There is a distinction to be made at the outset that will throw a strong light upon the problem of thinking always of God. We must be on our guard to avoid confusing the act of prayer with the state of prayer. Further on we shall see in what consists the state of prayer.
An act of prayer may be either vocal or mental, according as it is formed of words recited by the lips, or is the inner cry of the soul expressed in formulated or unformu-lated transports of love, or in the silence of union with God. In these two cases, our thoughts are occupied or trying to be occupied with God.
Our acts of prayer are the moments when our thoughts are in loving union with God. The problem is this: can these moments of loving union with our Lord be brought so close together that they form one almost continuous chain of thought? More briefly: can my thoughts be absorbed without intermission with God? Is it possible to think of nothing but Him?
No. Here lies a double impediment. First, the practical impossibility: our daily duties involve a number of actions other than formulated acts of prayer. There may be a lesson to prepare, a lecture to give, some household task or work of charity to be attended to, or an engrossing intellectual study to be undertaken. And if it is true that it is very difficult to think of one thing while doing another, in most cases and for most people, an occupation, even when only external, absorbs all their energies, including those of the mind. This is due to our natural frailty.
We shall endeavor to show how a wise method can somewhat get over this obstacle, but the fact remains. Hemmed in as we are by the visible world of sense, it is only with difficulty that we can have even fragmentary relations with the invisible world. Man is created with a body and soul, and no one can ask of others or require of himself to lead a life of pure spirit.
To this practical difficulty is added another of a psychological character. Even if our occupations were reduced to the minimum, and if, as is the case with a contemplative vocation, we were able to spend a large portion of time in prayer, continuous prayers would still be impossible, for they would soon lead to grave mental derangement and complete powerlessness.
We are not archangels. Even the timetable of the contemplative orders is interspersed with occupations other than contemplative prayer. No one can be continually adding fresh prayers to his usual exercises. It is an illusion, then, to wish never to lose the recollection of God for one instant. Our mental powers are incapable of this.
Doubtless God can endow the soul with special faculties, so as to enable it to live always or nearly always with the thought or consciousness of His presence. In such a case, the ability to remain in the presence of God is not the normal result of our own efforts. It is the action of God, who delights in overwhelming the soul. He enfolds it in a recollection that is more or less impenetrable to outside disturbances. Mystical writers call this infused recollection, to distinguish it from that which is the result of our own efforts and is called acquired recollection. This recollection can progress from the simple mystical touch, which is temporary and often of very short duration, to a union that is continuous. In this case, recollection is permanent, suffering no eclipse of the beloved presence and its enjoyment.
At first, this may lead to moments of such entire absorption that the soul is more or less unfitted to take its place in its accustomed surroundings; that which is seen within is so different from the painted canvas of the outside world. But in the highest stage of union, the soul finds it can easily adjust its sense life to harmonize with its supernatural life; outwardly it behaves like everyone else, while keeping within perpetual contact with the Divine Master. It is bound and it is free, and all the freer for being bound to Him who is sovereign liberty, on whom it is entirely dependent.
The masters of the spiritual life are unanimous in recognizing that persons who are favored with this highest degree of union with God are rare. They are less in agreement over the question as to whether there are few or many who are endowed with periods of infused recollection. They are unanimous in reckoning that, in all probability, this infused power of recollection is unattainable by human means, and that none can claim it as a right, however great their efforts may have been. It is the opinion of some writers that if someone who is mentally adaptable and subject to no hindrances gives himself up to leading a prayerful and mortified life in as perfect a degree as possible, he will in fact reach the state of infused recollection, although it is in no sense his due. They declare that God is so desirous of giving Himself that whenever He finds one who is well disposed and detached, He will most certainly communicate Himself. Others question this statement. It is true that man was created for the vision of God, but that will be granted to him at the end of his earthly existence.
We walk by faith as wayfarers in this world. To say that every mortified soul is called upon to quit this life of faith and enter now into direct possession is to turn these persons into merely semiwayfarers. Another objection is that there are persons who have practiced detachment during the course of a long life, yet in spite of apparently being quite suitable, they have never experienced even the shadow of a mystical favor.
This is not the place to take part in a discussion of this sort. In every case, infused recollection, whether it be the outcome of acquired recollection or not, is in itself and by right independent of our own efforts, so that it is impossible to lay down technical rules concerning it, and still less to give any infallible advice as to how to prepare for it.
The Difficulty of Thinking of God Continuously
Acquired recollection is quite another thing. It depends entirely upon ourselves, aided, of course, by the grace of God, but grace of a usual character.
