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Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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prayer

Open window, living water (Why do we pray? And what happens when we do?)

When we meditate and pray we become channels of God’s love and grace, of his holy will.

The praying soul is like a window opening. Sunshine and a warm, sweet wind flow through that soul to everyone and everything. Its clear openness fills the whole world, and each of its situations with healing light. The rushing wind and light of the hidden spirit of prayer changes hearts, lifts up those who suffer, makes a way for peace to happen. It sets people and all of life free.

We are so little but it is God who draws us to prayer. In his creative power, because of his joy in sharing his divinity with us, because of the Incarnation of the Lord in the marriage of humanity with God, the smallest breath of prayer suffuses the universe with a flow of light and beauty.

In the beginning the Spirit of the Lord breathed upon the waters, there was light, and life sprang from his command. Jesus walked among us, recreating, redeeming and renewing the world by his life, death and resurrection. We are baptized into union with him, infused with his love.

He could have renewed the world by himself. But he shares his mission with the littlest of us because of his love. He has lifted us up to join him in his work.

I think this is what it means to “reign with Christ.”

Living water has come to flow from our hearts.

So pray, Christian soul, however you can, without a doubt in your mind. We don’t always know what God will do. But we know he will do something. Just open the window as best you can, letting God do the rest.

Mary knew this when she told the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” Wink wink. 😉

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Seven ways to Practice the Presence of God

“In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in the Chapel.”~ Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite Lay Brother (d. 1691.) He had an intense realization of “the fact of God” while looking at a dead and leafless tree. He had been a soldier, and after being wounded he became somewhat lame. He then became a footman but, as he said, was “a great clumsy fellow who broke everything.” He no doubt was feeling like a dead, leafless tree himself at that time. But God opened a way for him to find life again. He became a Lay Brother in a Carmelite monastery; cooking, (a job he disliked right away) running errands, sweeping floors and of course, praying and discovering God within at all times and sharing this way he called The Practice of the Presence of God with others.

By making active use of the teachings of The Practice of the Presence of God we can learn to be continually recollected in God, which keeps our souls most open for God’s grace and at his service at all times.

The flow of our lives then becomes a conscious flow of God’s transforming love.

The consequences of this simple practice seep into our personalities and the way we are in the world. We find we even touch inanimate objects with love. We feel affectionate and open towards people. We feel happier, more peaceful, certainly more in tune with God.

1. Morning Offering.

Many Catholics begin the day by dedicating/offering it to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Morning Offering. If you already do this, try to do it more consciously than usual. Pay close attention to what you are saying and to Whom you are speaking. Reflect on what the words mean to you.

If you don’t do this, you could start doing this. Write a Morning Offering on a post-it note and stick it on the coffee maker. You could write your own dedication instead of the traditional one if that would be more meaningful to you.

2. Address your thoughts to God.

This may sound overwhelming to do all the time but even recalling God and restarting your conscious awareness of him whenever you remember to, during the day can have a noticeable effect that will grow.

While you are at it, try turning your grouchy thoughts into prayers of praise. No really. So many things in the course of the day are annoying to us. Figure out how to make prayers of praise or gratitude out of these irritating things. You may be surprised how amusing this can be, and how it becomes second nature after a while.

Turn your thoughts into a continual conversation with God. We all live in a river of thoughts, images, memories, plans, worries, what have you. Turn this river toward the Lord, as often as you can remember to.

I think about my daughters more times a day than I care to enumerate. So, for example, I can try to talk to Jesus about them instead of only thinking to myself or worrying or dreaming for them, as parents will.

Today my daughter is moving, My other daughter and her husband are helping while I watch the grandchildren and hope the three year olds get along and the baby isn’t too distressed by the whole thing. I can talk to the Lord about this. “Calm any fears that arise, Lord. Help us to make this a joyful day.” Or I can express my concerns to him if I want to. As Winnie the Pooh says, “It’s friendlier with two.”

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3.Turn your suffering into prayer

The best way is to hold your pain up to God just like you used to bring your bumps and bruises to your mom for her to kiss. Words are unnecessary here unless you want them. Let God sit with you like a loving quiet friend when you are hurting. You probably know this is harder than it sounds.Try it anyway though.

Catholics also have the habit of offering up our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus. We call this being co-redeemers. When something bad happens to me I consider myself a treasure of grace and try to offer my suffering as prayer for everyone who needs it.

