CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: WALTER HILTON

In last week’s post, we saw that the English mystic Walter Hilton likened prayer to fire. He continues this analogy in a letter to a layperson. He writes a beautiful description of what he calls the “mixed life:” a life marked by a rhythm of labor and prayer.

[T]he will and desire you have toward God is like a little coal of fire in your soul. It gives you a certain amount of spiritual heat and even light, but it is quite little, and threatens to grow cold in idleness and want of fuel. At that point it is good that you should put against it some sticks of wood—good labors of the active life. And if it seems for a time that these duties shroud or overshadow the coal of your desire, that it does not burn as cleanly and fervently as you would want, then do not be fearful, but rather be patient awhile.

 

Then blow at the fire—after doing your proper duties and service, go alone to your prayer and meditation, and lift up your heart to God, praying him of his goodness that he will accept the work that you have done as unto his pleasure.

I’m encouraged by Hilton’s conviction that the active life is a way to serve God.

Source.

Walter Hilton (c. 1340 – 1396) was an Augustinian canon and a mystic. He was the first person to write a treatise on mysticism in the English language.

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: PRAYING WITH WALTER HILTON

I love the vivid images medieval mystics use to describe God and prayer. A case in point is the writing of the English mystic Walter Hilton. In his treatise providing instruction on prayer and the contemplative life, Hilton writes a beautiful passage likening prayer to fire:

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If you pray in this way, you can pray well: for prayer is nothing else than a mounting desire of the heart into God through withdrawal from every earthly thought. And this is why it is compared with a fire, which by its own nature mounts from the earth, always up into the air. In just the same way, your desire in prayer, when it is touched and illumined by that spiritual fire which is God, by nature always mounts to Him from Whom it came.

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Notice that Hilton, in the last line of the passage, emphasizes that our desire to pray to God always comes from God.

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Source.

Walter Hilton (c. 1340 – 1396) was an Augustinian canon and a mystic. He was the first person to write a treatise on mysticism in the English language.

 

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: WRITING WITH HILDEGARD OF BINGEN

Have you ever thought of writing as a duty? The 12th-century German visionary Hildegard of Bingen introduced this idea to me. In the preface to her best-known work, the Scivias, Hildegard describes a series of visions God gave to her. One of these visions included the instruction to write down all that she had seen. But Hildegard hesitated. In the passages below, Hildegard recounts what happened when she refused the duty God gave her to write down her visions:

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But I, although I had seen and heard these things, nevertheless because of the doubt and bad opinion and divers remarks of men, refused for a long time the duty of writing, not in obstinacy but in humility, until I fell on a bed of sickness, cast down by the scourge of God, until at length I was compelled to write by many infirmities.

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When Hildegard didn’t write, she fell ill! Finally, she began setting down her visions:

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I said and wrote [these visions and words] not according to the curious invention of my heart, nor of any man, but as I saw, heard, and perceived them in a heavenly way, through the secret mysteries of God. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, “Cry aloud therefore, and write thus.”

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It took Hildegard of Bingen ten years to write down her visions, and they still inspire and challenge the Church today. Let that be an encouragement if you, like me, are a slow and sometimes reluctant writer.

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Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess, a visionary, and a writer. Read a selection of her visions here.

Reflection: Have you ever felt that God has given you the duty to “cry aloud” and write something? Have you ever hesitated or refused?

 

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: CATHERINE OF SIENA ON CONTEMPLATION AND ACTION

This month we’ve been looking at the letters of the 14th-century mystic and reformer Catherine of Siena. In a letter to a Dominican laywoman, Catherine writes a wonderful passage on the melding of contemplation and action. She doesn’t mince words when describing how Christians are to behave. Loving our neighbor, Catherine says, is the only proper response to God’s love for us:

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You know that every virtue receives life from love, and love is gained in love, that is, by raising the eye of our intellect to consider how much we are loved by God . . . Loving God we embrace virtue out of love, and we despise vice out of hatred.

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So you see that it is in God that we conceive virtues and in our neighbors that we bring them to birth. You know indeed that you give birth to the child charity that is in your soul in order to answer your neighbor’s need; and that you give birth to patience when your neighbor does you harm. You offer prayer for all your neighbors, and particularly for the one who has wronged you. This is the way we ought to behave . . .

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Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: PERSEVERING IN PRAYER WITH CATHERINE OF SIENA

In last week’s Contemplative Profile, we looked at a letter of St. Catherine, the 14th-century mystic, in which she describes three kinds of prayer. In that same letter, Catherine encourages her niece, a nun, to persevere when faced with difficulties praying. Let’s take her words to heart when we have our own struggles. Catherine writes:

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If you encounter different kinds of struggle in your prayer, or if you experience confusing darkness of mind (this is the devil making the soul feel that her prayer is not pleasing to God), you ought, nevertheless, never give up on account of struggles and darkness, but rather to stand firm with courage and perseverance, remembering that the devil does this to draw you away from your mother, prayer, and that God permits it to test the courage and constancy of your soul.

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God allows this also so that in your struggle and darkness you may know that of yourself you are nothing, and may know, through the good intention in which you remain, the goodness of God who is the giver and the preserver of a good and holy will.

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Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.

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CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: PRAYING WITH CATHERINE OF SIENA

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a compassionate spiritual adviser and encourager. Interestingly, she dispensed much of her advise in writing, in the form of letters. Sometimes she wrote to popes and other rulers, sometimes to simple religious folk like herself.

