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.
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.
About 800 years ago, a group of men dedicated to the spiritual life seeking silence, solitude, and community in order to deeply know, love, and serve God, began to gather and live near one another as hermits on Mt. Carmel in Israel. This mountain is where Elijah the prophet, his disciple Elisha and their school of prophets had lived near the spring of Carith. It is where Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal, and God responded with consuming fire, bringing the people of Israel to their senses and back to the one true God. It is where Elijah experienced the “still small voice of God.”
The hermits called themselves the Brothers of Mary of Mt. Carmel. Each hermit lived in a cave or simple dwelling. There was an oratory in the center where they gathered for daily mass. We can reflect on this arrangement as symbolic of the entire family of the Church, that we too are arranged around Jesus in the Eucharist, around the mass which is at the heart of our faith.
Eventually they sought to have their way of life written as a rule approved by the Church. Sometime between 1206 and 1214 they approached the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Albert of Avogadro, to do this for them. The resulting rule of life is the shortest the Church has on record, and most of it is Scripture and references to Scripture. It was approved finally by Pope Innocent IV in 1247.
The Rule of St. Albert does not contain a lot of detail but shows in a more general way the spirit of the Carmelite’s life of prayer on the mountain. Every aspect of their lives was crafted to cultivate a continual awareness of the presence of God within and around them. This prayerful awareness practiced daily came to overflow into all of their activities, inspiring their service and leading them to the heights of prayer. They sought to experience the beauty of the Lord more and more, inspiring them to greater and greater love, until they truly prayed without ceasing and were transformed in character, conduct and consciousness* by their union with the Lord.
Paragraph two of the Rule says
Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forefathers laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ – how, pure in heart and stout in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of the Master.
For us lay people today, this can serve as a reminder. All of us whatever our station in life, or our personal religious expression within the Church, whatever ways we pray, are all called to holiness. We share a common purpose of unswerving allegiance to Our Beloved Lord.
Carmel is a excellent way. I have heard before that there is no Catholic who does not owe something to Carmel. It is a sure way trodden by saints and Doctors of the Church. Carmel’s charism is prayer, and it is a trustworthy school of prayer. I think every Catholic can benefit from Carmelite spirituality in some way.
The joy and love of contemplative life and profound intimacy with God is here for every one of us.
Hopefully something about the Rule of St. Albert will inspire your own prayer life.
These men had a very simple life free of worry about possessions, property, social obligations and engagements. Their calendars were pretty clear.
All things were held in common and distributed by the Prior according to each ones’ needs.
They didn’t have to wonder what to do. Very little planning was necessary. The rhythm of their lives was basically the same every day.
All this freed them to also have calm, quiet but rich inner lives.
Living as they did may be too much for us. But their dedicated example can encourage us to simplify our own lives and find time for silence and solitude.
So what was a day in the life of an early Carmelite hermit like?
He would be up very early like most people who live close to nature, to light lamps, care for animals, take care of chores.
He would have prayed Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours..
a collection of Psalms, canticles, Scripture readings and prayers. The Liturgy of the Hours is still prayed by clergy, religious and lay people all over the world today. A free online resource for this is Universalis if you would like to tune in to the official public prayer of the Church, weave Scripture into your day, and find a great way to sanctify time. It is also a good way to order your daily life toward prayer.
Our hermit then would have gathered with the others for mass at the chapel of Our Lady of Mt.Carmel.
Ruins of the chapel still on Mt. Carmel
He would have then followed his compatriots to breakfast, which would have been meatless, home grown or donated food.
The Rule specifies that they were to eat whatever was given to them. I think one way to translate this for our lay lives is a quote from St. Elizabeth of the Trinity “Let us lovingly eat the bread of the will of God.” In our lay Christian lives, we could take this as a profound example of reliance on God’s providence and a deep acceptance of his will in our lives as it presents itself each day.
At all meals they tried to listen attentively while someone read aloud from the Scriptures as they ate.
Our hermit would have gone on with his day of work and prayer, “keeping Scripture as an accompaniment with all [he did.] “
How did he do that? In some of the desert communities (the prototypes of Christian monasticism starting in the third century in Egypt) the Psalms were chanted while work was done. However the rule states that Carmelites were to do their work in silence. Perhaps this Scriptural accompaniment was done by pondering the Scripture in his heart and mind as he worked.
When I worked at the Eagle Newspaper in the Press Room, my job was manual labor in nature. The rolling of the press was as loud as an a jet during takeoff. During a “run” there was little conversation, only what was necessary to get the job done, speaking over a head set. I found myself doing exactly what the Rule recommends; working in silence, pondering over the Scriptures and praying as I worked.
One of the crew members and I used to give one another Scripture to memorize. I I developed the habit of keeping a verse or two in the pocket of my uniform that I was working on committing to memory. Perhaps the Carmelites prayed like that as they went about chopping wood, carrying water, working in the garden, caring for their animals , simply praying and meditating on the Scriptures through the day.
The Rule says that the hermit of Carmel was supposed to stay in his cell or nearby when he wasn’t working, “keeping watch in prayer” and “pondering the law of God day and night.” This law is generally understood to mean the Scriptures. I also think that according to Jesus the law of God is love.
