Nowadays, if there are very few Catholics who understand notions like “mental prayer” and “spiritual exercises,” even fewer are those who practice them. This happens despite the exceptional importance that saints from all epochs have given to Christian meditation. Practically speaking, after ordinary (vocal) prayer, meditation is the second essential means to achieve salvation and perfection.
To emphasize such crucial ideas, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori explicitly states that if a priest who does not thoroughly practice mental prayer can scarcely obtain salvation, he certainly cannot attain perfection in holiness. For laypeople, he also asserts that without persevering meditation, it is impossible to avoid periodic falls into grave sins. Therefore, even though the same saint maintains that the practice of vocal prayer takes precedence over meditation (especially in the case of those who cannot or do not know how to practice it), the value of meditation remains enormous.
The reasons for these true axioms can be found in the following excerpt:
“The eternal truths are all spiritual things that are seen, not with the eyes of the body, but with the eyes of the mind; that is, by reflection and consideration. Now, they who do not make mental prayer do not see these truths, neither do they see the importance of eternal salvation, and the means which they must adopt in order to obtain it. The loss of so many souls arises from the neglect of considering the great affair of our salvation, and what we must do in order to be saved.”[i]
As we see from what Saint Alphonsus said, in order to contemplate and understand eternal truths on one hand, and then to understand what we must do to concretely obtain salvation, meditation is absolutely necessary. If we reflect on how “inertly” we act in our daily lives, in a context where sin has become trivialized and acts against the virtues of religion are as frequent as the water we drink daily, we should understand how important it is to meditate.
If we want to become true Christians ascending to the heights of holiness, personal meditation is imperative, not an optional practice. However, in order to practice it, we need both concrete examples and a good understanding of it.
For example, if we look at the most visible thing that characterizes us, clothing, we instantly understand that most Catholics do not practice meditation. For both men and women often appear utterly “worldly,” dressing according to the latest fashion trends rather than the virtue of modesty. Most often, we find that the sacred distinction between the sexes is completely eliminated. We see women in pants (a strictly masculine military attire), and men dressed on the street and in church as if they were in their own bathroom while performing their morning hygiene routine. Of course, in some cases, such things are not done with malicious intent. Instead, the Catholics in question, influenced by the dominant anti-Christian culture in which we literally find ourselves submerged, are not aware of what they are doing. But precisely this lack of understanding and awareness indicates the absence of Christian meditation.
For example, how many of us have ever meditated on the fact that, after committing the original sin, although Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with those aprons made of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), God personally made garments for them (“garments of skins” – Genesis 3:21)? Why did God Himself insist on creating clothing for fallen humanity? Or why do we find in our Holy Bible such a severe and categorical prohibition as the one that follows?
“A woman shall not be clothed with man’s apparel, neither shall a man use woman’s apparel: for he that doeth these things is abominable before God” (Deuteronomy 22:5).
If people care so much about fashion trends, it seems that God Himself is also interested in how His servants dress, isn’t it?
I did not intend to write an article here about the profound significance of clothing. But merely to give you examples from which it is clear that, in the absence of meditation on such biblical texts, we can be worldly without even realizing it. This has terrible consequences both on ourselves and on those around us. If we want to become true Christians ascending to the heights of holiness, personal meditation is imperative, not an optional practice. However, in order to practice it, we need both concrete examples and a good understanding of it. That is why, to begin with, I chose a true example regarding the practice of meditation: Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). My choice has a very simple explanation. This saint’s life was profoundly transformed because of the famous “spiritual exercises,” which can be for us a particularly valuable and beneficial “course” in Christian meditation.
This entire story of a life consumed by love for the Living God, a story whose details we cannot encompass in our small article, is a fascinating lesson about the incredible power of meditating on eternal truths.
Saint Ignatius: From Vain Glory to Eternal Glory
No matter how much we delve into the stories of Christian hagiography, we would hardly find a personality comparable to that of Íñigo López de Loyola. Born in Azpeitia (Spain) in the year of grace 1491, the fiery Basque has always aspired to that which people of the world, estranged from the Kingdom of the Heavenly Father, seek: fame. If we look at what today’s mass media presents to us, I think that we will have no hesitation to make the following diagnosis. Nothing, but absolutely nothing, is more sought after than fame, glory. The reason is clear. Fame brings a multitude of other worldly “benefits:” power, money, pleasures. So, it’s no wonder that the pursuit of success at any cost is the main motivation for the lives of a huge number of young people today.
