"Meditations of St. Ignatius," Brownson's Quarterly Review for July 1862

Meditations of St. Ignatius


We received these excellent Meditations of St. Ignatius, by Padre Sinincalchi, at too late a moment to do more in our last Review than barely to announce their publication, without any remarks on their merits or discussion, however brief, of the great subject they naturally suggest.  They are translated from the Italian, but, perhaps, not translated into as pure and graceful English as they might have been.  We have not seen them in Italian, but we have been told that the translation is far from being faithful, and frequently misinterprets the original.  Be this as it may, and as unidiomatic and as ungraceful as is the English into which they are rendered, the work, even as it is, is a work of rare merit, full of noble thought, and rich and pious sentiment.  Among books of the sort we know few better; and we are sure no serious minded person can read any one of the twenty-two Meditations it contains, without being both instructed and edified.

The Meditations are called Meditations of St. Ignatius, because they follow the method of St. Ignatius, the illustrious founder of the Society of Jesus, in his world-renowned Exercises, which are not only remarkable in themselves, but still more remarkable from the fact that the author when composing them was comparatively uneducated, without theological training, and almost a stranger to the ascetical literature of the Church.  He had been a soldier, a man of the world, and was slowly recovering from a wound received in defending for his sovereign the city of Pampeluna against the French.  He owed these exercises to his meditations and communings with our Lord during the long inactivity to which he was forced by his wound, or, rather by the unskillfulness of his surgeons.  They were the first-fruits of his conversion, and a foretaste of that eminent spiritual judgment and eminent sanctity to which he subsequently attained, and which have made him an object of veneration on our altars throughout the world.  Some have gone so far as to suppose they were supernaturally inspired, as being above the natural capacity of a man so little instructed and so little cultivated as was Ignatius at the time of composing them; and that they were really inspired in some sense of the word there can be no doubt, though perhaps not in precisely the sense alleged, or in the sense of Holy Scripture, for they contain no original revelation of any of the great mysteries of our faith, and nothing that exceeds the natural faculties of a man who seriously and understandingly meditates the great truths of religion.  Yet they were inspired by an ardent love of God, and a lively sense of his presence in the soul, and poured out from a heart holding constant and intimate communion with Him who is the source and well-spring of all spiritual life.  Their great merit is that they grew our of the real interior life and thought of the author, and were neither composed at the order of a superior nor compiled from the writings of others.  They are the genuine utterances of the author’s own heart, and the faithful expression of his own interior life.

St. Ignatius is one of the greatest characters in history, and one of the most eminent Saints in the calendar.  He was a real man, a heroic man, a Reality, as Carlyle would say, not an Unreality, a spectre, a sham, a make-believe.  He was a man in downright earnest, who looked at the verities of things, who understood his duty, and did it.  He was born great, with a rich and noble nature, and he did great things.  He was a poet, in the sense of maker, with a true creative genius, and ranks with St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Bernard, and St. Benedict, and as a monastic Founder and Legislator, inferior, perhaps, only to St. benedict himself.  We mean not that he was only naturally great, that he was what he was by the simple force of nature, or that to divine grace he owed nothing.  Genius itself is a gift, but a gift that needs to be developed and invigorated by grace.  Grace does not create nature, and is what schoolmen call a habitus, not a faculty.  Grace may make very holy men out of men naturally feeble; but it does not supply the natural lack of brains, or make great Saints out of men not fitted by nature to be great.  Grace develops, aids, and exalts nature, but it cannot make a great man out of one not born with the elements of greatness within him.  It elevates, directs, and strengthens, but does not create nature.  Hence the great Saints were all great men, men who even in their natural powers rose head and shoulders above their contemporaries.  St. Peter was officially the superior of his colleagues, but in all other respects St. John and St. Paul tower far above him, and receive a far deeper homage from the mind and heart of Christendom.  Grace does not supersede or disparage nature; nor does nature supersede or disparage grace; for it is by grace that nature is completed, fulfilled – elevated to or sustained in the Regeneration.  The hierarchy of nature is not necessarily excluded from the hierarchy of grace, and they were all naturally great men whom St. Ignatius chose to be his companions.

