ON THE PRACTICE OF MEDITATION
Before entering on the practice and method of meditation, it will be well to establish its necessity. There are two things upon which this necessity is grounded: The first is pointed out by St. Augustine, where he says that he who keeps his eyes shut cannot possibly see either the way or the means of salvation. Eternal truths are spiritual, and cannot be discerned by the eyes of the body, but only by the eyes of the mind in thought and consideration. Now he who does not practice meditation does not consider, and consequently does not see, the importance of eternal salvation, nor the way he should follow to gain it. St. Bernard, writing to Pope Eugenius on this subject, says: "I fear for thee, Eugenius, lest the multitude of affairs, prayer and meditation being intermitted, should bring thee to a hard heart, which does not dread, because it does not know itself." To obtain salvation we must have tender hearts; that is, docile to receive the impressions of the divine inspirations, and prompt to put them in execution. It was this that Solomon asked for of God: "Give, therefore, to thy servant an understanding heart." (3 Kgs. 3:9). It is said in St. John that they who are of God listen to His voice and follow it: "And they shall all be taught of God. Everyone that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to me." (John 6:45). Our hearts are of themselves hard, because they are wholly inclined to carnal pleasures, and opposed to the laws of the spirit. They are softened by the influx of grace, and this is communicated to them by means of meditation, in which the soul, by considering the divine goodness and the great love which God has for it, and the immense benefits which He has conferred upon it, becomes inflamed, is softened and made obedient to the Divine calls, as David experienced, who said: "In my meditation a fire shall flame out." (Ps. 38:4). Without it the heart remains hard, obstinate, disobedient, and will be lost: "A hard heart shall fear evil at the last; and he that loveth danger shall perish in it." (Ecclus. 3:27). And remaining hard, it will be so unhappy as not to know that it is so; because the heart which does not meditate "does not dread, because it does not know itself." Because it is sensible of its defects and the impediments which they place in the way of salvation, hence it does not remove them, but soon loves them, and is thus lost.
St. Bernard, be it observed, was writing to a pope who had not, indeed, laid aside meditation (if he even sometimes intermitted it) on account of worldly concerns, but on account of affairs which all regarded the interests of the Church and the glory of God. This should be borne in mind, especially by priests, who, having greater obligations, stand in great need of Divine grace, and consequently of meditation, to obtain strength to discharge them; and not only by those who lay aside meditation to devote themselves to worldly affairs, but by those who neglect it to attend to spiritual works for the good of others, as to hear confessions, preach, or write.
Applicable to this, also, is what St. Teresa (Letter 8) wrote the Bishop of Osma, who, while he attended with great zeal to the salvation of his flock, paid little attention to meditation, from time to time relinquishing it. Hence the saint, having had a particular light, and probably even a revelation of such neglect on the part of this prelate, although he was her director, in order to promote his amendment, did not hesitate to admonish him of it, writing to him as follows: "Representing to Our Lord the graces which He had conferred on your Holiness, in making you humble, charitable, and zealous, I besought Him to give you an increase of all virtues, when He made known to me that your Holiness was wanting in that which is principally necessary (and, if the foundation be wanting, the work cannot stand, but must fall), namely, meditation: not persevering in it with fortitude, and thus interrupting that union, which is the unction of the Holy Spirit, from the want of which arises all that dryness and disunion which the soul experiences." And she adds: "Although it may appear to us that we are free from imperfections, yet, when God opens for us the eyes of the soul, as he is accustomed to do in meditation, we then indeed discover our imperfections." And this, in fact, is what the Holy Ghost declares, that for want of meditation the whole world is filled with sinners, and Hell with souls. "With desolation is all the land made desolate: because there is none that considereth in the heart." (Jer. 12:11).
