Letter 3 - Unceasing Prayer
Milan, July 28, 1531
To the honorable Mr. Carlo Magni,38 a most upright attorney,
whom I honor as a father.
At St. Anthony’s,
VERY DEAR FATHER AND BROTHER IN CHRIST, GREETINGS.
I have received your letter of the 23rd of this month, and I set out to answer it only after kneeling a long time before the Crucifix on your behalf, for I think it is necessary to learn from Him what I have to teach you. Had you not employed such a warm and amiable insistence, I would have almost preferred to keep silent; but moved by your entreaty, I will stammer out what I am unable to express clearly.
Thus, dear father in Christ, since your professional activity is quite binding, taking much of your time and energy, necessity suggests choosing a fitting method of prayer. That’s why I would like you to practice, as much as you can, the following three exercises:
First, give yourself to prayer in the morning and at night, as well as at any other hour within a set schedule or not,
—at any time, that is, day or night,
—in any position, that is, in bed or out of it, kneeling or sitting or as you think best,
—and most of all before you start your professional work, usually without any set order, for a short or a long time, as God may grant it to you.
Discuss with Christ everything that may be happening to you: your doubts and your difficulties, especially the hardest ones. Present to Him your reasons, thoroughly but as briefly as possible. Then, only propose to Him the solution you think is the right one or, even better, ask for His opinion; for He will not refuse it if you gently insist. I can assure you that He will let Himself be compelled to give it to you, if, again, you really want to have it.
I am indeed deeply convinced that we can learn more about human laws directly from the legislator than from anybody else, especially when that legislator is himself the rule and the pattern of all things, and knows how to explain and disentangle the sophisms of the devil. Indeed, how much more thoroughly will he be able to unravel those of men? Needless to say, if one does not believe this truth, he believes still less that God takes such good care of us that He will not let a single hair of our heads be lost;41 and again, that He is so wise that He will show the wise of this world for what they are: fools and know-nothings.42
Well, then, if in favor of those who have recourse to Him God destroys all the sophistic stratagems of modern men, who seem so intent in separating man from God, can’t you imagine how He will disperse other less complicated machinations much more easily? And if, in a sense, one can unite himself to God, even in the midst of worldly distractions, how much more easily will he be able to unite himself to Him in circumstances more favorable to recollection?
Then, my very dear father in Christ, enter into conversation with Jesus Crucified as familiarly as you would with me; and discuss with Him all or just a few of your problems, according to the time at your disposal. Chat with Him and ask His advice on all your affairs, whatever they may be, whether spiritual or temporal, whether for yourself or for other people.
If you practice this way of prayer, I can assure you that little by little you will derive from it both great spiritual profit and an ever-greater love relationship with Christ. I am not going to add anything else, for I want experience to speak for itself.
The second exercise, which will help you practice the first one and will obtain from God a greater abundance of grace, is the constant lifting up of the mind to God. You, my dear friend, cannot do without it; for the greater the danger and the more important the matter, a steadier application and sharper sight are required from you.
By nature, man finds it difficult to be recollected and, much more so, to be united with God because his spirit is naturally driven in different directions and is unable to focus on one thing. This exercise of lifting up one’s soul to God is, of course, more difficult for the person who has gotten into the bad habit of being dissipated. But the most difficult thing for anybody is to find oneself involved in activities that, by their very nature, (according to my judgment) are not conducive to union with God, and still not be distracted. Who would think it possible to stand in the rain and not get wet? This is true. But what seems to be impossible in itself becomes very easy with God’s help if only we do not refuse Him our cooperation and that diligent practical commitment with which He has endowed us.
Thus, if we want to maintain our union with God and, at the same time, to go on working, talking, thinking, reading, and taking care of our affairs as usual, let us often lift up our minds to God for a long or a short period as, for example, someone would do while entertaining a friend. If he were unable to entertain him on account of pressing business as, for instance, keeping track of the goods which were to be shipped at that moment, he might tell him: “Will you excuse me if I don’t chat with you? I’ve this and that to do; but if you don’t mind waiting, as soon as I’m finished, we’ll talk at leisure.” Then, interrupting his writing for a moment, he will occasionally turn his eyes and look at him; sometimes he will utter a word or two about what he is doing; at another time, while still writing, he will say: “In a short while, I’m almost finished.” In these and similar ways, he will entertain his friend, though unable to talk at leisure with him. At the same time, he will not be distracted from his job by these gestures nor hindered in his work by such forms of entertainment.
You, too, dear friend, should act in this way, and your studies and works would suffer almost no disadvantage.