The method of meditation adopted by St. Ignatius in his Exercises is that adopted by the Jesuit Fathers generally, and through them by almost all modern spiritual directors and masters of the spiritual life.   Nearly all the meditations published for the last two or three centuries to aid private meditation, or to serve as models for the faithful, at least so far as we are acquainted with them, are composed after his method.  We do not suppose any Jesuit or any spiritual director would insist on that method as obligatory, or maintain that a meditation not made in accordance with it is no acceptable meditation at all.  The method, we are told, is recommended not as obligatory, but as a help in preparing the mind and heart to meditate, and as a guide in meditating.  We have no doubt that if a uniform method of meditation is to be prescribed for all minds, none better, more natural, more scientific, more edifying than that of St. Ignatius can be prescribed.  But that it aids and assists one in meditating to cast his meditation in the Ignatian mould, we do not think it universally true; and, probably, when true, it is chiefly so in the case of those who have been long trained to it.  Methods are, no doubt, good and useful in their place, but we have for ourselves always found it impossible to meditate after any prescribed method or formula.  Every mind has its own peculiarities, its peculiar tendencies, attractions, associations, and laws of operation, and we weaken the mind, we chill the affections, distract the attention, and lose the choicest fruits of meditation, if we seek to suppress individuality, and to drill all minds and hearts to the same step and the same motions, like a company of soldiers.  The object of spiritual direction, we need not say, is not to make men machines, or merely parts of one grand machine; but to bring the individuals into free and living relation with God as his principle, medium, and end.  There is, it seems to us, nothing in which the individual soul should be left more free, or abandoned more completely to its own spontaneous action, than meditation, its secret and personal intercourse with its God, its Redeemer and Savior.  The man should be instructed, as thoroughly instructed as possible, in the truths of religion, in the nature, end, and aim of prayer and meditation; but in the prayer and meditation as actual exercises, we think the soul should be left free to follow its own attrait, and not be distracted by feeling that it must observe any particular method, or conform to any particular formula.

We say nothing here that is not said, and frankly said, by all spiritual directors, and yet somehow or other we poor laymen almost universally get the impression that a certain method is to be observed in our prayer, and a great many of us not being able to follow the method we find laid down in the books, either do not, or fancy we do not, pray or meditate at all.  We know we ought to pray, but finding it impossible to pray according to rule, we are apt to give up praying or meditating, and to content ourselves with saying a few vocal prayers.  Prayer is the Christian’s breath of life, and it as natural to him to pray as it is to breathe.  It is, therefore, a real damage to the growth of the spiritual life to suppose prayer is something foreign, formal, or artificial, that can be done only in formal and artificial manner.  Indeed, we are disposed sometimes to think that piety is weakened, and spiritual growth stunted by the very multiplicity of appliances for their nurture and progress.  We have too many helps, and are the weaker Christians for it.  We are overnursed, too tenderly cared for, and lack naturalness, health and robustness.  Christians in the earlier ages, who had fewer of these artificial appliances, who were necessarily thrown more on their natural resources, and compelled to rely more on themselves, were stronger, healthier, and better than we are.  They were better able to stand alone, and could be more safely trusted out of sight.  They had more life and energy, more originality and spontaneity, and left on their times a more indelible mark of their existence.  They conquered the world to Christianity; we fail to keep it Christian.

