From Letter from the Desert
Prayer is words, poetry, song.
Turn your ear, O Lord, and give answer
For I am poor and needy.
Show me, Lord, your way,
so that I may walk in thy truth
Guide my heart to fear your name. (Psalm 86)
Often it contains a shout, a cry, a groan of anguish.
Lord my God, I call for help by day;
I cry at night before you.
Let my prayer come into your presence.
O turn your ear to my cry.
For my soul is filled with evils;
my life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb:
I have reached the end of my strength,
like one alone among the dead;
like the slain lying in their graves;
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand. (Psalm 88)
And sometimes an explosion of joy:
I love you, Lord, my strength,
My rock, my fortress, my savior.
My God is the rock where I take refuge. (Psalm 18)
Or ecstatic admiration of God’s works:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God
And the firmament shows forth
the work of his hands. (Psalm 19)
Or the impassioned praise of his providence:
The Lord is my shepherd;
There is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures
Where he gives me repose.
He guides me along the right path;
He is true to his name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness
no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook
and your staff;
And with these you give me comfort. (Psalm 23)
This way of speaking to God is for people of all ages and cultures. People will express themselves in those ways from the beginning of their spiritual life until the end. With words they will express their feelings to their creator.
But here too, it is the same as with love. Words pour out to begin with. Then they get rarer and deeper. In the end they are reduced to some monosyllable which nonetheless contains everything. Mostly a soul speaks a great deal at the time of its conversion, during the period of its novitiate, that is, the first years of its discovery of God. It is the easiest time for the soul. Prayer has a certain novelty, it seizes the imagination. And God, for his part, encourages the soul; everything pours out as in the beginning of a happy marriage.
My heart is ready, O God;
I will sing, sing your praise.
Awake, my soul;
awake, lyre and harp.
I will awake the dawn.
I will thank you, Lord among the peoples,
Praise you among the nations;
for your love reaches to the heavens
and your truth to the skies. (Psalm 108)
Another stage of prayer is meditation. Sometimes it naturally follows the use of words. Especially when the soul is mature, the two become blended and fused. Sometimes meditation comes later.
We are now at the stage when we need to know what others have said about God; the stage of deep reflection, and of theological study; it is very, very rewarding.
If the world knew the joy Christians feel at this time, the peace which reigns in their hearts, and the sense of balance which dominates their whole being, it would be intrigued, fascinated.
I have known this and I have had the good fortune to share it with hundreds, thousands of other young people. God, the church, souls, were the only enthusiasms we had. It seemed everyday we had a new world to forge. We moved against error like David against Goliath. A number of us met together to pray and speak of God. What did they matter, those sleepless nights, those long train journeys on wooden benches, those treks across the countryside by bicycle to spread our movement; the economic sacrifices and the holidays we gave up so that once a year we could make a retreat? These are among the dearest memories of my life and I always recall them with joy and peace.
There are a thousand ways of meditating, and everyone must find what suits him best. We will realize, as we go on, which way is the most suitable for us. Here I would like to mention two things which I have learned from my great master, John of the Cross – one on the method of meditation, and the other on the book to choose.
Saint John divides it into three parts, and up to this point there’s nothing new.
1. Imaginative reflection on the mystery which one wishes to meditate.
2. Intellectual consideration of the mysteries represented. (Here too there’s nothing new.)
3. (And this is important.) Loving and attentive repose in God, to make sure we are fully
prepared for that moment when the intelligence opens itself up to God’s illumination.
This exercise of love, which is deeply human, results in a serene and devout repose before God. It must be meditation clearly directed towards simplicity and interior silence.
The Book to Choose:
Above all other books, choose the Bible. If you like, read as many books of meditation as possible, but that isn’t essential. It is essential to read and meditate on the scriptures. Christianity without the Bible is a contradiction in terms. Preaching not anchored in the scriptures is equally impossible. There is no true religious formation which is not based on the Gospel. The Bible is the letter which God himself wrote to humans in the thousands of years of their history. It is the long drawn-out sigh for Christ (Old Testament) and the account of his coming among us (New Testament).
When the temple of Jerusalem was burning, the Jews abandoned all its treasures to the flames but saved the Bible. Paul knew the Bible by heart, and Augustine said “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
The Bible is the word of God, the Word made flesh is the Eucharist. I put both of them on the altar and kneel down before them.
There’s an awakening of interest in the Bible at the present time. Let us thank God for it; but we are still a long way from fully realizing the importance of the Bible in and to our lives.
I said earlier that prayer is like love. Words pour at first. Then we are more silent and can communicate in monosyllables. In difficulties a gesture is enough, a word, or nothing at all – love is enough. Thus the time comes when words are superfluous and meditation is difficult, almost impossible.
