The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book III, Chapter VII

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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CHAPTER SEVEN: His Mental Prayer

Meditation is like a precious manna which God gives to his faithful to preserve and perfect the life of their souls. It is like a heavenly dew, causing all the virtues to grow in their hearts. We are not surprised to learn that Monsieur Vincent had such a great esteem for this exercise, and a great desire to give himself to it and to encourage others in its practice.

First, every morning he never failed to devote an hour to his mental prayer, whatever other business he might have to do, or wherever he was. He preferred this practice to all other good works, unless the others were required or were absolutely necessary. He used this time to consecrate the first moments of the day to God, and to dispose himself to use the rest of the day well. He made this prayer in the church together with all his community. Sometimes he was unsuccessful in hiding the gifts of the Holy Spirit in his prayer, with sighs that revealed the ardor of his love of God, enough to move even the most tepid souls to devotion.

He prescribed this holy exercise for his Congregation, and wished that everyone would make his mental prayer each day. He said that even the sick could do so if they used the method he taught. In this prayer more attention was to be given to the affections of the will than to the understanding of the intellect, all done peacefully in the presence of God. Repeated acts of resignation, conformity to the divine will, contrition for sin, patience, confidence in the divine goodness, thanksgiving for God’s benefits, the love of God, and similar sentiments were all to be elicited in this prayer.

Besides this scheduled morning mental prayer, he made others during the day and in the evening, depending on the time allowed by his other duties. He first felt obliged to carry out the responsibilities of his position and to serve his neighbor. He looked upon himself as a man for others, not free to use his time and person otherwise than in the fulfillment of the duties of the state to which God had called him.

After his dedication to his own salvation, he gave himself to the service of the Church and the salvation of souls. He recognized, however, that he could not succeed in this service of others or in any of his other work, except by the grace of God received in his mental prayer. When he had even a brief respite in work, or some interruption in sleep, he turned to his practice of mental prayer. He had a special devotion of praying in the presence of the blessed sacrament, where he was in such a devout posture and where he seemed so recollected that he edified all who saw him.

The masters of the spiritual life usually distinguish between two types of meditation (we are speaking here of prayer made privately and solely by use of the mind): the one, called the ordinary form of prayer, which anyone may practice, consists of considerations, affections, and resolutions. The second type of prayer is more subtle, more intimate, and more sublime. To this prayer God calls those he will and when he wills.

This form of prayer depends on the action of the Holy Spirit rather than on the industry or efforts of the human person. We have not been able to discover exactly what form of prayer Monsieur Vincent used, whether the ordinary or the extraordinary form. His humility always hid as much as it could the gifts he had received from God. What we cannot safely say in any detail, however, we can say in general. His prayer must have been quite perfect, as we can infer from the excellent dispositions he brought to prayer and the fruits he drew from it. These are the two marks by which we may judge the quality and the perfection of his mental prayer. He respected the opinions of some modern authors on the excellence of the extraordinary way of praying treated in their books, and he spoke of the admirable influence of God in inexplicable ways upon certain elite souls. Nevertheless, he held to the maxim of the apostle not to believe too easily every spirit, but rather to test them, to see if they are from God.1 He understood well that Satan often appears as an angel of light, deceiving many by his specious and evil suggestions.

His long experience in directing souls led him sometimes to say to his close friends that there were methods of prayer which appear elevated and quite perfect, but which in reality are mere illusions. For this reason he ordinarily advised that the more humble way should be followed. The lower was to remain the safest until God directed the soul to another method, which God would then illumine by his own light to allow the soul, as Scripture says, to arrive at a perfect day.2 He felt that God should make this decision. It was a sign of great temerity, and a sort of presumption and even illusion, to decide for oneself to depart from the ordinary method of prayer to walk the unfamiliar path under the pretext of arriving at a higher level of perfection. Perfection, of course, does not consist in the method of praying a person follows, but in charity. Thus perfection may be greater and more fervent in a soul praying according to the ordinary method, than in another who flatters himself that he is following a more lofty method of prayer, but who neglects to work at the correction of his own vices and the acquisition of the virtues necessary for him. He may even spend his entire life living with some notable imperfections.

