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Of mental prayer as pretended unto by some in the Church of Rome.
Having described or given an account of the gift of prayer, and the use of it in the church of God, and the nature of the work of the Spirit therein, it will be necessary to consider briefly what is by some set up in competition with it, as a more excellent way in this part of divine worship. And, in the first place, mental prayer, as described by some devout persons of the church of Rome, is preferred above it. They call it “pure spiritual prayer, or a quiet repose of contemplation; that which excludes all images of the fancy, and in time all perceptible actuations of the understanding, and is exercised in signal elevations of the will, without any force at all, yet with admirable efficacy.” And to dispose a soul for such prayer, there is previously required “an entire calmness and even death of the passions, a perfect purity in the spiritual affections of the will, and an entire abstraction from all creatures.” — Cressy, Church Hist. pref. parag. 42, 43.
1. The truth is, I am so fixed in a dislike of that mere outside, formal course of reading or singing prayers which is in use in the Roman church (which though, in Mr Cressy’s esteem, it have a show of a very civil conversation with God, yet is it indeed accompanied with the highest contempt of his infinite purity and all divine excellencies), and do so much more abhor that magical incantation which many among them use, in the repetition of words which they understand not, or of applying what they repeat to another end than what the words signify, — as saying so many prayers for such an end or purpose, whereof it may be there is not one word of mention in the prayers themselves, — that I must approve of any search after a real internal intercourse of soul with God in this duty. But herein men must be careful of two things: (1.) That they assert not what they can fancy, but what indeed, in some measure, they have an experience of. For men to conjecture what others do experience (for they can do no more), and thence to form rules or examples of duty, is dangerous always, and may be pernicious unto those who shall follow such instructions. And herein this author fails, and gives nothing but his own fancies of others’ pretended experience. (2.) That what they pretend unto an experience of be confirmable by Scripture rule or example; for if it be not so, we are directed unto the conduct of all extravagant imaginations in every one who will pretend unto spiritual experience. Attend unto these rules, and I will grant in prayer all the ways whereby the soul, or the faculties 329of it, can rationally act itself towards God in a holy and spiritual manner. But if you extend it unto such kind of actings as our nature is not capable of, at least in this world, it is the open fruit of a deceived fancy, and makes all that is tendered from the same hand to be justly suspected. And such is that instance of this prayer, that it is in the will and its affections without any actings of the mind or understanding; for although I grant that the adhesion of the will and affections unto God by love, delight, complacency, rest and satisfaction, in prayer, belongs to the improvement of this duty, yet to imagine that they are not guided, directed, acted by the understanding, in the contemplation of God’s goodness, beauty, grace, and other divine excellencies, is to render our worship and devotion brutish or irrational, whereas it is, and ought to be, our “reasonable service.”
And that this very description here given us of prayer is a mere effect of fancy and imagination, and not that which the author of it was led unto by the conduct of spiritual light and experience, is evident from hence, that it is borrowed from those contemplative philosophers who, after the preaching of the gospel in the world, endeavoured to refine and advance heathenism into a compliance with it; at least is fancied in imitation of what they ascribe unto a perfect mind. One of them, and his expressions in one place, may suffice for an instance, — Plotinus, Ennead. 6, lib. 9, cap. 10; for after many other ascriptions unto a soul that hath attained union with the chiefest good, he adds:— Οὐ γάρ τι ἐκινεῖτο παρ’ αὐτῷ, οὐ θυμὸς, οὐκ ἐπιθυμία ἄλλου παρῆν αὐτῷ, ἀναβεβηκότι· ἀλλ’ οὐ δὲ λόγος, οὐ δέ τις νὸησις· οὐ δ’ ὅλως αὐτὸς, εἰ δεῖ καὶ τοῦτο λέγειν· ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ἁρπασθεὶς ἢ ἐνθουσιάσας ἡσυχῆ ἐν ἐρήμῳ καταστάσει γεγένηται ἀτρεμεῖ, τῇ αὐτοῦ οὐσίᾳ οὐδαμοῦ ἀποκλίνων, οὐδὲ περὶ αὐτὸν στρεφόμενος, ἑστὼς πάντη καὶ οἷον στάσις γενὸμενος· — “A mind thus risen up is no way moved, no anger, no desire of any thing is in it” (a perfect rest of the affections); “nay, neither reason nor understanding” (are acted), “nor, if I may say so, itself: but being ecstasied and filled with God, it comes into a quiet, still, immovable repose and state, no way declining” (by any sensible actings) “from its own essence, nor exercising any reflex act upon itself, is wholly at rest, as having attained a perfect state;” — or to this purpose, with much more to the same. And as it is easy to find the substance of our author’s notion in these words, so the reader may see it more at large declared in that last chapter of his Enneads; and all his companions in design about that time speak to the same purpose.
