The Third Spiritual Alphabet

The Third Spiritual Alphabet

The author, Francisco de Osuna, was born in 1492, in the town of Osuna in southern Spain. His family was in the service of a count. At the age of eighteen, he was attracted to the priesthood. After three years of study, he entered a Franciscan monastery. His life was largely dedicated to prayer and meditation. Books were becoming very popular because of the proliferation of printing presses in Spain. The New Testament was available in the common language. The religious atmosphere in Spain was full of leaders and their writings concerning spiritual growth for individuals.

Osuna wrote six books entitled alphabets. The first three were based on the Spanish alphabet, as instruction for spiritual growth. The Third Spiritual Alphabet is the most influential. Its popularity is confirmed by its number of editions, which was at least seven. The great Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila noted that Osuna’s third work was her primary guide for prayer.

This is the longest book I have encountered to date, at over 600 pages. It is organized into twenty two treatises. Osuna offers many quotes from scripture and from the saints of the church. Some of his biblical examples seem to be a stretch for proving a particular point. Like many other spiritual writers, Osuna includes discussions of passions and cardinal virtues.

Our devotion to God begins with our thoughts about God. Osuna believed that if the visible world and created things could influence us to love God as we contemplated them, then the life of Christ “his Sacred Humanity overwhelms us to love…” He speaks about the gift of faith from God. He tells us that this gift is helpful for our spiritual exercises, “Those who examine the gift and look for profitable spiritual exercises will accomplish more and more.” In other words, our faith and spiritual life will accomplish more and more as we continue spiritual exercises.

God waits for those who are seeking. Osuna says “Think how he [God] will welcome the just person who diligently and continuously searches for him.” Osuna tells us that meditating on God is the first theology and “The first theology teaches about God so that we can meditate on him…” Devotion “awakens our love.” It makes us more intimate with God. He said “I think it best to search for him in our hearts.” He quotes scripture as, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Our primary goal should be to seek God, as Osuna says, “Inasmuch as our lives are to be directed to no other end than seeking God.”

Osuna promotes the devotional practice he calls Recollection. It represents a focusing and directing of the mind. It includes “Remembering God through his wonders, excellent works, and admirable judgments.” “In recollection we will know God not by the understanding but in love, for love enters where the intellect cannot.” This is pre-enlightenment thinking, for it promotes feelings and openness, more than intellectual analysis. “We should practice recollection, imitating Our Lord Jesus who went alone into the desert to pray secretly and spiritually. Recollection is prayer: It includes vocal prayer… mental prayer… and passive prayer.” Osuna directs “Three main things are necessary for quiet, recollected contemplation… place, detached, reverent.” He teaches that ideally we need a sacred space where we be separated from distractions, and that we come with a reverent spirit. “If you hush all sounds and occupations and retire alone and remain in solitude in order to fall asleep, casting off all worldly cares, you must do the same for prayer, turning totally to spiritual matters.”

There is a warning about the problem of distractions during our meditations. Osuna said “Distractions can be from our five senses, passions of the heart (joy, hope, fear, and grief), memory, physical condition. One technique for reducing distractions is to find a key word for distraction: “After you feel distracted by a thought, say something like: “Where have you flown to, my soul?” This calls the devotee back to focused meditation. Osuna related a concept similar to that of Brother Lawrence. He teaches that devotion and God’s presence can occur continuously in our lives, even throughout the day. He says “Experienced people are just as recollected and occupied in God while doing manual chores around the house as are beginners kneeling in a secluded spot.”

All people are invited to seek God. We are to use all effective methods for our devotions. Osuna directs “Given the wide variety of people who undertake to seek God… diverse kinds of seeking… through humility and poverty… study sacred scripture… in prayer and offering… on pilgrimages…” should be used. He particularly emphasizes that “Sacred scripture offers us the greatest opportunity for drawing our love.”

We are called to be thankful during our devotional exercises. Osuna gives the example that “If you hoard the gifts and do not thank God, you will be like a bad river that does not return to the sea…” We are to be thankful every day. “Do not let a day slip by without considering God’s favors; praise and exalt his generosity…” But not only are we to be thankful for blessings. “We should always thank God for everything that happens to us, not only for what we consider good.” Our faithfulness in devotion and in good works will be welcomed and appreciated by God. He says “By doing things which you really can do, His Majesty will know that you would like to do many more.”

I was very pleased with the teachings of Francisco de Osuna. He did not overtly offer the teachings of mystical union. Many of his teachings were applicable to beginners who are seeking to grow in devotion to God. I found the text easy to read and the guidance of The Third Spiritual Alphabet to be more useful for personal devotional practices than many other works.

Osuna, Francisco de. The Third Spiritual Alphabet. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1981.

Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.

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