When Meditation Becomes Impossible & When Prayer Becomes Impossible.

Summary: When meditation becomes impossible according to St. John of the Cross, defines the moment supernatural contemplation starts, it corresponds to the entrance of the fourth Mansions. When prayer becomes impossible, corresponds to the entrance into the deepest purification, the dark night of the spirit. These are two important turning points. Sometimes years can separate them. Because they are turning points, we need to understand the change God is realising and its consequences on the practice of Lectio Divina. Some remarks will follow on the prayer of the heart.

Lectio Divina

Question: Since I cannot meditate and to be honest, I have no inclination anymore to meditate, but just to stare in the blankness because I close my eyes… what can I do?

Answer: In order to answer this question it is important to explain what it means “to meditate”, what it means to reach appoint where one can’t meditate. Only after these clarifications one can address the specific aspect of this question.

It is important to remember an important teaching of St. John of the Cross: there is a moment in our spiritual journey where God makes us stop meditating and introduces in us a new way of working of His Grace: He makes us enter in Contemplation.

This passage is very important and not always understood, noticed and supported in Spiritual Direction.

St John of the Cross explains this passage from Meditation to Contemplation, or better said the entrance in “supernatural contemplation” or “contemplative prayer” at length three different times in his books:

Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II chapters 13 to 15 (11 to 13);

– Dark Night, Book I, chapters 8 to 10;

Living Flame of Love v. B, Stanza III, verse 3 (§§ 27-76).

On top of these direct explanations, these three books offer a great number of allusions to our question.

In each explanation on top of explaining the change in God’s way of communicating His grace to us, St John of the Cross offers to us signs that allow us to discern that God had “put his hands” in our life.

The teaching found in Ascent and Dark Night can be enough for us. Living Flame answers less directly our question.

The two passages – in Ascent and in Dark Night – have the same perspective and introduce a person to the beginning of a purifying contemplation. At different levels and through different ways.

The first book of Ascent orientates the efforts of the beginners so they can be freed from the act of sin by their love of Christ. The last pages allow us to see a different love, better, the love of the Groom. St John of the Cross will shed light on this mysterious affirmation.

If the beginner wants afterward to become able to love Good with all his heart, he has to take the way of faith (hope and love): rapidly he will reach a point of change that he can’t understand, which appears in a clearer way during prayer. He can’t pray anymore like he used to do before. Be careful, says St. John of the Cross. And if the reason of that was that God was starting to act through the “particular help of the grace of God”? here are the signs that will help you recognise God’s intervention: it invites you to change your way of praying. God introduces you into a purifying contemplation. The latter’s goal is to purify your way of believing in God (book II); of hoping in Him (book III, 1-15); and of loving Him (book III, 15-end).

Saint John of the Cross gives three signs to help us discern the shift and insists on the necessity to have the three of them happening: impossibility to meditate, neither juice nor taste, attention and loving contemplation (general loving knowledge).

The change in God’s way of communicating his grace comes from the fact that he is introducing us in the direct and personal working of the Holy Spirit also called the “Particular Help of the Grace of God”. It corresponds in St. Teresa of Avila’s entrance in the Fourth Mansions of her Interior Castle, or her second way of watering the garden in her Autobiography. It corresponds also to the Prayer of Quiet (say Way of Perfection chapters 30-31) which is a supernatural prayer. This shift in the action of God in order for it to happen requires a call from Christ and as answer to it a total commitment from the part of the person to follow Jesus. This way we surrender ourselves to God, hand him our life. He can then act freely in us and therefore change the way he deals with us using a more direct, personal and powerful way of communicating the help of his grace to us.

One feels that God intervenes in Prayer and puts us into a more quiet and peaceful state where our mind can sometimes (not always) be very recollected.

I- Lectio Divina When Meditation Becomes Impossible

So when we say: I can’t meditate, what am I suppose to do, applied to Lectio Divina, it means: am I supposed to stop practicing the meditation of the Word of God and stay quiet?

Unknowingly, the initial question is addressing the shift from Meditation and Contemplation in the case of Lectio Divina. And indirectly you are saying: now that I am pushed by God to go from “meditation” to “contemplation”, am I supposed to leave out praying with the Scriptures because I can’t meditate? This question is very important and hasn’t directly been addressed by the Carmelite Masters. But they still answered to it if we know them well and ask them the right questions.

It is very important to understand that the majority of the doctors and masters of Carmel when they give advice it is rather about the Prayer of the Heart. They are almost totally silent about the practice of Lectio Divina (i.e. what use can we make of the Scriptures during prayer). Teresa of Avila for instance didn’t have a full bible in Spanish, the Inquisition removed it, this is why St. John of the Cross quotes the Bible in Latin first.

For instance, St. John of the Cross will speak about the transition from “meditation” to “contemplation” and give three signs for it (we can add a fourth one: a new sensitivity/rejection toward sin), but this is to be placed either in the context of general Spiritual Life or specifically about the Prayer of the heart.