2. The spiritual intense fixation of the mind, by contemplation on God in Christ, until the soul be as it were swallowed up in admiration and delight, and being brought unto an utter loss, through the infiniteness of those excellencies which it doth admire and adore, it 330returns again into its own abasements, out of a sense of its infinite distance from what it would absolutely and eternally embrace, and, withal, the inexpressible rest and satisfaction which the will and affections receive in their approaches unto the eternal Fountain of goodness, are things to be aimed at in prayer, and which, through the riches of divine condescension, are frequently enjoyed. The soul is hereby raised and ravished, not into ecstasies or unaccountable raptures, not acted into motions above the power of its own understanding and will; but in all the faculties and affections of it, through the effectual workings of the Spirit of grace and the lively impressions of divine love, with intimations of the relations and kindness of God, is filled with rest, in “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” And these spiritual acts of communion with God, whereof I may say with Bernard, Rara hora, brevis mora, may be enjoyed in mental or vocal prayer indifferently. But as the description here given of mental, spiritual prayer hath no countenance given it from the Scriptures, yea, those things are spoken of it which are expressly contrary thereunto, as perfect purity and the like, and as it cannot be confirmed by the rational experience of any, so it no way takes off from the necessity and usefulness of vocal prayer, whereunto it is opposed; for still the use of words is necessary in this duty, from the nature of the duty itself, the command of God, and the edification of the church. And it is fallen out unhappily, as to the exaltation of the conceived excellency of this mental prayer, that our Lord Jesus Christ not only instructed his disciples to pray by the use of words, but did so himself, and that constantly, so far as we know, Matt. xxvi. 39, 42; yea, when he was most intense and engaged in this duty, instead of this pretended still prayer of contemplation, he prayed μετὰ κραυγῆς ἰσχυρᾶς, “with a strong outcry,” Heb. v. 7, which, Ps. xxii. 1, is called the “voice of his roaring.” And all the reproaches which this author casts on fervent, earnest, vocal prayer, — namely, that it is a tedious, loud, impetuous, and an uncivil conversation with God, a mere artificial alight and facility, — may with equal truth be cast on the outward manner of the praying of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was ofttimes long, sometimes loud and vehement. And unto the example of their Lord and Master we may add that of the prophets and apostles, who mention nothing of this pretended elevation, but constantly made use of and desired God to hear their “voices,” their “cry,” their “words,” in their supplication, the words of many of them being accordingly recorded. Wherefore, words proper, suggested by the Spirit of God, and taken either directly or analogically out of the Scripture, do help the mind and enlarge it with supplications. “Interdum voce nos ipsos ad devotionem et acrius incitamus,” August. Epist. cxxi. ad Probam. 331The use of such words, being first led unto by the desires of the mind, may and doth lead the mind on to express its farther desires also, and increaseth those which are so expressed. It is from God’s institution and blessing that the mind and will of praying do lead unto the words of prayer, and the words of prayer do lead on the mind and will, enlarging them in desires and supplications. And without this aid many would oftentimes be straitened in acting their thoughts and affections towards God, or distracted in them, or diverted from them. And we have experience that an obedient, sanctified persistency in the use of gracious words in prayer hath prevailed against violent temptations and injections of Satan, which the mind in its silent contemplations was not able to grapple with. And holy affections are thus also excited hereby. The very words and expressions which the mind chooseth to declare its thoughts, conceptions, and desires about heavenly things, do reflect upon the affections, increasing and exciting of them. Not only the things themselves fixed on do affect the heart, but the words of wisdom and sobriety whereby they are expressed do so also. There is a recoiling of efficacy, if I may so speak, in deep impressions on the affections, from the words that are made use of to express those affections by. But we treat of prayer principally as it is to be performed in families, societies, assemblies, congregations, where this mental prayer would do well to promote the edification which is attainable in the silent meetings of the Quakers.
