[Note on translation: The following is an excerpt from A Short Method of Prayer. It was written between 1681 and 1682, after Jeanne had moved to Geneva but before she had left Gex to stay with the Ursulines at Tolon. A. W. Marston’s translation from the Paris Edition of 1790 is followed here, with some minor changes. – Editor]
A Short Method of Prayer
CHAPTER XVII: OF THE ACT
DISTINCTION BETWEEN EXTERIOR AND INTERIOR ACTIONS — THOSE OF THE SOUL IN THIS CONDITION ARE INTERIOR, BUT HABITUAL, CONTINUED, DIRECT, PROFOUND, SIMPLE, AND IMPERCEPTIBLE — BEING A CONTINUAL SINKING IN THE OCEAN OF DIVINITY — SIMILITUDE OF A SEAGOING VESSEL — HOW TO ACT IN THE ABSENCE OF SENSIBLE SUPPORTS.
An act is an action that is good, useless or offensive. The actions of creatures are either external or internal. The external are those that appear outwardly and have their object in the realm of the senses, having neither good nor evil qualities in themselves except those that are attached to them by the motivating principle. It is not of these that I intend to speak, but only of internal actions, those actions of the soul by which it turns inwardly toward some object or turns away from another.
When, being turned toward God, I desire to perform an action of a different nature from those that He would prompt, I turn away from God and I turn towards created things to a greater or lesser degree according to the force or weakness of my action. If, being turned towards the creature, I wish to return to God, I must perform the action of turning away from the creature and turning towards God. The more perfect is this action, the more complete will be the conversion.
Until I am perfectly converted, I need several actions to turn me towards God. Some are performed all at once, others gradually; but my action ought to lead me to turn to God, employing all the strength of my soul for Him. As it is written, “Therefore even now, saith the Lord, turn you even to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12); “You shalt return unto the Lord your God . . . with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:2). God only asks for our heart: “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways” (Prov. 23:26). To give one’s heart to God is to have its gaze, its strength, and its vigour all centred on Him, to follow His will. We must, then, after we have applied to God, remain always turned towards Him.
But as the mind of the creature is weak, and the soul, accustomed as it is to turn towards worldly things, is easily turned away from God, as soon as it perceives that it is turned towards outward things it must resume its former position in God by a simple act of returning to Him. And as several repeated acts form a habit, the soul acquires a habit of conversion, and from action it passes to a habitual condition.
The soul, then, must not seek by means of any efforts or works of its own to come near to God; this is seeking to perform one action by means of others [indirect action], instead of by a single [direct] action of remaining attached to God alone.
If we believe that we must commit no actions, we are mistaken, for we are always acting; but each one must act according to his degree. I will endeavour to make this point clear, as, for want of understanding it, it presents a difficulty to many Christians.
There are passing and distinct actions, and continuous actions; indirect actions and direct actions. Not everyone can perform the first, and not everyone is in a condition to perform the others. The first actions [passing and distinct] must be performed by those who are turned away from God. They must turn to Him by a distinct action, more or less strong according to their distance from Him.
By a continuous action I mean that by which the soul is completely turned towards its God by a direct action, which it does not renew, unless it has been interrupted, but which subsists. The soul altogether turned in this way is in love and remains there: “And he that dwells in love, dwells in God” (1 John 4:16). Then the soul may be said to be in a habitual action, resting even in this action. But its rest is not idle, for it has an action always in force: a gentle sinking in God, in which God attracts it more and more strongly. And, following this attraction and abiding in love, it sinks more and more in this love, and has an action infinitely stronger, more vigorous, and more prompt than that action which forms only the return to God. Now the soul which is in this profound and strong action, being turned towards its God, does not perceive this action because it is direct and not indirect, so that people in this condition, not knowing how rightly to describe it, say that they have no action. But they are mistaken — they were never more active. It would be better to say they do not perceive any action than that they do not perform any.
The soul does not act of itself, I admit, but it is drawn, and it follows the attracting power. Love is the weight which sinks it, as a person who falls in the sea sinks, and it would sink to infinity if the sea were infinite, and without perceiving its sinking it would sink to the most profound depths with incredible speed. It is, then, incorrect to say that no actions are performed. All perform actions, but not everyone performs them in the same manner, and the error arises from the fact that those who know that action is inevitable wish it to be distinct and sensed. But action that is sensed is for beginners, and the other for those more advanced. To stop at the first would be to deprive ourselves of the last, and to wish to perform the last before having passed the first would also be a mistake.
