Recollection: The Beating Heart of Prayer

“We must serve GOD in a holy freedom;

we must do our business faithfully, without trouble or disquiet;

recalling our mind to GOD mildly and with tranquility, as often as we find it wandering from Him.”

— Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, 12.


Not infrequently, as the class on Spiritual Theology comes to a close, a student will approach me with this pleading and sometimes desperate look and ask how is it possible to attain to the heights of mystical prayer described by the saints. Admittedly, it all depends on the grace of God, through Christ and His Spirit, and the help one receives from the various methods of the saints. But that’s just it, they say, the saints seem to run upon the heights while most of us can barely walk on level ground. The concern of these students is, or ought to be, the concern of every Christian aspiring to live the life of perfection, and their question is not unfamiliar to those very saints whose feet are now like those of hinds upon the heights.

The journey of these spiritual masters is an expression of the journey that all of us make, albeit the highest expression short of that traveled by apostle or martyr, but an expression nonetheless of that journey that all of us make; theirs was, and ours is, a journey of the soul to God. And, since one travels on this journey by affection and not by plane, train, or automobile, both the way and the end can be described as a movement of love, as theologians would say, an “affective union” or, to use an image familiar to the saints, a “spiritual marriage.”

The love, however, by which God draws us to Himself through the grace of His Son, and the love we give Him in return, as these saints testify, does not just happen as if God’s love or ours is a mere idle affection. On the contrary, it is a love that is “costingly realized”; it is an effective affection that, as T. S. Eliot has said, costs “nothing more than everything.”1 The very opening words of Sacred Scripture clearly indicate that God’s love is effective, and the closing words indicate how costingly effective it is. The Church and the saints continually testify to the drawing power of God’s love.

The fact that God must draw us by his love, however, does not excuse us from the fact that we too have work to do; we must prepare ourselves to be drawn. Thérèse of Lisieux signals what it means to prepare oneself to be drawn in a remark she made to her Mother Agnes towards the end of her life. Reflecting on the words of the Canticle of Canticles: “DRAW ME, WE SHALL RUN after you in the odor of your ointments” (1:3), she said,2

What is it then to ask to be “Drawn” if not to be united in an intimate way to the object which captivates our heart? If fire and iron had the use of reason, and if the latter said to the other: “Draw me,” would it not prove that it desires to be identified with the fire in such a way that the fire penetrate and drink it up with its burning substance and seem to become one with it? Dear Mother, this is my prayer. I ask Jesus to draw me into the flames of His love, to unite me so closely to Him that He live and act in me. . . . for a soul that is burning with love cannot remain inactive. No doubt, she will remain at Jesus’ feet as did Mary Magdalene, and she will listen to His sweet and burning words. Appearing to do nothing, she will give much more than Martha who torments herself with many things and wants her sister to imitate her. It is not Martha’s works that Jesus finds fault with; His divine Mother submitted humbly to these works all through her life since she had to prepare the meals of the Holy Family. It is only the restlessness of His ardent hostess that He willed to correct.3

In this remark, St. Thérèse indicates that in order to be drawn, it matters little whether we work or stop working, for according to her, it was not work that kept Martha from being drawn nor the absence of work that drew Mary to the feet of our Lord. What matters is that we prepare ourselves to be drawn. It was Martha’s restlessness that kept her from the better things. In order to prepare ourselves to be drawn, we must overcome our restlessness. Now, as everyone knows, the most effective way to overcome restlessness is through the discipline of prayer and devotion, but what exactly is it about prayer and devotion that defeats restlessness?

