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Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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contemplative

Open window, living water (Why do we pray? And what happens when we do?)

When we meditate and pray we become channels of God’s love and grace, of his holy will.

The praying soul is like a window opening. Sunshine and a warm, sweet wind flow through that soul to everyone and everything. Its clear openness fills the whole world, and each of its situations with healing light. The rushing wind and light of the hidden spirit of prayer changes hearts, lifts up those who suffer, makes a way for peace to happen. It sets people and all of life free.

We are so little but it is God who draws us to prayer. In his creative power, because of his joy in sharing his divinity with us, because of the Incarnation of the Lord in the marriage of humanity with God, the smallest breath of prayer suffuses the universe with a flow of light and beauty.

In the beginning the Spirit of the Lord breathed upon the waters, there was light, and life sprang from his command. Jesus walked among us, recreating, redeeming and renewing the world by his life, death and resurrection. We are baptized into union with him, infused with his love.

He could have renewed the world by himself. But he shares his mission with the littlest of us because of his love. He has lifted us up to join him in his work.

I think this is what it means to “reign with Christ.”

Living water has come to flow from our hearts.

So pray, Christian soul, however you can, without a doubt in your mind. We don’t always know what God will do. But we know he will do something. Just open the window as best you can, letting God do the rest.

Mary knew this when she told the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” Wink wink. 😉

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Seven ways to Practice the Presence of God

“In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in the Chapel.”~ Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite Lay Brother (d. 1691.) He had an intense realization of “the fact of God” while looking at a dead and leafless tree. He had been a soldier, and after being wounded he became somewhat lame. He then became a footman but, as he said, was “a great clumsy fellow who broke everything.” He no doubt was feeling like a dead, leafless tree himself at that time. But God opened a way for him to find life again. He became a Lay Brother in a Carmelite monastery; cooking, (a job he disliked right away) running errands, sweeping floors and of course, praying and discovering God within at all times and sharing this way he called The Practice of the Presence of God with others.

By making active use of the teachings of The Practice of the Presence of God we can learn to be continually recollected in God, which keeps our souls most open for God’s grace and at his service at all times.

The flow of our lives then becomes a conscious flow of God’s transforming love.

The consequences of this simple practice seep into our personalities and the way we are in the world. We find we even touch inanimate objects with love. We feel affectionate and open towards people. We feel happier, more peaceful, certainly more in tune with God.

1. Morning Offering.

Many Catholics begin the day by dedicating/offering it to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Morning Offering. If you already do this, try to do it more consciously than usual. Pay close attention to what you are saying and to Whom you are speaking. Reflect on what the words mean to you.

If you don’t do this, you could start doing this. Write a Morning Offering on a post-it note and stick it on the coffee maker. You could write your own dedication instead of the traditional one if that would be more meaningful to you.

2. Address your thoughts to God.

This may sound overwhelming to do all the time but even recalling God and restarting your conscious awareness of him whenever you remember to, during the day can have a noticeable effect that will grow.

While you are at it, try turning your grouchy thoughts into prayers of praise. No really. So many things in the course of the day are annoying to us. Figure out how to make prayers of praise or gratitude out of these irritating things. You may be surprised how amusing this can be, and how it becomes second nature after a while.

Turn your thoughts into a continual conversation with God. We all live in a river of thoughts, images, memories, plans, worries, what have you. Turn this river toward the Lord, as often as you can remember to.

I think about my daughters more times a day than I care to enumerate. So, for example, I can try to talk to Jesus about them instead of only thinking to myself or worrying or dreaming for them, as parents will.

Today my daughter is moving, My other daughter and her husband are helping while I watch the grandchildren and hope the three year olds get along and the baby isn’t too distressed by the whole thing. I can talk to the Lord about this. “Calm any fears that arise, Lord. Help us to make this a joyful day.” Or I can express my concerns to him if I want to. As Winnie the Pooh says, “It’s friendlier with two.”

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3.Turn your suffering into prayer

The best way is to hold your pain up to God just like you used to bring your bumps and bruises to your mom for her to kiss. Words are unnecessary here unless you want them. Let God sit with you like a loving quiet friend when you are hurting. You probably know this is harder than it sounds.Try it anyway though.

Catholics also have the habit of offering up our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus. We call this being co-redeemers. When something bad happens to me I consider myself a treasure of grace and try to offer my suffering as prayer for everyone who needs it.

4.Purposely invite God into even the smallest things you do each day

This is at the center of Brother Lawrence’s teaching, and a big part of The “Little Way” of St. Therese as well. Instead of rushing through a task or just trying to get a thing done, it helps to slow down and concentrate on it. As Eknath Easwaran says, “Concentration is consecration.”

Offer your task as if it were an act of prayer and then it will be.

St. Therese would offer the difficult things she had to do for missionaries or for priests. Maybe you would like to offer your work for something you care about to help the world or the Church.

Your offerings can be as simple as saying, “Lord here is my little pancake for you” if you are cooking, for instance. Maybe this sounds silly to you but I recommend you try it for a while and see for yourself. Maybe you too will find God “amidst the pots and pans.”

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”~ Brother Lawrence

This habit of being aware of God in your actions takes a lot of practice but even if you only remember to do this a couple times a day God will bless it and you. You will soon notice a difference in how connected you feel to God at all times.

