The science of prayer (XLIX)

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

From the writings of Père Jérôme of Sept-Fons (Écrits monastiques, pp. 281-285)

My dear friend, you will pardon me for responding so tardily to your letter of last spring. Summertime in the monastery submerges us in material preoccupations; when I finished my daily duties, I went, by priority, before the tabernacle, leaving my correspondence for later. With autumn, our agricultural activities come to a complete halt. We also finished our annual retreat, preached by a Benedictine. Now, I can write to you at leisure; the note you sent me eight days ago was a discrete reminder to me.

You want me to speak to you about prayer! On this subject, I have only a few lessons which I have already given you and that I never stop repeating, I can repeat them for you again. . . . My dear friend, give yourself over to prayer. What is essential is that it be before the tabernacle. Ten minutes before the tabernacle is worth more, always and absolutely, than an hour of prayer in your room or outdoors. If you are very busy, go before the tabernacle for no more than seven or ten minutes on ordinary days, and set aside for yourself one day a week to give yourself over to a good hour of prayer.

How do you go about it then? Always begin, even for a very short time of prayer, by reading some passages from a book so as to recollect yourself more easily and leave behind what is profane. You have certainly begun to read the Holy Bible or several other books, as I indicated to you, and [from these] you have drawn some extracts capable of whetting your appetite for prayer each day. If this is so, begin always by reading, reading, and re-reading, so as to soak yourself in what you read and recollect yourself. With these pages that you hold in your hand, you must shelter yourself from worldly distractions or from the agitated thoughts that will undoubtedly assail your spirit.

When, thanks to what you have read, you are thus recollected and tranquil, look towards the tabernacle, or towards your crucifix, or towards some other representation of Our Lord, and repeat slowly a short prayer or invocation that you have composed for yourself, and that expresses your fundamental attitude before God. Acquire quickly four or five formulas of invocation from which you will choose the one that best suits you at the time, and this with the greatest liberty. Each of them expresses to God what is deepest in you, and because you repeat them frequently enough, you will grow to love them and find them easy. If you are sufficiently at peace—a peace that does not exclude cares or underlying preoccupations—from time to time interrupt your reading and this series of invocations for some instants of simple silence in the presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle. If you suffer fatigue or distraction, resume your reading in order to recover your recollection and strengthen you to take up your invocation again. In a quarter of an hour or, even better, in a half hour, the passage of these three moments of readings, invocations, and silences, may be repeated several times or only once. Have enough suppleness to alternate them or not, depending on the needs of each day.

There you have it: all the science of my prayer! It is quickly explained. And yet, to arrive at this, and to have the certainty, at once speculative and practical, that there is no other real method, and that all souls truly united to God go about it in this way, it took me twenty years of practice and a huge amount of reading.

I know well that this repetition of an invocation, always the same one—even if you have three or four that are interchangeable—frightens some souls; they are afraid of monotony and of the increasing poverty of a formula that doesn’t vary. In reality, the opposite takes place; after some time of perseverance, one perceives that, as one repeats the formula, new layers of meaning come to enrich it. In any case, it is impossible to avoid an impression of monotony in prayer without giving up on prayer altogether. One cannot call upon an invisible God and tell him our needs, which are always the same, without monotony. At least, in practicing prayer by means of the repetition of a formula, the force that the formula acquires little by little, and the ease and promptness with which the mind takes it up, outweigh the effect of the monotony. With Ignatian prayer, this weight of monotony is even heavier! ( . . .) There you have it! You will, without doubt, find in these lines certain points that will clarify or give direction to what you already know. . . . I pray for you by name each day.

In another letter

( . . . ) When it comes to reading about the love of God, his goodness, his greatness, nothing can equal Holy Scripture . . . . Here again, copy out the passages that answer your need. Do not disdain this poor and lowly means; it is the means of one who is poor and lowly. Like the practice of the invocation or of ejaculatory prayer, it is sufficient to introduce one into the way of contemplation and to make progress in it.

To occupy your times of prayer spent in church, for pity’s sake, do not meditate! To meditate, that is, to reflect on a truth, to apply it to one’s personal situation, to develop it, to make dissertations on it . . . leave aside these burdensome tasks once and for all. For a soul consecrated to God, here is the way to follow: begin by reading gently a passage that you have copied out; for example those to which I drew your attention concerning invocations, or verses of Scripture that you will have chosen and that you have strung together, etc. Take what pleases you, and for this reason alone—that it pleases you—and go in the direction of your desire to pray. Here is the essential point: this reading must not launch you into reflections and ideas, but only withdraw you from extraneous preoccupations, and whet your appetite for prayer. After about ten minutes, more or less, when you find yourself recollected and drawn by the desire to pray, make an invocation in the direction of Our Lord in the tabernacle. Do this many times over, slowly, using your rosary beads, with little silences in between. If this comes easily, continue doing it until the end of your time of prayer. If distractions come, or if you are bored, or fatigued, pick up the reading of one or another of your passages again, until you recover your recollection and your appetite for prayer easily. Then, return to the repetition of your invocations, and so forth.

All of this is but the baby steps of the art! And, all the same, every progress in divine intimacy is possible, without ever needing to change one’s way of going about it. Persevere with suppleness! I shall pray each day that God will admit you into the immense family of the truly contemplative souls who live from this doctrine. This family is immense! And yet, when one thinks of the needs of the Church, it is still not very numerous. With regard to other traditional prayers, do not load yourself down: a few decades of the rosary, and do not have scruples over not being able to finish them. Take your rosary in hand frequently, and use it to say invocations, either the usual ones, or other special ones addressed to the Blessed Virgin. Say your Aves in half, using the first part if your desire is to praise Mary, and the second half if it is to implore her, etc.