Posted in ADVENT, CARMELITES, CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, DOCTORS of the Church, SAINT of the DAY

Saint of the Day – 14 December – (1542-1591) Doctor of the Church

Saint of the Day – 14 December – (1542-1591) Doctor of the Church – Carmelite monk and Priest, Religious Founder, Writer, Poet, Mystic, Apostle of Contemplative Prayer.   Also known as • Doctor of Mystical Theology • John della Croce • John de la Croix • John de la Cruz.   Patronages – • contemplative life, contemplatives• mystical theology, mystics• Spanish poets• World Youth Day 2011• Segovia, Spain• Ta’ Xbiex, Malta.   Attributes – eagle, Crucifix, Cross, Carmelite habit.    John of the Cross is known for his writings.   Both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature.   He was canonised as a saint in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII.   He is one of the thirty-six Doctors of the Church, added by Pope Pius XI in 1926.   His works are • Ascent of Mount Carmel• Dark Night of the Soul, Book 1 • Dark Night of the Soul, Book 2 • A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ.st john of the cross - infost john cross LARGE

St John was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez into a converso family (descendents of Jewish converts to Christianity) in Fontiveros, near Ávila, a town of around 2,000 people.  John’s father had been disowned by his wealthy Spanish family when he married a poor weaver rather than a woman of equal economic status.   Living in poverty proved to be too much for him and he died shortly after John was born.   John spent much of his youth in an orphanage, where he was clothed, fed and given an elementary education.   At the age of 17, he found a job in a hospital and was accepted into a Jesuit college.   In 1563 he entered the Carmelite Order.   Eventually he enrolled in another university, where he did so well that he was asked to teach a class and to help settle disputes.

Ordained a Carmelite priest in 1567 at age 25, John met Teresa of Avila and, like her, vowed himself to the primitive Rule of the Carmelites.   As partner with Teresa and in his own right, John engaged in the work of reform and came to experience the price of reform:  increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment.    John was caught up in a misunderstanding and imprisoned at Toledo, Spain.   During those months of darkness in that little cell, John could have become bitter, revengeful, or filled with despair.   But instead, he kept himself open to God’s action, for no prison could separate him from God’s all-embracing love.   During this time he had many beautiful experiences and encounters with God in prayer.   He came to know the cross acutely—to experience the dying of Jesus—as he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God.Zurbarán_St._John_of_the_Cross. - large

Yet, the paradox!   In this dying of imprisonment John came to life, uttering poetry.   In the darkness of the dungeon, John’s spirit came into the Light.   There are many mystics, many poets-  John is unique as mystic-poet, expressing in his prison-cross the ecstasy of mystical union with God in the Spiritual Canticle.the blessed St John of the Cross

 

But as agony leads to ecstasy, so John had his Ascent to Mt Carmel, as he named it in his prose masterpiece.   As man-Christian-Carmelite, he experienced in himself this purifying ascent;  as spiritual director, he sensed it in others;  as psychologist-theologian, he described and analysed it in his prose writings.   His prose works are outstanding in underscoring the cost of discipleship, the path of union with God:  rigorous discipline, abandonment, purification.   Uniquely and strongly John underlines the gospel paradox: The cross leads to resurrection, agony to ecstasy, darkness to light, abandonment to possession, denial to self to union with God.   If you want to save your life, you must lose it.   John is truly “of the Cross.”   He died at 49—a life short, but full.    AND his reforms of the “Discalced” Carmelites revitalised the Order.   He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI on 24 August 1926.

