Prayer and Praying: November 2005 Archives

The more I read about Teresa of Avila, the more she becomes my mother. I am a person after her heart, or at least I'm in training, trying to learn to be.

The other day I quoted some swathes of St. Teresa. Now I shall regale you with other related pieces:

from Journey to Carith
Peter-Thomas Rohrbach

[first a repeat]

"My chief fear," she wrote, "is that the sisters should lose the spirit of joy by which the Lord leads them, for I know what a discontented nun is."

In this he [Nicholas Doria--the autocratic first Prior General of the Discalced Carmelites] was diametrically opposed to the mentality of Teresa who wrote: "What my nuns are afraid of is that we shall get some tiresome superiors who will lay heavy and excessive burdens on them. That will lead us nowhere." And when a visitator had written a number of directives for her nuns, she wrote: "Even reading the regulations made me tired, so what would it be if one had to keep them? Believe me, our rule will not stand additions from tiresome people like that: it is quite hard enough to keep as it is." Doria certainly fell into her category of "tiresome people."

This Saint who begged to be delivered from "sour-faced Saints" (one gets the impression that she wouldn't much have cared for Jerome or Margaret-Mary Alacoque) understood the primary place of Joy in being able to follow God.

Joy is not merely the result of following Him, it is the consolation poured out for obedience to Him, which, in turn, makes following Him easier and more desirable. In the Teresian reform and constitutions, there is the perfect blend of joy and discipline. The discipline, in fact, is a source of joy. It is a boundary that helps define the acceptable limits of behavior and the expectations of one who dearly loves the Lord.

We do not have to practice endless self-denying things. It is enough to take ten or fifteen minutes and spend it in prayer. Not in petitions, or intercessions, or any sort of planned, pre-considered prayer, but rather in the conversation with the Lord that results from considering His word to us. Fifteen minutes of Lectio each day is discipline enough. At least for Carmelites, at least as a start. As one is faithful to the time, the desire to increase the time grows dramatically. Fifteen minutes becomes insufficient. But the press of the day will not allow more! It's amazing what the Lord will work when we give Him the opportunity. I did not have enough time for prayer in recent weeks and so I've been visited by a condition that frequently causes me to wake in the night and need to get up and move about for a while. Surprisingly, I do not feel less rested in the morning for all the break in the middle of the night. And what is the thing I do? I pray. Yes, I also write and read and do other things, but I pray in ways that were not possible in the course of the day. If the desire is there, God will find a way to help! It won't always be the same way--but I'm stubborn to the core and have to be convinced to take time out, so the Lord used this means. For others, they will find windows of time mysteriously opening up that somehow never really affect the other tasks of the day.

The simple practice of time alone with God allows us to carry the God of our acquaintance in solitude into ordinary life. We have what St. John of the Cross refers to as "solitude of the heart" and it makes it possible to pray constantly. Elsewhere in the book referenced above is this intriguing reference:

One of his contemporaries recalls that John would frequently scrape his knuckles against the wall while he was conversing with others so that he could keep his attention on the matter at hand and not allow himself to become rapt in prayer.

Oh what a gift--to have to distract myself to keep me OUT of prayer. But that is the gift and consolation incumbent upon solitude of the heart, which is cultivated by the little discipline of daily solitude with God. What perfect joy--to have to distract myself from prayer. I only hope that this longing within me increases immeasurably until it overwhelms all other conflicting desires.

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Cultivating a Listening Heart


Prayer is a conversation.

Say it again, prayer is a conversation.

Now, do you believe that? Ask this harder question: does my prayer life reflect that I believe that?

My guess is that for a vast majority of very good, very pious, very attentive, very orthodox Catholics their prayer life in no way resembles this dictum. It isn't that we don't believe it so much as we don't really know how to act upon it.

To cultivate a listening heart, we must first consider why it is we listen to others. There are many reasons, of course, but let's look at a couple of main ones. We listen to others to learn things. We listen to others to exchange information. And in the most intimate settings, we listen to others to come to love them more.

What qualities are necessary to really listen to someone? Well, it seems that you must believe that whoever it is you are listening to has something worth saying. That is, you respect the speaker. You cannot really listen to anyone whom you believe is just wasting your time or prattling on or repeating what you've already heard a million times, or who is talking about something in which you have no interest or no comprehension.

True listening involves a willingness to lay part of yourself aside for a while. You need to open up and not carry on whatever the agenda of the moment is.

The great Carmelite Saints, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and many others, provide the key in a simple triumvirate of interrelated practices--humility, obedience, and charity (caritas). This is most pronounced in St. Teresa of Avila's Way of Perfection, where she spells these out right at the beginning.