The Importance of Recollection in One’s Prayer and Devotion

In the next thirty minutes or so, I would like to focus our attention on just one part of this discipline, a part the saints consider to be indispensable to the life of prayer and devotion regardless of whether one is just beginning down the path towards God or whether one has reached the heights of spiritual marriage. No matter where we find ourselves on this journey, this part must always be cultivated, must always be practiced. No one, not even the greatest, can avoid this task.4, 37-38).] That part, we might say, is the beating heart of prayer. The part that I’m thinking of the saints call the habit or art of recollection. In prayer, in fact, even before we pray, we must recall who and what we are before God. The Catechism implicitly affirms this point in article 2697:

Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment. But we tend to forget him who is our life and our all. This is why the Fathers of the spiritual life in the Deuteronomic and prophetic traditions insist that prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart: “We must remember God more often than we draw breath” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. theo., 27. 1. 4, PG 36. 16).5

“Prayer,” the Church reminds us, “is the life of a new heart,” but because we “tend to forget God,” we constantly need to recall Him to mind “by the memory of the heart.” Recollection, therefore, can be described as the beating of that heart, for without a beat the heart would wither and die. Fr. Chautard offers us another image by which to understand the relation between prayer and recollection. In the following thought, he indicates that recollection is an indispensable element in the life of mental prayer.

Mental prayer gives me the verve with which I run on towards divine union. But it is custody of the heart which is going to enable the traveler to gain strength from the nourishment he took before his journey began, or takes along the way, so that he will always maintain the same lively pace with which he started out. . . . Obviously, this custody of the heart demands a certain amount of recollection, and it cannot be practiced if my soul is dissipated.6

While it’s hardly my place to augment or change the advice of such high authorities as these, I would suggest that recollection is not only indispensable to the life of mental prayer, but to the life of all prayer, mental and vocal. In this suggestion, I am not alone, for its virtue echoes among the saints as Teresa of Avila often remarked:

There is one thing so important that, although I have said it on other occasions, I will repeat it once more here: it is that at the beginning one must not think of such things as spiritual favors, for that is a very poor way of starting to build such a large and beautiful edifice. . . . All that the beginner in prayer has to do — and you must not forget this, for it is very important — is to labor and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will in conformity with the will of God.7

The resoluteness, preparation, diligence, and conformity that Teresa is talking about here in talking to the beginner, consists of both thought and action and in this order. The remark occurs in a discussion concerning the art of recollection in prayer.

Based on the above passage and others, recollection could be defined as “the concentration of the soul on the presence of God” and all prayer benefits from this concentration.8 The saints would add to this definition by reminding us that inasmuch as God becomes present through our concentration so, too, we become present to ourselves for we were made by God and we were made for God. Augustine made just such a declaration as this centuries ago, when he remarked:

You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and to Your wisdom there is no limit. And man, who is a part of your creation, wishes to praise You, man who bears about within himself his mortality, who bears about within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that You resist the proud. Yet man, this part of Your creation, wishes to praise You. You arouse him to take joy in praising You, for You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.9

The Confessions, from which these words were taken, are considered by many to be one great prayer to God, and his prayer begins with an act of recollection.10 Augustine acknowledges not simply that God is to be praised, but that man knows why God is to be praised: “For You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Augustine is able to give God the praise that is due precisely because he has already understood three very important truths: 1) who or what he is (“man, who is part of your creation”), 2) who or what God is (“great is your power and to Your wisdom there is no limit”) and 3) who man is in relationship to God (“You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You”). His recollection of these fundamental truths affords true self-knowledge, produces humility, and gives rise to praise.

The importance of recollection in the life of prayer is seen in the paragraph immediately following this opening verse of the Confessions. There Augustine asks himself whether it is better to know God or to praise Him. He answers his own question by saying, it is clearly better to praise Him than simply to know Him for what good is there in knowing Him if you did not praise Him for His goodness and mercy.11 He adds, however, if I did not know Him, I might mistakenly praise another instead of Him. Therefore, it is better to know God before praising Him. How many of us truly think of the God to whom we pray in this way? How many of us mistakenly, for lack of proper consideration, call upon another? And so, Augustine begins his greatest work by recalling to mind certain truths so that he may rightly praise God.

Just as his great prayer opened with an act of recollection so, too, our prayer must begin with recollection, for the opposite of recollection and that which recollection remedies is restlessness, or, better, distraction and dissipation. The story of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32) affords us a fine example of what it means to be distracted or dissipated as well as what it means to recollect ourselves. We remember that the younger of two sons asked his father for his inheritance and soon afterwards went into a far country and squandered everything that he had been given on loose living. The Greek word for “squandered” literally means “to scatter” or “to dissipate.”12 A more literal reading of this passage would be, he “scattered all his substance recklessly.”