When you are in line somewhere or at a red light (we spend a lot of our day waiting) use some of that time to connect to and talk to God. It’s easy.

5.“Listen” for God with an open heart

No matter where you are, whether you are alone or with others, hanging out with your friends, at work, petting your dog or talking to a small child, try to maintain a sensitivity to God in all situations. You will sense a heightened awareness and connection to other people and all living things when you do this. You will notice beauty you used to miss. You will be more and more able to register signs of God’s will or voice in the events and conversations of your day. It will become a working part of you in time.

6.Presence/mindfulness

We hear a lot about these concepts lately and I think that is good. As Christians, being present in the moment and being mindful in our daily lives is going to mean conscious awareness of God in the present moment, mindfulness of God in all we do and experience.

Fr. Greg McLaughlin said to me once, “You are not on this planet! I don’t think you are even in the solar system! God is in the present moment. God is right here! And right now, right here, he is saying‘ Where are YOU?”

To be absent minded is to be absent to attentiveness to God who is here with us now. This one has been a hard one for me as I am given to day dreaming. I have learned that we don’t have to be perfect at this present mindedness. But every little bit helps.

St. Teresa of Avila’s way of thinking was that “God is within us, and we should not leave him there alone!” She thought we should imagine the Lord beside us at all times until that active mental effort becomes internalized and natural, part of consciousness.

7. Repetition of the Holy Names

Brother Lawrence doesn’t talk about this in his letters or conversations. However this can be a useful key to keep on your key ring that can help you in your quest to cultivate the constant sense of the presence of the Lord in your life during your day. It can open the door for you.

When I am doing a task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, I repeat the names of Jesus and Mary. For me it does the trick, and brings me into conscious awareness and attentiveness to the presence of God. It is also a prayer because I am calling on them in my heart and dedicating whatever I am doing to them.

Doing this in the waiting times of our lives can bring us into focus as well, so we can fill those empty spaces with the Lord.

It is very helpful in times of stress or fear too or any time I need to re-center.

St. Rose of Lima is said to have memorized the Names of God from the Bible during a time of blankness and darkness in her prayer life, and repeated them while she did her embroidery or any task that allowed it. It was her light through that difficult time.

Before going to sleep I like to tell God what I am grateful for about the day and commend all to him, good and bad.

I also try to fall asleep with the holy names of Jesus and Mary, taking them with me into the night.

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
― Brother Lawrence

People who wrote about talking to Brother Lawrence remarked on his deep peacefulness. He was a simple Lay Brother who had had a poor and difficult life, wounded in war and witness to horrific slaughter in his own home town. Through his remarkable relationship with God, and this way he found to live always in his presence, he found deep peace and was able to help others find the same.

This way is available to all of us.

Developing these habits may sound like an arduous process. Remember that we do what we can and God will do the rest. God sees and will bless our efforts. He’s cool like that.

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The Octave of Christmas

I know you might feel a little wilted, Reader, after all the Christmas presents and family and food (and sugar, etc.) I do too. I like this kind of tired though. It is a good tired. And the Octave of Christmas is a peaceful time.

I deeply enjoyed Christmas day with my daughters and their young families. This is the first time since the string of tragic deaths my family has gone through, that I felt I really could connect to Christmas and like it. A lot of healing has happened, time has gone by, and though I still miss everyone so much, I have begun to see daylight again and so have the kids. A big part of the happiness this year is that my eldest daughter, who has been living in Oregon for some years,has moved back home to Texas with her husband, their three year old and her eight month old. Basically with them gone our family was down to my youngest daughter, her three year old, and myself. With Maire and Jon back we feel like a family again. We feel complete.

Our gathering went well, and we were glad to be together. It was a fun and chaotic in all the right ways. We had a patchwork meal composed of everyone’s favorite dishes (rajmah, masala potatoes, potato cheese soup and spice muffins.) We had a family prayer service, sang happy birthday to Jesus (with candles and chocolate fudge cake) and opened presents, of course. Which was predictably wild.

There was a lot of laughter and relaxed joy,the two small children running around, the baby crawling through wrapping paper.

And now my little place is quiet. That is a good metaphor to me for this part of the season: the quiet house.

We scurried to get ready for the big day. Then we had the big day, the beautiful day, of the Nativity. We enjoyed family and friends. We went to mass to celebrate. And now, during the Octave of Christmas, we have a special opportunity to slow down, to be still, and appreciate the gift of the Lord in simplicity of heart.

It is pleasantly quiet, and Jesus is home for the holidays.

At this writing, it is cloudy and warm Texas day. I have some nice frankincense incense burning.

I have enjoyed some quiet prayer time today, gazing at my little Christmas tree and it’s multi colored lights, coffee cup in hand, Christmas peace in my heart.

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St. Teresa of Avila imagined the soul as a beautiful crystalline castle with Jesus in its center, enthroned in the heart.

He is indeed home for the holidays and His home is right here, right now, in us. This is something He accomplished by His birth. He not only came among us and lived among us, but now and for eternity, He lives within us.

The Church season of Christmas is a time to return to the heart, to enjoy His company there, and let Him enjoy ours.