Humility--we must know that we do not know everything and we must be willing to live with that. More, in conversation with God, we must know that we know almost nothing. We must approach God knowing who He is and who we are. St. Catherine of Siena's remedy is sovereign--You are He who is, I am He who is not. This attitude gives rise to tremendous possibilities and opportunities. For example, if we humility truthfully, we will discover that ordinary vocal prayers, things we have memorized from childhood become more than mere recitation. St. Teresa of Avila pointed out that a vocal prayer properly said or thought through can be, in fact, a mental prayer, a moment of meditation or even contemplation. How is that? She tells us to always remember to whom we speak as we pray a mental prayer. In seeing God clearly as we pray the Our Father, we are, in fact, engaging in a mental discipline, a prayer that goes beyond the words to enter into a real conversation. Let's take an analogous situation. Suppose you are in your car and the person ahead of you does something stupid--cuts you off and makes a dangerous turn. Let's suppose you're in a less-than-patient frame of mind that day and you lay on the horn. More often than not, you are not thinking of a person in that other car, but of the car as though it were merely a moving obstacle unpiloted and annoying. Now, let's assume that you are following you neighbor to the hospital and that neighbor is taking their child to the emergency room. You see them do something of the same sort and you see others honk at them. Suddenly you are angry because they are not compassionate and don't understand what is going on. The persons in that car are real, what the car is doing is secondary. More often than not our vocal prayers are conducted in the first scenario--we're all in traffic and making our thoughts known to that car up ahead that seems to be doing the craziest things. But ideally we should be in the second situation. We know that the car up ahead is actually inhabited by people or a Person to whom we owe love and allegiance. When God becomes a Person, we can know and love him intimately, we can say even the simplest, oldest, most rote prayers with a greater spirit of reverence and with a knowledge of the Person to whom we speak.

Let's focus for a moment on two of the attitudes that can cultivate a listening heart. (We'll set aside caritas, the discussion of which would encompass much more than a simple blog entry.)

Humility and obedience. It seems as if these two travel hand-in-hand. Humility--knowing precisely who and what one is in the face of All that is and obedience, submitting to authority. I think we distort both, but if modern American society has a problem with something, I think obedience is the prime place. Our democratic society has lost any real sense of allegiance to hierarchy. We think almost nothing of immediately ascending to the next higher rank in any chain if we're not satisfied with results at the level we occupy. But in the time of St.Teresa of Avila, this was not something one did. One obeyed one's immediate superior even as one worked to change that immediate superior's mind. St. Teresa notes this. She states that the superior is put over us by God and we owe all obedience to his or her will. If we are unsatisfied by our superior, we act in obedience even as we pray and work to change the situation. St. Teresa did this in practice, in an extremely complex and threatening political environment. Even though the Pope himself gave her permission to do certain things, if her confessor didn't, she would not do them.

I'll take an example that has been run into the ground. I often read in St. Blog's and elsewhere that hand-holding during the Our Father is an enormously controversial, emotionally-charged, and salvation-critical issue that we must act exactly according to rite. Let's take an example where the local ordinary, or perhaps even the pastor of a parish, has decided that everyone ought to hold hands during the "Our Father." Now, according to St. Teresa, obedience is ultimately to God, but is acted out in the most immediate of situations. Hence, if the pastor told her to hold hands, she would hold hands, even if the Bishops said something more nebulous. Thus, if we are TOLD to hold hands by the priest, then in obedience we should be holding hands. Now, I pick this issue because it really amounts to a personal preference issue that a lot of people make too much of. How far one can go with this I don't know. If the local priest told us to use leavened bread for the host, it would seem to constitute a violation of a higher sort and then we might need to invoke St. Catherine of Siena. But in most matters obedience merely involves abandoning cherished personal preferences around which we have constructed elaborate scaffoldings of reason and excuse.

That is why obedience is so hard--it involves self-emptying and humility. We must abandon our preferences on any given subject and take up those given us from above. However, obedience is merely the ultimate reality--we don't control when we get sick, when we are born, when we die, or any other of a number of life-affecting events. Viewed through the proper lens, we control nothing, we merely cooperate (or rail against) whatever is happening.

Obedience is difficult. Humility is even worse, particularly in our culture. While we might manage "letter-of-the-law" compliance as we bide our time waiting for change, this nation of rugged individualists has a hard time with humility. Let's face it, humility isn't pleasant. You want to see yourself as kind, and loving, and giving, and understanding, and still strong and independent. Then something happens and you see the reality--I'm small, weak, and self-centered. My chief interest is whatever advances my own interest.

