Friday, 28 November 2014

The Bosom of Christ and the Pure Spiritual Milk: Hardship in Prayer

 "One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus" John 13:23

John the Beloved rests on the Bosom of Christ

 A short treatise concerning the struggles and hardships one experiences in prayer, and is particularly addressed to consecrated souls called to walk the path of perfection by the means of contemplation, especially those who have come to enter into the night of the senses; yet is applicable to all souls who are called to perfection in general.


 I. The adultery of abandoning the Bosom of Christ by seeking respite in the world's bosom; and the struggles experienced in prayer as a consequence

 II. The abandonment of the path of perfection that leads directly to heaven, in favour of the path of imperfection that leads directly to purgatory

III. The disastrous consequences that can be wrought by this adulteration:  the loosing of all that one has gained, fruitlessness in prayer and minimal growth in sanctity 

IV. St. John of the Cross on the possible causes behind hardships in prayer and three principal signs by which one may discern if one is undergoing the purgation of the night of the senses

V. A description of the type of soul -the type that seeks respite from the bosom of the world- that abandons the path of perfection in favour of the path of imperfection

VI. The necessity of hardships in prayer and the great profit that the soul can draw from them

VII. Exhortation to abstain from worrying over one's struggles in prayer; and the first and second dispositions the soul ought to possess during prayer in general, particularly during desolation

VIII. The third disposition: a humble and contrite heart

 IX. The great benefit and profit drawn from the third disposition of possessing perfect contrition

X. The necessary labour required by prayer: the natural and supernatural labour

 XI. The two distinct fruits borne in the soul that possesses the three dispositions: peace and joy

XII. What the soul must do in order to safeguard herself from ever fleeing from the Bosom of Christ to that of the world's

“The Miraculous Lactation of St. Bernard.” The statue came to life and squirted milk from the Virgin Mary's breast onto the St.Bernard's lips. Artist: Alonso Cano, A.D. 1650,

Note: Herein the term desolation shall be utilised not merely to describe the cyclic hardships one experiences in prayer and the spiritual life; but the struggles experienced in prayer in general -at all and any stage of the spiritual life. Thus whilst the following paper distinguishes between the natural hardships of desolation in the particular sense and the supernatural hardships of the 'Dark Night' (this work deals primarily with the first purgation of this night: that of the sense), the term desolation itself, unless context makes it appear otherwise, will be utilised in the universal sense to apply to both these forms of hardship.

I. The adultery of abandoning the Bosom of Christ by seeking respite in the world's bosom; and the struggles experienced in prayer as a consequence

When the soul withdraws from inner-hardship she abandons the loving Bosom of Christ -from whence she draws forth on occasion the bitter milk of desolation- and thus by so doing, she flees to the bosom of the world to seek respite; for indeed sweet is the milk of sensual delight, which one draws forth from this most popular of breasts. Yet when the soul does this -no matter how slight an occasion of worldly respite she seeks- the fire of love, the spirit of prayer, the peace of the heart, the silence of the soul, and the docility of the mind to heavenly things, is quickly tempered, diffused and diluted. So it is that the next occasion she seeks to gather the fruits of the Spirit in recollection, the harder she finds it than the time previous. For although before her holiday from the Cross she could gather these fruits with hasty ease, now she finds herself struggling in prayer; with some of the fruits out of reach, and the basket of her soul incapable of fitting as many fruits as she could once gather. This type of struggle in prayer is not a desolation wrought by the Spirit in the night of the senses, and nor is it a veil of darkness cast over the soul as in the night of the spirit. Rather, it is a desolation fashioned by the cooperation of the soul with the devil. For in those occasions where she sought respite in the world, she came to adulterate with this foul beast who striped from her the fruits of prayer, and filled her arms with the rotten fruits of the flesh -fruits that appear succulent to the blind and momentarily juicy to the eye of weak vision, which soon awakes to its truth and hopefully in so recognising returns to her Spouse. And the soul commits this act of spiritual adultery whenever she turns to the numbing distractions of the world in her anguish and pain; instead of to Christ her Bridegroom in the darkness and obscurity -which is the light and the confidence- of faith. 

II. The abandonment of the path of perfection that leads directly to heaven, in favour of the path of imperfection that leads directly to purgatory

Now if the soul does not cease to make her wicked pilgrimages to Babylon -in the turning away of repentance; she shall soon be ensnared by the spell of the world to the point of setting up a camp of dwelling in this foul land; a dwelling in which she has planned to adulterate with the beast whenever the urge of respite whispers. Of course such a soul will not think of herself as a prostitute against her faithful husband; but will justify her sins to herself by the comfort of thinking that she is doing what most fairly devout souls do. But this comparison to others is a deceptive scale that causes one to judge themselves with too much ease; for such a soul has been especially chosen as a consecrated soul of prayer -and thus her duties are much greater than other souls, and according to the fulfillment of these duties will she be judged. Now at first the soul will flee to the respite of the world, and will flirt with the beast; and this will render her to loose part of the fruits she has gained; and will shrink her future capacity to reap and gather in proportion to her unfaithfulness. However if she grows lax in vigilance, and does not turn away with true contrition, she will -as has been mentioned above- soon be ensnared by the spell of this demon, and this is such a subtle event that the soul notices not, unless the light of grace or the rebuke of friend above or bellow reveal it. This is no small matter and yet it is a most common occurrence. For we are not speaking of a soul turning away from the outward practice of their faith, and of a decent fulfillment of their vows; but of an interior abandonment of the path of perfection, in favour of the path of imperfection: a path that leads not to sainthood, but directly to purgatory. How little do we care for such "a slight failing" we say, yet the Spirit grieves over those bewitched by Satan who strive after God with partiality. For the salvation of souls is the desire of this Spirit, yet this desire is deep and profound; and yearns for the perfection of sanctity in likeness with God, in the Image who is Christ.