The second fundamental and more weighty principle on which is grounded the necessity of meditation is that those who do not meditate do not pray, and thus lose their souls. The virtues of those who pray cannot be firm and persevering, because perseverance is only to be obtained by prayer, and by persevering player. Hence, those who pray not perseveringly will not persevere. It was on this account that St. Paul exhorted his disciples to pray always, without intermission: "Pray without ceasing." (1 Thess. 5:17). And for the same reason our Blessed Saviour "spoke a parable...that we ought always to pray, and not to faint." (Luke 18:1). Meditation, therefore, is morally necessary for the preservation of Divine grace in the soul. I say morally necessary, because, although the soul, strictly speaking, may, without the aid of meditation, continue in the state of grace, yet, if meditation be laid aside, it will be morally impossible, that is, very difficult, not to fall into grievous faults; and the reason is, what has just been said, that when a person does not meditate, being distracted with other affairs, he knows but little of his own wants, of his dangers, and of the means which he ought to adopt to escape them, and is but little sensible of the urgent necessity of prayer; and hence he neglects prayer, and by not praying is lost. The great Bishop Palafox, in his annotations of the above mentioned letter of St. Teresa, which he considers one of her most spiritual productions, says: "From this we, as prelates, ought to learn that neither zeal nor charity will suffice without meditation, because virtues unassisted by meditation are deficient, and we shall be lost. The reason is evident: How can charity continue to abide in us if God does not give us perseverance? How will He give us perseverance, if we do not ask it of Him? How shall we ask it of Him without meditation? How can this miracle take place (of obtaining perseverance without meditation), if the channel be wanting through which the Divine influence is conveyed to the soul, which is meditation? Without meditation there is no communication with God for the preservation of virtue; neither is there any other means, nor any other method, of obtaining good things from God."
Our Lord, on the other hand, admonishes us that he who dwells on eternal truths, on death, judgment, and a happy or miserable eternity which await us, will avoid sin: "Remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." (Ecclus. 7:40). Holy David declared that the consideration of eternity induced him to exercise himself in the practice of virtue, and to correct the imperfections of his soul: "I thought upon the days of old, and I had in my mind the eternal years, and I meditated in the night with my own heart, and I was exercised, and I swept my spirit." (Ps. 76:6-7). And if, says a pious author, it were to be asked of the damned, "Why are you now in Hell," the greater part of them would answer: "We are now in Hell because we did not think of Hell." It is impossible that he who calls to mind, in his spiritual exercises, the eternal truths, and attentively dwells upon them and believes them, should not be converted to God. St. Vincent de Paul said that if, during a mission, a sinner should perform all the spiritual exercises, and should not be converted, it would be a miracle, and yet he who preaches and speaks during such exercises is only man; but in meditation it is God who speaks: "I will lead her into solitude, and I will speak to her heart." (Osee 2:14).
Assuredly God speaks better and more powerfully than any preacher. All the saints have become saints by means of meditation; and experience shows us that those who practice meditation very seldom fall into mortal sin; and if they unfortunately do sometimes fall into it, they soon arise, by means of meditation, and return again to God. Meditation and sin cannot exist together. A servant of God observes that while many may say the Rosary, the office of the Blessed Virgin, exercise themselves in fasting, and still remain in sin, no one can give himself to meditation and continue an enemy of God; he must either renounce meditation or renounce sin. But if he renounce not meditation, he will renounce not only sin, but all affection to creatures, and give his whole heart to God: "In my meditation a fire shall flame out." (Ps. 38:4). Meditation is the furnace in which the soul is inflamed with Divine love. It is impossible to consider attentively the Divine bounty, how much God deserves our love, and the love which He has shown and still shows us, and not be inflamed with His love. The same Royal Prophet says that when he thought of God, and meditated on the wonderful works of His love for man, his heart was inflamed with the most ardent desire to please Him, and his soul rendered incapable of supporting the superabundant consolations with which Our Lord communicated Himself to him: "I remembered God, and was delighted, and was exercised, and my spirit swooned away." (Ps. 76:4). We come now to the practice.
