Long before I heard of my good friend St. Teresa of Avila, and threw myself into Carmelite spirituality, I learned from a beautiful spiritual teacher named Morton T. Kelsey in a book called The Other Side of Silence. If I hadn’t met Kelsey in his books I’m not sure I could have ever taken to the Holy Mother of Carmel’s teachings.
I think St. Teresa may have been guiding me to Kelsey. At that point in my new spiritual life I was still pretty uncomfortable with Jesus. However I was unwillingly drawn to the Catholic Faith to the point I was attending daily mass. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I ended up at St. Anthony’s every day with all these old people who said the prayers really fast. I didn’t even understand anything that was going on and sometimes I was offended. And sometimes I left. Always I wondered what I was doing there again and told myself I didn’t belong there.
I had learned some practical spirituality about a year before that that was necessary to keep me from going crazy through a difficult time in my life and I believed in God by then. I knew how to pray and ask for what I needed and to say thank you for what I received each day. I knew how to go on long walks and talk to God like a friend. I knew the Our Father well enough to say when other people were saying it. But I didn’t really understand it very much.
Anything more than that was going to be really hard because first of all I was allergic to Christianity due to bad experiences with Christians. I was ignorant about the faith plus having been raised in a completely secular household, I had a lot of prejudice about it. And Jesus freaked me out.
I read this book The Other Side of Silence, and also Adventure Inward by Kelsey somewhere around that time. I was twenty years old I think. I had kept a journal since I was ten. I loved to write. I had seriously bad ADD. But when I wrote I felt a sense of flow, and focus I didn’t have normally.
I had heard of “meditation” of course but I didn’t know Christians did anything like that. I certainly did not know of any type of prayer that was more than what I was doing, and the idea of “contemplative prayer” was completely unknown to me.
I was most intrigued by the idea that one could pray by journaling and also by the suggestion that God can “talk back,” that I could actually encounter God in a personal way and that He would respond to me.
Kelsey’s suggestions about prayer journaling helped me with some of my problems with Christianity and prayer. This prayer method turned out to be profoundly healing for me and to be the launching pad for my learning to do what St. Teresa called going within oneself to be with God. Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is within us. The Lord is within us. And I love how Teresa says, “We aught not to leave him there alone.” I didn’t know it but I had found a way to consciously make my way inward for the first time in my life.
In this method of prayer I could use my abundant imagination to create an image of Jesus I liked. St. Teresa advises getting a picture of Jesus to look at, “One that you like,” to talk to and facilitate prayer in the beginning. I created a picture in my mind and on the pages of my journal of a Jesus resembling the kind of people my young college student parents had around when I was growing up in the early 70’s: a long- haired hippie guy in jeans and a faded blue button up shirt, a kind face, a big smile, sandals. I could ask Him anything and He wouldn’t freak out.
He usually brought food and he liked walking on the beach like I did. He laughed easily. He cried easily too.
My imaginary conversations with Jesus often surprised me by their depth and content. I began to draw wisdom and comfort from reading over these pages when I was upset. Sometimes He said things I didn’t’ like but I knew were true and sometimes I received deep inner healing from these encounters that changed my life.
I became able to study the faith, and study the Scriptures without getting so offended. If I didn’t understand something I was able to pray about it and ask for light and study the reasons behind the Church teaching I was having trouble with or the Bible verse that upset me. When it came time for me to deal with some traumatic memories from my childhood and adolescence, praying in this way made it possible for me to do the inner work and receive the inner grace necessary to face the damage and to heal. All I was really doing was using writing as a way to go within myself and encounter the Lord in the “Little Heaven” of my soul. And I liked that guy. In fact I fell in love with Him and He became the center of my life.
Once I was a Catholic (as of 1990) I had spiritual mentors and priests I knew that I could read these writings to and have them reflect for me about them, helping me keep perspective. Keeping proper perspective is important if this type of prayer or any other is to be a source of growth in the love of God.
This prayer has the same danger spots as any other mental or interior prayer form. One must remember that even the most authentic encounters with Christ are not literal messages to be taken as prophecy or to be put on the level with the Word of God or the Magisterium of the Church. They are the traces of prayer: usually part us and part God.