Nevertheless, here as well as everywhere else, we must take care not to forget that there is an equal, if not a greater danger to be avoided on the other side.  While we are warring against artificiality and casting all pious thoughts and affections in one and the same mould, we must remember that even nature needs training, and if neglected is soon runs wild, and produces either no fruit at all, or crabbed and bitter fruit, not worth the gathering.  Mankind are prone to extremes, and usually swing from one extreme to its opposite.  It is seldom possible to correct one excess without provoking a contrary excess.  Nature should be followed indeed, but not therefore should it be left uncultivated; it should be allowed to operate freely, spontaneously, but not lawlessly or wildly.  The rules should be large and liberal, but it should not be left wholly without rules.  It is, no doubt, that a soul rightly instructed in the mysteries and dogmas of faith will, if serious, if really in earnest, hardly make its prayer ill or in an unacceptable manner, if it really prays or meditates at all.  The great point not to be overlooked is, that though no particular method be obligatory, prayer or meditation itself is obligatory upon every soul that would live in communion with God, or advance in godliness.  Dogmatic instruction in the case of all to the fullest extent practicable is always necessary, for ignorance is the mother of error and vice, of sin and iniquity, and no cultivation of the affections without a large and liberal cultivation of the intelligence will ever suffice to make a great Saint or an eminent Christian.  But dogmatic instruction is not enough, for we may see and believe, and do not; behold clearly enough what is right, what is duty, and yet neglect it.  There must always be spiritual edification as well as intellectual instruction.  It is not enough that we intellectually apprehend the truth; we must, if we would grow in holiness, spiritually appropriate it, assimilate it to our own interior life, and this we can do only by assiduous prayer and meditation.  A speculative knowledge of the truth only may leave the soul lean and weak, for merely speculative knowledge affords her of itself little nourishment.  Moreover, even our speculative knowledge itself suffers when the soul is not properly nurtured.  All truth is learned by contemplation, not by discursion, which is useful only by way of explication or proof, and the success of contemplation depends on the state and attitude of the soul in regard to the objects to be contemplated.   The mind cannot contemplate, unless it stands in presence of the object, and the soul is elevated to its plane, and opened to its reception.

Speculation, discursion, reasoning, are all good in their way and in their place, but not by them do we acquire truth.  They serve to remove obstacles, to break down barriers, to strip off envelopes, and to place our intellectual acquisitions in their logical order, but we acquire a knowledge of truth itself only by standing face to face with it, and by calmly contemplating it, that is, by elevating the heart to it, and meditating on it.  The mental act is intuitive, not discursive, for discursion requires truth for the basis of its operations, and cannot begin till the truth is apprehended.  Hence it is that prayer and meditation are necessary conditions not simply of spiritual growth, but also of the acquisition of the highest order of intellectual truth, and therefore of the highest order of intellectual greatness.  This is true, even confining ourselves to prayer and meditation as a subjective exercise, without taking into view the objective graces that the exercise obtains from God.  The mind is naturally fitted for truth, the truth in the intelligible order, but if it turns away from it, or will not look towards it, and consider it, it will not find it, but will remain in ignorance.  The light shines and illumines all around us, but what avails it, if we shut our eyes, or refuse to open them to it?  Meditation, from the point of view we are now considering it, opening the eyes of the soul to the light that ever shines within and without it, and contemplating the divine objects it presents.

We are all too apt to forget that all truth is in and from God, whose word is truth, and that it is in him we live, and move, and have our being.  It is seldom without a mental effort that we think of God as near to us, as all around and within us, and not as afar off, as a distant God, residing away, up above the sky, inaccessible to us poor groveling mortals.  Yet he is near us.  We are, though we realize it not, in his immediate presence, and could not exist even for a moment if removed from it.  Separation from God is death, annihilation.  He is our Creator, and his act creating us is his act sustaining us.  We continue to exist, because he ceases not to create us.  Were he to suspend for one instant his creative act, we should not living without God, but we should cease to exist, be annihilated, the nothing we were before he created us.  So also in the Regeneration, regarded as our Redeemer, Savior, and ultimate End, God is equally near, even nearer, if possible to us.  The Son of Mary even takes up into himself our nature, and is the very life of our life, and it is because he lives that we live, because he has attained that we can attain, because he is God that we may become God.  He is here, without, and within us, and separation from him were our death, our annihilation as Christians, or as heirs of immortality.  Separation, no matter how slight, if separation it be, is hell, the second death.  As Christians we live only as we are regenerated in Christ and sustained in him by his grace continually operative in us, and uniting us to him as the members of the head or the branches to the vine.  To be dissevered from him is to be excluded from the Regeneration, to be and to be compelled to remain mere cosmic and therefore inchoate existences, out of the way of life, and without any means of returning or attaining to God as our last end, Our Supreme Good.  God in whom are all things, from whom all things proceed, and to whom all things tend, is not, then, afar off; and to place ourselves consciously in his presence, and therefore in the immediate presence of all truth in its principle, we have only to elevate our hearts, and open our minds.  His light, always shining, even in the darkness, though the darkness comprehendeth it not, will then inundate the soul, clear the vision, and fill and warm the heart.  This elevating of the heart and opening of the eyes of the mind to the Divine Presence is what our spiritual writers call prayer or meditation, and hence all prayer is contemplative and unitive in its essence, and the distinction made by masters of spiritual life is a distinction of degree, not of kind; and hence, too, prayer or meditation is at all times possible to the soul, if we will it, and may be carried on wherever we are, or whatever the work in which we may be engaged.  The soul is always and everywhere able to pray, though it may not, owing to its own imperfections, be always and everywhere able to rise at once, by a single bound to what is called the prayer of union, the perfection of prayer. 

