CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
Wednesday and Thursday of the First Week of Lent
In these days, then, let us add some thing to our wonted service; as private prayers, and abstinence from food and drink, so that every one of his own will may offer to God, with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure appointed him.
I want to say a few things about the way of prayer set forth by Père Jérôme of Sept-Fons. First of all, Père Jérôme’s teaching on prayer is in direct continuity with the ancient monastic doctrine on prayer beginning, notably with Saint Cassian and with Evagrius Ponticus, and going through Saint Gregory the Great, John of Fécamp, Saint Anselm, Saint Bernard and the Twelfth Century Cistercians, the Venerable Abbot Blosius . . . and right up to Blessed Abbot Marmion. What characterises this way of praying? It’s theological character. Now, you may say, “But, Father Prior, isn’t all prayer theological.” Yes, in one way or another. What I mean is best understood in reference to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Why are they called theological? Are not all virtues theological insofar as they refer to God and are the fruits of divine grace? Yes, in one way or another. But the theological virtues are so called, if we follow Saint Thomas on this question, “because they have God for their object, both in so far as by them we are properly directed to Him, and because they are infused into our souls by God alone, as also, finally, because we come to know of them only by Divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures” (Summa I:II, q.62, art.1).
The way of prayer that Père Jérôme teaches has God as its object. “But, Father Prior, does not all prayer have God as its object.” Yes, either directly or indirectly. There is a kind of intermediate prayer, often called meditation by the modern schools of piety, that focuses not directly God, but on producing thoughts about God, or movements of affection towards God, or resolutions of the will ordered to God. In such prayer, there is always the danger of being caught up in a certain fascination with oneself, in the analysis of one’s thoughts, emotions, motives, and inclinations. In such a prayer, one can become bogged down in self, and so retarded in flying, like an arrow shot out of the bow, straight to its target. This simple theological prayer, expressed in the repetition of a simple invocation, in moments of adoring silence, and in loving glances towards the tabernacle, is properly speaking contemplative, and therefore, best suited to enclosed monks.
There is one another constant in Père Jérôme’s teaching on prayer: it is the absolute preference that he gives to prayer in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament, over prayer in any other place. Père Jérôme says that “ten minutes before the tabernacle is worth more, always and absolutely, than an hour of prayer in one’s room or elsewhere.” Why is this so? Because in praying before the Most Blessed Sacrament, one is close to the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, from which radiates the power of His divinity, even as we read in the Gospel, Quia virtus de illo exibat, et sanabat omnes. “For virtue went out from him, and healed all” (Luke 6:19).
From a letter of Père Jérôme to a seminarian of Autun (4 November 1959):
You ask me questions about the interior life. Very well. Nothing is more important than this, for a priest as for a layman. Take care not to overload your prayer. Don’t complicate it, based on what I said to you. Do not forget the supreme law: do what works best for you. When one is beginning, one always has a tendency to drown oneself in the details. Do not be too meticulous.
As for the invocations . . . let yourself be guided by your personal attraction. You must not torment yourself trying to enumerate for God all the details of what you desire. For example, if you want to ask for good health for your companions, it is useless to say to God: “Preserve them from the grippe, and from the measles, and from scarlet fever, and also from leukemia, and from tuberculosis, and from the whooping cough, and also from cholera, from the plague, and from smallpox.” No! Simply say to God” “Give them health!” Simplify. Do not complicate.
Do things without beating around the bush, and without narrowness. Apply yourself to praying every day in a way that is real and deep, sometimes a little more, and at other times a little less, according to your circumstances and possibilities. One must put up with circumstances about which one can do nothing. . . .
With regard to the differences in advice given by your various confessors, the one you have just chosen will certainly have something to teach you. It is up to you to recognise just what his strong point is and to take from it whatever you can. But do not get into other questions, and keep your own personality. You already have a formation in the interior life; if your new director doesn’t understand it, then don’t speak of it, and stay your course. This counsel, though it seems revolutionary and contrary to obedience, is, in reality, the baby steps of the art. Even in a religious Order, the religious who wants to seek God seriously acts in this way. Take my case: I have already seen here at Sept-Fons, three Fathers Abbot, eight Fathers Master, nine Priors, and I am onto my fourth confessor! If I had to follow the spirituality . . . or the fancies of each one, what a ride it would have been! No, I had one Master, Dom Bélorgey, in whom I recognised an intimate vocation similar to my own; from the others I asked for what they were capable of giving me, no more than a partial and passing help. Otherwise one would spend one’s life demolishing and rebuilding. I say this only for those who have received a veritable initial formation, not for those who formed themselves or who make a body of doctrine out of their own opinion. . . .