496px-diego_de_sanabria_-_saint_john_of_the_cross_-_google_art_project
Diego de Sanabria – Saint John of the Cross
535px-el_greco_-_view_of_toledo_-_google_art_project
Image above – El Greco‘s landscape of Toledo depicts the priory in which John was held captive, just below the old Muslim alcázar and perched on the banks of the Tajo on high cliffs
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Posted in CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, IGNATIAN/JESUIT - Reflections, Jesuit Saints and more, MORNING Prayers

The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

by Margaret Silf

Probably most of us, if we think of contemplative prayer at all, regard it as something that is beyond us and practiced only by a few contemplative monks and nuns whose whole lives are devoted to prayer.   Yet I have heard respected and experienced spiritual guides say that contemplation is often given to those you would least expect—to harassed mothers and people who think they can’t pray, to children, to the sick and dying, to people with no academic learning about prayer or Scripture or theology.   God sometimes seems to speak, heart to heart, in this mysterious way, to the untaught and unpracticed. None of us should imagine that the ways of contemplative prayer are closed to us because God is always infinitely larger than our expectations.

I suggest that creation itself gives us a gateway.   In every moment of our lives, a silent, invisible miracle of exchange is taking place.   We breathe out the air that our bodies no longer need, which is mainly carbon dioxide, a waste product for us but the very thing that the green leaves on the trees and plants need to produce their own energy.   So they receive our carbon dioxide and, through the process of photosynthesis, produce not only their own life energy, but also oxygen—a waste product for them but the very thing we need to live.   Whenever I stop my busyness for a few moments to look around me, I am amazed at this arrangement and it makes me think of prayer.

So perhaps a good way to open our hearts up to the gift of contemplation is simply to become still, and, quite literally, to breathe out our waste—all that clogs us and deadens us—and to breathe in God’s renewing life, as we breathe in the fresh oxygen that the plants have made for us.   This simple, deliberate breathing exercise can become something like what the French peasant was doing as he looked at God and God looked at him.   We are becoming aware of the mysterious exchange of life between ourselves and God.   And there is no reason that any period of quiet might not become prayer of this kind.

There may be other creatures who can help you cross the threshold of contemplation. If there is a baby in the family, try simply holding her in your arms as she sleeps and letting God hold both of you in his.   Nothing more.   No deep thoughts.   No search for meaning.   Just be there.

A cat (if you are not allergic to them!) can also be a great aid to prayer.   My own cat loves to sleep round my neck.   At first I found this disturbing but when he has settled into a particular hollow (perhaps where he can feel my pulse), he will lie there, quite still, just purring deeply, until he falls asleep and the purring ceases.   When he does this, I let myself find a hollow close to God’s pulse and let my own prayer become just a sleepy purr and then the silence of content.   Or you might discover prayer on a park bench.   The other day I was in Hyde Park and I spent a few minutes listening to the deep-throated cooing of the pigeons. I wanted to join them because, in their way, they were engaged in contemplative prayer, simply expressing, in this peaceful murmur, the song of their beings.

In your own home, prayer awaits you in the opening of a flower, the rising of your bread dough, or the steady, imperceptible development of a child.   Spend time in silence, aware of the wonder that is being unfolded in your cakes and your children, your houseplants or your garden.   For this is the essence of contemplative prayer—simple awareness, allowing God to be God, without trying to put the limitations of shape or meaning around him.

Contemplation, like all prayer, is pure gift and not anything we can achieve.   It happens when prayer becomes, wholly and utterly, the flow of God’s grace, transforming the land it flows through, like Ezekiel’s stream.   Or it happens when we lose consciousness of our own part in it and become simply receptors and carriers of grace.   It happens when we realise that our transformation depends on nothing but God’s grace and love, and, like the chrysalis, let go of all activity to try to achieve our own redemption.

When we try to describe it, we fail, for it lies beyond the world of words.   We can open our hearts to it by the practice of awareness but we cannot bring it about, any more than we can force a flower to open or an egg to hatch.   And in our silent, trustful waiting, we are acknowledging that God is God, the source and the destination, the means and the end of all our prayer, whatever form it may take.

from Close to the Heart: A Practical Approach to Personal Prayer

Make my Heart Still

“Lord take my poor heart. It is often so far from You, lost in a thousand things and in the trifles that fill up my everyday life. Lord, only You can collect the thoughts of my heart and have it concentrate on You, You who are the centre of all hearts, the Lord of all souls. Only You can bestow the spirit of prayer, only Your grace is able to allow me to find You amidst this multitude of things, amdist the distractions of everyday life, YOU, the one necessity, the one person with whom my heart can become still.”