That is the time for the prayer of simplicity. The soul converses with God with a single loving glance, although this may often be accompanied by dryness and suffering.
In this period the so-called litanical prayer thrives; that is, repetitions of identical expressions, poor words, but very rich in content.
Hail Mary. . . Hail Mary. . . Jesus I love you. . . . Lord, have mercy on me. . . my God and my all.
And it is strange how in these ejaculations, monotonous and simple, the soul finds itself at ease, almost cradled in God’s arms. It is also a time for the rosary, lived and loved as one of the highest and most inspired prayers.
Often in my life as a European I have taken part in animated discussions on the pros and cons of the rosary. But in the end I was never fully satisfied. I was not in a fit condition to really understand this way of praying.
“It’s a meditative prayer,” some would say. Well, then, the young people are right to complain of the distractions which this useless repetition of ten Hail Marys bring to the meditation. Announce the mystery and leave me to my thoughts.
“No, it’s a prayer of praise,” others would say. “And one must think of what one is saying word by word.”
But it’s impossible! Who’s capable of saying fifty Hail Marys distracted by the pictures of five mysteries without losing the thread?
I must confess that never in my life, although I have made the effort, have I succeeded in saying a single rosary without getting distracted.
It was in the desert that I came to realize that those who discuss the rosary – as I discussed it in that way – have not yet understood the soul of this prayer.
The rosary belongs to that type of prayer which precedes or accompanies the contemplative prayer of the spirit. Whether you meditate it or not, whether or not you get distracted, if you love the rosary deeply and can’t let a day go by without saying it, you are already a person of prayer.
The rosary is like the echo of a wave breaking on the shore, God’s shore: “Hail Mary. . . Hail Mary. . . Hail Mary. . . .” It is like your mother’s hand on your childhood cradle.
The rosary is a point of arrival, not of departure. For Bernadette the point of arrival came very soon, because she was destined to see Our Lady on this Earth. But normally it is a prayer of spiritual maturity. If a young man doesn’t like saying the rosary, and says he gets bored, don’t force him. Reading a text from scripture is best for him, or maybe some more intellectual kind of prayer. But if you meet a child in the remote countryside, or a peaceful old man or a simple old woman who tells you they love the rosary without knowing why, rejoice and be glad, because the Holy Spirit prays in their hearts. The rosary is an incomprehensible prayer for the “commonsense” person, just as it is incomprehensible to repeat, “I love you,” a thousand times a day to a God one cannot see. But for the pure of heart it is understandable; the person rooted in the kingdom and living the beatitudes understand the rosary.
The orthodox, who are highly contemplative, have developed a litanical prayer similar to our rosary; they call it “the Jesus prayer.”
It is said by repeating slowly, again and again, with one’s soul peacefully disposed, the Kyrie Eleison:
Lord have mercy on me
I am a sinful man
Christ have mercy on me
I am a sinful man
In this prayer they keep time with their breathing, or even their heartbeat.
As prayer becomes richer in content and uses fewer words, meditation grows difficult and distasteful. What before was a source of intellectual pleasure, now becomes dry and painful. One gets the impression of reaching a crossroad in the spiritual life. Sometimes one thinks he is going backward instead of making progress. The heavens have lost thier bright colors, the soul feels “grey” in mood.
At this stage of spiritual life the person who has a good guide is fortunate, especially if one has the humility to let oneself be led.
It is not easy. We all think we know how to get along alone and only failure puts things in the right perspective.
What is this dryness in meditation which I am describing; this refusal to fix our thoughts on spiritual things? Clearly it may depend on some fault in ourselves. It may depend on some unhealthy attachment in our hearts, lack of vigilance, or the thorns in which we have let the good seed be choked. Difficulty in meditation is not always the sign of an advance of the soul towards God, or the progress to a higher type of prayer.
But it may, thank God, be a sign of that. How can one know the difference?
Again John of the Cross tells us.
There are three signs which indicate the movement from discursive to contemplative prayer:
1. We lack the desire to use the imagination.
2. The imagination and the sense no longer have the will to think about specific things. The things
of the Earth offer no consolation.
3. The soul wants to remain still, directed towards God alone. It desires inner peace, quiet and
repose; it no longer feels the need to use the human faculties.
This third condition is good. If it is present in the soul it justifies the other two. If I have difficulty in meditating on God, if I no longer succeed in fixing my attention on one mystery or another in the life of Jesus, on one truth or another, but I am craving to remain alone and motionless and silent at the feet of God, empty of thought but in an act of love, . . . it means something great. It is one of the most beautiful secrets of the spiritual life.