4.Purposely invite God into even the smallest things you do each day

This is at the center of Brother Lawrence’s teaching, and a big part of The “Little Way” of St. Therese as well. Instead of rushing through a task or just trying to get a thing done, it helps to slow down and concentrate on it. As Eknath Easwaran says, “Concentration is consecration.”

Offer your task as if it were an act of prayer and then it will be.

St. Therese would offer the difficult things she had to do for missionaries or for priests. Maybe you would like to offer your work for something you care about to help the world or the Church.

Your offerings can be as simple as saying, “Lord here is my little pancake for you” if you are cooking, for instance. Maybe this sounds silly to you but I recommend you try it for a while and see for yourself. Maybe you too will find God “amidst the pots and pans.”

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”~ Brother Lawrence

This habit of being aware of God in your actions takes a lot of practice but even if you only remember to do this a couple times a day God will bless it and you. You will soon notice a difference in how connected you feel to God at all times.

When you are in line somewhere or at a red light (we spend a lot of our day waiting) use some of that time to connect to and talk to God. It’s easy.

5.“Listen” for God with an open heart

No matter where you are, whether you are alone or with others, hanging out with your friends, at work, petting your dog or talking to a small child, try to maintain a sensitivity to God in all situations. You will sense a heightened awareness and connection to other people and all living things when you do this. You will notice beauty you used to miss. You will be more and more able to register signs of God’s will or voice in the events and conversations of your day. It will become a working part of you in time.

6.Presence/mindfulness

We hear a lot about these concepts lately and I think that is good. As Christians, being present in the moment and being mindful in our daily lives is going to mean conscious awareness of God in the present moment, mindfulness of God in all we do and experience.

Fr. Greg McLaughlin said to me once, “You are not on this planet! I don’t think you are even in the solar system! God is in the present moment. God is right here! And right now, right here, he is saying‘ Where are YOU?”

To be absent minded is to be absent to attentiveness to God who is here with us now. This one has been a hard one for me as I am given to day dreaming. I have learned that we don’t have to be perfect at this present mindedness. But every little bit helps.

St. Teresa of Avila’s way of thinking was that “God is within us, and we should not leave him there alone!” She thought we should imagine the Lord beside us at all times until that active mental effort becomes internalized and natural, part of consciousness.

7. Repetition of the Holy Names

Brother Lawrence doesn’t talk about this in his letters or conversations. However this can be a useful key to keep on your key ring that can help you in your quest to cultivate the constant sense of the presence of the Lord in your life during your day. It can open the door for you.

When I am doing a task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, I repeat the names of Jesus and Mary. For me it does the trick, and brings me into conscious awareness and attentiveness to the presence of God. It is also a prayer because I am calling on them in my heart and dedicating whatever I am doing to them.

Doing this in the waiting times of our lives can bring us into focus as well, so we can fill those empty spaces with the Lord.

It is very helpful in times of stress or fear too or any time I need to re-center.

St. Rose of Lima is said to have memorized the Names of God from the Bible during a time of blankness and darkness in her prayer life, and repeated them while she did her embroidery or any task that allowed it. It was her light through that difficult time.

Before going to sleep I like to tell God what I am grateful for about the day and commend all to him, good and bad.

I also try to fall asleep with the holy names of Jesus and Mary, taking them with me into the night.

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
― Brother Lawrence

People who wrote about talking to Brother Lawrence remarked on his deep peacefulness. He was a simple Lay Brother who had had a poor and difficult life, wounded in war and witness to horrific slaughter in his own home town. Through his remarkable relationship with God, and this way he found to live always in his presence, he found deep peace and was able to help others find the same.

This way is available to all of us.

Developing these habits may sound like an arduous process. Remember that we do what we can and God will do the rest. God sees and will bless our efforts. He’s cool like that.

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How to pray Lectio Divina, an ancient Christian Prayer form using Scripture

Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) is an ancient Christian way to pray the Scriptures. It involves reading a passage of the Bible, listening to God in silence, responding back to God in prayer, and then resting in silent prayer.

To pray Lectio Divina, you will need:
Some quiet, private time.
A comfortable place to sit.
A Bible
A note book and something to write with
An open, receptive heart

Make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can best
pay attention.
Relax. 🙂

You might begin, after the sign of the cross, with a vocal prayer to the Holy Spirit. I like this one:

Come, Holy Spirit,
come by means
of the powerful intercession
of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Thy well beloved spouse.”

