“Nonne militia est vita hominis super terram, et sicut dies mercennarii dies eius?”
—Job 7:1, Vulgate
The book of Job asks, “Is not the life of man on earth warfare, and are not his days like that of a hireling?” He seems to think that the answer is obvious, since the question is less a question than an affirmation of an undeniable fact; hence the enclitic particle -ne on the word non. Such a construction says, more or less, “Isn’t it so that . . . ?”
As undeniable as this may have been to Job, we worldlings run into some problems:
- Not all of us recognize the present warfare.
- Many do not know who the enemy is.
- And those of us who do know who the enemy is rarely know how to fight him.
When young people tell me about their struggles against sin (and quite a few not so young), the manner in which they recount their difficulties is quite revealing. First of all, they know what is a sin, and that’s helpful. In spite of the perverse indoctrination they receive from all sides (academia, entertainment, big tech, our present regime, etc.), they still have enough awareness of natural law and self to know to call sin out for what it is. That’s encouraging.
Nonetheless, without the aid of our patrimony of spiritual masters, of good confessors and spiritual directors, we all find it practically impossible to pierce the morass of our own hearts. Living too closely to ourselves, we often become oblivious to our own disordered attachments and the myriad of mixed intentions—often at odds with each other—all bundled together in one single act. Such is our condition even as an enemy of far superior intelligence and singular purpose goes to work on us in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes crass, and quite often unperceived.
Another element, not so helpful, in this struggle against sin is precisely that: we struggle against sin. A more fruitful and winning strategy is not so much to struggle against one’s own passions, attachments, the devil, and the spirit of the age—that sets us up for failure—but rather to orient our hearts, minds, and passions towards the Heart of our Redeemer.
Struggling against sin puts it at center stage. Seeking Christ and configuration with Him crowds out sin and places Him where He belongs: at the center. That puts us in a far better position on the battlefield.
We also experience competing loves, legitimate things in our lives that clamor for more attention than we ought to give them. As St. Augustine says, “They held me back from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you”(Confessions, VII, 10).
How do we achieve a heart emptied of self and our many false loves in order to be fully possessed by Christ?
St. John of the Cross says it begins with mental prayer: “For a better understanding of this beginner’s stage, it should be known that the practice of beginners is to meditate and make acts and discursive reflection with the imagination. Individuals in this state should be given matter for meditation and discursive reflection, and they should by themselves make interior acts and profit in spiritual things from the delight and satisfaction of the senses. For by being fed with the relish of spiritual things, the appetite is torn away from sensual things and weakened in regard to the things of the world” (Living Flame of Love,3, 32).
I remember sitting in class with Fr. Hardon in the mid-eighties when he said, “No mental prayer, no holiness. No mental prayer, no mental health.” This, perhaps, explains much of our own stunted spiritual growth, the self-imposed schizophrenia of sin, and madness of the world around us. If we don’t give Christ our entire attention and all our love in established times every day, allowing Him to fill our minds and hearts, to be the object of our desire and passions, we do in fact end up living out the entirety of our days as hirelings, sometimes struggling against sin, sometimes surrendering to it.
St. John of the Cross tells us that the fruit of mental prayer is a greater attachment to our Lord. Since we were given hearts in order to love and be loved, if we exercise them in loving union with Christ, our relationship with everything else becomes relativized. The effect the Heart of Christ has on our hearts is purifying. As He claims what is His in mental prayer, we begin to know Him better, and since to know Him is to love Him, we begin to be configured with Him. After a time, we begin to know our own hearts and what is contained there. Quite often, we discover some rather embarrassing and forgotten items we wouldn’t consider putting on display in a rummage sale.
A secondary effect of this loving relationship is that He crowds out unworthy loves and elevates legitimate loves. Rather than replacing our love for others, He purifies it so that it becomes the selfsame love, His love, for them operant in us. Such is the effect of mental prayer.
St. Teresa of Avila teaches us that there are nine grades of prayer. We all learned vocal prayers as children, the first grade of prayer. Mental prayer is the second grade. Were one to dedicate time to it every day, the subsequent grades of ascetical prayer (affective prayer and prayer of simplicity) follow. Alas, most never graduate to the second grade. On the other hand, I have no doubt that many people engage in mental prayer without knowing what it’s called. Once we have engaged in mental prayer with regularity, it begins to take a different shape. Since mental prayer plays an important role in defining our relationship with Christ, it ought not be static or fall into ossification. St. John of the Cross tells us in the same passage already cited:
But when the appetite has been fed somewhat and has become in a certain fashion accustomed to spiritual things and acquired some fortitude and constancy, God begins to wean the soul, as they say, and place it in the state of contemplation. This occurs in some persons after a very short time, especially with religious; in denying the things of the world more quickly, they accommodate their senses and appetites to God and pass on to the spirit in their activity, God thus working in them. This happens when the soul’s discursive acts and meditations cease, as well as its initial sensible satisfaction and fervor, and it is unable to practice discursive meditation as before or find any support for the senses. The sensory part is left in dryness because its riches are transferred to the spirit, which does not pertain to the senses.
This is an important element in the passage from hireling to faithful son and soldier. Our Lord uses the term hireling in less than favorable terms when comparing him to the Good Shepherd: the hireling establishes his own variable conditions, and eventually runs at the first sight of danger. The Good Shepherd and His faithful soldiers are dedicated to each other and are willing to pay the price for such a bond. If this is to become reality in our lives and it depends on mental prayer, how do we go about this?
That’s something we’ll look at next time.
The purpose of this blog is to make available the teachings of the great spiritual masters of our Tradition, culling insights from the “lived theology of the saints” as St. John Paul II called it in Novo Millennio Ineunte, to better understand the spiritual organism and apply the principles they impart. We will also consider aspects of spiritual combat, for it is the “the life of man,” as Job states. There will be nothing original here. My goal is to digest, distill, and transmit rules and guidelines for the spiritual life, challenging you as I am challenged by these sometimes daunting but liberating truths.