III. The disastrous consequences that can be wrought by this adulteration:  the loosing of all that one has gained, fruitlessness in prayer and minimal growth in sanctity

Once ensnared -and many souls at some point are- the soul begins to tarry in this land of worldliness in the camp -consisting of three tents for each of the soul's three faculties- she has pitched. It is at this point which the soul begins to loose all that she has gained and received by her meditation and contemplation, particularly that above which we mentioned, and will recall again: the fire of love, the spirit of prayer, the peace of the heart, the silence of the soul, and the docility of the mind to heavenly things. So it is that each time she prays, she will as it were, have to start from scratch. Thus whilst her soul will draw enough water to be sustained in sanctifying grace, and enough to grow in sanctity at a snail like pace; she will be operating and receiving in an imperfect manner, which can be likened to a child who takes but one bite from various apples, yet never consumes either a whole apple, or the fullness of all the apples combined. Furthermore such a soul is like a tree that bears fruit in spring yet none in every other season; since during prayer the soul blossoms with fruits, but these wither with haste since they are birthed from imperfect love. It is thus that we come to one understanding of the Scripture: "As he came forth naked from his mother' s womb, so shall he return, and shall take nothing away with him of his labour." (Eccl 5:14); that is the soul shall take nothing away with her from the toil of her prayers. Perhaps not literally nothing, but nothing compared to the wage of love and grace which her labours in prayer once reaped and could and ought to reap, had she torn down her camp of dwelling in the world. Such a soul tosses away the fruits she has gained from the Promised Land of Christ's Bosom, whenever she flees in respite to the Egypt and Babylon of the world's breast. So it is that she comes with nothing -with worldly or imperfect thoughts, affections, and desires- in prayer, and must start from scratch each time she prays. And although the seeming absence or inability to make use of holy thoughts, affections and desires in prayer, is a sign of the darkness wrought by contemplation; in this instance, the absence of these things is merely due to the poor disposition of the soul who has fettered herself with subtle strings of worldly bonds. Wherefore the following Scripture applies: "A most deplorable evil: as he came, so shall he return. What then doth it profit him that he hath laboured for the wind?" (Ecc 5:16). For indeed this labourer of the wind comes to God with nothing in prayer, and so empty handed she returns from prayer; not because she received no grace or fruit in prayer, but because her worldly disposition rendered her incapable of holding onto such gifts, which shortly after having received them, and after having lapped up enough to her lips to draw minimal gain, fell through her hands like water that runs through the gaps between fingers.

IV. St. John of the Cross on the possible causes behind hardships in prayer and three principal signs by which one may discern if one is undergoing the purgation of the night of the senses

"But since these aridities [by which he refers to the hardship of dryness in prayer] might frequently proceed, not from the night and purgation of the sensual desires aforementioned, but from sins and imperfections, or from weakness and lukewarmness, or from some bad humour or indisposition of the body, I shall here set down certain signs by which it may be known if such aridity proceeds from the aforementioned purgation, or if it arises from any of the aforementioned sins." (DN I:IX, 1). The prime of these sins he lists as the seven deadly sins in regards to spiritual things; a summary of which shall be made, followed by a summary of the three signs which this section is principally concerned with.

Spiritual Pride- "As these beginners feel themselves to be very fervent and diligent in spiritual things and devout exercises, from this prosperity (although it is true that holy things of their own nature cause humility) there often comes to them, through their imperfections, a certain kind of secret pride, whence they come to have some degree of satisfaction with their works and with themselves." (DN I:II, 1).

Spiritual Avarice- "Many of these beginners have also at times great spiritual avarice. They will be found to be discontented with the spirituality which God gives them; and they are very disconsolate and querulous (meaning: an unjust complaining or whining) because they find not in spiritual things the consolations [that is the sensible delights] that they would desire. Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading books which treat of this matter...they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are sometimes very curious and showy; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this thing, now that..." (DN I:III, 1). Indeed such persons seek the gifts of God more than they do God Himself.

