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A Book Review . . . St. Peter Of Alcantara Tells Us How To Pray And Meditate

April 13, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY

Treatise on Prayer and Meditation, by St. Peter of Alcantara (212 pages, TAN Books & Publishers Inc., paperback and Kindle). Visit www.tanbooks.com, or call 1-800-437-5876.

St. Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562) was born in Spain, and became a Franciscan friar in a strict observance friary. He was ordained in 1524, and went on to become a well-known preacher. He lived an extremely austere life and developed a reputation for great holiness, and for miraculous powers and prophetic insights. Later on, he lived a stricter eremitical life, and became one of the spiritual directors of St. Teresa of Avila, encouraging her in her Carmelite reforms.
He lived during the tumultuous times when the effects of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation were reverberating across Europe, and when great Spanish saints, such as St. Ignatius Loyola, St. John of the Cross, and the redoubtable St. Teresa, were doing so much to win back Europe to the faith.
This edition of St. Peter of Alcantara’s Treatise on Prayer and Meditation has an introduction which gives an outline of his life and some details about the work itself. This is divided into two parts. The first deals with the mechanics of prayer and meditation and includes examples of meditations to be done and meditations on the Passion. The second part covers topics such as the nature of devotion, and how we can overcome temptations and grow spiritually.
He begins by encouraging the reader to understand that it is by means of meditation and contemplation on divine things that we will come to develop a deep spirit of Christian devotion, and quoting St. Bonaventure, he sees prayer as the answer to all the difficulties and setbacks we may encounter in life.
To this end, St. Peter encourages meditation on two particular groups of subjects, that is, the mysteries of the faith as contained in the Creed, and the Life and Passion of Christ. He then give a series of meditations for every day of the week. These focus on sin, self-knowledge, the miseries of life, death, judgment, Hell, and Heaven, with a final section on the “Benefits of God.”
He then moves on to give seven meditations on the last days of Christ, which cover the time from the washing of the apostles’ feet in the upper room to the Ascension.
The saint then gives instructions as to how to actually do these meditations, stressing the need to prepare one’s heart beforehand just as one tunes up a guitar before playing it. Then, after preparing ourselves, we need to read over the text of the meditation and then think about it. This is followed by an act of thanksgiving, and then one of offering of ourselves to God.
St. Peter stresses the need to do all this in a calm and unhurried way, with pauses during our reading to let the words sink in. For the meditation itself, he distinguishes between imaginative meditations, such as those on scenes from the life of Christ, and intellectual ones, such as on the benefits of God.
With imaginative meditations, he emphasizes the need to see ourselves as part of the scene we are thinking about, as if we had really been there, a practice which is a great aid to recollection.
When it comes to the prayers of petition we make to God, the saint particularly focuses on the need to conclude these with a prayer for the love of God, saying, “dwell upon this; occupy with this the greater part of your time; demand of Our Lord this virtue with feelings of the most ardent longing, for herein lies all our good.” He then gives a lengthy and very beautiful prayer asking for the love of God.
After this, he gives various counsels regarding meditating well, including avoiding an excessive use of the intellect, when we should actually be focusing on the “affections and sentiments of the will.” He particularly emphasizes the need for perseverance, even if we do not feel any sweetness in our prayers or devotions.
As regards the length of our meditation, St. Peter says, “it seems to me that anything less than an hour and a half or two hours is a short time to assign for prayer.”
To our modern mentality, this might seem excessive, but this is only the same advice as that given by St. Teresa of Avila, who advised that up to two hours per day should be devoted to mental prayer. And of course, many people routinely spend much more than two hours per day watching TV or involved in social media. It all depends what our priorities are.
The saint’s final counsel is: “The last and most important counsel of all is this: that one should endeavor in this holy exercise to mingle meditation with contemplation, making of the one a ladder whereby we mount to the other.”
In other words, the means are meditation, but the end is contemplation, to rest in God.
This is how he describes this happy state: “No words can express what the soul experiences in these moments, the light she rejoices in, the fullness and charity and peace she receives . . . the peace that surpasses all understanding and every joy that this life can hold.”

Banish Idle Thoughts

The second part of the book deals with devotion, and St. Peter begins by acknowledging the problems associated with this: “The greatest difficulty from which persons suffer who give themselves to prayer is a lack of all devotion.” He also says, “We should bear in mind that the greatest obstacle there is to living a good life comes from the corruption of our nature, due to sin.”
This devotion is meant to be a stimulus to our life of prayer and meditation, and the saint gives nine aids to secure devotion. These include steadfastly entering upon the exercise of meditation, as well as keeping guard over our hearts and minds and banishing idle thoughts and emotions.
He also advises keeping watch over the senses, and inclining toward a solitary life, because this latter practice allows us to enter more into ourselves. He likewise recommends reading spiritual books, and keeping the thought of God continually before our minds. Finally he speaks of practicing some austerity and bodily abstinence, as well as works of mercy.
He speaks, too, of the things to avoid, namely sin, scruples, a sour disposition, excessive worries, too many occupations, too much worldly pleasure, overeating, and the “vice of curiosity.”
The last part of the book has chapters on the most common temptations for those trying to pray and the remedies for these, further counsels for those seriously giving themselves to prayer, and some instructions for those who are seriously entering on a life of prayer.
Finally, he comes back to his favorite topics and gives three practices for those who wish to advance far in a short time. The first of these points are austerity and mortification of the flesh, the second — and more important according to the saint — is interior mortification of our desires and sensual inclinations, and finally he advises having an intent to pray unceasingly.
This is a very practical work, and while it might seem quite forbidding on the surface, the tone adopted by St. Peter is that of a spiritual father who is seeking to give the best advice regarding prayer. For anyone who wants to really develop their prayer life this is an excellent book.

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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also a written two time-travel/adventure books for young people — details can be found at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk/.)

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