Humility is obtained not through attempting to be humble but through conversation with God and coming to know ourselves as He knows us. That we are small, small children in comparison to Him is not a subject for shame (often incorrectly used as a synonym for humility) but for reality and course correction. That God is all powerful and that the most powerful of us is as nothing is beyond our comprehension without His grace.

Humility expresses itself in obedience and also flows from obedience. As a member of an Order, I learn humility when I submit to the rule of the Order despite what I would like to do myself. In the regular practice of all that the Order requires, I gradually learn humility. God uses my willingness to obey to bestow grace which increases willingness and begins to move me toward humility. As obedience increases, humility grows. As humility grows, obedience increases because in the interplay to the two, love also increases. When you realize who you are and Who God is, only gratitude can flow. With gratitude comes a deeper understanding and a greater love.

The virtues feed one another, just as the vices do. So humility-obedience-love is a virtuous or gracious cycle as opposed to pride-disobedience-indifference is a vicious or sinful cycle.

So, the first step to cultivating a listening heart is obedience to what God asks of us and learning humility. These steps are acts of will informed by grace and understanding. (I can't help you with these latter two--for the one go to God, for the other, Disputations is a helpful beginning.) Only in humility will our prayer life begin to grow. This is because only humility will allow us to recognize that we have our guard up and hence take it down.

A listening heart is a humble heart is a loving heart. The three go together and the three are found in God's heart from which flows the grace that reifies and saves us. Until we are centered there, we are nowhere. Until we find a home in His heart, our own hearts are restless and wandering. Until we make up our minds that we want God more than anything else, we cannot come home.

Believe it or not, even at this length, there is so much more to say, and what I don't know about the matter fills a great many volumes that I have not yet read. My inadequacy to this task is exhilirating because I know that any success there is, is entirely due to Him. Praise God.

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Mary, Queen and Mother of Carmel


Some of what follows is sheer speculation, thinking out loud. If it conflicts in any way with established doctrine and understanding, it should be disregarded, and I would greatly appreciate a note correcting any such error.

Mary, Queen and mother of Carmel and big sister to the Carmelites and to all contemplatives. From earliest times, Carmelites have viewed Mary as both Queen and Mother and as true Sister and exemplar of the Christian expression of St. Elijah. In a certain way, she is the Mother Superior of the Order, chief among the sisters and brothers--example and guide for the attentive.

Also from earliest times, Carmelites have had a special devotion to Mary. The earliest manifestation of this was in the primitive Oaths and Vows that referred to the Carmelite follower of Mary as Vassal and Fief of Mary--the true property and servant, the one owed protection and special care of the Blessed Virgin. Even today, the Carmelite, with his or her habit of the brown scapular, claims the special attention of Mary. (Which is, in no way to imply favoritism on the part of the Blessed Virgin, it is merely reflective of the origin of the Order and its charism.)

True devotion to Mary does not consist of endless prayers to her but of substantive imitation of her way of life and of obedience to her very few direct words to us.

John 2:1-5

1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there;
2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."
4 And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Do whatever he tells you. These are the words of the Mother and sister who already has reason to know that what is being done is extraordinary. As she pondered the events of her life in an extended thirty year examen, she came to know who and what Jesus is even before there has been any overt sign. It is at a word from her that the prophetic and salvific mission begins. It is as though the Holy Spirit in both unites them at this unique time and place to initiate the Earthly preaching mission of Jesus. At Mary's word, the every obedient, loyal, and loving Son is released just as He had been bound after the finding in the temple.

One of the chief ways in which devotion to the Blessed Virgin is expressed is through praying the Rosary. In the before times, long ago, the Rosary was a device that led to a kind of extended lectio without the necessity of being able to read. One pondered the mysteries of the life of the Blessed Virgin and of Jesus Christ in the course of praying through the Rosary. In addition, the Rosary was a kind of "replacement" for the Liturgy of the Hours for those who could not read. It became possible through the three sets of mysteries of the Rosary to pray through the 150 psalms of the psalter.

Of the rosary, Pope John Paul the Great, of recent memory, wrote:

from the Apostolic Letter "Rosarium Virginis Mariae"

[1] With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love. Through the Rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer. . .

[3] I have felt drawn to offer a reflection on the Rosary, as a kind of Marian complement to that Letter and an exhortation to contemplate the face of Christ in union with, and at the school of, his Most Holy Mother. To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.