Receiving great consolation from God in prayer does not make one a holier person than anyone else. And we are all capable of fooling ourselves, of being subtly influenced by evil and by the various forms of pride and selfishness we are infected with in our hearts that can mislead us. We can all become so attached to the experiences the Lord gives us we can hold ourselves back from the Giver because of our fascination with the gifts we receive. It is important in the interior life to have experienced people to share with who can keep us on track in our growth.
Still, the Holy Spirit is at work as the pray-er within and you can trust that if you are earnestly praying and attempting to make contact with God that in His mercy and grace He responds to that intention. Also when we encounter ourselves we encounter God because truly He is in us in a very real way.
This way of prayer also helped me as a single widowed mom of two wonderful but particularly challenging kids. I did not have a lot of time for prayer and solitude. So I created an inner chapel where I could retreat to pray and be with God within myself. At first I would have my journal open on the kitchen counter and I can remember writing in it as I also did dishes or made dinner. Often I didn’t need the journal I just went within myself while I was sweeping or doing something else. Late at night I could be found writing, writing, praying, pouring out my heart, being nourished and strengthened by the Lord within. I could never have made it through without having recourse to praying like that. I filled up many a journal. I think my closet has more journals in it than clothes.
The way I did this prayer is to just start writing, creating first a landscape or scene that reflected my mood or else was a place I was comforted by. Pretty soon, as I scribbled away about the scene I could see inside myself in a symbolic way, I was quiet inside and focused, and before too long, into the eye of my imagination, would come that long-haired guy in sandals to see me. The interior images and words would begin to flow easily and I have no doubt I was in my Interior Castle developing my relationship with our “Friend Who we know loves us,” as St. Teresa said.
I used this method of prayer for years. Strangely enough I don’t use it anymore. It just went away about ten years ago or maybe more, as if the pen fell out of my hand. My prayer became much more passive, simple, silent and dark. I just sit in the cave of my heart, if you will, nowadays, and God is there too.
Sometimes the Lord seems to take away one kind of prayer and lead you another way. We must all be docile to that and trust it as long as it is not really that we are being lazy or flighty. Prayer requires discipline and before we give up a kind of prayer we are committed to we should be discerning about what that’s really about, what our real reason is. It is always tempting to turn our hand from the plough. Sometimes continuing to pray is hard work, or an issue has come up. And we want to quit. Other times it is that God is leading us in a new path. And we should go with that.
Imaginative journaling is a great way to pray and it can be powerful and transformative. To me it has much in common with the more active types of prayer Teresa suggests for beginners. Though I think she might have been amused by what I was doing, I don’t think she would have had a problem with it.
I found out Morton T. Kelsey died some years ago. I hope someone told him how helpful he was when he got to Heaven. I hope he and St. Teresa were able to have tea or something and some good discussions. Maybe she would say, “Thank you for helping my little wayward daughter to find her heart when she was wandering lost.” And maybe he would say, “You’re welcome. I’m sure glad you took over trying to teach her anything though. Better you than me!” And maybe they laugh. And they toast their tea cups to wayward little souls that God leads in whatever way He can get them to go to find Him.
If you decide to read Morton T. Kelsey remember he isn’t a Catholic but an Episcopalian priest. Also he talks a lot of Jungian psychology, having found some of Jung’s ideas helpful to his own prayer journey. You can either not read him or take what you like and leave the rest if that sort of thing bothers you. Adventure Inward is more specifically about prayer journaling. It is also simpler and shorter.
Or you can just sit down with your journal, get quiet inside, and start writing. Maybe you’re walking along the beach, the waves are choppy and the wind is cold. It’s about to storm. You see someone coming to meet you, his long hair peeking out from his rain coat hood, flashlight in hand. “Hey come on, I made breakfast!” He slips his arm around you and you’re off on an adventure inward with the best Friend possible, the Lord within.
* The teachings and quotes mentioned of St. Teresa of Avila’s can be found most easily in her book The Way of Perfection.