Prayer and Praying: April 2004 Archives

Ascent of Mount Carmel XI


The Ascent of Mount Carmel XI--Book II, Chapters 13-15

Read pages 189- 199 in The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

Chapter 13

(1) Why is it very important to know the proper time to leave discursive meditation?

(2) What is the first sign that one is ready to leave discursive mediation?

(3) What is the second sign?

(4) What is the third sign?

(5) Note the caution St. John of the Cross makes about the occurrence of these signs.

(6) Why is one or two of the signs insufficient evidence of the time to leave discursive prayer?

(7) What does John counsel about the third sign--the loving knowledge of God?

Chapter 14

(1-2) What are the two reasons for requiring spiritual persons to give up sensory meditation when the three signs are present?

(3) Why does the desire of others for them to meditate cause displeasure in those who are ready to move on?

(4) What is "the rind of the fruit" that St. John of the Cross refers to in this passage?

(6) List the two faculties St. John talks about at the end of this passage. Keep them in mind as you read the next section. He will make frequent reference to them.

(7) What is the difference between the use of the two faculties like?

(8-9) Compare the purity of knowledge in section 8 with the passage about the ray of light in section 9. What is John trying to tell us in these two passages?

(10-11) What do the purity and simplicity of knowledge cause in the intellect and soul? What is the result? Are persons working with this knowledge actually idle?

(12) Why is forgetfulness less frequent than might otherwise be the case?

Chapter 15

(1) What does St. John of the Cross say about discursive meditation among proficients? What can one expect until one becomes proficient in contemplation?

(2) How can meditation help at this point in time?

(3) Why should one abandon the attempt at discursive meditation when one enters into a state of contemplation?

(4) Why is the light never infused while one still has hold of tangible images and ideas?

(5) What should one do when one cannot meditate? Why?

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via Garrigou-Lagrange:

from Christian Perfection and Contemplation
Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

This is why Abbot Moses says: "Fasts, vigils, meditation on Holy Scripture, nudity, and the privation of external goods are not perfections, but instruments or means of perfection. It is not in them that perfection consists, but by them that one obtains it.

Sometimes I know I am inclined to substitute the means for the end. That is, prayer becomes an end in itself because it is a time of quiet with or without God. Prayer is an important means of communication which should result in the end of loving God more. Or so I interpret this passage.

Human life seems filled with this kind of substitution. How many people substitute excessive alcohol, eating, spending, movies, sex, or anything else for the real and true End that will fill all of that vast and empty interior space. We are incapable of keeping ends and means straight; what is more, we often substitute poor means for good ones. I know that I need to be thinking a lot more about the End and the means that I suppose employ to try to get there. These means are often my own works and they can advance me only so far down that path. It is time to trust a great deal more in Divine Providence and to listen for the "still, small voice," that tells us very clearly what we ought to be doing, if we only give it the time.

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It is my contention that it is possible for a lay person to live a contemplative life.

What does this strange blending look like? What form does it take and what does it entail for the soul so disposed.

I think we could all agree that it would be possible for most souls to achieve at least the lower degree of contemplation. Not all do it, but it seems that such contemplation is the highest rung on the ladder of what we can obtain "through our own efforts aided by sustaining grace."

Perhaps we should spend a moment thinking about what the contemplative life requires from the person. As I tried to suggest in Martha and Mary: A Speculation, I think much of our understanding of the contemplative life is colored by a misunderstanding of the story of Martha and Mary. I think many of us read this story to mean that the active life is necessarily opposed to the contemplative life. As I said in the cited post, I do not think that is the message we are supposed to garner from the story. However, that understanding presents several problems that must be addressed.

To start with, unless we are extraordinary, as is the case of St. Thérèse and the Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, very few of us are born contemplative. That is, we all enter life in the mode of active life. If it were true that the active life was in some way a substantive barrier to the contemplative life, then it would be impossible to achieve it. St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that the active life may be at once a hindrance to some aspects of the contemplative life and not a hindrance. I won't go into his arguments because frankly I don't think I understand them thoroughly. But suffice to say that while an active life might present a hindrance, it does not constitute a barrier to the contemplative life.

A second problem that is commonly noted is that somehow a contemplative life requires us to withdraw from all the responsibilities of our present state. Once again, I believe this proceeds from a misunderstanding of Mary and Martha. Mary sits at the Lord's feet musing, and Martha works. Mary has withdrawn from the responsibility of social engagement and hospitality and has entered into close communion with the Lord.

Well, I think we can readily see the error of this view. Mary is, in fact, actively offering what hospitality really requires--presence. Hospitality isn't merely about food and shelter, although those are important constitutive parts of hospitality, but it is about being present to the person to home hospitality offers in a fundamental, grounded way. You are there to listen, to hear, to console, to advise, to do what is necessary so that the person feels at home. It was this form of hospitality that Mary offered to Jesus. Do we really think that she wasn't already feeling bad that she wasn't helping Martha? Could she really sit there and ignore entirely the hubbub surrounding her as preparations were made for dinner? When Martha accused Mary before the Lord, would we say that Mary's heart did not drop, recognizing the truth of what Martha was saying? Isn't that perhaps part of the reason for the gentle rebuke that the Lord delivers to Martha? More, after the Lord continued His journey, are we to suppose that Mary sat around the house all day mooning about how nice it was to talk to Him.

I don't think that is what we are to take away from the story. Now, perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I believe we are to see Mary as someone who knows when to work and when to be still. She has a base-level understanding of what it means to be hospitable. She has the urge to serve, but curtails her own desire to hear what it is the Lord wishes her to hear. Martha, on the other hand, extremely well-intentioned, hasn't quite caught on to the idea that there is a time for bustle and activity and a time for quiet reflection and spending time with your guests. More, Martha hasn't quite learned what it means to serve with joy and love and to love the opportunity to serve selflessly. She could have prepared the dinner AND still have been present to the Lord, she simply didn't know how; nor did she fully understand the importance of doing so.