He preferred to judge the quality and goodness of mental prayer by the dispositions brought to it, and by the fruits it produced. He used to say: “the best virtues are humility, the recognition of one’s nothingness before God, the mortification of the passions and the unregulated movements of nature, interior recollection, uprightness and simplicity of heart, attention to the presence of God, entire dependence upon his will, and frequent reminders to oneself of God’s goodness.”

As much as he recommended these holy dispositions to others, he himself put them into practice, preparing his soul to receive in prayer the lights and grace which God was ready to pour out upon him. The primary and most excellent fruits of his mental prayer are unknown to us, for he drew a veil of silence over them all. We would have to be resigned to this lack of knowledge were it not that he sometimes appeared like another Moses, if not totally radiant. He at least had the same fervor and love as Moses when he came from his encounter with the divine majesty. It would be easy to judge from the words that came from the abundance of his heart as he left this holy exercise, what must have been the effects of his prayer. Besides that, we can truly say that the virtues he practiced throughout his life, his humility, patience, mortification, charity, and in general all he did for the glory and service of God, were fruits of his prayer.

Since he knew from his own experience how profitable and salutary the holy exercise of mental prayer was to help in advancing in the spiritual life, and of perfecting oneself in all the virtues, he was very concerned to extend this appreciation to others. He recommended this exercise, and had others recommend it during the ordination retreats, to those who were about to receive the sacrament of holy orders. He believed the candidates would never succeed if they were not men of prayer. He did the same for those who came to Saint Lazare to make their retreat, since he saw as one of the main fruits they could take away with them was to have been well instructed in how to make mental prayer, and having the firm resolution of being faithful to it all their life. He showed this same enthusiasm in his Clergy Conferences, and with the Ladies of Charity in their meetings, not to mention his own Congregation.

He wanted his missionaries to be men of prayer, as much for their personal advancement as for the ability to be of real service to others. He was most anxious that his confreres should progress in their practice of this holy exercise.

Give me a man of prayer, and he will be able to do everything. He will be able to say with the apostle that he can do all in him who strengthens him and who gives him support.3 The Congregation of the Mission will continue in existence only as so long as mental prayer shall be practiced. Mental prayer is the impregnable ramparts which will protect the missionaries from all sorts of attacks. It is like a mystical arsenal, a tower of David, which will be the source of their arms, not only to defend themselves, but to attack and rout all the opponents of the glory of God and the salvation of souls.4

He was not satisfied just to recommend this holy exercise to his confreres but he took the trouble to train them himself, despite the press of so much other business with which he was preoccupied. He arranged for them, from time to time, usually twice a week, to “repeat” their mental prayer before the assembled community, that is to share the lights and sentiments they had experienced in mental prayer. On each occasion he would call upon three or four confreres for the mutual edification of all, as well as to give the newcomers not yet adept at this exercise a model of how to practice it.

He was deeply moved by these repetitions of mental prayer. He never failed to attend them and often spent many hours in this exercise. Whenever he was on a trip in the company of some lay people, he would persuade them to spend a little time in mental prayer, and then share the good thoughts and sentiments they had received during the prayer. This closed the door to useless conversations, and opened it to pious conversations in which the fruits of the meditation were shared among all the travelers. A lady of great virtue learned this practice from Monsieur Vincent, and later put it into use with her own domestic servants. She recounted once how a manservant reporting on his prayer, told how he thought about our Lord’s love for the poor. He felt that he ought to do something for them, but not having anything to give them, he felt he could at least show them greater consideration. He resolved to speak more graciously when he had the opportunity to meet any of them, and even doff his hat to them. Monsieur Vincent sometimes used this example to show that persons of all ranks could learn to meditate, and that those who were faithful to this prayer became better at it. Also, in this holy exercise God inspired virtuous actions which were often unheeded at other times.