“The Father spoke one Word which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” ~ St. John of the Cross

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* The Octave of Christmas is celebrated until January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

Mindfulness, presence, indwelling and love

It’s been a stressful day. But we are here together at Hensel Park. I played here when I was little. My daughters played here growing up. Now Arelani does, too. She considers it “her” park. I brought her even though it is the hottest part of the day in the hottest part of a Texas summer.

I am anxious and worried about many things. So it takes a special effort to make consistent eye contact with her, to respond to what she says, to play with her attentively, given the stresses of the day.

I have learned from the practice of inner prayer how to bring myself back again and again gently each time I am distracted by a wayward thought about this or that.

After a while this practice with Lani becomes easy. I realize I feel peaceful in a similar way I do when I am grounded in prayer.

Time seems to flow back into itself like the tide drawing away, leaving its treasures on the beach.

The cicadas chant in the trees around us. A hot wind lifts her curly black hair, a curtain pulled away from her face – a face unbelievably pretty- sweeter than any Disney princess. The conversation is simple (she’s three,) and tender, her black eyes wide, soft and steady. We smile at each other in a timeless moment. She reaches over and clears my tousled hair from my face. Peering at me closely,she seems lovingly amused.

She crosses a little bridge, turning to beckon to me, “Come on, Granny, this way.”

It strikes me that she is the Christ Child or maybe the little Child Mary leading the way for me; to love, to hope, to the Kingdom where the littlest are the brightest of all.

The idea we can love Jesus in others, or learn to love others by seeing Christ in them may sound impersonal at first. But Arelani never seemed more herself to me than when I saw her as having the Little One inside her. I was seeing the truth of her, her “Arelani-ness” itself. Are we not each part of the Body of Christ? When someone sees the Lord in us, is that not only the simple truth? It does not make us less personally loved, but more so when the Lord of Love who is truly within us is experienced by another person.

We slide down the slide, we swing. We sing in the pavilion that echoes, run in circles for fun, watch ants. I take a picture of her running through a field of yellow flowers; a little kid in overalls and tee shirt, wild hair flying. She’s excited and she looks back to yell, “I yuv you, Granny!”

“I love you too, Pooh,” I say as I clump along behind her.

Later she picks a few flowers for her mama. She gets lost in the lovely details of one of these, touching each petal in awe. She sits down with it. Nothing else exists to her.

Time is a gift we can open and make holy by attentiveness. This is the “sacrament of the present moment.” * This is God with us. This is the first commandment and the second also.

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

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* this term is from Jean Pierre de Caussade

How to pray Lectio Divina, an ancient Christian Prayer form using Scripture

Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) is an ancient Christian way to pray the Scriptures. It involves reading a passage of the Bible, listening to God in silence, responding back to God in prayer, and then resting in silent prayer.

To pray Lectio Divina, you will need:
Some quiet, private time.
A comfortable place to sit.
A Bible
A note book and something to write with
An open, receptive heart

Make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can best
pay attention.
Relax. 🙂

You might begin, after the sign of the cross, with a vocal prayer to the Holy Spirit. I like this one:

Come, Holy Spirit,
come by means
of the powerful intercession
of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Thy well beloved spouse.”

Step 1: Lectio

Have a passage chosen ahead of time. I usually choose something from the mass readings of the day, particularly the Gospel.

Read the passage aloud, slowly and reflectively.

As you hear the Scripture passage, listen for a word, phrase or sentence that stands out to you. (Don’t worry, one will.)

After the third time reading the passage through, write your word or phrase into the note book.

The Benedictine monks, who most developed this prayer form, called this note book a “florilegium,” meaning, “book of flowers.” Writing your verse or phrase down will help you focus as you pray, and be fruitful for later perusal, discussion with soul friends, or for future prayer and reflection.

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This word or passage that stands out as you hear the Word of God, is considered to be the Holy Spirit speaking to you.

Step 2: Meditatio

You may want to set a timer for this section of the prayer. Try to make it a light, non- jarring sound. I have an app on my kindle and my phone also with a nice Tibetan bell sound for this purpose.

As to the time duration, ten to twenty minutes should do it. But even five is OK if that is all the time you have.

This time will be silent, eyes closed.

• Inwardly repeat your word or phrase with expectation. As you ponder it, apply it to your life and relationship with God. Let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to make clear His message to you.
When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your word or phrase, placing yourself once more in God’s presence.
• Ask the Lord, “What are you saying to me in this word or phrase?”

Step 3 Oratio

After the timer goes off, take a moment or maybe a few moments to respond with a prayer back to God about what He has lead you to understand or given to you during meditatio.

You might wish to write your prayer response into the notebook and to pray it aloud.

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Step 4 Contemplatio

This usually means to rest in God’s Heart in silence.

Again, set the timer, perhaps for 10-20 minutes as during the meditatio, close your eyes, place yourself in the presence of God, and rest lovingly there together with him.

If it is hard for you to do this, you might choose a prayer word like the Name of Jesus, Mary, or the word, “God,” “love” or “peace,” for your mind to hold onto like a walking stick as it travels in quiet over the next few minutes.

When the time is up, you may wish to pray aloud the Our Father.

End with the sign of the cross.