But God not only creates us, but he creates us for himself, and he himself is our final cause as well as our first cause.  He, again, is not only our beginning and end, but, what we are still more apt to forget, the medium of our life.  We live from him and to him; we live also in him and by him.  He is principle, medium, and end.  The Father is principle, the Word is the medium, the holy Ghost is the end or consummation.  Hence the necessity of recognizing and accepting with a firm and unwavering faith the Mystery of the Trinity.  We are created by the Word as medium, we are redeemed by the Word made flesh, and it is only by the Word made flesh that we receive the Holy Ghost, and are consummated in glory.  It is only by God that we proceed from God, and by him that we tend to him as our last end.  But we tend to him not fatally as the rivers run to the ocean, or as the lightning rives the oak.  We tend to him not blindly or involuntarily, but freely, voluntarily, by an act of our own choice.  We cannot tend to him without him,- “without me you can do nothing,”- nor with him without the active concurrence of our own will, for our return to him must be our act, a proper actus humanus, as say the theologians.  This must be so, for though creation and redemption are acts in which we do not and cannot concur, yet heaven or glorification is always in Scripture proposed as a reward, consequently as a reward of merit, and there can be no merit where there is no act.  Undoubtedly, in crowning the Blest God does but crown his own gifts, and that it is only through his merits that we can merit; but his gifts are real gifts, and when given us are really ours, and his merits are the medium of ours, and enable us to merit, instead of rendering merit on our part impossible or unnecessary.  His grace assists and completes without superseding or disparaging nature.  But his grace or assistance, though proffered to all, is effectually given only to those who desire it.  The song of the angels was, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.”  God is ever near and ready to help, but he helps not where the good will is wanting, because he created man free, and always deals with him as a free moral agent.  He forces his help upon no one against his free will, and the grace that goes before and excites the will becomes aiding or assisting grace only in case the will opposes it not, and elects to concur with it.  Man attains not to God as his end without grace, divine help, nor with it, without his own free cooperation. 

There must, then, be in the Christian life, as in our Lord himself, a union of the human and the Divine.  Always must man depend on divine assistance, and always must he act himself.  Never must he sit down with the feeling or conviction that grace will do it all, and that he need not trouble himself about it; nor with the feeling or conviction that he has no need of grace, that he is sufficient for himself, and has no need to depend on God as the medium of his salvation or glorification.  He must have help, and he must himself act.  His great study, then, must be, on the one hand, to secure the needed help, and, on the other, to remove all obstacles in himself to its reception, and to cooperate with it.  Here is the reason of the necessity and utility of prayer or meditation, which removes the obstructions to grace, and places the soul in the proper attitude to receive it and to act,- to act with a clear mind and a firm will.  So the advantages of meditation are twofold, objective and subjective,- in the grace received, and the state of the mind and affections produced.

