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Christian contemplative life and devotion

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Travel by heart

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…  wholesome, charitable views… cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner …”
~Mark Twain

This is true. However,  one can travel without leaving town.  Consider the borders of social and economic boundaries,  roles we occupy that keep us from knowing one another, our self protective measures in the face of suffering.  To brush aside convention and fear in favor of love and adventure; this is travel by heart. I don’t know about you, but without it, I tend to create my own world and risk losing sight of the Gospel.

The rule of this travel is: Anything that softens your heart is a good thing. Anything that hardens the heart should be avoided. Cultivate a receptive heart to be a well -rounded traveler. Learn to ignore what doesn’t matter to go places no one has ever been before.

Get to know a “Welfare Mom.”

Be friends with an “illegal” human being.

Hold someone who is dying.

Breath deeply of another’s world.  

Sometimes I am still embarrassed, scared or don’t know what to say, but I have tried walking through the doors when I see them,  making a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of human encounter.

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It’s kind of a crazy place.

Once, an elderly lady I was obediently and routinely spoon- feeding,  smiled, picked up her spoon, and started feeding me! We looked at each other and laughed.

Moments like this happen all the time in life. What if you made a habit of paying attention to their opportunities every day? You would be a seasoned back packer through worlds unknown. Maybe you already are.

Sometimes you will not want to make the trip.

Tradition dictated I invite “all” my “friends, neighbors and family” to my house blessing. I thought, “Not the druggie guys next door.” But I did invite them. They looked great, all smiles, clean and dressed up, obviously totally honored to have been invited. That was humbling. Being humbled feels great.

Make the trip.

 I met a young mom who had to scramble to find a house to clean or a lawn to mow to get dinner on the table for her kids at times when her meager supply of food stamps ran out. LeAnn became a good friend. I would have missed knowing a true poet, missed a beautiful friendship, if she and I had maintained the customary boundaries between “helper and helped.” She would have missed me too.

An elderly man I met during my CNA training enchanted me with his serene playfulness, his big blue eyes. We had fun together while I changed his sheets. “I’ve never met anyone like you before!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never met anybody like you either!” I said. “I think I want to marry you!” “I want to marry you too!” We didn’t get married. But we remain good friends years later. Jim is an extraordinary and inspiring person. To think I could have changed the sheets and walked out of his life!

The mother of one of my daughter’s friends, who is very ill, allowed me to do a few, small acts of service for her. Her courage, humor and kindness have inspired me. She has put a human face on the term, “Illegal immigrant,” for me. Coming to know her has taught me that only what God sees matters. Only His will, His law, which is always, love, matters at all.

Early in my care giving job, talking to my boss, Gretchen, suddenly it seemed I was seeing how lovely she is to God. It was magical, a holy moment, a total gift.  Now I know by experience that she really is lovely, and, fortunately for me, she is a world class traveler! She saw past my brokenness, past the employer-employee relationship, to let me try even when it was scary for her to do.  Her trust helped me grow.

A tendency to travel by heart can help you stay close to someone you love very much even when his journey becomes painful and frightening.

I held my husband, Bob, as he died. I went with him as far as I could until he was gone. All I or anyone else there felt was the overpowering presence of Love. As anyone who has done this can tell you, you can experience love and joy even when death comes, if you just let your heart be there. All that is left is love and you’re not scared anymore.

Habitual focus on what is human and real made me able to connect with my mom in new ways and walk with her through her dementia. It sounds crazy but we had a really good time. It was grace.

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Love is its own wisdom, and God Himself IS love. Love covers all the territory. By love, you learn that the universe resides in each human heart, even your own, and that the journey never ends.

That is the kind of trip I love most, because of the peace, transformation, and joy it brings- a trip across borders God does not acknowledge, to that place where the last is first and the first is last and neither even thinks about it because only one thing matters.

So don’t be afraid to cross the borders. Explore, and love. The fence is imaginary and God is on the other side.

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The soul power of chastity through all life’s changes

A good book I am reading* begins by saying that the legend of the long, winding history of the Indian Koohinoor diamond began when Krishna gave it to one of his disciples in response to his meditations. I tried to imagine Jesus giving me a diamond. “Have you ever given me a diamond, Jesus?”

“If so, what was this diamond,” I thought.

I know Jesus has given me everything, grace upon grace. But I was surprised when the first thing that crossed my mind was that he has given me the diamond of chastity, and it is of eternal value, and that it is my consolation now.

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Not too long ago, I ran across a secular video about celibacy. It was odd to watch because I am used to hearing about celibacy in religious terms, and this video’s attitude seemed to be, “Hey, look, people actually do this, and on purpose!” There were about five people presented with their various reasons for being celibate permanently or temporarily. The last person featured was a religious sister, who gave an explanation about Jesus being her spouse, and so her love in service was his love, broad, deep and available.

I thought about my journeys as a wife and mother, then a widowed single mom, and the evolution of chastity’s meaning for me. We are all called to chastity according to our state in life. My state in life has changed in ways that have been confusing. What is my vocation now? I don’t think of myself as a single person, really. Being a widow is different. I am someone who lived and fulfilled marriage vows. However, I am alone. At the same time, I am much aware of a deep spiritual connection with my spouses, so in that way I am not alone. I am forever changed by marriage, in all the best ways, and I feel its beautiful seal on my soul.

After the death of my first husband, Blaze, in a car accident at the age of twenty-eight, I didn’t understand what my life was- I lost that much of myself. I slept fitfully with the light on for years.