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Blessed are those who hear the word of God
– and cherish it in their hearts
(a responsory from the Liturgy of the Hours)

If you pray Lectio Divina on a regular basis it becomes second nature. When you hear God’s word.at mass, say, you may notice you go through this process in a brief way. You will find the Word and praying it as an outflow into daily life and activities.

This method of prayer is well developed over centuries. You will pray it in excellent company: the Communion of Saints, Christians all over the world, and the Holy Spirit.

God’s Word is active and alive, (Hebrews 4:12) always does what God sends it to do, and never returns to him void. So we can pray it, internalize and live it.

May our souls magnify the Lord.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… (Colossians 3:16a)

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Easter Maria

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This year I crave a quiet Easter-

Pitch black peace

In which to bloom

In secret knowing.

This was Mary’s Easter-

Before ever a word was said.

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Close to the heart: The Rule of St. Albert

About 800 years ago, a group of men dedicated to the spiritual life seeking silence, solitude, and community in order to deeply know, love, and serve God, began to gather and live near one another as hermits on Mt. Carmel in Israel. This mountain is where Elijah the prophet, his disciple Elisha and their school of prophets had lived near the spring of Carith. It is where Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal, and God responded with consuming fire, bringing the people of Israel to their senses and back to the one true God. It is where Elijah experienced the “still small voice of God.”

The hermits called themselves the Brothers of Mary of Mt. Carmel. Each hermit lived in a cave or simple dwelling. There was an oratory in the center where they gathered for daily mass. We can reflect on this arrangement as symbolic of the entire family of the Church, that we too are arranged around Jesus in the Eucharist, around the mass which is at the heart of our faith.

Eventually they sought to have their way of life written as a rule approved by the Church. Sometime between 1206 and 1214 they approached the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Albert of Avogadro, to do this for them. The resulting rule of life is the shortest the Church has on record, and most of it is Scripture and references to Scripture. It was approved finally by Pope Innocent IV in 1247.

The Rule of St. Albert does not contain a lot of detail but shows in a more general way the spirit of the Carmelite’s life of prayer on the mountain. Every aspect of their lives was crafted to cultivate a continual awareness of the presence of God within and around them. This prayerful awareness practiced daily came to overflow into all of their activities, inspiring their service and leading them to the heights of prayer. They sought to experience the beauty of the Lord more and more, inspiring them to greater and greater love, until they truly prayed without ceasing and were transformed in character, conduct and consciousness* by their union with the Lord.

Paragraph two of the Rule says

Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forefathers laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ – how, pure in heart and stout in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of the Master.

For us lay people today, this can serve as a reminder. All of us whatever our station in life, or our personal religious expression within the Church, whatever ways we pray, are all called to holiness. We share a common purpose of unswerving allegiance to Our Beloved Lord.

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Carmel is a excellent way. I have heard before that there is no Catholic who does not owe something to Carmel. It is a sure way trodden by saints and Doctors of the Church. Carmel’s charism is prayer, and it is a trustworthy school of prayer. I think every Catholic can benefit from Carmelite spirituality in some way.

The joy and love of contemplative life and profound intimacy with God is here for every one of us.

Hopefully something about the Rule of St. Albert will inspire your own prayer life.

These men had a very simple life free of worry about possessions, property, social obligations and engagements. Their calendars were pretty clear.

All things were held in common and distributed by the Prior according to each ones’ needs.

They didn’t have to wonder what to do. Very little planning was necessary. The rhythm of their lives was basically the same every day.

All this freed them to also have calm, quiet but rich inner lives.

Living as they did may be too much for us. But their dedicated example can encourage us to simplify our own lives and find time for silence and solitude.

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So what was a day in the life of an early Carmelite hermit like?

He would be up very early like most people who live close to nature, to light lamps, care for animals, take care of chores.

He would have prayed Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours..
a collection of Psalms, canticles, Scripture readings and prayers. The Liturgy of the Hours is still prayed by clergy, religious and lay people all over the world today. A free online resource for this is Universalis if you would like to tune in to the official public prayer of the Church, weave Scripture into your day, and find a great way to sanctify time. It is also a good way to order your daily life toward prayer.

Our hermit then would have gathered with the others for mass at the chapel of Our Lady of Mt.Carmel.

images.jpg Ruins of the chapel still on Mt. Carmel

He would have then followed his compatriots to breakfast, which would have been meatless, home grown or donated food.

The Rule specifies that they were to eat whatever was given to them. I think one way to translate this for our lay lives is a quote from St. Elizabeth of the Trinity “Let us lovingly eat the bread of the will of God.” In our lay Christian lives, we could take this as a profound example of reliance on God’s providence and a deep acceptance of his will in our lives as it presents itself each day.

At all meals they tried to listen attentively while someone read aloud from the Scriptures as they ate.

Our hermit would have gone on with his day of work and prayer, “keeping Scripture as an accompaniment with all [he did.] “

How did he do that? In some of the desert communities (the prototypes of Christian monasticism starting in the third century in Egypt) the Psalms were chanted while work was done. However the rule states that Carmelites were to do their work in silence. Perhaps this Scriptural accompaniment was done by pondering the Scripture in his heart and mind as he worked.

