Summary: in this article a fundamental tool of discernment is explained that helps avoid confusing a common belief that when God gives us his graces we normally feel them. The difference between uncreated grace (which falls in the spirit only) and created grace (which falls in the soul/body area only) is explained using also an anthropological diagram showing the spirit (above consciousness) and soul-body (consciousness). Two texts from St. Teresa vividly illustrate the necessity for discernment.
There is a very important point of discernment in Spiritual Life. Without it much confusion reigns in our spiritual life and it can lead to disastrous results.
Where does the grace of God work essentially? It works essentially and directly in our spirit which is the highest part of our soul (see diagram where spirit is the top of the mountain beyond the clouds, and the sun represents God). This part is above our consciousness. We can’t feel directly what God is doing in our spirit. Think of the moment when you receive Communion when you receive the very Divine Nature of Jesus also, it acts directly in the deepest roots of your being, or the highest ones, but you don’t feel the very Nature of God. You know, by faith, that you received Him. Now, exactly what does occur in the soul (mind, imagination and emotions) and the body (senses)? God might allow some created crumbs of his grace to fall into any of these regions, and therefore we become aware of something. However, we are never aware directly of what He is doing in our spirit. This area can’t be directly reached by our conscious part. The latter is in fact our soul and our body (see diagram below, all that is below the clouds). The divine food that falls in each “container” is very different.
Diagram: “spirit” (supra-consciousness) and “soul-body” (consciousness)
What falls in the body is a created grace, with the same dimensions and consistency of the body. It is a created grace. The same for the soul: emotions, imagination and mind. What falls in each of these faculties is still a created grace. Certainly, the higher the faculty the “pricier” the grace. But all these graces that fall into the conscious part (soul and body) are all created.
The essence of any given grace is mainly and essentially given to the spirit (or heart), which is above consciousness, closer to God himself. Our spirit is the only part of our being that can receive God himself, in his uncreated very nature. And this is what matters. To sense with our sense, feel with our emotions, or see with our imagination or with our mind remains secondary and created. What is needed is the essence of God’s Grace. The rest is given to us when He wants and in the way He thinks is better for us. And if He doesn’t give it, it doesn’t mean that He is not necessarily pouring his Grace into our spirit. He might very well be doing so, especially if we are doing his will, and do our best to be recollected and pray.
Some persons mix/confuse “consolations” or the palpable support that God gives us in the conscious part (soul and body) with the Grace itself. They therefore tend spontaneously to think that if they don’t receive any grace (translate this by: they don’t feel any created grace falling in their conscious part) they conclude that God is not giving himself to them and therefore something must be wrong. Many fall into the trap of what is a lack of proper discernment, or apply in an amateur way some rules used in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which are to be used only within the Exercises. This is grace and causes a great deal of suffering, doubts, feelings of going in circles, or even of regressing.
Suffering: because in some cases the persons are doing their maximum, and they want to please God with all their soul and feel that they are not realising this goal and feel out of their depth.
Doubts: some think that since their way of praying and leading their Christian life is not working. They doubt their faith or choices.
Going in Circles: since they are attached to created palpable graces, and they are not receiving them, they go into a new circle, asking for them, receiving them mildly, and continue endlessly. God wants to elevate them, and therefore needs to stop giving them consolations so they can activate the necessary acts of Faith, Hope and Love, but He can’t do so, because they immediately think that they are going backwards! Absence of consolations is not seen as progress by them, but rather regression.
Regressing: thinking that something is not right, not finding it, they might even start to stop praying, start to abandon their new spiritual life and go backwards to their previous life.
The great and unparalleled master for true discernment in this precise field is St. John of the Cross. He explains the different stages of growth, showing that after a period of consolations, God often offers a mixed period, alternating some consolations with longer periods of aridity. Then after that, when He sees the human being well rooting in His Will, He then starts to stop almost completely the consolations and offers even tougher purifications where the persons see themselves under a very negative (sinful) light. All this is progress, and is totally positive. If we don’t have this discernment, we will continue to confuse spirit and soul, the action of God in our spirit and in our soul-body and will continue to be convinced that any grace that God gives us must be felt, or sensed or seen and therefore is a good sign that we are on the right track doing God’s will, mixing uncreated Grace with created Grace. In sum they will think that if they don’t receive any palpable grace from God, something is wrong and that they need to mend their ways.
St. Teresa of Avila teaches the deepest way of praying which is the Prayer of the Heart, and in doing so, she talks about God’s action in us, Contemplation. In doing so, she addresses the same issue: do we have to feel, sense or see Contemplation? And what if this is not so? Her teaching brings an important light to the fore: it shows that one can be a true contemplative i.e. receiving all the necessary graces meant for our growth and union with Jesus, and at the same time not feel necessarily anything, or very little. She talks about a great servant of God she knew who was perplexed, not knowing what to do, because she wanted badly “contemplation” so very much (i.e. the supernatural action of God in her) but she wasn’t feeling anything, no exterior signs! She was also using a very basic way of prayer: i.e. just vocal prayers (like the Divine Office, Rosary, saying other prayers vocally), and couldn’t stay silent without saying vocal prayers, reading and saying her prayers. The fact that the great St. Teresa of Avila addresses this issue, see below, and sheds a light on it is very consoling and enlightening for us.
