Search

Bethany Hang Out

Catholic contemplative life and devotion

Category

Jesus

What do nuns do for Christmas?

This Advent, I have asked the Friars, Priests and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries.

I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.

I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.

Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.

Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.

I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.

Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.

man in thobe standing on gray concrete pavement
Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.

Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.

On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.

branches cold conifers environment
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:

“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.

Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.

In the afternoon we have some rest time. The evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.

~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.

My friend, Fr. John, S.J., said most of the other Jesuits go home to their families of origin for the holidays during the break at the University where he teaches, though those that remain behind have a special mass and dinner. He thought I should write about something else. My life sounds more entertaining to him.

The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.

On Christmas Eve morning we pray Lauds and then chant (Gregorian) the hour of Prime, in which the Martyrology is also formally chanted by one of the Sisters. On Christmas Eve we are announcing and proclaiming the Birth of our Savior, so the chant is very solemn and beautiful. We have copied it here below for you to read what is sung in Latin. When the Sister pronounces the words that speak of God becoming Incarnate for us, we all kneel and then prostrate with our faces to the floor in adoration. It is a moving and inspiring moment…

In the 1599th year from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. The 2957th year after the flood. The 2015th year from the birth of Abraham. The 1510th year from Moses and the going forth from Egypt of the people of Israel. In the 1032nd year from the anointing of King David. The 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the 194th Olympiad. The 752nd year from the foundation of the City of Rome. In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavius Augustus, all the world being at peace, Jesus Christ the Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah made man of the Virgin Mary. – Sisters of Carmel

My friend, Fr. Gregory, OCD, said his community is very busy at Christmas with the parish and the staff. Though they spend a lot of time in prayer, it sounded to me that their obligations are almost as heavy as those of lay people at that time of year. They did have a lovely Christmas together this year, though, even with the stress of their current building project.

“In this house all must be friends, all must be loved,
all must be held dear,
all must be helped.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

It sounded as if religious communities are just a different type of family, with similar joys and difficulties. Sometimes Christmas makes things that are going wrong stand out more to us, and the longing for a better unity is drawn out in every heart as we ache for Jesus to come among us, to be born in our midst again. Our families feel that deeply at times, and so do theirs. I wonder if our lay families can find more ways to support those in consecrated life, especially since they give so very much to us?

After hearing some of the difficulties they had, a friend of mine paid for a dinner so a small community of Friars could have a special meal together Christmas Eve. I sent a book of poetry by Hafiz to another religious priest I care about. Who can be lonely with great poetry?

Let’s remember and bless these human beings who have given themselves to God for the good of the Church and the world. We can pray for them, thank them, be grateful for them, but we could also learn more about them, deepen our appreciation of their contributions, get to know some of them, let them inspire our own family lives, and find out how we can support them as they support us.

red poinsettia flowers in close up photography
Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

Special thanks to the priests and religious who let me hear about their family Christmases.

Here are some links of interest to learn more about our friends in Consecrated Life

Imagine Sisters Movement

The different forms of consecrated life

Carmelite Friars

Unity and love: the spirit of Focolare

In a bomb shelter in the Italian town of Trent in 1943, a group of young girls talked about how their hopes dreams were being crushed by World War II. Their town was relentlessly bombed. Families who could were leaving as the town literally fell apart. Those left behind were suddenly living in poverty and ruin. It seemed so hopeless.

Is there anything that no bomb can destroy? An ideal that transcends all? Something to truly live for? The answer that came was, “God.”

During the time in the bomb shelter, they opened the Gospel and read. The words of Jesus came alive for them like never before. They seemed immediate. They began to take a verse or phrase each day and try to live it concretely.

They began to care for and love those around them regardless of race, religion, politics or anything at all; to love them in a personal way and take care of them as Mary had cared for Jesus. They discovered more and more a spirituality of unity and love. Such was their light and joy that more and more people joined them. Eventually they became a new spiritual family in the Church: The Focolare Movement, an International Association of the Faithful of Pontifical Right, blessed and encouraged by St. John Paul II who was very excited about them and their promotion of the ideals of unity, love, and universal brotherhood.

The official name is actually “The Work of Mary.” They are to bring Jesus to everyone, as Mary did.

Focolare means, “Hearth,” in Italian and that makes sense because they have become true peace makers through their work, their spirit and their inclusiveness. They are a spiritual hearth, nourishing and welcoming the whole world.

Focolare operates in 180 countries now with 140,440 members. When I see what Focolare is, it gives me so much hope for the Church. “This is where we’re going now,” I think. And that makes me smile.

While Focolare is a Catholic organization, it welcomes people of other Christian traditions, people of other religions, people of no particular religion and atheists. As local Focolare member, Julia Mendonca Motekaitis says, “Anyone who wants to be one with the mission of love is welcome!”

