our feelings don't matter. So many people resist active thought, and assume that their feelings are a true representation of their faith! You see how we need to learn this stuff? It's eyeopening to be sure. Almost counterintuitive. Now again: if you stop making acts of the will and your thoughts peter out, no problem: just go back to the starter material. That's what it's there for. It isn't there to be the sole focus of your prayer time. It's 15
there to get you started. I'd like to take a moment and try to offer a suggestion or two to those who don't have anything handy that they may consider appropriate starter material. Some of you have a book that you mention a lot, a book of meditations. I haven't seen it. Perhaps it's a series of trains of thought intended to get you to embrace purity. You could almost certainly use that book in this way. Just pause while reading, whenever you want, and make acts of love/adoration/reparation/hope/admiration toward God. Imagine or recall aspects of our holy religion, based on what is in the meditation. Start pondering actively. Don't let the book entirely carry your prayer time. You could try a catechism. A wonderful compendium of our faith should have many marvels in it that you can use as starter material. I find dogmatic textbooks sometimes have passages that lift my heart and get me pondering. You could try The Imitation of Christ, which is available online here. A prayer book, or a missal, should have passages that you can try. I personally recommend Divine Intimacy by Fr. Gabriel, available through TAN books. Your church vestibule may have some pious material that may be of use. You may be wondering how this relates to lectio divina. Lectio divina seems to mean different things to different people. It is focused on the Scriptures, and basically implies reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating over their contents, always seeking to know and love the mind of God. Mental prayer is probably more basic than lectio divina. As I will explain, it gets directly at the issues that tug at our souls. I invite you to continue learning about mental prayer over the next weeks, as I post more about it. It is a most overlooked spiritual means, and a very basic one.
Today we look at how meditation directly impacts our spiritual life. I have been mentioning this from time to time. How is it made practical? "At the end of our meditation, if it is to be practical, our will will formulate some kind of resolution." Now you may say, "Wait a minute, I made many resolutions before, and I broke them. My New Year's resolutions all ended in failure!" But these are different. I'll give you more of Fr. Dion in a moment: consider that by the time you make these resolutions, you will have been making acts of the will toward God for a half hour, perhaps longer. You will have been considering the deepest and most wonderful truths of our holy religion. You will have been talking with God Himself. This is not like a New Year's resolution. Also consider, that if you adopt the practice of mental prayer, you would be having these conversations daily. You can work on your resolution many times. You must, in fact, resolve each day. Now you may say, "I do resolve each day, in my morning prayers." That's wonderful. The benefit of mental prayer is that you will be resolving after a halfhour of talking with God. And He understands if we don't measure up to our resolution, but we nonetheless arrive at a point where we truly resolve, and gradually we allow the grace of God to 16
make greater and larger inroads into our hearts, by making acts of the will. What kind of resolution, then, do we make at the end of our meditation? "It need not flow directly from or be 'about' the subject read at the meditation." That's important to recall. When you get your hands on a jolly good meditation book, you may say, for a given day, that the subject of the day is not what you want to work on in your spiritual life. No problem. The starter material gets you thinking about the things of God. You can resolve anything when you are nearing the end of the meditation. You can say, e.g., "And to prove that I love You, dear Lord, I resolve that today at a given time and place, I am going to do a specific thing X about my" basic problem, or predominant fault. There's that term again: predominant fault. We will study how one derives that. While a spiritual advisor can help it is primarily "do it yourself" work. You may not find a spiritual advisor for a while, and fortunately you can set to work on your predominant fault without having one (apart from advice given in Confession). So do you see how mental prayer directly operates on your spiritual life? Each of us has a predominant fault. It is years in the making. We want to eliminate that fault, or reduce it as much as possible. So, we engage in mental prayer, which is a loving discourse with God in which we make many acts of the will, and then make a resolution, of a specific character, in which we determine to work against the predominant fault. My predominant fault is sloth. After that, gluttony. A distant third is lust. At times lust has been a bigger issue for me. Any of you may have a different pattern. Perhaps for some of you lust truly is your predominant fault. I don't want to speak out of turn but in my opinion lust is one of the easier sins to quickly reduce. Your mileage may vary. (And don't assume that your predominant fault is lustit may not be.) My opinion isn't really the point anyway: all I'm saying is that in my case, my resolution has to do fundamantally with sloth. That's what we should do: focus on our biggest fault. "Sensibly, we should make the same resolution about [the given] virtue or vice every day in the week, for weeks or months at a time. We didn't get the bad habit overnight and we are not going to get the opposite good habit overnight." Consider how many years our faults are in the making. But don't despair: all that time we weren't turning to God in our hearts and minds. The resolution, as Fr. Dion emphasises, should be specific as to time and place. For example, if you fall into your predominant fault in a certain location or at a certain time, having taken useful precautions, resolve to avoid the fault at that time and place. "Further, particularly in the beginning of our spiritual life, write down your resolution taken at meditation." Don't leave it where people can find it, but just a little note somewhere, because the "added sense perception involved in writing and seeing our resolution" is a help. I mentioned yesterday that how we feel about all this is irrelevant. That is a liberating idea. Not to mention that it's completely true. And the World would have us think otherwise. Today Fr. Dion 17
counsels further that "the less we feel like making [these acts of the will] the more valuable they are in the eyes of God". The reason for this is that we are not praying because of the happy sensations we experience, but because of our desire to be united to the will of God. Next we will be looking in more detail at ways to engage in mental prayer. There are a variety of approaches, and I suppose there is some risk that you will find it constricting. But what the spiritual books counsel is to just try a method at the beginning, until you get the hang of the basic pattern. So if it seems a little confusing, just note that it will require a bit of study to see the thing as a whole, and a bit of practice to get comfortable with it. But compare that to studying in school. Did you have to learn how to study? If you ever trained with weights, did you have some things to learn about that? Have you ever had to switch diets? There are many things we do, adaptations we make, which require some learning. Our soul is the most important thing of all, because it is immortal. Looked at that way I think we can surely say that to improve our relationship with God is worth some study. From what we've covered so far, what would you say meditation (mental prayer) is? The literature I have speaks of it as a loving conversation with God. And so, the divines of our holy religion exhort us to prepare for meditation, just as we might prepare to speak with any august person. Imagine preparing to discuss something with your boss. Or as a Knight, suppose you must approach your Lord to inform him of your shortcomings, and to ask for his insights and support. You would prepare! Likewise with mental prayer. There are two dimensions of preparation. First we should look at what is termed "Remote preparation." This is divided into two parts, in Fr. Dion's work, and generally. First, one must have a "habitual disposition", which in turn Fr. Dion suggests is premised on humility and fidelity to the will of God. By "habitual disposition" is meant that we habitually, i.e. generally, usually, normally, are inclined toward the virtues, of being humble, and of being inclined to do, and to love, the will of God. So, how do we be humble. We can look at that in more detail, but we already have some good ideas about it. Basically we can be generally mindful that all we have comes from God, that we will be held accountable as stewards, that we have failed, that by ourselves we can do nothing, that God created us out of nothing for His glory (and as He is perfect love and perfect justice there is of course nothing 'prideful' about that) which fact we embrace as it is truly our destiny and in perfect accord with our created nature. Humility means that we recognize our relationship with and dependence on the good God Who made us. We know that kind of thing. Actually I want to do a study of the virtues, after this study of meditation is complete, because there are all sorts of useful details to examine, such as how they are specifically pursued, how one knows whether or not one is making progress, etc. What about the other part, the will of God: how do we know what the will of God is for us? If we are in a religious community, we must look to the Rule. That doesn't apply to most of us, so more generally 18
we look to (a) our state of life and the duties entailed in that state, (b) avoiding sins and cultivating virtues, and (c) trying to do all things out of either charity or obedience. Those things are the will of God. Also, we look to instructions given to us in Confession. How disposed we are to these things can vary: one can obey grudgingly, or lovingly. The closer we are to the latter, the more pleasing to God, and the more we merit graces accordingly. Remote preparation then is 'how we are generally', with particular reference to humility and doing the will of God. To have a good remote preparation disposes us to intimacy with God. I want to mention something that Fr. Dion brings up in this connection, particularly in reference to humility. People often go around in a bad mood, brooding over one slight or another. These kinds of problems shatter our interior peace and are normally opposed to humility, which includes being receptive to what God sends us. (Humility is not the same as being a flatworm or a 'sleeping policeman' however.) I call this 'mind poison'. When we have distracting, vain thoughts, the remedy is twofold. First, we turn our mind to God. We can do that directly, or we can recall that day's meditation, or a bit of Scripture. Some of the saints have tucked into their mind each week a line of Scripture that they reflected on periodically throughout the week, at odd moments or when presented with difficulties. Second, we concentrate more fully on what we are doing out of duty or charity. We musn't give entry to vain and distracting thoughts. The solution for such thoughts (which ultimately become 'psychoses' I suppose) is definitely religious. By turning our mind to God, and to the duties to which we are called, we are spared, and our interior peace, and our humility, is safeguarded. That introduces remote preparation for mental prayer. Now let's have a look at proximate preparation. As you can guess, this is a preparation that occurs closer in time to the actual period of mental prayer. There are two especial times when this is appropriate. The first occurs as we are going to sleep, or going to bed, or getting finished up, or something like that toward the end of the day. Mull over the topic. Take a glance at tomorrow morning's meditation starter material late in the evening. Above, I discussed interior peace. If we are like most people, we probably have some vain and distracting thoughts poking into our interior peace a good part of the time (the World hates to think that the solution to this problem is religious, so you are being let in on a big secret here!). Here is something simple you can do, if it is late in the day: give your mind to mulling over tomorrow's meditation! Rather than brood, ponder the things of God. Second, as the time of meditation approaches, e.g., perhaps you are going to meditate prior to leaving for work in the morning, so, you stumble out of bed, and while brushing the teeth and munching on toast and coffee, make acts of faith, adoration, thanksgiving, sorrow, and humility in connection with the meditation topic. Just start thinking it over a bit, preparing yourself, increasing your disposition to the mental prayer time. This doesn't have to go on and on. Just for a few minutes, while you are doing 19
this and that in the morning, get ready for what you are about to do. Imagine a Knight preparing to approach his Lord. In the minutes just preceding the meeting, he would probably think a bit about what would be discussed. And that is what is called proximate preparation. It may be more restful than sleep was! Now we have looked at preparation, remote and proximate. Let's take a look at methods. Here is a nice definition from Fr. Dion: A method is "a scheme or device or aid to help us direct and apply our faculties to the topic at hand and thereby achieve the objective of mental prayer, namely, union with God in our minds and in our wills." That's good. Let that sink in a bit. And consider again, when we were in school, did we not have to train our faculties to derive benefit from the resources and assignments? Or for physical training, do not our faculties require some training? So it is with prayer. Now brace yourselves. You're not going to believe how easy this is. Why don't they teach us? Who knows. Fr. Dion outlines a method of greate age, refined by St. Vincent DePaul. Actually I'm almost sorry it's so easy. You're going to kick me. All this buildup, and that's all there is to it?!. I'm just the messenger. I don't make this stuff up. Okay, here it is. What. Why. How. It's so simple, and so profoundly helpful. And hopefully you are encouraged to consider that this is not rocket science! Let's look at the What, the Why, and the How. For a meditation session, here are some sample 'what' questions which may be helpful models: picture the scene, what (or who) is in it, what is the virtue, what does it look like in action, what is the nature of it, ... other details. We use our imagination and our memory for this. What is the lesson for us? How do the people or things in the starter material show or evince it? Whom do we personally know who practices the virtue? These are 'what' kinds of questions. Then, 'why': To gain virtue or avoid vice, 'why?', from the meditation starter material. Did our Lord say we need it? The Scriptures? The Commandments? Do our duties constitute a proof? The sins we confess? Think through the 'why'.
