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Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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Choosing a method of Contemplative Prayer

And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
Romans 8:27

No matter the method of meditation, each one employs some kind of anchor to help us master our thoughts during prayer;a scripture passage, a set prayer, a holy word or phrase help us return again and again when the mind wants to do its busy work. In Christian Meditation, this anchor will also be a way to root us in our intention of prayer, openness and presence to the Beloved

There is often a format, a structure that helps us to make our prayer a process, a movement, a conversation, an exchange of love.

The basis of all Christian prayer, including holy meditation, is Jesus.

Moreover it is our intent to connect to this Lord that makes our meditation prayer rather than a mental exercise.

Please don’t worry too much about whether a method is what you think it should be or whether other people should be using it. Use discernment in your choice, but know it is not as if doing the “wrong” one is going to make your or anyone else’s prayer go down the wrong pipe and not to God. That’s just plain silly.

To me prayer is about love and my will to be with God, no matter what technique I use to learn to be ready for an encounter with the Friend. Prayer is less about me and more about God. In my experience, when I seek his will he responds and when I am open and willing to be corrected, he will correct me. This seems to run true for others as well. “If I am wrong, Lord, change my heart.”

The author of the Christian classic The Cloud of Unknowing ( the “cloud” representing the fact that our intellect cannot reach God sufficiently) tells us to use our anchor in meditative prayer as a spark or arrow of love, to pierce through the “cloud of unknowing” straight to the Heart of God. That is a beautiful way to think of it, and it also rings true.

If a certain technique confuses you or you feel you aren’t making good progress with it, make adjustments and carry on. Yes there are pot holes on the road of prayer. I think I have fallen into them all along the way, though I eventually overcame, thanks be to God and God willing, I will continue to.

I am concerned that a lot of people seem to be overly cautious about Christian Meditation or about this or that method. Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable, but don’t freak out. Just move on if something you try isn’t right for you. Be free about this. I am. So far liberality of spirit has born great fruit for me,

If you are striving to grow, and you are guided by love of God, faithful in practice, doing your best to conquer sin, if you are living a sacramental life,loving more, then I think you are fine to set out on the Royal Road of contemplative prayer, or to stay on it,wearing the shoes that fit you best.

In short,

don’t be scared,

pray and be cool.

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Easter Evening: “Stay with us, Lord.”

When I wake up on Easter morning what I usually feel is happy for Jesus. He is the first person I say “Happy Easter” to. Happy Easter, Beloved Lord. You win!
Love is stronger than death, oh Love Itsef!

Then I think of the Church all over the world and how we are all together in spirit, experiencing this day that is not just a remebrance of the past, but something happening now, a special time of grace from Heaven as we all celebrate together.

Then I think of all the people I miss, especially my family that have died, and I am so grateful I will see them again because of this Lord who accomlished it.

Granted this has been the strangest Easter in any of our lifetimes, but that’s another thing about Easter. Jesus is unstoppable.

I had a good enough day, and was able to pray with my youngest daughter and her four year old in our traditional way. I heard from my eldest daughter, and my friends too. I have had time to pray and reflect and listen to music that is special to me at Easter. It was sad to be away from mass and that is an understatement. I am sure you can understand too.

It was a quiet day, and pretty outside. I blew bubbles on the back porch with my granddaughter, a sweet way to end the day.

And now my place is quiet again. I think about how this is the time maybe the disciples settled down enough they could just enjoy Jesus.

All day he was playing hide and seek, surprising different disciples in different places and in different, wonderful ways, all of them crazy. It had been an overwhelming day, a world inside out day.

They had laughed and cried and screamed, tried to understand and experience impossible things and some couldn’t even believe their own eyes. It was too astonishing.

All that was settled now, and they said, “Stay with us Lord, for evening draws near.”

They got to be with him for 40 more undoubtedly beautiful days.

It must have been hard to stop looking at him, hard to stop hugging him, hard to calm down and just be with him. Maybe it was easier in the glow of the fire to relax in his presence, to enjoy his tenderness and love for them.

To me the signature of the touch of the Lord is tenderness. This is something I am deeply grateful for today.

Sometimes I don’t emotionally identify with Easter that much. My life feels like a long Holy Saturday after several Good Fridays. I’m not complaining. I want to say that I am aware that I possess a much deeper joy than emotional happiness, though I would say I am happy enough, even after all the losses. I have been aware of this joy through it all, not to say I haven’t been desolate because I have. It’s the joy of that rock solid knowledge of God all the way to the center of my soul. I don’t think I would have that if I hadn’t gone through hell so many times; emotional hell, and spiritual desolation.

“My one companion is darkness,” the Psalmist wrote (Psalm 81.) In some ways this is still true, my soul cleared of so many things that filled it. But there is something beyond that emptiness. That something is what I am made of now. The darkness has a radience to it. I lost all the lushness of my spirituality and gained infinitely more. Maybe the disciples found something in their own souls similar after the Ascension.

Carl Jung, asked if he believed in God, said, “No.”
And then he added, “I don’t believe, I KNOW.”

I can identify with that.

I don’t believe in the Resurrection. I know. And that’s a gift of the Resurrection itself, of the power flowing from it.

Even when I don’t necessarily “feel” God I just know and that’s enough for me.

When I do sense his presence, that tenderness I also know as his sign. I hope he feels my tenderness too.

Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.” (John 14:18)

In the evening we can rest in that. We can know.

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Holy Saturday

For me Holy Saturday is usually a quiet, meditative day spent with Mary.

Normally the parish church would be open, but quiet and bare. Catechumen and Candidates would be gathering for Morning Prayer with their teacher, their sponsors perhaps, and the pastor. The feeling would be somber and expectant too, this last gathering before the class would be baptized and/ or confirmed at the Easter Vigil.

Mary seemed to sail through Great Silence like a sparrow released into a moonless night. The others watched her closely for signs of life and awareness, but her heart was fully awake.

“Mother, please,” Magdalene said, “Have something to drink. For me.” Her sisters had brought breakfast. Something hot and steaming was pressed gently into her hand. The cup warmed her fingers. She looked at the tear stained faces and worried eyes around her and took a small sip. She felt the weave of the mat she sat on, the movement of air, the stillness of earth.

The room filled with the others who also sat. As the strips of light from the shutters moved across the floor, no one spoke.

The cup grew cold.

At home I keep my little apartment quiet except for playing some Marian chant now and then. I pray the Hours too.

Our family altar is bare as well.

The door is open.

For you, my God, my soul in stillness waits. Truly my hope is in you.

(See Psalm 95/Catholic Hymn “My Soul in Stillness Waits” by Marty Haugin)

My Soul in Stilllness Waits

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Love in a time of fear and uncertainty

My late husband, Bob Chapman, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive Brain Cancer, in February 2010 while we were still engaged and dreaming about our wedding. We married in May that year just after he finished his initial treatment, a period of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy.

He lived 2 ½ years. The course of his illness was hands down the most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through. If you know me, you know this is saying a lot.

However it was also the most beautiful time of all my life. He said the same for himself too. My daughters remember it as the happiest of times for them.

We had to make a daily decision not to live in fear and sorrow every minute. This does not mean we didn’t cry sometimes, or that we pretended not to be afraid. We were scared to death. Of course we were. But who wants to live like that? We decided to live happily as long as we could, and to “lovingly eat the bread of the will of God,” as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity expressed holy acceptance.

We thought if we did go down, we would go down swinging. We did all we could as enthusiastically as we could to fight cancer. We strove to leave the rest up to God. It was empowering.

We knew that things might not work out the way we wanted which was a horrifying prospect. We also knew that sometimes people did survive it. We ignored the statistics and tried to live in the hope; not with false expectations, but real hope. We knew that Bob would not be taken from this world without God’s permission. We decided remaining positive but without stifling our feelings when we were sad, angry or afraid seemed best. And we looked to God. As Bob said to me the week he died, “God is IT!”

We decided to love and to serve as much as we could. After a frightening MRI result we were really scared. All we could do for a while was hold one another. When he was ready to talk, he said. “Well, what do we do? We love, we walk on.”

And we did.

We learned to allow others to love and serve us. We grew in our appreciation of community.

We grew to understand that each day could be seen as an entire life -time, being born in the morning and dying in the Father’s arms at night. Getting dressed for work one morning, Bob said, “I’m alive today. That’s all anybody’s got.”

Living like this begins to bring out the beauty in all things. Life becomes more vivid. Connection with people and all living things becomes profound. The heart expands.

When we were overwhelmed we had a designated spot we pretended was our “clubhouse” where cancer could not go. We needed to take time out in that spot sometimes.

As a family we learned that almost anything is funny. Bob had speech problems that came and went for a long time. They were hilarious! One of his more famous utterances then was when he said, “What time do we eat the kids? 6:30?”

Trying to talk to someone on the phone about a bill, he explained to her, “My voice is broken but my THINK is fine!”

At M.D. Anderson, the staff seemed horrified that I kept laughing at Bob’s speech mistakes. I told one of them, “Hey we can laugh all day or we could cry all the time!” And anyway, he was laughing too! “What!?” he would say, “I speak the King’s English!”

We tried to make scary things fun. Bob took his guitar to the hospital with him and played it from his bed. The nurses loved it.

One time he went to a scary appointment with half his mustache and half his beard shaved so he had a perfect half and half face. The doctor did such a double take! It was so funny!

At chemotherapy we used to sit and blow bubbles together in the treatment room. He brought his guitar there too and played for everyone with the I.V. in his arm.

Bob was a do-er. He was always moving. One month almost to the day before his death he was mowing the lawn, pushing his crazy big mower uphill. I took a picture. Well that was Bob. He was unstoppable. Bob was into helping. Even when we went out to eat he would end up fixing the cook’s car in the parking lot or something like that. Once he saw a young woman having to put back her purchases at the grocery store so he went behind her putting the same items in his own basket. He bought them all for her and sent me to give them to her outside.

He fixed things for the elderly he saw struggling with something. He was all about service and not creating hardship or work for others. He called this his “skin religion.”

He brought me breakfast in bed on Saturdays and put on Bugs Bunny for me. He did everything he could for all of us for as long as he could.

Being able to serve was important to him as a person.

Eventually, he began to be paralized on one side. Still he dragged himself by one arm horizontally out the back door to work on a drainage project. Sometimes he got tired and had to lay down in the grass for a while.

He was a do-er and he was tenacious. We called him “The Atomic Bob.”

He was an artist but he began to lose his ability to paint. He couldn’t play guitar. He started dropping dishes so he couldn’t do them for me anymore. He got where any speaking at all was very difficult. He had trouble at work and finally took that extended sick leave he had not taken yet. He could no longer play guitar.

He was confined to his chair for a lot of the day. One afternoon he called me to him and said,
“Shawn! I can’t DO anymore.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. Then he said, “I can’t DO!” Here he put his hand on his heart, sobbing, “but I STILL LOVE!”

I knew what he meant.

He realized his love, doing or not, was valuable. He was reaching out to everyone, loving them, and that in his very inactivity, his great big heart was active and spreading love on a whole new level. “Hey,” I told him, between kisses, “you’re speaking like the great mystics of the Church now!”

We are such do-ers in this world and often this is a great thing. Through the history of our faith, though, some Christians have felt called to withdraw into holy seclusion to live a hermits’ life and to pray.

To us this looks like not helping, not doing. But as Servant of God Catherine Doherty wrote, “Look at the Man on the Cross. He is not doing anything because He is crucified.” Ah but He was doing EVERYTHING, wasn’t He?

Our family found humor and beauty, mindfulness, joy in service, acceptance, courage, tenacity, renewed faith, a closer bond, community and the spiritual gift of understanding right in our crisis. In the midst of sorrow, loss of control, uncertainty and intense fear we found the Kingdom of Heaven. When the situation was “down to the wire,” we found the true power of love.

God is with us. There are jewels in the rubble that are there for us to find and to share as we deal with Covid-19 as a community. If we seek this treasure we will find all we need and more. It is there for every one of us.

This is my husband’s painting of us praying together during his fight with Brain Cancer. He called it “Miracle.”

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* This piece originally ran as my column in The Bryan College Station Eagle

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

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.