It felt imperative to me to understand my vocation, to understand what I was supposed to build on and be. I was still a mother. I still loved my husband. Just because he was dead, I did not stop feeling like his wife. I didn’t even consider dating. I had some very intense little girls to raise, and challenges that were hard to accept were mine.

Over the years my ideas about celibacy evolved as I moved from the chastity of a wife to the chastity of a widow. I was surprised to realize that I felt an expansiveness of love, of my womanhood, of my motherhood, as I developed in this new life I did not ask for, but slowly embraced. When I turned the light off at night, I felt enveloped in love and peace.

“Through the silent watches of the night, bless the Lord.” (Ps. 134:2b)

I wondered, during the quiet mutations happening in my soul, if this was how priests and religious felt- like they were half in love with everyone, like their hearts were available to people, and to God in a special way.

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My marriages were beautiful and life giving. I was a very happy, totally in love, fulfilled wife, both times, in every way. My present choice of celibacy is not a repudiation of married love in the least.

One woman on the video I mentioned said that she had always felt “asexual.” I wondered if she used that word only because she didn’t have the language to describe herself as a sexual being who is celibate in expression. In this present culture it would be hard to find any such language in every day public discourse.

I have come to recognize sexuality as a spiritual energy, so to speak. It is like a power current and a connection, body and soul, to and through God. This was so when I was with each of my husbands, and it is so now. It is just directed differently. The proper direction of the spiritual energy of sexuality is what chastity is.

Eventually I felt very happy and whole in my new life. I missed (and still do miss) my husband every single day. But more and more I felt that he was with me and part of me. I loved him as much as I ever did. And it was OK.

My reasons for remaining celibate were changing. It wasn’t because I was broken in that area anymore, or that I still felt I needed to be faithful to Blaze (though some of that has always remained.)

It was because I felt married to Jesus.

As my girls began to be interested in boys and have their teenaged heart breaks, I would tell them just to let Jesus be their boyfriend for a while. “He’s the best,” I would tell them.

I was so perfectly at peace with this idea, that God is the husband of the widow and the father of the orphan, that it was a very difficult adjustment for me when I felt I was being asked to consider loving Bob, ten years after Blaze’s death. It took a lot of prayer, a few “burning bushes,” and a couple of little miracles to help me see that loving Bob was now my way. I came to understand that Christ and I were going to love Bob together. Slowly this began to make sense, and I was able to let that love happen.

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I was very, very happy as Bob’s wife. I was more happy and unified with him than I can say. He said we were each other’s priests one time and I laughed because that is not so far from the Catholic idea of marriage. Truly, we formed Christ in one another and experienced Him living in our relationship. In an ineffable way, though changed, it seems to me that we still experience that.

Now the diamond of chastity is given to me again in different setting, with a new cut. I didn’t think this would happen again. But I cherish this beautiful gift. It is powerful and affirming.

Truly, it is a wonderful consolation. I am still growing to understand it and let it be a fullness in my life. Widowhood is to live with a bottomless loss. But it is also a very special kind of love, and celibate chastity can be one of its expressions. It is less an expression of emptiness, in time, than a different kind of wholeness. This love, this diamond, is the gift left to me.

I heard that a wife said to her dying husband, “I love you so much, what will I do without you?” He said, “Take the love you have for me and spread it around.” That is beautiful and I identify with it deeply, especially since that is something Bob would have said for sure. I think I have started to do this again now, and I recognize it as a sign of life. As Bob and I loved each other, and that love went out to others, this is what is happening in the relationship I am developing with God, in my life as a widow.

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As a daughter of the Church, I have the richness of Carmelite spirituality to draw on, and other Catholic spiritual traditions, too, that speak of the soul as a bride of God. Ronda Chervin, who has written about the spirituality of widowhood, calls this, “Jesus [as] the second Bridegroom.” * (In my case this would be “third Bridegroom,” of course.)

This understanding of my present form of chastity is profoundly healing for me. I feel filled, enclosed, and loved, carried and protected every day, in spite of my still very present loss. Celibate chastity is a positive, liberating presence in me, peaceful and meaningful.

To me, the virtue of chastity is a beautiful diamond, a true One Love that puts all other loves in their proper perspectives, making them even more vivid. Chastity is a vessel and an expression of love according to my state in life. But it is the same effulgence of brilliancy; a faithful, steadfast and complete love.

The more I learn about it, the more I am dazzled.

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“From His fulness, we have all received, grace flowing upon grace.” John 1:16

* Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan.

* For more on Ronda Chervin http://www.rondachervin.com/

Selah

I was a young widow running through the house kicking toys out of my way, spilling my coffee, responding to a loud crash at the other end of the house. I had been cooking, having invited somebody over for dinner, (what was I thinking,) my toddler was running from the scene of the crime, my five year old was screaming, and my dog ran by with a piece of cornbread in her mouth. “OK,” I said to myself. “OK.”

I stopped. “OK.”

Selah. 

I set my coffee down. I took a breath. I looked outside at the juniper tree by my front porch. I noticed a thin branch trembling from the hesitant hops of a sparrow along it. I closed my eyes, felt the wood of the floor under my feet, breathed a silent prayer.

It was a centering moment.

I let the toddler get away. I hugged the outraged five year old. I attempted to salvage dinner. Life went on; just with a little bit more clarity, renewed meaning, and divine order.

The word Selah appears 71 times in the Psalms, and 3 times in Habakkuk. It often appears between stanzas of the Psalms, as if to tell the reader to pause and reflect. The precise meaning of the word is unknown, though some of the educated guesses are, “Pause,” “Lift up,” “Praise.” It could have been a musical term similar to our “rest” sign. It may have been a direction about how to read the verses, as in where to stop and take a breath.