[5][T]he most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine “training in holiness”

[10] The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[15] The Rosary is both meditation and supplication. Insistent prayer to the Mother of God is based on confidence that her maternal intercession can obtain all things from the heart of her Son. She is “all-powerful by grace”, to use the bold expression, which needs to be properly understood, of Blessed Bartolo Longo in his Supplication to Our Lady.This is a conviction which, beginning with the Gospel, has grown ever more firm in the experience of the Christian people. The supreme poet Dante expresses it marvellously in the lines sung by Saint Bernard: “Lady, thou art so great and so powerful, that whoever desires grace yet does not turn to thee, would have his desire fly without wings”. When in the Rosary we plead with Mary, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35), she intercedes for us before the Father who filled her with grace and before the Son born of her womb, praying with us and for us.

I won't belabor the point. The entire letter is worthy of careful consideration--it may be among the most Carmelite of the Letters of this most famous Third Order Carmelite. The understanding of both the Rosary and of what it teaches, strikes me as profoundly Carmelite. We don't recite the prayers of the Rosary as a rote exercise or as a devotion, we pray the Rosary as a model and a source, a root, as it were, of contemplation. For the Carmelite, any other use of the Rosary falls short of its true potential AND, more importantly, falls short of true devotion to Mary. True devotion to Mary, in the Carmelite tradition, consists in imitating her to the extent possible according to our way of life and our present cultural milieu. Yes, through intercession and prayer, we trust her with all of our concerns, but that falls short of the perfection of devotion, which consists of Imitating her, and in the imitation of Her, gazing on and becoming like Her Son. In a very real way, in her thirty years of meditation upon the mystery of her life and the Incarnation, she bound herself to her Son--as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, she already experienced the "spiritual marriage" and "mystical union." In some way that I don't comprehend or presume to explain, it would seem to me that she shared in the sufferings of Christ in His passion AND carried her own weight of suffering (as a Mother losing a beloved child) as well. In the depths of the mystery of the Passion, she seems to play two roles--one in union with the Holy Trinity through the indwelling Holy Spirit and the complete consummate spiritual union, the other as sorrowing mother, observer and witness of the trials, terrors, and horrors, of the Passion. (I hope I don't overstate the case here, forgive me if I have or if I have inadvertently written any error in regard to these deep mysteries. They are truly beyond me, and I hope I do not go beyond what the Holy Catholic Church teaches. Here most of all, I humbly await and accept correction.)

Thus, the Carmelite looking upon the Blessed Virgin sees both contemplative and example. She is Queen and Mother of Carmel. She is the chief protector, guide, and example of the Order. But by virtue of her human birth She is our sister as well as our mother in faith. This is not so odd as it sounds--in many religious order, the Mother Superior, is merely the chief of all the sisters. After her term of office, she returns to the state she had before in the Order. Mary is simply the permanent Mother Superior of all Carmelites.

I hope I've provided some insight into the role and importance of the Blessed Virgin in Carmelite devotion. It explains why a great many Carmelites had difficulty with reciting the Rosary on a regular basis. The common recitation of it does not often lend itself to the depth implied by John Paul the Great in his letter. Too often it is too easy to be carried along on the tide of the familiar and not enter into the depths of what is available in this most wonderful of devotions. Truly prayed, the Rosary should effect a profound change in the pray-er making her or him more like the subject of the devotion and more like Jesus Christ. Too often, the Rosary is a chain of supplication and intercession more than it is an entrance into the depth of the life of Our Savior and His Mother. But, as Saint Teresa of Avila points out, even vocal prayer is raised to the level of mental prayer if we keep in mind always the vastness of great dignity of the One to Whom we speak. And even though we seem to speak to the Blessed Virgin, the Rosary is a continual plea to God through the merciful intercession of the Blessed Virgin. A properly prayed Rosary, faithfully accomplished every day, is as much a gateway to contemplation as faithful following of the Liturgy of the Hours or Lectio Divina. That the latter two along with special devotion to the Blessed Virgin--either in the form of the Rosary or in other special devotions--make up the pillars of the introduction to prayer in Carmel should come as no surprise. That they serve as the gateway to meditation, contemplation, and as God wills, eventual union with God, again should not be the source of any surprise. The Blessed Virgin Mary looks with an eye of special kindness on those who wear her scapular worthily and upon those who invoke her aid in learning to look upon the face of Her son. This is true whether one is Carmelite or not. Carmelite Spirituality merely shows these forth for what they are in a way unique to the Carmelite Order. They are a special gift to the Carmelites and hence to the Church at large--available for anyone who chooses to follow them within the order or outside. The Blessed Mother will not withhold the graces she bestows for the sake of a name.

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If you look at Carmel from the outside you probably would not be aware of one of its most open secrets. As an outsider, I was not aware of it. What's more, as an insider it's taken ten or eleven years for it finally to sink in.