Step 1: Lectio

Have a passage chosen ahead of time. I usually choose something from the mass readings of the day, particularly the Gospel.

Read the passage aloud, slowly and reflectively.

As you hear the Scripture passage, listen for a word, phrase or sentence that stands out to you. (Don’t worry, one will.)

After the third time reading the passage through, write your word or phrase into the note book.

The Benedictine monks, who most developed this prayer form, called this note book a “florilegium,” meaning, “book of flowers.” Writing your verse or phrase down will help you focus as you pray, and be fruitful for later perusal, discussion with soul friends, or for future prayer and reflection.

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This word or passage that stands out as you hear the Word of God, is considered to be the Holy Spirit speaking to you.

Step 2: Meditatio

You may want to set a timer for this section of the prayer. Try to make it a light, non- jarring sound. I have an app on my kindle and my phone also with a nice Tibetan bell sound for this purpose.

As to the time duration, ten to twenty minutes should do it. But even five is OK if that is all the time you have.

This time will be silent, eyes closed.

• Inwardly repeat your word or phrase with expectation. As you ponder it, apply it to your life and relationship with God. Let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to make clear His message to you.
When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your word or phrase, placing yourself once more in God’s presence.
• Ask the Lord, “What are you saying to me in this word or phrase?”

Step 3 Oratio

After the timer goes off, take a moment or maybe a few moments to respond with a prayer back to God about what He has lead you to understand or given to you during meditatio.

You might wish to write your prayer response into the notebook and to pray it aloud.

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Step 4 Contemplatio

This usually means to rest in God’s Heart in silence.

Again, set the timer, perhaps for 10-20 minutes as during the meditatio, close your eyes, place yourself in the presence of God, and rest lovingly there together with him.

If it is hard for you to do this, you might choose a prayer word like the Name of Jesus, Mary, or the word, “God,” “love” or “peace,” for your mind to hold onto like a walking stick as it travels in quiet over the next few minutes.

When the time is up, you may wish to pray aloud the Our Father.

End with the sign of the cross.

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Blessed are those who hear the word of God
– and cherish it in their hearts
(a responsory from the Liturgy of the Hours)

If you pray Lectio Divina on a regular basis it becomes second nature. When you hear God’s word.at mass, say, you may notice you go through this process in a brief way. You will find the Word and praying it as an outflow into daily life and activities.

This method of prayer is well developed over centuries. You will pray it in excellent company: the Communion of Saints, Christians all over the world, and the Holy Spirit.

God’s Word is active and alive, (Hebrews 4:12) always does what God sends it to do, and never returns to him void. So we can pray it, internalize and live it.

May our souls magnify the Lord.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… (Colossians 3:16a)

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The Hail Mary, The Visitation: a Reflection

Mary… the name of that beautiful flower

which I always invoke

morning and evening.” ~ Dante

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I remember learning the Hail Mary when I was 20. I was dating the Catholic boy who I would one day marry. I was curious about the Hail Mary, never having heard more than the first line of it in a movie.

I asked him to teach it to me. After a few tries, I still wasn’t picking it up well. He was frustrated. I asked, “How fast did you pick it up when you learned it?” He said he didn’t remember ever not knowing it. I was impressed.

As for me, I received it as something precious and exotic. Once I finally learned it, I could hardly stop praying it. I went on to learn from him how to pray the rosary.  I didn’t know what to make of many of the stories to be pondered during its recitation, but I prayed it anyway, making the best of it. I interpreted the mysteries of the rosary in my own way that made sense to me, until, gently, the stories started to change me. The Gospel became for me, not just an old story I was learning about, but something that was happening still, even in my life as I lived it.

At the center of the Hail Mary is JESUS. I didn’t know what to make of Him, either. But I held Mary’s hand like a child until she led me into the great romance of my life; Jesus: Jesus in His Catholic Church, Jesus in the Word of God, Jesus as experienced personally and within, Jesus shining through human love, Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus in the mercy of the confessional, Jesus in Mary, Jesus in the lives of the Saints, Jesus, inseparable from life and being itself.

All that stuff used to freak me out. But now it’s everything to me.

