« Prev Chapter I. The degrees of Prayer Next »


§§ 1, 2. 3. Several degrees and stations in an internal life; as the three ways, Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive.

§§ 4, 5. They are best distinguished according to the three degrees of internal prayer.

§§ 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. The grounds of the several degrees of prayer.

§§ 16, 17. How God is represented in the said degrees.

§§ 18, 19. How the operations of the soul grow more and more pure.

§§ 20, 21. The degrees of prayer are not so diverse but that sometimes they may be intermixed.

§§ 22, 23, 24. In what sense the exercises of an active life (to wit, meditation) are divided into three ways also, purgative, illuminative, unitive.

1. It is generally the custom of those that write treatises of spiritual doctrine to begin with a division of the several stations or ascents observed in the duties and exercises thereof, but such a division I have conceived most proper to be reserved to this place; and the reason is, because though in a spiritual progress there be an ascent in the practice of all duties universally of a spiritual life, as well of mortification as prayer, notwithstanding the true judgment of a progress is to be made with reference principally to prayer, according to the increase in the purity and spirituality whereof so is the person to be esteemed to have made a proportionable progress in all other duties and virtues disposing to contemplation and perfection.

2. Now several mystic authors, according to the several 396notions that they had both of the end of a spiritual life and means conducing thereto, have by several terms made the division of its degrees. The most ancient division is into three states: 1. of beginners; 2. of proficients; 3. of such as are perfect. Yet withal they do not signify by what distinctive marks each of these states are separated from the others; but generally, in latter times, the whole course of a spiritual life is divided: 1. into the Purgative way, in which all sinful defects are purged out of the soul; 2. the Illuminative way, by which divine virtues and graces are introduced; 3. the Unitive way, by which a soul attains unto the end of all other exercises, to wit, an union with God in spirit by perfect charity.

3. Besides these many other divisions may be found, as of F. Benet Canfield, who, making the Divine Will (that is, God Himself) the sole object of all our exercises, doth by a division of the said Will into: 1. external; 2. internal; 3. essential or supereminent Will, virtually divide all spiritual exercises into such as are proper and conformable to these three notions of one and the same Will. Again, others divide all exercises into: 1. active; 2. contemplative, &c.; and it is of no importance which of these divisions is made use of so they be rightly understood.

4. But since, as hath been said, the degrees of perfection generally understood as relating to all the duties of an internal life are best conceived and measured by the degrees of internal prayer, which, indeed, are of a different nature one from the other, and therefore are not so properly called degrees, as several states of prayer (which is not so in mortification or the exercise of virtues, because the perfect do the same actions, though in a more perfect degree than the imperfect); hence it is that R. F. Constantine Barbanson, the most learned and experienced author of the book called Secrets Sentiers de l'Amour Divin, divides the whole progress of a spiritual contemplative life according to the progress of prayer, which (saith he) hath these degrees: 1. The exercises of the understanding in meditation. 2. The exercises of the will and affections without meditation (which at the first are very imperfect). 3. Afterward a soul 397comes to an experimental perception of the divine presence in her. 4 Then follows the great desolation. 5. This being past, there succeeds a sublime manifestation of God in the summity of the spirit. 6. From thence, after many interchangeable risings and fallings (which are found likewise in all the degrees), the soul enters into the divine yet most secret ways of perfection.

5. Now this order of his in gross (as being most natural and suitable both to reason and experience) my purpose is to follow, yet so as to collect the four last degrees into one, so that I shall only distinguish three degrees of prayer, to wit: 1. Discoursive prayer or meditation. 2. The prayer of forced immediate acts or affections of the will, without discourse preparatory thereto. 3. The prayer of pure active contemplation or aspirations, as it were naturally and without any force flowing from the soul, powerfully and immediately directed and moved by the Holy Spirit. Now this third degree, to which the prayer belonging is, indeed, truly the prayer of contemplation, beyond which there is no state of prayer, may very conveniently include all the four degrees mentioned by Barbanson, and so nicely distinguished by him; rather out of a particular experience of the effects passing in his own soul, which, perhaps, are not the same in all (for God works according to His own good pleasure in the souls of His perfect servants, and not according to any methods that man can conceive or express).