Even in the 16th century, things were not much different, although the greedy thirst for earthly glory was hindered by a much more austere and media-lacking context. Animated by such an unquenchable thirst, Don Íñigo – known after his conversion as Ignatius of Loyola – left indelible traces in the history of the modern world.
From the turmoil of an entire life, full of adventures and exploits, a certain moment in the spring of the year 1521 was to represent the turning point for the destiny of the knight of Loyola. Serving in the military at Pamplona, the young man had the opportunity to show his heroism in the face of the French attack besieging the fortress of the city. Convincing his comrades to fight to the last breath in a battle without chance of victory, on Monday, May 20, 1521, he was gravely wounded by a shell that crushed one of his legs and maimed the other. Good chivalrous manners prevailed.
His adversaries accorded him all due honors, treating him and caring for him with exceptional respect, if not friendship. Observing the rapid deterioration of his health, the wounded man was transported home in a litter. However, the medicine of the time was powerless. Nothing could heal him, and his condition deteriorated rapidly. After a night when everyone awaited his end with pain, divine charity made itself felt: Don Íñigo miraculously recovered, and after a few days, he was out of danger. The long convalescence represented the opportunity that Providence used to change his destiny.
Instead of chivalrous novels – which he loved with the same ardor as the other great knight of Christ, Don Quixote de la Mancha – Ignatius found in the castle only Jacopo Voragine’s Golden Legend (Lat. Legenda Aurea) and Rudolf of Saxony’s Vita Christi. Reading them with an increasingly curiosity, he began to glimpse another light, infinitely brighter than anything he could have imagined in his worldly dreams: the immortal glory of Christ the King. The transition from thirst for the fleeting glory of this world to the eternal glory of the King of the Universe was the result of perpetual meditation prompted by reading.
Using the analogy of physical exercises for maintaining the good condition of our bodies, Ignatius shows us that similarly, the soul needs “exercises” to overcome and dominate disorderly tendencies.
From that moment on, his heart was pierced, slowly but surely, by an aspiration that only a Loyola could follow with such holy stubbornness. Having as models the hermit Onuphrius, Ignatius of Antioch, as well as Saints Dominic and Francis, for Ignatius, no effort would be too great to resemble the Incarnate Logos. This entire story of a life consumed by love for the Living God, a story whose details we cannot encompass in our small article, is a fascinating lesson about the incredible power of meditating on eternal truths.
After having experienced for himself the impact of reflecting on the lives of saints and the contents of the Creed and the Bible, Saint Ignatius of Loyola proposed the same path to others. The number of saints who followed in his footsteps is impressive. From Francis Xavier to Saint Alphonsus and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, all were lovers and practitioners of the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. Influenced by such examples, we have extracted – for starters – their simple and very clear explanation. I emphasize that, despite the different name, we are dealing with the same unique reality of Christian meditation.
The definition of “Spiritual Exercises”
Like any good teacher, Saint Ignatius begins his Spiritual Exercises (1548) with a comprehensive definition:
“By this name of spiritual exercises is meant every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a spiritual exercise.”[ii]
Using the analogy of physical exercises for maintaining the good condition of our bodies, Ignatius shows us that similarly, the soul needs “exercises” to overcome and dominate disorderly tendencies. Perhaps here we find a distant echo of the teachings of the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas. For he also used the analogy between the needs of the body and those of the soul, as he does when explaining why it is necessary to play games: for just as the body needs rest, so does the soul need pleasant and decent relaxation.
Saint Ignatius does not limit himself to emphasizing the need for a soul capable of mastering its “passions” and “concupiscence.” Moreover, he indicates the highest purpose of our lives, which is salvation, a goal that cannot be achieved without understanding and fulfilling the Will of God. And, I assure you, it is not about “the will of God” in a generic and abstract sense, but about His will regarding the destiny and mission of each of us.
The way we act depends on the answer to this crucial question: “What does God want from me? For what purpose has He created me?” To know the answer, we need meditation, which Saint Ignatius understands as the sum of all those practices – examining one’s conscience, meditating, contemplating, praying, etc. – which he encompasses under the designation of “spiritual exercises.”
Latest from RTV — AMERICA’S GOT TALENT: Tucker Carlson vs Taylor Swift
[i] Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, The Ascetical Works. Vol. III: The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, New York, Cincinnati, and St. Louis: Benzinger Brothers, 1886, p. 252.