The Hail Mary is half Scripture. The second half is a product of the Church’s prayer response and reflection, over time, on the first half already given to us. Elizabeth repeats Gabriel’s greeting as she recognizes Mary as Queen Mother, confirming her in her mission by her own humble words of wonder, joy, and encouragement, filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary responded with her song of the Gospel that we call the Magnificat. (See Lk. 1-39-56)

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What must have passed between these earliest Church Mothers, these prophetesses, and friends, during Mary’s three month stay at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house? I imagine that three months was a lovely weaving, as in the lives and friendships of many women, of daily work, love and prayer; maybe for them it was dishes and divine secrets, cooking and singing Psalms, sewing baby clothes, drawing water, feeding the animals, tending the fire, breath-catching prophesy, washing and folding, praying and cleaning, laughing and crying.

Maybe Elizabeth gave Mary tips on morning sickness before the household recited the Sh’ma. (Dt. 6:4) Perhaps there were harmless jokes on the speechless Zechariah. What did they think when they went to the Temple on the Sabbath knowing what only they knew?

I imagine they pondered the Scriptures, pulled weeds, planted seeds.

They must have encouraged one another.

What was it like in their quiet moments?

Did they star gaze at night in humble awe, overcome once again with the mercy, greatness, and faithfulness of God, at the the ancient promise He was fulfilling in their persons?  How amazing it must have felt that it was them in the midst of it, at the epicenter of this secret new beginning for humanity.

How they must have grown in faith, in love, and determination, in the presence of the Holy Spirit in their relationship, this first Christ centered friendship, this prototype of the Church.

What did they talk about as they swept the floor, watched the sunset, walked with the silent Zechariah after dinner?

Mary was most likely present at the birth of John the Baptist along with the woman neighbors who would have come to help. It seems she would have stayed for the circumcision and naming ceremony (Lk. 1: 57-80) as well. Did she stand in awe beside Elizabeth and witness the return of Zechariah’s speech with his own beautiful, prophetic song? I bet she did.

When Elizabeth watched Mary go, I wonder if she prayed that start of the Hail Mary again, to accompany the younger woman on her way, and to lift her up in prayer as she went home to face all that she had to face, and to do all that she must do?

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I think of my friends, my soul sisters, who love, confirm, walk with, and encourage one another every day in our own Christ centered relationships. Through them I have often known the Holy Spirit’s presence and confirmation, love and strength. I have often thought, over the years, that there was nothing more beautiful to me than their faces at prayer, than being in the midst of their love, their work, as they transform the world around them. I would not be myself without their friendship. I would have been someone else.

I think of my friendship with Mary and how it has changed my life beyond recognition.

And I have to say a Hail Mary.

Because I love my life!

On this last day of May, of this month of Mary, this feast of the Visitation, let us say a Hail Mary together with gratitude. Pray another in thanksgiving for your friends, and another for all the intentions of Mary and St. Elizabeth as they continue their work together in Heaven for the Kingdom of God.

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Novenas: how to go deeper

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Close to the heart: The Rule of St. Albert

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

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

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

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

Paragraph two of the Rule says

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

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

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Carmel is a excellent way. I have heard before that there is no Catholic who does not owe something to Carmel. It is a sure way trodden by saints and Doctors of the Church. Carmel’s charism is prayer, and it is a trustworthy school of prayer. I think every Catholic can benefit from Carmelite spirituality in some way.

The joy and love of contemplative life and profound intimacy with God is here for every one of us.

Hopefully something about the Rule of St. Albert will inspire your own prayer life.

These men had a very simple life free of worry about possessions, property, social obligations and engagements. Their calendars were pretty clear.

All things were held in common and distributed by the Prior according to each ones’ needs.

They didn’t have to wonder what to do. Very little planning was necessary. The rhythm of their lives was basically the same every day.

All this freed them to also have calm, quiet but rich inner lives.

Living as they did may be too much for us. But their dedicated example can encourage us to simplify our own lives and find time for silence and solitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When I worked at the Eagle Newspaper in the Press Room, my job was manual labor in nature. The rolling of the press was as loud as an a jet during takeoff. During a “run” there was little conversation, only what was necessary to get the job done, speaking over a head set. I found myself doing exactly what the Rule recommends; working in silence, pondering over the Scriptures and praying as I worked.