And because this kind of prayer, as it is called, is not only recommended unto us, but preferred before all other ways and methods of prayer, and chosen as an instance to set off the devotion of the church of Rome, to invite others thereunto, I shall a little more particularly inquire into it. And I must needs say, that, on the best view I can take, or examination of it, it seems to be a matter altogether useless, uncertain, an effect of and entertainment for vain curiosity, whereby men “intrude themselves into those things which they have not seen, being vainly puffed up by their own fleshly mind;” for, not to call over what was before intimated in things that are practical in religion, no man can understand any thing whereof he can have no experience. Nothing is rejected by virtue of this rule whereof some men, through their own default, have no experience; but every thing is so justly, whereof no man in the discharge of his duty can attain any experience. He that speaks of such things unto others, if any such there might be belonging unto our condition in this world, must needs be a barbarian unto them in what he speaks. And whereas also he speaks of that wherein his own reason and understanding have no interest, he must be so also unto himself; for no man can by the use of reason, however advanced by spiritual 332light, understand such actings of the souls of other men or his own as wherein there is no exercise of reason or understanding, such as these raptures are pretended to consist in. So whereas one of them says, “Fundus animæ meæ tangit fundum essentiæ Dei,” it had certainly been better for him to have kept his apprehensions or fancy to himself, than to express himself in words which in their own proper sense are blasphemous, and whose best defensative is that they are unintelligible. And if it be not unlawful, it is doubtless inexpedient, for any one, in things of religion, to utter what it is impossible for any body else to understand, with this only plea, that they do not indeed understand it themselves, it being what they enjoyed without any acts or actings of their own understanding. To allow such pretences is the ready way to introduce Babel into the church, and expose religion to scorn. Some pretending unto such raptures among ourselves I have known; wherein for a while they stirred up the admiration of weak and credulous persons; but through a little observation of what they did, spake, and pretended unto, with an examination of all by the unerring rule, they quickly came into contempt. All I intend at present is, that whatever be in this pretence, it is altogether useless unto edification, and therefore ought the declaration of it to be of no regard in the church of God. If the apostle would not allow the use of words, though miraculously suggested unto them that used them, without an immediate interpretation of their signification, what would he have said of such words and things as are capable of no interpretation, so as that any man living should understand them? for those by whom at present they are so extolled and commended unto us do themselves discourse at random, as blind men talk of colours, for they pretend not to have any experience of these things themselves. And it is somewhat an uncouth way of procedure to enhance the value of the communion of their church, and to invite others unto it, by declaring that there are some amongst them who enjoyed such spiritual ecstasies as could neither by themselves nor any others be understood; for nothing can be so wherein or whereabout there is no exercise of reason or understanding. Wherefore, the old question, cui bono? will discharge this pretence from being of any value or esteem in religion with considerate men.