Many of us are in a "Martha" state of life. Sometimes I can't quite see how to integrate my activity and my prayer-- my service to others and my spending time with the Lord. I know that by serving others I AM spending time with God, but because He is not necessarily foremost in my mind in the time of service, it doesn't really "count." I think, to some extent we all suffer from the same mindset.

(Unfortunately, time has come to move on to other matters. This evening I have a great deal of work to make up for so this will be continued later.)

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Psalm Prayer


I have prayed this some two-hundred times (or thereabouts) since I began recitation of the Liturgy of hours and this morning it spoke to me:

Psalm Prayer for the Third Psalm of Morning Prayer, Thursday Week III

God, you are the source of all holines. Though no one can see yu and live, you give life most generously and in an even greater way restore it. Sanctify your priests through your life-giving Word, and consecrate your people in his blood until our eyes see your face.

What broke through my early-morning haze was that last phrase "and consecrate your people in his blood until our eyes see your face." There is something about the notion of "our eyes" seeing "your face" that engages the imagination and stirs sluggish hope to rouse Charity to ardor. That is the goal, ultimately. In Heaven we shall see His Holy face and we shall rejoice in it knowing that we are in His presence for all eternity, that we will not fall like the angels, because we've already been given our chance at that in this lifetime. We shall know God, talk to Him face to face. Think of that. In Isaiah we see that not even the great Seraphim do so; we are destined through the grace and the salvific gift of Christ on the Cross to see God face to face and to call Him Father. What joy, what utter joy. Words fail.

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from the Online Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914

from the article on Contemplation

St. Alphonsus Liguori, echoing his predecessors, defines it thus: "At the end of a certain time ordinary meditation produces what is called acquired contemplation, which consists in seeing at a simple glance the truths which could previously be discovered only through prolonged discourse" (Homo apostolicus, Appendix I, No. 7).

Higher contemplation

To distinguish it from acquired contemplation mystical union is called intuitive, passive, extraordinary, or higher contemplation. St. Teresa designates it simply as contemplation, without any qualification. Mystical graces may be divided into two groups, according to the nature of the object contemplated. The states of the first group are characterized by the fact that it is God, and God only, who manifests Himself; these are called mystical union. In the second group the manifestation is of a created object, as, for example, when one beholds the humanity of Christ or an angel or a future event, etc. These are visions (of created things) and revelations. To these belong miraculous bodily phenomena which are sometimes observed in ecstatics.

Here we have the beginnings of the distinction between acquired contemplation and infused contemplation. You can see that the matter of definitions is not nearly so clear-cut, neat and precise as it might be. However, all of these senses of contemplation are necessary to understand what might be meant by the statement that "everyone is called to contemplation."

To be completely honest, it is my personal belief that a great many more people might achieve both infused contemplation and even mystical Union and spiritual marriage were they inclined to accept the invitation and graces offered toward these ends. Obviously, I cannot know this; however, St. John of the Cross seems also to think it true because many times he addresses those who are "stuck" in a level of prayer and who do not advance because of lack of knowledge about how to effect this advance. But I get ahead of myself. This must all be dealt with in turn, and first we need to complete the definitions. However, this evening or tomorrow I may do a combined treatement of the thrid and fourth questions. The nature of these questions lends itself to such a combined consideration.

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Now we approach formal definitions that come closer to the heart of what we are talking about.

I start with the least formal of these, but one that gives a very good intuitive feel for what it is about. This is Tom of Disputations paraphrase of Fr. William McNamara. Comtemplation is "a long, lingering, loving look at the real."

An excellent start, if a little nebulous.

Here is a portion of Evelyn Underhill's magistgerial discussion. We have here not so much a definition but a delineation of what contemplation is NOT.

from Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness
Evelyn Underhill

Here, the most important work has been done in France; and especially by the Abbé Bremond, whose “Prière et Poésie” and “Introduction a la Philosophie de la Prière”—based on a vast acquaintance with mystical literature—mark, I believe, the beginning of a new understanding of the character of contemplation. The Thomist philosophy of Maritain, and the psychological researches of Maréchal, tend to support this developing view of the mystical experience, even in its elementary forms, as an activity of the transcendental self; genuinely supernatural, yet not necessarily involving any abnormal manifestations, and linked by the ascending “degrees of prayer” with the subject’s “ordinary” religious life. This disentangling of the substance of mysticism from the psycho-physical accidents of trance, ecstasy, vision and other abnormal phenomena which often accompany it, and its vindication as something which gives the self a genuine knowledge of transcendental Reality—with its accompanying demonstration of the soberness and sanity of the greatest contemplative saints—is the last of the beneficent changes which have transformed our study of the mystics.

Later in the same work we find this:

This act of perfect concentration, 49 the passionate focussing of the self upon one point, when it is applied “with a naked intent” to real and transcendental things, constitutes in the technical language of mysticism the state of recollection: 64 a condition which is peculiarly characteristic of the mystical consciousness, and is the necessary prelude of pure contemplation, that state in which the mystic enters into communion with Reality.

(Emphasis added to accentuate what I thnk Underhill's "definition" of contemplation entails.) In the following paragraphs, quoted at length here for future reference, Underhill has some interesting points to make regarding the contemplative and the goal of contemplation.

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I think the best way for me to approach this question is to give some quotes from others that begin to describe at least subjectively what contemplation is and cap it with a formal definition. Then I will try to say what I mean when I use the word--a combination of subjective experience and formal definition.

Once again, Neil's quotations below provide and nice beginning to our discussion. Coming from Protestant writers, they show that the experience of contemplation is not confined to vowed religious or even to Catholics alone; not that anyone implied they were. But sometimes I think that these forms of prayer are seen as so abstruse as to transcend any ordinary individual's ability. Well, of course they do, because they come from God; however, I do believe God invites everyone into at least some aspects of this form of prayer.