Spiritual Luxury- "For it often comes to pass that, in their very spiritual exercises, when they are powerless to prevent it, there arise and assert in the sensual part of the soul impure acts and motions, and sometimes this happens even when the spirit is deep in prayer, or engaged in the Sacrament of Penace or in the Eucharist. These things are not, as I say, in their power; they proceed from one of three causes...There are also certain souls of so tender and frail a nature that, when there comes to them some spiritual consolation or some grace in prayer, the spirit of luxury is with them immediately...[so that] their humours are stirred up and their blood is excited at the least disturbance..." (DN I:IV, 1, 5). This imperfection if not assented to by the will, remains an imperfection yet not a sin. By it one's sensuality is stirred; what one must do is ignore such stirrings as is recommended by Teresa of Avila. Those with this weakness are inclined to revel in the luxury granted them by spiritual possesions, rather than in the Spirit. Thus he continues to say: "Some of these persons make friendships of a spiritual kind with others, which oftentimes arise from luxury and not from spirituality." (DN I:IV, 7)

Spiritual Wrath- "By reason of concupiscence which beginners have for spiritual consolations, their experience of these consolations is very commonly accompanied by many imperfections proceeding from the sin of wrath; for, when their delight and pleasure in spiritual things come to an end, they naturally become embittered, and bear that lack of sweetness which they have to suffer with bad grace, which affects all that they do; and they easily become irritated over the smallest matter -sometimes, indeed, none can tolerate them...[Others] are vexed with themselves when they observe their own imperfectness, and display an impatience that is not humilty; so impatient are they about this that they would fain be saints in a day." (DN I:V, 1, 2).

Spiritual Gluttony- "For many of these, lured by the sweetness and pleasure which they find in such exercises, strive more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion...[this] gluttony which they now have makes them continually go to extremes, so that they pass beyond the limits of moderation within which the virtues are acquired and wherein they have their being. For some of these persons, attracted by the pleasure which they find therein, kill themselves with penances, and others weaken themselves by fasts, by performing more than their fraility can will find that many of these persons are very insistent with their spiritual masters to be granted that which they desire..." (DN I:VI, 1,3). These persons seek sensible delight and sweetness instead of seeking to love and give glory and praise to God. So it is that they regard worthwhile prayer that which brings them sweetness and tickles the fancy of their own will; and this is a most immature outlook, typical of such souls.

Spiritual Envy- "With respect to envy, many of them are wont to experience movements of displeasure at the spiritual good of others, which cause them a certain sensible grief at being outstripped upon this road, so that they would prefer not to hear others praised; for they become displeased at others' virtues and sometimes they cannot refrain from contradicting what is said in praise of them." This is contrary to the holy envy of charity, which, comprises of "grief at not having the virtuous of others, yet also joy because others have them, and delight when others outstrip them in the service of God" (DN I:VII, 1).

Spiritual Sloth- "Beginners are apt to be irked by the things that are most spiritual, from which they flee because these things are incompatible with sensible pleasure. For, as they are so much accustomed to sweetness in spiritual things, they are wearied by things in which they find no sweetness. If once they failed to find in prayer the satisfaction which their taste required (and after all it is well that God should take it from them to prove them), they would prefer not to return to it; sometimes they leave it; other times they continue unwillingly. And thus because of this sloth they abandon the way of perfection [the Bosom of Christ]... for the pleasure and sweetness of their own will [that they suckle from the bosom of the world], which they aim at satisfying in this way rather than the will of God." (DN I:VII, 2).

If the sins and imperfections are the cause behind one's hardship experienced in prayer, these according to St. John of the Cross, are the root causes. Yet if such imperfections are not the prime cause behind one's struggle in prayer, it may be because one is entering into the night of the senses, wherein one begins to leave the way of beginners for the way of the proficient, the way of predominately vocal prayer and discursive meditation, for the way of contemplation. For this night of the senses is wrought by one's immersion into the water of infused contemplation -an immersion that the soul cannot make of her own accord at her own will, for it is a mystical grace that solely depends on the Will of God. Indeed the false teachings of quietism and such practices as centering prayer, seek to force their way into this water of infused contemplation; yet because this cannot be done except by God Himself, such persons immerse themselves into a pseudo-mystical swamp that is focused on self and on one's activity and non-activity; instead of on God and the hidden and spontaneous workings of the Spirit. Now the three principal signs which may help one to discern if this night is the cause behind one's struggles in prayer, are as follows:

(1) "The first is whether, when a soul finds no pleasure or consolation in the things of God, it also fails to find it in any thing created; for, as God sets the soul in this dark night to the end that He may quench and purge its sensual desire, He allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever. In such a case it may be considered very probable that this aridity and insipidty proceed not from recently committed sins or imperfections." (DN I:IX, 2).

(2) "The second sign whereby a man may believe himself to be experiencing the said purgation is that the memory is ordinarily centered upon God, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving God, but is backsliding, [which the soul will if it ceases from its duties of prayer] because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of God. And in such a case it is evident that this lack of sweetness and this aridty come not from weakness and lukewarmness; for it is the nature of lukewarmness to not care greatly or to have any inward solicitude for the things of God." (DN I:IX, 3).

(3) "The third sign whereby this purgation of sense may be recognised is that the soul can no longer meditate or reflect in the imaginative sphere of sense as it was wont, however much it may of itself endeavour to do so. For God now begins to communicated Himself to it, no longer through sense, as He did aforetime, by means of reflections which joined and sundered its knowledge, but by pure spirit [by the means of infused contemplation], into which consecutive reflections enter is to be understood that this embarrassment and dissatisfaction of the faculties proceed not from indisposition, for, when this is the case, and the indisposition, which never lasts long [what will be mentioned as 're-labouring' further on], comes to an end, the soul is able once again, by taking some trouble about the matter, to do what it did before, and the faculties find their wonted support. But in the purgation of the desire this is not so...For, although it is true that at first, and with some persons, the process is not as continuous as this...yet this inability grows within them more and more and brings the workings of sense to an end, if indeed they are to make progress." (DN I:IX, 8, 9).

