§ 3. Distractions are a necessary effect of original sin.
§§ 4, 5. Distractions about objects to which we bear an inordinate affection are most harmful.
§ 6. A remedy against them.
§§ 7, 8, 9. Remedies against all inconveniences that may come from distractions.
§ 10. Difference between the distractions of perfect and imperfect souls.
§§ 11, 12, 13. A third condition necessary to true internal affective prayer, viz. that it must come from divine inspirations.
§ 14. An exhortation to constancy in prayer.
1. The second discouraging temptation opposite to the second quality requisite in prayer (to wit, perseverance), by which well-minded souls are oft much afflicted in their recollections, and also exposed to grievous scrupulosities, is Distraction in prayer, caused by images which oft, against their wills, press into their imaginations. These draw the mind from contemplating God, and, consequently, the affections from embracing Him by love at such times when the soul desires and intends to contemplate and love Him.
2. I do not, therefore, here under the term of distractions comprehend all manner of interruptions from a direct actual tendence to God (for such, sometimes, considering the infirmity of our nature, may be necessary to the end that by a discreet relaxation, the head being refreshed, we may be enabled afterwards to produce more efficacious affections; and, therefore, those authors are too indiscreetly rigorous who oblige souls not yet perfect to a continual recollected attention to the divine presence, not considering the corporal infirmity and incapacity of their disciples' spirits, especially in these days). The distractions, therefore, here intended to be treated of are such as are involuntary, and which happen at times when souls do apply themselves either to vocal or mental prayer.
3. Now it is an effect of original sin (much increased also by actual) that souls are generally, some more some less, subject to this deordination, because by sin that due subordination of the sensitive faculties (the imagination, memory, and appetite) to the superior soul is impaired, so that the reason has not that absolute dominion over them that it had in innocence; but they often wander towards objects not prescribed by reason, yea, and sometimes seduce and even compel reason itself to comply with their disorders. Add hereunto, that the body being gross and lumpish cannot long endure that the soul, its companion, should remain in its proper exercise by which it becomes as it were a stranger to the body, contradicting its motions and desires; and, therefore, till the soul, by practice of spiritual operations, be enabled at pleasure to command the inferior faculties or to abstract itself from the images suggested by them; the said faculties do strive to depress the spirit and to call it down to attend to the necessities and desires of sensitive nature; yea, even in the most perfect the soul will not be able to continue long in the height of its elevation.
4. As for these distractions which, generally speaking, are hurtful and to be avoided (among which, notwithstanding, I need not reckon in this place such as are simply sinful, being about unlawful objects), the most harmful to our spiritual progress are those which are about objects to which we cleave with affection, because by such distracting thoughts not only the mind is diverted from God, but the heart also inordinately carried to creatures.
5. For, as for thoughts merely about vain objects, to which we have little or no affection, and which proceed wholly from the instability of the imagination, imperfect souls ought not to be discouraged with them, although they should be never so importunate during their recollections, since the most abstracted liver must be content now and then to suffer them.
6. And the most powerful remedy to prevent them is, with as much prudence and dexterity as one can, to cut off the occasions of entertaining such images as do most frequently and pertinaciously recur to the mind in prayer. And more particularly for those images to whose objects the soul cleaves by inordinate affection; the practice of abstraction and voluntary disengagement from unnecessary business is requisite, and a restraining of our affections from wandering abroad and fixing themselves upon any external objects; for certain it is, that if by the exercise of mortification and prayer we could restrain our affections from creatures and fix them on God only, we should scarce ever have cause to complain of distractions, for we see that we can easily and constantly fix our thoughts on such objects as we love; so that perseverance in prayer and mortification being the most assured instruments to increase divine love and diminish inordinate love to ourselves and creatures, consequently they are the most sure remedies against distractions.
7. But if after all due care had they do still persist, the most effectual expedients to hinder any considerable inconveniences from such distractions are: 1. Sometimes to use a discreet and reasonable industry in contradicting and expelling them, yet forbearing an over-violent anxious resistance of them, out of an opinion that by such violence they may be extinguished, whereas, on the contrary, such an eagerness of contending with them by the inflaming of the spirits makes those images more active and full of motion, and rather multiplies than diminishes them; and, however, it imprints them deeper in the imagination. Let a well-minded soul rather endeavour, according to the expression of the author of the Cloud, to look over their shoulders, as if she looked after some other object that stood beyond them and above them, which is God.2. Let her (as hath been said) fix in her mind and superior will a strong resolution, notwithstanding the said distractions, yea, in the midst and press of them, not to relinquish prayer, but to persevere in it to the best of her power and skill.3. Let the well-minded soul execute this resolution with all possible quietness, stillness, and patience, not troubling herself with any fears or scrupulosity, as if they came from her own fault, whereas ordinarily they are increased, at least, by the distemper of the body, or the natural instability of the imagination.4. Sometimes it may be requisite for her (not being able, to her own satisfaction, to pursue her appointed exercise) to change it into acts of patience and quiet resignation, to suffer without murmuring such an affliction and visitation from God's hands; and so doing, she will, perhaps, more advance herself in pure spiritual prayer than if she had no such distractions at all; for besides that such prayer being made with an actual contradiction to the inclinations of nature, has in it the virtue of a most purifying mortification. Also, a perseverance in this practice will bring her to that pure prayer of the will without any perceivable help or concurrence of the understanding, in which the will is firmly united to God, whilst the understanding is in no such union, yea, when both it and the imagination are never so extravagant and wandering.