6. These, therefore, being the three degrees of internal prayer (which do most properly answer to the commonly assigned ways of spirituality, the purgative, illuminative, and unitive), of them the first is a prayer consisting much of discourse of the understanding; the other two are prayers of the will, but most principally and purely the last. Of these three I shall treat in order in the following discourse (to wit: 1. in pursuit of this second section of the most imperfect degree, to wit, meditation; 2. in the following section of the prayer of immediate acts of the will; 3. and in the last section of the prayer of aspirations or contemplation); but before I come to treat of each in particular, I conceive it requisite first to show the grounds upon which the propriety and reasonableness of this division of the 398succeeding degrees of prayer is built, and it may be evidently and convincingly demonstrated so far, that according to the dispensation of divine grace to souls that tend to perfection, it may be affirmed that they are conducted by these degrees in this order, and no other way; and this experience will make good even in souls that never heard of any degrees of prayer, but, without learning, reading, or instructions, are immediately guided by God’s Holy Spirit in His internal ways. The reason hereof will appear by that which follows.

7. First, therefore, it is apparent and acknowledged that, generally speaking, a soul from a state of negligence and secularity first entering into a spiritual course, though she be supposed, by virtue of that grace by which she is moved to make so great and happy a change, to be really in the state of justification, yet there still remains in her a great measure of fear, conceived from the guilt of her former sins; and withal, strong inclinations to sin and vicious habits do yet abide, and will do so, till by long practice of virtue and piety they be abated and expelled. Moreover, a world of vain and sinful images do possess the soul, which distract her whensoever she sets her mind on God, calling on her to attend to her formerly pleasing objects, which took up all her affections, and which do still ofttimes insinuate themselves into her memory with too much contentment to inferior nature, which contentment, though she, upon reflection, do resist and renounce with her superior soul, yet this resistance is ofttimes so feeble, that frequently she is really entangled and seduced, and more oft does find ground to doubt that she has given consent thereto.

8. Such being ordinarily the disordered condition of a soul at her first conversion, the remedy acknowledged to be proper and necessary for her is prayer, and the highest degree of prayer that for the present she is capable of is either a much distracted vocal prayer or discoursive meditation, in which the understanding and imagination are chiefly employed; and the reason is, because although God hath imprinted true charity in such a soul, yet seducing images so abounding, and vicious affections being as yet so predominant in sensitive nature, there is a 399necessity for the fortifying it to chase away the said images and subdue such affections, by storing the imagination with contrary good images, and setting on work affections contrary to these; and this is done by inventing arguments and motives (especially of fear). So that the exercises proper to a soul in this first imperfect state are those of sensible contrition and remorse for sin, &c., caused by the consideration of the foulness of it; of the misery that attends it; the certainty and uncertainty of death; the terrors of God’s judgments; the horror of hell, &c., as likewise a consideration that no less a price would serve for the reparation of a soul from sin, than the bloody Passion of the Son of God, &c. Such matters as these are now the seasonable subjects of meditation; and the actions of mortification fit to attend such prayer are more sensible, gross, and exterior, proper to repress her grosser defects.