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In my life, “Selah” has become a practice of putting a pause on exterior and interior clamor and connecting to the Real, to lift up my heart,  my situation, the world for a moment, to praise God by an act of mindfulness of His holy presence.

Eventually, developing this habit can lead to a greater general awareness of God at all times, and a natural continuous turning toward Him, in His outward expression and presence in the created world, and in His indwelling in the human heart.

Selah, as “stop and listen,” helps me deal with overwhelming emotions, fearful thoughts, angry rants I discover raging in my mind, to stop or at least slow the wheel of worries that can spin on its own mysterious power for disconcerting amounts of wasted time. Sometimes Selah is just a quiet moment of gratitude in the middle of a busy or even not so busy day.

The meaning of Selah as “lift up” may have been a reference to the scales used at the time.  An object was weighed by being lifted on a scale against a counter weight. So Selah can also mean to weigh, to evaluate. Selah as “lift up and weigh” helps me place all things in the balance of God, lifting up my mind with all its wild beating of wings against its imaginary cage, when it needs to be set free to fly in Heaven’s peaceful skies, even for a moment. Grace can do that if we let it.

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Even a tiny fraction of a second that we open ourselves to God is enough time for Him to do all that is needed.

An instant of conscious contact with the holy changes us, whether we feel it or not. We invite Him Who is all good, into ourselves, and into the world through us. God can do anything. He isn’t limited by time, that’s us.  We can use time to drive ourselves crazy, or we can use as much time as we can to help God help us, and to open ourselves to be channels for the  outflow of His grace into the world.

Selah as praise helps me accept what is, as where God has me in the moment, whatever is happening, and to step into my inner chapel, to build a little alter, a temple in the day.

During a difficult day, this can even be necessary in order to hold onto the strength that comes from God. I heard a priest at a San Antonio Marian Conference say once that when we adore God, nothing evil can touch us. I never forgot it, because I found it to be true. Adore the Lord in His holy court,says Psalm 29It’s what’s going on in Heaven all the time. We can join in at any moment, and the grace of praise, which Psalm 8 says foils the enemy, is ours, grace that the Scriptures say God inhabits. 

But You are holy, O You that inhabit the praises of Israel. Ps. 22:3

So how do we practice Selah in the ongoing Psalm of our day?

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Selah. Pause. This is simple but not easy. We forget. We get busy, or in a hurry. We freak out. We don’t notice ourselves or what is around us because we are worried or sad, or scared, maybe mad, maybe caught up in the constant wild flow of the negative distractions of the world. Maybe our minds are flying down the rapids of our thoughts and experience, without direction or control.

Sometimes it helps to stop, and notice the sky, to be mindful of the wind, of the sounds around us, of the feeling of the grass or the floor under our feet, the feeling of our own breathing. Getting grounded helps us connect to God. When we stop being carried away by the whirlwind of our worries and busyness, we can dip into an undercurrent of peace. Try stopping and just noticing your environment, tune in to your senses, and then, if you can, go deeper within yourself where it is quiet and God waits for you.

I found myself unconsciously putting up a hand in a one handed prayer pose as a kind of “Selah” in personal sign language. Sometimes coming up with a simple, unobtrusive gesture to myself can really help my state of mind. I still do that hand gesture sometimes without thinking, and it can bring about the inner calm and readjustment of attitude I need without saying anything or particularly thinking any word.

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Selah: Lift up.  Especially when I am feeling overwhelmed, I try to think, “What is going on?” Sometimes something is really bothering me, but I don’t realize it. Prayerfully accounting for my inner state with God often helps me to step out of my anxiety, to get organized inside, gain perspective. I can lift the whole thing, and myself to God and in this way give over to Him any and everything that is a mess, inviting Him into it to arrange it to His will. Sometimes I have to repeat this step. OK, I almost always have to repeat it several times. When I can let go and let God, he sets me on a high rock, so I can see.

Maybe I just want to hug God, for no particular reason. A little Selah can help me stop and do just that.

Prayer is, for me, an outburst from the heart; it is a simple glance darted upwards to Heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and of love in the midst of trial as in the midst of joy! In a word, it is something exalted, supernatural, which dilates the soul and unites it to God.

~ St. Therese, the Little Flower

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Selah: Praise.  It seems to me that it is a praise of God to focus on Him, to be grateful for His beauty and presence, to focus our attention on Him, to love and acknowledge Him. We can praise God by a simple glance in His direction. Sometimes I say, “ The lot marked out for me is my delight because it is You Yourself Who are my prize.” Sometimes it is easier to say than others. Sometimes I don’t say anything. I just place myself in His light and do my best to adore.

A good way to do this is to imagine Jesus with you. Really, this isn’t your imagination because it is the truth. You are just tuning into it.

Or remember that the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, fills the universe, and is Love Itself, always drawing us into the life of the Blessed Trinity. You are a part of that vastness that is filled by the Spirit of God, along with the sky and the sun and the stars and planets beyond them, and every bug, butterfly, and blade of grass or drop of rain on the planet. The Scripture says that all of it praises God.

Let yourself join in the praises of Heaven and Earth just by remembering what you are: a child of God, a little brother, a little sister, of Jesus. All these things are good to think about.

Or think of God speaking to you through your senses. Because He is. Let tuning into your senses quiet your body, your heart and mind, and then step further, inside that quiet, to be with God in your soul.

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity said the name she wanted in Heaven was “Praise of His glory.” St. Paul says in Ephesians 1:12 that this is what we are. Stopping and listening puts us in touch with this. It’s about just being for a moment. It gives us a glimpse of divine perspective.