The forms of speech we adopt, though perhaps unusual, are not unintentional.  They are adopted not to express a doctrine not recognized by all ascetic theologians, but to bring out in bolder relief, what many overlook, that the grace received is not, ex parte Dei, a special grace conferred on the praying soul, but is a stream from that fountain of grace which is in the Word made flesh, and which is always near the soul, ready to flow in the instant the soul opens the valves of her heart, or permits it to flow in and circulate through her veins.  The grace exists always in all its plentitude, and near the soul of everyone.  Meditation simply opens the heart, and permits it to flow in, and the soul to appropriate it or assimilate it.  The grace is supernatural, but no special miracle is wrought on occasion of the prayer or meditation.  The miracle is the one grand crowning miracle, the Incarnation, the very apex of the creative act of God.  The grace already exists, is a living fountain open in the sacred side and heart of Jesus, and its flowing into the soul on occasion of meditation which tends to remove the obstructions the soul herself places in its way, is the effect not of a special or isolated act of God, but of one continuous act by which he became Incarnate, and offers himself as a perpetual sacrifice for us.  We thus refute those who pretend that prayer has only a subjective value, and that it brings us nothing from without, from above, from God, on the ground that God is immutable, and all his acts are laws.  God does not change, or work a special miracle in answer to prayer; yet not do we in prayer receive nothing from him that we should not have equally received without it.  The light shines when our eyes are closed as it does when they are open, and, whether our eyes are open or closed, it changes not; and yet to say that we see by it precisely the same objects when we shut as when we open them, is not in accordance with most men’s experience.  Prayer has undoubtedly a subjective value, but it has also an objective value, as it opens the soul to receive a grace from God which otherwise it would not and could not receive.

We know there is, enveloped as we are in a world of sense, where all is individual, particular, without any sensible bond of unity, a real difficulty with many in bringing home to their understanding that what is only specially received is not specially created, or that what has no sensible existence has any existence at all.  It is not true, as a class of sophists pretend, that this sensible world has no objective existence, is unreal, an illusion, or, at best, a mere picture painted on the retina of the eye.  The sensible world, the outward, visible world is a real world, but it is not all the world, is not the whole reality.  It is real, but it is also symbolic, now concealing, now revealing a higher and more comprehensive reality, a real world above itself in which it has its principle and root.  Our Lord had a real sensible body, he was the real Son of Mary, flesh of her flesh, and to the ordinary onlooker he was the carpenter’s son, a poor Jewish mechanic, in whom nothing remarkable was apparent.  He had no form or comeliness that we should desire him; nay, he was despised and rejected of men.  One day he took with him Peter, James, and John, and went up into a high mountain, and was there transfigured before them.  “And his face did shine as the sun, and his garments were white as snow.”  Yet was there no change in him, and the glory beheld was not something borrowed, something anticipated, something created for the occasion.  The transfiguration was only a partial withdrawal of the sensible veil which concealed him from his disciples the glory inherent in him, and at all times really his.  The natural properties of the bread and wine remain unchanged after consecration, but under them is the Real Presence, the Body and Blood of our Lord.  The Sacrifice of the Mass in the sensible world is a special act of the priest offering simple bread and wine, and yet it is the one real Sacrifice made by our Lord himself on Calvary.  It is not simply a symbolic representation of that Sacrifice; it is not even its renewal or repetition in an unbloody manner, but it is that identical Sacrifice itself, that one and the same universal and ever-present sacrificial act.  They who assert only one sacrifice made once for all, are right, but they who deny the reality of the Sacrifice of the Mass daily on our altars, place the real sacrifice and the whole sacrifice in its mimetic or sensible accidents, and see, conceive, believe nothing above them.