9. Now when by means of such exercises the soul is become well eased from remorse, and begins to be moved to the resistance and hatred of sin by the love of God rather than fear of His judgments, her discoursive prayer for all that does not cease, but there is a change made only in the objects of it, because, instead of the consideration of judgment, hell, &c., the soul finds herself more inclined to resist sin by the motives of love, or a consideration of the charity, patience, and sufferings of our Lord, as likewise out of a comfortable meditation of the future joys promised and prepared for her. Although charity be much increased, yet not yet to such a point but that she stands in need of motives and considerations to set it on work, as likewise of good, holy, and efficacious images of divine things to allure her to forget or neglect the vain images that yet do much distract her. The object of her thoughts now are the infinite joys of heaven, the sublime mysteries of faith, the blessed Humanity of our Lord, the glorious attributes of the Divinity, &c., and the mortifications answerable to the present state do grow more internal, being much exercised about inward defects, which by prayer are discovered to her and corrected. Now a soul whilst she continues in this sort of prayer and mortification, standing in need of a much and frequent consideration of 400motives, is properly said to be in the purgative way, though toward the latter end there be a mixture of the illuminative.

10. In the second place, when a soul by perseverance in such discoursive prayer comes to find (as in time she will) that she stands in less need of inventing motives to induce her to exercise love to God, because good affections by exercise abounding and growing ripe do with facility move themselves, so that the mere presenting of a good object to the soul suffices to make her produce a good affection; thenceforward, by little and little, the soul in prayer quits discoursing, and the will immediately stirs itself towards God, and here (meditation ending) the second and more perfect degree or state of internal prayer begins, to wit, the prayer of immediate acts of the will.

11. Now a soul living a solitary or abstracted life, and being arrived to this prayer, if she should be obliged by others, or force herself to continue meditation, she would make no progress at all, yea, on the contrary, the extreme painfulness of inventing motives (now unnecessary) and tying herself to methods and prescribed forms would be to her so distractive, so void of all taste and comfort, and so insupportable, that not being suffered to follow God’s invitation calling to an exercise of the will, she will be in danger to give quite over all internal prayer; whereas, by pursuing God’s call, she will every day get light to discover more and more her secret inward defects, and grace to mortify and amend them; and such her mortification is exercised rather by transcending and forgetting the objects of her inordinate affections than a direct combating against them; and this state of prayer doth properly answer to that which is commonly called the illuminative way, because in it the soul with little reflection on herself or her own obscurity, by reason of sin, &c., tends directly and immediately to God, by whom she is enlightened and adorned with all virtues and graces.

12. In the third place, a soul after a long exercise in forced affections of the will to God, represented to the understanding by images far more subtle and spiritual than formerly, yea, endeavouring to contemplate Him in the darkness and obscurity of a blind and naked faith, void of all distinct and express 401images, will by little and little grow so well disposed to Him, that she will have less need of forcing herself to produce good affections to Him, or of prescribing to herself determinate forms of acts or affections; on the contrary, divine love will become so firmly established in the soul, so wholly and only filling and possessing it, that it will become, as it were, a new soul unto the soul, as constantly breathing forth fervorous acts of love, and as naturally almost as the lungs do send forth breath.

13. And here begins the state of pure contemplation (the end of all exercises of an internal life). In this blessed state the actuations and aspirations are so pure and spiritual, that the soul herself oftentimes is not able to give an account what she does; and no wonder, since they do not proceed from any forethought or election of her own, but are suggested to her by the Divine Spirit entirely possessing her; and although in these most sublime and blind elevations of the will, the imagination and understanding with their images are not absolutely excluded, yet so imperceptible are their operations, that it is no wonder if many mystical writers, speaking according to what they felt and experienced in themselves, have said that in pure contemplation the will without the understanding was only operative. As for the mortifications proper to this state, they are as inexpressible as the prayer; indeed, prayer and mortification seem to be now become the same thing, for the light in which the soul walks is so clear and wonderful, that the smallest imperfections are clearly discovered, and by prayer alone mortified. Prayer is the whole business of the life, interrupted by sleep only, and not always then neither; true it is that by other necessities of corporal nature, refections, study, conversation, or business, it may be depressed a little from the height in which it is when the soul sets itself to attend to God only; but still it continues with efficacy in the midst of all those avocations. And this is truly and properly that which mystics do style the unitive way, because herein the soul is in a continual union in spirit with God, having transcended all creatures and herself too, which are become as it were annihilated, and God is all in all.