…that we may be unto the praise of his glory.

Pause. Lift up. Praise.

St. John of the Cross said,  “With what procrastination do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. A stop in the path. This very moment.

Selah.

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Explore your Interior Castle through the prayer of journaling

Long before I heard of my good friend St. Teresa of Avila, and threw myself into Carmelite spirituality, I learned from a beautiful spiritual teacher named Morton T. Kelsey in a book called The Other Side of Silence. If I hadn’t met Kelsey in his books I’m not sure I could have ever taken to the Holy Mother of Carmel’s teachings.

I think St. Teresa may have been guiding me to Kelsey. At that point in my new spiritual life I was still pretty uncomfortable with Jesus. However I was unwillingly drawn to the Catholic Faith to the point I was attending daily mass.  I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I ended up at St. Anthony’s  every day with all these old people who said the prayers really fast. I didn’t even understand anything that was going on and sometimes I was offended.  And sometimes I left. Always I wondered what I was doing there again and told myself I didn’t belong there.

I had learned some practical spirituality about a year before that that was necessary to keep me from going crazy through a difficult time in my life and I believed in God by then. I knew how to pray and ask for what I needed and to say thank you for what I received each day. I knew how to go on long walks and talk to God like a friend.  I knew the Our Father well enough to say when other people were saying it. But I didn’t really understand it very much.

Anything more than that was going to be really hard because first of all I was allergic to Christianity due to bad experiences with Christians.  I was ignorant about the faith plus having been raised in a completely secular household, I had a lot of prejudice about it. And Jesus freaked me out.

I read this book The Other Side of Silence, and also Adventure Inward by Kelsey somewhere around that time. I was twenty years old I think.  I had kept a journal since I was ten. I loved to write.  I had seriously bad ADD. But when I wrote I felt a sense of flow, and focus I didn’t have normally.

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I had heard of “meditation” of course but I didn’t know Christians did anything like that.  I certainly did not know of any type of prayer that was more than what I was doing, and the idea of  “contemplative prayer” was completely unknown to me.

I was most intrigued by the idea that one could pray by journaling and also by the suggestion that God can “talk back,” that I could actually encounter God in a personal way and that He would respond to me.

Kelsey’s suggestions about prayer journaling helped me with some of my problems with Christianity and prayer.  This prayer method turned out to be profoundly healing for me and to be the launching pad for my learning to do what St. Teresa called going within oneself to be with God. Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is within us. The Lord is within us. And I love how Teresa says, “We aught not to leave him there alone.”  I didn’t know it but I had found a way to consciously make my way inward for the first time in my life.

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In this method of prayer I could use my abundant imagination to create an image of Jesus I liked. St. Teresa advises getting a picture of Jesus to look at, “One that you like,” to talk to and facilitate prayer in the beginning. I created a picture in my mind and on the pages of my journal of a Jesus resembling the kind of people my young college student parents had around when I was growing up in the early 70’s: a long- haired hippie guy in jeans and a faded blue button up shirt, a kind face, a big smile, sandals.  I could ask Him anything and He wouldn’t freak out.

He usually brought food and he liked walking on the beach like I did. He laughed easily. He cried easily too.

My imaginary conversations with Jesus often surprised me by their depth and content.  I began to draw wisdom and comfort from reading over these pages when I was upset. Sometimes He said things I didn’t’ like but I knew were true and sometimes I received deep inner healing from these encounters that changed my life.

I became able to study the faith, and study the Scriptures without getting so offended. If I didn’t understand something I was able to pray about it and ask for light and study the reasons behind the Church teaching I was having trouble with or the Bible verse that upset me.  When it came time for me to deal with some traumatic memories from my childhood and adolescence, praying in this way made it possible for me to do the inner work and receive the inner grace necessary to face the damage and to heal.  All I was really doing was using writing as a way to go within myself and encounter the Lord in the “Little Heaven” of my soul.  And I liked that guy. In fact I fell in love with Him and He became the center of my life.

Once I was a Catholic (as of 1990) I had spiritual mentors and priests I knew that I could read these writings to and have them reflect for me about them, helping me keep perspective.  Keeping proper perspective is important if this type of prayer or any other is to be a source of growth in the love of God.

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This prayer has the same danger spots as any other mental or interior prayer form.  One must remember that even the most authentic encounters with Christ are not literal messages to be taken as prophecy or to be put on the level with the Word of God or the Magisterium of the Church.  They are the traces of prayer: usually part us and part God.

Receiving great consolation from God in prayer does not make one a holier person than anyone else.  And we are all capable of fooling  ourselves, of being subtly influenced by evil and by the various forms of pride and selfishness we are infected with in our hearts that can mislead us. We can all become so attached to the experiences the Lord gives us we can hold ourselves back from the Giver because of our fascination with the gifts we receive. It is important in the interior life to have experienced people to share with who can keep us on track in our growth.

Still, the Holy Spirit is at work as the pray-er within and you can trust that if you are earnestly praying and attempting to make contact with God that in His mercy and grace He responds to that intention. Also when we encounter ourselves we encounter God because truly He is in us in a very real way.

This way of prayer also helped me as a single widowed mom of two wonderful but particularly challenging kids. I did not have a lot of time for prayer and solitude. So I created an inner chapel where I could retreat to pray and be with God within myself. At first I would have my journal open on the kitchen counter and I can remember writing in it as I also did dishes or made dinner. Often I didn’t need the journal I just went within myself while I was sweeping or doing something else. Late at night I could be found writing, writing, praying, pouring out my heart, being nourished and strengthened by the Lord within.  I could never have made it through without  having recourse to praying like that.  I filled up many a journal. I think my closet has more journals in it than clothes.

