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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The first Jesuits and mental prayer

As we inch closer to St. Ignatius' memorial on July 31, here's another Ignatian-themed post ....

One of the books I'm slowly reading is The First Jesuits by John O'Malley SJ. Here's an excerpt (pp. 162-64) on the unique contribution made by the early Jesuits to individualized interior prayer -

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In their sermons, sacred lectures, confessional counsel, and catechesis, the Jesuits consistently recommended prayer to those with whom they dealt. This of course included liturgical prayer of the mass and Hours, and the Exercises simply assumed that persons making them assisted regularly or daily at both these functions. Nonetheless, when the Jesuits spoke of prayer and encouraged it, they generally meant something else .... meditation, contemplation, or some other form of interiorized prayer done by the individual. They often somewhat infelicitously termed these forms "mental prayer" .....

The Jesuits were not the first to do this. They borrowed or adapted the techniques and methods for such prayer from earlier traditions. However, their peculiar insistence upon it, their belief that it could be fruitfully practiced by persons of every station, and their access to the handy codification and explanation of methods in the Exercises all indicate that because of them a significant reshaping of the practices of the devout life was underway for many Catholics.

Erasmus's Modus orandi Deum (1524) provided examples of prayers that individuals might compose for themselves and especially tried to foster an attitude to assure that the heart as well as the lips prayed. The Modus was widely diffused and still read in Rome in 1558, as a passing comment by LaĆ­nez makes clear. It failed, however, to recommend or explain mental prayer, an omission typical of Erasmus.

In explaining why the Exercises generally effected such great changes in persons who made them, Nadal said that the methods of prayer in the Exercises enabled individuals to penetrate in their hearts and spirit the inner mysteries of Christ's life, passion, death, and resurrection. Thence arose the historical significance of the Exercises: "Briefly, we see that today prayer has collapsed, devotion has disappeared, contemplation been forgotten, and spiritual sensibilities sent into exile ... God wanted through the Exercises to rush assistance to this distressing situation in the church. But you object: this is too much! -- as if we preach that we are the ones who through our Exercises are going to save prayer from utter collapse." Nadal denied, of course, such an arrogant claim. He hoped, in fact, that God might inspire others to discover an even better method of teaching prayer to everybody -- a discovery, we easily infer, that he thought highly unlikely to occur.

In passages like this we get about as close as we can to how the first Jesuits thought they brought succor to the "collapsed" religion of their times. Like the Devotio Moderna and similar movements, they wanted to promote a more intensified interiority, and they found in mental prayer the most direct and efficacious means of doing so on a long-term basis. They were not professedly anti-liturgical, as has sometimes been charged, but they certainly put an emphasis on other forms of prayer as constitutive of an authentic Christian life.

This emphasis perforce reflected the priorities they had established for themselves as Jesuits. Nadal revealed and somewhat overstated the priorities when he described for his fellow Jesuits the difference between public and private prayer:

"Public prayer consists principally in the mass, which has supreme efficacy as sacrament and sacrifice. It also consists in other prayers commonly held in churches, like litanies and similar things. Private prayer is the prayer that each one does in his room, and it ... should always take order and priority over public prayer because of its power, and it especially befits us because we do not celebrate public prayer in common -- we do not have choir. This means that for the Jesuit his room becomes his choir."

In practice, however, Jesuits tried to find ways to correlate "private prayer" with the public prayer that was the mass. This first generation produced three lengthy works that illustrated in detail the correlation they fostered. It is significant that each of them took the texts from the Gospels read at mass during the annual liturgical cycle as the materials for these meditations. Borja, Nadal, and Canisius were the authors ....

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