V. A description of the type of soul -the type that seeks respite from the bosom of the world- that abandons the path of perfection in favour of the path of imperfection

St. John of the Cross writes concerning such a soul:
Those who have the disposition and greater strength to suffer, He purges with greater intensity and more quickly. But those who are very weak are kept for a long time in this night, and these He purges very gently and with slight temptations. Habitually, too, He gives them refreshments of sense so that they may not fall away, and only after a long time do they attain to purity of perfection in this life, some of them never attaining to it at all. Such are neither properly in the night nor properly out of it; for, although they make no progress, yet, in order that they may continue in humility and self-knowledge, God exercises them for certain periods and at certain times in those temptations and aridities; and at other times and seasons He assists them with consolations, lest they should grow faint and return to seek the consolations of the world. (DN I:XIV, 5).
So it is that the Lord permits such a soul to waver, and to adulterate with the world in moments of worldly and sensual respite (not to be confused with the spiritual delights given to the soul by God in contemplation, or for general consolations that arise in prayer); since although this infidelity is a source of immense sorrow for the Lord, He permits it for the very same reasons He permitted His Chosen People through Moses, in the days of the Old Covenant, to file divorces. "For your hardness of heart" says the Lord, "Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Mt 19:8). Applying this teaching to the situation at hand; it can be said that God permits the soul to waver in the way of imperfection -so that she may never even come to reach perfection in this life- not because He desires this, but because of the hardness of the heart of such a soul; and because God prefers a soul to be saved -even if it fails to reach its full stature of holiness- than damned. From the begininng it was not so -is to say that in the mind of God, as written in the scroll of God's perfect plan for the soul; such a tepid state was not so, but the stubbornness of such a soul has thwarted the realisation of those plans -at least in this life; yet indeed if such a soul were to be truly contrite and were to strive once again to walk the path of perfection God would greatly rejoice. Yet sadly, many souls like this remain in their tepid state; a form of tepidity not so much in which the soul's sanctity is diminished as time wears on -though this is a constant risk in such a vulnerable state- but is  advancing, but at a pace that is sorely imperfect due to the squandering of much of the graces received. As is the saying of the Church Father's concerning progress in the spiritual life: "He who ceases to advance, moves backwards." Yet there are degrees of advancement: those who advance in a perfect manner, and those who advance in an imperfect manner. The latter of which is characteristic of the type of soul that often flees from the Bosom of Christ in favour of the respite offered by the world's bosom; and the perfect manner, as that which is characteristic of the type of soul that remains steadfast and pressed tightly to the Bosom of Christ, in rain, sunshine or hail.

VI. How such a soul is not to be confused with the other type of worldly soul

The imperfect soul of which we have been speaking is not to be confused with the type of soul that actually lives in their camp of dwelling in the world; for in a most literal sense these latter souls are those whom our Lord has said he will spit out of his mouth; just as repulsive and unsavoury food is dispelled as vomit: "But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth." (Rev 3:16) says the Lord. For such souls neither serve the world nor God; although indeed they try to serve these two masters, yet to no avail (Mt 6:24). However the ignorance of such souls -who lack any self-knowledge whatsoever- spurs them to fancy themselves as spiritual and devout persons. Yet such creatures are sorely deceived, for they spend the majority of their time in their place of residence in the land of Babylon and Egypt, symbolising the world; and merely venture forth on the odd occasion -at the prompting of guilt, routine or worldly prudence- into the desert of faith; where there they offer unworthy, cheap sacrifices; and tepid prayers that are said with the flame of a zeal determined by sensibility. So it is that such souls do not pray daily, and nor do they possess the disposition of spirit which is necessary in order to bear the fruits of grace that one receives from the Sacraments. Such a soul is not even classed as a beginner in the spiritual life; for if the spiritual life is a journey in the desert towards the Promised Land, than she is one who has not even commenced such a pilgrimage. This is in contrast to the type of soul of which this writing has been predominately discussing. For this latter soul does pray daily and does indeed possess some of the qualities necessary to bear the fruit of grace; it is simply that her prayers and disposition are sorely imperfect. Furthermore, whereas the tepid soul abides in their camp of dwelling in the world, and ventures forth only occasionally into the desert; this latter soul abides in the desert, yet having maintained her camp of dwelling in the world, she returns on the odd occasion for worldly respite. So it is that both souls are truly tepid in the general sense; yet in order to distinguish between two shades of grey, we can affirm that this latter soul is indeed a beginner who lives -yet somewhat precariously and whimsically- the spiritual life.

