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SECTION I: Of Prayers and the several Sorts thereof
PRAYER is profitable and speedful to be used for the getting of purity of heart by destroying of sin and bringing in virtues; not that thou shouldst thereby make our Lord know what thou desirest, for He knoweth well enough what thou needest, but to dispose thee and make thee ready and able thereby, as a clean vessel, to receive the grace which our Lord would freely give thee, which grace cannot be felt till thou be exercised6868 Assayed. and purified by the fire of desire in devout prayer. For though it be so that prayer is not the cause for which our Lord giveth grace, nevertheless it is a way or means by which grace freely given cometh into a soul.
But now thou wilt desire perhaps to know how thou shouldst pray and upon what thing thou shouldst set the point of thy thoughts in prayer, and also what prayer was best for thee to use. As to the first, I answer that when thou art wakened out of thy sleep, and art ready to pray, thou shalt feel thyself fleshly and heavy, tending ever downwards to vain thoughts, either of dreams or fancies, or of unnecessary things of the world or of the flesh, then behoveth it thee to quicken thy heart by prayer, and stir it up as much as thou canst to some devotion. In thy prayer set not thy heart on any bodily thing, but all thy care shall be to draw in thy thoughts from beholding any bodily thing, that thy desire may be as it were naked and bare from all earthly things, ever aspiring upward to Jesus Christ, whom yet thou canst never see bodily as He is in His Godhead, nor frame any image or likeness of Him in thy imagination; but thou mayest, through devout and continual beholding of the humility of His precious humanity, feel the goodness and the grace of His Godhead.
When thy desire and mind is gotten up, and as it were set free from all fleshly thoughts and affections, and is much lifted up by spiritual power unto spiritual favour and delight in Him and of His spiritual presence; hold thou therein much of thy time of prayer, so that thou have no great mind of earthly things, or if they come into thy mind that they do but trouble or affect thee little. If thou canst pray thus, thou prayest well, for prayer is nothing else but an ascending or getting up of the desire of the heart into God by withdrawing of it from all earthly thoughts. Therefore it is likened to a fire which, of its own nature, leaveth the lowness of the earth and always mounteth up into the air, even so desire in prayer, when it is touched and kindled of the spiritual fire, which is God, is ever aspiring up to Him that it came from.
They that speak of this fire of love know not well what it is; save this I can tell that it is neither any bodily thing nor felt by any sense of the body. A soul may feel it in prayer or in devotion, which soul is in the body, but it feeleth it not by any bodily sense; for though it is true that it works in and upon the soul, that the body itself is turned thereby into a heat and be as it were chafed through the labour and travail of the spirit, nevertheless the fire of love is not bodily, for it is only in the spiritual desire of the soul. And this is no riddle to any man or woman that have had the experience of devotion; but because some are so simple as to imagine that because it is called a fire that therefore it should be hot as bodily fire is, therefore have I set down thus much.
Now as to thy other question to know what prayer is best to be used, I shall give thee my opinion. Thou shalt understand that there be three kinds of vocal prayer.
The first is that which was made immediately by God Himself, as the Pater noster; the second those that are made more generally by the ordinance of holy Church, as Matins, Evensong and Hours; the third sort such as are made by pious men addressed to our Lord and to our Lady and to His saints.
As to these kinds of prayers that are called vocal, I judge that for thee that art religious and art bound by custom and thy rule to say thy Breviary it is most expedient to say it, and that as devoutly as thou canst, for in saying of them thou sayest also the Pater noster and other prayers likewise. And to stir thee up more to devotion there be ordained psalms and hymns, and such other which were made by the Holy Ghost, like as the Pater noster was. Therefore thou shalt not say them hastily nor carelessly, as if thou wert troubled or discontented for being bound to the recital of them; but thou shalt recollect thy thoughts to say them more seriously and more devoutly than any other prayers of voluntary devotion, deeming for truth that, seeing it is the prayer of holy Church, there is no vocal prayer so profitably to be used by thee as it is. Thus shalt thou put away all heaviness, and by God’s grace turn thy necessity into good will and thy Obligation into a great freedom, so that it shall be no hindrance to thy other spiritual exercises. After this thou mayest, if thou wilt, use others, as the Pater noster or any other, and stick to those in which thou feelest most savour and spiritual comfort.
This kind of vocal prayer is commonly most profitable for every man in the beginning of his conversion, as being then but rude and gross and carnal (unless he have the more grace) nor cannot think of spiritual thoughts in his meditations, for his soul is not yet cleansed from his old sins. And therefore I hope it is most speedful to use this manner of prayer, as to say his Pater Noster and his Ave, and to read upon his psalter and such other. For he that cannot run easily and lightly by spiritual prayer, his feet of knowledge and love being feeble and sick by reason of sin, hath need of a firm staff to hold by, which staff is set forms of vocal prayer ordained by God and holy Church for the help of men’s souls. By which the soul of a fleshly man that is alway falling downward into worldly thoughts and sensual affections shall be lifted up above them, and holden up as by a staff, and fed with the sweet words of those prayers as a child with milk, and guided and held up by them that he fall not into errors or fancies through his vain imaginations; for that in this manner of prayer is no deceit nor error to him that will diligently and humbly exercise himself therein.