Then, 'how': How can we get or avoid it, do we have it already in what degree, where and when do we fail? At this juncture, we can make a Resolution. During this prayer schema, "our will begins spontaneously to speak to God. It is moved to make acts of love, faith, petition, hope, and desire. When these acts of our will start, we should keep on, for that is what we are aiming at: to get our will to make acts or affections of love, desire, hope, contrition, sorrow, admiration, adoration, and finally, our Resolution. So, as soon as we find we can make them, we should let ourselves go." Now to some extent, this assumes that the starter material relates to the Resolution you want to make as an act of will. But it needn't be directly related. You can make acts such as those described, and to some extent impose on the material your focus on your predominant fault, about which you wish to make a resolution. You can steer your thoughts so that they tend to take the starter material as a basis for acts of the will that point generally in the direction of that which concerns you. Now I will offer a psuedomeditation session that more or less exemplifies what I do, based on what I have read. Fr. Dion gives a sample meditation in his book, but I won't use that one, because it's too much to quote in one go. Remember: the goal is to make acts of the will which lead to the union of ourselves with God. How you feel is irrelevant. You want to ponder the starter material, allowing yourself to make acts of the will as soon as you feel inspired. Don't just sit there reading. Not good enough. Remember: Effort. We have to make effort, otherwise we are not uniting our will with God's will. Early in the liturgical year, meditation #47 occurs in Divine Intimacy. Title: "The Soul of Jesus". Starting sentence to recall the Presence of God: "O Jesus, permit me to contemplate Your soul, the chosen temple of the Holy Spirit, and grant that, following Your example, I, too, may become a temple worthy of Him." Meditation, summarized: "Although grace was created equally by the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, ... its diffusion in souls is usually attributed especially to the Third Person.... The soul of Jesus possesses every supernatural gift because 'the Holy Spirit dwells in Christ with such plenitude of grace that no greater plenitude can be imagined' (Mystici Corporis). ... We too receive the Holy Spirit through Jesus; it is always He who, together with the Father, sends us the Holy Spirit. ... We receive the Holy Spirit according to the measure of our union with Christ..." So, based on that sampling of the text, what was my meditation like? Without getting too specific:
Quote: O my Lord, I know that you are the Way, that it is your sacred humanity that is the instrument through which you came among us to sanctify us who embrace Your truth. I know that I am grafted on to your Body, and that You nourish me as the sap does the branch. [Lots of 'what' here.] And I love you for this, most merciful Jesus, that You would try to reach us is most wonderful, and I have so badly failed to be mindful of this and to fully realize in my heart and life all that it means. [More 'what' and also acts of the will.] I acknowledge and accept that I can only be a good recipient of the sap, the grace that comes to us through your hypostatic union [the union of Jesus' two natures, divine and human] if I am truly in union with You, with Whom I am now talking! [Some 'why' (seeking union with God) and 'how' (acknowledging need for union with Him) with some acts of the will] And what does it mean for me to be in union with You? I must ... and ... which I so often fail to do, especially at ... time or at ... juncture [Some 'how' together with acts of the will which are moving toward the formulation or repetition of the Resolution].
So there you can see some semblance of a meditation. It's a bit compressed, but it's only an example. You can see how the starter material is not just read. You can see how it lends itself to multiple interacting layers of the meditation concepts: what, why, how, acts of the will, and formation of resolution. Different books will work differently. Even a book of meditations focused on a specific topic should work for a diversity of resolutions, however, not least because the virtues are interconnected. For example, perhaps I need to work on the virtue of gluttony, and a meditation will focus on temperance, or even on curbing the tongue or something like that. Those things reflect back on to gluttony. As I meditate on the beauty of truth A, the value of that truth for clarifying my approach to truth B will become apparent to me, and I can deploy acts of the will to move my thoughts in that direction: "And so true is that wonderful idea, O Lord, that I will to apply that learning to this other problem of mine that I know bothers you, for which I am sorry, O Lord!" You can see that the thinking procedure is active yet supple, focused yet flexible, orginally sourced but dependent upon what you bring to it.
Let's look at Resolutions. I've mentioned that the divines teach that these must be specific. What sort of specificity is required in a Resolution? (By the way the word is not generally capitalized; I just wanted it to stand out.) Here are some good clues. 22
"Try to foresee the occasion." Think of it this way. Look ahead into the day, and regarding your predominant fault, say "...when X or Y will be going on, and I will be tempted to do A or B, at that moment, in that place, I will pray ________ until it passes." In this way we keep our eye on our faults, look to the specific time and/or place where they are likely to occur, define the temptation itself in fairly specific terms, and decide on a prayer that we will use at that time, thus turning to God at the time of trial. In short, we look at "time, place, and circumstance". I hope you can see that what is emerging is an increasingly organized, systematic, but noncomplex, approach to vanquishing our faults. Tomorrow it gets even better. Now let's look at another topic that is virtually never heard about. One of the deep, dark secrets of our faith that would help us immensely if we did but know of it. I refer to the particular exam. "Exam" means examination of conscience. "Particular" means an exam that is focused on a specific fault. Once or twice during the day, see whether or not you have kept your resolution. I suggest lunchtime and dinnertime. If you have kept it, thank God. If you have not, apologize to Him, and renew your intention for the next period of the day. You could work this in with the Angelus, a prayer one can say three times per day. Let's move on to another topic: Feeling in prayer. We've looked at this a bit already, when I mentioned numerous times that how we feel during prayer is irrelevant. (By the way occasionally I may say "you" but I really mean "we" because I naturally include myself in this whole project.) Now, feelings do matter in the sense that we have them, and they can make it harder to pray. I may be out of sorts, at odds with the world, unsure of how I am doing in life, and otherwise distracted by my fortune, and I may find it hard to 'feel like' making acts of the will toward God: acts of sorrow for my sins, of gratitude for the benefits shown to me, of love for His kindness in creating and sustaining me and in showing me the truth. Feelings 'matter' in that they crop up, and may make my prayer more difficult. But they really don't matter because (a) you can make an act of the will to express your love for God, even if you happen to feel rather unhappy, and (b) because your feelings are not your prayer. We've discussed all that before, but I thought a review might be good. There's another aspect to feeling in prayer that we should look at. Sometimes during prayer we feel warm and happy about our relationship with God. These and similar feelings are called "consolations" 23
in most literature on the subject. They are (a) common at the start, (b) often associated with worthiness of prayer in the minds of beginners, and (c) subject to being taken away by God so we won't pray for a reason other than Him. When God takes them away we initially believe, often, that we have 'stopped praying' but only if we actually stop praying have we stopped praying. As long as you are making acts of the will, you are doing one of the essential things in prayer. (In a couple of days we'll look at 'listening to God'we're not talking constantly in prayer. Who would want to listen to a lover make constant talk.) So remember: Those initial warm and fuzzy feelings we find when we first get the swing of meditation won't last, and they aren't the prayer itself. God takes them away because He knows best. He knows that if we get the warm feeling, we will start praying for that feeling and not so much because of God. He tests us in this way. Stay the course. Our feelings don't matter. That's a look at the question of consolations at prayer. Let's take a closer look now at the "dry struggle" our prayer may become as the consolations are (justifiably) taken away from us. This struggle in prayer is characterized by our sense that our prayer seems to be unrewarding. The good news is that if we persevere during such times, it is precisely during such times that our prayer is most rewarding. When we love God during a difficult time, He is doubly(?) pleased, because we are loving God qua God and for God, not because it feels nice to love God. Consider mere human love. When we love our spouse or relative even though it is difficult, that is a more true love than simply to love when it is easy, and mere human companionship and comraderie can carry the relationship. Consider our Lord on the Cross. Did He not feel that His prayer was unrewarding? [tt]My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[/tt] He is our model. He didn't stop praying when it happened not to feel good. We must remember that the spiritual life in general, and prayer as the means, is about "the uniting of our minds and will to God". We don't pray for pleasure, but to expand the extent to which we are united to God, heart, soul, mind, and strength: will. And when we press on, our prayer is all the more pleasing to God. It's hard. Sometimes I don't feel like making my meditation. I feel instead like dwelling on my problems. This person doesn't like me, that project isn't going well, some career opportunity is lost, whatever. The devils know my numbers and they punch them in with regularity. We're all in the same boat. So I return to my meditation when this happens. I have to force myself a bit. Sometimes it doesn't feel good at all. But I always end up making more acts of the will. That's the important thing. And when I do that, I just know, interiorly, that I have done the right thing. I have rejected insularity, and sought to remember the good God Who made us all. And I have valued God more than the distraction, 24
