The Priesthood and Perfection by Garrigou-Lagrange - Chapter 12

Priestly Mental Prayer

1. Introduction

Prayer in general is the elevation of the mind to God, by which we ask Him for those things which are useful or necessary for salvation.1 Vocal prayer ought to lead to mental prayer which is like an intimate conversation or colloquy with God.

Normally, mental prayer advances as the soul makes progress in the interior life. In the purgative way the soul, in order to avoid sin, must make many considerations and reflections to reach firm resolutions which, strictly speaking, under the direction of faith, are part of the virtue of prudence.

Then, when the passions are more under control and are almost calm, prayer becomes more affective, and the virtue of religion, with the gift of piety, predominates, and special attention is given to the four purposes of sacrifice adoration, reparation, petition and thanksgiving.

Finally, the soul reaches the state of contemplative prayer, which may be called theological prayer in that it proceeds particularly from the theological virtues, with the corresponding gifts of understanding and wisdom. At this stage, the soul "aims principally that it inhere in God and take its delight in Him."2

2. Discursive prayer

The method of discursive prayer has been very well described by St. Francis de Sales.3 It is divided into three parts:

The first part is the preparation for prayer, when the soul puts itself in the presence of God, humbly asks His help and puts before itself the subject of the meditation the passion of our divine Lord, death, the particular judgment after death, hell, purgatory, heaven, the obligations of religion, or the obligations of the Christian state which must be fulfilled.

The second part is the meditation or consideration strictly so called of the subject which has been chosen. The passion of our divine Lord, for example, is considered not only as an historic reality but as something supernatural as well, with its main practical consequences as far as we are concerned. Similarly we may meditate on death or the judgment of God. The soul ponders on the subject which has been considered and then speaks to itself about it.

The third part consists in the affections and resolutions. In other words, the soul should not only speak with itself by thinking over the subject of the meditation, but it should also talk to God, directing toward Him its desire, its affective and effective charity, more firmly moving itself to the mortification of the passions and the imitation of Christ. Prudence, which guides one's life, will indicate what resolutions should be taken.

The conclusion of mental prayer consists in thanking God and asking for the grace to keep one's resolutions.

It is in this way that those who begin well make discursive prayer, for which many considerations and reflections are needed, so that the soul is gradually raised above sensible things and gives itself more generously to God. Some make their meditation by slowly reading the Gospel or the Imitation of Christ; others by hearing Mass, or considering its various parts; others again by slowly saying the Rosary and meditating on its mysteries; others by putting their whole heart into a slow recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

3. Affective prayer

In this, the considerations are shorter, and affections predominate in the form of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and desire or petition. It is not surprising, therefore, that Blessed Julian Eymard4 should insist on the four ends of sacrifice: adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and prayer for divine help. In this prayer there appears particularly the virtue of religion with the gift of piety, from which springs a filial affection toward God as Father. Because the virtue of religion and the gift of piety are in the will, it is not surprising that this prayer should be called affective.

Affective prayer in line with the purposes of sacrifice is normally done in this way:

Adoration begins while the soul puts itself in the presence of God. In other words, the soul adores the infinite excellence of God and His goodness which is the source of all graces, and it adores even the humanity of Christ, present in the Eucharist, and immolated in an unbloody manner in the Mass. Adoration, therefore, daily becomes higher and more profound; the words of St. Thomas are verified: "Adoration consists mainly in an interior reverence for God"5 by acknowledging His infinite excellence in a practical way and admitting that of ourselves we are nothing.

Next follows a thanksgiving for all the benefits which God has given us creation, elevation to the order of grace, the Incarnation and Redemption, the Eucharist, and those favors which we have received personally, both before our birth in having been born into a Christian family and the favors which we have received since then.

Reparation for sins normally comes next. The soul asks forgiveness and the grace of deeper contrition so that the stains of sin and bad dispositions, particularly the inordinate love of oneself and egoism, the root of the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, the pride of life and the seven capital sins may be removed. This reparation remedies the love of oneself which is at the base of the will as an evil root which impedes the growth of the good root, charity. In this exercise, the virtues of humility and penance, in addition to the virtue of religion, are exercised.

Finally there is the petition for those graces which we need individually if we are to persevere to the end a petition, even, for the salvation of all souls. In this way, Jesus Himself prays, interceding for us always, particularly in the Mass at which fie is the principal priest.

Since the virtue of religion is commanded by charity, in the end of this prayer charity prevails affective charity toward God the Father and toward Jesus Christ. But affective charity is not alone; there is also a love conforming itself with the divine will and a zeal or ardor of charity toward God who is so little loved by men, and a vivid desire for the extension of His kingdom, the salvation of souls, and the conversion of sinners. A spirit of sacrifice animates this prayer according to the four purposes of sacrifice.

