THERE are two means by which we may be led into the higher forms of prayer. One is Meditation, the other is Meditative Reading. By meditative reading I mean the taking of some truths, either doctrinal or practical—the latter rather than the former—and reading them in this way:—Take the truth which has presented itself to you, and read two or three lines, seeking to enter into the full meaning of the words, and go on no further so long as you find satisfaction in them; leave the place only when it becomes insipid. After that, take another passage, and do the same, not reading more than half a page at once.
It is not so much from the amount read that we derive profit, as from the manner of reading.
Those people who get through so much do not profit from it; the bees can only draw the juice from the flowers by resting on them, not by flying round them. Much reading is more for scholastic than for spiritual science; but in order to derive profit from spiritual books, we should read them in this way; and I am sure that this manner of reading accustoms us gradually to prayer, and gives us a deeper desire for it. The other way is Meditation, in which we should engage at a chosen time, and not in the hour given to reading. I think the way to enter into it is this:—After having brought ourselves into the presence of God by a definite act of faith, we should read something substantial, not so much to reason upon it, as to fix the attention, observing that the principal exercise should be the presence of God, and that the subject should rather fix the attention than exercise reason.
This faith in the presence of God within our hearts must lead us to enter within ourselves, collecting our thoughts, and preventing their wandering; this is an effectual way of getting rid of
distracting thoughts, and of losing sight of outward things, in order to draw near to God, who can only be found in the secret place of our hearts, which is the sancta-sanctorum in which He dwells.
He has promised that if any one keeps His commandments, He will come to him, and make His abode with him (John xiv. 23). St Augustine reproaches himself for the time he lost through not having sought God at first in this way.
When, then, we are thus buried in ourselves, and deeply penetrated with the presence of God within us—when the senses are all drawn from the circumference to the centre, which, though it is not easily accomplished at first, becomes quite natural afterwards—when the soul is thus gathered up within itself, and is sweetly occupied with the truth read, not in reasoning upon it, but in feeding upon it, and exciting the will by the affection rather than the understanding by consideration: the affection being thus touched, must be suffered to repose sweetly and at peace, swallowing what it has tasted.
As a person who only masticated an excellent meat would not be nourished by it, although he would be sensible of its taste, unless he ceased this movement in order to swallow it; so when the affection is stirred, if we seek continually to stir it, we extinguish its fire, and thus deprive the soul of its nourishment. We must swallow by a loving repose (full of respect and confidence) what we have masticated and tasted. This method is very necessary, and would advance the soul in a short time more than any other would do in several years.
But as I said that the direct and principal exercise should be the sense of the presence of God, we must most faithfully recall the senses when they wander.
This is a short and efficacious way of fighting with distractions; because those who endeavour directly to oppose them, irritate and increase them; but by losing ourselves in the thought of a present God, and suffering our thoughts to be drawn to Him, we combat them indirectly, and without thinking of them, but in an effectual manner. And here let me warn beginners not to run from one
truth to another, from one subject to another; but to keep themselves to one so long as they feel a taste for it: this is the way to enter deeply into truths, to taste them, and to have them impressed upon us. I say it is difficult at first thus to retire within ourselves, because of the habits, which are natural to us, of being taken up with the outside; but when we are a little accustomed to it, it becomes exceedingly easy; both because we have formed the habit of it, and because God, who only desires to communicate Himself to us, sends us abundant grace, and an experimental sense of His presence, which renders it easy.
Let us apply this method to the Lord’s Prayer. We say “Our Father,” thinking that God is within us, and will indeed be our Father. After having pronounced this word Father, we remain a few moments in silence, waiting for this heavenly Father to make known His will to us. Then we ask this King of Glory to reign within us, abandoning ourselves to Him, that He may do it, and yielding to Him the right that He has over us. If we feel here an inclination to peace and silence,
we should not continue, but remain thus so long as the condition may last; after which we proceed to the second petition, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” We then desire that God may accomplish, in us and by us, all His will; we give up to God our heart and our liberty, that He may dispose of them at His pleasure. Then, seeing that the occupation of the will should be love, we desire to love, and we ask God to give us His love. But all this is done quietly, peacefully; and so on with the rest of the prayer.
At other times we hold ourselves in the position of sheep near to the Shepherd, asking of Him our true food. O Divine Shepherd! Thou feedest Thy sheep with Thine own hand, and Thou art their food from day to day. We may also bring before Him our family desires; but it must all be done with the remembrance by faith of the presence of God within us.
We can form no imagination of what God is: a lively faith in His presence is sufficient; for we can conceive no image of God, though we may of Christ, regarding Him as crucified, or as a child,
or in some other condition, provided that we always seek Him within ourselves.
At other times we come to Him as to a Physician, bringing our maladies to Him that He may heal them; but always without effort, with a short silence from time to time, that the silence may be mingled with the action, gradually lengthening the silence and shortening the spoken prayer, until at length, as we yield to the operation of God, He gains the supremacy. When the presence of God is given, and the soul begins to taste of silence and repose, this experimental sense of the presence of God introduces it to the second degree of prayer.