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Reading into Oblivion

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Every day I recite Psalm 95 as the invitatory to Morning Prayer. I have said it so often that it has worn a track in my brain and I no longer really hear it any more. This is a danger of things of which we have too great an acquaintance. We begin to no longer hear them speak. We begin to take them for granted.

But the Lord of Life, who rose from the dead, can make even dead ears hear and the numb heart feel. This morning I was reciting it, and for the first time in a long while, I heard what it said. I quoted the portion of it that struck me as a kind of antiphon for the intentions of St. Blogs. I can't tell you exactly how it resonated, but it loomed large in my mind.

There are many prayers that we may say every day. The art of praying well, it would seem, is to pray each as though it were brand new, dwelling not only upon the words, but more upon the meaning, lingering and relishing each phrase. To pray often is not necessarily to pray well; but to pray with loving attention, even if more infrequently can make a marked difference in one's prayer life. Listen to all the words of God as though they were new. AFter all, their meaning is inexhaustible, and Jesus Himself said, "Behold, I make all things new." Not just one time, not just an instant two thousand years ago. No, for all of time Jesus renews all things to those with attentive hearts and open minds. The wealth of scripture shall be doubled and redoubled. Each word streams forth from the Living Water which flows from the temple--Jesus.

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Before I have even started, I discover four questions or clarifications necessary--an ample demonstration of the drawbacks of the blog for something of this nature. Neverhteless, the questions asked are both intriguing and important. Because I have time to answer only one, and because Neil's comment in the post below goes a long way toward answering it (even though the quotes are about contemplation, they also seem to speak of Union) --I will start with Rob's question about "What do I mean when I say Union with God."

This is an incredibly complex and difficult question. I may only get to start to answer it. If so, I'll start with the succinct version of the most persuasive definition I know: when we reach Divine Union, we "become God by participation."

Now let me extend the explanation by a quote of some length from St. John of the Cross who explains far better what is meant by this. Please forgive the rather difficult E. Allison Peers translation (the only one presently available on the web) and pay particular attention to paragraph six. I reproduce the entire chapter in the extended entry to avoid long scrolling for those who are just looking for an overview.

(I know the text is long, but it is worth your attention. If too much, just focus on paragraph six.)

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Contemplation Again

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Tom of Disputations says:

It might be helpful to distinguish between "living in the presence of God," where one's heart is lifted toward God even as one goes about daily life, and "ascending to God," where the soul is more or less captivated by God Himself and any awareness of daily life dims or fades away entirely.

Ascending to God is an attenuated awareness of reality? We call that psychosis, not contemplation. And yet this seems so popular a misconception of what contemplation truly is. Do we really think that the contemplative Saint has some sort of etiolated, breathless, and ethereal relationship with the world? Is the contemplative Saint a wan and otherworldly figure floating through this life just waiting for the gates of heaven to open, unaware, unseeing, unfeeling, a ghost-like wraith? That's not a saint, that's just weird.

If anything, because the contemplative saint has the right ordering of priorities and duties, and the saint that has experienced Union with God becomes God by participation (whatever that means) it would seem that they would see reality as more real. They would love things as God loves them (it would seem.) Their relationship with reality would be stronger, not weaker. They would be able to say as St. Teresa did in advising her nuns, "If you think you are having visions, perhaps you ought to eat more." They would dance in the courtyard and play tambourine. They would sit under the stars of an Andalusian night and see the splendid handiwork of God and love Him all the more for it.

Contemplation is not about breaking away from reality and creation, it is about embracing it in its right and proper order. It is about loving things with the love due them and not with disordered affection. The true contemplative lives constantly in the presence and perhaps even in the heart of God, but he is no less a human being here on Earth. Think of St. Francis among the animals, the canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. This expresses the fullness of the contemplative life. We mustn't think of it as some sort of attenuation of presence in the world. It is a reification of God's love for the world. He gives us the contemplatives so that we can see what reality is all about. They are our examples of how truly to look at the world.

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We all know the story of Martha and Mary--how Mary chose "the better part." But why is that so? Didn't the Lord applaud the woman who has anointing his feet? Didn't He tell us that "whatsoever we do for one of these the least of His little ones, that we do unto Him?" Why should Mary have the better part.

Here is what I think the tale is about. Many make it out to be about the difference between the active life and the contemplative life, making the common mistake that contemplation=utter inaction. What I think this is about is where the heart is. Mary is completely lost in Jesus's words, utterly abandoned to Him, listening carefully and simply loving Him.

Martha on the other hand is completely wrapped up in herself, in societal expectaions, in how much she has to do to put on a "good show" for the Lord and how little help she is getting from that lazy-butt sister who's just lolling about listening where she oughtn't to be rather than helping in the kitchen.

If Martha had partaken of the "better part" she need not necessarily have sat at Jesus' feet. If she were truly lost in Jesus, she could just as easily have set a table for fifty and roasted a lamb without so much as thinking about asking for help. She would have been so wrapped up in the wonderful privilege of service, it would not have occurred to her to give the job to someone else. After all, this is what the Lord appointed for her to do, and do it she would with all her heart.

The contemplative life is not an inactive life. Nearly every contemplative I am aware of served an active life of service to a community. Some did solid, substantive physical labor, others swept floors in a convent, made soup, tended to the sick in their communities. A cloistered life is not a life of utter inaction. There are still abundant corporal and spiritual works of mercy to be performed.

Where do we get the notion that a contemplative spends all day lolling about in some sort of opium-dream of divinity? Why do we consistently ignore the fact that great contemplatives like St. Teresa of Avila (who erected 32 "Foundations" or convents in her lifetime), St. Catherine of Siena (who traveled to Avignon to persuade the Pope in Exile to return to his rightful see in Rome), Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Katherine Drexel (who built, bought, and/or establish hospitals and schools for underprivileged persons of color and Native Americans) all spent tremendously active lives. They did not sit around waiting for visions. They didn't carefully walk through darkened corridors so as not to disturb the Divine influence that was showering down upon them.