which effects within myself the true hierarchy of values. Here's another topic that amounts to a common question among us beginners. You can find it discussed, as with all of these subjects, in a raft of literature dealing with this subject. Fr. Dion isn't the only source, of course. The rhetorical question today is, "Are beautiful thoughts necessary in mental prayer?" Answer, No. They are not. Consider the great mystics. Perhaps you like St. Thomas' writings. Or perhaps Ven. Agreda. Whomever you like, consider the beauty of their writings. Do you suppose that your mental prayer must be full of such wellworded, beautifullycomposed thoughts? After reading such things, and trying mental prayer yourself, are you struck with how very plain your acts of the will are? Not to worry. Those writings are done by people with in most cases decades of mental prayer behind them. They have spiritual points of reference all over the map. And, their writings are of course writings, not necessarily direct mental prayer. Prayer is dialogue. You and God are talking. A dialogue is not a perfectly polished thing, in real life. There are halfsentences, wrong turns, digressions. If you have no amazing or beautiful thoughts during prayer, be not troubled. Actually our acts of the will are lofty and amazing thoughts! People the world over don't care a fig for the good God Who made them, and here are you and I, making acts of the will toward God, of love, sorrow for sin, hope, desire for holiness, and more. Our thoughts are lofty, even if not especially embellished. Not only are we not required to have remarkable or amazing insights and thoughts, but they actually have nothing to do with prayer anyway. We pray to unite our will to God. Acts of the will are what we are after, not perspicacious glimpses into the deepest mysteries of faith, not talking points we can write down later. Concentrate on making acts of the will, always. Just do that. Feel bad? Make acts of the will. Feel good? Make acts of the will. Feel indifferent? Make acts of the will. Love, sorrow, hope, desire for holiness, longing for truth, gratitude. Acts of the will. Beautiful thoughts, or any kind of nice pious thought, falls in the category of starter material (I don't think that's a term in the literature but it works well enough). These kinds of ideas are "fuel with which to stoke the fire of divine love in our heart". They have a role. A good meditation book will have much such material, which you can use to start your mind working. And, the divines note that as we have done more spiritual study we will have more such material in our minds. But move the will as soon as possible. Don't dwell on such thoughts. Be moved "to speak with God". Simple statements of the will are far better than lofty thoughts.
I've been talking a lot about making acts of the will. It is very important. But one could read these posts and conclude that mental prayer is a soliloquy, or that one ought to talk constantly. Not at all. We should listen to God. But, what does it mean, to listen to God? Is that like my crazy cousin Fred, who is always saying that God tells him this, and God tells him thatthings that always seem to accord perfectly with Fred's personality? Hopefully not. No, it's quite simple really, and the Pentecostals don't understand it. Rolling on the floor is not part of meditation. You won't need an exercise studio. The Catholic mystics are the source for the true knowledge on this point. In mental prayer, we want a conversation with God. We don't want a soliloquy, and we don't want 'messages'. A conversation. Now it is true that sometimes God sends angels to certain people, or appears Himself to them. But I'm not talking about that kind of thing, and St. John of the Cross warns against embracing anything like that which we think might happen to us. The conversation is nothing so dramatic. Here's how it works. After our acts of will, of love, sorrow for our sins, desire for holiness, and so forth, we can pause and rest in the love that is expressed in our act. Just pause. Wait for God to say what He will, rather than talking to Him "like a broken record". Let our sentiments and acts of our will perdure. This we can do for all our acts of will. Just pause. Rest in that act. In this way we let God speak to us in the secret of our heart. That is a way to 'converse' with God, which we should do, rather than speak continuously. While doing this however, here's what will probably happen: After a pause, you'll find your mind wandering. Don't foster that wandering, but don't let it trouble you. We will look at distractions in more detail in a moment. First I want to give you a simple step or two to avoid letting those pauses for God become opportunities for distraction. When you find your mind has wandering and you are no longer basking in the act of the will that you have last made, either (a) make another act of the will, continuing your conversation with God, or (b) continue with the meditation starter material where you left off, or any part of it that seems propitious to you.
God knows that we have a broken nature. That's why He sent us Jesus. He knows that we can't concentrate our love very well, especially at first (I imagine one gets better over the years but it varies for everyone according to the saints). What He admires is our acts of the will. We wander in our thoughts, but we will to return. No problem. Let's look at distractions in more detail. We are prone to these, simply by dint of our fallen nature. Some people, especially outside the Church, but even inside, may not believe this to be a fact, but accepting our fallen nature is a big help in all of this. Distractions may have a variety of particular causes. We may be tired. We may have an interior awareness of an apology we need currently to make. We may have an interior awareness that we are shunning the duties of our state in life. Distractions from the latter two sources are calls to action. We must plan to make the apology or make it before continuing. We must plan to do more to carry out the duties of our state of life. Perhaps our predominant fault will have some connection to this area. But a lack of interior peace is a source of great distraction. In these cases you can plan to take an action that will ameliorate the problem. (If you are tired, just do your best; that's what I do. If you nod a bit, just 'come to' and pick up where you left off. You'll be glad you did. Don't give up at the first tiredness. Actually I rather suspect that there's a special devil squad that immediately tries to convince a meditator that he's tired! Another hint: morning is better than evening.) Generally speaking, though, we suffer from garden variety distractions. Our mind wanders a bit. Or a lot! Whether we have a peace to make with others, ourselves, or God, or whether our mind is wandering simply 'because', to struggle against distractions pleases God very much. If we are at fault, and we make a note to take care of some problem, and then return to our meditation; or if our mind has simply wandered and we gently come back to pondering the starter material and making acts of the will, God is pleased. In fact, simply to will to please God is prayer, so, we will that! The only failure in the spiritual life is to give up. So don't do that. Also, never permit a voluntary distraction. That is, once distracted, don't indulge it. If you recognize in your distraction something that is a call to action, make a note (that's what I sometimes do), and get back to the meditation. If your distraction is just your wayward nature coming to the surface, gently come back to the meditation. Don't be rough with yourself. Gently come back. Say, "O God, I'd like to be thinking about You." That's your will! You are making an act of the will in that sentence. You are turning your distraction into a prayer. If you believe this last bit, you will be much better off. How we are generally, upstairs, in our minds, will necessarily influence our prayer time too. Perhaps we are naturally scatterbrained. Or perhaps we are very studious and ponderous. Or maybe we are 27
methodical. Or fearful, or careless. Maybe we are very slow and labored in our thoughts. As we embark on a program of mental prayer, we can be alert to the reality that some of the difficulties we may face along the way actually stem from our nature generally. Fear not! Mental prayer is for all of us. There is nobody who cannot mentally pray. Some habitual dispositions may not be quite so helpful as others. For example, if we are giddy a great deal in every day life, e.g. if we are constantly jesting or bantering or never really focusing, we may find it a little more difficult. But remember that mental prayer is a loving conversation in which we make acts of the will, usually with starter material to get us going, and focused on our love for God, our sins, our longing for holiness, and the like. There is nobody who cannot make this kind of conversation. And there is no reason to believe that our habitual dispositions are on the whole the way we should be. And so the good news is that mental prayer is actually curative. Have you ever had a friend with whom a discussion seemed to have effects on you beyond the actual content of the conversation? Surely it is so with God Himself, author of Creation, and Truth Incarnate. Our minds are gradually healed during mental prayer, especially if we are taking care to make true and meaningful (specific) resolutions against our predominant fault, for this means that our meditation is 'on target'. The giddy will become more reflective. The tooserious individual will enliven at the love God shows for us. The sad can become happier, and the incessantly happy can remember that we are sinners and stand in need of God's mercy. Now we will explore in more detail the question of the predominant fault. First we recall that we have a fallen nature, and we are prone naturally to sin. We must have faith in God, and by turning to God be receptive to the grace that He extends to us through His Son. By embracing that grace we become more hospitable tabernacles for the Holy Ghost Who wishes to dwell within us. Sin expells the Holy Ghost and spurns the gifts of God. Each of us has his own way of sinning. We have observed for example different 'triggers'. Of course, there are patterns to observe. The idea of a predominant fault is similar to this. A predominant fault is perhaps our primary pattern of sinfulness. It is this which we counter through our resolutions at the conclusion of our mental prayer period, and which we examine during the day at our particular exam. "Sanctity consists in the union of our will with God's will." Sin separates us from God. We pray in order to unite our will with the Will of God. "The only obstacle to perfection is sin, the essence of which is the lack of conformity of our will with His". We want to know with precision what this lack is in our own particular case. If we have a precise understanding, we can attack it more clearly. It is the same as with a military battle. If we know the type and location of enemy, vanquishing him will be much easier. The precision of our understanding 28
will increase with time and effort. As we begin to make resolutions and examine ourselves during the day, we will see whether what we are doing is working, or missing the mark. Sometimes the military can't see the enemy, but makes educated guesses about him based on what seems to work and what doesn't. It's the same here. What we want to do is to examine our "sins, faults, failings, and frailties". Now, a word of caution. It is certainly the case that in the sins of the flesh, the examination of conscience can actually be a dangerous thing. So we must exercise caution. When we propose to our minds, 'my frailty is seeing thus and such', we are setting ourselves up for a risk of a fall. To consider such matters can itself be an occasion of sin. Rest assured that we needn't think in such detail in any case. Before we assume, in any case, that our predominant fault must be "lust" or "masturbation", read more carefully about how the predominant fault is determined. Fr. Dion doesn't address this sin, but I think it likely that such things are expressions of the predominant fault. While certainly masturbation is a mortal sin, obviously, I think it is the case that it is a misused appetite, and that the greater defect in the soul will be located elsewhere. But you can always talk it over with a priest if you don't like what I say. Certainly there is such a thing as a predominant fault, and there are ways of figuring out what it is. Precision is required in knowing our predominant fault. (You might start to pray, in any case, "O Lord, help me to know my predominant fault, for which I am sorry and of which I long to be healed.") Precision is required: you may recall that I said that my PF is "sloth". In fact I have a more detailed picture of it than that, but I keep the details to myself. As you discover your PF, you can do likewise. There is no need to advertise it. What is wrong with saying that our PF is "sloth" or "gluttony" and leaving it at that? It would be akin to finding a hut in the Black Forest by pointing at a map of Europe: a great many faults touch upon the capital or general sins. So our interior, personal understanding must rise to a higher level of specificity. It should be "defined", "limited", and "pinpointed to a workable, achievable goal." This is goalsetting par excellence. We want to have the goal of eradicating that which does the most to separate us from the good God Who made us. And we will look at ways to observe "how our fault manifests itself". Our goal is to be systematic, and to have a clear objective. To the extent that we are vague about our PF, and unsystematic in our prayer life, we will drift along, making little progress. Great! So, how do we get to know our predominant fault? 1. Some people discover it by "special illumination from God". Perhaps by "sudden inspiration" they discover what their suffering means, gaining a "split second revelation of God's wisdom". This requires the stillness of prayer, and it cannot be brought about deliberately. This may be one of the 29
