Those who turn over part of their day to spiritual exercises know that a process like the four-step lectio divina process takes dedication and practice. Without a doubt, the more transcendent the God, the harder it is to reach that God. Because smart readers want to know, and there were smart readers during the late medieval ages (the golden age of mysticism), a whole host of spiritual ‘how-to’ guides were written and circulated. Their purpose? Not much different from today’s–to offer helpful tips to monastics and devout lay-people trying to make a connection with an invisible, unknowable God through ascetic devotions.
One such manual was written by a Spaniard called Francisco de Osuna in the early 1500’s. A Franciscan monk whose life was dedicated to prayer, he not only meditated on the passion of Christ but he also practiced what he called ‘recollection.’ This term doesn’t mean ‘to remember,’ but rather to collect one’s self again and again—the way we use the word when we say something like: “she’s always so calm and collected!” For Osuna, becoming spiritually ‘collected’ was best achieved through a process of prayer designed to go deeper into one’s self rather than designed to turn outward to ‘mere word and reading’ (a dig at lectio divina?). Perfect recollection “is a moderation and serenity of the soul that is as quiet as if becalmed and purified and disciplined in harmony within.” Osuna wanted nothing less than to achieve a state of nearly-permanent recollection, or of alertness and receptivity to God.
Osuna’s recollection demands both mental concentration and active directing of the mind, but the pay-off of such hard work (so he claimed) is making friendship and communion with God possible—a friendship he described as “more sure and more intimate than ever existed between brothers or even between mother and child.”
He wrote several books but the Third Spiritual Alphabet is the ‘how-to’ guide for recollection. A ‘spiritual alphabet’ will strike some as strange. Osuna decided to organize his maxims and treatises according to the letters (and the Spanish tilde) of the alphabet as an act of humility. In his words, “We must become as little children, learning our ABC’s of spirituality.”
Osuna’s alphabet proceeds logically, describing the process one follows as one ascends from the lower stages of recollection to the higher. One is to move through the three major forms of prayer, from lowest to highest:
- vocal prayer (active)
- prayer of the heart (active)
- mental or spiritual prayer (passive)
Realizing that distractions and run-away thoughts can plague even the most experienced re-collector, Osuna recommends disciplining the soul gently and lovingly. The exercise of recollection, he says, ‘is not achieved by force but by skill’ and ‘nothing is more skillful than love, which should be like the whip used to start a top so it will spin again and always turn without falling over.”
Osuna also warned that, especially at first, we must be ready to dedicate lots of time and effort (he recommended 2 hours per day!) to practicing spiritual prayer. If we persevered, he promised that the day would come when we would realize that the highest stage, spiritual prayer, “is most certainly worth more than an entire year in vocal prayer.”
Recollection requires that we learn to calm and quiet the understanding. Since God (or at least the God recollection is designed to reach) is beyond the capacity of ordinary thought to comprehend, we cannot approach God via ordinary thought. Instead, we must achieve the nearly-impossible feat (especially for the novice) of directing all of our spiritual attention to God. If we pull this off, then “In the darkness of unknowing the soul feels reassured by the light of spiritual consolations, when it feels the stirring of joy in the soul as a result.”
To critics of spiritual consolations or to those who practice them for no other reason than to tap into the happiness-center of the brain (the left frontal cortex), Osuna would have countered: as “long as we do not desire them for our own sake but for the sake of loving God, then they are entirely appropriate.”
So, if you’re one of those lucky people with a couple of hours a day to spare, then by all means, try Osuna-style recollection. Whether your God is utterly transcendent or not, no one ever promised exercise would be easy, not even the spiritual kind.
Reference: Francisco de Osuna, The Third Spiritual Alphabet, trans. by Mary Giles (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 7, 22-23, 386-7.