Thursday, 23 July 2009

Progress in prayer

Not mine, by the way, as I don't make much.

A few years before the beginning of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff wrote a pamphlet entitled Can we be Saints? His argument was that all of us, including lay people, are called to be saints, and the pamphlet developed this theme along with a practical characterisation of what it meant in daily life. Writing somewhere between 1913 and 1920, Frank Duff pre-dated Vatican II's teaching on the universal call to holiness by some 40 or 50 years. [Aside: it is, I think, easy to see Vatican II's teaching on the universal call to holiness as being more revolutionary than it is in actuality. The explicit articulation, without attachment to a specific spirituality or religious order, might well have been revolutionary; but a writer such as Frank Duff, the existence of "third orders" alongside some religious orders and the promotion of parish based Sodalities can surely be seen as acting as a forerunner of this teaching. It should perhaps be seen within the context of a "hermeneutic of continuity" rather than of discontinuity.]

Frank Duff's writing in this pamphlet was subsequently reflected in the statement of the aims of the Legion of Mary contained in the Handbook:
“The object of the Legion of Mary is the glory of God through the holiness of its members developed by prayer and active co-operation, under ecclesiastical guidance, in Mary’s and the Church’s work of crushing the head of the serpent and advancing the reign of Christ.”

This week I had the challenge of trying to present this call to holiness in a practical way to our Legion of Mary praesidium. These are all people who are faithful to Sunday Mass attendance (and, in some cases, weekday Mass attendance) and who pray each day. So what I wanted to do was find a way of presenting the idea of the call to holiness as a call to "making progress" in the life of prayer.

I chose the following as the spiritual reading for the meeting, from Chapter 1 of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life:

To understand what our interior life is in itself and in its various phases, we must consider it not merely in it seed, but in its full and complete development. Now, if we ask the Gospel what our interior life is, it tells us that the life of grace, given to us in Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist, is the seed or germ of eternal life….

It consists in seeing God immediately as He sees Himself, and loving Him as He loves Himself. This is the reason why our Lord can say to you: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’; because you have received a participation in His inner

What, then does our Lord mean when He says: ‘He that believeth in me hath eternal life?’ He means: He that believes in Me with a living faith, that is, with a faith which is united with charity, with the love of God and the love of his neighbour, possesses eternal life already begun. In other words: He who believes in Me has within himself in germ a supernatural life which is fundamentally the same as eternal life. Our spiritual progress cannot tend in the direction of the life of eternity unless it presupposes the seed of it already existing in us, a seed of the same nature as the life towards which we are tending….

Grace, then, is eternal life already begun within us; and this why Christ says: ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say: Behold here or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you’. It is there, hidden within you, like the grain of mustard seed, like the leaven which will cause the whole of the meal to rise, like the treasure hidden in a field, like the source from which gushes a river of water that will never fail…..

The important thing to be noticed is that, just as there is the crisis of puberty, more or less manifest and more or less successfully surpassed, between childhood and adolescence, so in the spiritual life there is an analogous crisis for the transition from the purgative life of beginners to the illuminative life of proficients. This crisis has been described by several great spiritual writers, in particular by Tauler and especially by St John of the Cross, under the name of the passive purgation of the senses, and by Pere Lallement SJ, and several others under the name of the second conversion. Moreover, just as the youth has to pass through a second crisis, that of the first freedom, in order to reach manhood, so in the transition from the illuminative way of the proficients to the true life of union, there is a second spiritual crisis, mentioned byTauler, and described by St John of the Cross under the name of the passive purgation of the spirit. This, likewise, may be called a third conversion, or better, a transformation of the soul.

None has better described these crises which mark the transition from one spiritual period to another than St John of the Cross. It will be noticed that they correspond to the two parts of the human soul, the sensitive and the spiritual. They correspond also to the nature of the divine seed, sanctifying grace, that germ of eternal life which must ever more and more animate all our faculties and inspire all our actions, until the depth of the soul is purged of all egoism and surrendered entirely to God.

St John of the Cross, it is true, describes spiritual progress as it appears especially in contemplatives, and in the most generous among contemplatives, who are striving to reach union with God by the most direct way possible. He therefore shows us what the higher laws of the spiritual life at their maximum of sublimity. But these laws apply in a lesser degree also to many other souls who do not reach so high a state of perfection, but are nevertheless making devoted progress, and not looking back.

I then presented it under the form of the following questions in the allocutio:
Do we have a sense of recognising the life of grace as, firstly, a gift received from God and only secondly as something with which we co-operate and therefore at which we have to make an effort?

Do we have a sense of trying to make progress in the life of prayer, trying to make progress in the life of grace? And, linked to this, do we recognise the different stages in the spiritual life?

1. The beginning or seed: a first conversion to faith in God, characterised by effort and trial on our part

2. The transition to a second stage: we move away from a more physical, material life to one that is more explicitly “of the spirit”; a second conversion in which, rather than encountering God through the material, we come to receive his life directly into our souls; prayer is more clearly experienced as a gift from God, and our essential attitude is one of receptivity and openness to receive Him (in the language of St John of the Cross, a "dark night of the senses", a transition that might be characterised by physical suffering)

3. The transition to direct union with God: we abandon even our spiritual encounter in favour of a complete gift of ourselves to God, a third conversion; we are taken up into his life, in a total abandonment of ourselves to Him; this transition might be characterised by a spiritual suffering, an aridity in prayer (in the language of St John of the Cross, a "dark night of the soul").

I was not able to then develop it fully, but I ended by suggesting that the Rosary is a prayer that could be prayed in ways appropriate to all these different stages in the spiritual life. And that, as Garrigou-Lagrange suggests in the last sentence of the spiritual reading, this perspective is not just restricted to contemplative religious but is something to which we can all aspire in our own particular situations in life.

One observation made during the discussion that our allocutios tend to become was: "What about people who don't know about this, though?" Which is, of course, a very good question. Why should the above not be part of parish or school catechesis? And my own thought, having attempted to do it with at least a reasonable degree of success, was: with due care and attention, it is quite possible to successfully present quite high level catechesis in ordinary parish contexts, and we should not shy away from doing so.

And as I finish writing this post, I am prompted to think about the idea of spiritual development that is now a part of the language of education in the UK. This can be understood in a completely non-religious way; but for schools with a religious designation, and particularly Catholic schools, a religious understanding of spiritual development should be retained. And why should that understanding not be informed by the above?

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