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The way I did this prayer is to just start writing, creating first a landscape or scene that reflected my mood or else was a place I was comforted by. Pretty soon, as I scribbled away about the scene I could see inside myself in a symbolic way, I was quiet inside and focused, and before too long, into the eye of my imagination, would come that long-haired guy in sandals to see me. The interior images and words would begin to flow easily and I have no doubt I was in my Interior Castle developing my relationship with  our “Friend Who we know loves us,” as St. Teresa said.

I used this method of prayer for years. Strangely enough I don’t use it anymore. It just went away about ten years ago or maybe more, as if the pen fell out of my hand. My prayer became much more passive, simple, silent and dark.  I just sit in the cave of my heart, if you will, nowadays, and God is there too.

Sometimes the Lord seems to take away one kind of prayer and lead you another way. We must all be docile to that and trust it as long as it is not really that we are being lazy or flighty. Prayer requires discipline and before we give up a kind of prayer we are committed to we should be discerning about what that’s really about, what our real reason is. It is always tempting to turn our hand from the plough. Sometimes continuing to pray is hard work, or an issue has come up. And we want to quit. Other times it is that God is leading us in a new path. And we should go with that.

Imaginative journaling is a great way to pray and it can be powerful and transformative.  To me it has much in common with the more active types of prayer Teresa suggests for beginners. Though I think she might have been amused by what I was doing, I don’t think she would have had a problem with it.

I found out Morton T. Kelsey died some years ago.  I hope someone told him how helpful he was when he got to Heaven. I hope he and St. Teresa were able to have tea or something and some good discussions.  Maybe she would say, “Thank you for helping my little wayward  daughter to find her heart when she was wandering lost.”  And maybe he would say, “You’re welcome. I’m sure glad you took over trying to teach her anything though. Better you than me!”  And maybe they laugh.  And they toast their tea  cups to wayward little souls that God leads in whatever way He can get them to go to find Him.

If you decide to read Morton T. Kelsey remember he isn’t a Catholic but an Episcopalian priest. Also he talks a lot of Jungian psychology, having found some of Jung’s ideas helpful to his own prayer journey. You can either not read him or take what you like and leave the rest if that sort of thing bothers you.  Adventure Inward is more specifically about prayer journaling. It is also simpler and shorter.

Or you can just sit down with your journal, get quiet inside, and start writing. Maybe you’re walking along the beach, the waves are choppy and the wind is cold. It’s about to storm. You see someone coming to meet you, his long hair peeking out from his rain coat hood, flashlight in hand. “Hey come on, I made breakfast!”   He slips his arm around you and you’re off on an adventure inward with the best Friend possible, the Lord within.

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* The teachings and quotes mentioned of St. Teresa of Avila’s can be found most easily in her book The Way of Perfection.

Say, “This is the time for my soul.”

When your heart says to God, “you have cut off my life

like a weaver severs the last thread, “

when you’re alone in the desert on a cold night

with no fire,

and you’ve never known such emptiness

or alienation

and you say in your alarm, “no man can can be trusted!”

When your life is born away from you

like a tent struck down

and you feel you have nothing left to give,

that you are broken to the core

and you cannot imagine your restoration,

when even the sunrise seems cold and heartless

and you think, ” there is no love in my heart at all!”

know that all you ever had came from God.

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Don’t be afraid anymore.

Say to yourself in the cave of your heart,

“this is the time for my soul.”

God is closer than ever before.

Your restoration is in the depths of his will

and in time to come,

the love in your heart will be renewed

and be all his.

You have nothing to give, so wait to receive

in his time.

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Be patient in suffering.

Persevere in prayer.

Trust in not knowing

even who you are anymore,

except that you are his.

Be little, be weak, sit quietly in the shadow of death

and say to your empty heart, “this is the time for my soul.”

Allow this darkness of unknowing.

“Let it be done to me according to thy word,” she said,

even at the cross,

and on that desolate Holy Saturday

when she sat in darkness deeper than any she had ever known could be.

She suffered unspeakably.

Still she trusted, remaining present in the very bleakness of her heart.

the-madonna-in-sorrow

 

So you, her child, alone in your desert,

you desolate of heart,

when you say to yourself, “my one companion is darkness, “

say, “This is the time for my soul.”

A time of grace.

Your light will come

As God defines it.

And that joy no one shall take from you.

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The Prayer of dreams; being attentive to the Dreamer within

“I was asleep but my heart was awake. A voice! My beloved was knocking: ‘Open to me!” (Song of Songs 5:2a)

Have you ever had a dream that seemed to be from God, one that helped you understand something about yourself, reassured you He was there, or helped you know His will for you?

Maybe you have had a redirecting sort of dream, or one that changed your life. Many people have had dreams  in which they seemed to talk to someone they loved who had died, or , more rarely, a dream about something that was about to happen. It seems that dreams open a door in us that is most often closed.

There are psychological interpretations of dreams, and scientific explanations of dreaming. According to the Scriptures, some dreams can be very important indeed, and are one way God speaks to the human soul.

Dreams are part of the stories of  St. Therese, St. Faustina, St. Monica, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Perpetua and others.  Dreams were an important part of the journeys of several Biblical people, too, like Daniel and Joseph in the Old Testament, and, of course, in the life of St. Joseph, husband of Mary. The three Wise men were also directed by a dreams. Dreams are potentially powerful parts of our own spiritual lives.

