Commonplace Book: 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 “To be always withdrawn for corporeal things.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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Rejoice in the Lord



Okay, so it is a sermon from a Baptist Minister and you will need to overlook a few things here and there. But in the main, this is right on target and wonderful for us today.

from a Sermon by Geoff Thomas

Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean we are not to rejoice only in the Lord and not in all of God's temporal mercies to us. We can trace them all back to the goodness of the Lord. We are told to rejoice in the wife of our youth, in food on the table and full refrigerators, in oil to anoint the face and wine to gladden the heart, in deliverance from dangers, toils and snares, in arriving home at a journey's end, in healthy newly born babies and in long life, in feasts and birthdays, in the victorious end of just wars, in recovery from illness, chemotherapy and operations, in a harvest safely gathered in, in examinations passed, and jobs obtained. When you have found a delightful present for a family member at the right price you rejoice. When you find something at last that you have searched for half the morning you rejoice. When you look through some old photograph albums, or slides, and see the children as they used to be, and all the joy of earlier times comes flooding back, you rejoice. We join with the world in rejoicing in those things. Rejoicing for us is gratitude to a living personal God who is the author of such blessings and ten thousand more.

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The Themes of Luke


from Following Jesus: A Disciple's Guide to Luke
Father William Kurz, S.J.

. . . [D]iscipleship is a life journey with Jesus. God does not intend us to live like atoms in random motion; we are called to follow Jesus in a definite direction, toward the Father. . . .

. . .[W]e need to face our fears. We need to trust the Lord and live one day at a time. . . . We must also be realistic about the cost of discipleship and be willing to pay it. . . .

. . .[T]he Holy Spirit empowers us for the Christian way. Through the Spirit we are enabled to do signs and wonders that heal and attract others to Christ. God provides the power and resources needed for our journey. . .

A book worth looking into. A Catholic priest adapts evangelical Bible teaching to solid Catholic practice. The very best of both worlds, what I so often wish I could hear from the pulpit.

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Good Advice


Live Like You Were Dying Lyrics - Tim McGraw

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

Don't know about 2.7 second on a bull named Fu Man Chu: but for the rest--seems like good advice considering it is the truth. The Anglican Divine Jeremy Taylor long ago pointed out that Holy Living and Holy Dying were inextricably united--one informed the other inevitably. So perhaps if we think toward the end, we can extrapolate backward. There isn't a one of us who facing death will say, "I wish I had worked more. I wish I had taken more business trips." And perhaps we should be more aware of that all along the way.

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Some Notes on Philippians


A few days ago, a correspondent wrote to me and suggested that perhaps the introduction of the letter to the Philippians was not so evocative as I seemed to imply. In the main, I could not disagree. But honestly, I had never prayed trough the introduction and asked God what He might have in store for me there. I wrote back and said that I thought the correspondent might be correct and my enthusiasm perhaps a touch of the over-the-top side. But below is a record of some of the things I derived from praying through the introduction. I hope they are as useful to you as they were to me. If you note any overt errors, either of doctrine or of grammar, drop me a note so that I might correct my thinking or language depending on which one is faulty. So much is just now.

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

2 Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

The verses of greeting seem to offer little enough for prayer, and yet attention to every detail of scripture is rewarded.

Paul extends, as usual, a double blessing of grace and peace. These words are worthy of a moment or two reflection on their own. Grace--God's utterly unmerited gift to us, a gift so powerful and so much a part of Him that it flows from Him to permeate all of reality. Just as the sun cannot perform its fusion and do anything other than to give off light and heat, God, just in being God cannot but give forth grace. It is impossible for Him to withhold it because it is contradictory to His nature. This grace is focused through the Mother of Grace who gave birth to God's most comprehensive sign of His grace, His own incarnation. Mary is not the source of Grace but she is the vessel and distributor of grace. As we pray in the Hail Mary, she is full of grace. Or perhaps more dynamically, she is filled and overfilled with grace, which spills out through her upon the entire human race. The same lens that focused God into flesh and blood reality continues to focus the plentiful reality of God on all the people of today. She is mediatrix of all graces. She is the distributor, but she is so charged out of the love she has for her children and for good, so though she is tasked with the distribution of good, she is a pure and clean lens that in no way distorts, obscures, or denies to any seeker that grace which flows through her. Grace is the unmerited favor that bestowed a son upon a willing virgin. It is the source of all knowledge of good and righteousness; it is, thus, the perfect inheritance and privilege of the Christian and of all of God's children.