And this only makes sense. If we read our Bibles carefully (or even not-so-carefully) we hear James telling us that faith without works is dead. How can a contemplative not have faith? Surely then there must be works. Yes the works are often in the form of prayers, but they are also often in the forms of work that we couldn't even begin to think of doing.

Being contemplative perfects union with God. All the works that come from a contemplative in this state are more substantive works because they have their origin at a level above personal desire or volition; they spring from utter abandoment and willingness to do God's appointed work for them.

So I read Martha and Mary to be not about sitting and listening or working, but to be about how we go about either listening or doing our work. If in the course of our work all we think about is how much work it is and how unappreciated it is, and how we ought to have someone helping us, and dadgummit that's the last time I'm going to do something for this groups of ingrates, we are obviously not setting our hearts on the goal of pleasing God. We are being Marthas, complaining to God about how unappreciated and unhelped we are.

But if we set about even the most minor or menial task--vacuuming the floors, picking up dirty clothes (that we've told that spouse/those kids about ten thousand times) without a single hitch in the hymn we're singing, in perfect happiness at doing what needs done in order to life out God's will for us, then we are at once active and contemplative. We are living the life of Mary in the midst of our activity. THAT is what the contemplative life is about. It isn't about setting aside thirty hours to do nothing but stare at the wall of our bedroom or about becoming holy while our children go without meals.

The complete Christian life is never an either/or it is always some form of both/and. The great saints knew this and they told us through their written works and through their lives. We have two mirrors by which to see them--too often we only look at one.

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I share the thoughts below because they have much troubled me the past several days. I have cast about for ways of saying what I would like to say and what I believe needs to be said, but this interior monologue expressed exteriorly is the best I could manage.

Tom of Disputations has stated that it is his belief that the teachings of St. John of the Cross do not comprise a universal call to holiness, that, in fact, they are really only for Carmelites and those inclined to Carmelite spirituality--not everyone is called to union nor to the contemplative life.

IF I believed that, I would have to discontinue blogging, because the only purpose to blogging is to share the NOT-EXCLUSIVELY Carmelite message of the call to Union with God. There would be no point in writing about these matters for the seven or eight Carmelites who are already on the boards, they already know this stuff as well or better than I do. I cannot say better than St. John of the Cross what he himself said.

However, I don't feel it to be true for several reasons. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are all Doctors of the Universal Church. Not doctors of the Carmelites, not merely great sainted leaders of the Carmelites. Now, there have been a good many founders of orders who are also Doctors of the Church, but many, as well who are not. It is not the founding of an order (which Teresa and John did not do) that makes one a Doctor of the Church. It is the articulation of a universal truth of the Church recognized as such. Thus what they have to say isn't spoken merely to Carmelites, or, for that matter merely to those inclined to mystical experience. Just as what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say is not confined to Dominicans or to those inclined to the exercise of intellect in Church matters.

For example, I quote John Paul II letter on St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Divini Amoris Scientia:

In these three different manuscripts, which converge in a thematic unity and in a progressive description of her life and spiritual way, Thérèse has left us an original autobiography which is the story of her soul. It shows how in her life God has offered the world a precise message, indicating an evangelical way, the "little way", which everyone can take, because everyone is called to holiness.

In fact, St. Thérèse's teaching is a distillation of the work of St. John of the Cross. Following His direction and that of St. Teresa of Avila, the Little flower concentrated their writings into the very concise, very small, very precise "little way."

from Divini Amoris Scientia
His Holiness John Paul II

From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her "eminent doctrine", which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.

First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher who, as she says, is "the Doctor of Doctors" (Ms A, 83v), and from him she receives "divine teachings" (Ms B, 1r). She feels that the words of Scripture are fulfilled in her: "Whoever is a little one, let him come to me.... For to him that is little, mercy shall be shown" (Ms B, 1v; cf. Prv 9:4; Wis 6:6) and she knows she is being instructed in the science of love, hidden from the wise and prudent, which the divine Teacher deigned to reveal to her, as to babes (Ms A, 49r; cf. Lk 10:21-22).

Pius XI, who considered Thérèse of Lisieux the "Star of his pontificate", did not hesitate to assert in his homily on the day of her canonization, 17 May 1925: "The Spirit of truth opened and made known to her what he usually hides from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones; thus she enjoyed such knowledge of the things above - as Our immediate Predecessor attests - that she shows everyone else the sure way of salvation" (AAS 17 [1925], p. 213).

Her teaching not only conforms to Scripture and the Catholic faith, but excels ("eminet") for the depth and wise synthesis it achieved. Her doctrine is at once a confession of the Church's faith, an experience of the Christian mystery and a way to holiness. Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.

Thérèse's teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: "There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on... through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth" (Dei Verbum, n. 8).

In the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux we do not find perhaps, as in other Doctors, a scholarly presentation of the things of God, but we can discern an enlightened witness of faith which, while accepting with trusting love God's merciful condescension and salvation in Christ, reveals the mystery and holiness of the Church.

Thus we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experience of faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ. In her are found the gifts of the new law, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself in living faith working through charity (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., I-II, q. 106, art. 1; q. 108, art. 1).

We can apply to Thérèse of Lisieux what my Predecessor Paul VI said of another young Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena: "What strikes us most about the Saint is her infused wisdom, that is to say, her lucid, profound and inebriating absorption of the divine truths and mysteries of faith.... That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit" (AAS 62 [1970], p. 675).

8. With her distinctive doctrine and unmistakable style, Thérèse appears as an authentic teacher of faith and the Christian life. In her writings, as in the sayings of the Holy Fathers, is found that lifegiving presence of Catholic tradition whose riches, as the Second Vatican Council again says, "are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and prayer" (Dei Verbum, n. 8).

