A Remarkable Letter about Meditation

Reginald Garrigou-LagrangeIn a footnote in one of Father Garrigou-Lagrange’s books (it doesn’t matter which one), he quotes a letter written to him by a novice mistress at a French Carmelite convent. She talks about practical experience with novices as regards meditation and contemplation; or, since contemplation coincides with the onset of Saint John of the Cross’ “dark night of the senses”, we could also say that her letter is about how to accept the dark nights that come and which God intends to use to purify us of things that are not him.

I will quote as succinctly as I can from this letter, though it is already written succinctly and tightly:

Ordinarily when one enters our monasteries with the required dispositions (and it ought to be the same in all cloisters), and when one strives to acquire the virtues, the soul is, in a very short time, subjected by God to aridity and powerlessness, the prelude of the passive purifications. It is almost impossible to make those who have been trained according to the method of reasoned meditation believe that this state is good, and that it is made to lead them to the divine union. They do not understand the teaching of Saint John of the Cross: “To apply oneself at this time to the comprehension and the consideration of particular objects, were they ever so spiritual, would be to place an obstacle in the way of the general, subtle, and simple light of the spirit; it would be to overcloud one’s spirit” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk II, ch 15).

The contrary is true of souls that submissively accept these first trials [in prayer]. In a short time they enjoy peace, and then the knowledge of how to find God in this darkness. As a result of this knowledge, they make rapid progress. Those who cling to meditation are still waiting after thirty or more years of religious life for someone to lift them up and show them what they are still seeking. They lead a colourless and dull spiritual life. In the contemplative life the secret of happiness is in knowing how to live this life under the eye of God.

I emphasize the massive difference: “It is almost impossible to make those who have been trained according to the method of reasoned meditation believe that this state [of dryness] is good, and that it is made to lead them to the divine union.” OMG! (Meant literally as an ejaculatory prayer.)

Those who grow dependent on meditation are hard to break out of the dependence. They are attached to the notion of putting things between themselves and God. They interfere with the principal agent of prayer, who is the Spirit of God. This is actually quite severe. Knowing this from reading, from my own experiences in situations of unofficial spiritual direction into which I have become entangled, and from the oppositions that I have encountered by those who (they will have to pay dearly for this in this life or the next) dissuade others from contemplative prayer even when they are ready, is it any surprise that I don’t say much about meditation on this blog? The whole subject can be a danger. Meditation is a stepping stone. That’s it. While one can, one does what works. One reasons, one imagines, one remembers, one passes from consideration to consideration. And then when it stops working through no fault of one’s own and dryness takes over, one is supposed to say, “Jesus, Father, Spirit, I trust you, and I will follow you through this more painful prayer, for your goal is to unite us and make me more like you.”

People, quite frankly, do get very attached to meditation, as a rule. It creates spiritual dwarfs. It is not a pretty, delightful, or cute thing. Spiritual dwarfhood is just plain ugly.

This is why contemplation is for everyone, if not immediately at least by way of the path to travel. Meditation, on the other hand, may already lie in the past for a given person at a given time. (Indeed, there are some souls whose mental, psychological, simple, and childlike dispositions derive nothing but spiritual dryness from their very first act of Christian meditation; such souls start pretty far along, though one ought to be careful in identifying them.) There is no normative value to periods of meditation, however much some spiritual teachers may try to say there is. And, except for duties of our state in life and except personal idiosyncrasies more or less present in all of us, meditative prayer really doesn’t last long. It’s a surprisingly short period, if we actually apply ourselves to the virtues. (By this I mean that a period of prayer-life without any contemplation at all is surprisingly short, and also, for those transitioning into contemplative prayer, the time required in meditation during each silent time with God, before God grants contemplation, normally gets surprisingly or unpredictably shorter, too.) Those who devise meditative schemes for all to follow are deluding themselves and placing the development of love in other souls in jeopardy. For why did souls become attached to reasoned meditation in the first place, unless by their own concupiscence or by learned behaviour? It’s one thing to try and fail, or to be in pain; those situations are understandable and deserving of compassion. But it’s quite another thing to deter people from following Jesus when he calls.

Harsh? Maybe. I’m more than tired of these kinds of sins and imperfections in directors and friends being so commonplace and acceptable. I’ve seen enough of the pain this causes. So has Jesus.

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6 thoughts on “A Remarkable Letter about Meditation

  1. The more I read your blog the more ignorant I feel. Probably not a bad thing. I read something the other day along the lines of ‘stress places us at Jesus’ feet’. Perhaps ‘distress’ would be a better word, since ‘stress’ is just part of life. There has been so much sorrow in my life. I don’t want the sorrow to come between me and God. Sometimes it still steals me away from Him.

    • If it helps: The more I write the blog, the less I feel I know, too, but the more convinced I become that suffering is a great opportunity for everything to work for the good of those who love God. ^_^

      • Yes – as long as that sentiment is not manipulated by people desiring to either commit evil, or to refuse to acknowledge evil. Some of us have been given more and so will be expected to ‘give’ more (though we can’t give anything).
        God is always good. That’s something to shout from the rooftops!

  2. Pingback: “Contemplative in the Mud” | SOUL FOOD MINISTRIES

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