Again; as the whole of this kind of prayer is useless as to the benefit and edification of the church or any member of it, so it is impossible there should ever be any certainty about the raptures wherein it is pretended to consist, but they must everlastingly be the subject of contention and dispute; for who shall assure me that the persons pretending unto these duties or enjoyments are not mere pretenders? Any man that lives, if he have a mind unto it, may say 333such things, or use such expressions concerning himself. If a man, indeed, shall pretend and declare that he doth or enjoyeth such things as are expressed in the word of God as the duty or privilege of any, and thereon are acknowledged by all to be things in themselves true and real, and likewise attainable by believers, he is ordinarily, so far as I know, to be believed in his profession, unless he can be convicted of falsehood by any thing inconsistent with such duties or enjoyments. Nor do I know of any great evil in our credulity herein, should we happen to be deceived in or by the person so professing, seeing he speaks of no more than all acknowledge it their duty to endeavour after. But when any one shall pretend unto spiritual actings or enjoyments which are neither prescribed nor promised in the Scripture, nor are investigable in the light of reason, no man is upon this mere profession obliged to give credit thereunto; — nor can any man tell what evil effects or consequences his so doing may produce; for when men are once taken off from that sure ground of Scripture and their own understandings, putting themselves afloat on the uncertain waters of fancies or conjectures, they know not how they may be tossed, nor whither they may be driven. If it shall be said that the holiness and honesty of the persons by whom these especial privileges are enjoyed are sufficient reason why we should believe them in what they profess, I answer, they would be so in a good measure if they did not pretend unto things repugnant unto reason and unwarranted by the Scripture, which is sufficient to crush the reputation of any man’s integrity; nor can their holiness and honesty be proved to be such as to render them absolutely impregnable against all temptations, which was the pre-eminence of Christ alone. Neither is there any more strength in this plea but what may be reduced unto this assertion, that there neither are nor ever were any hypocrites in the world undiscoverable unto the eyes of men; for if such there may be, some of these pretenders may be of their number, notwithstanding the appearance of their holiness and honesty. Besides, if the holiness of the best of them were examined by evangelical light and rule, perhaps it would be so far from being a sufficient countenance unto other things as that it would not be able to defend its own reputation. Neither is it want of charity which makes men doubtful and unbelieving in such cases, but godly jealousy and Christian prudence, which require them to take care that they be not deceived or deluded, do not only warrant them to abide on that guard, but make it their necessary duty also; for it is no new thing that pretences of raptures, ecstasies, revelations, and unaccountable, extraordinary enjoyments of God, should be made use of unto corrupt ends, yea, abused to the worst imaginable. The experience of the church, both under the Old Testament and the New, 334witnesseth hereunto, as the apostle Peter declares, 2 Pet. ii. 1: for among them of old there were multitudes of false pretenders unto visions, dreams, revelations, and such spiritual ecstasies, some of whom wore a “rough garment to deceive;” which went not alone, but [was] accompanied with all such appearing austerities as might beget an opinion of sanctity and integrity in them. And when the body of the people were grown corrupt and superstitious, this sort of men had credit with them above the true prophets of God; yet did they for the most part show themselves to be hypocritical liars. And we are abundantly warned of such spirits under the New Testament, as we are foretold that such there would be, by whom many should be deluded; and all such pretenders unto extraordinary intercourse with God we are commanded to try by the unerring rule of the word, and desire only liberty so to do.
But suppose that those who assert these devotions and enjoyments of God in their own experience are not false pretenders unto what they profess, nor design to deceive, but are persuaded in their own minds of the reality of what they endeavour to declare, yet neither will this give us the least security of their truth; for it is known that there are so many ways, partly natural, partly diabolical, whereby the fancies and imaginations of persons may be so possessed with false images and apprehensions of things, and that with so vehement an efficacy as to give them a confidence of their truth and reality, that no assurance of them can be given by a persuasion of the sincerity of them by whom they are pretended. And there are so many ways whereby men are disposed unto such a frame and actings, or are disposed to be imposed on by such delusions, especially where they are prompted by superstition, and are encouraged doctrinally to an expectation of such imaginations, that it is a far greater wonder that more have not fallen into the same extravagancies than that any have so done. We find by experience that some have had their imaginations so fixed on things evil and noxious by satanical delusions, that they have confessed against themselves things and crimes that have rendered them obnoxious unto capital punishments, whereof they were never really and actually guilty. Wherefore, seeing these acts or duties of devotion are pretended to be such as wherein there is no sensible actuation of the mind or understanding, and so cannot rationally be accounted for, nor rendered perceptible unto the understanding of others, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they are only fond imaginations of deluded fancies, which superstitious, credulous persons have gradually raised themselves unto, or such as they have exposed themselves to be imposed on withal by Satan, through a groundless, unwarrantable desire after them or expectation of them.