If considered in its literary genre, corresponding to her education and culture, and if evaluated according to the particular circumstances of her era, the doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux appears in providential harmony with the Church's most authentic tradition, both for its confession of the Catholic faith and for its promotion of the most genuine spiritual life, presented to all the faithful in a living, accessible language. . . .

10. The spiritual doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux has helped extend the kingdom of God. By her example of holiness, of perfect fidelity to Mother Church, of full communion with the See of Peter, as well as by the special graces obtained by her for many missionary brothers and sisters, she has rendered a particular service to the renewed proclamation and experience of Christ's Gospel and to the extension of the Catholic faith in every nation on earth.

There is no need to dwell at length on the universality of Thérèse's doctrine and on the broad reception of her message during the century since her death: it has been well documented in the studies made in view of conferring on her the title of Doctor of the Church.

A particularly important fact in this regard is that the Church's Magisterium has not only recognized Thérèse's holiness, but has also highlighted the wisdom of her doctrine. Pius X had already said that she was "the greatest saint of modern times". On joyfully receiving the first Italian edition of the Story of a Soul, he extolled the fruits that had resulted from Thérèse's spirituality. Benedict XV, on the occasion of proclaiming the Servant of God's heroic virtues, explained the way of spiritual childhood and praised the knowledge of divine realities which God granted to Thérèse in order to teach others the ways of salvation (cf. AAS 13 [1921], pp. 449-452). On the occasion of both her beatification and canonization, Pius XI wished to expound and recommend the Saint's doctrine, underscoring her special divine enlightenment (Discorsi di Pio XI, vol. I, Turin 1959, p. 91) and describing her as a teacher of life (cf. AAS 17 [1925], pp. 211-214). When the Basilica of Lisieux was consecrated in 1954, Pius XII said, among other things, that Thérèse penetrated to the very heart of the Gospel with her doctrine (cf. AAS 46 [1954], pp. 404-408). Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, visited Lisieux several times, especially when he was Nuncio in Paris. On various occasions during his pontificate he showed his devotion to the Saint and explained the relationship between the doctrine of the Saint of Avila and her daughter, Thérèse of Lisieux (Discorsi, Messaggi, Colloqui, vol. II [1959-1960], pp. 771-772). Many times during the celebration of the Second Vatican Council, the Fathers recalled her example and doctrine. On the centenary of her birth, Paul VI addressed a Letter on 2 January 1973 to the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, in which he extolled Thérèse's example in the search for God, offered her as a teacher of prayer and theological virtue of hope, and a model of communion with the Church, calling the attention of teachers, educators, pastors and theologians themselves to the study of her doctrine (cf. AAS 65 [1973], pp. 12-15). I myself on various occasions have had the joy of recalling the person and doctrine of the Saint, especially during my unforgettable visit to Lisieux on 2 June 1980, when I wished to remind everyone: "One can say with conviction about Thérèse of Lisieux that the Spirit of God allowed her heart to reveal directly to the people of our time the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel.... Her 'little way' is the way of 'holy childhood'. There is something unique in this way, the genius of St Thérèse of Lisieux. At the same time there is the confirmation and renewal of the most basic and most universal truth. What truth of the Gospel message is really more basic and more universal than this: God is our Father and we are his children?" (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. III/1 [1980], p. 1659).

These simple references to an uninterrupted series of testimonies from the Popes of this century on the holiness and doctrine of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and to the universal dissemination of her message clearly express to what extent the Church, in her pastors and her faithful, has accepted the spiritual doctrine of this young Saint.

A sign of the ecclesial reception of the Saint's teaching is the appeal to her doctrine in many documents of the Church's ordinary Magisterium, especially when speaking of the contemplative and missionary vocation, of trust in the just and merciful God, of Christian joy and of the call to holiness. Evidence of this fact is the presence of her doctrine in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 127, 826, 956, 1011, 2011, 2558). She who so loved to learn the truths of the faith in the catechism deserved to be included among the authoritative witnesses of Catholic doctrine.

Thérèse possesses an exceptional universality. Her person, the Gospel message of the "little way" of trust and spiritual childhood have received and continue to receive a remarkable welcome, which has transcended every border.

The influence of her message extends first of all to men and women whose holiness and heroic virtues the Church herself has recognized, to the Church's pastors, to experts in theology and spirituality, to priests and seminarians, to men and women religious, to ecclesial movements and new communities, to men and women of every condition and every continent. To everyone Thérèse gives her personal confirmation that the Christian mystery, whose witness and apostle she became by making herself in prayer "the apostle of the apostles", as she boldly calls herself (Ms A, 56r), must be taken literally, with the greatest possible realism, because it has a value for every time and place. The power of her message lies in its concrete explanation of how all Jesus' promises are fulfilled in the believer who knows how confidently to welcome in his own life the saving presence of the Redeemer.

I'm sorry to quote at such length, but I think it is time to put this whole question to rest. There can be no question that John Paul II and one assumes much of the Church from the time of the Saint's beatification has regarded here doctrine as sound and universal and her doctrine is nothing other than that handed down from the Bible and from the riches of her mother and father in faith, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

Regarding St. John of the Cross, another opinion supporting my own from Doctors of the Church.

John's words are for all creatures and especially members of the Church. They do not have to live in monasteries or secluded settings or be contemplative. For John, God wants to transform each and everyone regardless of their lifestyle. All have to give the payback. We are "bandits". Intentionally or unintentionally we keep or are stingy with God who wants our loving thoughts, feelings, aspirations and desperations. John understood that to give up these for God results in a giving back to Him. John always reminds us that love is only repaid by love alone. We are spiritual thieves. We have imprisoned the Word made Flesh in God's many sanctuaries. God is more entrapped by His love for us than by our "stealing" him away from the celestial court. The kingdom of the heavenly court dwells in our midst, mystically and physically. Faith and love grasp this truth.