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When I worked at the Eagle Newspaper in the Press Room, my job was manual labor in nature. The rolling of the press was as loud as an a jet during takeoff. During a “run” there was little conversation, only what was necessary to get the job done, speaking over a head set. I found myself doing exactly what the Rule recommends; working in silence, pondering over the Scriptures and praying as I worked.

One of the crew members and I used to give one another Scripture to memorize. I I developed the habit of keeping a verse or two in the pocket of my uniform that I was working on committing to memory. Perhaps the Carmelites prayed like that as they went about chopping wood, carrying water, working in the garden, caring for their animals , simply praying and meditating on the Scriptures through the day.

The Rule says that the hermit of Carmel was supposed to stay in his cell or nearby when he wasn’t working, “keeping watch in prayer” and “pondering the law of God day and night.” This law is generally understood to mean the Scriptures. I also think that according to Jesus the law of God is love.

O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Psalm 48:9b

How wonderful to ponder continuously the law of God which is love, and God Himself whom we know is Love.

As St. Teresa, reformer of Carmel was to say hundreds of years later, “Prayer is making time to be alone with the Friend who we know loves us.”

The Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel crafted a life of love.

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On Sundays our hermit would have attended a community meeting where various issues were discussed and the brothers were to “lovingly correct one another’s faults.” us This does not sound so fun. But we do know that spiritual community and spiritual friendships are indispensable in the life of prayer. We need others to walk, pray, and talk about spiritual things with. We need people who love us enough to help us stay on track, help us to discern God’s will, and inspire us in the love of Christ. Our soul friends help us grow.

At times our hermit may have gone down the mountain to teach, preach, beg food for the community, or be of service to others in some way. When we are people of prayer, our prayer will inspire service and sharing of our faith. St. Teresa said the perfected spiritual human being will be the perfect mix of Mary and Martha: prayer and service.

Our hermit’s dinner would have been much like his breakfast; eaten in silence with his brothers as one of them read aloud from Scripture.

He would have prayed Evening Prayer, attended to any evening duties.

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At about 9 O’Clock he would have prayed Night Prayer.

I expect he would have gone to bed early.

And so ended his day, well arranged around prayer, leading to an entire life of prayer and intimacy with God.

After Night Prayer the Carmelites kept a rule of silence until after Morning Prayer the next day. The rule states that “silence is the way to cultivate holiness” and urges them that even during times the hermits could speak with one another that they avoid pointless chatter.

Most of us can probably see how avoiding pointless chatter and guarding our speech would improve our spiritual lives not to mention our relationships. We can make an effort to be kindly in speech and to experiment with silence. So often people feel loved when we are more quiet and can listen to them. I am sure God feels similarly! When we are quiet we naturally turn inward where God lives.

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Back to this staying in the cell thing:

Carmelite spirituality is driven by the belief expressed so well by our St.Teresa of Avila:

“God is within us and we should not leave him there alone.”

Colossians 11:27 says

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

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So you could think of this cell as your heart where Jesus, as we are repeatedly told by Scripture, truly lives.

We could read “Stay in your cell” as “stay in your heart, and when you’re working stay close to your heart, keeping watch in prayer. ”

How did the hermits actually pray?

Early Chrisitian contemplative prayer was very much grounded in Scripture. The Carmelite hermits, similar to the Desert Fathers, would have spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. The method of inner prayer they used was similar, I imagine, to Meditatio Scripturarem, a sustained going over and over a memorized passage as a way to keep continuously focussed on the Lord. That is what I think they were doing. The Hesychasm (a method of “imageless” interior prayer developed in the desert by the monks of the Eastern Church) of the Desert Fathers had not been developed yet and Lectio Divina (literally “holy reading” a way to pray with the Bible in an interactive way with God) of the Western Church had not been formalized into steps. So I am thinking they used the Scripture in a less formal way than was developed later.

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In Carmelite prayer, the important thing, as St.Teresa herself said in general, is a not to think much but to love much. To me that means presence and attentiveness are the main things they would have been trying for.

Active inner prayer is about attention. The words of the Scripture, for this practice, are touch stones of focus.

If you would like to try this early Christian form of interior prayer, I have written about it here.

Carmel is a Marian order but Mary’s name is not mentioned in the rule at all except for the name the Brothers called themselves, the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. How is Carmel Marian? Carmelites consider ourselves to be living the life of Mary, her actual spiritual life. The Carmelite strives to continually ponder God’s word in his heart as Mary did, to cherish Jesus within, to be attentive to God’s presence at all times, and to develop a listening and responsive heart. Then, as Mary did, he takes this love and experience of God to others. He prays with and for the Church as Mary is shown to have done.

The Marian devotion of Carmel is primarily imitation of her, reflecting her, mirroring her heart.

I think this is why we often call her not only our Mother and Queen, but also our sister.

Night Prayer ends each day with a prayer, chant or song to Mary.

Let’s pray one now and ask that she might impart to us her own inner life of prayer and love.

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Reflection questions:

1. In what ways do you (or can you) develop the contemplative dimension of your life?

2. When is your alone time? Think about what you like to do in your alone time with yourself and God? How do you cherish and protect that time?

3. How do you pray best? What kind of prayer are you most drawn to?

4. In order to live an intentionally spiritual life the early Carmelites practiced detachment from possessions and simplicity of life. What might be the value in that? What are some ways we can simplify our lives: our physical space, our time, our days… to make room for calm, for God ?