Few of us, I imagine, must worry about scattering our father’s inheritance recklessly, unless, of course, we’re thinking of our Father in heaven and the spiritual inheritance that we’ve received from Him. What have we done with the inheritance that we have been given through His Son, Jesus Christ? This is the question that Pope St. John Paul II asked all the laity in November during the Jubilee Year celebration of the Laity.13 This is the more important inheritance and the more important question. It is the question the younger son must ask himself, and we know that he does ask it of himself because when the he comes to his senses, recollects himself, or literally “returns to himself,” he declares “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”14 This statement signals that he, with a little help from the swine and slime, was finally able to recall who he was (his father’s son), where he was (far away from home in some unfriendly place made all the more unfriendly by his own recklessness), and where he needed to go (back to his father’s house). So, the son turned from distraction and returned to his father’s house.

Distraction means “to be drawn away,” and when I am distracted, then I am drawn away from God and from myself. In the Confessions, Augustine described what happened to him when he failed to re-collect himself. He awoke one day to the realization that he, like the Prodigal Son, had run far from his father, far into a foreign land, and wasted his inheritance and, more importantly, his affections on empty, ungodly things. “My impiety,” he noticed, “divided me against myself.” You see, distractions divide us from God and from ourselves. Recollection enables us to re-collect ourselves, as Augustine observes, “It is good, then, for me to cleave to God, for if I remain not in Him, neither shall I [remain] in myself.”15 Regardless where we are in the life of prayer, the moment we fail to recollect ourselves, we lose not only our God but ourselves as well. And the opposite is equally true. The more that we recollect ourselves, the better disposed we are to God and His will, like good clay in the potter’s hand. The habit of recollection makes us soft and pliant, and ready to be molded.

The term recollection, as may now be obvious, derives from the Latin word which literally means “to re-collect” or “to gather up.” When used in reference to prayer and devotion, it means “to gather one’s entire self together in order to offer that self back to God.” Because one gathers in order to offer, recollection is naturally coupled with devotion, the mind with the will.16 That is why I said above that we must remind ourselves of the truth of what we are so that we may live according to that truth. In fact, it is in this truth that we shall find our God. But what are we? What is this truth that we are? And, how do we find it?

First, we must look at ourselves. Like the world around us, we are beings subject to change. This point is so obvious that I am somewhat embarrassed to mention it. Who of us is ignorant of the fact that our thoughts change and that sometimes they change with such velocity that our heads spin? Or who cannot see that our bodies change and change so often, sometimes with just one ill wind, that our resources are stretched and emptied in a seemingly futile attempt to keep up with the body’s changing demands?

Very few of us, I imagine, are ignorant of change. It is ubiquitous, but change is not the cause of our restlessness. The restlessness that Martha experienced and that we feel is not caused by change (otherwise all creatures would be restless). No, we’re restless precisely because we were not meant for change, and we know this deep down. We are restless because we are not simply beings that change. We are uncomfortable with and unfit for change; we are like fish out of water in this temporal world of ours, and our water is eternity. We were made for eternity. We were made to rest in eternity.17

How do I know that we were meant to rest in eternity? Well, I know it because I know that 2+2=4. Something as simple as 2+2=4 indicates that the soul was not made for change; it was made, rather, to rest in that which lasts, as in the truth.18 “This restlessness which disturbs and moves the human soul without interruption,” said the philosopher Etienne Gilson, “would never end were it not for the attainment of one truth . . .”19 Gilson might have said that this restlessness would not even begin except for the attainment of one truth. In the attainment of just one truth, the soul rests if only in that one truth. So, in the discovery of just one truth, and in spite of the changes taking place all around it, the soul declares to itself, “You, my friend, were meant to last; for in truth you find rest, and truth lasts.”20

In the attainment of that one truth the soul also discovers that it is not alone. The moment the soul discovered a truth in which it could rest, it also discovered that it, the soul, was not the source of the truth in which it rests. For in its discovery the soul itself changed from restlessness to rest, and the rest that it acquired it did not give to itself otherwise it would not have changed. It changed, but that which brought it rest did not change. The truth that did not change cannot have its origin in that which does, therefore, it must have its origin in Another. The origin of unchangeable truth must be in Another that like its ambassador, this one small truth, never changes. And so the soul declares to itself, “You, my friend, are not alone.”

