Carmelite: October 2005 Archives

Distraction may be the chief complaint levied about one’s prayer life. Regarding distraction, here is something from the two leading teachers of prayer in the Carmelite tradition.

from Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century
Ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

“Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness”
by Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

With little difficulty we can recognize the similarities between Teresa’s teaching on prayer and contemplation and John’s. Both admit to an activity on our own part, especially at the beginning, an activity of reading, thinking, and recollection. Both direct this activity to the loving knowledge of, or presence to, or relationship with Christ. In both, we find descriptions of the prayer of recollection active and passive, of quiet, and of union. Both admit that the wandering mind or imagination is an accompaniment to prayer and contemplation.

In fact, after a lifetime of distraction and pain from distraction St.Teresa finally has this advice to offer:

from “ Jesus Christ in Carmelite Prayer”
by Sr. Mary Dorgan

“Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done. . . . “ She tells us that in regard to “. . . this effort to suspend the intellect . . . labor will be wasted. . . “(BL. 12.5). She warns against a kind of mental coercion to empty ourselves of thoughts in order to achieve a held absorption. St Teresa was too familiar with this experience in herself and in others, based on a too-demanding cut-down of outside stimuli, that could lead to quietism. “To be always withdrawn for corporeal things. . . is the trait of angelic spirits, not of those who live in mortal bodies. . . . How much more is it necessary not to withdraw through one’s own efforts from all our good and help with is the most sacred humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ” (IC 6.7.6).

For Teresa and for John as well, this constant babble of wayward thoughts is part and parcel of who we are. To deny it is to deny who we are. I would go further to say that this constant stream of thought defines, in a special way, who we are. More than that, this constant stream of thought forms the ostinato against which the melody of prayer plays out. That is to say, that these very real, very present concerns are a real part of prayer. When they invade, they do so out of two causes—one is that we are insufficiently focused on our goal—thus they serve as the watchdogs of prayer. The other is that they are real and present concerns that define in part where we are in our day and in our lives. To deny them is, in a way, denying access to a real and important part of ourselves to the dearest friend we have. It would be rather like chatting about the weather to our best friend just prior to the time we are going to enter the hospital to have some serious medical tests. We haven’t told our best friend and we are screening out that concern. Only it is worse because our friend already knows about these concerns because He lives within and sees them flitting about batting their wings against the cages we try to make for them.

What then to do about distractions? Accept them. Don’t welcome them, but accept them, and turn back to the conversation. Think about a conversation on your front porch on a fine spring say as your children are running on the lawn and playing. If your children are normal they are up on that porch at least as much as they are kicking a ball or playing catch or hide-and-seek. However, it is a fine day, your friend as much as you enjoys the sounds and sights and presence of the children, and when they break into the conversation, He doesn’t regard them with exasperation, but with the loving, doting look of one who has sat many a time watching them play. When the concerns of the children are finished, the matter of a moment or two, we return to the conversation.

That is the important point—we may be dragged off-course, but always return, gently, lovingly, longingly, to the conversation.

On a personal note—I have often been battered by distractions. Until recently they would completely derail my efforts at any sort of coherent conversation. And then, suddenly, as in a coup de grace, they became integrated into my prayer, they would appear and drop away and I would not worry myself about their intrusion, but, as in contemplating the mysteries of the Rosary, I would allow them to sound and then gently fall back below the surface. They continued throughout the prayer, but the prayer continued as well. No, I didn’t achieve transports of union—but then I’m not there at this point. I am still learning to talk and to listen and to offer who I am and what I am concerned about.

So my advice for those distracted in prayer—don’t focus on the distraction, focus on the person with Whom you are conversing. He knows what is playing through your brain. He knows who and what you are, and He is patient and welcoming to all of you—distraction, intentions, and conversation. Don’t worry about it. Prayer will not be perfectly quiet until it is time for it—and then the Lord will lead. Otherwise, don’t fret. Through her entire life, St. Teresa of Avila was plagued with distraction, and yet she is no less a saint for all of that.

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Home Page of St. Teresa Margaret

For those who wish to know about St. Teresa Margaret Redi (of the Sacred Heart).

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The Great Teresas

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Seven People I Admire

If you're not reading Blog by the Sea and you're interested in things Carmelite, you ought to be. This merely links to the meme post of a few days back, but I got to thinking about all of the Teresas (and forms thereof) whom I admire:

St. Teresa of Avila
Mother Teresa of St. Augustine (Martyr of Compiegne)
Sister Teresa of the Holy Heart (Martyr of Compiegne)
St. Teresa Margaret Redi
St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
St. Teresa of the Andes
St. Teresa Bendicta of the Cross
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Those who have been blessed with the name Teresa (or its variants) are truly blessed by the models of you name. I'm sure there are a great many others, but these are the ones I know the best and love the most. These are among the women who have taught me the way of life of a contemplative. Do not attribute the poor qualities of the student to the teacher.

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St. Teresa of Avila


Carmelite Sisters D.C.J. -- Teresa of Avila

The Lord doesn't look so much at the greatness of our works as the love with which they are done.