8. And surely a matter of great comfort it is to a soul (and ought so to be esteemed) that in her will (which is her principal faculty, and, indeed, all in all) she may be united to God in the midst of all distractions, temptations, and desolations, &c., and that being so united, she will be so far from receiving any harm by them that she will, by their means, increase in grace, so that though she do not receive any extraordinary illuminations nor any satisfaction to her natural will by such distracted prayers, yet doth she get that for which such illuminations and gusts are given, to wit, a privy but effectual grace to adhere unto God and to resign herself to Him in all His providences and permissions concerning her; and grace gotten by such an afflicting way of abnegation is far more secure and merits more at God's hands, than if it had come by lightsome and pleasing consolations; since this is a way by which corrupt nature is transcended, self-love contradicted and subdued, even when it assaults the soul most subtlely and dangerously, to wit, by pretending that all solicitudes and anxious discouragements, caused by distractions, do flow from divine love and from a care of the soul's progress in spirituality. Lastly, this is a way by which charity and all divine virtues are deeply rooted in the spirit, being produced and established there by the same means that the devil uses to hinder the production of them in negligent and tepid souls, or to destroy them when they have been in some measure produced.
9. As for more particular advices, expedients, and sleights to be made use of in special cases and circumstances, none can teach but God only, who by means of experience and perseverance in prayer will undoubtedly give unto a soul light and grace sufficient.
10. To conclude, therefore, this point, this difference may be observed between distractions in perfect souls from the same in the imperfect, viz. that in perfect souls distractions proceed only from some unwilling distemper in the cognoscitive faculties, but in the imperfect they are rather from some degree of inordinate affection to the objects of the distractions; and, therefore, a well-advanced soul hath little difficulty in putting them away as soon as she reflects upon them, for without contending with them she can presently unite herself with her superior will to God, even whilst her knowing powers are busy about impertinent objects; whereas imperfect souls in the inferior degrees of prayer, having as yet an express and perceptible use of the understanding and imagination, cannot but receive some prejudice by distractions, inasmuch as those faculties cannot at the same time be employed upon different objects that have no subordination or relation to one another.
11. There remains a third condition or quality which I said was necessary to true internal affective prayer, to wit, the divine inspiration, from which if it do not proceed, it is of little efficacy or merit. Now though in the general division of internal prayer I seemed to appropriate the title of infused prayer to the prayer of perfect contemplation, the meaning thereof was, that such prayer is merely infused, the soul by any deliberate preparation or election not disposing herself thereto; whereas in the inferior degrees there is necessary both a precedent and concomitant industry in the soul to make choice of matter for prayer, and to force herself to produce affections corresponding to the said matter, by reason that as yet God's Holy Spirit is not so abounding and operative in the soul as to impel her to pray, or rather breathing forth prayers in and by her. But in all cases that is most true which St. Bernard saith, Tepida est oratio, quam non prevenit inspiratio; that is, that prayer is a tepid prayer which is not prevented by divine inspiration; and St. Augustine, Bene orare Deum, gratia spiritalis est; that is, it is a special grace of God's Holy Spirit to be able to pray aright.
12. Now the ground of the necessity of a divine inspiration hereto is expressed in that saying of St. Paul (Quid oremus sicut oportet nescimus, &c.), We know not how to pray as we ought, and therefore the Spirit of God helps our infirmity, yea, saith he, the Spirit itself makes requests in us and for us, and this oft with groans which cannot be expressed, and which the soul itself cannot conceive. It is this inspiration only which gives a supernaturality to our prayers, and makes them fit to be heard and granted by God.
13. But of this subject much hath already been said, and more will follow when we treat of the several degrees of prayer (especially the perfect prayer of aspirations), where we shall show how these inspirations are attempered according to the natural good propensions of souls; so that those which are naturally inclined to introversion are usually moved by God to seek Him by pure spiritual operations, without images or motives, yet this by degrees, according to the state of the soul; where also I will show how necessary liberty of spirit and a freedom from nice methods and rules of prayer are to dispose the soul for these divine inspirations, and therefore I will forbear any further enlarging of myself on this point in this place.
14. Now a due consideration of these excellencies and most heavenly effects of internal affective prayer ought to give us a suitable esteem and valve of it above any other employments whatsoever. An experience hereof it was that made an ancient hermit, called Jacob (in Theodoret. de Vit. PP.), resolutely to persist in refusing to interrupt his appointed prayer, or to delay the time of it for any other business or civilities in visits whatsoever. He commanded all to depart when the hour was come, saying, I came not to this solitude to benefit other men's souls, but to purify mine own by prayer.'