There is a mystic in each of us. It's God dwelling in us in a marvelous and invisible manner. God is absolute Mystery. God told Moses "I am who I am" One can not say more about God's presence than what God told Moses. The mystical apostle, St John, described God's nature: God is love. The mystical doctor's message is where there is no love, put love and you will find love. He was absolutely convinced that nothing is obtained from God except through love.

(I apologize that I was unable to find the document of Pius XI declaring him a Doctor of the Universal Church.

In my opinion, the fact that St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite in no way narrows the scope of his advise merely to those who are Carmelite. He is a teacher of the Universal Church--not without flaw or error, but certainly on a par with other Doctors of the Church. Just as St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and all of the great saints are not teachers of one small sector of the Church alone, neither is St. John of the Cross. One need not be Carmelite to heed his advice. Moreover, John of the Cross can be viewed simply as a synthesist of Doctrine up to his time. Finally, John spent more time as a director than as a teacher. Much of his teaching is really about teaching one to understand where one is on the spiritual path. He did very little direct teaching about a "method" or a "mode" of praying--he simply marked the path and told us how to recognize signs that tell us we need to progress and move on.

So I don't think the blog is in any danger. I stand on firm ground when I categorically state that St. John's teaching, like St. Therese's and St. Teresa's and St. Catherine of Siena is meant for all. If one chooses not to follow it, that is one's own business, but to suggest that because one does not choose to follow it, it necessarily follows that the teaching is not for all is, in my opinion and the opinion of a great many others whose thought means a great deal more than my own, erroneous. St. John advises all of us, Carmelites and Catholics of no order. What he has to say is not for a select few, the "chosen" or the called. Nor is meant only for the Carmelite order. This, in point of fact, is part of what is meant when one is declared a Doctor of the Universal Church. To object that his saying is difficult and therefore not required of us can be legitimately compared (in a far lesser degree) to stating that Jesus' teaching is hard and therefore not required of us. Truly St. John's teaching is not a requirement of salvation (whereas Jesus’ is); however, the difficulty it presents in no way abrogates its efficacy in achieving a life of holiness.

Are there other ways to do the same thing? Perhaps, but they all come to the same thing: "Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me." "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (or God and Venus, or God and Ceres, or God and Nature, or God and . . .) it is God alone. This is the core of the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and his call to contemplation and union is meant for all, either now, or in the life to come. There is no getting around it. The vocation of Christian life is perfection in charity that can only come about through stripping oneself (through grace and the Holy Spirit) from all attachments to things less than God. Hard, but true, and stated time and again in the teaching of the Church from the lips of Jesus to the present day.

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From Thomas Goodwin (a Puritan)

"Those blessings are sweetest that are won with prayers and won with thanks."

"Grace" is more than mercy and love, it superadds to them. It denotes, not simply love, but the love of a sovereign, transcendly superior, one that may do what he will, that may wholly choose whether he will love or no. There may be love between equals, and an inferior may love a superior; but love in a superior, and so superior as he may do what he will, in such a one love is called grace: and therefore grace is attributed to princes; they are said to be gracious to their subjects, whereas subjects cannot be gracious to princes. Now God, who is an infinite Sovereign, who might have chosen whether ever He would love us or no, for Him to love us, this is grace."

"I am going to the three Persons with whom I have had communion: They have taken me, I did not take Them. I shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye; all my lusts and corruptions I shall be rid of, which I could not be here; those croaking toads will fall off in a moment." (Doctrinally, I think he is wrong here, but he has the right idea about the end of Christian Life)

From Thomas Watson:

"How shall we do to draw near to God?

Let us contemplate the excellencies of God. He is the ‘God of glory,’ Psalm xxix. 3. full of orient beauty: in comparison of whom both angels and men are but as the ‘small dust of the balance.’ He is the ‘God of love,’ 2 Cor. xiii. 11. who triumphs in acts of mercy. Well may this encourage us in our approaches to him who delights to display the banner of free grace to sinners. If we should hear of a person of honour who was of a lovely disposition, obliging all that came to him by acts of kindness and civility, it would make us ambitiously desirous to ingratiate ourselves with him and to obtain his acquaintance. God is the most sovereign good, the wonder of love, ready to diffuse the silver streams of his bounty to indigent creatures. This, if anything, will make us willing to draw near to him and acquiesce in him as the centre of felicity.

If we would draw near to God, let us study our own wants. Let us consider in what need we stand for God and that we cannot be happy without him. The prodigal never drew near to his father, until he ‘began to be in want,’ Luke xv. A proud sinner, who was never convinced of his want, minds not to come near God; he hath a stock of his own to live upon, Jer ii. 31. ‘We are Lords; we will come no more unto thee.’ -- A full stomach despises the honey-comb. -- It is the sense of want which brings us near to God. Why did so many lame and paralytical resort to Christ, but because they wanted a cure. Why doth the thirsty man draw near to a fountain but because he wants water. Why doth a condemned man draw near his prince but because he wants a pardon. -- When a poor soul reviews its wants; I want grace; I want the favour of God, I am damned without Christ; this makes him draw near to God, and be an earnest supplicant for mercy.

If we would draw near to God, let us be careful to clear our interest in God, Heb. x. 22. ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.’ When we know him to be our God, then we draw near to him. The spouse, by virtue of the conjugal union, draws near to her husband, Psalm xlviii. 14. ‘This God is our God.’

Let us beg the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God hath a magnetical virtue. Corruption draws the heart from God; the Spirit draws it to him, Cant. i. 4. ‘Draw me, we will run after thee.’ The Spirit, by his omnipotent grace, draws the heart to God not only sweetly, but powerfully.

Let us get our hearts fired with love to God: whichever way love goes, that way the heart is drawn. If God be the treasure delighted in, our hearts will be drawn to him. Servile fear makes the soul fly from God; sacred love makes it fly to him. "
More to come.