In a letter to her niece, who was a nun, Catherine describes three kinds of prayer. It’s helpful to take a look at her taxonomy. Note: what Catherine calls “mental prayer” (below) appears to be akin to contemplative or silent prayer:

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Prayer is of three kinds. The first is unceasing: it is a holy constant desire which prays in the sight of God, no matter what you are doing . . . The glorious saint Paul seemed to be referring to this when he urged: “Pray constantly” (1 Thes 5:17).

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The second kind is vocal prayer: you engage in this when you say the office or other prayers aloud.

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This is meant to bring you to the third kind, namely, mental prayer. Your soul reaches this kind of prayer through the use of vocal prayer with prudence and humility, so that while the tongue speaks, the heart is not far from God. And when you perceive that God is visiting your mind so that it is drawn in any way to think of its Creator, you ought to abandon vocal prayer and to fix your mind with great love on God’s visitation.

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A bit more on mental prayer:

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[The soul] rises above herself, that is, above the gross impulse of the senses, and with angelic mind is united with God in intense love. By the light of her intellect she sees and knows, and she clothes herself with truth, becoming the sister of the angels.

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Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.

Reflection: Do you practice all three kinds of prayer mentioned by Catherine of Siena?

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: WRITING WITH ST. TERESA OF AVILA

Many contemplatives and other figures from history have seen writing as a spiritual discipline and even an act of obedience. I find it illuminating to hear what they have to say about putting pen to paper (or, in our case, fingers to keys). This week we’ll look briefly at the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila.

In her great work on prayer, The Interior Castle, Teresa reveals why writing is an act of faith. She begins by beseeching God to speak for her because “I wasn’t able to think of anything to say.” This certainly gives hope to those of us sometimes afflicted with writer’s block today! God seems to have answered Teresa’s plea, for by the end of her book, she’s explaining why she has so much to say. The reason is simple: just as God’s not finished with his work, so Teresa is not finished with hers. A God of greatness inspires a great outpouring of words.

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You will think, Sisters, that since so much has been said about this spiritual path it will be impossible for anything more to be said. Such a thought would be very foolish. Since the greatness of God is without limits, His works are too. Who will finish telling of His mercies and grandeurs?

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Teresa also echoes St. Augustine in avowing that the more we know about God’s works, the more we will praise him. That’s a good reason to keep writing:

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He grants us a great favor in having communicated these things to a person through whom we can know about them. Thus the more we know about His communication to creatures the more we will praise His grandeur and make the effort to have esteem for souls in which the Lord delights so much.

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Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a Spanish nun in the Carmelite order. She was a mystic, a founder and reformer of monasteries, a spiritual director, and a writer. Read more here.

Reflection: How is writing an act of faith for you?

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: WRITING WITH ST. AUGUSTINE

Many contemplatives and other figures from history have seen writing as a spiritual discipline and even an act of obedience. One such figure is St. Augustine. In his spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, Augustine tells God (and us) the reason for setting down his story. Why write? Augustine says it is to excite love toward the divine. In these passages, he is addressing God himself:

Why then do I set before you an ordered account of so many things? It is certainly not through me that you know them. But I am stirring up love for you in myself and in those who read this, so that we may all say ‘Great is the Lord and highly worthy to be praised’ (Ps 47:1). I have already affirmed this and will say it again: I tell my story for love of your love.

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See, the long story I have told to the best of my ability and will responds to your prior will that I should make confession to you, my Lord God.

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Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a theologian, bishop, and Church Father who greatly influenced western Christianity. Read more about him.

For reflection: Why do you write?

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: TALKING TO JESUS WITH IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA

In 1548, Ignatius of Loyola published one of the most popular devotional books in Christian history – the Spiritual Exercises. This book is a compilation of meditations, prayers, and other practices. In one of the Exercises, we find a way to prayerfully meditate on the cross of Christ. It seems especially appropriate for Holy Week.

In the first Exercise of his book, Ignatius introduces the idea of a colloquy, which, he says, is made “in the way one friend speaks to another . . . now begging a favor, now accusing oneself of some misdeed, now telling one’s concerns and asking counsel about them.”

Ignatius suggests this colloquy, or conversation, with Christ:

Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him in a colloquy: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins?

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In a similar way, reflect on yourself and ask: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?

Ignatius says that as you gaze on Christ, you should “speak out whatever comes to your mind.”

End the colloquy by saying the Lord’s Prayer.

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Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) was a Spanish priest, theologian, spiritual director, and founder of the Jesuit order. Read more.

Read the Spiritual Exercises here.

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: GREGORY THE GREAT ON “RESTING IN GOD”

You may have heard that St. Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) defined contemplation as “resting in God.” Indeed, this quote is posted on the home page of The Contemplative Writer! This snippet is a condensed version of what St. Gregory really said, and I thought we should take a look at the full statement. It’s a wonderfully nuanced description of just what “resting in God” really means:

But the contemplative life is: to retain indeed with all one’s mind the love of God and neighbor, but to rest from all exterior action, and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing anything, but having spurned all cares, may be aglow to see the face of its Creator; so that it already knows how to bear with sorrow the burden of the corruptible flesh, and with all its desires to seek to join the hymn-singing choirs of angels, to mingle with the heavenly citizens, and to rejoice at its everlasting incorruption in the sight of God. (Source)

Note that for Gregory, resting in God means:

  • Cleaving to our Maker
  • Being aglow to see the Creator
  • Bearing the burdens of the flesh
  • Desiring heaven

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Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) was pope of the Catholic Church from 590 to 604. He was a contemplative, a missionary, a reformer, and a physician of souls. Read more here.

Reflection: How are prayer and contemplation like rest for you?