O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Psalm 48:9b
How wonderful to ponder continuously the law of God which is love, and God Himself whom we know is Love.
As St. Teresa, reformer of Carmel was to say hundreds of years later, “Prayer is making time to be alone with the Friend who we know loves us.”
The Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel crafted a life of love.
On Sundays our hermit would have attended a community meeting where various issues were discussed and the brothers were to “lovingly correct one another’s faults.” us This does not sound so fun. But we do know that spiritual community and spiritual friendships are indispensable in the life of prayer. We need others to walk, pray, and talk about spiritual things with. We need people who love us enough to help us stay on track, help us to discern God’s will, and inspire us in the love of Christ. Our soul friends help us grow.
At times our hermit may have gone down the mountain to teach, preach, beg food for the community, or be of service to others in some way. When we are people of prayer, our prayer will inspire service and sharing of our faith. St. Teresa said the perfected spiritual human being will be the perfect mix of Mary and Martha: prayer and service.
Our hermit’s dinner would have been much like his breakfast; eaten in silence with his brothers as one of them read aloud from Scripture.
He would have prayed Evening Prayer, attended to any evening duties.
At about 9 O’Clock he would have prayed Night Prayer.
I expect he would have gone to bed early.
And so ended his day, well arranged around prayer, leading to an entire life of prayer and intimacy with God.
After Night Prayer the Carmelites kept a rule of silence until after Morning Prayer the next day. The rule states that “silence is the way to cultivate holiness” and urges them that even during times the hermits could speak with one another that they avoid pointless chatter.
Most of us can probably see how avoiding pointless chatter and guarding our speech would improve our spiritual lives not to mention our relationships. We can make an effort to be kindly in speech and to experiment with silence. So often people feel loved when we are more quiet and can listen to them. I am sure God feels similarly! When we are quiet we naturally turn inward where God lives.
Back to this staying in the cell thing:
Carmelite spirituality is driven by the belief expressed so well by our St.Teresa of Avila:
“God is within us and we should not leave him there alone.”
Colossians 11:27 says
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
So you could think of this cell as your heart where Jesus, as we are repeatedly told by Scripture, truly lives.
We could read “Stay in your cell” as “stay in your heart, and when you’re working stay close to your heart, keeping watch in prayer. ”
How did the hermits actually pray?
Early Chrisitian contemplative prayer was very much grounded in Scripture. The Carmelite hermits, similar to the Desert Fathers, would have spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. The method of inner prayer they used was similar, I imagine, to Meditatio Scripturarem, a sustained going over and over a memorized passage as a way to keep continuously focussed on the Lord. That is what I think they were doing. The Hesychasm (a method of “imageless” interior prayer developed in the desert by the monks of the Eastern Church) of the Desert Fathers had not been developed yet and Lectio Divina (literally “holy reading” a way to pray with the Bible in an interactive way with God) of the Western Church had not been formalized into steps. So I am thinking they used the Scripture in a less formal way than was developed later.
In Carmelite prayer, the important thing, as St.Teresa herself said in general, is a not to think much but to love much. To me that means presence and attentiveness are the main things they would have been trying for.
Active inner prayer is about attention. The words of the Scripture, for this practice, are touch stones of focus.
If you would like to try this early Christian form of interior prayer, I have written about it here.
Carmel is a Marian order but Mary’s name is not mentioned in the rule at all except for the name the Brothers called themselves, the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. How is Carmel Marian? Carmelites consider ourselves to be living the life of Mary, her actual spiritual life. The Carmelite strives to continually ponder God’s word in his heart as Mary did, to cherish Jesus within, to be attentive to God’s presence at all times, and to develop a listening and responsive heart. Then, as Mary did, he takes this love and experience of God to others. He prays with and for the Church as Mary is shown to have done.
The Marian devotion of Carmel is primarily imitation of her, reflecting her, mirroring her heart.
I think this is why we often call her not only our Mother and Queen, but also our sister.
Night Prayer ends each day with a prayer, chant or song to Mary.
Let’s pray one now and ask that she might impart to us her own inner life of prayer and love.
1. In what ways do you (or can you) develop the contemplative dimension of your life?
2. When is your alone time? Think about what you like to do in your alone time with yourself and God? How do you cherish and protect that time?
3. How do you pray best? What kind of prayer are you most drawn to?
4. In order to live an intentionally spiritual life the early Carmelites practiced detachment from possessions and simplicity of life. What might be the value in that? What are some ways we can simplify our lives: our physical space, our time, our days… to make room for calm, for God ?
5. How can we order our own days to find a rhythm and balance of prayer, work, community, contact with Scripture, and service to others? Do you have any ideas for your own rule of life?
* …”transformation of character conduct and consciousness” is a phrase I borrowed from Gandhi.
Note: this is an adaptation of a talk I gave at a women’s retreat recently. Minus my dumb jokes. And only because I can’t remember them.