The moment the soul discovered a truth in which it could rest, it not only discovered its changing-unchangeable self and the unchangeable Other in which it rests, it also discovered that the unchangeable Other is preferable to the changeable self. In the unchangeable Other, it discovered the source of its own happiness. And the soul cries out, “You have made me for Yourself, O God, and I am restless until I rest in You.” The saints understood that simple discoveries like the ones above (now I know that when we hear them in this way, they don’t sound very simple; nonetheless, these simple discoveries) were at the very heart of what it means to know oneself and to know God. Consider, for example, these familiar lines:

Let nothing disturb you, / Let nothing frighten you. / All things are passing; / God never changes. / Patience overcomes all things. / He who possesses God lacks nothing, / God alone is sufficient.

These lines, as most of us know, were written in the breviary of St. Teresa of Avila. She understood that act by which we discover and remind ourselves of certain fundamental truths. The device which she used to recall these truths to mind, was this poem. By recalling to mind certain truths, we literally, recollect our true sense of self and of God. In other words, recollection is the act of recalling to mind those truths that enable us to understand and maintain our identity, our composure and our bearing on this journey towards God.21 Recollection is the seat of true self-knowledge and humility because through recollection we are reminded who we are and kept from imagining ourselves to be something we are not. St. Bernard pointed this out centuries ago when he reminded us:

It is necessary that you know both what you are and that you are such of yourself lest you be all together boastful, but vainly so, without any foundation in truth. When man, fashioned in honor does not perceive the honor that is his, he is, by reason of such ignorance, justly likened to the beasts of the field that share his present corruption and mortality.

One who ignores the gift of reason is ignorant of his own peculiar glory which is from within. He is carried away by his own curiosity, determined upon fashioning himself comfortably to things purely sensible. He then becomes one with the rest of creatures because he thinks that he has received nothing beyond the rest of them. So we must especially be on our guard against this ignorance by which we think of ourselves as being less than we really are.

But no less, indeed much more, must we avoid that other ignorance by which we attribute to ourselves more than we possess. This is what happens when we deceive ourselves into thinking any good whatever that we have comes from ourselves. “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he is deluding himself” (Gal 6:3).22

In this passage, St. Bernard clearly acknowledges the importance of recollection. For example, he points out that if we fail to remind ourselves of the gift that we’ve been given in reason, then we will end up likening ourselves to the beasts. If we fail to recognize that we were made for eternity, then we will be drawn to the temporal things by sheer weight of our passions. He also understood that, like Adam, we can become so fascinated with our grasp of the unchanging truth that we lose sight of our prior ignorance and of the true source of that truth. How easy it is to take this ability to capture eternity for granted and to imagine ourselves to be gods, the originators of the knowledge of good and evil. St. Bernard understood that by turning inwards and recollecting ourselves, we can discover certain truths about ourselves and about God, and that this activity is foundational to life. Only by turning inwards and recollecting ourselves will we become wise.

By turning inwards, we also discover that we (our natures) are limited and our ability to discover the truths we need in order to be happy and to fulfill our proper end is likewise limited. As St. Thomas remarked, many fail in the pursuit of wisdom because they lack the physical constitution for the work that wisdom demands, or because their time is taken up the necessities of daily life, or simply because they are lazy. Sound familiar? It does to me. Recollection, in other words, is simple to do but difficult to accomplish. I say “simple to do” because the soul was made to do just this — it was made for God — but “difficult to accomplish” because, as St. Thomas indicates, circumstances and bad habits often prevent the soul from doing what she was made to do.

