The Spiritual Guide
By Miguel de Molinos. Edited and translated by Robert P. Baird
Publisher: New York: Paulist Press, 2010. Classics of Western Spirituality Series.
The Spanish mystic Miguel de Molinos (1628-1697) is one of the most controversial figures in Roman Catholic history. Teaching a mystical practice of attentive inner silence, he served as a spiritual guide to a large following, including some of the highest ranking officials in the Church. His book The Spiritual Guide came out in 1675 and within six years it went through more than twenty editions, with translations into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch and Latin. However, in 1685 Molinos was tried for heresy and condemned to prison, where he died in 1697. After his book was banned by the Catholic Church, it continued to be highly influential in Protestant circles. His teachings were labelled Quietism, and over the next two centuries many Christian mystics were called Quietists.
The recent Paulist Press edition offers an excellent new translation of The Spiritual Guide. The introduction describes Molinos’s life and times and explains the theological and political controversies that culminated in his arrest and imprisonment. The text of The Spiritual Guide itself is in three sections or books.
Molinos begins Book One by assuring the reader: “Know that your soul is the centre, the residence, and the kingdom of God.” One must only “look within your own heart by means of interior recollection” and remain steadfast in a state of utter resignation, knowing nothing, desiring nothing. He says that this simple contemplative practice is superior to both “meditation” (by which he means the practice of thinking deeply on a particular spiritual topic) and “discursive prayer” (expressing oneself to God in words). According to Molinos, “The perfection of the soul does not consist in speaking or in thinking much on God, but in loving him much. You reach this love by means of perfect resignation and interior silence.”
When God says that he wants to speak to the soul alone, he calls it and leads it to interior solitude and mystical silence in the most secret and intimate depths of the heart. You must enter this mystical silence if you want to hear the gentle, interior, and divine voice.… Repose in this mystical silence, and you will open the door so that God may communicate himself, unite you with him, and transform you.
Book One focuses mostly on the challenges of darkness, dryness and temptations that, he says, face every mystical practitioner. Molinos claims that God actually allows these challenges “for the good of your soul and your spiritual benefit”. Persevering in prayer through periods of dryness and darkness “is a manifest sign that God in his mercy wants to introduce you to the interior road, the happy path of paradise”.
Know that there are two kinds of prayer: one is tender, easy, loving and full of feeling; the other is obscure, dry, desolate, tempted, and dark. The first is for beginners; the second, for the diligent and those on the path to perfection. God gives the first kind to win souls; the second, to purify them. With the first he treats them like children and wretches; with the second he begins to treat them as though they were strong.
Molinos counsels, “Know that the Lord esteems this veil of drynesses so that we will not know what works within us. By this ignorance we are humbled.” In fact, one should “embrace these darknesses. When in the midst of them you should believe that you are in front of the Lord and in his presence.”
During this practice, one will be assailed by temptations. Ironically, Molinos says:
Know, then, that temptation is your greatest happiness.… Be grateful to God for the benefit it does you. In all these temptations and abominable thoughts the remedy you should adopt is to scorn them … for there is nothing that injures the devil in his pride more than seeing himself scorned, with no notice given to him or the thoughts he conjures.… Keep yourself in your peace without becoming disquieted and without multiplying reasons and responses. There is nothing so dangerous as to engage in debate with one who can deceive us so quickly.
Book Two focuses on the need for a spiritual guide for anyone attempting to travel the interior path. Molinos advises:“In every sense it is advisable to choose a master experienced in the interior way.… Were we to submit our actions to our own judgement and natural impulses, we would immediately stumble and fall in a thousand abysses.” Spiritual books can mislead the seeker:
These books confuse the souls instead of illuminating them. They fill souls with discursive knowledge that greatly impedes them. While it is true that they give knowledge about the light, this knowledge enters from the outside and dulls the soul’s powers, instead of emptying those powers so that God can fill them with himself.
Book Three focuses on the experiences of “those who are agreeable to God”. These mystic practitioners continue “to enter quietly and silently within themselves in God, for here is their centre, their dwelling, and their delight”.
The soul sometimes hears the interior voice of its Beloved, a very delicate whistle that calls it and makes it hurry, going out from the most intimate part of the soul where he dwells and strongly penetrating the soul until it melts and undoes it. The soul sees how near the Beloved is to itself and how far, since it cannot completely possess him. This intoxicates, dismays, weakens, and fills the soul with insatiability.
Molinos says that the soul must pass through a“spiritual martyrdom” that is much harder than the external martyrdom of those who are persecuted.“You should know that you must suffer to arrive at the sweet, gentle, and abundant richness of high contemplation and loving union. No holy soul has ever arrived at this state that has not passed through his spiritual martyrdom and painful torment.”
Here you will see yourself abandoned and subject to the passions of impatience, anger, rage, blasphemy, and disordered appetites. You will appear to yourself as the most miserable creature, the worst sinner, the most abhorred of God, stripped of all virtue, nearly suffering the pain of hell.… But truly, if you see yourself so oppressed, and seem to yourself on good evidence to be proud, impatient, and angry, then these temptations will not have any force or place in your soul, thanks to the hidden virtue and interior gift of fortitude that reigns in the intimate part of your soul.…
Be constant, O blessed soul, be constant, for you will never love more nor be closer to God than in such abandonments!…. The Lord allows this painful abandonment in your soul to purge you, clean you, deny you, and strip you from yourself. By these means you will be all his … and to whatever extent you surrender yourself to him will his infinite goodness be given to you so that you may be his delight.
On the interior way, one must die to oneself. Molinos says the state of the soul that is “stripped of the self” is impossible to describe. “Only those who experience this contemplation know it.”
If you give God your detached soul with this liberty, free and alone, you will be happier than any creature on earth, because in this holy solitude the Most High has his secret dwelling. In this desert and paradise God allows himself to converse; only in this interior retreat is that marvellous, efficacious, interior, and divine voice heard. If you want to enter this heaven on earth, forget all cares and thoughts and strip yourself so that the love of God may live in your soul.
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