Before starting your activities, offer Jesus a few words of your choosing; then during your work often lift up your mind to God. You will benefit much, and there will be no detriment to your job.
First and foremost, watch how anything concerning yourself or others is begun, whether foreseeable or not, whether at work or at play. Direct it first to God with any short prayer with which He may inspire you, mentally or also in words that express your thoughts and wishes or in some other manner; then, while working, thinking, or planning, frequently lift up your mind to God. Should your activity continue, break it up, perhaps, for the time it takes to say a “Hail Mary,” or as it may seem convenient to you, always, of course, following God’s inspiration. Depending on the length of your activity, you can interrupt your work more than once.
If you follow this practice, you will get used to praying easily and without detriment to your work or to your health; you will be praying incessantly, even while drinking, eating, acting, talking, studying, writing, etc.;43 and the external actions will not hinder the interior ones and vice versa. If you act otherwise, you will be a decent person but not the Christian Christ wishes, and has called, you to be. This will be clear to you if you consider closely the way by which Christ has been trying to bind you to Himself. I warn you and offer you the means to become such a Christian (if you really want to be one, as I truly think you do), so that you may not change your mind. If this were to happen, it would cause me very great pain indeed.
My very dear friend, if my words have any value in your eyes, I invite you, I entreat you, and I compel you in Christ and for Christ to open your eyes and consider well what I have written to you and try to practice it by deeds, not just by words. I can assure you that you will become a new person, such as you should be in view of the charge that God has placed and will continue to place on your shoulders in different ways. But, if you act otherwise, you will not fulfill your obligation toward God and your neighbor, and, far from being justified, you will be condemned as a transgressor.
Try hard, then, to understand what I have just said, and apply yourself to practicing it; but above all else, while observing the first exercise, keep the third one which I am about to show you; otherwise all your works will be of little value and honor before Christ.
Now, here is the third exercise. In your meditation, prayers, and thoughts, strive to pinpoint your principal defects, most of all the chief one, the Captain-General, as it were, which dominates all the others. While concentrating on trying to kill that one, make every effort also to kill the other defects which may come under your attack, thus imitating the soldier who wants to kill the Commander-in-chief of the enemy who is in the middle of his army. Striving to reach him, the soldier keeps his eyes fixed on him as the target, but at the same time he fights his way toward him by killing the other enemies he may encounter. Do likewise with your defects.
Now, if you asked me which defect, in my judgment, is the dominant one in you, I would answer that, according to my poor insight, there is some sensuality in you. But no, your main defect is not sensuality (you understand what I am talking about, don’t you?), but anger and a sudden change of mood caused by pride, which, in turn, is born of the knowledge and education that you have acquired by your studies and by the expertise which you have obtained naturally and through long practice. Think about it, and you will see that this is what makes you discontent, disturbed, prone to use bad manners and to say unbecoming words. Besides, this root of pride produces other bad fruits and effects in you.
I have just shown you the evil that in you is the mother of all vices. Kill it, then, and it will not produce any more offspring. It is up to you now to search the manner and the means of how to do it. But, if you do not know how, at some other time I might possibly write to you about it or explain it to you in a conversation. If perhaps this were not your main defect (although for many reasons I am convinced that it is), find out which one it is and kill it.
If you treasure the counsels that I have just given you, you will fall in love with Jesus Crucified quite easily. Any other way will keep you away from Him: a sad thing that I hate to see in you, for I love you and feel impelled to love you and see you forever in Christ Crucified. Amen.
I have bought a device to produce good and updated printing, and I will send it to you. It costs three liras and ten pennies.
I am about to send out some books on the spiritual life, which I believe to be more useful than any others you might read. I will send them to you. Try to convince the A.44 to buy them, for they will serve well those who want to make progress here in this life.
Our Fra Bono?45 Well, both you and I have lost him. He keeps away from me, or just seems to avoid me, on account of some obstacle. Some three or four days go by without seeing each other; and when we do, I can barely speak to him. He must be afraid that I want to convince him to join us. I like the letter you wrote to him, but he needs stronger exhortations. So do give them to him.
I will be writing to the A. Greet them all, each and everyone, on my behalf. Recommend me very warmly to the prayers of our Reverend Primicerio,46 etc.
From Milan, July 28, 1531
Your son and brother in Christ,
Anthony M. Zaccaria, Priest
- To walk in the way of the Lord we must adopt a method that is suitable for our profession and is favorable for our spiritual growth.