What is that secret? Well, the title of this entry gives it away--lectio divina. My block in coming to terms with the importance of Lectio in Carmelite spirituality stems from the fact that Lectio was not "invented" by the Carmelites. Likely it has existed in some form as long as there have been scriptures. I suppose if anyone takes credit for codifying it, it may be the early monastics or St. Benedict. Whoever may have credit for it, the Carmelites do not. As a result I have never seen it as a particularly Carmelite tradition. But I have been woefully mistaken. Lectio Divina holds pride of place as the gateway for contemplation.

And that is why I'm sharing the Carmelite tradition. Not everyone is called to be a Carmelite and to approach scripture in a Carmelite way and to approach prayer with a Carmelite heart. However, I do think it is safe to say that Lectio Divina is a practice which everyone may use profitably to increase the intimacy and immediacy of their prayer life.

In Carmel, Lectio Divina or sacred reading, is seen as the root of any worthwhile mental prayer. One cannot engage in productive discursive meditation if one is ignorant of scriptures. Ignorance of scriptures truly is ignorance of Christ. While we might not come to know and understand fully everything the Church knows and teaches about Jesus simply from reading scripture, the vast majority of what there is to know is centered there and stems from that special revelation.

Lectio Divina is also a practice that has "methods" and a system. Further, it is a method that can be profitably employed by any reader (or, in fact, illiterate people who can memorize) in relatively little time. Ten or fifteen minutes a day is all that it takes to start. The danger (if you wish to think of it that way), dear reader, is that once started it tends to become like any good thing, addictive and consuming. That is, once you discover how simple it is and how utterly rewarding, the length of prayer time tends to increase on its own as you continue the pursuit of it.

Carmelites regard discursive meditation as the gateway to acquired contemplation. The previous sentence probably sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to those not familiar with the precise meanings of the words, so a restatement may be in order. Thinking about holy matters can lead to a greater intimacy with God. Hence, thinking about sacred scripture--not in an academic or distant way, but in a highly personalized way--can open the door that leads to union with God (in God's own time of course.)

How does one "do" lectio? My guess is that there are as many different ways as there are practitioners, but I suspect that all of the ways include certain essentials. After a period of quieting down (if done later in the day) and a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit one takes up scripture and reads. It is perhaps best if one does this according to a preset reading plan such as the Mass readings for the day or a plan to read through an entire book or section of a book. While one can use the time-honored principle of Bible roulette, it is perhaps not conducive to a continued adherence to the discipline of lectio. If one knows where one is going, one is more likely to continue the journey.

After this quieting and prayer one takes up scripture and reads. Generally this is not done as reading a novel or a nonfiction book. Rather, it is done slowly, as though weighing each word, or allowing each word to distill about it an image or a sense. It is better not to tax oneself with too long a reading, for a number of reasons. Reading a lot of scripture will provide too many points from which to begin, too many productive lines of meditation. It may introduce distraction as one flits from one idea to another. Nevertheless, the reader must gauge what is to be read--that will vary from one person to another. Perhaps a single pericope of scripture will suffice. Perhaps the next entry in the plan is dry and so two are entailed. But honestly, once you start to really rejoice in the Lord, there is almost nothing that is too dry. (I will remain agnostic on the question of the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and most of Numbers--as I haven't tried them recently. But as the beginner would do well to start with the Gospels, that's not likely to be a consideration anyway.)

One reads a short section of scripture--savoring it, tasting it, chewing it over. In the words of Father John-Benedict Weber, sucking all of the juices out of it. (Don't worry--scripture is an extremely juicy fruit--even if you think you've gotten everything possible out of it, that is merely for the moment. Were you to return to the same scripture even the next day, you would be surprised at how deeply rewarding renewed meditation on it can be.) An important point to remember: lectio IS NOT Bible Study. This is not the time to be considering the parsing of Greek verbs or the economic relations of Syro-Phoenicians (whatever they may happen to be called at any given point) with other ancient civilizations. In lectio you may fruitfully use all that you have gained from careful study and consideration of the Bible, but this is not the time to learn all of that. For example, it may be very useful in reflecting on Philippians (surely you're not surprised to see reference to that book here!) to recall that this letter was written from confinement, imprisonment awaiting a sentence that, given the tenor of the times, could only be death. That would add depth to what you read. However, lectio is not the time to find that out. One could do lectio on Philippians with very little knowledge of Paul or Paul's life and mission at all. Lectio seeks to draw out of the passage a meaning and a purpose that is intensely personal. Personal, not in the sense of exclusivity--that is, one can share the meaning--but personal in the sense of application. The end of lectio should be not so much a new understanding of the literal meaning of the text, but a new internalization of the text--a new understanding of how the text applies to oneself. As with all productive prayer, lectio should allow the practitioner to enter into a closer relationship with God. As the pray-er begins to internalize and make personal some of the truth present in the Gospel, a new way is forged to approach God.

