From Common Mystic Prayer
Mystical prayer is free of formal method. Its very spirituality precludes such method as might be used, for instance, in meditation. There will accordingly be no “schools” of mysticism. Its one and only school is that of the Holy Spirit, who teaches and draws the soul from within. Different souls traverse different paths to mystic prayer, but that prayer essentially follows on law – the law of wordless, imageless, heart-to-heart contact with God. God may grant special infusions of grace and divine touches which enkindle flames of love, but that which constitutes the mystic way is the indefinable communication experienced in the depths of the soul by a simple view of the understanding and a simple movement of the will. And since this is chiefly God’s work, there can hardly be human schools of mystic practice.
But there are schools of asceticism, for asceticism is the human preparation and cultivation of the ground in which the seed of grace is to fructify. Asceticism has not to do with prayer as such, but with ways of spiritual training. The ascetic side is, therefore, the side of the soul’s natural activity, and proposes for practice whatever is necessary to build up the structure of Christian perfection. The schools of asceticism are distinguishable by the emphasis placed on particular doctrines and ways of life, or by the distinctive spirit imparted by the various religious founders. Each order or congregation inherits a characteristic spirit and work to do. Each has its own method of training in perfection – though all aim at fostering divine union, including preparation for mystic union.
However, the mystical life is not a continuation of the ascetical life in the sense that when the former is found the latter ceases. On the contrary, ascetic practice goes on step-by-step with mystic prayer. But with the appearance of the latter, the ascetic phase assumes a more passive character. The soul denies itself, certainly, but not with such positive joy in the performance of particular acts. Rather it experiences a general act of renunciation, a habitual disposition of universal detachment in which the demands of the inferior nature lose their strength. Besides, the soul now sees the superiority of God’s work over its own, the disposition of his providence in which the soul suffers abandonment, or darkness, various moral and spiritual sufferings. It is further mortified by its own interior humiliations, its consciousness of its many hidden faults and failures in practicing virtue and in reacting to the sudden and unexpected trials that come from the circumstances of daily life.
All this is felt by the soul to work a more purifying effect than its own feeble efforts. Self-activity becomes co-operation, in which the soul yields itself more to the action of another – who moves the will sweetly in all things, giving it strength and facility in the way of the cross. The soul no longer seems to wish for anything in particular, but rather, in simplicity of spirit, refers all to the love of God. This apparently is the most noticeable characteristic of the spiritual life of contemplatives: instead of loving God for intelligible reasons, instead of serving him throughout the day for definite motives, they feel they are carried along by grace. And very quickly their main practice comes to be a simple abandonment to the divine will in everything.
But even though the action of God gains the ascendancy, a careful self-denial and watch over the senses must be maintained lest the desires of sense come quickly to the fore again. Immortification, pandering to sense, dissipation of spirit, cultivation of attachments, self-will, worldliness – each and all of these stifle the language of mystic prayer, silencing the divine voice in the depths of the soul. Any willful, unrejected attachment to an imperfection will be contrary to that pureness and liberty of spirit requisite for enjoying the calm, loving knowledge of God. When the human will is disattuned, however slightly, to the divine, it cannot rest in that peaceful, loving attention to God which is the characteristic activity of ordinary mystic prayer.
In this passive way all comes eventually to be given up for the beloved. Renunciation will acquire breadth and depth, eating at the very roots of self. Little by little God will try the soul, moving from renunciation to renunciation, and these of an ever more interior and purifying nature: striping it of natural inclinations and aversions, of the good opinion it may have of itself, or any self-conceived perfection, it may of itself, or any self-conceived perfection, goodness or spirituality; or even of the perception of its own progress. One by one these tags by which the soul clings to tangible support are taken away. Thus, progress in the interior way is a progress by losses. This is God’s method of “re-forming” the supernatural character; and the soul, by its co-operation, by its submission and consent to the purifying action of God, undergoes in this manner a more passive asceticism than that ordinarily practiced outside the mystical life.
Surely our Lord gently invites loved ones to a generous surrender of themselves to him, a surrender of all their ideas, preferences, likes and dislikes, petty ambitions, self-seeking of every kind, that he may be all-in-all to them in loving union. “Seek, and you shall find,” he says; “knock and it shall be opened to you.” When we have knocked, by earnest, persevering effort at prayer, by holy desires, self-denial and the like, there remains only the willing submission to the touch of God’s hand as it works the more passive and penetrating purifications. But, as has been so aptly remarked, most people do not progress much beyond a well-directed cultivation of self for God. They build up their character admirably, but it is their character. They will not lose all, including self, to find all; and so they remain in the middle passage.
Such a losing of self is a most happy loss – resulting only in a finding of self again in the beloved, with whom it becomes one mind, one will, one loving heart. So, too, thought the lovers in the poem which the Abbé Brémond quotes in Prayer and Poetry:
The lover knocks at the door of the beloved, and a voice replies from within: “Who is there?” “It is I,” he said, and the voice replied: “There is no room for thee and me in this house.” And the door remained shut. Then the lover returned to the desert, and fasted and prayed in solitude. After a year he came back, and knocked once more at the door. Once more the voice asked: “Who is there?” He replied: “It is thyself.” And the door opened to him.
It is ordinary contemplation and mystic prayer that gives the facility for such wholehearted surrender of self. To the will it communicates inclination and strength to do whatever the beloved requires; to the mind, light to know there is nothing safer, better, sweeter, than the utter, irrevocable gift of self to that holy and ineffable being who has made the weak creature worthy to share the lot of the saints in light.