5. How can we order our own days to find a rhythm and balance of prayer, work, community, contact with Scripture, and service to others? Do you have any ideas for your own rule of life?

* …”transformation of character conduct and consciousness” is a phrase I borrowed from Gandhi.

Note: this is an adaptation of a talk I gave at a women’s retreat recently. Minus my dumb jokes. And only because I can’t remember them.

An interview with Sister Celestina Menin about spiritual direction

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I asked Sister Celestina if enthusiasm for spirituality in young adult Catholics is the norm she experiences in her work at St. Mary’s Student Center.She says, “Yes! These kids have a great thirst!”That is why so many spiritual directors are needed at St. Mary’s. The three Sister Apostles of the Interior Life are here, three lay spiritual directors, several priests, deacons, as well as the priests and religious who come in and do spiritual direction every week, and at other times. “It is still not enough!”She explains to me, for those who don’t know, what spiritual direction is. Here she begins to speak passionately.

She tells me that the “Gospel icon, if you will,” of the charism of her order, The Apostles of the Interior Life, is the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus seeks her out, though she has gone to draw water at a time nobody would be expected to be there, as if she were avoiding others. But Jesus finds her. “She is shown her truth as a daughter, and she goes out to share with others.”

“Jesus is very determined and also tender. He comes very close to her wounds.” He shows our identity is not a sum total of our sins or wounds, but in our belonging to Him as children of God.

“Jesus comes close to [people’s] wounds in a very determined way, but not like a moralistic teacher. He is tender.”

To Sister Celestina, this describes the goal of spiritual direction and evangelization. “We bring people to encounter.God did not send down a book. He sent His Son- into relationship, and that is what we do.”

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One must not “think of the other person as an empty container that you have to fill with truth, but as a brother or sister. So you take interest in their lives.Every human being you encounter thirsts for more because they are each made in the image of God. They thirst. There is a thirst in these students. I think it is important to allow the Holy Spirit to awaken their desires.” That is the approach she takes as a spiritual director.

For spiritual direction, “there are a lot of requests.” There is an intake form on the Aggie Catholic website and the requests for spiritual direction are coordinated by a campus ministry intern at the Student Center.

The goal of spiritual direction is for the directee to grow in holiness, she says. The real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. She often tells her directees, “It is not just you and me, it is you and me and the Holy Spirit.

“The goal is to discover God’s will and inspirations, to learn how to listen, to discern what is coming from the Holy Spirit and what is not. Another goal is helping to remove obstacles to growth, learning to pray or growing in prayer. Guidance and support are needed “to know what to do with the consolations and desolations of the spiritual life.”

She says  that it is very important to develop what she calls a “double channel of listening”. She tries to listen deeply to the person talking to her and to pay close attention to the Holy Spirit speaking in her heart at the same time. “If we are relaxed and open, and not too worried about what we need to respond, the Holy Spirit will help us see how we can help that person.”

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“Every topic is welcome,” she says, “because all of life must be penetrated by the Holy Spirit, and God is part of all that we do. ”

“The more open you are in spiritual direction the more fruitful it will be. When you are open, you are humble, but this is a freeing experience that you are loved as you are. The moment you bring things to the light, they are already being healed.”

I asked her if she works with non Catholics also. She said she can and she has. “I would need to be attentive and delicate, but still be transparent about who I am.” Her goal would be to “simply place them more and more under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”

She tells me about some of the other things the sisters do at St. Mary’s.They sponsor Samuel’s Group, a program about discernment. She calls discernment, “making decisions with God in the picture.”  

By discernment she also means “the discernment of spirits.” This tradition of discernment of spirits goes back to the desert fathers. It is very important, she says, to “become aware of your interior movements, since God speaks to us in our thoughts and feelings and desires.” It is important to learn to distinguish the authentic inner voice that is the leading of God, from other influences inside us and outside us that can be misleading or harmful.

A spiritual director  can help one learn and refine that skill of discernment.

“You come to recognize the movement of God through your soul like the vibration of guitar strings after they have been touched.”

“Jesus himself had to practice this discernment of spirits in the desert,” she points out. “Discernment of spirits is a fundamental teaching of the spiritual life.It isn’t just do it yourself. It is always with God; with God, and the people God places in our lives. Always, it is in the context of relationship,” that we listen for God.

“The work we do is relational.” She says.

The sisters open their house for what they call, “A night at the convent,” and also for a movie night a few times a semester, just to share their life with the students. They like to cook for the students. “Sharing food is such an important part of loving.”

They have had up to forty people in their living room, and they see new faces all the time, Catholics and non Catholics alike. They also hold Holy Hours at the convent, and these are always crowded.

“It’s a beautiful time in their life for formation,” she says, “because of the particular gifts of that age group; the enthusiasm, flexibility, the energy, the dreams, the ability to take risks, the capacity of jumping, leaping into new things.”

She says that what they do at St. Mary’s is facilitate encounter with Christ which forms disciples, and then disciples “automatically become Apostles, and they go out,” bringing with them the tender and determined love of Christ and the truth of their experience with His transforming love- “into the lunch line, into the class room, into the whole world.”