“When man comes to God in awe and love, then he is praying.”

Karl Rayner SJ – The Mystical Way in Everyday Life

when man comes to god in awe and love-karl rayner sj

Posted in CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, MORNING Prayers, Pope BENEDICT XVI

Thought for the Day – 8 July

Thought for the Day – 8 July

Unsteady Hearts – Learning to give thanks!

The lack of genuine gratitude we experience within our souls and even the sense of selfishness we can have in our prayers to God for deeper feelings toward Him can fill us with disgust.   It doesn’t take much in the way of self reflection to know how unsteady our hearts can be.   Are we really sorry for our sins or do we simply want the psychological relief of unburdening ourselves?   O’Connor sees both her tendencies towards scruples and utter laxity.   Yet, despite these unpleasant truths she can in the end step away from her self concern and self focus and say simply to God “I am thankful.”   In the end, we have to let go of self conscious shame and take hold of what is greater than ourselves and worthy of our attention.

“You’ve done so much for me already and I haven’t been particularly grateful.   My thanksgiving is never in the form of self sacrifice—a few memorised prayers babbled once over lightly.   All this disgusts me in myself but does not fill me with the poignant feeling I should have to adore You with, to be sorry with, or to thank You with.   Perhaps the feeling I keep asking for, is something again selfish—something to help me to feel that everything with me is all right.   And yet it seems only natural but maybe being thus natural is being thus selfish.   My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on.   It gives me scruples at one minute and leaves me lax the next.  If I must know all these things through the mind, dear Lord, please strengthen mine.   Thank you, dear God, I believe I do feel thankful for all You’ve done for me. I want to. I do.”

Excerpt From: Flannery O’Connor. “A Prayer Journal.”

“Praying actualizes and deepens our communion with God.   Our prayer can and should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, from our shame over sin and from our gratitude for the good.”………..Pope Benedict XVI

praying actualizes and deepens-pope benedict

Posted in CCC, CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, MORNING Prayers

Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What’s the Difference?

Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What’s the Difference?

To answer this question, let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the glossary, we find the following definitions (I’ve highlighted several words and phrases in each definition to help us parse out the difference):

First, for meditation:

MEDITATION: An exercise and a form of prayer in which we try to understand God’s revelation of the truths of faith and the purpose of the Christian life, and how it should be lived, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.

And now, for contemplation:

CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.

So immediately we can see that Catholic meditation is a cognitive exercise — prayer seeking understanding; whereas contemplative prayer sets aside that kind of mental effort, seeking instead a wordless, loving adoration of Christ and his mysteries.

Put another way:  in meditation we think; in contemplation we rest our thoughts and simply love (and respond to love).

To unpack this a bit further, we can look into the body of the Catechism itself, for further insight into both meditation and contemplation.    In sections 2705-8 of the Catechism we find further insight into a Catholic understanding of meditation.    In the interest of brevity I’m only going to post a few key phrases but look it up in the Catechism and read the entire section:

Meditation is above all a quest.  The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking… To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves… To the extent that we are humble and faithful, we discover in meditation the movements that stir the heart and we are able to discern them… Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire… This form of prayerful reflection is of great value but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.

Immediately following this (sections 2709-19) is the Catechism’s discussion of contemplative prayer.   Once again, here are just a few key phrases:

ccc2709-2719

 

Contemplative prayer seeks him “whom my soul loves.” … We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love… In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself…. One cannot always meditate but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state.   The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith… Entering into contemplative prayer is like entering into the Eucharistic liturgy:   we “gather up” the heart, recollect our whole being under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, abide in the dwelling place of the Lord which we are, awaken our faith in order to enter into the presence of him who awaits us… Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son… It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, “to his likeness.”
Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus… Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love… Contemplative prayer is a communion of love bearing Life for the multitude, to the extent that it consents to abide in the night of faith… We must be willing to “keep watch with [him] one hour.”