By tuning inwards, we also discover that we are not only gifted and limited, but that we like the unchanging Truth only so much. Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, would rather flee from the truth of ourselves than submit ourselves to the truth. Again, Augustine captured this awful fact, in the following remark:

From day to day, I deferred to live in you, but on no day did I defer to die in myself. I loved the happy life, but I feared to find it in your abode, and I fled from it, even as I sought it.23

For a long time, Augustine wanted it both ways; he wanted to be known as one who attended to the things of God, but he didn’t want to live in the house of the Lord. And so he fled from God and fleeing from God he fled also from himself. He, like so many of us, sought satisfaction in things which could not fill him up, which did not last. Thus, he dissipated himself in distractions. His flight from the truth of God and himself is sin, and it is the weight of sin, our attachments to things that are empty or do not last, that more often than not keeps us from turning inward, keeps us from discovering and acknowledging the real truth about ourselves and God.

To summarize, recollection enables us to know that 1) we were meant to last, 2) we are not alone, 3) we were meant for God, 4) we are naturally limited, and 5) despite our limitations, we want God only so much. Like the Prodigal Son, we can’t get hold of God because we can’t even get hold of ourselves. Augustine understood these truths, and so he was able to say: “Where was I, when I sought You? You were before me, but I had departed even from myself, and I did not find myself, and how much less You!”24 What distracted Augustine from God and from himself were the “beautiful things” that God had made. He imagined that he could find happiness in the things of this world. Their natural beauty attracted him, but his weight — that is, his affection for them — distracted him, caused him to forget God and tore him away from God and from himself. Distraction, then, is an unnatural affection for the things of this world. And what are those things that attract us so unnaturally? Msgr. Guardini offers us a few suggestions in the following remark:

Usually [man] is distracted by the diversity of objects and events; agitated by friendly or hostile contacts; assailed by desires, fear, care or passion. He is constantly bent on achieving something, or on warding off something; on acquiring or rejecting; on building up or destroying. Man always wants something, and to want means to be on the way, either towards a goal or away from a danger. This has been so ever since man existed and is even more so with modern man.25

In a sense, everything can be a distraction in the degree to which we invest our affections in those things. The greater our affections for that which is not God, not of God, or not desired for God’s sake, the greater becomes the weight that takes us away from God and away from ourselves.

The Solution

Fortunately, God has seen fit to help us help us carry the weight of our natural limitations, and remove the burden of unnatural affections. In the beginning, He shed His own light into this darkness of ours through His Word and, by marvelous wonders and deeds, He dispelled our ignorance and delivered us. The Word, that was in the beginning, eventually became flesh and dwelt among us, and now the Word bore our burden of sin. Our recollection, then, must take this Word, this gift of His into account. To the list of truths which we recall and place within our hearts we must include the truth of His Word, especially the mysteries revealed in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, “that those who believe in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (Jn. 3:16).

God, however, did not stop with the Incarnation, He continued this work of salvation in the blood and water that poured from the side of His Son as he hung upon the cross. In His death, he gave birth to the Church, and the Church, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, continues to offer us the means through its sacraments, its seasons, its prayers, and its devotions by which we can keep this Word of God alive and present within our souls.

But, regardless of whether we attend daily Eucharist, pray the Rosary, or meditate upon Scripture or the Creed or the writings of some saint, we must first turn inward into that quiet place within our soul and call to mind those fundamental truths written on the very fabric of our being along with those truths revealed by God in His Son and for our salvation.26, 115-16).] Msgr. Guardini reminds us of the necessity of turning inward in a book he wrote called Meditations Before Mass:

To have ears to hear [God’s word] requires grace, for God’s word can be heard only by him whose ears God has opened. He does this when He pleases, and the prayer for truth is directed at that divine pleasure. But it also requires something that we ourselves desire and are capable of: being inwardly “present”; listening from the vital core of our being; unfolding ourselves to that which comes from beyond, to the sacred world. All this is possible only when we are inwardly still. In stillness alone can we really hear.27