Several authors do not distinguish affective prayer from contemplation, which they distinguish from discursive meditation.6 In affective prayer, "discourse" or reasoning is very short; affection and the ardor of love predominate. We have there a certain contemplation which may be called acquired when it does not proceed from a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit. St. Teresa speaks of this prayer and calls it active recollection.7 There are often sensible consolations in this prayer. St. Teresa distinguishes them from the spiritual pleasure of infused contemplation, when she says: "In short, [sensible consolations] arise from nature and end in God. Spiritual joys, on the contrary, arise from God."8

Moreover, in affective prayer the soul explicitly seeks its own perfection, whereas in infused contemplation it is more united to God and does not think explicitly of its own perfection, but desires rather the glory of God and Christ. Some souls in affective prayer have a very ardent devotion to the Eucharist.9

At first sight it seems that this zeal points to mystical prayer, or mystical contemplation; but Father Libermann does not think that this is true, because such zeal is found even in those who have not passed through the dryness of the passive purification of the senses, where, according to St. John of the Cross, infused contemplation begins. In those souls which have not been passively purified, grace works on the surface of the soul, in the sensitive part, but does not penetrate more deeply. This zeal, therefore, is more vehement than solid, firm, or stable. But the contrary is true in the case of real contemplatives. Such is clearly seen when beginners are faced with trials and do not bear them with generosity if sensible consolations are taken away.

Later on, after a long aridity of the senses endured with faith and confidence, they will be braver and more constant. Then when they are at prayer, ordinary grace, less vehement but more intense, will penetrate to the depths of the soul, pouring in light and love by which they will be more intimately united to God, and their prayer will then be contemplative, strictly speaking, and mystical, as Saudreau has well pointed out.10

Who are the souls who do not advance in prayer, even though they are in the state of grace and fulfill their strict obligations?

Spiritual writers say that they are the souls who only do for God whatever is obligatory, nothing more, but neglect mortification or self-denial, continue to love useless reading, walking for the pure pleasure of it and other superfluities like tobacco while it would be much better to give the price of it in alms to the poor. Similarly, they are those who look for the good opinion of men, who freely do their own will and even impose it on others: in short, all those who, in the absence of self-denial, are held back by a kind of chain and have not that liberty of spirit which will make them love the will of God in all things. It is not surprising that during prayer they will then remain in tepid aridity and cannot understand how much mortified souls love intimate prayer, and what great peace and strength they can find in conversation with God.

4. Theological prayer

Theological prayer disposes one for infused contemplation. This prayer begins in humility and religion, and afterwards proceeds from faith, hope, and charity, and ends in contemplation which arises from the gifts of understanding and wisdom found in all just people.

Theological prayer begins in an act of humility, the fundamental virtue which removes pride. Every prayer must be humble, said with a consciousness of our own inadequacy. This act of humility is side by side with an act of adoration of God, present in the Eucharist and in the soul of the just. "We have this treasure, but in vessels easily broken."

This prayer, since it is the elevation of the soul to God, proceeds from faith. We must make an act of faith, simple, profound, continuous, and as far as possible centered on the mysteries of the life of Christ or the divine perfections. Often, some words from the Gospel or the Psalms are sufficient. This simple act of faith is now beyond the discursive stage. The soul simply says: I believe.

Here already there is a certain beginning of contemplation, for the soul already sees from afar the living fountain of water leaping up into eternal life.

From this act of faith proceeds naturally an act of hope, for the soul immediately longs for this living fountain proposed to it by faith: "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul paneth after thee, O God" (Ps. 41:2). The soul hopes for God, puts its trust in God as a benefactor, and asks His help in order to reach this living fountain. Then it says not only I believe, but I hope, I desire, I eagerly long for Thee. St. Thomas explains this very well when he says: "Through faith, the intellect sees that which we love and for which we hope."12 It is necessary, therefore, that in the order of generation faith precede hope and charity. Similarly man loves that which he has already apprehended as good for him. Because a man hopes that he will be able to achieve some good, through somebody, he regards the person in whom he hopes as a certain good for him. From hope in somebody, therefore, man proceeds to love him. And thus in the order of generation, where acts are concerned, hope precedes charity but the opposite is true in the order of perfection.

