Thursday, 29 August 2013

Mattia da Salò

The Practice of Mental Prayer

translated by Br. Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

     There is general consensus among scholars that The Practice of Mental Prayer is Bellintani’s ascetical masterpiece. What is more, it is also one of those works  similar to The Contempt of the World by Innocent III, The Dialogue of Divine Providence by Catherine of Siena, The Treatise on Purgatory by Saint Catherine of Genoa, The Spiritual Combat by Scupoli that seems to epitomise a era of spiritual writings.  In fact while it is regarded as one of the most ripe fruits of the Capuchin Italian sixteenth century and, perhaps, the most mature product of a particular kind of spirituality, on a broader scale it represents the pre-eminently apostolic aspect of the new Franciscan reform which seems to capture and fully exemplify its two outstanding characteristics: contemplative solitude and preaching the Gospel.
     Bellintani’s work, which is presented as a method and guide for mental prayer was generally accepted by popular piety as one of the most widely read and enjoyed ascetical works by the Christian community. This is substantiated by the number of editions which continued to be published into the seventeenth century and by translations into French, Latin and Spanish which in all numbered about fifty. What is more it was recommended by Saint Charles Borromeo, prescribed for Confraternities of Penance by the Archbishop of Avignon, Francesco M. Taugi, praised by the Spirituals of the day, used by prayer groups during the Forty Hours and flicked through by everyone.
      In the author’s mind the entire work is made up clearly and logically of four parts, following a broad design which, beginning from God’s infinite and blessed essence and the benefits bestowed on man, reflects on the whole of the economy of salvation by means of the mystery of all the earthly events of Christ’s life, the Church and its source of grace in the Sacraments, and then the universal eschatology in the fundamental truths of the last things, which are clearly spelt out in the New Testament. It resembles d gigantic round of frescoes in which the entire story of God’s love for man is reviewed from the first instant of life in time to the vision of a blessed eternity at the end of time that exceeds our wildest dreams.
      This vast vision which Bellintani conceived from the start was only brought to completion through successive stages that were developed side by side with the continual responsibilities of preaching and teaching and responsibilities in Italy and beyond. Thus the first part, which concludes with Christ’s burial, was published for the first time in Brescia in 1573 and was dedicated to the Bishop of that city, Domenico Bollani. This part consists of an important theoretical introduction concerning meditation, its value and usefulness and how it is practised. It consists of eight little chapters followed by fifty two meditations or “practices”. As Petrocchi wrote, this consists of “splendid pages for the study of sixteenth century piety” and the method of Capuchin affective prayer. Even though in a later edition in 1584 Bellintani revised this first part adding corrections and improving the theological development and structure of the treatment, we preferred to reproduce the first Brescian edition, since it is a better reflection of “the first fervour or discovery”, and is more spontaneous and personal and, indeed, little known since scholars have referred to the second edition which was revised by the author and published in this century (fifty years ago) by the Capuchin Umile da Genova.
      “The theological system of Mattia da Salò – to quote Petrocchi once again – is centered on the exertion which is applied when praying, on prayer as an exercise, on the importance of the intellect and the will in the practice of the acts of prayer in so far as the intellect is involved in understanding and thinking about the divine mysteries and the will stimulates emotions with regard to the circumstance in the mysteries which are being meditated upon by the intellect and the temperament of the person who is at prayer”. However, the solid theological foundation is dealt with “briefly as an easy and useful method” because this spiritual book is intended to be “a practical instrument for carrying out mental prayer”.
      The question is raised of how virtues may be acquired through prayer and the whole problem of Christian “virtue” is discussed throughout the introduction since prayer is “the quickest way” to acquire virtue. The concrete example is Christ and the instructive model is the Our Father, which also exemplifies the order to be observed when praying. The Holy Spirit is the inner instructor. The method and written rules are the exterior tutor which the spiritual person sees as the way of submission to being taught by the Holy Spirit.
 Rather than insisting on generic rules, Bellintani proposes to unfold all the acts of prayer individually and in an orderly fashion and to teach the practice of the exercise in a concrete manner, in a restrained and friendly manner suitable for the time of apprenticeship. Therefore he is not concerned with vocal prayer, but stresses the rules of mental prayer. He divides these into three parts:
     1) Preparation: in general and in particular (remote and proximate), which consists in being on guard against sin, purification of the heart, repentance and making an effort to cultivate energetic attention; 2) meditation, which is the longest part, split into various points to assist the mind in paying attention like eating so many mouthfuls of food that need to be chewed well one by one in order to extract flavour and taste in order to light the fire of emotion in the will; 3) action, by means of which once the will has been watered by holy meditation, this produces automatically, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, “emotions”, “acts”, or “operations” in which divine love abides. These emotions burst forth into acts which are produced by love, which is dynamically active and passive, active and passive at the same time, during which the soul is “drawn to God”, which stirs a deep desire to delight in the Divine will and to make all people honour God, in a intertwining and subsequent exchange of unspeakable delight which he calls “connection” and “disconnection”. It is here that mental prayer glides into contemplation and the pure act of love, and the state of union with God.

      The shades of meaning in this teaching are so numerous that it is difficult to explain them in a short space of time. Bellintani, however, hurries on to deal with rules in well laid out exercises of meditation. By way of an example we have chosen some of these practices, really just a few, but a sufficient number so that the reader may grasp the whole dynamic and logic of this popular and influential “practice of mental prayer”.

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