The following post is by kind permission of Tony Nott, who recently presented it as part of a talk to the Formation and First Promise groups on highlights from the Interior Castle and a traditional method of mental prayer.
EXPLANATION OF THE METHOD
Under the seven numbered headings below, this method explains the elements of traditional methods of mental prayer that have been proposed or approved by various doctors of the church and saintly founders. It is a flexible method allowing for different elements or suggestions to be applied to any particular subject-matter that is chosen for the meditation.
In explaining this method, I will use the personal pronoun “I”, not as referring to myself but as referring to the person doing the meditation.
Please note, though, that this is not an actual meditation, but an explanation of a method. For a beginner who has never done a traditional meditation, it is most helpful on at least one occasion to be able to follow quietly while someone experienced in mental prayer does the chosen meditation aloud, while the person who is learning joins in by silently making the various acts. However, one can only experience the real benefits of meditation by then taking time to begin doing it daily by oneself.
(1) *PRESENCE OF GOD:
At the beginning of the meditation I make an act of the presence of God. This can be done in different ways. For example, I can imagine Him present with me (as indeed He is). Or I can remember a time in my life when I was keenly aware of God’s presence and remind myself that He is just as close now even though I cannot “feel” Him. Or I can simply make an act of faith in the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in my soul. If I pray in my room at home, a statue or a holy picture will sometimes help me to be recollected in His presence. If I am sitting quietly in a garden or walking in the bush, I can raise my mind from the beauty of nature to its Creator (who is my Creator too). If I enter a church to pray, I can greet Jesus really present in the Eucharist, saying with a living faith, “My Lord and my God”.
With time and practice, my meditation should become more and more permeated with a sense of the presence of God. (To highlight the importance of this first element, an asterisk has been placed against it.)
(2) REQUEST FOR GRACE:
With humility and confidence I ask for the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten my mind and inspire my will. I also ask for any particular grace that I seek from the meditation.
(3) MEMORY AND IMAGINATION:
I recall or read over again the subject-matter of the meditation. The subject-matter should usually have been prepared or selected before beginning the meditation. For example, before going to bed, I can spend a few minutes jotting down some points for my mediation the next morning.
Undoubtedly the Scriptures are the best source for meditation material. For anyone who wants to use a book of prepared meditations, an excellent work is by Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD, Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year. Or I can meditate on one of the many beautiful passages from the Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross, and marvel and praise God for the great love the divine Bridegroom has for the soul who is seeking Him.
If the subject-matter permits and if I am inclined to do so, I exercise my imagination to involve my interior senses, particularly of sight and hearing. For example, if I am meditating on a Gospel scene, I can imagine that I was present at the time, seeing and hearing what was occurring.
Although St Teresa had difficulty in using her imagination, she benefited from representing to herself our Lord during his Passion when he was alone in the garden or being scourged at the column, and she kept Him company there.
As the practice of meditation becomes more simplified, I might prefer to remain silently at the foot of the Cross in sympathy with Jesus who is suffering and dying for me, and in my imagination I can allow my tears of sorrow to mingle with the drops of His precious Blood.
(If at this stage I have already fruitfully spent most of the time of my meditation in contact with God by making one or more of the preceding acts that have immediately given rise to spontaneous affections of the kind in (5) below, then I need not come back to the considerations in (4), which I skipped over.)
(4) REASONING AND CONSIDERATIONS:
The purpose of meditation is different from mere intellectual study. The aim of the considerations is to stir up my affections towards God and divine things and to acquire convictions and good habits.
I reflect upon the subject-matter. I can exercise my intellect by asking questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How does this apply to me?
For example, if (as St Teresa liked to do) I am meditating upon Christ bound to the column, “it is well to reflect for a time and to think of the pains which He bore there, why He bore them, who He is that bore them and with what love he suffered them” (Life ch.13 n.22–Peers).
St Teresa says, “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love” (IC IV ch.1 n.7).
(5) WILL AND AFFECTIONS; *CONVERSATION:
From the above exercises, there should arise good movements and acts of the will or affective part of the soul, such as love of God and my neighbour, desire for heaven and eternal glory, zeal for the salvation and welfare of others (particularly those closest to me, my family), imitation of the life of our Lord, compassion, admiration, joy, fear of God’s displeasure, of judgment and of hell, hatred of sin, contrition for my bad life in the past, or confidence in the goodness and mercy of God.
During this part of the meditation I make prayers and petitions to God, asking for His graces, His lights, His pardon, His love. I tell Him of my desire to love and serve Him. Interiorly, I talk in my own words with the Father, with Jesus or with the Holy Spirit, as a friend to a Friend (John 15:15) or as the beloved to her Lover.
Sometimes I may prefer to be silent and listen, to perceive any inspirations or movements of grace through which God may be speaking to me, making me understand His mysteries, drawing me to Himself, and urging me on to good. “Be silent before this great God…the language He best hears is silent love” (St John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, n.132).
I may also have a conversation with the Blessed Virgin Mary or other Saints or my guardian angel.
Flowing from the considerations or affections, I make a practical resolution, to be carried out the same day. Rather than some grand resolution that might not be kept, it is better to choose something that can be easily done. (At the time of performing the resolution, it is desirable to recall, even for an instant, the spirit of the meditation that prompted me to make this resolution.)
Like a woman who picks a flower from a garden to inhale its perfume as she goes on her way, I may also sometimes select something from the garden of my meditation to remember throughout the day (St Francis de Sales calls this the “spiritual bouquet”).
I thank God for the good thoughts and affections. Even in times of aridity, I should still be grateful for the graces He has given me.
I entrust myself and all that I have received in the meditation to God or to the Blessed Virgin, asking for help to carry out the resolution and to always do the will of God. I also commend to God the souls of the faithful in purgatory, sinners, my parents, spouse, children, friends and those with whom I work, since St John Chrysostom says that nothing more clearly shows the love of a soul for Jesus Christ than her zeal in recommending her brethren to Him.
I end with an Our Father or a Hail Mary.
SIMPLYFYING THE METHOD
Although each of the elements of the above method come one after the other in my explanation, in practice they often overlap, and some of the elements may be omitted altogether. For example, the consideration of one of the points of the subject-matter of the meditation might stir up acts of the will or affections, and when the affections have ceased we can return to consider another point. There is no compulsion to work through all the parts of the method: for example, immediately after the act of the presence of God or after the exercise of the memory, we might be moved to make acts of the will and affections, and we should feel free to do so, as St Teresa and St Francis de Sales explain. Nor is there any need to pass from one affection to another when we are able to remain occupied with a single affection.
Above all, when it is a question of prayer, we should follow the attraction of grace. Anyone can practise mental prayer, even children when they are shown how. And we learn by doing. With practice, prayer becomes simpler. Once a person has found a helpful method, it would be generally advisable to remain with that method while benefit is derived from it or until our Lord points out a different path. A method of meditation should be used flexibly, as a means to an end, and it should be put aside when it is no longer of assistance.
Saint John of the Cross says that a person who has entered the road of contemplation towards union with God no longer has any modes or methods, still less is he attached to them. The person moves on in faith towards what in this life is essentially unknowable and unimaginable. However impressive one’s knowledge or feeling of God may be, that knowledge or feeling will have little or no resemblance to God. Nevertheless, St John of the Cross advises that as long as one can make a meditation and get satisfaction from it, one should not give it up.Persons in the early stages of contemplation may at times also return to a simplified form of meditation when the grace of contemplation does not appear to be present.
—Tony Nott, 20 July 2013