Question: Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 14 page 193. Does the Prayer of the Heart method that you teach skip the discursive meditation? Or does it assume that the person is past that first step? 

Answer: Your question here is very technical (theologically). This is the type of question that for many years I had hoped to be asked by a theologian or by an assiduous reader of St. John of the Cross. It deserves an answer. A technical one too. But it is a “scary” question, that has occupied the best theologians of the Western Catholic Church for half a century. However, they haven’t reached practical clarity about it despite superficial claims made by some recent historians.

cristo san juan

In Chapter 14 to which you allude as well as in the previous one, St. John of the Cross talks about a shift that happens in Spiritual Life where, because of growth, a person would find himself being moved on from (discursive) meditation to the first level of contemplation. He does offer three signs to determine whether a person has been really moved by God from one state to the other. What, however, does this shift mean? There are various meanings which should be kept present in our minds:

– It means crossing the “red line” we have between the Third and the Fourth Mansions.

– It means entering the “supernatural” as St. Teresa puts it in the first lines of the Fourth Mansions.

– In other words, it means entering the Particular help of the grace of God.

– It means, undergoing the Second Conversion! (think of St. Teresa of Avila’s Second Conversion at thirty-nine years of age.

Other questions then arise from the above-mentioned. Can we just decide by the power of our own will to cross over so, as a result, we find that we have crossed over? Can we enter the Fourth Mansions through our own willpower? Can we undergo the Second Conversion through our own willpower? What could be done to cross this line? What is the relationship between the General Help of the grace of God and the Particular one?

As you know, usually theology says: God gives the Particular help of His Grace when He wants, the way He wants and to whom He wants. But this is only part of the Truth. The rest of the Truth is: He has the earnest burning desire to give Himself to us, He is very thirsty to give Himself to us. In this sense, it is not in His plans to delay or to give Himself in a random way. Look at what St. Thérèse discovered the 9th of June 1895 or St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque, or, indeed, many saints: they discovered that the Torrents of God’s love seem to be compressed in Him, and that He has a great desire to pour out His Love into our Hearts.

St. Teresa gives another answer: in order to “trigger” the Grace of God it is important to work on the Virtues in a heroic way. Examine the first half of the Way of Perfection where she explains a more Perfect way of practising the three virtues that summarise the Gospel: humility, detachment and love (of the neighbour). Today I translate her concept and condense it into the practice of a true Lectio Divina; in this sense I consider that now that we have access to the Bible which was not so in the case of St. Teresa of Avila, now that we have a rich Lectionary (the renewed one from 1969), practising Lectio Divina not only replaces the first part of  the Way of Perfection (working on the virtues) but it is even better because it offers more security and power (Jesus speaks through His Word), as well as more flexibility  as it is not only focused on three virtues, but includes Jesus adapting to our needs. The Power of a truly supernatural Lectio Divina is such that it boosts our spiritual life and the practice of the Prayer of the Heart.

Similarly, when St. Thérèse felt drawn to offer herself to the Merciful Love of God (9th June 1895) she didn’t ask herself: “am I at the right level of growth to make this act of offering?” Or: “Can I do it?”, “Will I receive His Grace or not?” Also, when her sister hesitated to offer herself, Therese still invited her to offer herself, her sister being just a novice at that time. “Offering oneself to God” and in return “God giving Himself to us” is the quintessence of the Prayer of the Heart.

Question: You ask me about the teaching offered in the School of Mary and if I assume people who attend the Course and the Formation have passed this line that separates “meditation” and “contemplation”.

Answer: Not everybody comes to the teaching/courses of the School of Mary of their own volition. Mary brings them in. Consequently, therefore, it is not possible for me to avoid teaching supernatural Lectio and the supernatural Prayer of the Heart. Any serious person who is committed in the Charismatic Renewal is in my view already in the Fourth or more Mansions. This is in fact the stage of the beginner! He is a beginner in Spiritual Life but a beginner, nonetheless. Therefore, it is not uncommon to be at this stage of Growth.

Question: Does some work have to be done beforehand? Or do we have to assume that to a certain extent it is purely in the “random” way of a pure choice of God?

Answer: YES of course a lot of work can and should be done! Implementing the whole of Adult Catechesis is a ‘must”. The four parts of the Catechism, especially the first three, should be noted. It is very important to digest and live this book first. Plus, you may add to this, the necessity of a serious commitment in the parish or in some service of neighbour. Having a regular prayer life and prayer time is of the essence, though, of course it will be rather on the side of reading and meditation. This will get people closer to the red line.

St. Teresa of Avila practised the Prayer of the Heart for more than fifteen years before her conversion! Did she receive supernatural graces? I am sure she did! How come, then, she failed to grow spiritually and receive more as she did after her conversion? The reason was that the working of the virtues (translate: supernatural Lectio) was not being implemented properly, and I have explained this on different occasions. St. Teresa said that not practising to perfection the virtues made us remain like dwarfs… and that Prayer of the Heart and lax life do not get on well together.

So, one can even, like her, practise the Prayer of the Heart, and one might even receive some supernatural graces (contemplative ones), but one will not have spiritual growth, certainly not a steady growth. This is why the lessons we can draw from her second conversion are fundamental for all of us, they are a teaching for us. They are for all the Church. Her life, indeed, is God’s answer to the Protestant movement initiated by Martin Luther a few decades before her. The Church before St. Teresa had been trying for three centuries to reform herself and failed. These three centuries are embodied in the twenty years that preceded St. Teresa’s Conversion. She is a paradigm that summarises the crisis of the Church in her time.

Practising love of neighbour to a perfect degree hastens the process of getting us closer to the red line.

Now, technically, my teaching of both Lectio Divina and the Prayer of the Heart involves the supernatural action of God in each one respectively. There is contemplation (of course supernatural) here and there. The particular help of the Grace of God is involved in both cases.

In Chapter 13 of Book 1 of the Ascent St. John of the Cross also teaches the way to produce the full power of our effort, echoing St. Teresa in the first part of the Way of Perfection, when she insists on a perfect practice of the virtues.

Similarly, My Master Fr. Louis Guillet OCD always thought that a seriously committed person (think a postulant or a novice nun) will very rapidly enter into the supernatural action of God (contemplation).

Question: One should, according to St. John of the Cross, have a loving general knowledge or awareness of God before leaving the discursive method – what does this mean?

Answer: Just to clarify your question: are you saying, “does one have to wait to have the three signs of the shift in order to abandon ‘meditation’”?

As you will notice, in my teaching of Lectio Divina and of the Prayer of the Heart I never use the word “meditation” namely, discursive meditation: going from A to B, then from B to C. In this light I mean that meditating will take us from A to C. In Lectio I do say: read, read, read, read. I do not say: read, meditate, pray, contemplate. Of course, the first “read” I mention is about understanding what the text says. But I wouldn’t call it “meditation”. In each Lectio, I always set the goal of reaching the sacramentality of the Word, i.e. the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit.

For the Prayer of the Heart, I use St. Thérèse’s shortcut, or summary of the Prayer of the Heart: the Act of Oblation. It involves everything: the general help and the particular help. The general help is realised through the movement of offering oneself totally to God, without conditions, like a little child. This makes us immediately available to and entrusted into the Hands of God and His Action. He does not need more than an act of oblation to God’s Love, like a little child, through the Hands of Mary. God’s Love is the Holy Spirit, i.e. the particular Help, i.e. “contemplation”.

It is true that the more the person grows, the more the practice (repetition) of the Act of Oblation will allow a greater outpouring of the grace of God during the Prayer of the Heart. But it does not mean we have to wait years or see certain signs or factors in order to make it. Saint Thérèse invited her sister who was a beginner, a novice, to make the Act of Oblation with her.

Question: Am I then dismissing what St. John of the Cross says? 

Answer: No, I still think that his doctrine of the three signs is still useful. Fr. Louis added a fourth: fearing sin, i.e. having a new perception of the ugliness of our sins in the eyes of God. But the question can be put from a different angle and I prefer to analyse St. Teresa’s Second Conversion and the lessons we learn from this angle and the Act of Oblation.  I do not want to lean on one teaching only (i.e. St. John of the Cross’ three signs), but on three teachings coming from three different Doctors of the Church, shedding light on one issue.

From 1890 to 1940 roughly, theologians debated the subject of Contemplation and its nature: “Is it for all?”… “Is it acquired or infused?” “Can we acquire it by using our own strengths: the general help of the grace of God or is it infused, i.e. depends purely on God: the particular help of the grace of God?”

Even if, toward the end of the battle of the theologians (1940s), they leaned slightly toward the infused nature of Contemplation, we never got any explanation on how the shift really works, i.e. the crossing from one stage to the other (think: “third” to “fourth mansions”, or “meditation” to “contemplation”). To date we do not have an answer! Even if we tend universally to say that Contemplation is infused (supernatural) we still remain with the half-truth about how to receive it: “God gives it the way He wants, when He wants to whom He wants”.

Meanwhile, in fact, there are ways to get us close to the border, ways that hasten the progress, like almost forcing God’s hand to make us enter into “contemplation”! The expression (forcing God) is not mine, it is of St. John of the Cross, when he says in the Spiritual Canticle that practising love of neighbour the way St. Paul describes it, can almost “force” God’s Hand to pour His grace into us i.e. the particular help.

As St. Teresa would never separate the perfect practice of the Virtues from the practice of the Prayer of the Heart, I would never separate Lectio Divina from the Prayer of the Heart. A true supernatural Lectio Divina (as I teach it, which involves the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit) is for me an important condition that “triggers” the Grace of God during the Prayer of the Heart. The Lord Himself gives us the clue: “whoever loves me, keeps my Commandments, the Father will love him and we will come and dwell in him and him in us” (John 14:21).

One wants to know what true love is. It is to keep Jesus’ Commandments, which is real Lectio Divina, listening to the Risen Lord and putting his Word into practice by His Grace.

As a consequence, a new love of God wants to be outpoured: The Father will love Him. This is the starting point of the Prayer of the Heart: a renewed outpouring of Love.

As a consequence: The Lord and the Father (and the Holy Spirit) will come and dwell in the person. This is a supernatural Prayer of the Heart.

The secret of triggering “Contemplation” (the Son and the Father coming within us) is given to us.

It is the secret of a fruitful Communion during Mass: Mass is the enactment or realisation of the New Covenant. A Covenant needs a written text, a written Contract, realised in the Word of God, the Liturgy of the Word and in Blood: The Lord’s Sacrifice, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. If we want “contemplation” to occur during Communion, we need to listen first to Jesus in the Liturgy of the Word as this triggers a new powerful grace! Steady growth is thereby ensured.

Question: One knows by faith by faith that God loves us, or is it a more sensitive feeling?

Answer: yes, essentially of course it is a truth of our Faith. If we are faithful to Him in Lectio, He pours Himself into our spirit, not necessarily into our soul, emotions, senses. But Prayer often leads to these echoes that are manifest outside of our spirit, echoes that fall in the soul (mind, will), emotions, senses. Echoes of the substantial Meal received in our spirit. The echoes are the crumbs that sometimes God allows to fall into our conscious part.

Of course, if we consider seriously what God did for us, how He gave us His Son, we can know that He loves us truly, totally and constantly. Knowing, not feeling. It is a deep intuition, the intuition of Faith. Sometimes it can be very dry, and therefore be just a pure act of faith without any feeling. However, it helps us to grow to make this act of Faith from time to time.

Finally, let us have recourse to Mary’s faith, the essence of purity of heart and spirit.