- We may dialog with Christ about our daily problems, especially the most challenging ones. We may also discuss with him the solutions we intend to adopt. And Christ will certainly make known to us his advice.
- Directing our thoughts to God, even for a brief moment, is another effective method of keeping ourselves in the way of the Lord. By this we receive grace from God.
- Christ’s wisdom is wiser than the wisdom of any wise man.
- The weakness of the human mind makes communication with God difficult, but God’s help makes it easier.
- Am I aware that with a suitable method I can foster my spiritual life even as I am absorbed in worldly affairs?
- Do I believe that God will listen to me even if I ask for his advice on worldly matters because he loves me and he desires my spiritual and material well-being?
- Have I ever tried to dialog with Christ in prayer about all my problems and concerns?
- Am I convinced that I can always bring to God all my concerns because he knows everything and has an answer to everything?
- Do I know that with God’s help it is always possible to live constantly in his presence?
38. See Introduction of this letter.
39. See Gaetano Bugati, Copia publica Processus auctoritate Apostolica Mediolani constructi super virtutibus et miraculis Ven. Servi Dei Antonii M. Zaccaria (Rome: ms. in the General Archives of the Barnabites) 1070. See also Virginio Colciago, ed., Gli Scritti (Rome: Edizioni dei Padri Barnabiti, 1975) 338–9.
40. See Appendix I. Attestations of Father Battista Soresina about the life and death of Rev. Father Anthony Mary Zaccaria, p. no.
41. Lk 21:18
42. 1 Cor 1:19–25
43. Cf. 1 Cor 10:31
44. This ‘A.’ is found both in this letter and in Sermon II. This letter’s context plainly shows that ‘A.’ represents people with whom Anthony Mary corresponded as a spiritual director. The sermon’s audience was a group of people eager to live a more fervent Christian life (“This is the state to which you are led and called and invited by these meetings in our ‘A’...” See Sermon II, p. 14)
The existence of this group is attested by our earliest historians. Agostino Tornielli (1543–1622), in his De principiis della Congregatione de’ Chierici Regolari di S. Paolo Decollato (1595), tells us that Anthony Mary, on the advice of his spiritual director, the Dominican Fra Marcello, initiated a gathering of nobles in the little church of St. Vitalis in Cremona. Here he guided them toward Christian renewal with eloquent, Bible inspired, talks. Likewise, Giovanni Antonio Gabuzio (1551–1627) refers to a “piorum hominum conventus” (“a gathering of devout people”) in his Historia Congregationis Clericorum Regularium Sancti Pauli ab eiusdem primordiis ad initium saeculi XVII (Rome: Salviucci, 1852) 33. Incidentally, Gabuzio’s History was completed in 1622 but remained unpublished in the wake of a time-consuming controversy about the identity of our Founder: was he Anthony Mary, the traditional view, or Giacomo Antonio Morigia, our first Superior General, as claimed by Fr. Giovannambrogio Mazenta (1565–1635)? This controversy formally ended when at the 1620 General Chapter Fr. Mazenta accepted the traditional view.
The group mentioned by Tornielli and Gabuzio is not identified by a name. Contemporary Barnabite historians have concluded that ‘A.’ means “Amicizia” (Friendship) and “Amici” (Friends). In 1959 Giuseppe M. Cagni and Franco M. Ghilardotti edited the critical edition of Anthony Mary’s Sermons (“I Sermoni di Sant’ Antonio Maria Zaccaria,” Archivio Italiano per la Storia della Pietà, ed. Giuseppe De Luca [Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1959], 2. 233–283). To reach their conclusion, the authors pointed out the following: first, that Bartolomeo Stella, another pre-tridentine reformer, founded an Oratory of Divine Love in the northern Italian city of Brescia in 1520 and called it “Amicitia” (Friendship) and its members “Amici” (Friends). Secondly, that in this Oratory’s Statutes “Amicitia” is nearly always indicated with the letter ‘A.’ (see ibid. pp. 236–237). Given the closeness of Brescia to Cremona (about 35 miles), it seems quite plausible that Anthony Mary was acquainted with Stella’s Oratory and most likely adopted the same name for his group, and the same one-letter abbreviation.
As to the initials ‘F.’ in Sermon I, p. 3 (in the original manuscript this ‘F.’ is blurry; it could also be read ‘A.’) and ‘N.’ in Sermon I, p. 5, they could easily be read as “Fraternity” and “Nobility.” In any case their respective contexts identify them with ‘A.’ (“Amicizia”).
45. See n. 16.
46. An unidentified church dignitary.