We will now analyze Blessed Paul Giustiniani’s doctrine on prayer. The hermit’s principal ideal, aim, or task is continual prayer (Lk 18:1), that is, constant union with God. There is no fixed time for mental prayer in the eremitic life, unlike other religious institutes, because prayer is to be unceasing, a kind of spiritual equivalent to breathing. How can one enter into this prayer? Blessed Paul takes up again the doctrine (then attributed to Saint Bernard) of Guigo II the Carthusian. This commonly-accepted monastic approach to prayer, called lectio divina or divine reading , can be explained as a ladder (Guigo’s Scala Claustralium) of four rungs: (1) lectio (reading), (2) meditatio (meditation), (3) oratio (prayer), and (4) contemplatio (contemplation).
(1) Lectio, as the initial and fundamental element (Coronese Constitutions 31), gives the entire procedure of four steps its name analogically. This reading is called divine because its object is divine revelation, the Word of God heard in faith. One seeks this Word either in the Bible (also heard read in its entirety each year in the liturgy) or in some other devout book faithfully echoing Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
(2) Meditatio or meditation is a careful thinking over of what has been read and focuses on very definite dogmatic and moral considerations . One needs an appreciation of the basic standards of interpreting Scripture and of its various senses. Meditation can also legitimately pass beyond what has just been read to other points gleaned outside the time of private prayer.
(3) Oratio makes use of the truths and sentiments found by meditation in any of an infinite multitude of possible acts of affective prayer. Ejaculatory prayer formulas could be used at this stage, such as the invocation of the name of Jesus as practiced in the Eastern Church, which Eastern practice would reinforce in the body by the fingering of beads, bows, and the like. Even though prayer most narrowly defined means asking God for something, yet its wider and widest senses, namely the ascent of the mind to God and colloquy with God, are equally relevant and ought not be neglected. Blessed Paul says he prayed, in the first place, by confession of his misery and unworthiness; then by adoration, confession (of praise), thanksgiving, invocation, awaiting, and desire. These acts of prayer agree with the more compact typology of 1 Tim 2:1: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.
(4) Contemplatio or contemplation moves from the many acts of the previous step to a single act. Beginners may achieve this level seldom and but briefly. The starting point of contemplation will later be called the prayer of simplicity by Bishop Bossuet and subsequent theologians. In order to enter into this state, Giustiniani bids us to be empty for and towards God, vacare Deo (cf. the English cognates vacuum and vacation ), disencumbered of all attachment to creatures and expectant like the hungry chick of Saint Romuald’s Brief Rule. This is the adoring silence of apophatism, which eventually can give birth to annihilation, an ecstatic absorption in God, and Blessed Paul’s experience of these resembles that of other mystics. Saint John of the Cross tells us (Ascent II 24:9): . . . God . . . is incomprehensible and above all, and therefore it befits us to go to God by the negation of all. And Aquinas (cited by Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge V:23) summarizes thus Pseudo-Dionysius’ interpretation of Ex 20:21: At the end of our knowledge, we know God precisely as unknown.
To ascend through these stages is to proceed from a solid grounding of the mind in truth to a more precious exercise of the will in hope and love, for character is in the will, not in the intellect (Archbishop Sheen, quoted in Reeves’biography, p.144). The effort this ascent requires must not be stinted, because, through the practice of the seven gifts, the divine movement of actual grace, which is the soul of prayer, comes to be received no longer violently, but connaturally.
The foregoing analysis will help us understand better Blessed Paul’s distinctive teaching on methodless prayer. The famous four grades elaborated by Guigo II, noted by both Blessed Paul and the redactors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and just expounded do not constitute a method in the strict sense. They are, rather, moments in a movement of interiorization of the Word of God. And yet Giustiniani does admit of what Leclercq calls the method of prior asceticism , that is, of remote and proximate preparation for prayer. Remote preparation is living a holy life, which detaches the mind from worldly preoccupations and disposes it for that ascent to God which is, as we have seen, prayer’s broader definition. This remote preparation includes the practice of the virtues, liturgical worship, and discipline of the senses (the Camaldolese trinomium is solitude, silence, and fasting). Proximate preparation comprises the first two rungs of Guigo’s ladder, reading and meditation. Now beyond such somewhat methodical remote and proximate preparation, we must climb up to the third and even, if possible, to the fourth rung. At this point, Giustiniani’s counsel to eschew method comes fully into force, and with evident wisdom. Human planning and effort have served their purpose and run their course. They must now give place to the subtle groanings of the Spirit (Rom 8:26-27). His influence must be sought reverently and clung to tranquilly for as long as it lasts. If Blessed Paul requires a daily half hour of stillness in prayer, with a reverent and vigilant posture and in a sacred place, this is to assure that our own actions are not so unremitting as to block the Spirit’s initiatives. We should allow Him to lead us either to multiply acts of prayer, or to ascend to contemplation, or even to return to reading and meditation. And normally He will provide us with some word to hold fast patiently in our hearts (Lk 8:15), as Mary did (Lk 2:19, 51), to sustain what the Holy Fathers call the remembrance of God. The mouth of the just shall meditate wisdom. . . . (Ps 36 (37):30; cf. Ps 1:2 and Jos 1:8).
Holy Nicholas, Pray for Us. -
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