The point, however, is to show that we all know, either instinctively or through scripture what is required. Many choose not to follow the path in this life. This is neither vocation nor holy activity in most cases, it is merely waywardness.

Contemplation feeds holy action. Contemplation is not an either/or, it is a both/and. St. Teresa of Avila founded thirty-two or more foundations--this is a life of intense activity, made possible only by her constant turning to God. So with all the great saints. Where there is a life of intense activity, there is also a life of drawing closer to God. Intense activity alone does nothing to make one Holy. We do not earn salvation by works, but works are merits that flow from a soul properly oriented toward God.

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Father Lagrange's book is one of those in which the footnotes occasionally exceed the length of the text above. And in a passage regarding how to find union with God, we find this remarkable excerpt from a letter:

from Christian Perfection and Contemplation
Fr. Reginald Garrigou Lagrange O.P.

[here quoting an anonymous Novice mistress]

". . . In my opinion, many souls remain at the door of the true life because they lack instruction and are deluded in believing that meditation alone is a sure state. Ordinarily when one enters our monasteries with the required dispositions. . . and when one strives seriously to acquire the virtues, the soul is, in a very short time, subjected by God to aridity and powerlessness, the prelude of the passive purifications. It is almost impossible to make those who have been trained according to the method of reasoned meditation believe that this state is good, and that it is made to lead them to the divine union. They do not understand the teaching of St. John of the Cross: 'To apply oneself at this time to the comprehension and consideration of particular objects, were they ever so spiritual, would be to place an obstacle int he way of the general, subtle, and simple light of the spirit.; it would be to overcloud one's spirit. . . .'

"Those who cling to meditation are still waiting after thirty years and more of religious life for someone to lift them up and show them what they are still seeking. They lead a colorless and dull spiritual life. In the contemplative life the secret of happiness is in knowng how to live this life under the eye of God.. . .

Every soul that is even slightly contemplative, instinctively seeks to rid itself of everything personal and places no value on it. . . ."

I have three reasons for quoting this passage. The first is to show that spiritual direction is almost essential at some point along the way. Perhaps one can struggle through much of the experience by oneself, but eventually there comes a time when one requires help to man the rudder and keep the ship on course.

The second is to note that the contemplative life seems to come very rapidly (to the cloistered) who have the proper disposition and desire. I think this extends to the lay life, but perhaps requires more time given that one has other repsonsibilities and vocations to attend to. Persons who are married and who have children have a primary responsibility to their spouses and children. This is their primary vocation and one better "achieves perfection" through obedience to the necessity of one's calling than through all the straining at the bit with concomittant neglect of one's spouse and child. Obedience and humility seem to be virtues very highly prized by God, possibly because they foster a greater life of charity. Thus, in the married state, one sacrifices to some extent, what one would rather do (direct ascent to God) to what one is required (and in my case, at least, priveleged and overjoyed) to do. So those attending to families should feel no remorse at this temporary delay. The prayer of responsibly iiving out one's vocation will ultimately further union when the time comes.

The third reason for quoting the passage is in the last sentence. It seems natural and right that the contemplative soul, the soul seeking constant communion and communication with God, would naturally move toward shedding the obstacles that stand in the way of that Union. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange goes through a great deal of effort to show that this has been the teaching from St. Paul on; that St. John of the Cross is perhaps a more precise articulator of the mechanisms and the meanings of some of the stages of prayer, but that the doctrine springs from the wells of Sacred Scripture itself, and thus, ultimately the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I find this interesting to reflect upon because it verifies my own observations regarding this. And it seems to be true of every Christian tradition.

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from Christian Perfection and Contemplation
Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

We shall demonstrate that this doctrine of St. John of the Cross, [concerning the unitive way as uniate and the perfection of Christian Charity, hence the destination of all Christians] while clarifying that of the great doctors who preceded him, remains perfectly conformable to their teaching, and that it is contained in the evangelical beatitudes. These propose to us Christian perfection in all its grandeur, and are certainly not inferior in elevation to what the author of The Spiritual Canticle has written. . . .

Is a special vocation necessary to reach the mystical life? In principle no. "The grace of the virtues and of the gifts" suffices in itself by its normal development to dispose us to the mystical life, and mystical contemplation is necessary for the full perfection of Christian life. But in fact, for lack of certain condo\itions which at times are independent of our will, even generous souls would attain contemplation only after a longer space of time than the ordinary span of life; just as some minds, which are capable of a superior intellectual development, never reach it for lack of certain conditions.

Now, it remains to be seen if Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange actually accomplishes what he sets out to do; however, his evidences thus far have been persuasive, if not conclusive.

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As it is probably more profitable for a Dominican to address a Dominican's concerns; and, as those concerns pertain to us all, it seems wise to take a look at what Garrigou-Lagrange has to say about the mystical life in general and ultimately about St. John of the Cross. Throughout the bolded emphases are mine.

from Christian Perfection and Contemplation
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

We shall note two important consequence of this doctrine.

1) Since sanctifying grace is the beginning of eternal life and since every just soul enjoys habitual union with the Blessed Trinity dwelling in it, the mystical union, or the actual, intimate, and almost continual union with God, such as is found here on earth in holy souls appears as the culminating point on earth of the development of the grace of the virtues and of the gifts and as the normal, even though rather infrequent, prelude to the life of heaven. This mystical union belongs, in fact to the order of sanctifying grace; it proceeds essentially from "the grace of the virtues and of the gifts" and not from graces gratis datae, which are transitory and in a sense exterior (as miracles and prophecy) and which may accompany it. The mystical life is Christian life, which has, so to speak, become conscious of itself. It does not give us the absolute certainty that we are in the state of grace, a certitude which, according to the Council of Trent, would presuppose a special revelation, but as St. Paul says: "The Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God." He makes us know this, observes St. Thomas, "by the filial love which He produces in us."

