Prayer and Self Indulgence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Isn't Teresa's call the same as John's - for detachment? God alone, first, most, etc. Even more than chocolate and movies and and and... God first in all things and times and places. Letting the rest drop away. Being totally enraptured, focussed, etc.

All the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus said, "I am the Way."
-St. Teresa of Avila

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

However, I related to what Steven wrote, whether it is said comparing ourselves to Teresa or to John.

Both, of course, went beyond giving up chocolate. Their Primitive Rule involved a form of fasting for 8 months of the year, for example. Some of the artwork can be misleading in such respects.

Ouch! There you go again, getting to the nitty-gritty.

I recently began re-reading Interior Castle and was struck by her "floor plan". What I would consider a very high level of holiness -- finding it a delight to do God's will and moving beyond reason into God's presence -- is only the fourth mansion! Just when you think you've reached a new understanding of prayer, you realize that instead of reaching the top of the ladder, you've just taken the big step onto the bottom rung.

Dear Mrs. Darwin,

Yes, sometimes it seems like we have to leap up to reach the bottom rung.



Steven, how much should our attention go to stoping self-indulgence? Maybe we are so commited to our love and relationship with God that certain things no longer indulge us compare to what we get from our intimate time with God.

Dear Hector,

As you surmise, the goal is not to spend time thinking about not indulging ourselves but to spend time with God. Even if we think we've stripped away the veil of indulgence, there are probably things which remain for God Himself to purge away. Ideally our minds are on loving God and the desire to do away with self-indulgence is no longer a thought, it is merely a part of life. The desires that once ruled us have taken a back seat to the overwhelming desire to love God.

But Saint John of the Cross warns us about spiritual pride that can come from "releasing ourselves" from our indulgences. We don't do the releasing, we merely cooperate with it. Hence, if we spend all of our time thinking about relinquishing our indulgences, we've missed the point.

Nevertheless, there is a point in the spiritual life when it is a right and proper thought and a discipline that will help us ascend to the next stage. For some, God makes it easy, for others it is along ascent up the slopes of Mt. Carmel. I'm going on 13 years and don't feel as thought I've completed even the first step of the way. I've read the map and prepared the knapsack and sat down and thought long and hard about strategy, and I started to take a step. Haven't quite finished it yet.

St. Therese was blessed to have been able to make the ascent and more in a little over fifteen years. Perhaps the long time spent on the first step will move God to help me through those that follow at a greater rate. If not, His will, not mine.



I don't know if you will see this comment since it's on a post of a few days past. I really, really appreciate your thoughts and insights. I grow a lot by reading your posts, but even more by seeing your answers to our questions. Your answer here made me think a lot. God bless!



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 10, 2005 9:00 AM.

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