All the same, it is necessary to define the extent and limitations of the power of man over his imagination, senses, and thoughts. Man has direct control over his thoughts. We can think about what we like. But our authority over the imagination and senses is different. Here we have only indirect control. Mental pictures and reactions find their way in and work away within us without our assistance; indeed, often they are against us.
All we can do is place ourselves in a favorable environment amid peaceful conditions. But I cannot prevent that idea from crossing my brain. I may try to forbid the entrance of certain ideas into my mind, yet they will come in all the same, but at any rate I shall not have given them any assistance.
The imagination and feeling are a couple of giddy-pates. I may circumscribe their field of action, but to keep them entirely within bounds is impossible. At the very moment I am most anxious to be at peace, when saying my prayers or during some engrossing work, they worm their way in and sometimes take complete possession of my thoughts.
The conclusion to be drawn from these psychological truths is that the possibility of success in recollection is both very great and very small.
The possibility is small because our memory and imagination are incessantly trying to distract our attention in spite of us, and sometimes God only knows how they manage to do it. St. Jerome in the desert was tormented by the thought of Roman festivities; St. Antony by fantastic visions, which are depicted for us in sacred art.
The possibility is great, for do we not have the power at each moment of forcibly recalling some incident or idea to our mind, and above all, are we not our own masters, and able to drive away the proximate causes of distraction?
Every spiritual writer insists upon this point when speaking of the remote preparation for prayer.
If we madly throw ourselves into worldly, frivolous amusements and pleasures, even though they are quite harmless, we have no right to complain of remaining for long moments without thinking of God, and of spiritual dryness and dullness at prayer.
“I really tried to pray,” we say, “and I can do nothing. It is quite sufficient for me to kneel down for distractions to come tumbling into my mind immediately, like sparrows fluttering down to pick up crumbs, and for them to torment me without a second’s respite.”
But what about the crumbs you collected when you left your mind open to every form of distraction, idle conversations, frivolous books, and inquisitiveness? Naturally, once you were still, your imagination had full play with all these thoughts.
There is an art in keeping a watch over our thoughts, in clearing the brain, in sifting our impressions, and in getting rid of idle fancies. If every trivial thought can enter the mind as if it were a mill, and cast any rubbish it likes under the grindstone, whose fault is it that later on, instead of the homogeneous white flour of pure wheat, there is only worthless chaff?
As nothing can be really destroyed unless something else takes its place, so the difficulty is less how to drive away useless impressions and ideas from the mind and the imagination, than to suggest some profitable thoughts to these two faculties; we should try to live habitually with a number of holy impressions and ideas stored up in our minds.
Hence, we discover a curiously vicious circle. The best means of preserving habitual recollection is fidelity to prayer. The best condition for praying well is habitual recollection.
It is not without reason that St. Ignatius recommends that the man who wishes to pray well prepare the subject of his prayer on the preceding evening, so as to occupy his memory. Then he goes to rest with these thoughts in his mind; on waking, he will call to mind the subject matter of his meditation, prepared the evening before, and think quietly about it while dressing. This is the advice of one who was a master of asceticism and also an expert in psychology.
When the moment for prayer arrives, he recommends that if the person is alone, he shall not immediately kneel down, but remain standing some distance away and reflect upon the presence of God there in that room, then kiss the ground as an act of humiliation and so associate the body with the religious attitude of the mind.
This is the immediate preparation, which complete the remote preparation. It is easy to call these mere details; anyone who has really tried to meditate will readily allow that this is sensible advice. The Church has the same end in view when she tells us on entering church to take holy water and make the Sign of the Cross. Her aim is to impress upon the mind of the incomer the idea of the proximity of God. It is a great mistake to try to pray as some people do, immediately after leaving some absorbing work, without any interval, and then, as soon as they are on their knees, expect their mind to be at rest and divine thoughts to come flowing in.
Man is one complete whole; there are no water-tight compartments in him. Our whole self enters into every movement of our activity. It requires extraordinary agility of mind to be able to leave behind on the other side of the door everything that would be a hindrance to our devotions. Sometimes, in spite of our good intentions and determined efforts, it is impossible to control our thoughts during prayer. How much more likely is this to occur if the will has not foreseen and guarded against the approach of danger?
The practice of prayer, also, is the best preparation for a recollected life.
It is necessary to introduce into the mind a number of ideas and impressions that will be of use in prayer. Nothing will be of greater assistance than the fixed determination to come into close contact with God daily. To quote the words of the foundress of the Oblates of the Sacred Heart, Louise de Montaignac, “It is by accustoming ourselves to making acts of love at regular moments that we shall learn the good habit of being able to turn to God at all times.”
It is a foolish mistake to expect to lead a recollected life that is not also a life of prayer. The best method of learning to pray always is to pray whenever it is possible, and as well as is possible.