The best place for meditation is the church or chapel; but where a person cannot avail himself of these, he may make his meditation at home or in the fields; he may even make it on the road, or at work, by fixing his mind on God. How many poor peasants, having no other opportunities, meditate well while they are at work, or journeying from place to place! He who seeks God finds Him in all places and at all times.
The best time for meditation is the morning. The duties of the day will go on very indifferently if a person neglects to make his meditation in the morning. Meditation ought properly to be made twice in the day, morning and evening; but when it can only be made once, it should be in the morning. The venerable Caraffa says that a fervent act of love, made during the morning meditation, is sufficient to keep the soul in a state of holy fervor during the whole day. As to the length of time which should be spent in meditation, a confessor or director will best regulate that by his experience and prudence. This, however, is certain, that half an hour is not sufficient for those who would attain a high degree of perfection. For those who are only beginning, half an hour may suffice; but, above all, they should not discontinue their meditations when visited by spiritual dryness.
We come now to the different parts of meditation, of which there are three: the preparation, the meditation itself, and the conclusion. The preparation consists of three acts: of faith in the presence of God, of humility, and of prayer for light and assistance. Say for the first: I believe that Thou art present, O God, and I adore Thee from the depth of my own nothingness. For the second: I have deserved Hell, O Lord, on account of my sins; I am sorry for having offended Thee; pardon me, I beseech, in Thy great mercy. For the third: O Eternal Father, for the love of Jesus Christ, and of Mary His Mother, enlighten me in this my meditation, and enable me to profit by it. Then say a "Hail Mary" to the ever blessed Virgin, to obtain this light, and a "Glory be to the Father" to St. Joseph, to your angel guardian, and to your patron saint. These acts should be made attentively, but briefly, and then pass on to the meditation.
For this, those who can read may make use of a book, and pause as soon as anything particularly strikes the mind. St. Francis de Sales says that in this we should imitate bees, which stay on a flower so long as it affords them honey, and then pass on to another. Those who do not know how to read may meditate on the four last things, the benefits and favors of God, and, above all, on the life and Passion of Jesus Christ; which last, St. Francis de Sales says, ought to be the ordinary subject of our meditations. Oh, what a delightful book for devout souls is the Passion of Jesus! In it we may read, better than in any other book, the malice of sin and the love of God for man. The venerable Brother Bernard, of Corlione, having asked our Blessed Saviour if it were pleasing to Him that he should learn to read, the crucifix before which he was kneeling answered: "To read what? What books? I am thy book; this is all that is necessary for thee."
The advantages of meditation consist not only, nor indeed so much, in dwelling seriously on divine truths as in exciting the affections, in praying and resolving: These are the three fruits of meditation. When, then, a person has meditated on some eternal maxim, and when God has spoken to his heart, he must then with his heart speak to God in affections, acts of faith, gratitude, adoration, humility, and above all, love and contrition, which last is also an act of love. Love is the golden bond which binds the soul to God. "Charity is the bond of perfection." (Col. 3:14). Every act of love is a treasure in which we are made partakers of the divine friendship: "An infinite treasure to men! which they that use, become the friends of God." (Wis. 7:14). "r love them that love me." (Prov. 8:17). "He that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father." (John 14:21). "Charity covereth a multitude of sins." (1 Pet. 4:8).