Everything must be done in its season; each state has its beginning, its progress, and its end — there is no act which has not its beginning. At first we must work with effort, but afterwards we enjoy the fruit of our labour. When a galley is in the harbour, the sailors labour to row it out to the open sea; but once there they easily set course. Just so, when the soul is in sin it needs an effort to pull it out; the ties that bind it must be loosened. Then, by means of strong and vigorous action, it must be drawn within itself, little by little leaving the harbour and being turned within, which is the place to which it should be steered.
When the vessel is offshore the sails catch the wind and the oars are useless. What does the master do then? He is content to set the sails and remain at the helm. Setting the sails is simply laying ourselves before God to be moved by His Spirit; remaining at the helm is preventing our heart from abandoning the right way, steering it gently and guiding it according to the movement of God’s spirit, who gradually takes possession of it, [just] as the wind gradually fills the galley’s sails and carries it forward. So long as the vessel sails by the wind the oarsmen rest from their labour; they travel farther by the wind in an hour than they would in a much longer time rowing; and if they attempted to row, besides the fatigue that would result, their labour would only serve to slow the vessel.1
This is the conduct we should pursue in our inner life, and in acting thus we shall advance more in a short time by the Divine guidance, than we ever could do by our own efforts. If only you will try this way, you will find it the easiest possible.
When the mind gets free enough, then the Self of you takes over and you are from then on Self-propelled. – Lester Levenson
CHAPTER XIX: WHAT IS THE SUREST WAY TO ARRIVE AT DIVINE UNION?
AFTER THE PRECEDING WAYS, THERE REMAINS AN AFTER WAY, PREPARATORY TO DIVINE UNION, IN WHICH WISDOM AND JUSTICE MAKE THE PASSIVE PURIFICATION OF THE SOUL, ALL OF WHICH IS TREATED IN DETAIL IN THE FOLLOWING TREATISE, ENTITLED “SPIRITUAL TORRENTS.”
It is impossible to attain divine union by the way of meditation alone, or even by the affections, or by any luminous or understood prayer. There are several reasons; these are the main ones. First, according to Scripture, “No man shall see God and live” (Exod. xxxiii. 20). Now all discursive exercises of prayer, or even of active contemplation, regarded as an end and not as a preparation for the passive, are exercises of life by which we cannot see God, that is, become united with Him. All that is of man and of his own industry, however noble and elevated it may be, must die.
St John tells us, “there was silence in heaven.” Heaven represents the depths and centre of the soul, where all must be in silence when the majesty of God appears. All that belongs to our own efforts or to ourselves in any way must be destroyed. The self is a force opposed to God, and all the malignity of man lies in this self-appropriation, which is the source of his evil, so that the more a soul loses its appropriation (grasping, holding on), the more pure it becomes. Secondly, in order to unite two things so opposed as the purity of God and the impurity of the creature, the simplicity of God and the multiplicity of the creature, God must operate alone; for this can never be done by the effort of the creature, since two things cannot be united unless there is some relation or resemblance between them, as an impure metal would never unite with one that was pure and refined.
What does God do then? He sends before Him His own wisdom, as will be sent upon the Earth to consume by its activity all the impurity that is there. Fire consumes all things and nothing resists its activity; it is the same with wisdom. It consumes all impurity in the creature to prepare him for divine union.
This impurity, so opposed to union, is grasping and activity. Grasping, because it is the source of the real impurity that can never be united with essential purity. As the sun’s rays may touch the earth but cannot unite with it, so the divine never unites with grasping. Activity, because God being in an infinite 47 stillness, for the soul to be united to Him it must participate in His stillness, without which there can be no union because there is no likeness, and in order for two things to unite they must be in a like stillness. It is for this reason that the soul can only attain divine union by the pacification of its will, and it can only be united with God when it is in a central stillness and in the purity of its creation.
To purify the soul God makes use of wisdom as fire is used to purify gold . . . until it is fit to be employed in the most excellent workmanship. This being understood, I say that in order that the soul may be united with God, wisdom and divine justice, like a pitiless and devouring fire, 48 must take from him all grasping, all that is worldly, carnal, and of his own activity; and having taken all this from him, they must unite him to God. This is never brought about by the labours of the creature; on the contrary, it even causes him regret, because as I have said, man so loves what is his own and is so fearful of its destruction that if God did not accomplish it Himself and by His own authority, man would never consent to it.