VII. The necessity of hardships in prayer and the great profit that the soul can draw from them

The soul is bound to experience hardships in life as well as hardships in prayer. For the cross the Lord beckons the soul to pick up daily in order to follow Him, is made up not only of the weight of exterior trials, but interior trials; such as those that seem to plague her in prayer. Indeed at times prayer is seems so difficult; for the mind of the soul may be cluttered with distractions, she may have aches and pains throughout her body that make it hard for her to concentrate; or she may feel such dryness in prayer to the point that praying becomes as a form of torture to her! Otherwise the soul may find herself unable to pray as she used to, with the very effort of discursive meditation a painful strain. Sometimes the soul may find her imagination abuzz like a drunken mosquito that ceaselessly bombards the light of her mind with worldly, vain or obscene images. So it is that regardless of the type of hardship one experiences in prayer, if we are living the spiritual life, such hardships will come. There is no need to become anxious however, since these trials in prayer come when they come. So in order for the soul to be ready for such hardships, she should -besides striving to adopt the dispositions that will be mentioned further on- fortify herself with the knowledge of faith. St. Paul the Master of such knowledge introduces us to the fortifying bread that we ought to carry with us throughout our spiritual quest; and this bread is that "we know that to them that love God all things work together unto good" (Rom 8:28a). Armed with this bread, the bread of the knowledge of faith, we will be able to endure with joy, patience, love and hope, in all trials that come our way -especially those trials we experience in prayer. What can we do when distractions come? St. Teresa of Avila tells us to pay no heed to such distractions, lest we incite them more. And if such distractions become persistent, all one can do is try ones best to refocus on God by means of an invocation or 'Hail Mary' (as St. Terese of Lisieux used to do at times), or any other such method; and beyond that -if all else fails- we can do naught but give thanks to God for such a distraction which we can use as an opportunity to give praise. For we can offer up our annoyance from such a distraction to Jesus, in reparation for all those who are distracted by various things so that they come to neglect and forget Jesus. And what can we do if dryness and emptiness of mind has become our lot? Fuse ourselves with Jesus and the anguish that was his lot whilst He dwelt on earth, with the desire and intention to render Him relief by using our pains -made divine when united with those of Jesus- as a balm of consolation. So it is that despite the cause of our affliction in prayer, we can use all things to our benefit. We must also clothe ourselves with the loving resignation of Mary; so that when such hardships come, we may not be as children that dodge the scissors that seek to trim and beautify their hair; but so that as compliant and still blocks of rough marble, such hardships may serve as blows from the Divine Chisel that complete the celestial crafting of our sanctification. For indeed the Lord permits such chastisements to come our way in our prayer life for the benefit of our souls. Since as the Spirit says in Scripture: 

"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5b-11).

VIII. Exhortation to abstain from worrying over one's struggles in prayer; and the first and second dispositions the soul ought to possess during prayer in general, particularly during desolation

The soul should not spend her time worrying about whether her struggles in prayer arise from her own worldliness or from the Spirit in the passive purification wrought by the dark light of contemplation. This is because just as we cannot know with certainty by faith -without a special Divine Revelation- if we are in a state of sanctifying grace or not (this is a Church Dogma); so it can be said that we cannot know with certainty by faith, if our struggles in prayer arise from our own fault, from the pangs of contemplation or from somewhere in-between. Concerning the hardships in prayer which arise from contemplation St. John of the Cross writes:

But the question arises: Why is the Divine light (which as we say, illumines and purges the soul from its ignorances) here called by the soul a dark night? To this the answer is that for two reasons this Divine wisdom is not only night and darkness for the soul, but is likewise affliction and torment. The first is because of the height of Divine Wisdom, which transcends the talent of the soul, and in this way is darkness to it; the second, because of its vileness and impurity, in which respect it is painful and afflictive to it, and is also dark. (DN, II:V, 2).

Indeed we cannot know with certainty from whence our struggles in prayer come, so it is essential that we do not strain ourselves in analysing the root cause of our hardship. Yet this does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the root cause either, but rather, we should pray for a light of insight and for guidance, humbling ourselves before God and imploring the Holy Spirit to come with His two Hands of Mary and Joseph, so as to assist us and in order to teach us how to pray. Such an act of humility ought to be practiced by all souls, no matter what their state of perfection. Then after making such a request, which one should make whenever difficulties in praying arise, one should wait with patient joy for the Lord to come -being glad if he illumines the soul or not; yet all the while focusing not on 'the longed for illumination' but upon the veiled Face of God; enduring one's inner-hardship with a loving faith that unites one's pangs with those of Christ Crucified, so as to make a perfect sacrifice of praise and reparation to the Father on behalf of all souls. In this manner the soul will draw profit for herself and for her neighbours, and will bring glory and delight to God, regardless from whence her struggles in prayer come -even if it be purely because of her worldliness. So it is that this attitude of embracing all things with love for the sake of God -including hardship in prayer- as the Will of God, is an attitude most pleasing to the Father, for it is indeed the attitude which the Holy Family possessed in perfection on earth. 

IX. The third disposition: a humble and contrite heart

Now we mentioned above that one should not strain oneself in order to discover the root cause behind one's hardship in prayer. Yet we also mentioned how one should not ignore the root cause behind such difficulty in praying; and then went on to discuss the importance of two dispositions the soul should possess in such difficulties (and always, even in the ease of prayer): firstly that of trust in petitioning God for the aid of insight in an act of humility, whilst remaining confident that He will and is guiding one even if perception says otherwise. And secondly in making the loving attitude of the Holy Family one's own, an attitude which desires to use all things for the salvation of souls and the glory of God. Yet there is also a third disposition the soul ought to possess when difficulties in prayer arise. This third and what is perhaps the final prime disposition that ought to be required by the soul in times of prayer: both when prayer is easy and hard, and somewhere in-between; is that of possessing a humble and contrite heart, a heart that is crushed by the weight of knowledge of self, neighbour and God, and is broken with love's sorrow. Our Lord to St. Catherine of Siena speaks of the state of such a soul that possesses this disposition of heart:

In so knowing me the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. Indeed, because she has known my truth as well as her own sin and her neighbours’ ingratitude and blindness, the soul suffers intolerably. Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me. (The Dialogue, 4).