The Catechism refuses to draw a hard and fast distinction between meditation and contemplation:  “in [contemplation] we can still meditate.”   Head and heart are both intimate parts of one being.   We may seek in contemplation to love and behold God in silence but thoughts will still dance in our minds.   But as “The Cloud of Unknowing” so helpfully teaches us, when meditative thoughts emerge during contemplative prayer, seek to be non-attached.   Let them arise and let them fall. Keep our focus “fixed on the Lord himself” — in contemplation our intent is to love God, not to think about God;   to know God rather than merely know about God.

Nevertheless, because meditation is an effortful prayer, there are times when we are simply too tired, or too angry, anxious, or whatever, to meditate.   Yet contemplative prayer, emphasising rest and silence, is always available to us.    Perhaps most important of all is the recognition that meditation is not the highest form of prayer: contemplation is.   Yet true contemplation is always a gift, a grace.   It’s not something we achieve, it’s something we receive.

To summarise:

  • Meditation is a quest;   contemplation involves rest.
  • Meditation is mental, cognitive, discursive;   contemplation is silent, heart-centered, beholding
  • Meditation is important, contemplation even more so.
Posted in CCC, CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, MORNING Prayers

Contemplative Prayer – Making a Start

“Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No 2715).

Contemplation is the prayer of the heart and not of the mind.   Contemplative prayer may focus on a word or a saying or one may simply be in the presence of God.   It is the prayer of the listening heart.   The goal of contemplative prayer is to enter into the presence of God where there are no words, concepts or images.  It is the prayer of being in love.

HOW:  Before the Blessed Sacrament – sit or kneel.   Gaze into the Tabernacle or look into the Monstrance.   Be still.   Focus on your breathing.   Ask Mary to help you to pray. Pray to the Holy Spirit.   Then peacefully repeat a word or a phrase:   ‘Jesus; Jesus I love you; Jesus I trust in you; Father; Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’, etc.   Don’t continue to repeat the word or the words over and over again.   Only use the word or the phrase when your mind begins to wander.   Focus your gaze on the Eucharist.   Be open to whatever Jesus is asking of you.

At home – sit or kneel.   Close your eyes.   Again, be still and focus on your breathing.   Ask Mary to help you to pray.   Pray to the Holy Spirit.   As before, repeat a word or a phrase, rooted in the scripture, the creed, a prayer or an aspect of our Christian faith.   Do not repeat the word or words over and over again.   Remember to use the word only when your mind begins to wander.   Focus your gaze on the loving presence of God within you.  If you begin to feel embraced by God, be still and be silent.   Just allow the Holy Spirit to pray within you.

Jesuit Father William Johnston who has written much about contemplative prayer said: “Properly understood, contemplation shakes the universe, topples the powers of evil, builds a great society and opens the doors that lead to eternal life”.

What are the practical steps that we can take in order to incorporate into our busy lives daily contemplative prayer?

  • First of all, we need balance in our lives.   When was the last time that we enjoyed dinner with family and friends, or turned off our cell phone and refrained from checking our email at every moment?   Excessive work and travel, excessive involvement in sports and entertainment are tearing us apart.
  • Secondly, contemplation requires the capacity to be alone.   It is difficult to be alone in our contemporary society.   Even when we are alone, the noise of our own worries and fears drown out the silence of God’s voice.   Many people are incapable of being alone and they immediately feel an obsession to talk with someone on a cell phone or check their email.
  • We all need moments of solitude.   Spending a quiet time before the Eucharist, reading the Scriptures during a peaceful moment at home, taking tranquil walks through the woods or along the beach all are necessary for our soul.   In order to be with God, we must develop the ability to be alone with ourselves.

Excerpt from Fr James Farfaglia’s Homily on Contemplative Prayer

“The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and no shortcuts.   Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.”

“We do not want to be beginners.   But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!”

“Hence monastic prayer, especially meditation and contemplative prayer, is not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in Him whom we have found, who loves us, who is near to us, who comes to us to draw us to Himself.”

― Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

THOMAS MERTON ON CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER NO 1