REFLECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL EXERCISES OF ST IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
ST TERESA OF AVILA CALLS THIS FACULTY THE WILL
“When does contact with God come in meditation? We can distinguish in ourselves two parts or two levels: mind and heart. The mystics speak of a faculty we have through which we receive an intuition of the Infinite Being. They give this faculty different names: heart, high mind. St Teresa of Avila calls it the will. It is the faculty for grasping God without concepts, images, thoughts or words. Usually we find it impossible to conceive of someone or something without an image or thought. Suppose we could conceive of a person without anything in our minds. It would feel as though we held on to nothing. Mystics say that when we reach this nothingness, this emptiness is Being itself; it is not-nothing, it is no-thing. To begin, we need to develop a tolerance for nothing-ness, a faculty to connect with Being directly, not through image or fantasy. The mystics say that when this heart, this faculty opens up, we do not go through the mind. We open up, and yes, we are in touch with God.
DEVELOPING THE HEART
How do we develop this heart? The Catholic mystics say it cannot be developed, it is given by God. Most of all they advise us to do nothing. When the mind cannot focus any more on prayer, then wait and rest until God comes and gives us this other faculty. Abbot John Chapman in his Spiritual Letters, says that there is a time in prayer when we cannot use our heads…different mystics give different advice. St John of the Cross advises rest; do nothing, just be there.
FOCUSING ON ONE EJACULATION: ‘MY GOD AND MY ALL’
One image, one thought, one word is recommended for quieting the mind. [Once the mind is quiet] the heart opens up. At the beginning this seems so empty and it seems there is nothing. But if we keep at it, after prayer we will start noticing that we are full of joy and peace. There is a certain centredness in us. When we develop a taste for this nothing, we soon realise that it is not nothingness, it is a glowing darkness. This sense goes on through the day and even at night, whether we are talking, reading, or working, this goes on.
If our aim is to build up this faculty, it does not matter what covering we use or what means we use to blind the mind. The idea is to quiet the mind for the heart to open up. Nevertheless, our devotional needs must also be met. All devotional prayer takes place in the mind, and it fills the devotional needs we have. We can continue with this devotional prayer and give it some time during the day. But also find some time to quiet the mind, so that the heart can open up. Although we need to cater to our devotional needs, our aim is to get in touch with God in this silence, naked contemplation, and mysticism. We must give time to quieting the mind. If we aim at this silence, it does not matter what means we use… the important thing is the development of the heart in two senses.
CONTACT WITH GOD
The devotional sense is what St Teresa means when she says that in prayer ‘the important thing is not to think much but to love much.’ Prayer is not accomplished through thinking. In fact, thinking is not prayer. Thinking is a preparation for prayer. Prayer begins when the heart starts and the loving starts. That is why Ignace Lepp (1908-66) says that all interpersonal communication is on the emotional level. For instance, I could be talking to my friend about metaphysics, but here is a certain communication which makes it interpersonal. The personal comes when the emotional enters. It is in that sense that I speak of prayer, because prayer may come to the heart, but the heart of this level of meditation. That is the sense in which St Teresa speaks of prayer of the heart. Right now, however, I am talking of the heart in another sense, in the sense of higher mind, in the sense of this faculty which opens up to God and intuits him directly. This is contemplation.
REACHING OUT TO GOD
The author of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ speaks of three stages – actually more than three stages, which I call three phases of the spiritual life. He speaks of meditation, contemplation, and – let us call it – holy action: action for the service of others, action to love others, or the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, to use the traditional terms.
[A WORD OF CAUTION]
All Christian life has these three dimensions. The author says: ‘Be very careful about entering contemplation on your own. This is a gift from God. When he calls you, enter, but do not do anything about this.’ He even says: ‘Do not give this book to anyone who is not ready.’ He had a real fear of people entering this area of contemplation before God called them, because the devil could come to trick them.
Let me give you a little background on how he views contemplation. He says that we are suspended between two clouds. We have the cloud of unknowing in front of us, and the cloud of forgetting below us. God is not known through knowing. If we think we know God through knowing…we are mistaken…we can know God only through unknowing – that is why the author of the ‘Cloud’ calls it ‘unknowing;’ but in unknowing we know. We do not know God through the mind. How do we know him then? Through the heart. The heart keeps reaching out to God…
[SEEKING SILENCE, HOWEVER, IS BENEFICIAL]
[The fact that it is a gift of God does not mean God does not give it to everyone [when they are ready]]
Everyday we give time to contemplation. Everyday…we should give some time to what I call the prayer of silence – complete and total silence. Strict silence. We should still everything inside us. We will find it very nourishing, very refreshing, very fulfilling, and very creative. Seek silence.”
– Anthony de Mello SJ, 20th century