One of the crew members and I used to give one another Scripture to memorize. I I developed the habit of keeping a verse or two in the pocket of my uniform that I was working on committing to memory. Perhaps the Carmelites prayed like that as they went about chopping wood, carrying water, working in the garden, caring for their animals , simply praying and meditating on the Scriptures through the day.

The Rule says that the hermit of Carmel was supposed to stay in his cell or nearby when he wasn’t working, “keeping watch in prayer” and “pondering the law of God day and night.” This law is generally understood to mean the Scriptures. I also think that according to Jesus the law of God is love.

O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Psalm 48:9b

How wonderful to ponder continuously the law of God which is love, and God Himself whom we know is Love.

As St. Teresa, reformer of Carmel was to say hundreds of years later, “Prayer is making time to be alone with the Friend who we know loves us.”

The Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel crafted a life of love.

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On Sundays our hermit would have attended a community meeting where various issues were discussed and the brothers were to “lovingly correct one another’s faults.” us This does not sound so fun. But we do know that spiritual community and spiritual friendships are indispensable in the life of prayer. We need others to walk, pray, and talk about spiritual things with. We need people who love us enough to help us stay on track, help us to discern God’s will, and inspire us in the love of Christ. Our soul friends help us grow.

At times our hermit may have gone down the mountain to teach, preach, beg food for the community, or be of service to others in some way. When we are people of prayer, our prayer will inspire service and sharing of our faith. St. Teresa said the perfected spiritual human being will be the perfect mix of Mary and Martha: prayer and service.

Our hermit’s dinner would have been much like his breakfast; eaten in silence with his brothers as one of them read aloud from Scripture.

He would have prayed Evening Prayer, attended to any evening duties.

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At about 9 O’Clock he would have prayed Night Prayer.

I expect he would have gone to bed early.

And so ended his day, well arranged around prayer, leading to an entire life of prayer and intimacy with God.

After Night Prayer the Carmelites kept a rule of silence until after Morning Prayer the next day. The rule states that “silence is the way to cultivate holiness” and urges them that even during times the hermits could speak with one another that they avoid pointless chatter.

Most of us can probably see how avoiding pointless chatter and guarding our speech would improve our spiritual lives not to mention our relationships. We can make an effort to be kindly in speech and to experiment with silence. So often people feel loved when we are more quiet and can listen to them. I am sure God feels similarly! When we are quiet we naturally turn inward where God lives.

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Back to this staying in the cell thing:

Carmelite spirituality is driven by the belief expressed so well by our St.Teresa of Avila:

“God is within us and we should not leave him there alone.”

Colossians 11:27 says

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

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So you could think of this cell as your heart where Jesus, as we are repeatedly told by Scripture, truly lives.

We could read “Stay in your cell” as “stay in your heart, and when you’re working stay close to your heart, keeping watch in prayer. ”

How did the hermits actually pray?

Early Chrisitian contemplative prayer was very much grounded in Scripture. The Carmelite hermits, similar to the Desert Fathers, would have spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. The method of inner prayer they used was similar, I imagine, to Meditatio Scripturarem, a sustained going over and over a memorized passage as a way to keep continuously focussed on the Lord. That is what I think they were doing. The Hesychasm (a method of “imageless” interior prayer developed in the desert by the monks of the Eastern Church) of the Desert Fathers had not been developed yet and Lectio Divina (literally “holy reading” a way to pray with the Bible in an interactive way with God) of the Western Church had not been formalized into steps. So I am thinking they used the Scripture in a less formal way than was developed later.

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In Carmelite prayer, the important thing, as St.Teresa herself said in general, is a not to think much but to love much. To me that means presence and attentiveness are the main things they would have been trying for.

Active inner prayer is about attention. The words of the Scripture, for this practice, are touch stones of focus.

If you would like to try this early Christian form of interior prayer, I have written about it here.

Carmel is a Marian order but Mary’s name is not mentioned in the rule at all except for the name the Brothers called themselves, the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. How is Carmel Marian? Carmelites consider ourselves to be living the life of Mary, her actual spiritual life. The Carmelite strives to continually ponder God’s word in his heart as Mary did, to cherish Jesus within, to be attentive to God’s presence at all times, and to develop a listening and responsive heart. Then, as Mary did, he takes this love and experience of God to others. He prays with and for the Church as Mary is shown to have done.

The Marian devotion of Carmel is primarily imitation of her, reflecting her, mirroring her heart.

I think this is why we often call her not only our Mother and Queen, but also our sister.