But whatever there may be in the height of this “contemplative 335prayer,” as it is called, it neither is prayer nor can on any account be so esteemed. That we allow of mental prayer, and all actings of the mind in holy meditations, was before declared. Nor do we deny the usefulness or necessity of those other things, of mortifying the affections and passions, of an entire resignation of the whole soul unto God, with complacency in him, so far as our nature is capable of them in this world. But it is that incomparable excellency of it in the silence of the soul, and the pure adhesion of the will, without any actings of the understanding, that we inquire into. And I say, whatever else there may be herein, yet it hath not the nature of prayer, nor is to be so esteemed, though under that name and notion it be recommended unto us. Prayer is a natural duty, the notion and understanding whereof is common unto all mankind; and the concurrent voice of nature deceiveth not. Whatever, therefore, is not compliant therewith, at least what is contradictory unto it or inconsistent with it, is not to be esteemed prayer. Now, in the common sense of mankind, this duty is that acting of the mind and soul wherein, from an acknowledgment of the sovereign being, self-sufficiency, rule, and dominion of God, with his infinite goodness, wisdom, power, righteousness, and omniscience and omnipresence, with a sense of their own universal dependence on him, his will and pleasure, as to their beings, lives, happiness, and all their concernments, they address their desires with faith and trust unto him, according as their state and condition doth require, or ascribe praise and glory unto him for what he is in himself and what he is to them. This is the general notion of prayer, which the reason of mankind centres in; neither can any man conceive of it under any other notion whatever. The gospel directs the performance of this duty in an acceptable manner with respect unto the mediation of Christ, the aids of the Holy Ghost, and the revelation of the spiritual mercies we all do desire; but it changeth nothing in the general nature of it. It doth not introduce a duty of another kind, and call it by the name of that which is known in the light of nature but is quite another thing. But this general nature of prayer all men universally understand well enough in whom the first innate principles of natural light are not extinguished or woefully depraved. This may be done among some by a long traditional course of an atheistical and brutish conversation. But as large and extensive as are the convictions of men concerning the being and existence of God, so are their apprehensions of the nature of this duty; for the first actings of nature towards a Divine Being are in invocation. Jonah’s mariners knew every one how to call on his god, when they were in a storm. And where there is not trust or affiance in God acted, whereby men glorify him as God, and where desires or praises are not offered unto him, — neither 336of which can be without express acts of the mind or understanding, — there is no prayer, whatever else there may be. Wherefore, this contemplative devotion, wherein, as it is pretended, the soul is ecstasied into an advance of the will and affections above all the actings of the mind or understanding, hath no one property of prayer, as the nature of it is manifest in the light of nature and common agreement of mankind. Prayer without an actual acknowledgment of God in all his holy excellencies, and the actings of faith in fear, love, confidence, and gratitude, is a monster in nature, or a by-blow of imagination, which hath no existence in rerum natura. These persons, therefore, had best find out some other name wherewith to impose this kind of devotion upon our admiration, for from the whole precincts of prayer or invocation on the name of God it is utterly excluded; and what place it may have in any other part of the worship of God, we shall immediately inquire.
But this examination of it by the light of nature will be looked on as most absurd and impertinent: for if we must try all matters of spiritual communion with God, and that in those things which wholly depend on divine, supernatural revelation, by this rule and standard, our measures of them will be false and perverse; and, I say, no doubt they would. Wherefore, we call only that concern of it unto a trial hereby whose true notion is confessedly fixed in the light of nature. Without extending that line beyond its due bounds, we may by it take a just measure of what is prayer and what is not; for therein it cannot deceive nor be deceived. And this is all which at present we engage about. And in the pursuit of the same inquiry we may bring it also unto the Scripture, from which we shall find it as foreign as from the light of nature; for as it is described, so far as any thing intelligible may be from thence collected, it exceeds or deviates from whatever is said in the Scripture concerning prayer, even in those places where the grace and privileges of it are most emphatically expressed, and as it is exemplified in the prayers of the Lord Christ himself and all the saints recorded therein. Wherefore, the light of nature and the Scripture do by common consent exclude it from being prayer in any kind. Prayer, in the Scripture representation of it, is the soul’s access and approach unto God by Jesus Christ, through the aids of his Holy Spirit, to make known its requests unto him, with supplication and thanksgiving. And that whereon it is recommended unto us are its external adjuncts, and its internal grace and efficacy. Of the first sort, earnestness, fervency, importunity, constancy, and perseverance, are the principal. No man can attend unto these, or any of them, in a way of duty, but in the exercise of his mind and understanding. Without this, whatever looks like any of them is brutish fury or obstinacy.