Such a crushed and broken heart that is perfectly contrite from love therefore causes the soul to be truly repentant when either consolation's or desolation's come. For when consolation's come, she sees herself as unworthy of such delights, and beseeches God to deliver her from becoming attached to them. Yet because her contrition is perfect, since it flows from a love that is free from servile fear, she rejoices and thanks God in the depth of her heart for spoiling her soul as a father spoils his favourite daughter. When desolation's come -those hardships in prayer- she responds in the same manner, for having a crushed and broken heart she sees herself as deserving of suffering because of her sins and infidelity to her Beloved; whilst seeing herself as unworthy of such sufferings at the same time, because she knows from that Wisdom that abides in her soul, that sufferings are the form in which God's lavishes of love take in this land of exile. So with this third disposition of a heart that is contrite from love, and is contrite because of its knowledge, both delights and hardships in prayer are occasions of repentance; because she takes these as opportunities to turn away not just from sin but from imperfections, in a stepping out ever nearer to the Beloved with bursts of sorrow, loving affections and joyous gratitude. Wherefore we come to an understanding of the Psalmist when he writes: "Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls" -which is to speak of the seeming fruitlessness yielded in one's prayer- "yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like hinds' feet, he makes me tread upon my high places." (Hab 3:15-19a); for by faith one is certain of God's goodness and help, by hope one possesses His strength to soldier on, and by love one leaps from height to height in sanctity, even though one feels as if they are sinking into the abyss and drowning in the depths of the sea.

St. Mary Magdalene bearing the jar of spikenard

X. The great benefit and profit drawn from the third disposition of possessing perfect contrition

Now returning to the road from which we have partially wondered, let us consider the importance of this third disposition for the soul who has fled from the Bosom of Christ, and has come to loose the gains of her past prayers because of her setting up of a camp in the land of Babylon and Egypt; wherein she suckles in adulteration from the breast of the world. If such a soul does not come to possess perfect contrition -a contrition of love- for her laxity in vigilance and unfaithfulness with the world, she shall never reclaim the fruits she has lost, and nor shall she reach the full stature of perfection in this life to which she is called. For even if she repents, if her repentance flows from the wellspring of self-love which smells more of fear and shame than trust and loving sorrow; she shall not return and advance from the place in which she fled the path of perfection. However, if she does come to possess a true and perfect contrition for her waywardness, she will come to return to the Bosom of Christ in such a state as if she had never left the company of her Bridegroom. Therefore may we pray for this perfect contrition of heart, for it is the same as requesting from God the grace of loving Him with a divine and ardent love. This is the love typified by Mary Magdalene; the love which compelled Jesus to say: "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much" (Lk 7:47). Yet the fruit borne by such perfect contrition -a contrition that gazes on Christ Crucified and not the self- is an increase in zealous fidelity to the Beloved, and a drawing nearer unto Him; because such contrition breaks the heart of such a soul, who weeps for having adulterated against her Beloved. Wherefore it is written in one translation: "The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart: and he will save the humble of spirit" and in another: "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit." (Ps 34:18 (33:19)). Indeed the heart that loves with perfect love, is a rose that is crushed and trampled; and thereby that yields unto Him the fragrance of the Virgin: She the Immaculate Bride. Such a fragrance is mighty in the eyes of the Lord, for when its perfume is wafted unto the Bedchamber of His Throne, He is compelled by the Irresistible Desire -the Holy Spirit- to draw near to such a soul in loving intimacy, and to accomplish within His crafting-touches of love. Indeed this is why Jesus drew Mary Magdalene -a type of the soul who is as a trampled rose- near to Himself, for it is written: "Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment." (Jn 12:3); which is spiritually to say that the house -the Celestial Temple, Heaven Itself- was filled with the fragrance of the ointment -which is the love of a humble and contrite heart; for this is the spiritual nard that overcame Jesus, not the physical nard, which is naught but an outward sign.  Such a celestial fragrance also overpowers the stench of one's sins, and the sins of those receptive souls whom one intercedes for; "since love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8b); and in this manner the Beloved finds delight in such a soul, and a place of respite from the loveless hearts of men. So it is that the soul that yields to him the perfume of the celestial nard is herself as a couch for the Beloved; for it is written: "While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance" (Song 1:12). And whilst such a soul may suffer trials in body, mind or soul, yet because she refuses to detach the lips of her will from the Breast of the Spirit, she draws forth milk that brings inner peace and joy. And although such milk often tastes bitter, it is sweet also at times; yet regardless, since she is inflamed with love, even the bitterness of sorrowful milk tastes sweeter to her palate than all the sensual and spiritual delights that could ever be offered to her; wherefore we come to an understanding of  the words of our Lord: "For my yoke is easy and my burden light" (Mt 11:30). Words which we could understand to mean: 'For my bread is tasty and my milk sweet'. Since indeed the milk one draws forth from the bosom of the world is naught else but the food of self-will; whilst the milk one draws forth from the Bosom of Christ is naught but the Food of the Divine Will; for Christ says: "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me" (Jn 4:34).