Julia says being part of Focolare has given her a “deep sense of the universality of the faith.” She says, “This is one aspect of the Church I can really see that it is moving forward.”

What does it mean to live as a member of the Focolare? Julia says it has given her the tools to interact in society as a Christian, not to be timid, and also not to judge or move away from people who are difficult.

She talks about the ideal of unity in daily life. “You can be one with anyone at any moment. In any interaction with another person we can make Jesus real so they can see him!”

It’s not always easy. She has had to work through judgmentalism and prejudice she didn’t realize she had in order to love and encounter Jesus in others. “We have to see people with new vision, new eyes.”

Focolare was brought to Bryan-College Station by a Focolare priest (now a Bishop) Michael Mulvey, and is still going strong. At monthly meetings, a portion of the Gospel is read. Members talk about their failures and successes in trying to live it out. They support and encourage one another. Julia says the real goal is what happens between meetings, which is to love God by loving others, to be one with others “in all things but sin.” She says the spirituality and ideals of Focolare have given her the courage and resolve to live the Gospel.

woman stands on mountain over field under cloudy sky at sunrise
Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Rose Schmitz, who has been part of Focolare for 24 years, described her faith life before Focolare as very satisfactory. She was very happy to be active and involved in the life of the Church. It was as if she was working for “The best boss in the whole world and I loved Him with my whole heart. I knew I was in the right building. But I felt like I was on the bottom floor and this boss was mostly on the top floor. I didn’t get to see him very much. It was as if I only saw the boss in passing on the elevator or something. In Focolare I realized he was in the other person all along. I thought, ‘Oh! That’s you!” Now she feels like she has coffee with the boss every day and he is always with her. She feels freed and more able to love as she has grown in Focolare spirituality.

I asked Rose how she thought we could heal the divisions of our time. She said that when there is a division, to remember that we are dealing with a human person. “People come first before things. People come first before ideas. Peace is more important than being right. ” Once you have prioritized seeing the other person as a human being first, “You can then enter into the division seeking to understand more than to be understood. The goal is not to change the other person, only to understand.” You will come away perhaps not as a winner, “but you will come away enlightened.”

In this way, I reflected, one would also feel more whole and so would the other person. Maybe that is what unity can be.

The Focolare ideal, I am told, is to love until love is returned. In that process of learning to love one another, each person begins to empty themselves. When that happens, the presence of Jesus becomes more clear. “He will begin to speak,” Rose says. “He will begin to solve problems, to bring about the unity he prayed for.”

Matt and Jari Whitacre, also long time Focolarine, talked to me about the annual “Mariopolis” most members try to attend regularly. People bring their whole families. The retreats are usually held on college campuses, and attendants stay in dorms. Their are different events for children of all ages, as well as discussions and talks for adults. There are shared meals and a games night for everyone. The only rule of the retreat is to love one another. Priests, Bishops, the consecrated, lay single and married people attend. Relationships are humble and egalitarian. Adoration is available as well as Reconciliation and daily mass. Jari notes that non-Catholics usually attend daily mass with everyone else even though this is not asked of them. There are times also that all can pray together as one.

All the Focolare family I spoke to talked about how loved and cared for they felt at the Mariopolis. Jari told a story about having a child come down sick and having to take her back to their room. People kept bringing Jari books to read, checking on her, bringing food, offering to help with the other children. There was an attendee who was a doctor who come by and asked if there was anything he could do.

Around the world there are permanent Focolare towns to show that people of all cultures, races and religions can live together in unity and love.

Over the years I have been to several Catholic conferences where there were tables around manned by people from various movements and ministries. I will say, “Oh there are the Focolare people,” pointing them out. And I am always right. There is something about them that is recognizable.

The founder, Chiara Lubich, asked why she didn’t wear a habit, replied, “I have no habit. My habit is my smile.”

Maybe that’s it; it’s that special Focolare smile, joyful and authentic. I consider it a sure sign of the Holy Spirit.

flight pigeon twig
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Visit https://www.focolare.org/ to find out more.

While you were out: my brother part xyz

X

In my dream I am swimming in dark water. As I descend into depths unknown, I can tell there are other people watching from farther away, as if they line the walls of an underground cistern with different rooms and levels, filled with water completely, water unfathomable.

I dive into an area further down than the others. It seems like a dark aquarium but without light on either side of the glass. However I can still somehow see a box on the bottom. I open it. It is full of pictures, letters, keepsakes. In the dream I know what these things mean and I am filled with intense sorrow. My brother is at my shoulder now. A more terrible emotional pain than I have ever known fills me. I try to show my brother the things in the box and explain the significance and the pain but he can’t answer me. He only looks on. I am not sure he understands me.


freediver ascending from the depths
Photo by Gilbert Cayamo on Pexels.com

Y

I am distressed. “Why did you bring him?”