I am not a great fan of St. Teresa of Avila. For that you may want to visit Blog by the Sea. I find that I get more from St. John of the Cross and his descendants--St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Why she does not speak to as loudly as the others, I do not know. But despite the fact that I cannot hear her as well as some others, I love and admire her as much or more than almost any of the others (excepting St. Elijah and Our Lady). She appeals to me in a thousand small, human, comfortable, loving ways. She really is La Madre of my entire Carmelite practice. It is through her intercession, and that of Our Lady, that I am sustained through the difficult times.

So, while I may not appreciate her writing, I certainly appreciate her style. And what is remarkable is that the dynamic duo of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila seem to pack the one-two punch of Carmel. If one cannot capture you as a Carmelite, the other is sure to do so. Some argue that there is some great gulf between them--that Teresa taught method and John taught something else etc. In fact, neither really taught "method" as such--both taught focus and no matter who you are, it is likely that one or the other of them will speak to you. Not that you will become a Carmelite, but that you will learn something about what prayer is and how to pray.

But today, as we approach her feast, I just want to celebrate the life and the great gift God gave us in the person of St. Teresa of Avila, La Madre.

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Continuing on a Previous Point


Ascent of Mount Carmel (iv.ii)

This is how John defines a "beginner" in prayer.

3. And this first night pertains to beginners, occurring at the time when God begins to bring them into the state of contemplation; in this night the spirit likewise has a part, as we shall say in due course. And the second night, or purification, pertains to those who are already proficient, occurring at the time when God desires to bring them to the state of union with God. And this latter night is a more obscure and dark and terrible purgation, as we shall say afterwards. (Ascent I.I.3)

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A Point of Clarification

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Reading a note on TSO's blog made me realize how things sound when those not part of a group are hearing an exchange between people who have a subtext between them that fills in a lot of gaps.

Teresa Polk wrote:

"In some respects it is the same as John's since both followed the same Discalced Carmelite Primitive Rule. However, Teresa is arguably more advanced than John in the level of prayer in her writings. The Carmelite Joseph of Jesus Mary and Benedictine Dom John Chapman both considered everything in Teresa's contemplative prayer to be after the Night of the Senses in John's writings. They considered John to be writing more of ordinary prayer, while Teresa wrote of higher ways."

And if you've spent 10 or 15 years studying Carmel, this is unexceptionable. St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel claims to be writing for beginners. But he is very careful of his terms. The beginners he is referring to are most often those who have been admitted to religious life--so they've already gone through a great deal more prayer than any one of us generally exert in a lifetime. They are beginners on the path to union--sufficiently prayerful that meditation is beginning to be a chore and burden rather than a means of participating in God. They've mostly left off mortal and most venial sin and their concentrating on correcting faults etc.

Hence, even St. John of the Cross's "beginners" are by no means "ordinary" in the degree of praying. Certainly there are some not in religious life who are "ordinary" in the way St. John of the Cross describes. But the way to understand the distinction might be to think of St. John of the Cross as a handbook for the novitiate and preparation, and St. Teresa of Avila as guidance for the professed or the proficient toward perfection.

Do not despair if you aren't on St. John of the Cross's radar! His "ordinary" would be "extraordinary" to any of us in normal life. Which makes what St. Teresa of Avila writes even more extraordinary.

Thanks TSO. Sometimes you just don't know what something sounds like until someone chokes at one of your statements.

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Prayer and Self Indulgence

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Blog by the sea has this rather sobering thought from St. Teresa of Avila.

Our Primitive Rules tells us to pray without ceasing. Provided we do this with all possible care (and it is the most important thing of all) we shall not fail to observe the fasts, disciplines and periods of silence which the Order commands; for, as you know, if prayer is to be genuine it must be reinforced with these things—prayer cannot be accompanied by self-indulgence.

Now one hopes that she refers merely to prayer in religious life, and yet, one suspects that this is simply a way around a less-than-pleasant reality. To be prayer it must be in an atmosphere of prayer, which rarely accumulates around a feast of bonbons and cupcakes while perched on your seat in front of the latest movie or football game.

We can fall back to the second position--"Well, St. Teresa of Avila is talking about advanced prayer." This is somewhat more comforting because one is willing to admit that the gates to advanced prayer have not yet been opened. As I grow toward advanced prayer, presumably some of these desires and indulgences will fall away. Well, no, not quite. While it may be easier to relinquish them, it still takes an act of will on my part to do so. Admittedly that act of will is promoted by and strengthened by grace, but nevertheless, I must desire God more than I desire the comfortable and lovely things He has created. I must be willing to forego self to serve others. I will readily admit that I have not made it there yet. Finally, even if all of this does represent an view of advanced prayer, isn't that the right and proper destination for all who claim to love God? It would seem so to me.

So I'm led to this conclusion--self-indulgence in all things must gradually fall away. I must want the One Thing Necessary more than I want all the distractions and beautiful things in the world. The goal of every Christian is to grow our of self into the Body of Christ and assume our right and proper position there. We do this through realization of our gifts and application of those gifts toward the betterment of everyone around us.