It would be a very serious mistake to think that lectio is the work of the one praying. As with all prayer, its efficacy stems from the invitation, the grace God provides, that allows us to continue in it effectively. We do not produce the effects of lectio, but rather the Spirit praying within us shows us what we need to see in the course of our meditation.

Now, what form should this meditation take? Again, that is a matter for each person. I found it very helpful to take the course of the Ignatian Retreat over a period of about thirty to forty weeks. What one derives from it are a number of approaches to meditation. One can form images and linger in the scene of scripture. One can hear over and over again a single phrase or word which has changes rung upon it, shifting subtly and becoming progressively richer in meaning. One can begin to see all the strands that connect the whole of revelation and how this incident in a specific place is related to another elsewhere and hence has ramifications for our lives today. The passage may plunge straight to the heart and convict one of sin, error, or fault. The key is to trust the lead of the Holy Spirit. He prays within as one reflects on Scripture. He connects one to the life of the Holy Trinity, and from within that life, one is given what is needed for the time. All stems from our trust and His Grace.

This is merely a brief, unsatisfactory introduction. The method itself is so simple that one merely need take up sacred writ and start. It is in doing that one learns what exactly to do.

I realize on finishing this that I've said remarkably little about Lectio in Carmel. But I think I've said what needs saying--it is central, critical, foundational, necessary. Without lectio a Carmelite cannot reasonably hope to approach the contemplation to which we are called. Not everyone will enter contemplation in this way; nevertheless, it would seem a fine practice for any Catholic who wishes to know God as He knows Himself. That is, after all, what revelation is about.

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The Way of Gratitude

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Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

--Phil 4:8 (KJV)

You knew that in my extended reflections on Philippians, I would eventually come to this verse and I will. But today, I wanted to reflect a little on this verse because I believe that it is a way of gratitude, a way that will tutor us in how to approach the Lord. As The way of gratitude helps to pave the way of Joy.

Let's first note what this passage DOES NOT say. It doesn't say that we are to hide our heads in a hole in the ground and pretend ugly, evil, and terrible things do not exist. It does not imply that we should withdraw to an insular world of airy contemplation of lovely things and refuse to engage the real tragedies and difficulties present in the world. It does not say that we are to pretend that what is ugly is beautiful or that we are to put on some distorting spectacles that reinterpret all events in the lights of the good, true, beautiful and virtuous. As Christians, we are called to be the ultimate realists about the existence of both individual and corporate evils and we are called to try to demolish both.

However, what it does say, is that when we are seeing all of these things around us, we are not to let them become the center of attention. These things are distortions of the reality God wrought--these are signs of the fall and they are not the food for good meditation. They are not to be denied, but they are not to be central to our time with God. Paul was in prison (actually confined to house arrest in Rome) while writing this letter, and while he acknowledges that situation, he does not dwell upon it. Rather his whole letter dwells upon the faith and the love of the people of Philippi. The joy of the letter comes from the contemplation of the faithfulness of a community. In the letter itself, Paul spells out the meaning and the practice of this piece of advice.

There are probably a great many reasons for thinking about the things that Paul suggests. It would seem that they would feed all three of the theological virtues--faith, hope, and charity. But one of the reasons that comes to my mind is that when I think about these things, there is a natural inclination to humility and its consequent expression gratitude. When I see the beautiful--either the work of human hands or the natural world, I am moved. In some strange way I am called beyond myself and caused to realize, not in a negative way, but in a way charged with grace, how small and inconsequential I am in comparison to all of this. And further reflection would show me how small this is compared to all of these wonderful things. And how small all of these wonderful things are compared to the Maker of wonderful things.

Reflection on the good, the true, and the beautiful is one road to personal realism and humility. I can begin to see myself as very small and yet intensely loved. All of this Universe of beauty and truth was made to be enjoyed and appreciated by the one part of creation (we presently know about) capable of doing so. So far as we know, Dolphins do not contemplate great beauty, nor do worms, nor birds, nor trees, nor fish. Only humanity has this ability to see beyond the immediate circumstances and to discern meaning.

Knowing who we are in the scheme of things is a sovereign remedy to pride. We know who we are in all of creation and how small we are. Then add to that the knowledge that God Himself came and lived and died that we should be redeemed, and we understand that despite our smallness, we are greatly valued. In the right-ordered person, or even in the mostly-not-right-ordered person, the natural destination of such knowledge is intense, life-altering gratitude. God Himself entered my insignificance. God Himself loves me so much that He chooses to make a dwelling-place of my smallness. He fills the space and lights it as nothing else can.