Night Prayer ends each day with a prayer, chant or song to Mary.

Let’s pray one now and ask that she might impart to us her own inner life of prayer and love.

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Reflection questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interview with Sister Celestina Menin about spiritual direction

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.”

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*”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

Lectio for lovers; praying Lectio Divina as a couple

In silent open-ness to God, we set aside our own agendas and open ourselves to God’s agenda, which is always love, love, and more love. What could be better than that?

Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) is an ancient Christian way to pray the Scriptures. It involves reading a passage of the Bible, listening to God in silence, responding back to God in prayer, and then resting in silent prayer for a time.

To pray this couple’s method of Lectio Divina, you will need:

Some quiet, private time.
A comfortable place to sit.
A Bible
A note book and something to write with
A quiet timer
Your romantic partner
An open, receptive heart

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Make yourselves comfortable in whatever way you can best

pay attention,

relax deeply,

be near one another.

You might begin, after the sign of the cross, with a vocal prayer to the Holy Spirit. I like this one:

Come, Holy Spirit,

come by means

of the powerful intercession

of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,

Thy well beloved spouse.”

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Step 1: Lectio

Have a passage chosen ahead of time that you both agree on. We usually choose something from the mass readings of the day.

Passing the Bible back and forth to take turns reading, read the passage aloud, slowly and reflectively.

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Of course you could each have your own Bible. But I like the reciprocation in the giving of the Bible to one another, and in taking turns; one listening, one reading.

As you hear the Scripture passage, listen for a word, phrase or sentence that stands out to you. (Don’t worry, one will.)

After the third time reading the passage through, write your word (s) into the note book you have between you.

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The Benedictine monks, who most developed this prayer form, called this note book a “florilegium,” meaning, “book of flowers.” Writing your verse or phrase down will help you focus as you pray, and be fruitful for later perusal, discussion, or future prayer.

This word or passage that stands out as you hear the Word of God, is considered to be the Holy Spirit speaking to you.

He laughs.

“What?”

“It’s just that each of these verses fit each of us so well.”

She laughs, too.

“Yeah, God thinks he’s pretty clever.”

Step 2: Meditatio

You may want to set a timer for this section of the prayer. Try to make it a light, non- jarring sound. I have an app on my kindle with a nice Tibetan bell sound for this purpose.

As to the time duration, agree on it beforehand. Ten to twenty minutes should do it. But even five is OK if that is all the time you have.

This time will be silent. You may want to hold hands, or put your feet together, and close your eyes.

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• Inwardly repeat your word or phrase with expectation. As you ponder it, apply it to your life and relationship with God. Let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to make clear His message to you.

When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your word or phrase, placing yourself once more in God’s presence.
• Ask the Lord, “What are you saying to me in this word or phrase?”

Sometimes you will want to stop here and discuss, briefly, the fruit of your meditatio together.

Step 3 Oratio

After the timer goes off, take a moment or maybe a few moments to respond with a prayer back to God about what He has lead you to understand or given to you during meditatio.

You might wish to write your prayer response into the notebook and to pray it aloud with your partner.

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Step 4 Contemplatio

This usually means to rest in God’s Heart in silence. I think when praying as a couple, it is good to rest also in one another’s hearts at the same time.

God is love,

and whoever lives in love,

lives in God,

and God in him.

(1John 4:16)

Again, set the timer, perhaps for 10-20 minutes as during the meditatio, and maybe hold hands, close your eyes, place yourselves in the presence of God, and rest lovingly there together.

If it is hard for you to do this, you might choose a prayer word like the Name of Jesus, Mary, or the word, “God,” “love” or “peace,” for your mind to hold onto like a walking stick as it travels in quiet over the next few minutes.

When the time is up, you may wish to pray aloud together the Our Father.

End with the sign of the cross and the kiss of peace.

Blessed are those who hear the word of God

– and cherish it in their hearts

(a responsory from the Liturgy of the Hours)

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*We have found that sometimes adjustments to this method must be made because of time, distance, kids, etc. It can be spread out over days, or sometimes reflections can be e-mailed or discussed in the car. Remember that God cannot be limited by the things we are limited by. He only wants us to be willing, and to try, and He will respond by working His wonders in us. However, I hope you can try praying in the above way sometimes. It is very rewarding and intimate; not to be missed.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… (Colossians 3:16a)

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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