The peace with which Paul greets the children of Philippi is not merely the absence of strife or war, though these would be blessings in themselves. No indeed, it is much more than this. This peace is the shalom of integrity and unity. It is the peace of Jesus Christ, first bestowed by Him on the apostles and by the power of apostolic succession, given them to bestow upon the people of the world, which each one does with each prayer of Mass. This peace has as external signs the absence of strife and war between people, but it starts in a far richer, more complex internal reality. This shalom is the blessing of the integrated person--the peace granted is a healing of the breach caused in each of us by original sin. When we live this peace, we are walking the path of salvation laid out in the mysterious plan of our savior's birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and culminating in His second coming. This peace then is nothing less than the promise of God fully realized. It is the gift of salvation when lived to the fullest. It allows the old man to rest peacefully and cease warring upon the new man who attempts to live out Christ's commands. In these two words Paul offers to the people of Philippi and to those of us who are privileged to share in the message through our reading of the letter. Paul offers nothing less than the fullness of God's love and mercy. Everything that follows these words is simply an explanatory footnote--essential to our understanding and acceptance of the gifts offered in this simple benediction, but incidental to them. If we could, without them, realize and reify God’s gift, we would do so much better. This is what Jesus extolled in the approach of the little children to Him. If we could, in perfect joy and simplicity accept God's most precious gifts we would have little need of words piled on words. As it stands, that is not within the purview of most of us. So Paul goes on to tell us more--to gild the lily as it were with perfect joy.

Who realized that a greeting held so much? In the space of a few short words we are offered the most treasured gifts in the rich hoard of heaven's blessings, AND we a offered a shining example of what it means to be an apostle and a disciple.

And that leads us to the question of application. Are we not all called to be both disciples, or pupils, of the Lord and Apostles--those sent out, peculiarly charged with the duty of sharing the good news of salvation with those immediately around us why do not live it daily? If so, are we not responsible for carrying out the message so clearly spelled out for us in this letter and in others? In short, are we a sign of grace and peace to others? Is our prayer life outwardly projected onto the everyday? Or is our prayer life carefully sequestered and divided from our outward life? As saints, we are offered the gift. As disciples and apostles we are charged with making it manifest in our own lives and thus substantially sharing and transmitting this blessing with others. We are vehicles of grace and peace only when we begin to live the life that grace and peace bestow upon us.

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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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Sir Isaac Newton on Trials


Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician prescribes because we need them; and he proportions the frequency and weight of them to what the case requires. Let us trust his skill and thank him for his prescription. ... Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

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Ghent to Aix

To say that the man is an unabashed admirer of Browning would be to damn with faint praise. The poem is a marvel of rhythmic regularity. What is most interesting is that there are points at which the rhythm is subtly shifted as it would be in any natural ride.

No one has ever, so far as I know, criticised _Ghent to Aix_ adversely except Owen Wister's Virginian; and his strictures are hypercritical. As Roland threw his head back fiercely to scatter the spume-flakes, it would be easy enough for the rider to see the eye-sockets and the bloodfull nostrils. Every one has noticed how a horse will do the ear-shift, putting one ear forward and one back at the same moment. Browning has an imaginative reason for it. One ear is pushed forward to listen for danger ahead; the other bent back, to catch his master's voice. Was there ever a greater study in passionate cooperation between man and beast than this splendid poem?



I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
"Good speed!" cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
"Speed!" echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit

'Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Duffeld, 'twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with, "Yet there is time!"

At Aershot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye's black intelligence,--ever that glance
O'er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, "Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault's not in her,
We'll remember at Aix"--for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
'Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And "Gallop," gasped Joris, "for Aix is in sight!"

"How they'll greet us!"--and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets' rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is--friends flocking round
As I sat with his head 'twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

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I will hear what the Lord God has to say,
a voice that speaks of peace,
peace for his people and his friends
and those who turn to him in their hearts.
(psalm 85 from Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. Francis)

I will hear what the Lord God has to say. Haring means more than receiving the sound. Hearing goes deeper than a passive experience. When I hear in the way the psalmist is claiming for himself I hear with the heart. I am changed by what I hear. I make what I hear my own.

And what a great gift it would be if I would open my ears to hear "a voice that speaks of peace." Rather than trying to create my own peace, my own separate heaven--I would enter His peace. As I pray this psalm, and I read these words, I prepare the ground of my heart for the blossoming of this peace, of this kingdom within.

The blossoming of peace has fruits that extend far outside my own interior realm. When I am at peace, and only when I am at peace, I can bring peace to the world. And the peace I can bring in such a state is not my own, but that of the Lord whom I serve. He blesses me with peace and hears me, not to shower His gifts merely upon me, but so that I may shower his gifts on all of His people. "Peace for his people and his friends." Peace first to those who spend the time to think about Him and talk with Him in prayer. But then also, "and those who turn to Him in their hearts." Even those who do not presently know Him by name, those who may not have become acquainted with Him in their lives--if they incline their hearts toward Him, He will see and hear and grant them also Him peace.

God cannot do other than grant peace. It is in His nature. It is part of what He is. You cannot encounter God and not reach peace. It is impossible to embrace Him and not be at peace.

If each of us were to give peace a chance to reign in our hearts, we would transform the world one person at a time. As my ever supportive wife said the other night when she saw my dismally wimpy results on the "Which General Are You?" test, "Perhaps if more were like you we would have no need of generals." I am not the example, despite her encouragement. Our example, our Peace and our Love, is Jesus Christ the Lord. In Him there is no shadow of turning.

"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." James 1:17

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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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About this Archive

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

Commonplace Book: September 2005 is the previous archive.

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