ways that our PF is clarified over the course of weeks, months, or years of mental prayer. We may occasionally see things in a new light, gain a new understanding of our nature. All we can do to foster this is to be faithful to mental prayer, and 'be still' in that prayer each day. 2. Painfully, one can learn one's PF from others. To take this approach requires sincerity on your part. 'Honey, what's my predominant fault?' 'Well let's see...!' The problem is that "we excuse ourselves, and accuse others". Take care, because other people may not really be sure, if you ask them directly. You'll have to consider their answer carefully in any case. Don't take their answer as gospel, if you ask them. They may have an agenda, or a predominant fault of their own that happens to cloud their judgment of yours. They may also lack spiritual insight. A less direct manner to gain this insight from others is to look to "the criticisms, corrections, or admonitions of others". And if you really want the truth, and we do, right?, then look to those criticisms or statements that have the most "sting" and that seem to touch the "rawest wound". Think back. How have people reacted to you? What seemed unfair, that perhaps you had no good response to? We can sincerely consider the spontaneous negative feedback we receive, looking for the germ of truth about ourselves that seems contrary to virtue. I wouldn't say that it is necessarily the criticism we receive most often that points to our fault. It may be the criticism that we rarely receive. For some of us, a criticism we often receive actually points to a virtue; whereas we are so good at hiding our faults that only occasionally does someone put a finger on ours in a pointed way. We can learn our PF from observing the feedback we get in life. God expects us to sanctify each other. The people in our lives are a sent grace. We can fight it, or embrace it. We must learn from the people around ourselves. Now let's examine ways to derive our predominant fault (PF) by ourselves by looking at some general paradigms for identifying and choosing among faults. Fr. Dion assures us that it is fundamentally a "do it yourself" task, so we are not overreaching here, doing things without a spiritual advisor. However, eventually as we clarify these matters, we can take our conclusions to our confessor or advisor and ask his input. That would be a good and wise thing to do. But in point of fact, we have to do our homework. Fortunately God has given us the aptitudes required for this work. After we do talk things over with a spiritual advisor or confessor, an additional advantage accrues, by the way. We gain the benefit of obedience. This is something they have in religious orders, and we may lack the frequency and intimacy of contact with a confessor to have exactly the same benefit, but if we do manage to have our PF evaluated and assigned to us in this way, we gain the "blessing of obedience", which means that we are doing even more to thwart our wills. So, it's something to keep in 30
mind. The way this works is that we have to ask ourselves questions. By reasoning in certain directions, we can derive our PF, or our "root fault". Having a root fault is view helps us "divide and conquer". It is a terrible shame that so few people do this, because it is the way to achieve meteoric growth in the spiritual life. It brings organization and system to the whole of our [spiritual] life. What do I confess the most? Which of my sins are "most coldly deliberate"? How do I resist God's grace? In other words, in what do I know I must improve, and steadfastly refuse to focus on? Of my sins, which is most serious? Which do I commit most often? For which one have I the "strongest affection"? These are questions we can ask to zero in on our PF. Also, if we discover an internal fault and an external fault running about equal (e.g. interior sensations of pride, vs. aggression towards others), Fr. Dion counsels that the external fault must be addressed first owing to the problem of giving "bad example". Nobody cares about bad example these days, so it is all the more important that we strive to be a good example. A further division of sins: Fr. Dion counsels that we focus first on those sins that touch upon charity, second upon those pertaining to obedience, and third, matters of "abandonment of will", to God, of course. The insights particularly about interior faults are truly important, and very fruitful areas to pursue. Many people look at an interior fault and do one of two things: they assume "that's who I am" or "I'll have to go see a psychologist". The fruits of a spiritual approach are almost entirely ignored. Indeed, serious cases may need care, but we all have some bugs in the brain, and the good news is: they are faults! And this system of meditation and resolutions can zap them. The keys are all expounded here. We'll be taking a closer look in the days ahead. This program of meditation with resolutions targeting our predominant fault is like accelerating the spiritual life. Nobody seems to know about it, but it's all true. No advanced education or special calling is required to use these basic spiritual means. Now, additional analytical questions to ponder in determining our PF by our own efforts. One way to look at the problem is to "search for our passions". What things "are a hindrance to our 31
heart"? What possesses us? Then, ask why. By passion, perhaps we should omit considerations such as building model airplanes, or gourmet cooking, and rather focus on faults, sins, and omissions. For example, perhaps we always get mad at Q. Or perhaps we become impatient with Y. a great deal. As we work on this over time, pondering it as we pray, we will probably deepen our grasp of reasons for our behavior. But the objective is to discover the "underlying fault or passion" that seems responsible for our surface behavior. Perhaps the worst sin we commit most frequently is masturbation. Fine. So, why do we masturbate? It is a question familiar to us under the name of "trigger". But many times, we think of "triggers" in terms of things like "loneliness", "hunger", "frustration" and the like. Here's a chance to deepen our understanding radically! Those kinds of triggers may well be warning signs of a potential problem. But, they are not the underlying passion. Here is a driving analogy. Suppose we are driving along, and we notice an icy patch. We know from unfortunate past experience that when an icy patch is before us, we had better slow down. Eventually it dawns on us that in certain months there are always icy patches. It's not enough to say, 'I will observe the icy patches and slow down accordingly'. We must instead say, 'my underlying passion for driving the car hard is working against me, even if I see the icy patch coming'. Why is the icy patch a problem? Because we're going too fast to begin with. Why do we go too fast to begin with? Now there's the beginning of an insight. In seeking our predominant fault we may be inclined to look at something like 'impatience'. It wouldn't surprise me if something like that were truly the more obvious, public, evident difficulty, the more serious exposed wound. So again, we ask, why am I impatient? Could it be, perhaps, that I am too attached to my own will? If our predominant fault is criticising others, why are we criticising them? What is it about them that bothers us? By exploring our interior reasons for our external faults, we can begin to get at our root fault, or predominant fault. This fault, once we have it in view, will help us to solve many problems simultaneously. Fr. Dion uses the analogy of a sprinkler on a garden hose. If you try to plug each hole in the sprinkler, you'll probably never manage it. But go to the spigot and turn that off, and the whole sprinkler shuts down in an instant. The thing to do is to reason about your behavior until you come up with a plausible explanation that you can clarify, and resolve to counter. In my own case, as you know from my accountability report, there is this project I'm trying to work on. The evident fault is 'sloth'. I'm not doing my project. Why aren't I doing my project? In all likelihood I'm fearful of failure. How do I counter that? By resolving to pray for the strength to be trusting and brave. We will see shortly that the resolution should be positive, not negative, which is another problem with our common approach to masturbation: many of us
probably resolve not to masturbate: it's much better to have a goal to work toward. PF analysis with meditation and resolution as a systematic approach naturally tends in that positive, and fundamental, direction. There is something about dealing with our predominant fault that affords us a degree of clarity and purpose. So often we combat sin as if we were supposed to work on the sprinkler end. We're not. We are supposed to work on the spigot. I will try to give some more examples of how one might reason about the predominant fault. The risk is that it might sound like I'm talking about specific people. I'm not. Such a variety of problems have been voiced by so many people here that it is almost impossible to sound like nobody. But here goes. Suppose I am 15 and I'm always getting into a fight with my sibling. Natural enough, you may say. But nonetheless, a fault. What does it mean? Perhaps my sibling is popular, whereas I am smart. So we clash on various things. Maybe I need the family car to get to math meet, but my sibling says 'no way I have a date!' We have to carpool, and we don't get along. Well, the surface fault there may be impatience and anger. Why am I angry? Not because I can't actually get to the math meet. Instead the problem is probably that I haven't made peace with the reality that I'm not the same as my sibling. So perhaps I should trust God that I will get to the math meet, and be patient with those unlike myself. Predominant fault: lacking patience, lacking trust something in that ball park. Suppose there's a member of the clergy I dislike. Perhaps I find him overly emotional and too likely to try to persuade with clumsy patronizing attempts to manipulate feelings. Suppose this member actually makes me angry. There's a fault: I'm feeling anger. If I have to be with this person all the time it may amount to my predominant fault: always getting angry, and grouchy, and uncooperative. So, why am I getting angry? Maybe because I don't want to admit that not everyone in the world is as rational as I am. Maybe because I have a weakness in the area of recognizing that some people need access to an emotional person. So my fault amounts to selfishness in having no care for the needs of others, which might be met by that individual. Perhaps I am too much of a coward to verbalize clearly what my objection is, preferring instead to brood. So the fault becomes: selfishness, and cowardice. See how it works? The fault arrived at by analysis isn't just "anger", and I don't content myself to say "I resolve not to be angry, because anger is a capital sin". No: I analyze the behavior until I arrive at a deeper understanding of how the fault comes about. That understanding then forms the basis for formulating the predominant fault (assuming that we started with the major problem to begin with). It works because the superficial behavior is not the same as the problem. If I have a rash, I may have a blood disorder. If my arm aches, my heart may have a blood clot. If I am impatient, I may be selfish. The real understanding becomes the basis for change. Not the trigger, and not the symptom: but the real understanding. 33
