To anyone who has experienced difficulties and aridities in prayer, the Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman are immensely bracing and re-assuring. Dom John was a Roman Catholic, the Abbot of Downside from 1929 to 1933, and a widely experienced spiritual director. An expert on contemplative prayer, his collected letters deal largely with the mental difficulties that beginners in contemplation, both lay and religious, have to go through. They are written with a pithy masculinity and humour as well as a deep and wide understanding of the nature of contemplative prayer and the human heart.
Two of his favourite maxims were, “Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t” and “The less you pray, the worse it goes”.
He placed great emphasis on allowing plenty of time for prayer, and on not trying to force oneself into a type of prayer that was unsuitable. Many of the letters he received must have been very desperate ones, to judge from his replies: confessions of lack of faith, a sense of no longer having a “spiritual life”, complaints that trials and temptations were resented instead of being accepted, that nothing was learnt from them but rebellion.
Darkness was another fear, and the lack of a sense of direction, even the fear of insanity. All the disorders that beset the aspirant on the purgative way were pushed through his letter-box. He dealt with them all in a distinctly robust way, and often at great length.
“It seems that you have the simple experience that suffering is really suffering”, he wrote to one woman. The fact that she found suffering unpleasant, felt rebellious and full of resentment over it was all to the good. He pointed out that if we could always accept the suffering and feel at peace in spite of it, it would not be suffering: it would be rather pleasant and we might almost enjoy it, in the same way that some people “enjoy bad health”.
The fact that we bear it all in such an unedifying way is the best purification of all—it humbles us. Dom John was an enthusiast for humility. If we bore our trials with courage and magnanimity they would not be nearly so effective, he never tired of telling his correspondents. He often stressed the safety of the arid path. We are not likely to fall a victim to self satisfaction or spiritual pride when the sense of communion with God, of spiritual growth, of satisfactory prayer or meditation, are denied us.
We have to grit the teeth and hang on somehow; and though there may be no sensible satisfaction, yet the very determination to go on, and the constant hunger for God—or we know not what exactly—are proofs that the higher part of the spirit is being fed, though the lower, the emotional, imaginative and intellectual part, appear to be starved. This lower part is being purified; for though it is relatively easy to have a right intention, it is a very different thing to have a pure intention; and a pure intention is only possible when the personality has suffered many, many humiliations and failures.
Nor must we necessarily expect success in an undertaking because we have prayed about it and found guidance. We may well make the wrong decision, in spite of the prayers, because we need the failure for our spiritual growth. Self satisfaction is the one thing we can make up our minds to do without, right from the start.
Neither does the feeling of a lack of faith matter at all. The person without faith is perfectly content with his lot: the person who has indeed got faith, but not the sensible consolation of it, is the one who worries about his lack. Dom John claims that faith is particularly strong at such times. He thought that the temptation peculiar to the twentieth century was this fear of lack of faith, the suspicion that religion just is not true.
His comment on this is typical. “It is an admirable purgative; it takes all pleasure out of spiritual exercises, and strips the soul naked. It is very unpleasant.”
Then again, the sense of being in darkness, of being directionless, of not even understanding the prayers as we repeat them, are all a part of the purification. The aim of prayer is not our own satisfaction, but God’s glory, and the pain of failure, uncertainty and anxiety force us into humility. Our own efforts are so puerile and yet there seems to be nothing tangible at such times that we can call “God”. Dom John has an excellent illustration for this; “If you are carried in our Lord’s arms, you will seldom see His Face.”
He kept hammering away too, at one special point: embrace the suffering and dryness and distractions; say,
“This is what God knows is the right thing for me at this very moment; therefore I accept it. I accept too, the fact that I bear it so badly, weakly, ignobly—it throws me on to God in a way that bearing a trial with heroism could never do.”
But, he warned—never resign yourself to the suffering; grasp it, embrace it, make it a positive act.
Concern over their “spiritual” state was an indulgence that Dom John’s correspondents were not allowed. Anxiety and worry inhabit the lower (not the lowest) part of the soul, he taught; the part where the imagination and intellect work; but the higher part, or the ‘Ground’ as some Christian writers call it, must be continually united with God’s Will. There is no sensible recognition of this unity; it is the purified will which brings it into being; and contemplative prayer is a prayer of the will, not of the emotions, nor even of the intellect. Desolation was sometimes the result of, and often made worse by, the anxious desire to keep the feeling of being in touch with God.
The only way in which we can judge whether our prayer is fruitful or not, is by the determination we have afterwards in trying to do God’s will, not by the consolations that may be experienced during the prayer. Yet in spite of the aridities and darkness Dom John claims that there is a supersensible light that consolations extinguish. When on occasions we really look at ourselves and appear to see nothing but interior squalor, Dom John is immensely reassuring. He calls this sight a great Grace; and says that in fact we are not looking at ourselves so much as looking at God; for it is by the light of His brilliance that we recognise our own unsavour.
Again, in spite of the knowledge of our own worthlessness, he assures us that there is a “Transcendental super-sensible satisfaction of most extraordinary power” which sustains the soul, and this is why we are impelled to go on, at all costs.
In one of the letters he wrote, “If you have passed a given time in continual distraction and discomfort, you will have made a fruitful prayer, provided you come away from it discontented with yourself”. The Letter ends, “And it will be going all right, if it feels all wrong!”