XI. The necessary labour required by prayer: the natural and supernatural labour

An important point to keep in mind however, is that although the perfectly contrite soul may regain all the fruits and graces she had lost during her sojourn in the land of Babylon; this does not necessarily mean that she will all of a sudden be disposed in prayer with the same fluidity and facility with which she once prayed. For indeed the faculties loose either much or all of their athleticism in prayer, through the sloth and unhealthy diet with which they are fed during a soul's time of leisure in the world. And unless by some signal grace God restores the health of the faculties, the soul must labour for some time before she can regain her ability in prayer again. This labour may be of a lesser or greater intensity, or of a lesser or greater duration than the previous time it took her to reach such a natural ease in the way of prayer; this is merely dependent on the soul's fidelity to God's grace, and to the graces given by God. Such a re-labouring may only last a few days, or for a few Holy Hours, or for weeks and months on end, but regardless the soul -so long as she strives to possess the three dispositions we have mentioned- can be confident she is progressing in accordance with God's Will, and that these labour-pains are a grace of suffering that can be used when untied to Christ to accomplish the re-birthing of the soul in sanctity. In fact a similar weakening of the faculties may occur during times of sickness, and this is causally not due to the fault of the soul. Such a weakening of the faculties makes it harder for the soul to pray in the manner she used to before her sickness, and perhaps -but I cannot say with certainty as more learned men might be able- this only occurs if the soul has not reached and is not being sustained in a spiritual state akin to contemplation (i.e. what Teresa of Avila describes as the fourth mansion onwards; and John of the Cross as the state of proficients whom he describes as "those who are already contemplatives"). This naturally caused 'inability' to pray may or may not be accompanied by a supernaturally caused 'inability' to pray, that which is caused by infused contemplation. The latter of which inhibits the ability of the faculties in prayer not so much because it weakens them -as may sickness and as does worldly respite- but because it confounds them. For in such an occasion the faculties are found to be by this Divine Light, naught but amateur athletes who have been trained in the gymnasium of natural prayer but not in the gymnasium of supernatural prayer -that of contemplation; and so unable to jump the supernatural hurdles, and unable to run supernatural tracks, the faculties fall exhausted as it were, and only slowly are they trained in this new manner. Such a new and unfamiliar manner (in the Divine as opposed to the natural manner) of operating makes prayer -during these initial training sessions in the way of contemplation- most painful to the soul for the reasons given to us by St. John of the Cross in the excerpt provided previously. So regardless of the nature of the labour the soul must undertake -whether it be a natural labour of ascetic effort or a supernatural labour of ascetic-cooperation with mystical grace- the soul in both instances struggles and faces hardship in prayer; and this hardship should be embraced with the dispositions we have mentioned, and should be seen as a necessary journey through the desert to the Promised Land of the perfect and intimate union of living in God's Will. The following verse of our Lord applies:  "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Mt 6:34); which can be interpreted as: do not be anxious about the cause behind the hardships of your prayer, for who can ever fully understand such causes? Therefore let the hardship of prayer itself be of concern to you, and use it to your advantage whilst it lasts.

XII. The two distinct fruits borne in the soul that possesses the three dispositions: peace and joy
Now one cannot be certain that they possess the three dispositions we have mentioned, but through faith and using the gift of discernment, one may observe the presence of two distinct fruits -the fruit of inner peace and inner joy- which are borne in the tree of the soul in proportion to the perfection with which she possesses these dispositions: (1) a trust that causes the soul to petition, to be patience and to be resigned; (2) a loving attitude that fills the soul with the desire to use all things for the salvation of souls and the glory of God; and (3) a humble and contrite heart that is crushed from the weight of knowledge and broken from love's sorrow, which in turn causes the soul to constantly turn anew to her God in repentance.