The Lord is silent, his expression inscrutable. I look at my brother who is standing at his elbow; “I can’t deal with talking to you!”

Mark’s hand had been coming out to me and he had started to say my name.

“OK OK! So I can’t fix everything at once!” he says.

He turns as if to leave but I have to ask, “Wait! … Have you seen Mom?”

“No,” he says to my surprise. “But I can feel Mom.”

I think about that. “Are you with God?”

“I’m …learning about God.” Another surprise.

“Well… where are you?”

“I don’t know. It’s just quiet here.”

I think of of the land of the Samaritans, of Jacob’s well, and the mountain in the distance where the people worshiped God whom they did not really know (see John 4:4–26.)

“Do you see anybody?”

Just Bob.* He isn’t always here but he comes to see me sometimes and we talk.

“OK.”

]

bird s eye photography of mountain
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Z

I am circling over the top of the hotel where my brother shot himself and fell from a balcony on the ninth floor.

Then I realize I am standing on the balcony next to my brother. Intense grief wells up in me.

“Didn’t you remember us? Didn’t you understand how much we loved you?”

He doesn’t look at me or speak but I feel that I am him and in my mind’s eye I see our family and all of our friends. But they are so far away as if they are across an infinite chasm.

“I saw every one of your faces.” I feel his longing and love for each one dear to him. I understood that the longing was more like a longing for the past though. To him there was no way back. I feel his overwhelming sorrow.

I understand that while to me there was a way back, to him there wasn’t.

I can’t feel the impact of the shot. I don’t hear it.

But then I experience him falling. It’s slow, very slow. He knows right away after the shot that this was all wrong, a terrible, horrible mistake.

As he falls he senses these beings all around him, present in different places all of the way down; some close, some witnessing from farther away. He realizes they are sad, so sad. He knows they are sorry for him and that they mourn over this terrible act he has just committed. They are gentle though, not angry. Just terribly terribly sad.

He wonders what they are. He thinks his sister would probably call them angels, but he isn’t sure.

What happens now?

The fall continues in slow motion.

Suddenly he’s caught. It all stops. Big strong arms squeeze him tight.

“It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s all over. You’re safe. I’m here. Come on with me a while.”

It’s Bob.

Breaking the fall.

jumping plane military training
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

*Bob was my brother’s best friend, colleague, mentor and soul brother for 24 years. He was also his brother-in-law. Bob died in my and my brother’s arms in April of 2012.

stainless steel close wrench on spanner
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

From midwifery to hospice: Andrea’s spirituality of service

Twenty-one years ago, my youngest daughter, Roise, (pronounced “Rose,”) was born at home, at sunrise. My dear friend, a nurse and midwife, Andrea, put her on my stomach. My baby looked up at me with frightened eyes, and said “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

As her dad, who was in our bed holding me, sobbed with joy, I said to my child, “It’s OK! I’m your Mama!” I nursed her for the first time, and my husband, Blaze, gave her her first bath in our kitchen sink, after my sister in law, Shawna, had cut her umbilical cord. All the women in the family were in the bedroom with us when Roise was born; my step mom, my daughter, Maire, who had run in at the right moment, and my mom, holding Maire in her arms. 

 After everything was all cleaned up and Roise Mariah was pronounced robustly healthy, everyone left with a happy glow. Maire and Blaze climbed into bed with Roise and me and we had a long family nap. It was beautiful.

person holding baby s hand
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I’m having coffee with my friend, Andrea, mid-wife and Hospice nurse. She’s talking about work and spirituality. People often ask her how she can do what she does, especially the Hospice work. But she says that, aside from being tired sometimes, and worried about her own problems when she’s on her way to work, there’s nothing negative about what she does. She forgets everything else in the presence of a laboring woman or a dying person. “It’s like a window to Heaven!”

More often than not, dying people she comes into contact with are in a state of peace as they near the end of their earthly lives, and they commonly seem to be seeing and talking to people in the room that nobody else can see, most often, people they love who have died.

My mother looked up in wonder, not having really spoken for months at the end of her illness. “What are you all doing here? Are you going to take me with you?”

The deaths Andrea has been able to be present for were powerful spiritual experiences for her. The houses of the dying are filled with God’s presence, and she prays deeply when she is working with a patient and his or her family.

She is more grounded and profoundly present than at any other time in her life, she reflects, when she is working.

Sometimes, as she goes about her own daily business, she thinks, “Wow, I really did that.”

The morning my second husband, Bob, had died, Andrea had the beautiful idea of inviting our close women friends to come and wash and anoint his body. She thought of it because in the Bible, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial with bathing, oils and spices.