As Msgr. Guardini points out, one must turn inward, quiet the soul and attend to the rhythm of God that beats deep within the heart. In this inner disposition we discover the truth about ourselves and God, and this truth is the foundation of all prayer.28

In the above remark, Guardini also highlights two attributes of the disposition we have called the habit or art of recollection and that he calls “being inwardly present.”29 Those attributes are silence and listening; “listening,” as he says, “from the vital core of our being,” and being silent or “inwardly still.” These two attributes accompany the habit of recollection like handmaids accompany a bride. Turning inward would matter little if we carried the business of the world in with us. And, since we cannot always still the noise that’s around us or inside our minds, then we must develop the habit of listening, of focusing our attention as if trying to isolate the sound of one voice amid the hustle and bustle of a busy city street, the sound of a score in a noisy stadium, the sound of a bird in the forest, or the breathing of a newborn infant. Our attention, literally the focus of our affections, will create the silence that we need.

What I have said here presupposes and requires that our focus and our affections must have an object. We cannot, we should not pretend to attend to nothing as if we could wipe our minds completely free of all images and concepts. To do this would be to do violence to our souls.30 And we do not quiet the din by violence, but by love, and love must have an object. We must focus our attention on the object of our affection. In knowing that object, we shall know our God. In knowing our God, we shall discover ourselves. This is the secret of the mystics; the greater the object, the greater must be our attention and our affection. The mystics soared above the noise and clatter of the world and of their own souls because they practiced the presence of God. They listened “from the vital core of their being”; they developed the habit of recollection.


Towards the end of her life, the illness that forced St. Thérèse to remain bedridden had progressed to such an extent that she was anointed and received the Viaticum. It was thought that she would not live through the night. She did live, however, and though her suffering diminished temporarily, it returned after a couple of weeks with even greater intensity. The distraction of her suffering became so bad that she confided to Mother Agnes: “What a grace it is to have faith! If I had no faith, I would have inflicted death on myself without hesitating a moment!”31 Later, she begged her sisters, “Pray for those who are sick and dying, little sisters. If you only knew what goes on! How little it takes to lose control of oneself! I would not have believed this before.”32

The faith that St. Thérèse received from Christ had become in her like a habit around her heart, but it had been marvelously wed to the other habits residing there, including the habit of recollection; these two in particular, faith and recollection, became her second nature, such that when her good and happiness seemed threatened by the suffering and anxiety brought on by physical pain and bodily death, she was able to maintain or recover the knowledge and experience that she had of being loved by God through Christ. With these two dispositions she was not overcome by her distractions but able to return to God immediately, and firmly and even to take joy in this return: “Don’t be sad,” she would say, “at seeing me sick like this, little Mother! You can see how happy God is making me. I am always cheerful and content.”33

Both habits were also evident in a letter that she wrote to Father Bellière: “When I shall have arrived at port, I will teach you how to travel, dear little brother of my soul, on the stormy sea of the world: with the surrender and the love of a child who knows his Father loves him and cannot leave him alone in the hour of danger . . .”34

The secret to sanctity lies in the knowledge and experience of oneself as in need of God’s mercy. Apart from our sinfulness, which Augustine declares is the only part of us that is solely our own, we are a mere vessel of God’s grace. The saints and martyrs understood this. They understood that all they had, they received from God. The habit they wore was their readiness to acknowledge this gift and give this back to Him in the measure in which the gift was given, “nothing less than everything.” They were able to give this gift back to Him because they prepared themselves for this return by frequently recalling to mind the grace they lacked and the grace they had been given. It was this habit that enabled Thérèse to say in spite of her great suffering: “Oh! how happy I am to see myself imperfect and to be in need of God’s mercy so much even at the moment of my death!”35 To be happy requires a readiness to give all for Christ and to be able to take joy in giving all for Christ, but this giving presupposes that one knows what the “all” is. Knowledge of the all and the readiness to give this back to God, requires the habit of recollection. “Everything,” remarked Msgr. Guardini,

depends on this state of collectedness. No effort to obtain it is ever wasted. And even if the whole duration of our prayer should be applied to this end only, the time thus used would have been well employed. For collectedness itself is prayer. In times of distress, illness or great exhaustion, it can be most beneficial to content oneself with such a “prayer of collectedness.” It will calm, fortify and help. Finally, if at first we achieve no more than the understanding of how much we lack in inner unity, something will have been gained, for in some way we would have made contact with that center which knows no distraction.36

