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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, a New testament reading, various prayers and antiphons, intercessions composed by the Church, a Gospel canticle from Luke, an Our Father, and a closing prayer composed by the Church. 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 so I always had 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.

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

How they must have lived in 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. 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 to help us stay on track, helping us to discern God’s will, and inspiring 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 can see how avoiding pointless chatter and guarding our speech would improve our spiritual lives. 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.

Explore your Interior Castle through the prayer of journaling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer without “praying”

 “Today, the vegetables would like to be chopped

By someone who is singing God’s Name.”
~ Hafiz

A few mornings ago, sitting at the table with my coffee, looking out over the meadow, I noticed with a smile, the moon in the brightening sky.

It was a rich gold, shining out momentarily as the sun came up, and then, as the light from the sun intensified, changing to it’s usual white. Slowly it became translucent. It faded away like the Cheshire cat, leaving a grin behind, eventually disappearing all together as morning filled the sky.

The whole thing was enchanting. It was prayer without “praying.”

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There are times when the human soul is in a state of recollection and communion just by being what it is, by living, and being receptive when it is given silent brightness.

Holy mindfulness, the Sacrament of the Present Moment, and the Practice of the Presence of God are usually thought of as actively cultivated. However, perhaps these are graciously given, as well, and become the way we receive and experience the minutes and hours of daily life.

It seems in the quiet moments of the day, we can be deeply in tune with the loveliness of being, the loveliness of God, by being receptive, and just by being.

 

Maybe this is because we live in God’s presence, are made in His image, and the kingdom really is in our midst, and truly within us.

 

“…the Father and I will go to him and make Our home within him.” John 14:23b

 

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In our gentle appreciation of beauty, in our every day task of making food for the people we love out of the beautiful carrots, onions, and garlic he has given us and that human hands have  grown, we can be recollected spiritually without necessarily even thinking about it.  I think, but I’m not sure, that is what the indwelling of the Trinity might feel like. After all, this indwelling is true and real in each of us.

When you lean down to hug your dog and a warm breeze comes rushing by, embracing you both, and all is still inside as you close your eyes; maybe this is what “the morning star rising in [our] hearts,” is like.

When the coffee is hot and good, when someone you love very much is sitting silently at the other end of the table with his coffee and his cigarette, as the morning light turns from blue to pink to gold to white,  sometimes it isn’t necessary to form any words of love, or even really to think about anything at all. Your heart is already praying just by being there, and being what it is.

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When everything seems quietly alive, as if even the inanimate in creation joins us in silent praise, and it’s no big deal, it just is; it could be there is nothing very strange or esoteric about that.

Maybe when Jesus said, “the pure of heart shall see God,” this is because with Him we are pure of heart, and when we are pure of heart, all we see is God.

Maybe when the heart is open, it automatically is filled with a receptive “heartfulness,” singing God’s name, without words, without thoughts, all the time.

 “Today, the vegetables would like to be chopped

By someone who is singing God’s Name.”
~ Hafiz

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An Advent Hangout :)

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Come to me,

all you who are weary and heavily burdened,

and  I will give you rest for your souls.

~Matt. 11:28

The invitation said “Shawna’s Day of Silence.” When we arrived, her house was open, breezy, and, obviously, quiet.

My friend had set up areas to be comfortable to think, read, journal or pray or even nap. There were candles burning, and an array of books on various tables; spiritual reading, art books, a Bible. Art supplies and paper were in the kitchen with snacks and coffee. I brought a basket of rosaries to set on the coffee table. A note encouraged us to go for a walk, or do whatever quiet activity we liked.

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I remember walking in her beautiful garden, scribbling in my journal on her couch, smiling at my friends, just hanging out. People came and went as they pleased or as they had time.

Shawna was going through a hard time in her life then. It is beautiful that one of her responses to her spiritual growth during her suffering was to open her home for us as a refuge of silence and acceptance.

You would think such a gathering would feel awkward, but, especially among good friends, it was not awkward at all.

I was inspired, some years later to hold a “day of silence” at my house. I decided to punctuate mine with times of communal vocal prayer.

People could come and go, similar to Shawna’s day, but they would know that at various times we would gather to pray together.

My friend Jocie came early to my “Day of Silence,” and made memorable breakfast tacos for everyone.

I set up an environment similar to the one Shawna had.

We then gathered for Morning Prayer form the Liturgy of the Hours in the room in my house we had set aside as our family oratory. (I called it my chapel but I know that is not actually correct terminology.)

Then everyone could do whatever they liked.

We had a tree house rosary at noon, Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3, and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours on the trampoline at 6.

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It was a great day. One of my fond memories of that day was wandering into the “chapel” and seeing my friend Molly in there with a bucket of soapy warm water and a towel. She asked me to sit down and she washed my feet!

It was very touching.

* (You may ask where my kids were that day or how did I got them to be quiet all that time. Answer: My kids were there some, but mostly at a friend’s house that day- otherwise it would never have been a day of silence!)

I have hosted days of silence and reflection on other occasions, but they have been shorter. They were more like a come and go open house with communal prayer at the beginning and the end for a few hours, and food and coffee and tea, of course.

I have also tried a “day of silence” with my fiancee. In our schedule we made, we set times for walking, reading, quiet prayer togetherandjust open quiet time. We broke silence for meals and for going out for coffee.

At three o’clock, we washed one another’s feet, and anointed one another with oil.

The day was the first anniversary of my brother’s suicide which had unfortunately marked most of the duration of our relationship with trauma and the various crises that emanated from that event. It was important that we have a healing day.

When we washed one another’s feet, we also told each other how grateful we were for each other’s strength and wisdom, faith and resilience, acceptance and presence.

In the evening, we prayed Evening Prayer together from the Liturgy of the Hours, and went out for a special meal.

Consider hosting a Day of Reflection or a Day of Silence at your own home, your Domestic Church. There are so many ways to serve others without a lot of “doing.” You can be open and accepting to others, your house like the open heart of Jesus.

You don’t have to make small talk or worry about how you are doing. Just be like Joseph and Mary when they opened the stable at Bethlehem for the Shepherds, for the wise men, for whoever wanted to come to be with Jesus and with them under the light of the Star.

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We all have so many Christmas parties we go to. We have shopping and cooking, baking and decorating, travel and other plans.

Take a moment. Let the fresh air of the Spirit come into your house, the sweetness of silence with Jesus permeate your home and your friendships.

You could have different kind of Christmas party, one that cultivates peace and gives refuge to your friends in the middle of all their intensified seasonal activity and holiday stress.

Put on the coffee pot. Light the candles on your Advent wreath. Set out some good food, some spiritual reading, maybe some art supplies.

Then open up your home and your heart.

The fruit of silence is prayer…
The fruit of prayer is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace
~ St.Teresa of Calcutta

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