Confirmatory Signs of the Mystic Way: Part 46 Mini-Course on Prayer

Editor’s note:  David Torkington continues his series on prayer with the fourth and final section, “From Meditation to Contemplation”.  Read part 45 here, and begin with part one here.

The Mystic Way Part IV

It is essential that, at a time when it is so difficult to find a competent spiritual director,  people are taught how to make a diagnosis for themselves. It might not be ideal, but reality may dictate that we have to make the decision for ourselves as to when meditation has come to an end and when, therefore, we have been led into contemplation. Although fraught with dangers, sometimes there is no alternative. I never found a competent spiritual director when I needed one. I had to make a diagnosis for myself from reading books. Thankfully, the first book I read was The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. In order to help my readers make a diagnosis for themselves and to avoid the dangers that I referred to, I will summarize the teaching of St. John of the Cross and then add the teaching of other mystics to make myself as clear as possible. 

There are two places in the writings of St. John of the Cross where he enumerates the signs by which a person can determine whether or not the desert in which they  find themselves is the beginning of Contemplation or the Dark Night of the Soul. St. John uses both terms to describe this place of purification. The first place is in his book The Dark Night of the Soul, book one, chapter nine. The second is in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, book two, chapter thirteen.

He gives three or four signs, but there are others that he assumes, and still others that you can find in the writings of other mystics. I have gathered ten together. 

The First Sign 

The first sign is that a person has already been through first enthusiasm or first fervor, when meditation or some other forms of devotion has led to what some have called acquired contemplation, when prayer becomes relatively easy. Then, after enjoying a sort of emotional climax for a relatively short time, everything suddenly flops into an anticlimax when all the feelings of fervor disappear and do not return despite all the efforts to revive them. This can happen to a person in their private prayer, or in forms of group prayer such as that experienced in Charismatic Renewal. However, I would emphasize that people who do not pray daily and consistently will not pass through their first fervor and into the mystic way, whether they pray mainly in private or whether they pray as members of a particular prayer group. 

The Second Sign

The second sign which is mentioned by St. John is that despite the relentless dryness and aridity, there is still the deep desire for God, which grows if they press on. The desire expresses itself in a pull to be alone that draws them aside into solitude for the contemplative prayer they want above all else but which always seems to elude them.

The Third Sign

The third sign is that, despite the desire that regularly draws them to prayer, they find it all but impossible to concentrate as they did before. The reason is quite simple. As the heart’s desire or the will is drawn to God alone, it loses its power over the mind, the memory and the imagination that was so essential for meditation, so that it now becomes quite impossible.

The Fourth Sign

The fourth sign is, as their inner sensual faculties cannot function as they could before, they cannot picture the Jesus who was the center of their meditation, so their desire is directed towards God and God alone. Henceforward he is the only One who gradually becomes the object of their deepest desires and longings, although the experience of his presence seems to have totally left them.

The Fifth Sign

The fifth sign is that the lack of concentration that afflicts them inside prayer begins to affect them outside prayer also. They moon around like lost souls, not knowing where to go or where to look for the love they have lost. Like anyone who is in love with love, they become vague, woolly, dreamy and forgetful. Their pleasures, pastimes, interests, hobbies, as well as their work, leave them flat. They find it difficult to concentrate on anything except this strange desire for God. The paradox is they no longer have the interest they had in the Sacraments or the Liturgy, or in reading the Scriptures that meant so much to them before, or in devotional exercises or the hymns that helped them in the past. It is not surprising, then, that at times they begin to doubt that this strange new world in which they find themselves has anything to do with God after all.

The Sixth Sign

The sixth sign is that they appear to be suffering from a moral decline that they cannot stem. They seem to be getting worse rather than better. The truth of the matter is that the spiritual fervor they were able to generate before no longer sustains their moral behavior, and they seem to be going backward and unable to do anything about it. But the situation is not as serious as it seems. It is not that there is any serious moral degeneration. It is just that the sweet vapors of first fervor hid from view what was always lurking beneath the surface.

The Seventh Sign

The seventh sign is that certain temptations always tend to predominate at the beginning of the Night of the Senses. The temptation to pack up prayer permanently becomes at times almost irresistible because it seems they are going nowhere at all. It all seems to be a waste of time, doing nothing day after day in the time that used to be full of wonderful feelings and fervor. The vast majority usually succumb, and never go any further in their prayer life. As they cannot return to meditation, they can only return to vocal prayer if they pray much at all. If, however, a person does persevere, the temptations only increase and their failure to find any sort of pleasure where it was found once before leads a person to seek it elsewhere. So they are beset with sensual temptations, inside and outside prayer, to which they often succumb regularly, making it even more difficult for them to believe they can be on any sort of spiritual journey.

The Eighth Sign

These temptations become worse as the Night of the Senses gives way to the Night of the Spirit. It is no wonder that the eighth sign is depression. Who would not get depressed when it seems you are unable to pray anymore, and the Scriptures that meant so much before move you no more, and your moral behavior seems to be deteriorating with each passing day? What is worse, other people seem to be noticing it too, and they see yesterday’s happy, smiling, budding saint making a mockery of his or her perseverance in prayer by persevering in behavior that seems to belie a genuine spiritual journey. But worse still, it seems that nothing can be done about it.

The Ninth and Tenth Signs

The ninth sign is that if, despite everything, a person does persevere in prayer, come what may, all the negative features that have been outlined above will become progressively worse—at least for a time. It is not surprising, therefore, that the final sign is that they will eventually be totally convinced that they are on the wrong path. And if they are ever fortunate enough to find a spiritual director who does understand them, then they will spend much of their time trying to convince this director that they are indeed on the wrong path.

If most or all these above signs cannot be verified in some manner of manifestation in a particular stretch of time when suffered, then it is likely that the difficulties in prayer that present themselves do not signify that a person is in the Dark Night. If despite all I have said, it is still impossible to make a diagnosis with certainty, a person should be encouraged to practice the way of prayer that I will shortly describe for those at the beginning of mystical contemplation. 

However, I may have given the impression that when the Dark Night begins, you do not use the Scriptures anymore and the humanity of Jesus no longer seems to have the importance it had before. It is not that the humanity of Jesus has disappeared, but it seems to have disappeared. Before, the Scriptures were a window through which to see Jesus Christ and study everything that he said and did. He was the fulfillment of all hopes and dreams, but the gaze upon him was from the outside like an onlooker or a bystander. All that has changed now. Once an outsider is touched by love, he or she wants to be an insider. Love wants to reach out, to take hold of, to possess, to enter into and have at-one-ment with the one who is loved. 

Back to Mars Again

Let me remind you of the story of the astronaut that I used before because the point it makes is so important. Every morning, he woke to see the spaceship that was going to carry him to his destination. Then one morning he awoke feeling dreadful. His mouth was dry, his body cramped and he could see nothing. ‘It’s gone. It’s gone, the spaceship has gone.’ he shouted. Then he heard the voice of his superior through the intercom. ‘No it hasn’t. You can’t see it because you’re in it.’ And he was in it, and he was traveling more quickly than ever before towards the destination that he believed he had been born for.

When Dawn Approaches 

Although you can no longer see Jesus as you used to in prayer and meditation, it is because you are within him and you are in fact being fitted into him more perfectly in your prayer than ever before. However, this state of affairs does not persist forever because as dawn approaches, and the emotions and feelings have been purified, they reopen and enable a relationship with Jesus and the  Persons of the Holy Trinity as never before. The Mystical Marriage is on the horizon.


David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles

Featured Image Courtesy of Unsplash.

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