In this way, therefore, following an act of hope in God as benefactor, there rises an act of affective charity by which we love God as benefactor not only on account of the good things which He gives us but also for His own sake, because in Himself He is infinitely better than His gifts. Sensible affection can be present, in an inferior way, along with this affection of charity, but it is not necessary and is taken away in times of aridity and temptation, at which times, however, the act of charity can be more intense. What is necessary, therefore, is the affection which is spiritual, supernatural, deep, profound, tranquil much more secure and fruitful than the sensible emotions. This act of charity is, for example, thus expressed: Grant, O Lord, that I do not lie when I tell You of my love; grant that it be sincere and true.

But this affective charity must become effective. We should not only say "Lord I love You," but "In all things I wish to do Your will." In this way, the resolution is not only general but particular also, dealing with a definite inclination which must be conquered. It should be noted that the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer correspond to the three theological virtues. Our Father . . . may Thy name be sanctified, glorified (through faith), may Thy kingdom come (this is an object of hope), may Thy will be done (through affective and effective charity).

Finally, in prayer, the knowledge of faith and the love of hope and charity are united, under the inspiration of the gift of wisdom, in the simple and effective intuition of divine goodness. And thus infused contemplation begins. Just as an artist contemplates sensible nature, or a child contemplates and looks with affection at the face of its mother, so the Christian soul in prayer contemplates according to the words of the Psalmist: "Taste and see, because the Lord is sweet." The just soul, therefore, arrives at an almost experimental knowledge of God. It has not an immediate experience of God Himself, but it knows God almost experimentally through the filial affection which the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit has aroused in us, according to the words of St. Paul: "The Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God" (Rom. 8:16). In his commentary, St. Thomas says: "He gives this testimony 'through filial affection' which He arouses in us by a special inspiration; it is an 'infused act of charity,' and with some degree of moral certainty we distinguish this filial affection from the natural act which is more or less similar and in which sentiment is present, without sufficient conformity to the will of God."13

Mental prayer ordered in this way is an elevation of the mind to God, proceeding in the beginning from humility and religion, then from the three theological virtues, and finally in a more or less mysterious way from the gifts of wisdom and understanding.

In this prayer, therefore, knowledge and love are more and more united in that effective love of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is like the breathing of the soul, breathing in truth and grace, and breathing forth love. It is a kind of spiritual communion prolonged for half-an-hour. Discursive prayer, and then affective prayer, gradually dispose the soul for it, just as it in its turn disposes for higher contemplation, that passive recollection and passive prayer of quiet of which St. Teresa speaks in the Fourth Mansion.

This theological prayer reconciles the simplicity of ancient authors with the method, sometimes too complicated, of the modern. And it can be applied to various subjects which have to be considered, and especially to a consideration of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, as is explained by St. Teresa in The Way of Perfection.

In this way are understood much better the three degrees of prayer discussed by St. Thomas. He speaks of: (1) direct movement; (2) oblique movement in a spiral form, and (3) circular movement.14

Direct movement rises from sensible things to God and considers God in the mirror of sensible things in nature, for example, or in parables.

Oblique movement rises in the form of a spiral, just like a twisting path up a mountain when, for example, through the joyful, sorrowful, or glorious mysteries of the Rosary the soul rises to the contemplation of God considered in the mirror of intelligible truths.

Circular movement, like the flight of an eagle or swallow in the heights of the air, has really no beginning or end, and so differs from a process of reasoning. It is a simple intuition of the goodness of God, the radiation of which is felt in the same way as an eagle, flying in a circle, feels the radiation of the sun.

Good prayer gradually transforms character and makes the soul like Christ. It understands the words: "Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls."


1. See S.T., 2-2, q. 83, a. 1.

2. Ibid., q. 24, a. 9.

3. St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II, c. 1.

4. Blessed Julian Eymard, Meditazioni per Esercizi Spirituali ai Piedi di Gesu in Sacramento, vol. 3, pp. 82-88.

5. ST., 2-2, q. 84, a. 2, ad 2.

6. See P. Meynard, O.P., Traité de la Vie Interieure, vol. I, p. 168; Saudreau, Degrés de la Vie Spirituelle, vol. I, p. 269.

7. See St. Teresa of Jesus, The Way of Perfection, Chapters 28 and 29.

8. St. Teresa of Jesus, The Interior Castle, translated by a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey, (Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press, 1948), Fourth Mansion, chapter 1, p. 52. See St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, stanza three (in volume III of The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, translated and edited by E. Allison Peers).

9. See Saudreau, op. cit., vol. I, p. 275 for a quotation from Venerable Francis Libermann on this point.

10. Saudreau, op. cit., vol. I, p. 277.

11. For example, see Saudreau, op. cit., vol. I, p. 291.

12. S.T., 1-2, q. 62, a. 4.

13. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Rom. 8:16.

14. See S.T., 2-2 q. 180, a. 6.