14. There is no state of spirituality beyond this, but yet this 402state may infinitely increase in degrees of purity, the operations of the soul growing more and more spiritual in time, and divine without all limitation. In this state it is that the soul is prepared for divine inaction, passive unions and graces most admirable and most efficacious to purify her as perfectly as in the condition of this life she is capable. Now it is that God provides for souls dearly beloved by Him trials and desolations incomprehensible to the inexperienced, leading them from light to darkness, and from thence to light again; in all which changes the soul keeps herself in the same equality and tranquillity, as knowing that by them all she approaches nearer and nearer to God, plunging herself more and more profoundly in Him. A soul that is come to this state is above all instructors and instructions, a divine light being her guide in all manner of things; in a word, it is not she that now lives, but Christ and His Holy Spirit that lives, reigns, and operates in her.

l5. These are the three states of a spiritual contemplative life, distinguished according to the three states or degrees of internal prayer. As for vocal prayer, it is not to be esteemed a peculiar degree of prayer; but it may and doth accompany all these states without any change in the substance of the prayer, though with very great variety in the actuation of the soul during its exercise; for whilst the soul is in the imperfect degree of meditation, she performs her vocal prayer with the use of grosser images and much distractedness; but being arrived to the exercises of the will, she recites them with less multiplicity and some good measure of recollection, and being in the exercise of aspirations, her vocal prayers become likewise aspirative and unitive, not at all distracting her, but rather driving her more profoundly and intimately into God.

16. Now God being both the principle and object of all our internal exercises is, after several ways, represented to the mind in them; for, 1. In meditation the soul, as yet much immersed in sense, is forced to make use of a distinct grosser image by which to apprehend Him, as the Humanity of our Lord and the mysteries belonging thereto, and sometimes such attributes of the Divinity as are most obvious and easy to be conceived, and 403which do produce more sensible motions in our imperfect souls, as His justice, mercy, power, &c. 2. But in the practice of the acts of the will, the understanding endeavours to apprehend God in the obscure notion of faith; and when she is sometimes forced to make use of more particular sensible images, the mind, after a short reflection on them, gives place to the recollected actuations of the will alone. 3. But being arrived to aspirations (which is active contemplation) the soul makes use of no particular express images at all, but contents herself with the only general obscure notion of God which faith teaches her.

17. Now though it may seem that the most perfect have no great advantage in this regard over the more imperfect, since all that are imbued with ordinary knowledge do sufficiently believe and are assured that God, being infinite and incomprehensible, cannot be truly represented by any particular images and notions which are creatures of our own framing, notwithstanding we are to consider that there is a great difference between the acknowledging of this truth in the speculative judgment, and the operating according to such a truth by the will; for imperfect souls, notwithstanding the foresaid judgment, when they are to apply themselves to prayer, are forced in practice to contradict such their speculative judgment, and to represent God to their minds not only by particular and distinct, but even grosser sensible images, because they find that the said true and perfect notion of God by a general, negative, obscure conception of faith, will have little or no efficacy on their wills, the which will remain arid and void of all good affections, except they exchange the said notion for others more particular and express. Whereas, on the contrary, perfect souls having by long practice purified their internal operations, in time do come to such a state that they cannot, if they would, receive benefit, or warm their affections by sensible or particular images; except they do silence not only the imagination but understanding also, the will remains without motion or vigour; yea, in the particular case of the great desolation, the elevations of the will also become so wonderfully pure, delicate, and even imperceptible, that the soul itself can scarce perceive or so much as believe that she 404operates towards God, insomuch as, on the contrary, she is oft perplexed with great fear and doubt that in truth she does not love God.