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*”We, the Apostles of the Interior Life… testify … that the interior life is the real and transforming source of joy for the world. We are a community of consecrated women… reaching out to men and women through evangelization and friendship with a family-like style and a spirit of initiative and of personal relationship that can foster spiritual generation and growth. We accomplish this mission specifically through spiritual direction and formation in the area of prayer. “~  from Recipes for the Interior Life by the Apostles of the Interior Life

Nostra Aetate over shisha: a conversation about inter-religious experience

We are sitting on cushions at a low table, enjoying shisha from a shared hookah in the corner of a light, airy building in a shopping center in Central Texas. There is country music on the radio, and a minty, fruity smoke rising around us in the late afternoon sun.

Frank, (or as I call him,”Frankly,”) is my first late husband’s oldest brother. Our families have remained close over the years. He and his wife, Karin, are visiting from their home in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (Milwaukee area.)

Today, I have set out to interview Frank about his experiences of inter-religious dialogue. I have been reflecting on Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions. It seems to me that our own Frank is a living example of what respectful friendship between the faiths could look like if taken seriously and personally, lived out in individual relationships and respectful, curious overtures, even shared prayer.

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Frank agreed to talk about his journey, though his natural state is somewhat taciturn. It takes him a while to warm up sometimes… so I’ll wait.

Right now Frank is not sure what he thinks of this hookah business, a hobby that I and his son, Hans have taken up from time to time. He stares at the plastic sanitary tip of the hose we have handed him, unsure of what to do with it.

“?”

While he figures this hookah thing out, I will give you some details to confuse you about Frank. (I say confuse because some of the facts about him are not usually found together in one person.)

Introducing Francis K. Pauc, West Point graduate, Army veteran (helicopter pilot) peace activist, father of an Iraq war veteran (Hans, mentioned above.) He is also a volunteer at the local V.A. hospital, an avid defender of immigrants’ rights, friend of Dominican Sisters, assister of people in the Catholic Worker movement (which was founded by Dorothy Day), and writer of many letters to the editor on issues of import.

He has written a book, available on Amazon Kindle, and in paper back, called Father at War. He is a recently retired dock foreman of a shipping company, a devout cradle Catholic with a long and distinguished history of being active in his parish, St. Stephen’s.  He has been twenty years a lector, a past RCIA teacher, and past parish council member, among other activities.

He is also the token Catholic at the Buddhist Sangha at Milwaukee Zen Center, frequent attender of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in his area, and he now and then hangs out at the local mosque. He is a regular pray-er/visitor at the Sikh temple in his neighborhood.

Frank is the father of three adult children, long time husband to Karin, who he met and married while stationed in Germany as a young man.

He is of Slovenian heritage but is sometimes mistaken to be Turkish. Lately he has grown a long beard and looks very Orthodox Jewish. On that last long peace walk his beard became a bit dred-lock-ish.

I have known Frank since the late eighties when I started dating brother # 6 in the Pauc family of seven boys, Marc Blaze.

Frank is starting to be amused with the hookah experience. I can tell he is comfortable enough I can ask him questions now.

Fortunately, besides his big, German village wedding, his journey learning about other faiths is his favorite subject.

His habitually taciturn, crabby look becomes a warm, soft- eyed lucidity now as I begin to ask how all this started for him. When did he first learn about other religions, I ask, blowing out my delicious smoke.

Frank says his first real look at another religion was learning about Islam in the Army, since he had to learn Arabic. Then he took a refresher course in Arabic with someone from work, years later, at a Muslim culture center. He made more friends there. They didn’t necessarily talk about faith all of the time. They moved from learning Arabic to talking about their kids, their wives, their work, their daily lives.

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After 9/11, Frank wanted to do something personal to cross the widening divide in our country between non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans. He ended up going by the mosque. He found the front locked so he went around back to the kitchen. “I thought you guys might need friends.”

“Are you Muslim?”

“No. I am a Catholic.”

Frank is the only person I know who would show up to an unfamiliar place of worship and ask, “Anybody want to talk about God?”

Frank observes that the prohibition on images in Muslim art has created a very masculine looking art form of geometric shapes and calligraphy, which is beautiful, but, to him, missing something. He thinks it’s a conception of the feminine side of the Divine that is absent. This gave him a new appreciation of our knowledge of the the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, “Creator Blessed,” and of our Mother Mary exemplifying and reflecting this to us. He thinks our ability to be spoken to by God through images is related to conscious contact with the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary through whom the Incarnation was accomplished. The Incarnation puts us in touch with how God communicates through what we can see and touch. It’s why, he theorizes, Catholic art is so glorious. It’s because we have Mary, and we are very in touch with that creative motherly energy and imagery.

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He talks about how sad it is that so many Christians have lost their mother. Their art is not as cool as ours, either, he thinks. “There’s got to be a connection here.”

He really did love the Dome of the Rock, though when he went to the Holy Land. “That was awesome.”

But we digress. We smoke in silence a while… listening to the pleasant bubbling sound of the water in the hookah’s base. 

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Years ago, Frank says, he became curious about the Sikh Temple in his neighborhood. He smiles when he remembers his visits there. “You have to eat. They always feed you. You never leave without eating.”

He adds that the music is great. Like a cross between our best praise and worship, and the coolest Indian music ever. Frank likes to find someone and ask them questions like, “Do you think God loves you?” and go from there.

