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Letter V.—Distractions in Prayer.

To Sister Marie-Henriette de Bousmard. On weakness and distractions (1734).


My dear Sister,

1st. Do not regret the consolations and sensible devotion that God gave you formerly, and has now taken away. With the consolations that you experienced were mingled a thousand imperfections. It is true that by the very fact that these consolations were felt they were extremely pleasant to nature which always desires to see, know, and feel; but the more according to nature is the state, the less is it adapted for the requirements of divine love. This is the reason that God quickly withdraws a soul from this state; and the more quickly, the more faithfully it responds to His grace. If He did not act towards us, in this respect, with a fatherly strictness, we should always remain feeble, subject to all sorts of defects, and incapable of protecting ourselves against the allurements and illusions of self-love. The soul that has not been enlightened and set free by trials, indulges, almost without perceiving it, in continual self-examinations, and makes its satisfaction and peace depend on feelings, the most unstable things in the world; if it loves God, it is not only for Himself but much more on account of the consolations it expects from Him, and it remains in a vain self-satisfaction occasioned by the spiritual riches it supposes itself to possess, and God grant that it may not end by worshipping its own imaginary excellence. However, even if the soul avoids this criminal excess, it is to be greatly feared, that being full of itself it remains empty of God. Rather than expose the souls that He loves with a love of predilection to such a fearful 224misfortune, God sends them all sorts of trials. He strikes them, humiliates them and makes them contemptible in their own eyes. But how superabundantly does He not compensate those who remain faithful during trials, for the privations they have endured! When, by a complete destruction of one’s whole spiritual fortune, one finds oneself reduced to nothing, then one suddenly discovers that one has neither vanity, presumption, nor self-esteem, but is filled with distrust, humility, confidence in God and love for Him; and this love is then absolutely pure because self-love has nothing to lean upon, and, consequently, nothing to become attached to, or to corrupt. Therefore I set more value on your present poverty than on all those former beautiful feelings that seemed to you so perfectly pure, but of which your self-love secretly made its most delicious pasture.

2nd. It seems, sometimes, as if one had neither faith, hope, nor charity, and as if one were without religion, without any virtue, as if one had lost all knowledge of God. This happens when He is pleased to withdraw all delight, all unction, and all that is sensible to make it reside in the essence of the soul, and to enable it to advance by the practice of pure faith. Then it is that God is served and adored in spirit and in truth, as Jesus Christ said to the woman of Samaria. This state is even further removed from the senses, and is, therefore, more valuable, higher, more purified and more solid. In it can the pure delights of the spirit be enjoyed; but this is only to be attained by the privation of all sensible pleasure, a sensible devotion can only be enjoyed by the privation of sensual and earthly pleasure. In this state, however, there is always peace, because the soul is then established in God and feels just as you feel; I mean a secret and hidden power proceeding from the inmost presence of God, and this support, imperceptible though it is, makes a soul stronger than when it believed itself ready to endure martyrdom. So remain in peace, and bless God.

3rd. As for the innumerable acts of offering, resignation, etc., without doubt they are suitable for beginners to form a habit of making them; but in your present state they are made by, and in your heart, and almost without your thinking of it. Does not God see all your intentions, even the most secret, without having them explained to Him by what are called formal and express acts? When, in the midst of your good works some secret intention of self-love, pride, or human respect insinuates itself into your heart, far from making express acts you would endeavour to hide from yourself these perverse intentions, convinced that God sees, and will punish them; do you not believe then that He also sees your secret good intentions and that He is as liberal in rewarding as He is strict in punishing?

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4th. The wandering of your thoughts is but another trial from God, an occasion of suffering, of humiliation, and an exercise of patience and of merit, and the anxiety it causes you is a proof of the desire you have of being always occupied with God. Besides, God sees this desire, and, in His sight, desires are equal to acts, whether for good or evil. Suffer, therefore, humbly and patiently all the involuntary wanderings of your mind, and take care not to trouble about them, nor to examine anxiously what could have caused them; this would be a simple curiosity of self-love which God would punish with still greater darkness. Remember what St. Teresa said on this subject, “Let the clapper make a noise, provided the mill grinds the corn.” She compares the wandering mind to the clapper, and the will tending to God to the mill that grinds the corn. A will fixed on God is what we should hope for above all things. What do you think takes place in the heart of a worldly woman during a fine sermon? Doubtless a hundred good thoughts pass through her mind and imagination while her will and her heart are fixed on the object of her passion; is she any holier for that? With you it is exactly the contrary; why then do you distress yourself? Otherwise what signifies this tranquillity and peace of the soul in the midst of these attacks, these pains, and this torment, and the little desire you have to refer to them? Is not this a great gift of God, and an evident sign that it is He Who, so delicately, and so peacefully wounds the heart? Remain then tranquilly in your state of total abandonment to God, and do not trouble yourself to find out how you form acts; they are formed by the secret and imperceptible movements of your heart that God touches interiorly, and which He moves as He pleases.

5th. I am not surprised at the fatigue and emptiness you experience in making efforts to multiply and reiterate your interior acts. This is because in this way you withdraw yourself from the operation of God to act for yourself, as if you wanted to anticipate grace and to do more than God wished. This is indeed natural activity! Be content to remain at peace in your soul, and keep yourself there as in a prison where God is pleased to immure you, without bethinking yourself of making unseasonable escapes. Thus you will be in that state of holy and fruitful idleness that the saints describe, and thus also you will have many and great occupations without labour. It is self-love only that complains and is in despair at having nothing to do, to see, to feel, nor to hear; but let it groan as much as it likes, by dint of worrying and despairing it will rid you finally of its presence. By cutting off supplies we shall starve it out. Oh! what a fortunate release! I wish it for you as for myself with all my heart.

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6th. The way in which you keep in the presence of God by a simple glance of faith without mental images, figures, or any kind of representation, in a total surrender of your whole self, is the most pure and most perfect way of treating with God. It is the true prayer of the heart, a quite interior prayer, the sincere prayer of spirit to spirit, and the more simple, free, imperceptible, and removed it is, from all that can be felt so much the more solid, sublime, penetrating and efficacious it becomes, says the holy Mother de Chantal.

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