This gratitude naturally begins to flow into deeper and deeper love of God and consequent joy in His presence regardless of our circumstances. It is not an overstatement to say that the purpose of the good, the true, the beautiful, the upright, the pure, and the virtuous are to lead us directly to the throne room of God. They are restorative and they are salutary to any spiritual life. It is important to understand that they are not the end in themselves, but the means to the One Thing Necessary. And as means they are meant to be pondered and to be enjoyed. They are goods that God has granted to transform us into beings more like Him. Eventually, with sufficient time and prayer, we are to become beings not just like Him, but of Him. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila refer to this divinization as "union with God." I think it's important to note the this divinization does not mean that we all become little Gods, but that we enter into the life of the Most Holy Trinity in a way that allows us our identity even while we become of the substance of God. In some way I do not presume to understand, we become the simple substance of God. Otherwise there would be no union. What is pure can not mix with what is blended in the spiritual world.

So, for those looking for joy, one good place to start is to see what is around you insofar as it is beautiful, true, and good. Ponder these things, not for themselves but for what they tell us about the God who made both them and us. Humility will blossom, and gratitude will be its natural outpouring. Do keep in mind that this is not the only way to humility, gratitude, or joy; however, it is a way that has worked for many over the centuries.

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The Indwelling God


So, now I move on to a different essay, with different insights.

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

"Transformation and Divine Union in the Carmelite Tradition"
Sr. Vilma Seelaus, O.C.D.

From profound experience, mystics like Teresa and John of the Cross knew with certitude that God is personally present where we are most ourselves. In fact, the soul's center is God. . . . From the dark closet of his imprisonment, John learned that no time or place or circumstance exists in which God is not present. Event in the worst of circumstances, God is always present as abiding offer.

It should be known that God dwells secretly in all souls and is hidden in their substance, for otherwise they would not last. . . .In some souls he dwells alone, and in others he does not dwell alone. . . . He lives in some as though in his own house, commanding and ruling everything, and in others as though a stranger in a strange house, where he is not permitted to give orders or do anything.

Which begs the question, what dwelling does He find in me? And further, am I content in the place that He finds for Himself, or would I prefer it to be other? Have I shown the greatest Guest into a house in disarray, where one can hardly wind one's way through for all the years of junk and debris that have accumulated? Or have I shown Him into a place so spare and lean and short and narrow that it threatens to crush Him with each heartbeat? Regardless of the accommodation I have made Him, He lives there nevertheless. It makes me rather more inclined to get the house in order when I think of what a poor host I have been.

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I know that I have tried your patience with excerpts from this single essay, but all I can say is that I have found its insights so helpful I cannot resist sharing. However, this will be the last. Once again, I cannot reccommend this book highly enough. While it is about the Carmelite tradition of prayer, its insights (it would seem) can be helpful to anyone in any walk of life interested in prayer.

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

"Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness"
Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

What can we do then about the stream of consciousness? In a sense the response, "Welcome to planet earth" fits the reality of distraction in prayer. Rather than trying to stop the stream of consciousness during our prayer, we can influence it indirectly through love, detachment, and humility, the Christian virtues stressed by our [Carmelite] saints As the love of God grows, God will enter all the more frequently into the stream of consciousness. John teaches that the soul lives where it loves, lives through love in the object of its love (Spiritual Canticle 8.3). Through love the soul spurs itself to seek and find God everywhere, in all the creatures of the summer heat, in the winter snowflakes at our feet, in all things, all events. The impassioned lover will go out from self and become fixed on the loved object. God will go out from self and become fixed on the loved object. God begins to pervade all the pieces, large and small, of the bride-soul's consciousness. Especially does she discover Christ in her neighbor which prompts her to the services of love. In going out ot the Beloved, then, she goes out in freedom from the many entanglements of her attachments and self-interests. The effect left on her consciousness is humility, "her heart of love will not be set on herself or her own satisfaction and gain, but on pleasing God and giving him honor and glory" (Spiritual Canticle 9.5)

In short, do not do violence to prayer by trying to force those things that are so uniquely you out of the picture. Be gentle; let the distractions flow around and always gently, lovingly, return to the center. Yes, you may be distracted for a while about some particularly knotty problem, but when you become aware of it, gently turn the eyes of the soul back to Jesus. Often recommended is a prayer word, or a short prayer, some meaningful reminder to you of Jesus in your life. For example, I prefer, "My Lord and my God." (Despite appearances I have secret sympathies for the monarchists out there.)