337And as unto the internal form of it, in that description which is given us of its nature in the Scripture, it consists in the especial exercise of faith, love, delight, fear, all the graces of the Spirit, as occasion doth require. And in that exercise of these graces, wherein the life and being of prayer doth consist, a continual regard is to be had unto the mediation of Christ and the free promises of God; through which means he exhibits himself unto us as a God hearing prayer. These things are both plainly and frequently mentioned in the Scripture, as they are all of them exemplified in the prayers of those holy persons which are recorded therein. But for this contemplative prayer, as it is described by our author and others, there is neither precept for it, nor direction about it, nor motive unto it, nor example of it, in the whole Scripture. And it cannot but seem marvellous, to some at least, that whereas this duty and all its concernments are more insisted on therein than any other Christian duty or privilege whatever, the height and excellency of it, — and that in comparison whereof all other kinds of prayer, all the actings of the mind and soul in them, are decried, — should not obtain the least intimation therein.
For if we should take a view of all the particular places wherein the nature and excellency of this duty are described, with the grace and privilege wherewith it is accompanied, — such as, for instance, Eph. vi. 18, Phil. iv. 6, Heb. iv. 16, x. 19–22, — there is nothing that is consistent with this contemplative prayer. Neither is there in the prayers of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor of his apostles, nor of any holy men from the beginning of the world, either for themselves or the whole church, any thing that gives the least countenance unto it. Nor can any man declare what is or can be the work of the Holy Spirit therein, as he is a Spirit of grace and supplication, nor is any gift of his mentioned in the Scripture capable of the least exercise therein; so that in no sense can it be that “praying in the Holy Ghost” which is prescribed unto us. There is, therefore, no example proposed unto our imitation, no mark set before us, nor any direction given, for the attaining of this pretended excellency and perfection. Whatever is fancied or spoken concerning it, it is utterly foreign to the Scripture, and must owe itself unto the deluded imagination of some few persons.
Besides, the Scripture doth not propose unto us any other kind of access unto God under the New Testament, nor any nearer approaches unto him, than what we have in and through the mediation of Christ, and by faith in him. But in this pretence there seems to be such an immediate enjoyment of God in his essence aimed at as is regardless of Christ, and leaves him quite behind. But God will not be all in all immediately unto the church, until the Lord Christ hath fully 338delivered up the mediatory kingdom unto him. And, indeed, the silence concerning Christ in the whole of what is ascribed unto this contemplative prayer, or rather the exclusion of him from any concernment in it as mediator, is sufficient with all considerate persons to evince that it hath not the least interest in the duty of prayer, name or thing.
Neither doth this imagination belong any more unto any other part or exercise of faith in this world; and yet here we universally walk by faith, and not by sight. The whole of what belongs unto it may be reduced unto the two heads of what we do towards God, and what we do enjoy of him therein. And as to the first, all the actings of our souls towards God belong unto our “reasonable service,” Rom. xii. 1; more is not required of us in a way of duty. But that is no part of our reasonable service wherein our minds and understandings have no concernment. Nor is it any part of our enjoyment of God in this life; for no such thing is anywhere promised unto us, and it is by the promises alone that we are made partakers of the divine nature, or have any thing from God communicated unto us. There seems, therefore, to be nothing in the bravery of these affected expressions, but an endeavour to fancy somewhat above the measure of all possible attainments in this life, falling unspeakably beneath those of future glory. A kind of purgatory it is in devotion, — somewhat out of this world and not in another, above the earth and beneath heaven, where we may leave it in clouds and darkness.
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