He particularly recommended the practice of mental prayer to those obliged to preach to others, to catechize, or to give spiritual direction to souls. This is how he expressed himself, in writing to one of his priests:

Mental prayer is the great book for the preacher. In this prayer you will descend into the depths of the divine truths of which the Eternal Word is the source, to give them to the people. It is greatly desirable that the missionaries deeply love this holy exercise of mental prayer. Without it, they will produce little or no fruit. By prayer they will make themselves fit to touch hearts and convert souls. I pray that our Lord confirm you in the practice of this virtue.5

Above all, he counseled the prayer of affection and of practical application. This form of prayer results in forming good resolutions based on simple considerations, but does not stop at these, except by a positive influence of the Holy Spirit directing the soul to rest there. To convey the difference between the application of the mind made in mental prayer to the movements of grace, he used the comparison of a ship powered either by oars or by sail. He said the oars were not used except when the wind failed. When the wind was favorable, the ship moved more easily and more quickly. In the same way, considerations of the mind were to be used when there was no obvious inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When this heavenly wind did blow, the proper course was to abandon oneself to its direction.

On another occasion he compared the subjects of meditation to different kinds of shops: in some, only a single kind of merchandise was on display, while others carried many different sorts of goods. In some subjects of meditation, only a single virtue is stressed while others refer to a whole treasury of virtues. An example of this would be the mysteries of the nativity, and the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. To profit from these subjects, our Lord should be adored in the state in which the mystery presents him. He should be admired, praised, and thanked for the graces he merited for us, at the same time that we also present to him our misery and our needs, asking the help and grace we need to imitate and practice the virtue he has taught us.

He encouraged those who endured a dryness or sterility in their mental prayer to persevere, in imitation of our Lord who factus in agonia, prolixius orabat, in his anguish prayed with all the greater intensity.6 He said we must look upon mental prayer as a gift from God, and urgently ask the grace to make it well, saying with the apostle, Domine, doce nos orare: Lord, teach us to pray.7 We should await this grace from his divine goodness with humility and patience.

Once, speaking to his community on prayer, he said:

Prayer is a sermon we preach to ourselves, to convince ourselves of the need we have to turn to God, to cooperate with his grace, to root out vices from our souls, and to replace them with virtues. In mental prayer we must particularly apply ourselves to combating the passion or evil inclination to which we are especially addicted, and we must mortify this tendency, for when we do, the rest is easy. We must fight forcefully, but act calmly, not breaking our head in trying to force anything or to be too subtle. Though we have to lift our minds to God, we must above all listen to him speaking to us, for one single word from him is better than a thousand reasons and all the speculations of our minds. We must from time to time raise our hearts to God, conscious of our nothingness, awaiting his speaking to our heart, uttering a word which leads to eternal life. It is only what God inspires, what comes from him, that is useful for us. What we receive from God we must give to our neighbor after the example of Jesus Christ who, speaking of himself, said: “I say only what the Father has taught me.”8

He had the custom of never failing to make an annual retreat of at least eight days, no matter what pressing business or duties he had. During this time he put the affairs of the house into other hands, so as to give himself completely to mental prayer and recollection. He did so in imitation of our Savior who went into the desert as an example to those who were later to preach the Gospel.

Once, when he asked for prayers from his confreres for some priests making their retreat, he spoke of these spiritual exercises. Although he did not speak of himself on this occasion, we can infer the esteem he had for these practices:

Let us pray to God for those who have begun their retreat, so that he may be pleased to renew them interiorly, making them die to their own selves, to be filled with his Holy Spirit. Yes, a retreat well made is a total renewal. The one who makes it well should be entirely renewed. He no longer remains what he was, but becomes a new man. Let us pray that God will give us this new spirit of revitalization, so that by his grace we may put off the old Adam to be clothed with the new, Jesus Christ, and so that in all things we might accomplish his most holy will.9

SECTION ONE: A Collection of Some Counsels and Instructions of Monsieur Vincent on the Topic of Mental Prayer

Holy Scripture, speaking of the prophet Samuel, says that not a single one of his words went unheeded.10 We might say the same, in some sense, of the words of Monsieur Vincent. They were all animated by the Son of God and blessed by his grace, affecting all who heard them. They were heard by the ear but penetrated to the heart. For this reason we have felt the Catholic reader would be consoled and edified if we would insert here some of the counsels and instructions he gave at various times to his community on the subject of prayer. These were carefully recorded by some among them. Although the servant of God spoke extemporaneously as the occasion demanded, the simplicity with which he spoke like a father speaking to his children gave his words a particular effect, leading well-disposed souls to draw great profit from them.