And hereby thou mayest learn that those men (if any such there be) who in the beginning of their conversion, or soon after, having felt some spiritual comfort, either in devotion or knowledge, and are not yet stablished therein, leave such vocal prayer and other outward exercises too soon, and give themselves wholly to meditation, are not wise; for ofttimes in that time of rest which they take to themselves for meditation, imagining and thinking on spiritual things after their own fancies, and following their bodily feeling, having not yet received sufficient grace thereto, by indiscretion overtravel their wits and break their bodily strengths and so fall into fancies and singular conceits, or into open errors, and hinder that grace which God hath already given them, by such vanities. The cause of all this is secret pride and overweening of themselves; for when they have felt a little grace and some sensible devotion, they esteem it so much to surpass the graces and favours He doth to others that they fall into vain-glory. Whereas if they knew but how little it were in comparison of that which God giveth, or may give, they would be ashamed to speak anything of it, unless it were in a case of great necessity. Of this kind of vocal prayer speaketh David in the Psalms, thus: With my voice have I cried unto the Lord, with my voice have I prayed to our Lord.6969 Psalm 141. Behold how the prophet, for to stir other men to pray both with mouth and with voice, saith: With my voice I cried to God, and with my speech I besought our Lord.
There is another sort of vocal prayer which is not by any set common form of prayer; but is, when a man or woman, by the gift of God, feeling the grace of devotion, speaketh to God as it were bodily in His presence, with such words as suit most to his inward stirrings for the time, or as cometh to his mind, answerable to the feelings or motions of his heart, either by way of rehearsal of his sins and wretchedness, or of the malice and sleights of his enemy, or of the mercies and goodness of God. And hereby he crieth with desire of heart and speech of mouth to our Lord for succour and for help, as a man that were in peril among his enemies; or in sickness, showing his sores to God as to a physician, saying with David: Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord.7070 Ps. 40. Or else this: Heal my Soul, for I have sinned against Thee; or other suchlike words as they come to his mind.
And at other times there appears to him to be so much goodness and grace and mercy in God that it delighteth him with great affection of heart to love Him, and thank Him in such words and psalms as do most suit to that occasion, as David saith: Confess ye to the Lord because He is good, because His mercy endureth for ever.7171 Ps. 135.
This kind of prayer pleaseth God much, for it proceedeth wholly from the affection of the heart, and therefore never goeth away unsped7272 Unprosperous. or empty without some grace, and this prayer belongeth to the second part of contemplation, as I have said before. Whoso hath this gift of God fervently ought for a time to eschew the presence and company of all men, to be alone that he be not letted;7373 Interrupted. whoso hath it let him hold it as long as he can, for it will not last long in its fervour. If the grace of it come plenteously, it is wondrous painful to the spirit, though it be much pleasant also to it; for it is much wasting to the body whoso useth it much, for it maketh the body (if the grace of it come in abundance) for to stir and move here and there as if the man were mad or drunk and could have no rest. This is a point of the passion of love, the which by great violence and mastery breaketh down and mortifieth all lusts and likings of any earthly thing, and woundeth the soul with the blessed sword of love, that it makes the body sink, not able to bear it. The touch of love is of so great power that the most vicious or fleshly man living on earth, if he were once strongly touched with this sharp sword, he would be right sober and grave a great while after, and abhor all the lusts and likings of the flesh and all earthly things which before he took most delight in.
Of this manner of feeling speaketh the prophet Jeremy thus: And there was made in my heart as a fire boiling, and shut up in my bones, and I fainted, not able to bear it;7474 Jer. 20:9. which words may be understood thus: The love and feeling of God was made in my heart, not fire, but as boiling or burning fire; for as material fire burneth and wasteth all bodily things where it cometh, right so doth spiritual fire (as is the love of God) burneth and wasteth all fleshly loves and likings in a man’s soul. And this fire is shut up in my bones, as the prophet saith of himself, that is to say: This love filleth the powers of the soul, as the mind, reason and will, with grace and spiritual sweetness, as marrow filleth the bones, and that inwardly, and not outwardly in the senses. Nevertheless it is so mighty within that it worketh out into the body, and maketh it quake and tremble. And yet it hath so little to do with the bodily senses, and so unacquainted is the body with it that it cannot skill of it and cannot bear it, but faileth and falleth down as the prophet saith. Therefore our Lord tempereth it and withdraweth this fervour, and suffereth the heart to fall into more sobriety and softness. He that can pray thus often, he speedeth soon in his travail, and shall get more of virtues in a little time than another without this, or exercised in any other way of prayer, shall get in a long time for all the bodily penance he can do. Whoso hath this need not afflict his body with more penance than this brings along with it, which will be enough if it come often.