But the important part of prayer is to continue despite the swarm of gnats we call thoughts or stream of consciousness. These gnats are who you are and where you are right here and now. They are integral to what you are as a person and God loves them as He loves the entire person. When we share those we are sharing a part of ourselves. We should not be ashamed we do not have the strength to throw them off. Think of small children. For example, my conversations with Sam follow some alien trajectory that always ends up somewhere in Sponge-Bob land or roller coasters no matter where they start. I cherish this deeply because it is so much who he is. So God is with us, cherishing us for our childlike babbling and sharing of so many unrelated things. He will enter in and organize as He sees fit, so long as we continue to approach Him in love.

The most important point is not to let distraction stop you from talking to God. If you want to, make them the topic of conversation some time. But continue to talk, continue to spend time with the Beloved. For, as in any relationship, time spent increases the bond of love and understanding and makes us more amenable to the ways of the One who is Loved.

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The End of Prayer


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

"Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness"
Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

In the seventh dwelling places of The Interior Castle, Martha and Mary join hands together. Action flows into contemplation and contemplation pours over into action. The two are not at odds, the troublesome disassociation ends, "the cavalry at the sight of the waters descended" (Spiritual Canticle 40:5). God is found present, though ever hidden, in all of life's activities and events. And the little streams of memories and plans about our past and future all flow easily into God. The spiritual marriage "is like what we have when a little stream enters the sea, there is no means of separating the two" (Interior Castle 7.2.4)

When we look at the life of St. Teresa of Avila, we can readily see that contemplation cannot help but to flow over into action. St. Teresa established at least 13 foundations throughout Spain. She ran almost every convent she lived in, and she produced a remarkable volume of spiritual guidance and letters. This spilling over into action is not always transparent. In the case of the cloistered, the action is hidden, but very real. For example, St. Thérèse desperately wanted to become a missionary nun in Vietnam. Given her health and other considerations, this was not a possibility, but it did not stop the longing. Indeed, so great was her yearning that it was recognized in elevating her to Patroness of the Missions.

But how can we love God without wanting to serve in some substantive way? How can we embrace our spouse and then say that His children mean nothing to us? It isn't possible. When we join in spiritual marriage, the welfare of all of his children becomes our overriding concern. Time and again in Carmelite writings we are encouraged to pray for all whose souls are endangered that everyone might join the banquet in Heaven.

The end of contemplation, most particularly for a lay person, is substantive action that builds or at least supports the Kingdom here on Earth. Love that does not spill over into action is mere sentiment. Love that does not honor the beloved in honoring His intent is mere illusion and blindness. Love is, above all else, hard-working, endlessly laboring to please the One who is Love.

And when we love, we join in the vast ocean of His love, still ourselves but much more in His image, and inseperable from the vast ocean of mercy that carries every child home.

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I thought this passage a revelation and an illumination:

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

"Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness"
Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

The human person is created in the image and likeness of the God who goes out, an ecstatic God in eternal Filiation and Spiration, ecstatic in the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit. The human being in its inmost activity is essentially and passionately other-directed, self-losing.

The ecstatic nature of the human person is ultimately rooted in the mystery of the inwardly self-giving Trinity. As Father and Son are for each other in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the human person is always a being for, not a being established in and unto self.

In Carmelite prayer, then, the loving awareness or presence to Christ in faith, in mystery, whether active or passive, is what one seeks to sustain. This is a relationship of love, of friendship, of being for and toward the other.

I'm inclined to think the first two paragraphs have universal relevance. This is for the Christian and the Catholic at large. The third paragraph, being qualified as talking about Carmelite prayer, may seem to be slightly less universal. But while it is a particular charism of the order, I suspect that all are invited, if not necessarily expected to participate in this form of prayer.

This formless form, this waiting and being in presence, is one of the reasons that it is difficult to speak about a Carmelite "method" of prayer. I'm not sure there is a "method," except, as is described here, reaching out to take the hand of a friend and spending time with a friend.

As you read Carmelite sources, you discover means of predisposing yourself to receive and engage in this kind of prayer, but no one ever really tells you much except to spend time in the presence of the one you love. That is the key. ". . . [H]er heart or love will not be set on herself or her own satisfaction and gain, but on please God and giving Him honor and glory."(Spiritual Canticle 9:5 St. John of the Cross).

Note--There is so much good and helpful in this essay that to do it justice, I would have to quote most of it. While I know such things are hard to come by, see if your library can ILL this book. There are other essays also well worth your time. While the subject is Carmelite prayer, I think the teaching has applications for all.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Prayer and Praying category from November 2005.

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