Attention to dreams can be a fruitful spiritual practice. Dreams have been powerful messages to me during times I couldn’t understand myself, or what God was doing in my life.  Many dreams have been healing to me, or reassured me of God’s love and presence. Some dreams I have never forgotten though I had them years and years ago, because they were so important to me.

Dreams most often speak in symbols, which is how God tends to speak to humanity. The Church, the Liturgy, the Scriptures, are all overflowing with truths expressed in symbol and metaphor, or in imagery laden language that is closer to poetry and parable than linear narrative or stark information. Dreams have their own precision and logic that is on a different level altogether. Dreams seem to put us in touch with the mysterious reality that Heaven inhabits the human soul and  speaks to her in its’ own preferred language, which is, after all, the soul’s own native tongue.

Sometimes dreams seem to come from that same place of meeting between the earthly and the spiritual as a holy vision would come. A dream can be a door to the timeless, a bridge to the sacred, a mirror of spiritual truth in our lives.

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The late  Episcopalian priest, author and counselor,  Morton T. Kelsey, suggested that there is a “dreamer within,” and that the “Dreamer Within, is none other than the Holy Spirit,” who prays within us, teaches, consoles, inspires, and guides us.

Father Kelsey went so far as to say that when he was working with someone who was having trouble believing in God, his first suggestion was that they  start writing down dreams every day. He said that practice usually helped change a person’s perspective within a few weeks.

There is something uncanny going on, a wisdom being expressed that is beyond our own. One tends to notice that when reading over a series of recorded dreams.

I think it’s less important to “decode” dreams or try to “figure them out” as much as it is important to experience them as a soul who seeks God in all things. We could value our dreams and treat them as potentially valid spiritual experiences meant to help us on our way. To do this we  need to remember them, record them, and pray them.

 

How to Remember Your Dreams:

Be open to remembering them, want to remember them.

• Keep a pen, a notebook, or your journal beside your bed expectantly. You are more likely to remember dreams this way.

• Be disciplined and write them down while they are still fresh in your mind when you first wake up. Write them down just as you remember them as soon as you can.

How to Practice the Prayer of Dreams:

• If you have had a dream that felt important to you,  a troubling dream,  or a puzzling dream, make time to revisit the dream in prayer.

Try to replay the dream, perhaps as you write reflectively, in your journal.

• Recreate the scene of the dream. Step into it in your imagination, only this time with an awareness of Jesus at your side.

• Let Jesus show you what He wants you to see. Often doing this is transformative of the dream and even of the person who dreamed it!

  • One of my favorite things to do when I go over a dream prayerfully, is to look for Jesus in the dream. He often has a hidden role among the characters of each dream. When you go through a dream and recognize Him, it can be very meaningful and often it is a surprise. In a dream that was originally upsetting, Jesus turned out to be a crane operator showing me how to operate a crane. The meaning seemed to be that He shared my sorrow and could show me how to carry it with His help.
  • Sometimes God has more to tell us about a dream. We just have to invite Him to tell us what He wants to about it.

• Respond to God about the dream in prayer. You might write this prayer in your journal if you like to pray that way.

• Make good use in your life of any insights that apply.

  • You may want to go back and read the dream sometime when you need it to remember that God is constantly working in your soul, and this will strengthen you again.I think most dreams have to do with the part of the Interior Castle that St. Teresa of Avila calls, “The Room of Self Knowledge,” and are the Holy Spirit helping us know ourselves better.There are also dreams that are obviously an experience of the Lord or an angel or a saint, or a visit from someone you love, who has died. It’s easy to see these dreams as powerful gifts from God, messages of love and reassurance of His presence.

    Dreams can guide us and point us in the right direction in our lives, or help us grow in trust that God is within us always.

    Some dreams seem made to be puzzled and prayed over. Those can be just as life changing as the more numinous kind, and the process of unraveling them seems to be good for us, and our relationship of trust with God. When I have had a puzzling dream, often the Scripture readings at mass will seem to open its’ meaning for me or reinforce its message, or something will happen, or someone will say something that makes clear what God is trying to show me in a dream I have wondered about. So if you’re puzzling over a dream, keep paying attention to what God may be trying to get you to hear in your life. If He is telling you something, He will keep saying it in as many ways as you might hear.

    Usually the meaning of the dream, according to psychologist, Beth Row, is the meaning that makes sense to the dreamer, the meaning that “clicks.” You are the one God gave the dream to and you will know when you have understood, even though wise people,  books and other dream guides can be helpful.

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    When we write dreams out and pray them, they become a more conscious form of contact with God, and can be helpful for us in our spiritual lives. I sometimes get the impression that the Lord enjoys puzzling over a dream with me, and is glad I came to seek its meaning from Him and show Him I value His communications  in the dreams He sends to me.

    It seems to me the Prayer of Dreams is one way we can say, in our sleep, as at any other time, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

    Dream on, Christian soul.

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A Christmas meditation

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Mary

Warm, soft, vulnerable and alive, this sleeping One in my lap. I caress the tiny forearm, touch the curled, unsure hands. I can’t stop kissing his fast-beating heart, listening to his unpracticed, uneven breath. I touch his soft, dark, baby hair, nuzzling the top of his head with my nose. His little feet, slightly cold- so tiny and perfect- have never yet touched the ground. I hold them in my hands to warm them. I kiss their satiny soles. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” my heart in wonder repeats, repeats. I press him to me, this Lord of mine, with a profound, peaceful, joyful gratitude and love, a protective love. He opens his eyes, still that deep slate gray of the newly arrived human. They hold the newborn’s sage, open gaze; mildly curious, seeming to drink in the powerful love pouring out of the utterly enchanted person looking back at them. He blinks innocently at the tears falling from my eyes into his.