Our friend, Amy, had a set of Biblical essential oils, such as frankinsence, myrrh, myrtle, spikenard, etc.

Andrea, with solemn tenderness, guided us through an improvised ritual; with Bob’s body modestly draped, we washed him reverently, and anointed him with fragrant oils.

We cried and we prayed.

She guided family and friends in prayer and asked each of us if we had anything we wanted to say as we waited for the funeral home, and for our friend, Deacon Ron Fernandes, who led us in prayer and blessing, and even singing.

“When a family is spiritual, it’s really nice for me- especially if they are Catholic. I am always glad to see icons or a crucifix or picture of Mother Mary in a house. Then I know I can openly pray the rosary. The rosary is definitely the prayer I pray the most during my work.”

“During labor or grief, my imagery/prayer is, ‘Please, Mother Mary wrap this mother, this couple, this family, me, in your mantle of grace and mercy.’ I call that image to my mind.” 

Andrea says she often senses the presence of Mary at births, especially.

“I think I identify with her because she labored to birth Jesus, she was human, and she suffered the grief of His death. This comforts and gives me strength.”

religious image statue
Photo by Niels on Pexels.com

I have always thought it was perfect that Andrea was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12.  The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn, and in that image, she is pregnant.

“People are always so grateful. And I think, I didn’t DO anything, I was just there!”

I know why people are grateful. They are grateful because she was there. Andrea brings a sense of solid, motherly, and professional competence into a frightening situation, she gives the intimate and ultimate mysteries of birth and death back into the hands of the family. Then these events become far more personal, home and family-centered experiences because of her courage and love, her willingness to come to the family, and serve them where they are, in order to allow them to give birth, or to die, at home. This is a gift of peace.

She recognizes, nurtures and draws out the best in people when it is most needed. She makes them feel empowered in trusting the process.

Precious to me is the memory of Andrea holding my hand as I labored in the bath tub. I laughed and said I could not imagine our family doctor doing this, as good as he is. 

“There is just so much love that is there,” she says, tearing up.

She is certainly adept at finding the beauty inherent in these events, and transmitting it just where it is needed.

As we talked about her work, she cried now and then. Don’t worry, she cries easily. She also believes so much in what she is doing, she is very passionate about it. She gets frustrated trying to describe her thoughts and experiences. She thinks she is in-eloquent. But she’s not.

Andrea is very earthy, and as I thought about what she was saying, and what I learned, having watched her work, I see that her spirituality involves being very in tune with the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of the physicality of birth, suffering, and death, of what Veronica’s veil would have really looked like, smeared with the dirt, blood, sweat, snot, and tears of the very real Face of Our Lord.

ancient art black and white close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The blood and water from the side of Christ make sense to Andrea. She has these all over her all the time. She understands the physical as deeply spiritual. Hers is an Incarnational spirituality, true to the One who came to share our sufferings and give us life; actual life, not just an idea, Life we can touch and hold. That’s how real the Resurrection was. Jesus wasn’t just a spirit. He was and is real. His wounds were touched by His disciples. He ate with his traumatized friends. He comforted them.

Andrea experiences this truth of the Incarnation as an every day reality, and to her, it just is.

Well, not really, because she cries when you try to get her to talk about it.

“What are you looking at, Daddy?”

“The glory of God.”

“What does it look like?”

“You wouldn’t believe it!”

sky space dark galaxy
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Mindfulness, presence, indwelling and love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

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

This is the first and great commandment.

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

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

yellow flower bloom blossom
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

* this term is from Jean Pierre de Caussade

Holy Naps

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?

adorable-baby-born-2133

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.”

woman in white shirt sleeping on gray fabric sofa
Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

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!

alone bed bedroom blur
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Novenas: how to go deeper

photo of man wearing rash guard
Photo by John Cahil Rom on Pexels.com

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.

bird dove pigeon
Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Pexels.com

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.

selective focus photo of red rose
Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels.com

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.

clear glass jar filled of coloring pens beside of white sketch pad
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

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.

yellow flame
Photo by Skully MBa on Pexels.com

Easter Maria

cross-sunset-sunrise-hill-70847.jpeg
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This year I crave a quiet Easter-

Pitch black peace

In which to bloom

In secret knowing.

This was Mary’s Easter-

Before ever a word was said.

nature blue summer yellow
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Close to the heart: The Rule of St. Albert

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

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

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

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

Paragraph two of the Rule says

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

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

backlit cemetery christianity clouds
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

silhouette of human with sunset background
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cut a tree fell a tree ax axe
Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

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.

photo of man standing on rock near seashore
Photo by Jacub Gomez on Pexels.com

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.

green grass field under blue cloudy sky
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

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.

ball ball shaped blur color
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

flight landscape nature sky
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

bible-book-christianity-161034

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.

maxresdefault.jpg

Reflection questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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