Not only this, but in all the great Mysteries of our religion there is more than the mind at first view takes in.  Not on the side of the affections only does the soul suffer for the want of meditation.  “As I meditated, the fire burned,” the prophet tells us; as we meditate, not only does the heart glow with love, but its view of truth enlarges, becomes clearer and more comprehensive, and it is this clearer and larger view of truth which kindles the fire, and intensifies the affections.  Each monad, says Leibnitz in his Monadology, represents the entire universe from its own point of view, and, we may add, represents also from its point of view the whole being, majesty, and glory of the Creator.  Touch the sensible where you will, consider it, and it enlarges, grows under your meditation, expands into a universe, and on every point touches God.  How much more the Mysteries, all of which are catholic or universal truths, that center and become one truth in the creative act of God, or the manifestation of his infinite and eternal Word.  The highest knowledge we ever attain to of our religion by cold reflection or the speculative action of the mind, though important, is comparatively low, and may be barren of results.  We get thus, as it were, only the shell or hull of truth.  It is only by meditation that we penetrate the hull, seize and appropriate the food within, attain to the highest reality of the Mystery, and, as it were, assimilate to our souls its life giving truth.  We thus penetrate to the very adytum of the temple of wisdom, hold personal intercourse with Wisdom itself, and become wise not by human wisdom, but by divine wisdom, in which is the origin and well-spring of all wisdom.  We penetrate beyond the world of sense, the outward and visible, to the inward and invisible, and taste the infinite truth and glory of a higher and more real world, even the hidden verities of things.  It is in fact only because we neglect meditation, because we turn away from the contemplation of the divine Mysteries that we understand so little of them, that they are so unfruitful to us, that we lose sight of the higher realities of things, become low and groveling in our aspirations, are led to deny the supersensible world, and imagine that the horizon that bounds our vision is the boundary of the universe.  Neglecting meditation, taking the mysteries as a distinct, as isolated, or speculative facts, we become darkened in our understandings, we lose the relish of spiritual pleasures, become sensual men, believing only in a sensible world, and greedy only of sensible goods.  Our philosophy and our morals no less than our piety suffer, are degraded and debased by neglect of meditation, the elevation of the soul to God, from whom all light emanates, and in whom is our life, our strength, our hope, our beatitude.

Objectively and subjectively, meditation is alike useful and necessary, and all experience bears witness that not only does the decline in one’s piety and relish for spiritual things, but even his understanding of the truths of religion, the basis of all truth, date from his neglect of prayer or meditation.  Prayer, in the sense taken by our spiritual writers, is meditation, or the elevation of the soul to God, in whom we live, and move, and have our being.  It is the elevation and opening of the soul to the Light, to the Source and Fountain of grace, or that objective assistance we need from God in order to return to him as our last end, our Supreme Beatitude.  This assistance is real, objective, and Divine, as well as indispensable.  It is more fully rendered, is greater in degree and strength in proportion to the earnestness, sincerity, and perseverance with which we seek it.  The grace in itself is exhaustless, and is in regard to the soul limited only by the soul’s preparation to receive it.  The prayer or meditation, always possible, because the grace of prayer is given to all men, at all times, and in all places, is the subjective preparation of the soul to receive it, and the more frequent and thorough the preparation the more will the soul receive.

 Man has no proper creative power, and when he needs a power greater than his own, he studies to avail himself of one or more of the great agents or forces of nature.  He constructs his ships to float on the waters, and to be propelled by the winds, or by steam.  He invents and constructs machinery, by which he augments his power a thousand or a million fold, but the force that propels his machine is not his own, is not created by him, but is made available to him by his machinery.  So it is, in some sense, in the spiritual world.  Man needs a more than cosmic power, more power from God than is given in his simple creation.  That power through the Incarnation is provided for him, as the oceans and rivers, as the wind, the fire and the water for his navigation.  He only needs to place himself in relation with it to avail himself of it.  Prayer or meditation is the proper means of establishing this relation, and of receiving the Divine breath to swell our sails, and propel us onward to our destined port.

What may be done at any time will be done at no time, unless we set apart some particular time for it.  We should, therefore, set apart some portion of each day as a special time for meditation.  True we may and should pray at all times, even in our work, for laborare est orare, but if we do not have a special time for prayer, such is our imperfection, our indolence, our readiness to put off till tomorrow whatever it is not absolutely necessary to do today, that we are in danger of neglecting prayer altogether, and of depriving the soul of her daily food and supply of strength.

We have said nothing of Vocal Prayers, because they do not come within the subject we are treating, but, we apprehend, the principles we have laid down will apply to them as well as to Mental Prayer or meditation.  There may be blessings our Heavenly Father is ready to grant to those who ask them, and which he will grant to no others, because to no others would they be blessings.  God does not change in granting or withholding, because in the Divine constitution prayer is made the condition of bestowing them, the law of their concession.