The Sikh Temple he liked to visit was the same one where there was a shooting in 2012 . Frank knew one of the people who was killed. He was among those who offered support. He still likes to drop by and pray.

Sometimes he meets interesting people of other religions in his work as a peace activist. He met a Buddhist monk named Senji on a long peace walk he went on to protest drone warfare. The next year, he, his wife Karin, and his son, Stefan, went to visit Senji in his monastery in Oregon. They had a great time, and found a lot in common, especially in the social justice work the monks engaged in, and their quiet, dedicated life.

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The desire for contemplative prayer was what got Frank to visit the Zen Center in the first place. He and Karin had tried to find a place to learn forms of Christian contemplative prayer and practice in a group and had not found one. (They have now.) So Frank and Karin went and sat with the Buddhists. Karin always took her rosary and prayed that. Frank started hanging around all the time and being part of the life of the Sangha, even though there are some things that as a Catholic he can’t do, of course.

He decided to learn more, and he loved hanging around. They appreciated his thoughts. When he thought something was stupid, he always said so, (he always does, regardless of the company,) and he also gave his thoughts as a Christian. They came to appreciate this.  He liked sitting in silence with them.

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Going to “Zen practice” regularly brought visible changes to Frank.

I remember seeing these changes in him. He became much more playful and open and calm. Less “‘onry.” I think he really did find peace. I could see it in his face and hear it in his speech. I could tell by  his kinder  attitude, and even the way he carried himself. He still can be found at the Milwaukee Zen Center on a Saturday morning if he’s not volunteering, or traveling somewhere.

He says getting to know his friends at the Zen Center helped him delve into his own faith and prayer traditions all the more.

“It’s made me a better Catholic.”

Learning to sit quietly in what was consciously a form of trusting, un-knowing prayer, for him, brought him nearer to God, and God blessed him with a sense of open-ness and peace. It seems the Lord continued to lead Frank on his unique travels through the spiritual world and to teach him that learning about how other people love and understand God is an act of love.

It is worth remembering that Thomas Merton, a great American Catholic admired by Pope Francis, also got to know Buddhism very well, made friends with Buddhist monks, and found ways to share silence and spiritual practice with them that enriched his own faith.

I asked him what lead him to choose to start showing up at the Orthodox synagogue, rather than Reformed. “Is it because of being Catholic and therefore more into deep, rooted, more ritualistic and mystical worship? ” He said no, that it was because that was the closest synagogue to his house. “What made you want to learn more about Judaism?” One of his more rare expressions crosses his face; an innocent, child like look. “Because I wanted to understand.”

He says he became very close with the Rabbi there and began to take Hebrew lessons. He was often invited to dinner at the Rabbi’s house, and even to Passover. He says he doesn’t think anyone can have the fullest appreciation for their Christianity if they don’t get to know Judaism. He said attending their liturgies changed him as a lector. He grew in his appreciation of the Scripture and reading the Old Testament at mass was a more profound experience for him after seeing the very solemn and reverent way it is read in the synagogue.

He remembers a funny conversation he had with he Rabbi who said, “Oh, you Christians, always forgetting Satan isn’t anything close to equal with God,” when Frank was worried about something.

He still likes going to the Synagogue regularly.

Frank remarks that Jesus was a good Jew, and that he thinks of Jesus as his older brother. I smile, remembering that is what John Paul II said about the Jewish people and the Church. They are our older brother.

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I say that it strikes me that his inter-religious ministry and journey seems to be about making personal connections, about being a friend. He agrees with that, though he says he is less conscious of that than just wanting to understand others and share with them. He feels compelled about this.

He says he is most impressed by the people who are deeply and “completely sold” on their religion. He respects the most those who have “their faith woven into he fabric of their every day life. When it’s just who they are.” Those are the people it’s easiest to talk to, and who return the interest he gives to them about their faith.

At times he has wondered if he should stop hanging around Buddhists and the Orthodox Jews.  They were quick to say they needed him around, and enjoyed what he had to say. They felt spiritually up lifted by their token Catholic.

At one time in his life, following a series of crises and being simultaneously very wounded by some in his own parish,  he actually struggled about whether to remain Catholic or not.  It was his friends at the Zen Center and the synagogue, who said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave the Catholic Church.” They cared more than anyone else, he said.

Now that he is newly retired, he can spend more time volunteering, working for peace, and walking into temples, synagogues and mosques asking about God and giving the gift of a listening heart to anyone willing to share their faith.

Frank seems to have been aptly named after the great St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach he Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

Frank and Karin are off to their next stop on their summer adventures; a Catholic Worker farm, then a Youth Hostel, a Benedictine guest house, and then on to Mt. Bly in Oregon to visit my off the grid daughter, Maire, and her little family.

I mention, as we get up to leave the cafe, that we’ve actually been talking Nostra Aetate over our shisha. Frank says, “Yeah. That pretty much rocks.”

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Read Nostra Aetate

Hookah: a waterpipe
Mu‘assel, or shisha tobacco: the molasses-based tobacco concoction smoked in a hookah; often comes in various flavors such as rose, lemon, mint, etc.
Hookah lounge, or shisha bar: an establishment where patrons share shisha