I asked Sister Celestina if enthusiasm for spirituality in young adult Catholics is the norm she experiences in her work at St. Mary’s Student Center.She says, “Yes! These kids have a great thirst!”That is why so many spiritual directors are needed at St. Mary’s. The three Sister Apostles of the Interior Life are here, three lay spiritual directors, several priests, deacons, as well as the priests and religious who come in and do spiritual direction every week, and at other times. “It is still not enough!”She explains to me, for those who don’t know, what spiritual direction is. Here she begins to speak passionately.
She tells me that the “Gospel icon, if you will,” of the charism of her order, The Apostles of the Interior Life, is the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus seeks her out, though she has gone to draw water at a time nobody would be expected to be there, as if she were avoiding others. But Jesus finds her. “She is shown her truth as a daughter, and she goes out to share with others.”
“Jesus is very determined and also tender. He comes very close to her wounds.” He shows our identity is not a sum total of our sins or wounds, but in our belonging to Him as children of God.
“Jesus comes close to [people’s] wounds in a very determined way, but not like a moralistic teacher. He is tender.”
To Sister Celestina, this describes the goal of spiritual direction and evangelization. “We bring people to encounter.God did not send down a book. He sent His Son- into relationship, and that is what we do.”
One must not “think of the other person as an empty container that you have to fill with truth, but as a brother or sister. So you take interest in their lives.Every human being you encounter thirsts for more because they are each made in the image of God. They thirst. There is a thirst in these students. I think it is important to allow the Holy Spirit to awaken their desires.” That is the approach she takes as a spiritual director.
For spiritual direction, “there are a lot of requests.” There is an intake form on the Aggie Catholic website and the requests for spiritual direction are coordinated by a campus ministry intern at the Student Center.
The goal of spiritual direction is for the directee to grow in holiness, she says. The real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. She often tells her directees, “It is not just you and me, it is you and me and the Holy Spirit.
“The goal is to discover God’s will and inspirations, to learn how to listen, to discern what is coming from the Holy Spirit and what is not. Another goal is helping to remove obstacles to growth, learning to pray or growing in prayer. Guidance and support are needed “to know what to do with the consolations and desolations of the spiritual life.”
She says that it is very important to develop what she calls a “double channel of listening”. She tries to listen deeply to the person talking to her and to pay close attention to the Holy Spirit speaking in her heart at the same time. “If we are relaxed and open, and not too worried about what we need to respond, the Holy Spirit will help us see how we can help that person.”
“Every topic is welcome,” she says, “because all of life must be penetrated by the Holy Spirit, and God is part of all that we do. ”
“The more open you are in spiritual direction the more fruitful it will be. When you are open, you are humble, but this is a freeing experience that you are loved as you are. The moment you bring things to the light, they are already being healed.”
I asked her if she works with non Catholics also. She said she can and she has. “I would need to be attentive and delicate, but still be transparent about who I am.” Her goal would be to “simply place them more and more under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”
She tells me about some of the other things the sisters do at St. Mary’s.They sponsor Samuel’s Group, a program about discernment. She calls discernment, “making decisions with God in the picture.”
By discernment she also means “the discernment of spirits.” This tradition of discernment of spirits goes back to the desert fathers. It is very important, she says, to “become aware of your interior movements, since God speaks to us in our thoughts and feelings and desires.” It is important to learn to distinguish the authentic inner voice that is the leading of God, from other influences inside us and outside us that can be misleading or harmful.
A spiritual director can help one learn and refine that skill of discernment.
“You come to recognize the movement of God through your soul like the vibration of guitar strings after they have been touched.”
“Jesus himself had to practice this discernment of spirits in the desert,” she points out. “Discernment of spirits is a fundamental teaching of the spiritual life.It isn’t just do it yourself. It is always with God; with God, and the people God places in our lives. Always, it is in the context of relationship,” that we listen for God.
“The work we do is relational.” She says.
The sisters open their house for what they call, “A night at the convent,” and also for a movie night a few times a semester, just to share their life with the students. They like to cook for the students. “Sharing food is such an important part of loving.”
They have had up to forty people in their living room, and they see new faces all the time, Catholics and non Catholics alike. They also hold Holy Hours at the convent, and these are always crowded.
“It’s a beautiful time in their life for formation,” she says, “because of the particular gifts of that age group; the enthusiasm, flexibility, the energy, the dreams, the ability to take risks, the capacity of jumping, leaping into new things.”
She says that what they do at St. Mary’s is facilitate encounter with Christ which forms disciples, and then disciples “automatically become Apostles, and they go out,” bringing with them the tender and determined love of Christ and the truth of their experience with His transforming love- “into the lunch line, into the class room, into the whole world.”
*”We, the Apostles of the Interior Life… testify … that the interior life is the real and transforming source of joy for the world. We are a community of consecrated women… reaching out to men and women through evangelization and friendship with a family-like style and a spirit of initiative and of personal relationship that can foster spiritual generation and growth. We accomplish this mission specifically through spiritual direction and formation in the area of prayer. “~ from Recipes for the Interior Life by the Apostles of the Interior Life
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.”
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.
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.
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 29. It’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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* The teachings and quotes mentioned of St. Teresa of Avila’s can be found most easily in her book The Way of Perfection.