Can "triggers" such as loneliness, hunger, anger, isolation, boredom, and frustration serve as starting points for deriving our predominant fault? It's possible they can help. Our fault should be something that implicates our will. Fr. Dion takes a surface fault and probes it to discover how we are misusing our will in a deeper sense. How might that work with triggers? He doesn't address this topic, but I will attempt to apply his ideas to this facet of our thinking here. At least one of the triggers listed above is an exterior fault, clearly manifested. Anger can be assessed by asking why one is angry, and thus deriving a deeper fault that causes it, much as we saw with the "impatience" example. Some triggers may be only feelings or experiences of ourselves. These can be faults, but observing how may require a different question. If we were to ask, "Why am I lonely?", we may get only a psychological miasma, rather than an insight into how we are misusing our will. If we ask instead, "How is this offensive to God?", we may gain real insight. We should ask that question with a spirit of charity towards ourselves, now, nothing harsh or abusive. Just gently think about how those kinds of triggers are in some way offensive to God not that we necessarily meant to be offensive. One thing to consider is that unhappiness generally is an expression of not trusting in Providence. It may sound cruel at first, but whenever I contemplate it carefully, I know it's true. And it's reflected in the literature. For example, Fr. Gabriel summarizes it thus: "If we are disturbed and upset by trials, it means that we lack faith" (Meditation 63). Some of these interior triggers may be a fault in reflecting a lack of faith. That in turn can be turned into a resolution. For example, "When I feel lonely, I will pray to God for the strength to trust in His providence." You would probably want to develop that further. It may be too abstract. So, observe that with triggers, you want to be sure that in probing them you are deriving some understanding that reflects upon your will. You are seeking a motive of which you can theoretically and actually be guilty. In our "spiritual practice" (mental prayer, resolution, particular exam) we want to understand how we are misusing our will, and make corrective prayer until the temptation to do so passes. Arriving at a 'willbased' understanding of a trigger doesn't mean that you have derived your predominant fault. A fault, maybe, but not necessarily the predominant one. That's one potential problem I envision with triggers as a basis for deriving the PF: a trigger may come up a lot, but it may not be the main fault. A look at our overall sinfulness is needed. A trigger may indeed be associated with our PF, but not necessarily. In sum, triggers may be translatable into faults. Be careful in the analysis, taking care to be gentle with 34
yourself. Just tease apart the factors that afflict your soul, and trust in God, that progress really is possible. Suppose someone says, 'My wife discovered my problem, and now she doesn't trust me. We yell, have arguments, and aren't as close.' Is this a clue to a predominant fault? I think in a case like this, it may seem confusing to sort out one's predominant fault. One may be predominantly angry on the surface, arguing a lot, whereas the simmering root problem, the masturbation, is not yet dominated. What to do? Well, it may be that there are two faults worth working on. Recall that Fr. Dion recommends that you deal with the public faults first, because they cause scandal. This is especially applicable when children are involved. I would wager that the first problem to work on is the one that causes arguing and yelling. "Why am I getting into fights, and arguing with my wife?" Because she doesn't trust me? Well, remember that she has a reason not to trust you. You gave her that reason, and she didn't ask for it. So, why am I arguing with her? Perhaps because I haven't yet fully accepted my guilt. Oh sure I accept it, you know, but come on, I accept it already! Can't I move on? Maybe not. Our guilt goes on because the consequences go on. So, why do I get into arguments and start yelling, scandalizing the children and adding injury to insult? Because I have not interiorized that I am truly guilty of causing harm. That's right. Truly guilty of causing harm. Not just offending God, not just offending my wife, but actually causing harm. Okay. I have not interiorized that. So. When I am tempted to get into an argument, the occasion of sin being an argument is about to occur, maybe she's yelling, maybe there's tension, who knows when I am tempted, I will pray, O God, give me the grace to interiorly understand that I have caused harm. Now we have a nice example of the spigotvs.sprinkler analogy. Because as you make that prayer in the time of temptation, you probably fight the masturbation problem too. As you cancel out fights and yelling by praying when tempted, you also unlearn the masturbation habit, because the next time you are tempted to do that, you think, Wait a minute: I already caused harm with this. We won't change overnight, in all likelihood. But taking a major problem area and working on the underlying predominant or root fault starts the process moving. The surface fault of masturbation and the surface fault of yelling and arguing may not have quite the same underlying faults. Maybe we masturbate because we are frustrated with life. Maybe we argue because we feel that we have already acknowledged our mistake and wish to move on. The PF in the first case may be lack of courage to accept where I am now, and in the second, lack of will to interiorize that I have caused harm. We may be confused, then, because we see two faults, and don't know which to work on first. Fr. Dion recommends the more public problem first. And as you can see, the strategy works, because ultimately faults are connected. Next, I want to review an important area: making acts of the will during prayer. Fr. Dion stresses that 35
acts of the will are the "heart of prayer". In some common arrangements or suggestions about mental prayer, such as this one at vocation.com, portions of the suggestions are in effect acts of the will. But because they are not stressed as such, it is possible one may miss the point, and simply ruminate in a general way. One should strive to make acts of the will. Perhaps I can tender a definition, invented by me, to clarify it: an act of the will in prayer is when 'I direct myself to God in the form of a statement'. Mental prayer outlines include suggestions that qualify as statements, but may not mention their importance as acts of the will; consequently a person may not make them as much as they might. It is not limited to Fr. Dion's works. This is a point made by others as well. "Various movements of the will" are made in mental prayer (a divine quoted in Fr. Doyle). In the body of the meditation "the three faculties of the soul, the memory, the understanding, and the will, [are applied] to each point of the meditation" (Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey, section 694). This is important to stress because the spiritual diseases from which we suffer are partly diseases of the will. This is something I plan to learn more about. Our lapses into unreality are a symptom of being too ignorant of and indifferent to reality, or Reality, Who is God: but our will needs training. Our mental prayer time is partly a training of the will, not deliberately as such but more, in my opinion, as a byproduct of making acts of the will. (More practical training of the will can occur momentbymoment in daily life as we fulfill our duties of state with resolve, praying for courage and vision). Maybe in prayer we are tuning our will, while in everyday life we train our will. Exercising our will in mental prayer is very important, and it is very beneficial to see it as such. We tell God of our love for Him, our thanks for His benefits to us, of our sorrow for our sins: we are engaging our will. We are not just pondering some truth because it's beautiful, or because it's true: we are engaging that truth with our will. Fr. Dion, Fr. Doyle, Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey, and no doubt many other noteworthy spiritual writers all emphasize these points. Acts of the will may be vocalized or not, as you wish. My preference is to move my lips, but to breathe normally, not to breathe the sentences. That way nobody can hear what I'm saying, but I'm still physically engaged in what I'm saying. Elsewhere in this thread I've reviewed Fr. Dion's views about the need also to listen, to pause and rest in the prayer. One doesn't make continuous acts of the will. Another point that may not be emphasized in some arrangements or suggestions for mental prayer is that the meditation 'starter material' as I've been calling it should not take precedence over acts of the will. As soon as you have a basis for making an act of the will, as soon, that is, as the Holy Ghost has moved your heart to love, sorrow, gratitude, resolve, etc., and you are ready to communicate this to God and speak lovingly to Him, then do that. Don't feel that the meditation material needs to be 'gotten through': acts of the will are more important. Acts of the will are you engaged directly talking with God. Analysis, imagination, and other things are all of secondary importance. Now, when we are 36
momentarily done making an act, or a series of acts, of the will, then we can go back to our meditation and see what else is there. Last for now, acts of the will can be wordless. If that is your way, your gift, God loves that also. I think it is important at least at first to express them: we are all in the purgative way here by and large, and we need to think things through. Simple glances of the heart can come later. Perhaps a dose of encouragement about mental prayer is in order. Mental prayer is like engaging the gears of a car. The engine is akin to the faith. The faith is there, it awaits us, it beckons us, it promises to help us as long as we don't turn it off: put prayer and penance first and the rest will be added on! We are the car around the engine. We like to sit in the driveway and rev the engine. Vroom, vroom. What power. What sleek appointments. God is great. This button does this, that button does that, and if you step on this, the engine roars back! Wow, the faith is amazing. Hear it! Hear, hear! And we wear ourselves out in the driveway. A car never driven rots where it sits, even if you start it. We don't get moving until we engage the gears. The gears have to be engaged with the engine to make the car move. How do we engage the gears? Mental prayer. We must use the faculties that God gave us. Mental prayer is how we engage our mind and will into the faith. We think, we understand, we make acts of the will, and we move. The Rosary is very important. It is given to us by Our Lady as a great ladder of grace and a source of intercession. The sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist are how God chooses to be united to us directly. And all the Catholic prayer systems and approaches are good, litanies, Offices, and so forth. But we have faculties, and we must use them. The first times, sure, it feels a little odd. I'm thinking about God, talking to God, it's kind of a soliloquy, it's a bit unfamiliar and I'm at sea. But soon we discover that we understand better the details about our faith, and are starting to apply it to ourselves in our thoughts. As we make acts of the will toward God, of contrition, love, adoration, desire for holiness, we open our souls to the divine Son Who wishes to be our interior Master but Who will not impose Himself upon us. To God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. People spend more effort, by far, maintaining their possessions than they do their souls. This is wrong. We must make a daily mental effort to talk to God, so that the cobwebs, fog, and errors can be cleaned out of our souls.