We need to be careful here because if an author is silent about something it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Lectio Divina is a distinct and different activity from the Prayer of the Heart. The main type of prayer advised by St. Teresa of Avila (and therefore her Reformation) is PH. Even if she loves the Bible, she doesn’t offer a method to read meditate or contemplate with the Bible. Remember her sadness when they removed the Bible in Spanish, she cried and the Lord told her: “I will give you a living book” (himself).

In the Way of Perfection she shrewdly replaces the bible with the work of the three Evangelical virtues.

Each activity (LD and PH) nourishes us differently. Both are needed. They are not, till now, in the Church, well explained in their specificity (differences). Therefore a general confusion persists where for the allotted time for prayer the advise given is for a practice of a mix of both activities: open the Bible, if God talks to you, this is good, if not, remain with Him in silence, it is good the same. This advice is the actual general advice given in formation in the Church till today, but if you look at it carefully, you will find that it is a mix of LD (in the beginning) and PH in the end (remain silent in His presence). So in the end we don’t achieve either a proper LD or a proper PH. We live in a blurred information and formation about this issue (the difference between LD and PH) and vague indications for the allotted time (we mix them).

When God puts His hands in our spiritual life (beginning of contemplation) and starts to make us grow, and therefore moves us from “meditation” to “contemplation”, this doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to do anything with the Word of God (the Bible). On the contrary, it is the exact opposite, I am rather inlined to say that proper Lectio Divina is about to start.

What is “meditation”?

What is “Meditation”? It is to go from thought/idea/feeling/imagination A to B, then from B to C, then from C to D. With “meditation” we are in control of our thoughts and thinking process. Remember what St. Teresa of Avila says about the first way of watering the garden in her Autobiography. Meditation is under the working of the “general help of the grace of God”.

One can use meditation in LD and in PH. St. Teresa speaks only about meditation in PH.

“Contemplation” though has two forms, one specific to LD and one specific to PH. Both are placed under the working of the “particular help of the grace of God”. This is unfortunately not clearly taught in Formation today. But if you dig a bit deeper you can find it.

Today (and from many centuries) in general we know and focus only one of them, the Contemplation in the Prayer of the Heart. We think there is only one way for contemplation (ie for PH). But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing else (another one specific to LD). If one reads chapters 26 and 31 of Ascent one finds forms in which contemplation happens through the Word of God. But there is no presentation here from St. John of the Cross of a method of practising Lectio Divina. So we are not informed in a specific way how to go from Meditation to Contemplation within Lectio Divina.

So, as I am saying: there is a specific contemplation for Lectio divina, and having passed in general (as stages of growth) from “Meditation” to “Contemplation”, implies for the case of the practise of Lectio divina a supernatural way of reading and praying the Scriptures. I would call it: a proper Lectio Divina. Bottom line: there is still a use of the Scriptures in spiritual life when a deeper spiritual life occurs and the disappearance of “meditation” doesn’t mean stopping using the Scriptures! Not at all! Stating the opposite would be a pitfall.

Explanation of the relationship between “general help” and “particular help” in Lectio Divina

One can observe and analyse in the process of Lectio Divina the relationship between our effort with the “general help of the Grace of God” and God’s reply, with the “Particular help of the Grace of God”, i.e. when the supernatural action starts, offering a general light and thereafter. (regarding theses two types of help, see here)

When we beg, and beg and beg, with all our being in order to discover God’s Will for today, and once we receive the general light we turn again to begging in order to have a clear particular light, in all this we are using the “general help of the grace of God”. When God gives the one general light (i.e. when th two texts say one thing) and when he makes it clear in our will what He wants from us, this direct or immediate supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit, showing us the meaning of the Word according to God’ intention today, this is the “particular help of the grace of God”. It is true that we rather study this in the context of the Prayer of the Heart, but this is a general Theology of the Grace of God (see St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation here)

II- Lectio Divina When Prayer Becomes Impossible

It is important to know that at each stage of spiritual growth the Scriptures are here the help us, support our journey at the specific stage where we are with the precise spiritual needs we have.

We may divide the journey according to one account of the Gospels in three moments: the first moment is conversion and the first stages of steps of following Jesus (witnessing miracles, radical change, deciding to follow Jesus). Then the crossing of the sea of Galilee (in itself it can be divided in three stages: close to the shore, midst of the darkest night with terrible stormy sea, then closer to the other shore). Then, finally arriving at the other side of the Sea (of course it can be divided in various stages).

Crossing the Galilee Sea is the sign of the deepest purification. As we can see from the Gospel, the Scriptures are here to help us and tell us something also in this dark moment. Hope is nourished even if we are in the “dark”. The Passion of the Lord (His Crossing) is here to give us the most substantial food, the highest contemplation is offered to us through it. We enter in really deep levels of contemplation. Experiencing the Love of God in a new way, while losing everything, even our first “spiritual” experience of Him (the old house). All the other texts of the Old Testament that relate to the Passion (and there are hundreds) talk to us also. Jeremiah, David in his suffering psalms, Job.