18. Now the foresaid division of the three states of prayer, together with the successive purification and spiritualizing of images, is so grounded on reason and even nature, that every one that experiences prayer will perceive it, and others cannot except against it. For as we see in all arts and sciences, as (for example) music or poetry, a person that sets himself to learn them is at the first obliged to make use of a world of gross distinct images, the which he applies particularly and leisurely to every string, every stop, and every finger moving the instrument, as likewise to every word and syllable in a verse; but by exercise having attained to a moderate skill, a far less number of images will serve to direct him; and the reason is because the images, by practice, becoming more pure and spiritual, are, by consequence, more universal, so that one will come to have the virtue of a great number which formerly were requisite; and at last the person becoming perfect in those arts will be able to make a verse exact, according to the rules of poetry, without any perceptible reflection upon any particular rules, and to play on an instrument not only in the dark, but even whilst he is conversing with another, by reason that the images are become so pure and universal, that the person using them perceives them not, neither knows by what he is directed.

19. Now if the operation of a soul in natural sensible things may come to be so pure and subtle, much more in spiritual and divine matters, in exercising about which her endeavours ought to be to exclude all manner both of sensible and intellectual images, or rather in exercising about which the will alone strives to be operative.

20. Notwithstanding what hath been said of the distinction of these three ways of a contemplative life, we are to observe that they are not so absolutely distinguished but that sometimes there may be a mixture of them; for it may happen that a soul, being as yet in the most imperfect purgative way, may in some fits be so abundantly supplied with grace, as that during the 405exercise of meditation she may oft be enabled to produce immediate acts of the will, yea, and perhaps aspirations too, so joining together exercises both purgative, illuminative, and unitive in one recollection; yea, it may be possible for such an imperfect beginner to spend the whole time of a recollection in those nobler exercises; but yet when such grace and devotion (which ordinarily lasts not long) does come to cease, she will be forced to return to her imperfect exercise of meditation; or, if out of an aversion from descending lower, she will needs stick to those higher exercises (which to her are but temporary), she will, by means of aridity and indevotion, lose all the fruit of her recollections, which will indeed become insupportable to her.

21. So, on the other side, it may well happen that a soul that is ascended to the exercise of immediate acts, may sometimes for some short space find it necessary for her to help herself now and then, by using meditation and seeking motives in the understanding to move her affections. Therefore these three states are to be distinguished and separated with relation to the proper and constant exercises of souls.

22. Before we quit the present subject of the degrees of prayer and a spiritual life, it is, for the preventing of mistakes, to be observed that those writers likewise which teach and know no more sublime exercises than meditation do, notwithstanding, divide the whole course of their spirituality also into these three exercises of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way, although the perfection both of their doctrine and practice reaches no further than the active life which they profess, as we may see in the books of De Ponte, Rodriguez, &c., to which we may add Louis of Granada also, &c.

23. But these three ways of active livers, though agreeing in name with the forementioned mystic exercises, yet are much different in their nature and qualities; for all the said three ways are exercised by the help and with the use of discourse, and do never arise to the exclusion of particular sensible images, so that the perfection of their exercise is to discourse with more subtlety, and from such discourse to derive and draw more fervent affections and good purposes of the will. Further than this active 406exercisers cannot go, because their life does not afford the leisure, freedom, and vacancy from external businesses which is necessary for enabling souls to contemplative exercises, which begin with those that I call proper aspirations, arising upon the expiration of imaginative exercises, as being the perfection of them.

24. And, indeed, if active livers should proceed further, they would then relinquish their institute, that refers all the doings of it to the exterior, which cannot be without the use and help of particular images, so that the forementioned general image of God, or rather non-image, is not at all proper for their course. They do not, therefore, ordain these their external imaginative exercises in order to contemplation, but only to enable them to perform their external deeds of charity with greater perfection and purity of intention. As therefore they do not themselves practise contemplation, so neither do they teach it to others, nor indeed can they, for want of experience.

« Prev Chapter I. The degrees of Prayer Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection