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)
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 note book and something to write with
An open, receptive heart
Make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can best
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.
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.
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.
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)
When I go to sleep, I take time, after I get comfortable, to let myself be loved and to feel that God surrounds and fills me with His loving, protective presence. Early in my young widowhood, I used to make it a habit to say, as I sank into my bed, “Into Your hands, I commit my spirit.” I would think to myself, “my spirit….. and everything else.”
I love sleeping, and I love naps. Naps are a kind of any time Sabbath, a rare and splendid solitude. Naps are prayer. Naps are a letting go into God, right in the middle of the day. They are a form of contemplation, really. A nap can even be a dreamy Lectio Divina. I love falling asleep to a quiet recording of one of the Gospels.
I loved it when I found out that St, Therese of Lisieux, Carmelite Nun, and Doctor of the Church, used to fall asleep sometimes during the set hours of solitary prayer in her cell. She wasn’t really supposed to do that. It was an accident. She didn’t feel bad about it, though. She saw it as falling asleep in her Father’s arms. What could be better than that?
Catherine Doherty, in her wonderful book, Poustinia, says,
“Sometimes we are so exhausted mentally, morally, and physically, we can’t do much of anything… we just flop down! Well, to sleep in the arms of Christ is a pretty good idea. You don’t have to do anything. It’s being simple in your relationship with God.”
Holy Naps can also be shared, of course. When my kids were younger, and their dad was still alive, we had a tradition of the Sunday Family Nap. We all cuddled and fell asleep listening to music or a story, and by the time the recording stopped, everyone was asleep. It was a holy Sabbath rest, and I continued to honor it with the kids for years to come.
My second husband and I found that naps were indispensable in dealing with the stress of fighting cancer. We would pretend cancer couldn’t follow us into our bed, and we liked to put on one of those relaxation recordings, wrap the rosary around each other’s hands as a joined prayer, and sleep that way.
Jesus said He would give us rest. But we are to come to Him for it.
“Come to me, all you are are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
I like to think about how he said to St. Faustina,
Know, My daughter, that the ardor of your heart is pleasing to Me. And just as you desire ardently to become united with Me in Holy Communion, so too do I desire to give Myself wholly to you; and as a reward for your zeal, rest on My Heart (Diary, 826).
This is what I like to do, lay my head on Jesus’ Heart, like St. John did at the Last Supper. I let myself be loved and comforted and healed by sleeping there like a tired little bird in the crook of His arm.
So have a nap. Make it a nap of restoration and silent love.
Expect great things from a holy nap.
“He pours gifts on His beloved while they sleep.” Psalm 127
Don’t feel guilty about relishing a good nap, if you can get one; the kind where you know you’re sleeping, and you’re happy about it. Be happy about it. You need it!
As my daughter, Maire’s, friend, April, says, “We need naps after our naps!”
Sweet dreams. And may the love of God enfold you in all your naps!
Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated today in the Church, and it is also considered the first day of the first novena, as Mary and the Disciples remained in Jerusalem to pray for nine days for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. This is the heart of our novena tradition.
A novena can be a special time between God and the praying soul, a pilgrimage of transformation and insight, as well as a way of “storming heaven,” with a petition. A novena prayed with faith is also a time of expectant waiting.
Whatever I am praying for, I try to ask with an open heart, one that is actively seeking God’s will.
Sometimes God does not give me what I thought I wanted when I began. Sometimes he changes me instead.
Sometimes I begin to get a sense that I should ask for something different than the petition I started with. My prayer seems to be redirected. Maybe this is so that I might pray with the Holy Spirit rather than just out of my own will.
I know, dearest Mother, that you want me to seek God’s holy Will concerning my request. If what I ask for should not be granted, pray that I may receive that which will be of greater benefit to my soul, [and the souls for whom I pray.] ~ from the Novena to Our Lady of the Rosary
Other times, my single-mindedness of purpose grows and I continue with my petition, like the “persistent widow” I am.
When I begin a novena, I am not sure what God will do but I know he will do something!
I try to be attentive to what God may want to say to me during this time of focussed, dedicated prayer.
The divine synchronicity interwoven with daily life reminds me that heaven is near, and that God is always speaking.
The symbolic meaning of having a dove land on the hood of my car and look through the windshield at me while I am praying at a red light may seem hard to miss. But it is possible to think nothing of it. I want to notice and make the connection.
If I dedicate and consecrate these nine days of prayer to cultivating my awareness of God’s voice speaking through life itself as it happens, a novena can be a time of becoming attuned to Holy Spirit and wonder.
If I am praying a novena to a particular saint, St. Therese, let us say, I try to find ways to weave her presence into my life. I may read about her or read from her writings during that time. I will talk to her as I go about my day, ask her to join me in my work and prayers.
I might do small acts of service in her honor; especially the kind she liked during her life on earth, the sneaky kind.
I may make use of imaginative prayer to go into the situation I am praying about, letting St. Therese lead me in bringing God’s light into darkness, to let her show me something, or to visually surround the people involved, with God’s love, with hers, and with mine.
I often ask friends or family to join me in praying a novena. Jesus encouraged us to join together when we ask for something, and it encourages me to know that someone I love is praying along with me.
I like to to begin a novena by going to Confession.
It always seems to me that I can “hear” God better after Confession. The grace released into my life from the sacrament enlivens my prayer.
At mass I may offer my reception of Holy Communion for the person or intentions I am praying for.
I try to drop in at church and visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament more often during my novena too, even if only for a moment. I can bring all my concerns there to him for healing; setting them at the foot of his alter for him to arrange in divine order. In his Eucharistic presence, my intentions are blessed, and my troubled heart can rest.
Sometimes I plan a series of nine Scripture verses that I think correspond well with my novena, one for each day to reflect on during the day. Bringing God’s Holy Word into my prayer deepens and interconnects the experience. “God’s word is alive.” Also it never returns to God void but always does what he sends it to do. I trust the word to act on my heart and to return to the Lord full.
I usually give up something at least for a day, or for the duration of the novena. This may be something small, like sugar in my coffee, listening to music in the car, or my favorite drink. St. Therese said her greatest weapons were “prayer and sacrifice.” Fasting and prayer are well established practices for us in our faith when we are commending a situation to God.
Right now I am keeping a novena journal. In it I am recording my prayers, thoughts, insights, Scripture passages and events that stand out to me during this time. It seems to be a fruitful and helpful way to pray, reflect, and notice how God is working in my life through my novena. I look forward to reading it through at the end.
Often when we pray a novena, it is because we are suffering in some way. Part of praying a novena meaningfully can be offering our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus, that it may be redemptive for others, especially those for whom we pray. St. Therese once offered her difficult walk across the infirmary when she was very ill, for missionaries.
A novena can be a transforming experience when lived and prayed deeply; both for ourselves and those around us.
I like to give thanks at the end of a novena, for all God has done, is doing, and will do in response to my petition, whether or not it looks like my petition was, “granted.” I know that God will only give me what is right and at the right time.
His love never fails; nor does its power to change everything, anything, anytime.
My youngest daughter begged me to help a friend of hers whose family had no place to live. It was an emergency situation. They had tried everything. Her friend had come to her in tears- a friend who I had only ever seen smile and laugh- a kid I remembered by his radiant smile.
This friend’s mom was an invalid. I didn’t know the details. She wouldn’t be any trouble, my daughter said hastily, between sobs, she wouldn’t be in the way at all, “She just hangs out.” The friend had a brother, too, an older brother. The brother had a job at Taco Bell and could pay us rent. All they needed was a room.
“Please, Mom, please!
“This friend came over later, a fifteen year old guy friend of my daughter’s. We had a guest room since my oldest daughter had moved out not long before.
The boy cried in my daughter’s arms in the front yard, thanking her. He looked at that little room like it was heaven. They only would accept this one room. They had only ever lived together in one room and they would be fine, he said.
No, I could not afford this. No, I am not an extravert who likes people around all the time. No, I didn’t want to do it. I felt absolutely panicked, actually. Neither would this be the first time throughout this family’s long stay with us ( about a year, I think,) that I had anxiety.
However, how could I ever look at Jesus again if I refused?
It turned out the mother of this family was in agonizing pain all the time. She had not walked in over a year. She was in too much pain even to sit in her battered wheelchair. She spent her days lying in bed looking at the ceiling, waiting for her sons to come home from school or work and help her with her physical needs. She could barely raise her arms without terrible pain. Her sons had to do everything for her, even feed her.
The older son worked hard at Taco Bell and went to school. The younger one went to school and mostly took care of his mother.
The mother and younger son joked around a lot. I could hear them laughing often as he cared for her. The older son was very protective of his mom, and also cared for her, doing the cooking and carrying her when needed, though he was of slight build. He was obviously proud to do it. Both boys honored their mom completely, and obeyed her in everything. Their devotion to her was evident.
Sometimes I felt bad for them for the things they had to do as teen-aged boys. They never did understand my alarm at their situation, even though they were often frightened themselves. I can only account for this by the fact that to them, this was just life as they knew it.
The first thing I saw in the mornings when I got up, was the younger son coming down the hall toward the bathroom with his mother’s bed pan. He would always smile and tell me, “Good morning!”
Of course I tried to help out. I asked people, I posted on Face Book (in a way that protected their identities,) I got out of my comfort zone and went out looking for help. Even though I am daunted by authority figures and the world of officialdom, and by having to go places and ask questions, I did all of this. What else could I do? I often thought this family could have done a lot better in the person they ended up with to help them. I did not have much success.
Individuals were often reluctant to get involved, though some offered me some money to help out, or a gave me a gift card for them. My friends brought food by for us. Because sometimes we ran out.One reason we ran out of food was that the boys got their food stamps cut at one point, to $11 a month. Yes, this is the truth. How do you feed two teen-aged boys on $11 a month? You can’t.How can a family of three survive on minimum wage, especially from a job that varies in hours of work offered? They can’t.
A lot of people said, “Oh go to St. So and So, they do that.” I did. They were out of money. In my experience they could not help us. “Go to Such and Such Charities.” I went. All they could offer us was a one time gift of a $50 Wal-mart card. It did help. But then what?
For housing help for them, I encountered a waiting list three years long, and income requirements that put it out of their reach.
Parish Social Justice ministry? Out of money, too.
The food pantry in our neighborhood could not help this family with food because they lived with me, and the rules indicated that my income must be counted as part of theirs, and, in that case, we were disqualified. We hardly ever had enough food during this time. Nothing was working out.
“Lord, I am trying to do what you want me to do, can you make the path more clear!?” …….. and maybe a little easier?
Everywhere I went to get help for this family, there really was not much. I am not putting these wonderful organizations down. Obviously, we should be helping the charities around us more than we do!
When we think of the poor, I think we tend to believe the charities have it covered, but how could they? They can’t do everything, and they don’t. We have to do stuff, too.
I went to the free clinic to try to get medical help for the mother. They could not help us or even see her at all, because they did not have the specialist on board to correspond with her disease, and those were the rules.
The community hospice could not help us with palliative care because her disease was not on their list of terminal illnesses. It was not on the list because, it is a treatable disease, though hers has been untreated so long she will likely die from it, eventually. She will die a slow, agonizing death because of her poverty and because of her status as a non-citizen.
Her sons are citizens, but she is not. They are in constant fear of being separated, of their mother being taken from them, or the brothers being separated somehow if anything happens to their mother while the youngest is a minor. They have been afraid to seek help because of these things. As it turns out, help is hard to find, anyway.
Her pain is what made me really angry. Trying to get help for her frustrated me the most. Sometimes I felt crazy.
My massage therapist friends came and worked on her, bringing essential oils that helped with pain. But that can only go so far on a body twisted and deformed by advanced, unchecked degenerative disease.
The Catholic hospital took her once when the pain was especially bad, and stabilized her. A doctor there gave her a prescription for pain. The other patients and nurses on the floor put together some money between them to pay for her medicine for a while. It was truly touching to us all. But that medicine is long gone, though she usually refused to take it, fearing she would need it more later.
When the enormous hospital bill came, it could not be paid. Also, getting her to the hospital had been so terribly painful, I think now that her illness has progressed more, that it would take an ambulance to get her there. Since it is such a temporary solution, it hardly seems like a good one now.
Oddly, a protective government service showed up to my house to check on her. Seeing it as an opportunity, I tried to ply the visitor for help and information. Getting her help was out of their scope. The social worker was very nice and did offer me a number to an organization that would help pay the hospital bill she already had. It would only be a drop in the bucket, a lot of trouble to get it, and have no effect on her present situation. This did not seem very helpful to me. Sorry, but it didn’t.
Though sometimes the stress of having another family in our house was intense, my daughter and I became very close to this family. The mom could not speak English but somehow we managed to have conversations, sometimes for hours. Sometimes she would let me help her with things, but she usually wouldn’t. She was embarrassed. That’s OK.
All three of them were very quirky, smart, and funny. I have a lot of good memories from that time. I hope they do, too.
The boys had their faults like anyone, so did we, and sometimes we all drove each other crazy. Don’t think we didn’t. Because it was truly difficult sometimes.
My daughter and her friend had their friendship strained to the limit at times.I am happy to say, she and that boy are close friends still.
The family insisted on giving me some rent, and I let them, because I knew it was an issue of dignity, and also I knew that the older son was proud of the way he took care of his family. I was proud of him, too.
When the younger son turned sixteen, he started working too. He would often be very tired, staying up late at night, sitting on the edge of their bed, doing homework in his McDonald’s uniform as his mother looked on or slept.
Both sons made good grades and took advanced classes. Their mother is very strong on education. She wants them to have a better life.
A young couple from one organization became interested in the younger son, and they were the ones who helped him with interview skills and to find a job.They were very kind to him.
One of my sisters-in-law brought audio books in Spanish to help pass the mother’s time, and my friends who spoke Spanish, would come by and talk to her sometimes. That was so kind.
People sometimes gave them helpful things, like a much needed hospital bed.One of my brothers helped the older son get a full time job, and he is doing well at that job, and taking a class or two at the local community college when he can. He doesn’t make much money, but they are able to have their own little low- rent place now, and even get around in their own vehicle, such as it is.
The younger son says it’s hard for him because he feels like he works twenty-four hours a day. He goes to school all day, cares for his mom, goes to work, cares for his mom again, and never has enough time to do all of his homework because he is so exhausted, and he worries about his grades. Sometimes he wants to run away, but he can’t. One time he started to, but he started crying and had to come back and tell his mom all about it.
They are barely, barely making it, but at least they are kind of making it.However, the problem of their mother’s agony remains.
What to do? The pain gets worse and worse all the time. The boys get scared sometimes, and I call my nurse friend. She goes and checks on them, giving them advice, but she can’t do anything about pain medicine. I have asked doctor friends. Nothing has worked out so far.There is “no room at the inn” for her.
“How is your mom today?” “She can hardly move at all. She cries. I cry. It’s really hard.”
She suffers terrible agony with no relief. She is poor. She has no insurance. She has no rights. What is left? What do we do? Dear Reader, what would you do?
God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is His beloved servant never far. ~ St. John of the Cross
* Note: the mother of this family died this Easter. Of a totally treatable disease.
In honor of the month of May being Mary’s special month, here is a list and description of seven of my favorite Marian books. I would love to hear about your own favorites.
I have put these in alphabetical order by author.
1. Gifts of the Visitation by Denise Bossert
In this book we are given a glimpse into Mary’s world; the central place of the Shema in her prayer life, the eighty mile trip Mary (and the author) took across the rugged terrain between Nazareth and Ein Karem, and a greater understanding of why Mary went, and what the visit meant.
The book is organized around the nine gifts of the Visitation. The author not only outlines these, but tells us how to activate them in our own lives. As I read, a vision opened of Our Lady of the Gospel.
In the midst of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church and the profound divisions I meet with every day in the Church and in the world, re-reading this book recently helped me to remember the beauty of our Catholic faith, to have confidence in that beauty, and to remember that Jesus is unstoppable. We have a great and wonderful gift to share in our holy and joyful faith. And we should go in haste as Mary did, with the shining star of the Gospel, which is alive and still unfolding among us as we live it out!
2. The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Catholic Book Publishing Company
This is a prayer book based on the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. It has been through several reforms to help it conform more closely to it, and there are various versions of The Little Office. This one is my favorite because of the modern language and the close relationship it has with the Liturgy of the Hours I pray with every day. You can also find this version online.
The Little Office, still used by some religious orders, runs on a one week cycle rather than th four weeks of the Liturgy of the Hours. Each day has a different Marian theme, such as Immaculate Conception, Mother of the Church, etc.
Along with the usual Psalms, canticles Scripture readings and prayers, a special Marian reading is included for each hour such as a passage from a Church Father, an ancient homily, or a Church document. Though it is usually brief, it is a rich addition.
Most of all, I love the gorgeous Marian antiphons throughout.
The robe you wear is white as spotless snow. Your face is radiant like the sun.
I used to pray the Little Office with my first husband after we consecrated ourselves to Mary. It was a great introduction to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, very beautiful and easy to use. I still pray it often, especially on Marian feast days and in the months of May and October, or any time I think of it.
3. Queen of Angelsby Janice Connell
Oh what is it about this book? The writing seems a little syrupy when I read it aloud to others. However, like the tender words of one’s own mother, reading it privately is balm to my soul.
Especially during difficult times, I tend to carry it around with me in my backpack. It is the kind of book one can pick up, open randomly, read any section, and hear just what one needs at the time. My copy is very dog eared and beat up. Since I tend to give it away and get another copy for myself, it is not even that old.
It is formatted as dialogues between a soul and Mary. The soul asks a question, and Mary answers. There is an ending prayer for each section and a journal entry.
There are Scripture verses and quotes from saints, as well as practical prayer suggestions for developing your relationship with Mary.
Its simple, perhaps at times sugary language mysteriously hits the bullseye for me every time.
I don’t read it aloud to my friends but it surely speaks to my heart.
4. Bogorititza: She who gave birth to God by Servant of God, Catherine Doherty
It would be hard to exaggerate the beauty of Catherine Doherty’s writing; simple, quietly radiant. Catherine was originally from Russia. The “Doherty” is her married name.
The first pages introduce us to her childhood devotion to Mary in her Russian family, how Mary’s icon was a special place in their household, and how Mary’s presence accompanied her everywhere. “Mama Maria” was an important part of her family’s daily life.
Then we learn about Catherine’s suffering during the Russian Revolution and what Mary’s companionship taught her through that experience.
Later she escapes to America as a refugee and began a life of “living the Gospel without compromise.”
Founder of “The Madonna House Apostolate, we see in these glowing pages the meaning of Mary in Catherine’s amazing life of contemplation, service, and community life; the place of Mary’s patronage in the Apostolate, the meaning of Mary to the Church and to the world.
This is a fairly quick but wonderful read full of wisdom and of Mary’s presence in our lives which is like a candle always burning before her icon in our hearts.
5. Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor by Ivone Gebara and Clara Bigemer
This book, written by two Latin American theologians, is scholarly but friendly. It is a look at Mary through the lens of Latin American Liberation Theology. If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, you may enjoy this book as I did.
Though the Church has become much more friendly to Liberation Theology under Pope Francis, I am not going to claim that this book is Orthodox. However, it is a good book, and, I think, presents ideas worth a listen. For some people it could be a very helpful book.
The authors cover Mary’s humanity and ours, Mary in Scripture, Mary in her Church dogmas, in devotion to her in Latin American countrie. We are given a view of Mary from a social justice perspective.
I first read it as a twenty-year-old attracted to the Catholic faith but struggling with what I thought was a clash of values with the Church. This book opened up the world of Catholicism for me and helped me see there might be room for me in the Church after all.
I have included it in this list because of the turning point it represents for me, and because I still think it has a place in the discussion though it may not be the sort of thing you are used to. I would probably not agree with some of it now, but I still love it and think some people could benefit from reading it.
Be ready to think.
6. Hail, Holy Queen by Scott Hahn
This book is so accessible I read it aloud to my kids, who were a teen and a tween at the time. However, they were spiritually precocious enough to be in awe, as I was, at its depths.
Hail, Holy Queen falls into the category of Catholic Apologetics. Even if you are really into apologetics, you will learn new and fascinating things about Mary in the plan of God all through Scripture in ways that will make your jaw drop at the beauty and perfection of our faith.
We were inspired with wonder and awe of God, with the wonderful and varied ways He speaks to us through the Bible, and the unparalleled glory of our Catholic faith.
St. Teresa of Avila said that consultation of the holy and learned is indispensable in the life of prayer. Learning from Scott Hahn is not to be missed.
7. Mary, the Transparency of God by Servant of God Chiara Lubich
This is the kind of book I have to read a little, put it down, think and pray about it, and then take it up again because it is irresistable. I have read this book again and again. Each time it seems deeper to me.
I had never thought of Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement (aka: The Work of Mary) as a mystic. This book taught me more about her (and Mary’s) spiritual outlook.
Chiara begins the book by saying that she thinks it is time to take a fresh look at Mary. She draws a very grounded, very real picture of Mary’s person, her purpose, her soul, her journey, and how each of us reflects Mary’s life in our own. This book is lush, poetic, and beautiful.
There are several new perspectives of Mary in this book, beautifully described. My favorite part might be when Chiara takes a look at St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and sees in the phases of the spiritual life the events of Mary’s life. Then she shows us what she calls “The Way of Mary.” I thought it was brilliant.
Perhaps we can crown Mary in the month of May by deepening our understanding and love for her, and by renewing our relationship with the “Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.