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Jesus in His Sacred Humanity

I am cold, my arms flailing awkwardly and out of my control. I’m confused. I don’t know what’s happening. I need comfort, warmth, nourishment. And then I am warm, pressed soothingly all around. A deep, sweet peace flows into my mouth and through my body as my unruly hands tangle in her hair; Mama, Mama. The only thing I know is this love, this union, this protection and assurance. I relax completely.

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TheBlessed Trinity

I am that I am, Being, Love, Light and Life. I surround my Son, inhabit my Son, I am within my Son, I love my Son, I am my Son.

I have remained what I have been and will be eternally, and I have become what I was not. In my love of humanity, I have finally become fully human, entering the world of time and space in the most profound and humble way. So great is my love, I have been conceived and born into this human cloud of unknowing, emptying Myself, taking the form of a slave, in order to free and divinize my beloved humanity, made of dust, that they might share my Divine Life.

Vulnerable, human, innocent and unknowing, be, oh Christian soul. I have shown you the way to Me: this little Child, this Way, this Truth, this Life, full of humility and trust, gentle, humble, simple, with the need, the open-ness of the newborn. Come to Me, forgetting everything but Love Itself, and be born again. Be little, be free, be loved. Never be afraid, it is I, the Little One, asking for your love.

Answer Me, say from the heart:

Truly, I have set my soul 

In silence and in peace

As the Divine Child has rest in His mother’s arms,

Even so, my soul.

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Sunrise: through the dark faith of Advent to the brightness of Christmas

Traveling through Advent with grief this year has led to me to soul search about what Christmas is, and, in the process, to notice similarities between the journey of Advent into Christmas and the stages of the soul’s progression into the heart of God.  According to Carmelite spirituality,  the soul first travels through and away from outward distractions, into inward beauty, then into the deep pain of the dark night when even these lovely interior gifts are removed and the soul’s perception of them and consequently, of God, is radically changed. This happens so that the true nature of God can be apprehended by naked faith and purified love. In this way, the soul is prepared for union with God, and begins to radiate peace and love through His indwelling presence.

Throughout this journey, the soul finds that the things around God, even things that point to or reflect God, are not God Himself. The soul has to learn to relate to all these other things in a whole new way that has to do with loving God as He is in Himself. This is something which God will begin mysteriously to teach the willing and loving soul, who responds to God, in and through this suffering, with more and more surrender and determination. God will transform that soul, making it able to receive God in pure faith, hope and love.

In a similar way, the journey through Advent prepares us for the very real grace of Christmas, which is beyond all of the outward and even inward trappings that surround Christmas itself. We journey through all these things to the heart of Christmas, and thereby receive its true grace.

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Advent is full of things that are good and point the way to Christmas, but they are not Christmas itself. I can be distracted by the outward show of the season; the lights, the gifts, the traditions, the social interactions. These outward things can be good, used to serve others and remind us of the birth of Jesus. But they are not Christmas itself.

Even the people in our lives, whom we love and enjoy, and/or who cause us a lot of stress at this time of year one way or the other; they point the way to Christmas because they are our school of love, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, and communion. They reflect the love of God to us. But people and relationships are not actually Christmas itself.

The events we plan with our families and friends, as good (or as stressful) as they can be, are not Christmas either.

Our feelings, memories and thoughts, so intensified (sometimes painfully, sometimes happily) during this time of the year, are part of our journey. Our expectations, our longing for unity, joy, peace, justice and beauty, are all from God and are holy. They point us to the meaning of the Nativity, and to the joys of Heaven. But even these are not Christmas itself.

Sometimes I am happy about shared love and memories with family and friends. Sometimes I am keenly aware that I am in deep mourning. Some years I have truly felt that I have known Christmas joy. Other years I did not feel it. But it is still Christmas, whatever I think or feel.

Cultural expressions of the season, social events, our relationships,  and even our inmost feelings, all these things, painful or joyful as these may be, are not Christmas. These are things that surround Christmas, that reflect its light.

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What is Christmas? Is it just a remembering of the birth of Jesus? I think it is that, but what else is it?

Does something actually happen at Christmas?

I think Christmas is a remembering by us, the Church, that makes present and re-presents an eternal reality. With this remembering, I believe, Heaven cooperates whole heartedly.

I believe that at Christmas, by a special grace, there is a sunrise that bathes every face, a release of extra love and light coming through the heart of the Church, Christ’s Body, that shines on everyone.

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The Church prays for it: “Grant….that the the coming solemnity of [the Nativity of ] your Son may bestow healing upon us in this present life.” ~ from the Liturgy of the Hours Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Jesus has come into the world and continues to be with us.

Christmas is true no matter what happens with events outside or inside myself, or how I perceive them.

Christmas is real, and that sunrise is there.  It’s coming.

The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

-The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

To give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory that appears on the face of Christ.

-He has shown in our hearts.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.~Responsory from Morning Prayer from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours, Feast of St. John of the Cross.

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  • I originally wrote this piece in Advent of 2015

Christmas Shopping with Jesus

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“When Black Friday comes,
I’m gonna dig myself a hole,
I’m gonna lay down in it ‘till I satisfy my soul.”
-Steely Dan

The Advent Season is at the same time as the Shopping Season. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish, when December comes, that I could spend my Advent and Christmas as a hermit  instead.

I would probably miss my brother though.

I told Jesus how much this time of year stresses me out.