In the end, to be happy or to run upon the heights we don’t need to do anything new. Rather, we need to do something old anew, and anew, and anew. As T. S. Eliot captured so beautifully in his poem Little Gidding, we need to pass “through the unknown, remembered gate.” Recollection is the mechanism by which we will arrive “where we started / And know the place for the first time. / Through the unknown remembered gate . . .”37 Even before being coupled with sanctifying grace, this mechanism can jump start our journey back to God because it helps to dispose us to that grace (which is already His grace) and once started, this mechanism works with sanctifying grace to sustain us along the journey and see us to the end. Thus, recollection is rightly called the beating heart of prayer.

  1. T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1943), 5:254, 59.
  2. Thérèse of Lisieux, O.C.D., Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd Ed., trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), 254.
  3. Thérèse of Lisieux, O.C.D., Story of a Soul, 257.
  4. The art of recollection is the mechanism that results in self-knowledge and humility. On this mechanism and its product, Teresa of Avila remarked: “However high a state the soul may have attained, self-knowledge is incumbent upon it, and this it will never be able to neglect even should it so desire. . . . self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility” (Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers [New York: Image Books, 1989 (© 1961)
  5. CCC 2697 (emphasis added).
  6. Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O., The Soul of the Apostolate (Trappist, KY: Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1946), 261-262. Chautard goes on to explain: “This custody of the heart means nothing else but the HABITUAL, or at least frequent solicitude to preserve all our acts, as we perform them, form everything that might corrupt their MOTIVE or their ACCOMPLISHMENT. This solicitude will be calm, peaceful, free of all strain, at once humble and strong, because its basis is filial recourse to God and trust in that recourse.”
  7. Teresa of Avila, O.C.D., Interior Castle, 49-51.
  8. John A. Hardon, S.J., “Recollection,” Modern Catholic Dictionary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 458. Other terms that are synonymous with recollection are vigilance, watchfulness, stillness, inner peace, etc.
  9. Augustine, Confessions, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960), 1.1.1.
  10. Some, in fact, would argue that the Confessions are one long, intensive act of recollection, or a memoria Dei.
  11. In other words, our knowledge of God entails a knowledge of ourselves and our dependence upon Him.
  12. The Greek word used here is from the verb σκορπίςω and most often carries the negative connotation “to scatter” as in “to dissipate,” but it can also have a more positive meaning of “to scatter abroad” as in “to be generous” as we find in 2 Cor. 9:9. In regard to the former, Luke records the same word being used in the Lord’s revelation to Mary, “He has scattered the proud in their own conceit” (1:51).
  13. See his address to the laity on the occasion of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, November 26, 2000.
  14. Lk. 15:18, emphasis added.
  15. Augustine, Confessions 5.10.18 and 6.11.17. This lack of attention to the things that matter is the “impiety” of which Augustine spoke. Insofar as we turn away from God, we turn away from ourselves. The converse is true as well. Insofar as we turn towards created things, we become like those things and lose ourselves in those things.
  16. This coupling is rooted in a self-evident anthropological principle, namely, one must know in order to love. In the absence of a knowledge of the object of a person’s love, the person wastes his love on nothing, at best, a figment of the imagination.
  17. Rest does not mean the absence of activity, but the perfection of activity. And, the fact that we were made for eternity does not mean that we are eternal by nature. This confusion between a property and a nature has been a common error in the history of philosophy.
  18. One needn’t focus on a mathematical truth. We could take something more “personal.” On Wednesday, February 29, 2001 a quake measuring 6.8 hit Seattle. My sister, who lives with her family in a suburb of Seattle, wrote that evening to say that she and the family were a bit shaken up by the quake but they were alive and unharmed. In this truth, my mind (and emotions!) were put to rest.
  19. Étienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine, trans. L. E. M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), 101.
  20. The idea that the soul speaks to itself is not a metaphor. Because of the mind’s reflexive capacity, the interior life has fittingly and frequently been described in terms of a conversation that we have with ourselves. In his Three Ages of the Spiritual Life (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950), Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange remarks, “The interior life is an elevated form of conversation which everyone has with himself as soon as he is alone, even in the tumult of a great city” (3).
  21. This reminds me of the current debate on whether it is good to have children say the pledge of allegiance in schools. People complain that it is useless to learn things like this, but they forget that summary formula have always been the basis of education and identity. In religions, for example, these formula are called creeds. Such formula are the keys that create or unlock a worldview.
  22. Bernard of Clairvaux, O.Cist., On the Love of God, ed. Charles J. Dollen (New York: Alba House, 1996), 6-7.
  23. Augustine, Conf. 6.11.20.
  24. Augustine, Conf. 5.2.2.
  25. Romano Guardini, Prayer in Practice, trans. Prince Leopold of Loewentsein-Wertheim (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), 12.
  26. “Many Christians imagine that continual prayer is an impossibility for them, because for most of the time their minds are absorbed by occupations which demand all their attention and most of which are duties laid on them by God. Prayer does not seem to them compatible with these absorbing occupations, and this is why they think prayer consists in reciting or reading certain set prayers or meditations which cannot of course be combined with the performance of absorbing tasks. They do not know that the essence of prayer simply consists in an interior attention to God in knowledge and love” (Jean Daujat, Prayer, trans. Martin Murphy [New York: Hawthorn Books, 1964
  27. Romano Guardini, Meditations Before Mass (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960, ©1955), 14.
  28. “To place our memory at God’s disposition is to disencumber it of all that might distract it from God, fixing all our attention on the subject or point for meditation: it initiates recollection and thereby initiates prayer” (Jean Daujat, Prayer, 142).
  29. Faro atto di presenza”; Guardini, Meditations, 22.
  30. An excellent article in support of this point was written by the philosopher Jacques Maritain called, “Natural Mystical Experience and the Void,” Challenges and Renewals, ed. Joseph W. Evans & Leo R. Ward (Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1968), 76-106. This article was written originally in French in 1938 and appeared in Quatre essais su l’esprit dans sa condition charnelle, nouvelle édition revue et augmentée (first edition, 1939), (Paris: Alsatia, 1956), 127-66.
  31. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, 264.
  32. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, 265.
  33. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, 265.
  34. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, 267.
  35. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, 267.
  36. Guardini, Prayer in Practice, 19.
  37. T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” 5:238–259.
Dr. Timothy Herrman About Dr. Timothy Herrman