Some will object that God never deprives man of his liberty, and that therefore he can always resist God, for which reason I ought not to say that God acts absolutely, without the consent of man. In explanation I say that it is sufficient that man should give a passive consent that he may have entire and full liberty. This is because having at the beginning given himself to God that He might do as He would both with him and in him, he gave from that time an active and general consent to all that God might do. But when God destroys, burns, and purifies, the soul does not see that all this is for its benefit — it rather believes the contrary. And since at first the fire seems to tarnish the gold, so this operation seems to despoil the soul of its purity, so if an active and explicit consent were required, the soul would find it hard to give it, and often would not give it. All that it does is to remain in a passive contentment, enduring this operation as well as it can, being neither able nor willing to prevent it.
God then so purifies this soul of all natural, distinct, and perceived operations that at last He makes it more and more conformed to Himself, and then uniform, raising the passive capacity of the creature, enlarging it and ennobling it, though in a hidden and unperceived manner which is termed mystical. But in all these operations the soul must concur passively, and as the working of God becomes stronger the soul must continually yield to Him until it is absorbed altogether.
We do not say, then, as some assert, that there must be no action, since, on the contrary, this is the door; but only that we must not remain in it, seeing that man should tend towards the perfection of his end, and that he can never reach it without quitting the first means, which, though they were necessary to introduce him into the way, would greatly hinder him afterwards if he obstinately attached himself to them. . . . 49 Should we not consider a person destitute of reason who, after undertaking a journey, stopped at the first inn because he was assured that several had passed it, that a few had lodged there, and that the landlord lived there? What the soul is required to do, then, is to advance towards its end, to take the shortest road, not to stop at the first point . . .
It is well known that the sovereign good is God, that essential blessedness consists in union with God, and that this union cannot be the result of our own efforts, since God only communicates Himself to the soul according to its capacity. We cannot be united with God without passivity and simplicity, and this union being bliss, the way that leads to it must be the best, and there can be no risk in walking in it.
This way is not dangerous. If it were, Christ would not have represented it as the most perfect and necessary of all ways. All can walk in it; and as all are called to blessedness, all are called to the enjoyment of God, both in this life and in that which is to come, since the enjoyment of God is blessedness. I say the enjoyment of God Himself, not of His gifts, which can never impart essential blessedness, not being able fully to satisfy the soul, which is so constituted that even the richest gifts of God cannot thoroughly content it. The desire of God is to give Himself to us, according to the capacity with which He has endowed us, and yet we fear to abandon ourselves to God! We fear to possess Him, and to be prepared for divine union!
You say we must not bring ourselves to this condition. I agree with that; but I say too, that no one ever could bring himself to it, since no man could ever unite himself to God by his own efforts, and God Himself must do the work.
You say that some pretend to have attained it. I say that this state cannot be feigned, any more than a man dying of hunger can for any length of time pretend to be satisfied. It will soon be known whether or not people have attained this end.
Since, therefore, none can arrive at the end unless he be brought there, it is not a question of introducing people to it but of showing them the way which leads to it, and begging them not to rest in those practices which must be relinquished at God’s command. 50
Would it not be cruelty to show a fountain to a thirsty man and then hold him bound and prevent his going to it, leaving him to die of thirst? That is what is being done now. Let us all be agreed both as to the way and the end. The way has its beginning, its progress, and its terminus. The more we advance towards the terminus, the farther we go from the beginning; and it is impossible to reach the terminus but by constantly going farther from the starting-point, being unable to go from one place to another without passing through all that comes between them: this is incontestable.
Oh, how blind are the majority of men, who pride themselves upon their learning and talent!
O Lord! how true it is that Thou hast hidden Thy secrets from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes!
1 Compare this analogy to Suzuki (1929): “This effortlessness is again compared in the Dasabhumika to a great seafaring boat. When the boat is not yet at sea, much labour is needed to make it move forward, but as soon as it reaches the ocean, no human power is required; let it alone and the wind will take care of it. One day’s navigation thus left to itself in the high seas will surely be more than equal to one hundred years of human labouring while still in the shallows. When the Bodhisattva accumulating the great stock of good deeds sails out onto the great ocean of Bodhisattvahood, one moment of effortless activity will infinitely surpass deeds of conscious striving.” (p. 226)
London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1875. Printed by Ballantyne and Company, Edinburgh and London. (guyon_shortmethodofprayer)
Suzuki, D. T. (1998). Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers. (originally published in 1929)