Those who make their mental prayer well are recognized not only by the way they speak of it, but even better by their actions by which they show the fruit they have gathered from their prayer. We can also say the same thing about those who act unsatisfactorily, because it is easy to see that the first is making great progress, while the latter slips back. To derive profit from mental prayer you must prepare for it. Those who neglect this preparation or who come to prayer simply by habit and because the others are there are greatly mistaken. As the sage says, Ante orationem praepara animam tuam [“before going to prayer, prepare your soul”].11 Mental prayer is a raising of the mind to God to present our needs to him and to implore his mercy and grace. It is only reasonable, before appearing before his sublime majesty, that you should prepare yourself. We must think to ourselves, What am I about to do? Before whom am I to appear? What do I wish to say to him? What grace am I going to ask for? Through laziness or lack of energy we may neglect to think of these things, or, on the contrary we may possibly be overly worried other matters and so fail in our preparation. We should remedy this fault. We must also control our imagination, so prone to wander, and focus it on the presence of God, without straining to do this however, for excess in this is not good.

Mental prayer has three parts, and everyone knows their order and method. We should follow this method. The subject may be an object of our senses or an abstraction. If it is sensible, such as a mystery of the faith, we should represent it to ourselves, paying attention to all its parts and circumstances. If it should concern an abstract subject, such as a virtue, we should think of what the virtue consists in, its properties, marks, effects, the acts which compose it, and the means of putting it into practice. It would be good to consider the reason for practicing this virtue, and pay the most attention to those motives which most appeal to us. We should think of passages of Holy Scripture or the fathers which bear upon the subject. It is good to reflect upon these, but we should not seek to recall too many of these passages, for what good would it do to amass many passages and reasons, unless it were to enlighten the mind or to clarify our thought, but then this would become more a study than a prayer.

When you want to start a fire, you use a flint, and as soon as the tinder catches fire you light a candle. You would be foolish to continue striking the flint after the candle is lit. So too, when the soul is enlightened by these considerations, why seek others, and continue to strike our minds again and again for other reasons or other thoughts? Do you not see that it is a waste of time to do this? You should strive to move the will and to excite the affections by the beauty of the virtue to be acquired or the hatefulness of the opposite vice. This is not too hard to do, for the will seeks the light of understanding, and naturally turns to what it sees as good and desirable.

This is still not enough. We have to go beyond good sentiments to make good resolutions to work at acquiring the virtue, to put it into practice, and to do acts proper to it. This is the important point and it is the fruit to be gathered from prayer. We should not take our resolutions lightly, but rather repeat them to ourselves and fix them solidly in our heart. It is good to foresee the obstacles that may arise to stand in our way, and the means that would be helpful for putting them into execution. We should determine to avoid the one and be determined to practice the other.

In this regard it is not necessary and often not expedient to have lofty sentiments about the virtue we are seeking, or even the desire to have these sentiments. This desire to feel the virtues, which are purely spiritual qualities, can sometimes harm and pain the mind. Excessive efforts only upset the brain and cause headaches. In the same way, acts of the will that are repeated too often or too forcefully dry up and weaken the heart. We should be moderate in all things, and excess is to be avoided in all things but especially in mental prayer. We must act in gentle moderation, always preserving peace of mind and heart.12

Another time he explained the difference between thoughts that arise spontaneously and those inspired by God.

Notice the difference between the light of a fire and that which comes from the sun. During the night when a fire glows, we see objects by its light, yet we see them only imperfectly because this light is limited. The sun, on the other hand, lights the entire world, giving life to everything. It allows us to see beyond that which is merely exterior, to penetrate into the interior, and it makes all things fruitful and fertile according to their proper nature. The thoughts and considerations which come from our own reflections are feeble lights, showing us only the outside of things, and nothing else. The lights of grace which the Sun of Justice shines into our souls penetrate to the innermost depths of our heart, bringing forth marvelous fruits. We must then ask God to enlighten us himself, and to inspire in us what pleases him. All these lofty and studied considerations are in no way to be called mental prayer. We must act in moderation, and gently, always preserving peace of mind and heart.