2) As the life of grace is essentially ordained to that of glory, the normal, although in fact quite rare, summit of its development should be a very perfect disposition to receive the light of glory immediately after death without passing through purgatory; for it is only through our own fault that we will be detained in that place of expiation, where the soul can no longer merit. Now this very perfect disposition to immediate glorification can be nothing other than an intense charity coupled with the ardent desire of the beatific vision, such as we find them particularly in the transforming union, after the painful passive purifications which have delivered the soul from its blemishes. Since nothing unclean can enter heaven, in principle a soul must undergo these passive purifications at least in a measure before death while meriting and progressing, or after death without meriting or progressing.

These consequences to which we will return, disclose the grandeur of the Christian perfection which can be realized on earth, and they contain the loftiest and most practical teaching. (p. 127-129)

Now, it would seem if we were not all called to perfection, this doctrine would be lofty, but certainly not practical. Nor, it would seem would the "normal, though quite rare summit" would be the direct ascent into Heaven. By normal, one would postulate that this is the way things are supposed to occur. If so, then it would seem that Christians are called to operate in such a way as this would be the normal and less that quite rare result of a Christian life.

Lagrange will go on in the work.

from Christian Perfection and Contemplation
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

As regards the word "call" or "vocation," we will attempt to distinguish in this work the different meanings it may have according as it concerns a general and remote call of all just souls to mystical contemplation or, on the contrary, an individual and proximate call. (p. 46)

One final note:

from Christian Perfection and Contemplation
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

Therefore it seems certain that the mystical life, characterized by the predominance of the gifts of the holy Ghost is required for the full perfection of the Christian life. Is this likewise true of mystical contemplation, properly so called?. . . As we have already stated, the gifts of contemplation may as yet intervene in these souls only in a diffuse manner; the mystical life is still imperfect in them. It may be accompanied by a great generosity, which merits the name of perfection without, however, being the full perfection of the Christian life. (p. 367)

The saint [Teresa of Jesus] says in chapter 21 [of The Way of Perfection]: "I maintain that this is the chief point; in fact, the everything depends on their having a great and a most resolute determination never to halt until they reach their journey's end, happen what may, whatever the consequence are, cost what it will, let who will blame them. . . whether the Earth itself goes to pieces beneath their feet." The general call of souls to mystical life could not be more clearly affirmed. (p. 371)

Now, none of this establishes that all souls are called to one order; however, they are all called to the same end--attain it however they may. But it seems that St. Thomas Aquinas and a great many others bear out the words of St. John of the Cross regarding the steps necessary to attaining Christian Perfection and that the attainment of Christian Perfection is a necessary part of the beatific vision and that we are all called to this in our lives here on Earth; however, very few of us answer that call.

Now I am at an end of saying whether or not what St. John of the Cross teaches is for everyone. I believe that it is so. That the path marked up to the summit of Mount Carmel is the path that everyone will eventually tread even if they follow other means to do so and even if such treading is actually being dragged after death up the slopes through the good works and prayers for those left behind. The Ascent of Mount Carmel seems to be a necessary and universal part of Christian life (according to the teaching of the Saints). The only question is whether or not St. John's way is the only way. And my answer there is that I do not know. I assume that it is not, and yet I cannot know because I have read of no other means of ascent, which is negative evidence. It means only that I have not yet encountered anything that suggests another substantially different way.

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From St. Teresa Benedicta, again. (Please, restrain the applause, the wild hoots of enthusiasm, I only do my humble best as does she.)

from The Science of the Cross
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The peace God produces in the spirit through the dryness of the sensory being is "spiritual and most precious" and its "fruit is quiet, delicate, solitary, satisfying, and peaceful, and far removed from all earlier gratifications which were more palpable and sensory." So one understands that only the dying of the sensory being is felt and nothing is experienced of the beginning of the new life that is concealed beneath it.

It is no exaggeration when we call the suffering of the souls in this state a crucifixion. In their inability to make use of their own faculties they are as though nailed fast. And to the dryness is added the torment of fear that they are on the wrong path. "The live in the belief that they will have no more spiritual blessing and that God has abandoned them." Then they strive to act in the former manner, but as unable to achieve anything and only disturb the peace that God is working in them.

They should do absolutely nothing other than "perservere patiently in prayer without any activity whatsoever; all that is required of them here is freedom of soul, that they liberate themselves from the impediment and fatigue of ideas and thoughts, and care not about thinking and meditating. They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel him." Instead of doing this, because they lack competent guidance, they strive in vain, and possibly plague themselves with the thought that they are only wasting time with their prayer and ought to give it up.

Were they to remain peacefully surrendered to this dark contemplation they would soon experience what the second line of the song of the Night calls the inflaming love. "For contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love."

There you have it. That's where I want to be. That is what I long for, what I desire above all desires. And, of course, that is part of the problem, because the process of detachment means that I must learn not to desire this in order to attain it. I long for union with God and a loving, intimate living with Him, and if I wait upon Him without longing, then it will be happen. But so long as I seek the consolations of His presence the sweet delight of intimacy, I can know nothing other than my own desire. Our desires blind us to God's will. This is the theme St. John and St. Teresa Benedicta continually center around. We must come to terms with our desires, slay them and remain faithful and true servants of Our Lord. Only in this is the path up Mt. Carmel and the presence of heaven on Earth. But to get there we must pass through Earthly purgatory (only possible with His grace and help.) But such is our goal and to achieve it, we should set our hearts not on the goal, but on loving Jesus and proclaiming the love of Jesus throughout the world. This love comes at a cost. People are frightened of it. Witness the lack of comments regarding this--and yet I know that people are visiting. I do not lament the silence, but I cherish it, because I believe it means that the words are sinking in, and they are hard. Hard words are frightening and there isn't much to say about them. So I accept what is not said as a tribute to the Truth of them. God is good.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Prayer and Praying category from April 2004.

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