If you had a dear friend, would you say, 'I never need to talk to my friend. We just get together and I recite the same poem every time. Then I walk away.' Of course not. The conversation is different every time. There is a dialogue. You say what is on your mind. Your friend talks to you. How can we imagine it to be otherwise. Sometimes of course, after a friendship is well advanced, you may just be silent together. But for 'beginners' and 'intermediates' there is plenty to talk about. Premature silence would result in mind drift and the two may suddenly wonder what they were doing together. Analogies are always flawed. But with God we have much to discuss. Our sins, failings, hopes, yearning for holiness, our praises and adoration for Him: all that and much more. Mental prayer is that conversation with God. Nobody is excluded from it. If we can run thoughts in our mind when we are walking down the street, we can have a conversation with God. He knows our thoughts anyway, so why not talk to Him? A word about resolutions: You may think, that with a meditation 'method', and predominant faults, and resolutions, and particular exams, that this "spiritual practice" is rather specific, and in the end, can it be flexible enough? I want to encourage you to see the flexibility throughout it. In my own case, I am primarily fighting against sloth. I know that there are specific times and places where I will be tempted to be slothful. I know that there are particular activities that I will prefer that amount to sloth. The key to making a good resolution is, as I quoted from Fr. Dion, to be specific about time and place, or in a word, occasion. The fault is what we are after: the actual occurrence of the fault is where and when we must pray. As your understanding of how your predominant fault manifests itself improves, and as you spiritually change and improve, you will discover ways to improve the specificity of your resolution. Each day is a new day. Fr. Dion counsels that our faults not arising overnight, their cure will not be effected overnight: hence one ought to make the same resolution repeatedly over weeks even months, resolutions to make a specific prayer at the specific times and places where our fault manifests itself. But we can do this, whilst also improving the resolution. For example, in my own case, my resolution time/place was targeted to the card on which I write out my daily plan. The occasion was to be when I go off my plan, to resolve to pray to have the strength to study the card and do something on it. But later I realized that just based on how I am, and how things are with me, that a more precise way of dealing with the situation is to say prior to using my computer, am I producing value, or consuming value? A careful study of the time factors revealed that reducing nonproductive computer time by 80% would yield ample time for my project. So at least for a time, that is my slothrelated time/place occasion at which point my prayer/resolution is lodged. When I go to the computer, am I producing or consuming? If the latter, then I must pray for the grace to focus on doing the former. This is a pin pointed occasion with potentially maximized results.
I wouldn't have had that insight at first. But by sticking with the plan each day, coming up with a resolution and making the prayers at the relevant occasions, and doing the particular exam to check on myself, I was able eventually to discover this more targetted occasion. I have since improved it still further. And so you don't need to have a completely worked out system in advance. Our understanding of our predominant fault, our conversation pattern with Our Lord in our meditation, our resolutions, our prayer to avoid our fault, our understanding of the occasions on which we commit our fault: all of that can be done, with the trust that our understanding will continue to grow and improve. It isn't necessary to have a fully worked out system from the start. We can't have one, anyway, because we spiritually change in any case. As we improve, the occasion of our fault, the practical point of maximum weakness, may itself change, while yet being essentially the same fault. I'm expanding a bit on Fr. Dion in this, but only to share my experience, to reassure you that it is neither necessary nor possible to have a totally clear system prior to starting.
Now let's look at some ideas from Fr. Dion that may help us to think about where our predominant fault may be found. I think I mentioned the distinction between an active vs. a passive point of view. The active orientation is "doing what God wants", and the passive is "wanting all that God does". One can cooperate or thwart either point of view. These two can be further organized into obedience and charity (both active) and abandonment (passive). "Abandonment" refers to our willleaving it to God. These categories may seem dry at first, but upon inspection they yield insights into how we may be failing. Obedience. What we look for here are instances in which we prefer our own choices, or follow our own will, as opposed to doing what God wants us to do. How do we know what God wants us to do? I'm not sure whether or not I've reviewed this, but there are two primary ways: our duties of state, and what we learn in the confessional. Also, anything that we can do out of charity (the subject of tomorrow's post). So, do we ignore the rules? assigments? tasks? customs? How do we behave in these areas when we think that nobody is watching us? Are we tardy? tardy in work? our prayers? our duty to those in our personal life? Are we critical of the authority that is placed over us? try to gain support for our insurrection? undermining the spirit of the place where our duty is performed? building up or tearing down? spreading discontent or cheer? These kinds of things can help us measure "the temperature of our love of God". They would amount to external active faults, the reasons for which can be probed to arrive at a predominant fault. Charity. Preferring our will to God's in this area may take the form of talking publicly about the faults 39
of others. Fr. Dion proposes that when we speak of others, we spread either peace or war. Those of us with trouble in the home would do well to consider that, I think. How is our mood? Are we gloomy? morose? overly serious all the time? spreading gloom or cheer? These are faults, actually! Many people would suppose that to be morose too much of the time would necessitate a trip to the psychologist, but it is first and foremost a spiritual fault! Now when will you ever hear that in a homily. These things, as well as being habitually slovenly in our appearance, work, work space, and movement, all reflect a lack of regard for our neighbor. So do griping about the weather, or about what food is to be found in the refrigerator, or whining about the bus or whatever, in my opinion. Do we realize that when we are gloomy, we are spreading a lack of hope to our neighbor, whom we are to love for the love of God? Our children if we have any, our spouse if we have any, our favorite people, all suffer. But not only they! No, also the people on the subway, in the public concourses, in the cafe: wherever we are, if we are slovenly and morose, we are spreading a gloomy attitude about life. This is not pleasing to God! God gave us not only life, and the world to be in charge of, but He gave us the gift of faith! And we are going to respond to that gift, those gifts, by being slovenly and uninterested? These are spiritual faults against charity. Surprising but true. Now remember: be kind to yourself as you think about these things. Take the ideas seriously, but recall that you probably didn't mean to offend God by being slovenly or morose. Just know that once we understand that these are spiritual faults, we can see them, and our concomitant responsibilities, in a new light! The light of faith! Are we stubborn? Do we tend to rigidity in our personal outlook? Are we unbending when presented with the needs of others? Do we nurse dislikes? Fr. Dion at this juncture makes an interesting point. It relates back to the question of feelings vs. will. We can't help but feel a like or a dislike for one thing or another. What we can help is whether or not, and how, we express our dislikes (which especially require attention). We can use our will despite any feelings we may have. Refusing to nurse a dislike means refusing to use our will in thinking about something we dislike. Dwelling on dislikes amounts to having useless, vain, and distracting thought. Useless, vain, and distracting thoughts are a severe impediment to embracing the grace of God. They occupy our mind and prevent us from thinking of God or duty. Turn out such thoughts from your mind. Set them aside by thinking of God or of our duty. They are often opposed to charity anyway. We shouldn't be cross with ourselves for a lack of progress in this area. It's one of the harder things. If we make a sufficient effort at prayer, and if we truly desire to be purged of such wasteful mental 40
tendencies, "God can bring it about that we don't even feel them anymore" (e.g. our dislikes). We musn't be impatient with ourselves. We are sinners, and can do nothing without God. Holy abandonment. Thought questions include: Are we often irritable? Do we show our irritation? These may reflect a lack of meekness. Do we often feel slighted or insulted? Do we get discouraged easily? These faults reflect a lack of abandonment of ourselves to the holy will of God. If we are irritable, we are rejecting what is happening to us, without doing anything positive about it. If we are doing something positive, then God is using us to fix a problem! If we are merely irritable, then we are merely languishing, and refusing to embrace what God has in mind. Or perhaps our boss wants us to do something: irrititability suggests a lack of meekness in the form of refusing to embrace our position as subordinate. Unless our boss wants us to commit a sin, we should tend to comply or make a proactive suggestion about what might be better to do, which again would be an example of God using us to bring about a greater good. To feel insulted in some measure refuses to see in the things which happen to us what I call 'sent graces', helpful signposts of what we are. On the other hand, we probably weren't really insulted at all, and are just being morose, which is also a kind of lethargy in which we don't let God work good through us. We prefer our will to His will, and tend to become disappointed when things don't go our way. Holy abandonment is a good thing. We should want what God wants. Spiritual direction: Fr. Dion suggests at various junctures that a spiritual director can help us. Today just a short observation: "All the potential, predominant tendencies and faults which manifest themselves externally we should mention with our director for the purpose of determining our spiritual practice." I think that these days it's hard to find a spiritual director. Fr. Dubay in chapter seven of his book Seeking Spiritual Direction offers various points about this. "St. Teresa remarked that a person who apparently is left without human guidance should not be unduly discouraged. Referring to such people, she said that 'now, in respect to the spirit, another greater Lord governs them; they are not without a Superior.' This is part of the saint's habitual mind that God takes care of those who seek him earnestly and do whatever they can to serve him well. They will find the help they need..." "Even if one has not yet found a regular guide, one can often at key stages in life talk with a prayerful visiting priest, a good spiritual friend, or a wise nunsomeone who is trustworthy. Even if it is only on a onetime basis, it may provide the needed insight or the verification of one's experiences." "[Confession] is providentially offered ... for spiritual guidance.... A priest in the confessional is not merely an absolver from sin; he is also meant to be a father and physician to a wounded sister or brother. ... Hence, prepare your question, and then present it briefly and clearly. Ask advice." "We can now say that for people who engage in the very best of spiritual reading and who are immersed in the saints, 'selfdirection' is not really self direction. They are being guided by the masters themselves, even if they lack the blessing of a living voice."