The third sort of prayer is only in the heart without speech, with great rest and quietness both of soul and body. A pure heart it behoveth him to have that shall pray after this manner; for such only attain to it who by long travail both of body and soul, or else by such sharp touches or motions of love, as I have before mentioned, have arrived to rest of spirit, so that his affections are turned into spiritual savour and relish, that he is able to pray continually in his heart, and love and praise God without great letting of temptations or of vanities, as is said before in the chapter of the second sort of Contemplation. Of this kind of prayer St Paul saith thus: If I pray with the tongue, my spirit prayed, but my mind is without fruit. What then? I will pray also in the spirit, I will pray also in the mind; I will sing in the spirit, I will sing also in the mind.7575 1 Cor. 14:14,15. That is to say: If I pray with my tongue only, by the consent of my spirit, and with painstaking and diligence, it is meritorious, but my soul is not fed by it, for it feeleth not the fruit of spiritual sweetness by understanding. What then shall I do, saith St Paul? And he answers, I will pray with the exercise and desire of the spirit, and I will also pray more inwardly in my spirit without labour, in spiritual savour and sweetness of the love and the sight of God, by the which sight and feeling of love my soul is fed. Thus (as I understand him) could St Paul pray.
Of this manner of prayer speaketh our Lord in holy Writ in a figure thus: Fire shall always burn upon the altar, which the priest shall nourish, putting wood underneath in the morning every day, that so the fire may not go out.7676 Levit. 6. That is, the fire of love shall ever be lighted in the soul of a devout and clean man or woman, the which is God’s altar. And the priest shall every morning lay to it sticks and nourish the fire, that is this man shall, by holy psalms, clean thoughts and fervent desires, nourish the fire of love in his heart, that it go not out at any time. This prayer of rest or quiet our Lord giveth to some of His servants, as it were a reward of their travail, and an earnest of that love and sweetness which they shall have in the bliss of heaven.
SECTION II: How they should do that are troubled with vain Thoughts in their Prayers
BUT thou wilt say that I speak too high in this matter of prayer, which indeed is no mastery nor difficulty for me to write it, but it were a great piece of mastery for a man to practise it.
Thou sayest that thou canst not pray thus devoutly, nor so perfectly in heart as I speak of; for when thou wouldst have thy mind upward to God in thy prayer, thou feelest so many vain thoughts, either concerning thy own business or other men’s, with many other lets and hindrances, that thou canst neither feel savour nor rest nor devotion in thy prayers, and ofttimes the more thou strivest to keep thy heart the further it is from thee and the harder, and sometimes continues so from the beginning to the end, that thou thinkest all lost that thou dost.
In answer to that which thou saidst, that I spake too high of prayer, I grant well that I spake more than I myself can or may do. Nevertheless I spake it for this intent that thou shouldst know how we ought to pray; and when we cannot do so, that we should acknowledge our weakness with all humility and God’s mercy. Our Lord Himself hath commanded us thus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might. It is impossible for any man living to fulfil this bidding so fully as it is said. Yet our Lord hath bidden us so, to the intent, as St Bernard saith, that thereby we should know our feebleness, and then humbly cry for mercy, and we shall have it. Nevertheless I shall instruct thee in this point what to do as well as I can.
When thou goest about to pray, first make and frame betwixt thee and God in thy mind a full purpose and intention in the beginning to serve Him, then with all the powers of thy soul by thy present prayer, and then begin and do as well as thou canst. Though thou be never so much letted contrary to thy former purpose, be not afraid, neither be angry at thyself, nor impatient against God, because He giveth thee not the savour and spiritual sweetness in devotion as thou thinkest He giveth to others. But see therein thy own feebleness and bear it patiently, deeming it to be (as it is) feeble and of no worth in thy own sight, with humility of spirit; trusting also firmly in the mercy of our Lord, that he will make it good and profitable to thee, more than thou imaginest or feelest. For know thou well that thou art excused of thy duty, and thou shalt be rewarded for this (as well as for any other good work done in charity), though thy mind and intention may be not so fully set upon it as thou wishest. Therefore do what belongs to thee, and suffer our Lord to give what He will, and teach Him not. Think thyself wretched and negligent, and as it were in great fault for such things, yet for this fault and all other venials which cannot be eschewed in this wretched life lift up thy heart to God, acknowledging thy wretchedness, and cry God mercy, with a good trust of forgiveness, and strive no more therewith, nor stay any longer upon it, as if thou wouldst by main strength not feel such wretchedness, but leave off and go to some other good exercise, either corporal or spiritual, and resolve to do better the next time. Though thou shouldst fall another time into the same defect, yea, an hundred times, yea, a thousand, yet still do as I have said, and all will be well. Moreover a soul that never finds rest of heart in prayer, but all her life is striving with her thoughts, and is troubled and letted with them, if she keep her in humility and charity in other things, she shall have great reward in heaven for her good will and endeavours.
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