Dr. Timothy Herrman is a professor at the Augustine Institute in Greenwood Village, CO. He holds a License in Sacred Theology from the Augustinianum: Institute for Patristic Science of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and a PhD from the University of Dallas, Irving, TX. He has taught multiple courses in theology and philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate levels and has spoken on a variety of religious topics to groups and organizations around the country.


  1. This written work on recollection of thought ,word , and action in attaining a focal point in our prayer life: and the problem of fending off restlessness and dissipation is the real task in reaching the goal of being constant in the one Truth, namely the other ,in reference to God Our Almighty Father.

    You rightly pointed out Guardini’s work on what is the cause of restlessness such as: assailing desires,passions, acquiring and rejecting knowledge : to list a few of what distracts us from focusing on the real presence of God.

    Recollection in prayer before God requires real fortitude and disciple to surrender our thoughts, words, deeds before God having as object in doing so, to truly center Our will in God as He responds to our surrender to Him in love.

    It is true where we start off in our journey back to God as we repent of our sin , does in fact lead us to where we started off in our journey back to God :only we are more enlightened and in a secure place of being found in God.

    Thank you


  1. […] that, as T. S. Eliot has said, costs “nothing more than everything.”1 The very opening words of Sacred Scripture clearly indicate that God’s love is effective, […]