Sound advice, it seems to me.
Let's move on to a study of the particular exam in more detail. The general exam contrasts with the particular exam in several ways. It is a practice one can do nightly, covering the whole of the day, "a backward glance" if you will to discover how well we have lived the truth on this day. Many of us keeping a daily accountability report have incorporated into it numerous details that amount to a general exam, and are effectively making that backward glance. The general exam should be accompanied by an apology to God, and a request to Him for continued assistance in overcoming faults. The particular exam is different in two basic respects from the general exam. First, it is more of a forward glance; second, it focuses on the predominant fault, rather than on all one's faults. Fr. Dion emphasizes the benefits of this concentration on a fault we are trying to overcome (or on a virtue we will to gain). We "reaffirm" and "renew" through the particular exam. We can give our attention more effectively to one problem than to a whole range of problems. Sometimes I am tempted to work harder on gluttony, but then I remember that for me right now sloth is more of a problem: I don't let myself become distracted from the real fight. That doesn't mean I pig out willy nilly, but I just remember where the battle lines are really drawn for me, right now. Mopup operations can come later! The suggested rate of performing one's particular exam is twice per day. As I mentioned, I like to do mine after the Angelus. Soon I'll review a general 'method' for making the particular exam, which will include many helpful details about making resolutions. Presently I just introduce the problem that indeed, conditions during the day easily conspire to make setting aside a minute or two somewhat challenging. One is busy, people are demanding one's attention, there is noplace that is reasonably private, we are distracted. Well, how important is it to overcome one's worst fault? the fault that leads to so many other problems, as a single spigot causes water to shoot everywhere through a sprinkler? What have you ever motivated yourself to do? Complete a period of military training? a course of study? fix a room of your home? a difficult term paper? Surely there is something that you have determined to do and completed. Well, working daily on our worst fault is more important than whatever that successful project was. So apply to this spiritual practice the same sense of determination. Really consider: just as there was some true benefit to be gained in the project you completed, so now, there is real gain in overcoming your worst fault. This is motivation. Trust in God, 42
that focusing twice a day on your worst root failing, in a positive and forwardlooking way, will, accompanied with prayer of course, in the medium term result in actual and meaningful improvements. Trust in God. The particular exam is dependent upon the resolution taken after one's meditation. The general assumption is that one's meditation has been made in the morning. However, if our schedule doesn't allow this, it's not a problem, in my opinion. Sometimes I do my meditation at night, and I make resolutions that I apply to the following day, which I recall when I get up. I think the thing to do is to have a general intention to gradually implement the whole system. At first, a few months ago, I wanted to start meditating (or having daily mental prayer) but I only managed it about once a week or less. Then I began having it sporadically at night, then regularly at night, then some days in the AM and on others still in the PM, and now finally I usually manage to do my mental prayer in the morning! Just give yourself a chance and don't feel in a rush to do everything at once. So: at the end of meditation, we make a resolution. It must be specific. At a certain time and/or place when we will be tempted to commit our fault, we must resolve that we will make a specific prayer until the temptation passes. Specific time, specific place, specific fault, specific prayer. Sound too specific? Recall that this is about our worst failing, and it's a war. We are making war on our worst fault. We go to where the enemy is lined up, if you will. So we don't say "Today I resolve that I will be happy" or "patient" or whathaveyou. "Generic resolutions" are a waste of effort. "We must try to forsee at meditation the precise time today we are likely to be tempted in this way." Where, when, and under what circumstances is our fault likely? Pinpoint, and resolve to pray. Resolutions must be positive in character. I mentioned this earlier. We must resolve that we will do something, not that we will not do something. This is important for us to remember. Since we are in varying degrees trying to overcome the solitary vice (although that may not necessarily be a line to our predominant fault, or it could be only an indirect line: we may have all sorts of different 'reasons' for masturbating), we may be in the habit of saying what we won't do. Fr. Dion makes two interesting points we may not have thought of. First, to not act is a weaker gesture, or is weaker in character. It is easier for us to contemplate acting than not acting. Second, recall St. Peter, who said that he would just never never never deny our Lord! Never never! Not I, goodness no! Perish the thought, Lord! "I never knew the man." Right. (Poor St. Peter gets picked on mercilessly for that well my faults are plenty worse, for the record!) Our resolution must manifest a trust in God, not in ourselves. If we say we won't do something, we may be referring that to God, but we might be saying that we personally will be strong. A better plan is to have a positive resolution to pray at the time of temptation. That's what we resolve: and it puts our trust in God, right when we need it most. We pray during the temptation to commit our predominant 43
fault. And we "select the prayer" at the end of our meditation. It's all worked out in advance. Now you might be saying, "I do that all the time. When I feel like I'm about to fall, I pray, and many times I fall anyway. What's new with this?" There are numerous aspects that may be new to any of us. First, we are meditating, or mentally talking to God each morning for 1530 minutes, using a starter text, and making acts of the will that incorporate expressions of our sorrow for sin, love for God, thanksgiving for God's goodness to us, and other acts of the will that may occur to you. This deepens our friendship with God. Second, we are pursuing our predominant fault, and doing so in a positive way, rather than praying against a mere manifestation of a fault. Third, we are determining in advance, after talking to God, exactly how we will handle the fault when we are tempted. Fr. Dion likens it to having a fire drill. Do you recall fire drills from school, or perhaps you have them at work? Then you "know the drill": when the stress is low, we decide what we will do in an emergency when the stress will be high. If we wait until the fire starts to decide what to do, the result will be chaos. A fire may not ever happen in a given building. But temptations are "morally certain to break out". We simply always will face them. So, we may as well set up "the exact fire extinguisher we will use". I would add that we can decide in advance, by working on our predominant fault, whether it's going to be a chemical, wood, or oil fire. Our procedure is more analytical and thorough than just praying that a fault won't occur or can be thwarted at the last minute. If a fire broke out in your living room, how long would you squirt the fire with the extinguisher? Or how long would you expect the fire department to squirt the fire? Would you want them to say, "Well Mr. Jones, we've been at it for about ten minutes now, and we're going to have a little rest." Or "Well Mr. Jones, it's rather warm in here, we'll go cool off for a while. The insurance guys will come out anyway." Not a chance! The fire is squirted until there is no fire left. That's how we treat our property. How do we treat our souls? If you're like me, sometimes you've given in when you could have fought on. But with this system, which targets our worst failing by specifically identifying where and when it will occur and deciding in advance what we will pray to move in the positive, opposite direction, we in fact resolve to pray as the fire department works on fires: we pray until the temptation is extinguished. If a spark comes back to life, more water! Until extinguished. Our souls are more important than our property. Suppose we fail in our resolution. Fr. Dion proposes that we should assign a penance to ourselves for each failure. He suggests in particular a penance of memorizing three verses of Scripture for every 44
failure. And, he emphasizes that our reason for doing all of this must be rooted in love of God. We do it for God. Our motive is not that we are tired of being caught, or are worried about being fired, but to please God. Our predominant fault analysis may help there: just consider how our predominant fault is offensive to God. We can consider that we are surely misusing God's gifts to us on a deep level, gifts that He gave us knowing full well we could use them properly. Fr. Dion doesn't suggest it, but we could consider a reward for when we keep our resolution. Perhaps do something we like to do: like memorize three lines of Scripture. ;D
Now let's look at an overall method for making the particular exam. We are to do this during the day. During the day we are busy. Do we have time to examine our souls during the day? With people all around? The answer is a cheerful 'yes'. There is no obstacle to making a particular exam (or two) during the day. Here is the basic method. 1. We have in mind some location where we will make our exam. Perhaps it is our desk. Perhaps it is while we are walking to lunch. Perhaps it will be in different places on different days. While we are approaching that location, we "ask God quickly for the grace to make the examen well". If we are already in that location, no problem: again, we just ask God for the grace to examine ourselves well. 2. We then go straight to the point. At our last meditation (ideally morning but it can be the night before!), we have made a specific, positive resolution to pray to overcome the temptation to commit our predominant fault. Well, how did we do? Did we succeed? Did we pray? Did we overcome? Did we remember? Or did we fail in some way? Recall the specific resolution, and look over the course of the day so far and compare results with the resolution. 3. If we have kept our resolution, then offer thanks to our Lord. If we have not kept it, then admit to our Lord our failure, and admit that He did send the graces that we required to keep the resolution, so that it really is our fault entirely that we did not. Thank Him for those graces that we ignored! 4. Renew the resolution for the next period of the day. Ideally one would make two particular examinations, perhaps at lunch and at dinner. So at the midday particular exam, one would renew for the period extending from after lunch until dinner. In renewing our resolution, we again think of it in its specificity: time, place, prayer to be made, temptation to be thwarted. And that's it! Once you get the hang of it, it can be done in thirty to sixty seconds flat.