The venerable Sister Mary of the Cross saw a great fire, in which chaff was consumed as soon as it was thrown into it, by which she was given to understand that, in like manner, all the faults of the soul are done away with and destroyed by an act of Divine love. Moreover, St. Thomas teaches that every act of love acquires for us a degree of eternal glory. Now an act of love is: "My God, I love Thee above all things; I love Thee with my whole heart. I desire that all should love Thee." An act of resignation in all things to the Divine will is: "Make known to me, O Lord, what is pleasing to Thee, and I will willingly accomplish it." An act of oblation of ourselves to God is: "Behold me, and do with me and all things that belong to me what Thou wilt." These oblations of ourselves are so particularly pleasing to God that St. Teresa offered herself to Him fifty times in the day. The most perfect act of love is to delight in the infinite happiness of God. When the soul feels herself united to God by supernatural or infused recollection, she ought not to endeavor to exercise herself in any other acts but those to which she finds herself sweetly inclined by Almighty God, but should lovingly attend to what God works within her, that she may not oppose any obstacle to the Divine operations. If, as St. Francis de Sales advises, in the beginning of her meditation she finds herself inspired by the Holy Spirit with some pious affection, she ought to discontinue reflection, and give herself up to the course of her affections, since the object of meditation is to excite to affections, and hence, the end being obtained, the means should be discontinued.
In the second place, another very great advantage of meditation is its inducing us to pray to God, with humility and confidence, to enlighten us, to pardon us our sins, to grant us perseverance, a happy death, Heaven, and, above all, the gift of His holy love. St. Francis de Sales exhorts us to seek for Divine love before all other graces, because, as he observes, by obtaining love we obtain all. If, however, the soul, on account of spiritual dryness and desolation, cannot exercise herself in this manner, let her repeat that prayer of David: "incline unto my aid, O God! O Lord, make haste to help me!" The venerable Father Paul Segueri said that he had learned from experience that there is no exercise more advantageous in meditation than to pray again and again. We must pray in the name, or through the merits of Jesus Christ, who has promised us, as it has before been said: "Amen, amen I say to you, if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it to you. "
The third advantage to be derived from meditation is the forming (at least at the end of it) of some good resolution, not only in general, as to avoid all deliberate faults, even the slightest, and to give ourselves wholly to God, but also in particular, as to avoid with greater care some defect to which we may have been more subject, or to practice more diligently some virtue in which we may be called upon to exercise ourselves more frequently, or to bear with the annoyance of some disagreeable person, to obey more exactly a superior or a rule, to be more attentive in mortifying ourselves in some particular circumstances, and the like. We ought never to rise from meditation without making some particular resolution.
The last part of meditation is the conclusion, which should consist of three acts: First, we should thank God for the lights with which He has favored us; secondly, we should resolve to keep our good resolutions; thirdly, we should beseech the Eternal Father, for the love of Jesus and of Mary, to enable us to be faithful to them; and finish all by recommending to Him the souls in Purgatory, the prelates of the Church, sinners, and all our relations, friends, and benefactors, with an "Our Father" and a "Hail Mary," which are the most useful prayers taught us by Jesus Christ and His holy Church.
When we have finished our meditation, we should first, as St. Francis de Sales recommends, make a spiritual nosegay of flowers to smell at the rest of the day; that is, we should select one or two points on which we may have been more particularly affected, and recall them occasionally to our minds, to invigorate us in the discharge of all our duties. Secondly, we should endeavor to put our good resolutions in practice as soon as possible, as well on the trifling as on the great occasions which may present themselves: for example, to overcome with meekness anyone who may be angry with us; or to mortify ourselves in our seeing, hearing, or speaking. And we should be particular in preserving, by means of silence, as far as is possible, the sentiment of those affections which we have experienced; otherwise, if we immediately distract ourselves by useless words or actions, the fervor of devotion which we acquired in our meditation will soon be cooled and extinguished.
Lastly, and above all, we should be constant in meditation, and neither discontinue nor diminish it in time of spiritual dryness, although we should be in ever so great desolation, and that for a long time. How many courtiers, says St. Francis de Sales, come to pay homage to their prince, and are satisfied with being only seen by him! Let us go to meditation to wait on our God and to please Him; and if He be pleased to speak to us, and to favor us with His consolations, let us thank Him for His great goodness; if not, let us be content to remain peaceably in His Divine presence, adoring Him and exposing to Him our wants; and if the Lord should not then speak to us, He will certainly regard our attention and fidelity, and, according to our confidence, will hear our supplications.