One has to say that this discernment applies in all areas in our spiritual (except Lectio Divina, because through it we are supposed to understand clearly, with our conscious mind, what God wants us to do). Progressing spiritually, doesn’t necessarily imply that we feel it. One can be very well united with Jesus in spiritual marriage and not know it. It is just up to the Spiritual Director to give the right advice. We are not always supposed to know where we are, but we need to have the correct guidance and have a check-up from time to time.
Let us now read some extracts from St. Teresa of Avila speaking about the perception or not of Contemplation (i.e. the supernatural action of God in us). Here are two passages extracted from her book Way of Perfection where she answers the desire of her Nuns to teach them Contemplation.
First Text: Way of Perfection Chapter 17
“I seem now to be beginning my treatment of prayer, but there still remains a little for me to say, which is of great importance because it has to do with humility, and in this house that is necessary. For humility is the principal virtuewhich must be practised by those who pray, and, as I have said, it is very fitting that you should try to learn how to practise it often: that is one of the chief things to remember about it and it is very necessary that it should be known by all who practise prayer. […] I do not say this without good reason, for, as I have said, it is very important for us to realise that God does not lead us all by the same road, and perhaps she who believes herself to be going along the lowest of roads is the highest in the Lord’s eyes. […] I myself spent over fourteen years without ever being able to meditate except while reading. There must be many people like this, and others who cannot meditate even after reading, but can only recite vocal prayers, in which they chiefly occupy themselves and take a certain pleasure. Some find their thoughts wandering so much that they cannot concentrate upon the same thing, but are always restless, to such an extent that, if they try to fix their thoughts upon God, they are attacked by a thousand foolish ideas and scruples and doubts concerning the Faith.
I know a very old woman, leading a most excellent life — I wish mine were like hers — a penitent and a great servant of God, who for many years has been spending hours and hours in vocal prayer, but from mental prayer can get no help at all; the most she can do is to dwell upon each of her vocal prayers as she says them. There are a great many other people just like this; if they are humble, they will not, I think, be any the worse off in the end, but very much in the same state as those who enjoy numerous consolations. In one way they may feel safer, for we cannot tell if consolations come from God or are sent by the devil. If they are not of God, they are the more dangerous; for the chief object of the devil’s work on earth is to fill us with pride. If they are of God, there is no reason for fear, for they bring humility with them, as I explained in my other book at great length.
These others walk in humility, and always suspect that if they fail to receive consolations the fault is theirs, and are always most anxious to make progress. They never see a person shedding a tear without thinking themselves very backward in God’s service unless they are doing the same, whereas they may perhaps be much more advanced. For tears, though good, are not invariably signs of perfection; there is always greater safety in humility, mortification, detachment and other virtues. There is no reason for fear, and you must not be afraid that you will fail to attain the perfection of the greatest contemplatives.
[…] Reflect that true humility consists to a great extent in being ready for what the Lord desires to do with you and happy that He should do it, and in always considering yourselves unworthy to be called His servants. If contemplation and mental and vocal prayer and tending the sick and serving in the house and working at even the lowliest tasks are of service to the Guest who comes to stay with us and to eat and take His recreation with us, what should it matter to us if we do one of these things rather than another?”
Second Text: Way of Perfection Chapter 30
“If it were not that you would tell me I am treating of contemplation, it would be appropriate, in writing of this petition, to say a little about the beginning of pure contemplation, which those who experience it call the “Prayer of Quiet”; but, as I have said, I am discussing vocal prayer here, and anyone ignorant of the subject might think that the two had nothing to do with one another, though I know this is certainly not true. Forgive my wanting to speak of it, for I know there are many people who practise vocal prayer in the manner already described and are raised by God to the higher kind of contemplation without having had any hand in this themselves or even knowing how it has happened. For this reason, daughters, I attach great importance to your saying your vocal prayers well.
I know a nun who could never practise anything but vocal prayer but who kept to this and found she had everything else; yet if she omitted saying her prayers her mind wandered so much that she could not endure it. May we all practise such mental prayer as that. She would say a number of Paternosters, corresponding to the number of times Our Lord shed His blood, and on nothing more than these and a few other prayers she would spend two or three hours. She came to me once in great distress, saying that she did not know how to practise mental prayer, and that she could not contemplate but could only say vocal prayers. She was quite an old woman and had lived an extremely good and religious life. I asked her what prayers she said, and from her reply I saw that, though keeping to the Paternoster, she was experiencing pure contemplation, and the Lord was raising her to be with Him in union. She spent her life so well, too, that her actions made it clear she was receiving great favours. So, I praised the Lord and envied her vocal prayer. If this story is true – and it is – none of you who have had a bad opinion of contemplatives can suppose that you will be free from the risk of becoming like them if you say your vocal prayers as they should be said and keep a pure conscience. I shall have to say still more about this. Anyone not wishing to hear it may pass it over.”