The process of making a particular exam keeps alive in our working memory the last (morning?) meditation we made. At our meditation we probably came to some 'conclusion' about the subject matter. Or another way to put it: there was probably some overarching theme to the meditation. For example, last week as I write this, the overarching theme was learning how to renounce unnecessary attachments. So during the day I am actively recalling aspects of that, usually at the time I make my particular exam, and also at other times: it just comes to mind. Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, and found that aspects of the conversation would come to mind at odd times? It's like that in talking with God. You'll recall the conversation later. Making our particular exam brings to mind again the meditation we most recently had, and helps keep our spiritual communion with God alive in our minds. However, note that the purpose of the particular exam is not to recall our last mental prayer session. It is simply a way of checking our results against our resolution. If you want, you can add an extra ten seconds to the end of your particular exam to specifically recall the meditation, and even to thank God for having inspired you to love Him enough to want to talk with Him and later recall what you discussed together. Fr. Dion observes that if one is in the habit of tackling one's predominant fault in this way, via resolutions and particular exams, then it becomes easier at the end of the week to prepare for confession. Now: note that there may be confessable matter other than what we've been working on in connection with our predominant fault. It isn't that our confession becomes only a matter of our progress or failure in that area. Confession remains confession: all mortal sins, and venial sins too, are matter. But nonetheless, preparing is easier, because we've been actively thinking about at least some of our sins all week. "Thus, there is a sensible unity to our spiritual life." That sentence really says a lot. For so many people, the faith may be little more than a sentimental routine, or a flailing about trying to figure out how to obey the precepts and commandments. How wonderful to proceed "sensibly, reasonably, with a definite plan" and may I add, with a calm sense of purpose, and confidence that there really is a way to proceed. Also on the subject of preparing one's weekly (or periodic) confession, Fr. Dion observes that the ideal would be to spend the preparation time "arousing sorrow for our sins, not on trying to find them". If you're like me, I'm sorry to admit, most of my preparation time is actually spent trying to recall what my sins are. Now that I'm writing this I see that I really must reform in this area! To have a more active sense of where our sins are, however, frees us up to prepare by arousing sorrow. I haven't been doing this, myself. It sounds like a very good idea: prepare for confession by arousing sorrow for my sins.
Have you ever heard of "interior virtues"? What an interesting term. I think that in this age a lot of us, myself included unfortunately, go about grumbling, feeling bad, or sorry, or angry, and it really is a nonsense. Also, a lot of people come to rely on psychology, which may be extremely beneficial in their case, but which might have been avoided had they been earlier introduced to the concept of "interior virtues". Listen to this: "It is possible that our major fault be interior. It might be an interior fault of pride, of selfcomplacency, or lack of recollection, dissipation..." Or discouragement, he also says. Now isn't that remarkable? How rare to regard these things as faults. It is much more common, it seems to me, to consider our feelings as implicitly justified, even objectively indicative. This is such a potential breakthrough in understanding that I'll just leave it at that today, and come back to it tomorrow. Just to think: those interior fogs are, or can be, faults. Wow. Who knew? Let's say we have an interior fault. Some racket or interior din in which we whine and complain and act out if people could hear us thinking, what would they really think? Surely I'm not the only one to need "mental floss". Anyway: what to do? The same general approach that we used with predominant exterior faults is used here. We deploy a contrary, positive virtue, an act of the will. Suppose our interior fault is discouragement. What is the reason for our discouragement? A lack of trust in Providence? Something more subtle perhaps? Think about it a little, and then invent a prayer that counters it in a positive way. For example, "we can resolve that every time I am tempted to feel discouraged, I am going to make an act of trust in God by saying..." and then make up or use an appropriate prayer that expresses your trust for God. Remember what Fr. Dion has previous emphasized: feelings have nothing to do with acts of the will. What you feel is irrelevant: you can make an act of the will. I will have to study this at some point, so I am inventing here a bit, but I think that, first of all, will is a faculty, while feelings are not a faculty. Second, feelings are amenable to understanding: intellect is a faculty. So, we will, and we understand, and we let our feelings follow if they need to, when they are ready. (This is so contrary to modern life: feelings are given free reign today.) Our resolution is an intention to make a specific prayer when a specific temptation arises in a specific time and/or place. But, if we are working on an interior fault, we may find that it is too unruly to pin down to a specific time and place. It may crop up anytime, anywhere. We may be required to notice when we are exhibiting the fault.
With practice, we can do this. After a few days or weeks, one gets in the habit of recognizing, "There I go again!" However, there is a simple way of inducing an 'occasion' of sorts, upon which one can make one's postive and contrary act of the will. Fr. Dion proposes "a reminder for the day". For example, it may be catching sight of some object. Or leaving some object in an unusual place so that we will catch sight of it. Perhaps a statue left in the middle of our desk. Or some emblem. We decide that when we see the object, we will make our prayer, "our act of virtue" to oppose our interior fault. It gives us a prompt to practice, and gives us more exposure to the act of will that will counter our interior fault. The reminder should be changed frequently, as should the aspirational prayer that we use. Familiarity reduces the effectiveness of this procedure. What can we do if the occasion of our fault is hard to pin down in terms of time or place? Suppose, for example, our fault is laziness, or backbiting. We may not be able to anticipate precisely where and when we will commit these faults. And yet we may be fully aware that hardly a day passes without this fault being committed. If we cannot predict with precision when our fault will rear its ugly head, Fr. Dion suggests that we choose "a definite time during which we will be on our guard". For example, the first 90 minutes at work. Or the last two hours back from work, at home. Or the first three hours of the day. This is akin to planning ahead somewhat, as best we can. And, we begin to set up a greater habit of recognition of this fault, during those times, that we can benefit from at other times. Perhaps you have been trying this method of organizing the spiritual life. Perhaps you have discovered, as I have, that sometimes we forget to pray at the moment of temptation. We've made our meditation, we've resolved to pray when tempted, and there we are, engaging in our predominant fault with nary a thought to praying to avert the temptation. What to do? Fr. Dion emphasizes that the issue here is that "we have not developed a sensitivity to the beginnings of temptation." This reminds me of the "triggers" issue. The triggers we speak of here may not be temptations per se but they do reflect a willingness to be sensitive to possible falls. Fr. Dion draws a comparison with driving, observing that we certainly gain spontaneous and instinctive reaction to possible dangers. We slow down where there is ice, we anticipate when someone will leap off the curb, we have a sense of someone not stopping for the cross light. Why does the motorist have such a welldeveloped sense, whereas we languish in our faults and fall repeatedly? Ah: the motorist has motivated himself! The costs of failure are high. Insurance, damages, inconvenience all accumulate against him who fails to anticipate driving errors. Are we going to motivate ourselves to save our souls?
We will love our cars more than our God until we motivate ourselves to love God who has first loved us, and to love Him so much that we will spare no effort to develop a habit of recognizing instinticvely the first beginnings of temptation to hurt Him, and use immediately the means to avoid this: namely fulfilling our resolution to pray when we are tempted. Our cars will mean more to us than our God "until we motivate ourselves to love God who has first loved us." We must "spare no effort to develop a habit of recognizing instinctively the first beginnings of a temptation to hurt Him" and "a habit of using immediately the mean to avoid this". Mental prayer sessions are extremely important in developing this sensitivity. For example, our acts of sorrow for sin sensitize us, slowly and surely, in this very matter. Review your sins during your mental prayer sessions. You're not still not doing mental prayer, are you?
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