Realization of our gifts is a much more difficult task than we sometimes are willing to admit. It takes silence (not merely of the voice) and solitude, which is not merely isolation from others, but an encasement in God. One can be in complete solitude in the midst of a crowd--but probably not as a preliminary. One must cultivate both silence, or a listening attitude, and solitude, or aloneness with God to recognize one's full array of gifts.

I haven't done this yet. I have only begun to know the person God made me to be. Sometimes seeing that person makes me dislike the person I presently am--but almost never enough to effect the changes that will bring me closer to Him. That is an act of pure grace. In His own time God will grant me the grace and strength to serve Him in the way He deserves. Why He allows some to start at the age of 3 or 15 and others to wait through long life to arrive at a place of service, I cannot say. What I can say is that I do desire to arrive at this place. Presently, I do not know that it is the uttermost desire of my heart--and so I do not attain. As St. Teresa advises us prayer does not grow in an environment of self-indulgence.

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St. Thérèse on Prayer

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Do not be afraid to tell Jesus that you love him, even if you do not feel that you love him. Prayer is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as in joy.

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The Prayer of Carmel

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from Carmel, Land of the Soul
Carolyn Humphreys

Of all human experiences, prayer is the simplest and the most profound. The school of Carmel provides people with a means to explore their internal depths for a lifetime of prayer. Two primary necessities in Carmel are silence and solitude. Places and times for silence and solitude are not easy to find in modern society. God-seekers on Mount Carmel face the battle and babbble of the ages as they continually turn from peripheral living to searching for God. To live in the midst of the world and be not of it is an ongoing challenge. Silence and solitude are supports that link the whole Carmelite family together. No one is really alone as he or she strives to pray, think with the teachings of Jesus, and respond as one imagaines Jesus might have done.

Interior silence and solitude are needed as guides to God that go beyond the absence of noise or people. Self-knowledge and faith are built on these supportive structures which are as lattices for growth in giving and receiving. Carmelites do not forget others, instead they stand alone in God's presence for others. Prayers for people are offered and a greater sense of God's goodness is received. God is sought through quiet waiting and pondering and is received by unknowingly drawing closer to Jesus. Eventually, Carmelites find themselves without masks, adonrments or devotional accretions and experience true freedom in the peace of Christ. Teresa said it well:"We need no wings to go in search of him, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon his presence within us."

Were one to come to a third order meeting, it might occur to one that silence and solitude are the furthest things from the ordinary Carmelite's mind. One would be inaccurate in that supposition. Gregarious, as needed, every Carmelite I know is intense inward turning and reflective. I would say that they must be among the world's most introverted people.

And more than introversion, another characteristic I have noted among my brothers and sisters in Carmel is sheer dogged determination. Later Humphreys writes "It is soon learned that Carmelites are seekers of God who are never satisfied."

Obviously so. We cannot be satisfied until we know God. And as a Carmelite, we cannot be satisfied with knowing God until we know Him as we know ourselves. There is no end to our desire to know--but it is not the same desire to know that motivates a scientist or dectective. Rather it is the desire to know that we have when we are seeking out prospective life mates. The knowledge of God we require is the knowledge of His love, and we want to know that not in our heads, but in our hearts. And more importantly, we don't just desire to know it, we desire to live it.

Each Carmelite I know is driven toward intimacy with God. The old prayers are sufficient only in so far as they advance us in intimacy with God. When they have lost this effectiveness, when we cease to move forward, they must be discarded. (I speak here for the Carmelite living out the charism of Carmel, not for every believer.)

"Silence and solitude are the wings of prayer that provide the energy for service."

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Carmelite Spirituality


I'm reading a treatise by Paul delaCroix, and it's conceivable that I may have something worthwhile to share tomorrow.

In the meantime, your prayers have borne a great fruit of personal peace. Thank you.

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I had the great privilege of admitting two members to temporary profession today. The Lay Carmelites have a period of two years of formation before admission to reception and then three additional years of formation before first promises. Final promises are granted three years after that and on rare occasions as granted by the Provincial Delegate, one may take vowa of chastity according to station in life and obedience.

This first profession is an extremely important step and the two people who took it seemed to be no end delighted. All I could think of was how unworthy I was to receive the professions of such people. In myself, I am unworthy, but I am made worthy by the grace of God and by the special delegation of the Provincial Delegate. Still, it is most humbling to stand in the presence of people so afire in the charisms of the order. Even though they were far older than I am, this was rejuvenating for me because I could see my own first fervor and taste once again that taste of newness and light.

It was a good thing at a good time. I thank you all for your prayers. Also a conversation I needed to have in the course of this went well, and I think I may have sparked some thinking on the part of a very capable person as to the appropriateness of a task for which she had been identified. Once again, all of this success is thanks in great part to the support of the community here. Thank you.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Carmelite category from October 2005.

Carmelite: September 2005 is the previous archive.

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