Those who stop and delight themselves in these lofty considerations are like the preacher who prides himself on his beautiful sermons. He delights in seeing the audience so taken up with what he says. Evidently the Holy Spirit is not at all present here, but instead, it is the spirit of pride which enlightens his understanding and produces all these fine thoughts. To say it more accurately, in this case the demon himself inspires him and makes him speak as he does. It is much the same with mental prayer when we seek those fine considerations or those extraordinary thoughts, especially when they are sought only for the sake of impressing others when they make a repetition of their meditation. This is a sort of blasphemy, an idolatry of the mind, for when meeting God in mental prayer you are seeking only what will cater to your pride. You take up this holy time of prayer to seek your own satisfaction, and in taking pleasure in your own thoughts, you offer sacrifice to the idol of your own vanity.

Alas, my brothers, be on guard against such foolishness. We must recognize that we are all filled with misery. We must seek only what will further humble ourselves and bring us to the solid practice of virtue. We must abase ourselves in mental prayer to the point of nothingness, and in making a repetition on our prayer we must speak our thoughts most humbly. If some thoughts should come to us which seem good, we should be most cautious in accepting them lest the spirit of pride be their source, or even the demon inspire them. This is why we must always humble ourselves profoundly when good thoughts come to us in our mental prayer, in our preaching or in our conversation with others.

Alas, the Son of God could have overwhelmed everyone by his divine eloquence, but he did not choose to do so. Instead, when teaching the truths of the Gospel he always used common words and expressions, ones that were familiar to his hearers. He preferred to be reviled and despised rather than be praised and esteemed. You see, my brothers, how we must imitate him and control the proud thoughts that come to us in mental prayer and elsewhere. We must follow humbly in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, using simple and understandable words. When God allows it, be at peace when what you say is not accepted or you are rejected or mocked. You must be convinced that without a true and sincere humility you will benefit neither yourself nor others.13

A member of the community gave a repetition on his mental prayer for the day. He said that he doubted that he should make any more resolutions because he was unfaithful in putting them into practice. Monsieur Vincent took the floor and said:

We must not neglect making resolutions in our mental prayer just because we have been negligent in carrying out previous ones we have taken. It is similar to eating, for we should not stop doing this even if it seems that we are not drawing any benefit from it. Making resolutions is one of the most important parts of our mental prayer, and perhaps even the most important. We must give our attention to making resolutions, and not to the reasoning or thoughts we might have. The main fruit of prayer consists of personal resolutions strongly and firmly made. They should be resolutions which you are convinced of and which you prepare to execute, taking into account the obstacles to be overcome. And yet, even this is not all we have to do.

Our resolutions are by their nature both physical and moral actions. They have to be properly arrived at and fully accepted within our hearts, but we must also recognize that no matter how good they may be, their practice and their results depend absolutely upon God. What do you think is the most common reason why our resolutions fail? Is it not because we rely too much upon ourselves, upon our own good aspirations, and upon our own strength? This is why they produce such little fruit. This is why, after we make our resolutions we should greatly distrust ourselves and turning to God, invoke his grace, so he may be pleased to shower his gifts upon us and bless our resolutions. Even then if we should fall short once or twice, or even fail to keep our resolutions repeatedly, still we must again renew our resolve by having recourse to his mercy and imploring the help of his grace. Our past faults should humble us, but not to the extent of making us lose courage. No matter what fault we fall into, we must not lose confidence that God wishes us to come to him. We must resolve anew with the help of his grace not to fall again, something we must earnestly ask of him. Physicians who see no result from the medicines they dispense to the sick do not stop administering them as long as there is still some hope. If these remedies for the body are continued, until there is some sign of improvement, no matter how long or how extreme the illness, should we not do the same for sicknesses of our souls, since, when it pleases God to act, grace can produce such great marvels in them?14

In another conference, he spoke about a brother of the Company who stated that he followed a set way of making his mental prayer by dividing the subject into several parts. Monsieur Vincent said:

Brother, you did well to divide your mental prayer as you did, but when a mystery of religion is the subject of meditation, it is not necessary or expedient to stop at the consideration of a single virtue, and then to make your customary division based on this virtue. It would be better to look at the mystery as a whole, paying attention to all the circumstances, no matter how trivial they may be, for there are hidden treasures there if you know how to look for them.