There is so much to do and the whole soundtrack of Advent is Christmas music when it isn’t Christmas. They play and play those Christmas songs everywhere you go, and by the time Christmas comes I don’t even want to hear Joy to the World  ever again.

I hate shopping, even on line.

I am prone to mall nausea.

Jesus listened in silence. He is good at that.

He has been helping me pack, since I am in the middle of moving.

“Can’t we just trick all the stores by moving Christmas to some other time?”

He sat back on his heels, smiling at me. “Let’s go shopping.”

“What, right now?”

But he was already putting on his shoes. Which means I had to put on mine, too.

He wanted to go to Wal-mart. I hate that place. But I drove him there.

There was a lot of traffic, and some people were not driving in their right minds. I growled at them, but I said, “God bless you, have a nice day,” because what else can you say with that guy around?

When we arrived, he wanted to sit in the parking lot and hold my hand for a while.

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So we held hands sitting in the car.  I looked at him sometimes, and sometimes I watched the people going by. So many of them were smiling, though many seemed pre-occupied. People handed each other carts, stepped aside for the elderly, grinned conspiratorially at the children, many of whom were skipping or jumping up and down. Parents looked at each other over their children’s heads and laughed.

I thought about how even in the midst of the over commercialization of the season, it is true that people seem to treat each other with a little more kindness. Maybe there is something to the magic of the season after all. It’s Jesus coming out in people at his special time of year.

Jesus said his mom always took him shopping when she went, that he loved going with her.

I thought about that.

We always think of Mary’s pregnancy during Advent. She was filled with Jesus. She took him everywhere. From what Elizabeth said at the Visitation, his presence could be felt in her. I imagined Mary, very big and pregnant, doing the shopping, smiling, knowing.

Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let’s go.”

At the front doors, he made sure I donated to the Salvation Army, and reminded me to thank the bell ringer for being out there.

He drew me into conversation with some little boys who were raising money for their team, prompting me to ask questions that seemed to please them.

We walked through the tinseled Wal-Mart, noticing people and blessing them. He pointed out to me the ones who were tired or worried or sad, and had me pray for them. He showed me examples of people being kind to one another across the usual social boundaries we rarely think about and seldom disregard. I began to kind of almost like Wal-mart.

I bought some dog food and we silently blessed all the people in the check out line; especially the young mother with the crying baby and  fussy toddler, the cashier who looked as if she had worked a double, and the old man who counted his change out so slowly and then did it again.

I felt happy.

But then Jesus said that the mall was next.

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Bother.

Yep, there was that Christmas music. He smiled, I noticed. He said he likes Christmas music all the time.

It was crowded in the mall and I was almost instantly over stimulated. He patted me on the back.

He thought I should try smiling from the heart at everyone I saw.

This simple exercise had an amazing curative effect on my nerves.

I started seeing possible gifts my daughters might like a lot. I even started to feel a little excited. I walked a little faster. I thought how easy to please both my daughters are, and how much I love them.

As we made our way through the mall, Jesus reminded me to say a kind word to everyone I interacted with, even to go out of my way to compliment people. I was surprised how much this little effort brightened people’s faces, and mine, too.

He wanted to go into a store that looked really glitzy to me. I dislike places like that. They make me feel ridiculous.

Sure enough when we stepped across the threshold, I noticed the hole in the toe of my shoe, became conscious of the eccentric bent and general sloppiness of my clothes, the fact that I have not worn make up in years.

Looking at all those expensive beauty products on mirrored surfaces, all those swanky clothes, the fashion show music, the fast pace, being surrounded by the fashionable and well dressed, made me unusually self conscious. Then I was annoyed at myself for caring.

Jesus pinched me. Because in my self absorption, I had not noticed a teenaged girl whose bag had come open on the bottom. Her items fell and rolled across the slick, polished aisle and under clothes racks, scattering hopelessly. People stepped over her things, or avoided her or stared at her, but nobody was helping her and she was embarrassed, as teens tend to be.

I helped her find everything, even getting on my hands and knees and crawling under hanging coats, smiling because it reminded me of hiding from my mom in stores as a kid.

All her things restored to her, and a new bag procured, the embarrassed teen was on her way, hopefully feeling a little better, and thinking of what was for dinner.

On our way out, Jesus and I passed one of those triple mirrors that help you see your new outfit from every angle. As I walked by, I saw an unexpected flash of color and retraced my last two steps. I saw myself in a golden dress with bracelets on my arms, rings on my fingers, and gold sandals on my feet, a small crown on my head. I laughed as the vision faded, and the voice in my ear said, “This is how you look, to ME.” I closed my eyes in sheer joy.

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When I opened my eyes, he had slipped away.  He must have gone to help someone else so I got into the car alone, knowing he had his own ride home.

At a very busy intersection I saw him standing on a corner holding one of those signs saying that he was hungry, and would someone please help.

I hate when he stands on a corner where I can’t get to him unless I go to the next exit and turn around and almost get in a wreck trying to help him. But I did it anyway. I even gave him a hug along with the money. He patted me and said, “God bless you.”

Back in my car, I turned on the radio. Matt Maher was singing “Alive Again” and it made me cry a little bit.

“You called and You shouted
Broke through my deafness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again

You shattered my darkness
Washed away my blindness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again”

I understand. The spirit of Advent, Lord, is in listening to you, noticing you, and spending time with you in the ways you lead me to, loving in all the ways the world around me offers… even in shopping and going to Wal-Mart and the mall.

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  • I originally wrote this in 2014. It appeared on ATX Catholic and also in my newspaper column at Bryan Eagle.  🙂

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