Bernardino da Balvano

The Mirror of Prayer

Translated by Bro. Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Bernardino da Balvano (+ c. 1568/70) was an outstanding missionary and preacher who worked predominantly in the region of Southern Italy. Many small booklets which inspired popular piety over a long period of time were the result of his pastoral activities. The content and diversity of topics in these writings are to be found in a condensed fashion in his most important and most prolifically published booklet entitled The Mirror of Prayer which appeared in Messina in 1553 and was reprinted fourteen times within the space of about seventy years. It is a charming little pocket edition the product of both the concrete spiritual and apostolic experience of its author. In thirty-three very compact short chapters, as well as a final appendage (which in our opinion was a separate little work, entitled The Seven Rules for Good Living, which is mentioned by his biographers), the subject of interior prayer that leads to the gift of mystical experience through meditation on the mysteries of Christ is set out with great clarity, simplicity and emotion. However, it is not so much an authoritative and abstract lecture as it is a very practical manual in which the essential theoretical directives are passed on plainly and applied by means of concrete and realistic exercises that can be easily assimilated by the reader. It is this “practical quality” which makes the work popular in character and worthy of a spiritual guide and a true master of prayer.

As a zealous and clear thinking preacher, Bernardino Balvano makes the pages of his booklet ooze with useful suggestions that are embedded in a rhetorical style, but still remain an expression of sharing a spiritual experience as well as a method of prayer. In fact, he used to proclaim this teaching and method of prayer from the pulpit. He did this in 1553 in Messina where the faithful who were enthusiastic and won over became so fervent that they repeatedly demanded that these devout teachings be printed for their use so that they would not forget them. After a week spent in studying Sacred Scripture in order to consider all that concerned prayer, in a letter dated 6 May 1553 from the friary (“ex nostro paenitentiae loco) to the Inquisitor in Messina, the author wrote a summary of the content of his preaching which he had put together in a small booklet. He said that the content included: “What is prayer, how many kinds of prayer there are, how should we prepare ourselves, what conditions are required, what is necessary and useful for prayer. Then there are thoughts on the method of praying, how to pray to God and to the Saints.”

In more detail, there are three types of prayer: vocal, mental and mixed. Obviously he dwelt more on mental or interior prayer dividing it, according to the tradition of the Church, into four steps or acts: 1) “The inner reading of the soul” with its “chapters” or settings; 2) meditation as a attempt to “stimulate our inner feelings towards God” by means of various pious sentiments of the heart (love, hatred of evil, fear, hope, sorrow, joy); 3) perfect prayer, which develops in three acts: oblation (about what is offered to God), postulation (asking from God), and thanksgiving (giving thanks to God). This interior dialogue passes in review through all the mysteries of the life of Jesus, paying special attention to the sorrowful mysteries of the Passion, and particularly the scourging, which is the author’s favourite example, the “model” chosen from all the other mysteries of Christ. This kind of spiritual experience, by means of a free gift of God, may lead to the fourth step in interior prayer which is: 4) ‘the indescribable delight of absolute contemplation”, or “a sweet experience and most beautiful sensation of divine riches”. This “enlightens the intellect, inflames the will with sweetness”, so that the soul “understands at depth with tranquillity, loves strongly with delight, understands profoundly and desires ardently”.

The originality of this method consists in the manner in which the mysteries of Christ, which are the necessary medium for contemplation, are enumerated and proposed “in memory of the thirty-three years in which the loving Jesus lived with us on earth”, and then “are experienced” with their “delightful fruits and very rich treasures”. This affective and interior prayer does not remain self-contained, but opens out in a meaningful fashion to all our brothers and to the whole of humanity. It is divided into nine states, which are associated with the merits of the nine sheddings of blood suffered by Christ, concerning which Bernardino wrote another spiritual booklet.

The style of this portable booklet, which is set out with clarity and emotion and written as a conversation between Christ and the soul, conveys concise statements and spiritual unction which makes it one of the best examples of early Capuchin spiritual literature, which some have compared, perhaps with some degree of exaggeration, to the golden book of The Imitation of Christ, but compared to which it is positively more optimistic in spiritual outlook. In the chapters and passages that have been reproduced here the modern reader can undoubtedly experience this particular kind of spirituality, which is rich in ascetical nuances and resonant with the love of the living Christ and the paschal mystery.

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