I recall a recent meeting of some priests who had taken as the subject of their conversations the way to use Lent well. This is a common topic, spoken of every year, and yet such good things were said that all those present were touched, I especially. I can truly say that I have never seen a more devout conference than that one, nor one that made a greater impression upon those present. Although several spoke on the same topic more than once, it seemed they were no longer the same people who were speaking, for God had inspired them in their mental prayer with a wholly new way of speaking. See, my brothers, how God hides such treasures of the truths and mysteries of our religion in the most ordinary things and in everyday circumstances. These grains of mustard seed become great trees when it pleases God to give them his blessing.15

On another occasion he spoke on the same topic.

Some have good thoughts and sentiments, but do not apply them to themselves and do not reflect enough upon their own interior state. This happens even though they have often heard the recommendation that when God gives a person a light or grace or a good thought in one’s mental prayer, it should immediately be put to good use by applying it to one’s own particular state in life. One’s own faults must be considered, confessed, and acknowledged before God and even before the entire community as an aid to humility and self-denial, and as an incentive to the resolution of correcting oneself. There is always some benefit in doing this. Sometimes, during the repetition of mental prayer, I ask myself why this particular person or that one progresses so little in the holy exercise of meditation. I fear the cause of this is that they are not dedicated enough to mortification and they give too much freedom to their senses.

When the most noted writers on the spiritual life write about the practice of mental prayer, they unanimously declare that the practice of mortification is absolutely necessary to progress in mental prayer. For a person to be well disposed for such prayer, one must not only mortify the eyes, tongue, ears, and the other external senses, but also the faculties of the soul: the understanding, memory, and will. Mortification is the way to prepare for mental prayer, and reciprocally, mental prayer helps the person practice mortification.16

One of the brothers of the Company once threw himself upon his knees before the others to ask pardon for the fault of not having made his mental prayer for some time. He found it painful even to attempt it. Monsieur Vincent said to him:

Brother, God sometimes allows us to lose the taste and attraction for mental prayer, and even allows us to find it distasteful. This is usually a test that he sends, a trial for us, but it should not discourage or dishearten us. Many good people have been tried in this way, even some of the saints. Yes, I know several pious persons who have felt this dryness and distaste for mental prayer. Yet they were faithful to God, and used this experience well. As a result, they derived great benefit in their advancement along the way of virtue. As we begin to practice mental prayer, it is true that when this distaste and dryness comes, there is reason to think it may come from our own negligence. You must be on your guard, my brother, that this is not your situation.17

Later, he asked a brother if he had a headache, and he simply replied that he had, coming from his attempt during his last retreat to feel something in mental prayer. Monsieur Vincent responded:

Brother, you must not act this way, attempting to feel something beyond feeling. This attempt comes from self-love. In mental prayer we must act in a spirit of faith, quietly and simply meditating on the mysteries and virtues with no attempt at imagining. Instead we must apply the will to respond by affections and resolutions rather than have the mind try to respond by understanding.18

In the repetition of his mental prayer, another brother complained about not being intelligent enough to pray well. He could exercise only one faculty of his soul, the will. At the very beginning of his prayer and without any reasoning, he began to make acts of affection. He would thank God, or ask his mercy, or arouse feelings of confusion and regret for his sins, or would ask for the grace to imitate our Lord in the practice of some virtue, and then move on to some resolutions. Monsieur Vincent said to him, “Brother, you must not try to change any of this. Do not worry about trying to understand, even though this is ordinarily necessary to move the will. In your case, you move directly to these affections and to the resolutions of practicing some of the virtues. May God give you the grace to continue as you have been doing, and make you more and more responsive to his holy will.”19

  1. 1 John 4:1.
  2. Prov 4:18.
  3. Phil 4:13.
  4. CED XI:83-84.
  5. CED VII:156.
  6. Luke 22:43.
  7. Luke 11:1.
  8. John 8:28. CED XI:84.
  9. CED VI:94-95.
  10. 1 Sam 3:19.
  11. Sir 18:23.
  12. CED VI:405-07, 229-32.
  13. CED XI:85-87.
  14. CED XI:87-88.
  15. CED XI:89-90.
  16. CED XI:90-91.
  17. CED XI:91-92.
  18. CED ibid.
  19. CED XI:92-93.

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