The first fruit, the fruit of inner peace, is that interior calm of silence that abides in the soul during both times of ease and hardship. Such peace in its perfection is like a calm and still lake that cannot be disturbed by any breeze or stormy wind. In its lesser degrees of perfection, this peace is like a lake that is disturbed only partially and occasionally; and this occurs when one casts the pebble of self-will which is the enemy of this sweet peace. When such peace reigns in the soul, it is a sign she is one with the Will of God, and the profundity of such peace is the degree to which she is in union with that Will. Bearing this fruit, the soul is able to find rest even in the midst of hardship in prayer, and so she is able to taste a sweetness whenever she draws forth the bitter milk of desolation. The second fruit, the fruit of inner joy, is inseparable from the fruit of peace, since they grow from the same very branch. Such joy is that deep and abiding gladness that endures both in times of consolation and desolation; for it is a spiritual sun that shines in the depth of the soul, and brings her contentment -at times even ecstatic delight- in the light of the understanding of God's Self. So it is that the fruit of joy is a never-ending delicacy from which the soul tastes God through the various flavours of His Attributes: His Goodness, Kindness, Gentleness, Mercy, Justice and Incomprehensibility, and so on. This joy is more complete and brings greater delight to the soul in proportion to her perfection, that is, according to the measure in which she is one with the Divine Will. Sufferings bring immense gladness to souls who bear this fruit of joy in its maturity. As mentioned, both these fruits of peace and joy are borne from the same branch of the Tree of Life -the Cross- that abides in the soul. This branch is the spirit of detachment from worldly and spiritual possessions, and so it is that from this detachment blossoms forth these two distinct fruits of love: peace and joy. Yet this branch itself depends upon the thrice-entwined trunk of the three dispositions. Thus without the three dispositions, a soul will not experience the solace and delight that these fruits bring; and this lack in the dispositions is generally found in those who maintain their camp of dwelling in the world; for the garden of their Eden's -their soul's- though fruitful in comparison to many other souls, is but a barren wasteland compared to what it could and ought to be. And whilst such souls may bear several fruits in what seems like a reasonable amount, these two particular fruits of peace and joy will not be found in their garden, for these can only be found in those who walk along the path of perfection -they who strive with all their heart, mind and soul to be holy as God is holy, for the primary purpose of giving delight to the God they love. This peace which we speak of brings true and spiritual rest to the soul; unlike the false and sensual rest given to the body and the lower aspect of the soul from the respite one gains from the world. And this joy of which we speak, brings lasting and hidden delight to the soul; unlike the temporary and superficial delight given to the body and the lower aspect of the soul to those who adulterate in the world; and such adulteration can only be committed by those who know Christ and who are called to be His consecrated (either explicitly or implicitly) spouses; for otherwise this evil would be called fornication. Concerning these two types of souls: those who bear the fruits of peace and joy, and those who do not, it is written:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend for ever, nor will I always be angry; for from me proceeds the spirit, and I have made the breath of life. Because of the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and requite him with comfort, creating for his mourners the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the Lord; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked." (Isaiah 57:15-21).

Indeed interpreting this Scripture in the relevant manner, can we go so far as to say that such a soul that takes occasional respite in the bosom of the world is wicked? After all, we have described that such a soul is one who has strayed from the path of perfection and walks along the path of imperfection; not that they walk the path of evil or of pure worldliness. Furthermore, have we not said that such a soul is doing what many devout and holy souls do? Yes, but such a soul is wicked nonetheless, for though she is not wicked through and through, compared to the perfection to which she was especially chosen, she must certainly be called wicked; for what is fervour for some is tepidity for her. It is also no exaggeration to speak of such a soul as like a tossing and restless sea that is without peace; for indeed she is compared to the state to which she is called, and compared to the souls of those who possess the three dispositions. Concluding this section may we reflect upon the words of the Psalmist, those very words which those peaceful and joyous souls speak: "I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me." -which is to say: even during times of desolation and inner-hardship, the desire of my heart for the Living God leads me on. "I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved." That is, because God is near to my soul made just by the Blood of the Lamb, my soul shall not be disturbed. "Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure." (Ps 16:7-9). For indeed the fruit of peace brings security to the soul, and even to the body which though it will perish, is secure in the promise of the Resurrection; and inseparable from this spiritual peace is the abiding fruit of joy which turns bitter to sweet, night to day, and desolation to consolation.

XIII. What the soul must do in order to safeguard herself from ever fleeing from the Bosom of Christ to that of the world's

Now in order to avoid leaving the Bosom of Christ, who is the Lady Israel, the Virginal Mother called Wisdom, the soul must constantly inhale Her rosy breath -the breath of the Holy Spirit; and this inhalation one carries out through loving silence, through gazes of gratitude and sighs of trust. And by inhaling this sweet breath of life, the flame of holy desire that burns in the bush of one's will is fanned anew. This will safeguard the soul, for it is when this holy fire wanes and weakens that the flame of sensuality becomes rekindled. This latter flame stirs the soul to seek out the breast of the world; that breast which feeds sweet milk which kills the sanctity of the soul as she suckles. Yet contrarily, if one continuously inhales the breath of the Spirit mingled with that of the Virgin Mary, the soul shall fan the flames of holy desire, and this is turn will inspire the soul to seek with ardent fervor the Bosom of Christ so that she might come to draw forth with the Lips of the Divine Will -Lips she has made her own- seas upon seas of milk. And this manner such a soul shall grow fat in the health of perfect sanctity, and shall herself be an instrumental source of fecundity for all those who thirst. Indeed may we never cease to inhale bout after bout of that Holy Breath; so as to be always ablaze with the Desire of the Holy Spirit; and thus come to drink bountifully from that Breast which gives nourishment to all Her children as newborn babes. For of Her it is written: "That you may suck, and be filled with the breasts of her consolations: that you may milk out, and flow with delights, from the abundance of her glory." (Is 66:11). And the same Spirit through St. Peter exhorts us to possess this same desire with the same single end in sight: "Like newborn babes, long for that pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord." (1 Pet 2:2). So draw near to God dear soul, and lie thy head upon the Bosom of Christ -made one in the Spirit with the Bosom of the Virgin Mary- as did John the Beloved; then drink deeply that pure spiritual milk of the Divine Will, so that thou mayst grow to thy full stature of perfection in this life for the glory and love of God. Amen.

The Mother nurses the Child Jesus, Amesbury Psalter, 13th c.,
  1. DN: Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross