Chapter X - Faith
This chapter on Faith to finish the book is very long – 32 pages. These summaries have always averaged about four pages. That would be a lot of condensing so I always encourage all of you to read the entire chapter as well as browse this summary.
The purpose of this whole book is to draw us closer to God and to draw more grace within our soul through prayer so that we will have divine life within us. In this last chapter, Blessed Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus shows us that St. John of the Cross reduces the whole doctrine of contemplation to an exposition of the role of faith. This chapter shows how faith is necessary, what it is, in what ways it is exercised, and what are the characteristics of the knowledge it secures.
Since faith attains to God and since God, like a consuming fire is always ready to communicate Himself, each act of living faith accompanied by charity – puts one in contact with that burning fire which places one under the influence of its light and its flame; in other words, it procures for the soul an increase of grace and hence participation In the divine nature which is what we should all be seeking. Faith is the door of entry, necessary for attaining to God. For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder to those who seek Him. Whatever may be the circumstances that accompany the act of faith – aridities or enthusiasm, joy or suffering – it attains to the divine Reality; and even if one experiences nothing of this contact in its faculties, one knows that it has existed and has been efficacious. Grace is drawn from God in the measure of one’s faith; in a more abundant measure, perhaps, if the divine Mercy has intervened to supply for deficiencies. God entirely eludes the senses.
The powerlessness of the intellect to know the Deity as it is in Itself, and the Triune Life, permits us to conclude that we will know God in Himself only if He reveals Himself, and at the same time gives us a supernatural power capable of perceiving His light. Actually, God has made a revelation of Himself and given us the virtue of faith which is an aptitude of possessing Him in knowledge. Faith is a supernatural theological virtue by which we believe in God and in the truths that He proposes to us, on the authority of God Who reveals them.
Since faith is the only proximate and proportionate means for attaining to God, any striving for union with God will have recourse to its mediation and activity. Faith alone can lead us to the divine source of grace. The act of faith, according to St. Thomas “is an act of the intellect assenting to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God.”
The sacraments themselves which give grace by their own intrinsic power, normally require faith in the recipient. We must have faith if we would be united to our Lord in the Blessed Eucharist, here even His sacred humanity lies hid. Likewise, the exchange of friendship with God in mental prayer will take place only through faith. Mental prayer considered from the view of the soul’s part in it, is nothing but faith lovingly in quest of God, and may be considered as a succession of acts of faith. Consequently, if, during dryness and powerlessness, the soul perseveringly makes acts of faith and of love, it can be assured that its prayer is good, even if it does not experience the effects of it.
Mental prayer, attaining to God only by faith, will take its own perfection from the quality of the faith from which it springs. Hence, we will find in the development of the life of prayer two phases parallel to the development of the virtue of faith. The first phase, or active prayer, corresponds to that faith which draws light from reason; the second, or passive prayer, is nourished by the living faith that is perfected by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Conceptual faith, as we have seen, attains to divine Reality, but reverts to the exercise of the faculties to find in them its light and food. The prayer that corresponds to it will truly be a friendly converse with God, but one that is sustained by the activity of the imagination, of the intellect, or of the will. The activity of these faculties is predominant; hence the name of active prayer, the different forms of which are distinguished in the first three Teresian Mansions.
Living, perfect faith receives from God Himself, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, its light and its measure. In the state of prayer animated by faith, the soul is drawn towards the divine Reality by the obscure perception of it that it receives through the gifts, and is, as it were, raised above its own natural manner of activity; or at least, it continually tends towards the divine Reality revealing itself. This is called contemplative or passive prayer, because the action of God predominates.
St. John of the Cross gives the signs that permit one to distinguish these two phases of the life of prayer, signs of the greatest importance because of the difference in the conduct that each imposes on the soul.
Since it is true that in active prayer, faith finds its sustenance and its support in the activity of the faculties, the soul has the duty of studying revealed truth, preparing for prayer, and activating the faculties during the prayer, to the extent that such activity is necessary in order to maintain the conversation with God.
In the second phase, that of contemplative prayer, since faith finds its food in God Himself, the duty of the soul is to calm the activity of the natural faculties and, by very simple acts, to sustain the attraction that the divine Reality exercises over it. The operation of the gifts requires that silent peaceful attitude of soul; and the respect due to the divine working, now predominant in the soul, demands a continued orientation towards the Divine.
Since prayer finds its supernatural efficacy in the quality of the faith that animates it, and consequently, in the intimacy and frequency of the contacts with God that it secures, contemplative prayer is usually more efficacious than active prayer.
In active prayer, faith is imperfect, having contact with God only intermittently, and closely linked to the natural activity of the faculties; while in the passive, contemplative prayer - faith – thanks to the gifts of the Holy Spirit which perfect it in its exercise – habitually maintains the soul under the action of God. In active prayer, the soul draws from time to time from the divine fountains; in passive prayer, it remains bathed in the purifying waters and flames of the Holy Spirit where it is transformed from rightness to brightness until it resembles the Divine.
One might ask if the desire for a deeper and more rapid transformation of love warrants an effort on the soul’s part to rise to passive prayer. It would be sufficient, so it seems, to stop the activity of the faculties after an act of faith, in order to prevent a return to the natural acts and to keep the soul in the obscure reality to which it has just attained. St. Teresa has treated at quite some length of this attempt, and declares that it proceeds from presumptious pride and that it would be useless.
Supernatural contemplation is a gratuitous gift of divine Mercy. God alone can put in action the gifts of the Holy Spirit which produce it by perfecting the exercise of faith. (An opportunity here to throw in that the new "speaking in tongues" spread throughout the Church goes against this teaching of St. John of the Cross - so beware!) God bestows it “when He wills and as He wills and having nothing to do either with time or with service. I do not mean that these latter things are unimportant but that often the Lord grants to one person less contemplation in twenty years than to others in one.” writes St. Teresa. And elsewhere she says: “I cannot believe in the efficacy of human activity in matters where His Majesty appears to have set a limit to it and to have been pleased to reserve action to Himself”.
Humility alone can claim to draw down these divine gifts, for God resists the proud and gives His grace to the humble. In order to arrive at contemplation more useful than the most violent efforts. This humility will consist practically in begging “like poor and needy persons coming before a great and rich Emperor,” in resorting to the modest forms of active prayer and continuing thus in patient and peaceful labor until God lift us up to passive prayer:
When you are invited to a wedding feast, do not recline in the first place… but in the last place; that when he who invited you comes in, he may say to you: “friend, go up higher! Then you will be honored in the presence of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The parable of the Gospel can be applied to the letter to the life of prayer; in order to merit to be elevated to contemplation, one must humbly take the last place among the spiritual. And in this last place, it is good to desire higher and quicker means of arriving at perfect union, but always while guarding against any presumptuous effort to procure them on one’s own. (Adding - St. Teresa would always say that we need determined determination - do not be fickle about your prayer life. Have faith that God is always there and always beckoning us to be with Him. Remain constant in our faith and in our time dedicated for prayer and He will be faithful to us.)
Contemplation, like the living faith of which it is the fruit, has for its object the Deity itself and can perceive it only as an obscure reality, because of its transcendence. Like faith, it is a knowledge that is certain and obscure. This twofold character of certitude and obscurity, especially the second, will reveal its existence in the soul and be a criterion of its purity. Deep within the multiplicity of impressions, within the interior agitation that rather frequently accompanies supernatural contemplation, the darkness will indicate to the contemplative the regions where living faith is active, which he must protect and where he must take refuge.
Darkness being the revealing sign of the divine Reality, the contemplative, in his contemplation, will have to prefer that darkness to all distinct lights – whether those lights come from the formulas of dogma or even from God Himself – in order that, through it, he may remain in contact with the Divine. He will have to watch, not to allow himself to be drawn away by the disquiet of the lower faculties, not even to put them at peace, nor to let himself be wrapped up by the sweetness that comes from God, nor to follow after the delight of it in the senses. No matter what happens, he must lift up the antenna of his faith above all perceptions and unrest and turn back to the serene and peaceful darkness in which the Infinite is revealing and giving Himself.
St. John of the Cross tells us how the devil excels in giving knowledge and delights to souls in this state. Great harm is done to the soul that does not understand itself and taking a mouthful of distinct knowledge and sensible sweetness, prevents itself from feeding wholly upon God when He absorbs it. Likewise, in stanzas 31 and 32 of the Spiritual Canticle, after asking the lower faculties to remain in their own sphere, the “outskirts” so as not to trouble and distract the hidden inward depth of the soul, he asks God to grant such favors that he may not be able to describe them and the sensual part may have no share in them.
Faith being the only proximate and proportionate means for attaining to God in our progress towards divine union, we must not prefer any natural light to it, nor any supernatural gift however elevated it may be. This utter detachment from all created goods constitutes the whole of contemplative asceticism. Thus faith and hope are purified, and perfect union with God is realized according to the measure of our grace.
These developments permit us:
To estimate at their proper value whatever distinct knowledge or delights we receive in mental prayer. These illumine the way and calm the faculties; they ‘captivate’ to us the expression of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. They are a precious means for going to God, and the soul must use them with gratitude and humility; but attachment to them can change them into dangerous obstacles.
To state that they are not absolutely necessary for arriving at perfection or even at perfect contemplation. One can conceive of – and actually they exist – contemplative states in which, in the midst of disquiet and trouble in the faculties, there is manifest only that obscure perception of God which is the essential element of contemplation.
To note that the greatest contemplatives are not necessarily those who receive the most distinct light as to God: but that more than all the others, they are aware of the divine transcendence in the transluminous darkness of His mysteries.
To say that, putting aside the designs of God on such or such a soul and the share in the Passion of His Son that He imposes on it, the state of perfection involves normally a pervasion of that darkness through the whole soul and its faculties which, thereafter purified and made amenable to the Divine, find in it a delightful food. The divine transcendence is better known and hence more obscure than ever, but in that deeper obscurity the soul glimpses the light of dawn. Lights and subtle sweetness, delicate unctions that the senses do not know, that the soul itself seems not to know, so true is it that it is tending towards the divine Reality that is penetrating it and to whom it longs to surrender itself more and more.
This all leads of course to Our Blessed Mother. The model of all saints. Such was the perfect faith in prayer of the most blessed Virgin Mary, all illumined and enflamed as she was with the divine fires; but whose humble, peaceful and ardent faith seemed not to know the riches that she possessed, enabling her to progress always still farther into the luminous night of the Holy Spirit who enfolded Her in His Love.
May we all turn to Her and ask Her to guide us in prayer, in our faith, in our love for Her Son, Jesus Christ. She is the model of all Carmelite saints. May we turn to Her always before we turn in faith to prayer! Our Lady of Mt. Carmel - pray for us!
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Blessed Fr. Marie-Eugene