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From “The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection” by Saint Alphonsus Ligouri
Chapter 1. Mental Prayer is
Morally Necessary for Salvation
2. IT DISPOSES THE HEART TO THE PRACTICE OF VIRTUES
Moreover, without meditation there is not strength to resist the temptations of our enemies, and to practice the virtues of the Gospel.
Meditation is like fire with regard to iron, which, when cold, is hard, and can be wrought only with difficulty. But placed in the fire it becomes soft, and the workman gives it any form he wishes, says the venerable Bartholomew a Martyribus.
To observe the Divine precepts and counsels, it is necessary to have a tender heart, that is, a hart docile and prepared to receive the impressions of celestial inspirations, and ready to obey them. It was this that Solomon asked of God: “Give, therefore, to thy servant an understanding heart” (3 Kings 3: 9).
Sin has made our heart hard and indocile; for, being altogether inclined to sensual pleasure, it resists, as the Apostle complained, the laws of the spirit: “But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind” (Rom. 7: 23).
But man becomes docile and tender to the influence of grace which is communicated in mental prayer. By the contemplation of the Divine goodness, the great love which God has borne him, and the immense benefits which God has bestowed upon him, man is inflamed with love, his heart is softened, and made obedient to the Divine inspirations.
But without mental prayer his heart will remain hard and restive and disobedient, and thus he will be lost: “A hard heart shall fare evil at the last” (Sirach 3: 27). Hence, St. Bernard exhorted Pope Eugene never to omit meditations on account of external occupations. “I fear for you, O Eugene, lest the multitude of affairs [prayer and consideration being intermitted] may bring you to a hard heart, which abhors not itself, because it perceives not.”
Some may imagine that the long time which devout souls give to prayer, and which they could spend in useful works, is unprofitable and lost time. But such persons know not that in mental prayer souls acquire strength to conquer enemies and to practice virtue.
“From this leisure,” says St. Bernard, “strength comes forth.” Hence, the Lord commanded that his spouse should not be disturbed. “I adjure you . . . that you stir not up, nor awake my beloved till she please” (Song of Songs 3:5). He says, “until she please;” for the sleep or repose which the soul takes in mental prayer is perfectly voluntary, but is, at the same time, necessary for its spiritual life. He who does not sleep has not strength to work nor to walk, but goes tottering along the way.
The soul that does not repose and acquire strength in meditation is not able to resist temptations, and totters on the road. In the life of the Venerable Sister Mary Crucified, we read that, while at prayer, she heard a devil boasting that he had made a nun omit the common meditation, and that afterwards, because he continued to tempt to her, she was in danger of consenting to mortal sin. The servant of God ran to the nun, and, with the Divine aid, rescued her from the criminal suggestion. Behold the danger to which one who omits meditation exposes his soul!
St. Teresa used to say that he who neglects mental prayer, needs not a devil to carry him to Hell, but that he brings himself there with his own hands. And the Abbot Diocles says that “the man who omits mental prayer soon becomes either a beast or a devil.”
3. IT HELPS US TO PRAY AS WE SHOULD
Without petitions on our part, God does not grant the Divine helps; and without aid from God, we cannot observe the Commandments. From the absolute necessity of the prayer of petition arises the moral necessity of mental prayer; for he who neglects meditation, and is distracted with worldly affairs, will not know his spiritual wants, the dangers to which his salvation is exposed, the means which he must adopt in order to conquer temptations, or ever the necessity of the prayer of petition for all men; thus, he will give up the practice of prayer, and by neglecting to ask God’s graces he will certainly be lost.
The great Bishop Palafox in his Annotations to the letters of St. Teresa, says: “How can charity last, unless God gives perseverance? How will the Lord give us perseverance, if we neglect to ask Him for it? And how shall we ask Him without mental prayer? Without mental prayer, there is not the communication with God which is necessary for the preservation of virtue.” And Cardinal Bellarmine says, that for him who neglects meditation, it is morally impossible to live without sin.
Some one may say, I do not make mental prayer, but I say many vocal prayers. But is necessary to know, as St. Augustine remarks, that to obtain the Divine grace it is not enough to pray with the tongue, it is necessary also to pray with the heart.
On the words of David, “I cried to the Lord with my voice,” (Ps. 141: 2) the holy Doctor says, “Many cry not with their own voice [that is, not with the interior voice of the soul], but with that of the body. Your thoughts are a cry to the Lord. Cry within, where God hears.”
This is what the Apostle inculcates: “Praying at all times in the spirit” (Eph. 6: 18). In general, vocal prayers are said distractedly with the voice of the body, but not of the heart, especially when they are long, and still more especially when said by a person who does not make mental prayer; and, therefore, God seldom hears them, and seldom grants the graces asked.
Many say the Rosary, the Office of the Blessed Virgin, and perform other works of devotion; but they still continue in sin. But it is impossible for him who perseveres in mental prayer to continue in sin: he will either give up meditation or renounce sin. A great servant of God used to say that mental prayer and sin cannot exist together. And this we see by experience: they who make mental prayer rarely incur the enmity of Good; and should they ever have the misfortune of falling into sin, by persevering in mental prayer they see their misery and return to God. Let a soul, says St. Teresa, be ever so negligent, if it persevere in meditation, the Lord will bring it back to the haven of salvation.