Poverty is strengthened from within.

Each Mass set of readings has in itself a “hidden cave” that is capable of enlightening us. What is at stake is to find it, dwell in it, and hide in it. Isaiah 53 and the Holy Face of Jesus are the hidden place where Therese hid herself during this passage.

Having the impression that we can’t pray anymore is not refraining of use of the Scriptures or/and of our Mind. On the contrary. It just gets deeper.

St John of the Cross never refrained from holding his Bible in his hands and contemplating. The same applies to St. Therese with the New Testament. Till the end they had the Scriptures in their hands. They always found new lights and insights, till the end. So, moving from meditation to contemplation, using St John of the Cross words is not really stopping from using our mind or having it paralysed.

Contemplation goes just deeper. Way deeper.

What ceases if the frantic free movement of a personal self-managed thinking. Or better said: a human way of praying to a divine way of praying. But the mind is still exposed to the Word of God all the time and during the allotted times.

“Deeper Contemplation” (dark night of the spirit) is a higher way of functioning of the mind and not its paralysis. It is a more quiet and receptive way of functioning of the mind, and very profound or high way. It surpasses the low “spiritual” way of seeing the Word of God.

Some people can argue saying that one is called to an apophatic attitude of the mind where one finds that all what he or she had already discovered by God in Spiritual Life is like declared by God as nothing and where God offers now a negation of all that. Yes, but this negation is the negation of the previous knowledge but not the absence of a knowledge. It is a transition time where God is preparing a higher knowledge. In the meantime the Passion of the Lord serves this transition time. This is why saint Paul speaks (1 Co) about the wisdom of the Cross and says that he doesn’t know Jesus anymore humanly.

The fact that the new knowledge (contemplation, light) that God is starting to give is new and very high makes us feel that it is not only different but like it leaves us speechless. Yes, true, but it doesn’t mean the mind is paralyzed. It is elevated to a new completely high way of functioning, to the point that the old way of dealing with spiritual things looks meaningless and low.

Please do continue expose yourself on a daily basis to the Scriptures and Contemplate the Word of God, preferably based on the daily readings of the Mass. What changes in fact in this transition period is the way you deal with the Scriptures, but not the fact that you have then to refrain from reading the Scriptures! Contemplation is not meditation. But the contemplation specific to Lectio Divina is different from the one typical of the Prayer of the Heart, it still involves the Scriptures.

During the times of suffering, you will feel more attracted to the Passion of the Lord, you will find light, help and support in it. Read, while praying and if a word or a verse catches your attention, do stop at it, ponder, pray, and let the Holy Spirit make this word or verse sink in. You will be attracted by the suffering prophets: David in his time of trial psalms, Jeremiah suffering persecution, Job losing everything, …

You might not feel abundance or pleasure during the time spent with Scriptures, but you will know that the verse or this or that word are nourishing you deeply. Dwell on them… like the hen on the egg to allow it to grow in you.

A more in-depths in LD and PH teaching and about the Purification Time would help I think. You find this in the teaching of the School of Mary, especially Foundational Course level 2.

Prayer of the Heart

Prayer of the Heart when we can’t meditate

While practising the Prayer of the Heart the change is felt also: incapacity to meditate, to imagine, to feel, to deal with “palpable” objects.

Quiet and silence of the mind/imagination/senses are important. It is by the gentle act of Faith that one connects better with God acting deep in us. At this junction, the gentle action of the Grace of God in us is so minute to our old perception that we can’t perceive it. All this is described by St. John of the Cross.

It is important to remain quite and not to try to use the old ways. Adapting our way of praying to the action of God, deep in us.

This is “Prayer of Quiet” one of the first types of supernatural ways of praying the Prayer of the Heart.

Prayer of the Heart when we can’t Pray

One can “use” Our Lady’s faith, by surrendering oneself to her, totally, allowing the Holy Spirit who acts in a very hidden way, to work with total freedom. From time to time one can say a short word to Our Lady, expressing this surrendering of oneself or asking for her help. Holding the Rosary in our hand as if we are holding her hand! Accepting to be poor like a little child, accepting to lose all that is not God in us…

Prayer becomes very difficult if not impossible. So it becomes reduced to a word, a cry, a shout… One can stay in front of the image of Jesus (the Holy Shroud or the Holy Face). In silence. Allowing God to work and accepting the darkness and accepting anything “negative” about us to appear.

Discovering our radical incapacity and sinfulness and accepting it is the fastest way to allow the action of the Holy Spirit.

He destroys the roots of our acts and habits. God only knows at this level what to do.

If the suffering is too intense one can put some Gregorian Chant, Psalms…

Essentially one needs to hold on to Our Lady, to her Faith: she believes for us… we just need to ask her to do so, and we know she does it.