Recently, I’ve experienced the second great sea change in my prayer life. Now, I’ve had a number of conversion experiences, major theological realizations, etc., over the years, as well as periods where I’ve been better about praying than others. But, in essence, my prayer life has remained the same since I was a teenager.
I’ve always figured this meant I was either quite advanced or else hopelessly lost. Every time I’ve read the Interior Castle, I’ve figured I’m stuck in Room 1. At the same time, I have my bad habits and sinful tendencies that I’ve likewise figured were either hindering my prayer life or else were the proverbial “thorn in the side” God was using to keep me humble (fat lot of good that did). So, I trudged along, just waiting for God to do what He needed to do.
In fact, I didn’t think there was anything “wrong” with my prayer life, because in my study of the writings of the Saints, it seemed like I was doing OK. I recognized the experiences they described, to tell me I was doing things “right,” and I just figured it was a matter of time before I’d reach contemplation, or else I was already there and didn’t know it.
Christmas 1996, after my aortic root replacement, was our first Christmas with the Internet and Amazon.com. I had made my mom a list of books I wanted, and categorized them into novels, philosophy, spirituality, etc., so she could pick a book or two out of each category. Instead, she gave me the *whole* list. Among these were many Saints whose writings I always wanted to read. After my formal studies began as a Carmelite, I picked up several Carmelites I hadn’t read yet.
Prior to that, I’d read a lot *about* saints, but not a lot *by* saints. I do remember reading the Life of HM Teresa of Avila when I was in high school, from the Catholic high school library, but I don’t remember when, exactly, or if I read any of her other books. I just remember that that, like my various attempts to read her works over the years prior to 2008, left me feeling like I hadn’t gotten anything out of her. She kind of tends to dance around things, and it wasn’t until I’d studied a other things, particularly Ignatian spirituality. One of HM Teresa’s great mentors was St. Francis Borgia, the great Jesuit (yes, those Borgias–the infamous Pope Alexander VI was his great-grandfather; Francis was a wealthy Spanish prince who married and had children, then had a conversion experience after his wife’s death, signed over his title and fortune to his eldest son and became what we now call a second career vocation) . Another great mentor in her life was St. Peter of Alacantara, the Franciscan. So I had to get a deeper understanding of Jesuit and Franciscan spirituality in order to get a better foundation for reading Teresa.
Anyway, I know I read her in high school, and I know that, relatively early in life, I developed an understanding of the female mystics.
Again, I certainly read *about* them. Even the Miniature Stories of the Saints by Fr. Daniel Lord, SJ, gave me a pretty profound insight into how Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Catherine of Siena, and Clare of Assisi saw their relationships with God. Between them and the great Virgin Martyrs, all of whom seemed more interesting to me than the male saints, I often joke that I grew up wanting to start an order for “men who want to be nuns.”
Probably the only male saint who really spoke to me was John of the Cross, and I never *read* him because I allowed myself to be hindered by all the people who say not to read John of the Cross because he’s too “advanced”–HA! When I finally *read* John of the Cross for the first time last year, other than quotations and short passages, I was like, “Nothing could be simpler than this!”
But God let me understand what He needed me to understand to steer me to the right vocation, and somehow my understanding of the female mystics led me to intuit the Theology of the Body and realize God was calling me to marriage, and, as Chesterton describes, when I began reading the “hard stuff” after that Christmas in 1996, I felt like I was reading stuff I already understood.
Now, maybe that high school reading of St. Teresa of Avila was right after I started high school–that much I don’t recall, Senator–but by Christmas 1990 I had developed an understanding of the importance of tears. Teresa of Avila says that, out of all “consolations” one might receive in prayer, holy tears are the most important. Other consolations are like God patting you on the back and saying “Good job.” Tears–which most people don’t even think of as a spiritual experience–tell us we’re really appreciating what Jesus did for us, and short of spiritual or physical stigmata, are a sign that we’re fully understanding the Passion.
So the first of the two major “breakthroughs” was the first time I experienced Tears. I’m pretty sure it was during my annual Infant of Prague novena in 1990. My grandma sent me an Infant Jesus of Prague book in 1989, and I began making a Novena every year from the 16th to 25th of December (technically, two overlapping Novenas). During those years, I’d dedicate an hour or more to prayer, saying not only all the prayers in the Infant of Prague book, but also the Rosary and other prayers.
I remember the experience, but I don’t remember whether I was praying the Sorrowful Mysteries or the Stations, but one day in prayer–again, I’m pretty sure it was during my pre-Christmas Novena–I was hit by the realization of the Passion, and I began crying. I knew this was an important spiritual gift, and I got very excited, and told my brother, who thought I was weird.
And I know it was no later than 1991 because my brother was living at home at the time.
So, for 20 years (WOW), I’ve basically stayed at the same level in my prayer life, which I knew to be a fairly “advanced” level but wasn’t sure why I’ve stagnated. On the one hand, gauged against the “average person,” there’s always a tendency to be like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and say, “Well, I’m much more advanced than they are.’ However, gauged against the Saints, I knew I was on the right track but missing something, and thought it was just a matter of time.
Meanwhile, in my formal studies as a Carmelite, I’ve struggled with understanding certain aspects of Carmelite prayer. Again, I thought I was “doing it right” by my reading of the Saints, but I have heard many different things from living people about it, and it’s really been a puzzle to me.
The OCDS Constitutions and Statutes (formerly the Rule of Life and Statutes) require a half an hour of “mental prayer.” I knew that all prayer is supposed to be “mental prayer,” and the “prayer of quiet” is supposed to be more of a gift from God. I knew I *was* practicing mental prayer, particularly because of the experience of tears 20 years ago, but I was never sure if I’d achieved “prayer of quiet” or “contemplation,” but again some experiences I have fairly regularly in prayer match Our Holy Mother’s description of “contemplation.” The one I like best is in _Way of Perfection_ where she calls it a “spiritual swoon.”
So my question started as a legalistic one: I always figured that as long as I was practicing “mental prayer,” which I was, I was on the right track and just had to wait for God. Yet most Carmelites insist that the requirement in the Constitutions is for “mental prayer,” not “prayer of quiet,” that even though they’re separate terms, in Carmelite spirituality they’re basically the same thing.
So I had to hammer out some conversations with some of my most knowledgeable Carmelite friends, in person and online, and I kind of figured it out.
I don’t want to get into all the confusing details of the various issues I was trying to work through, but a few things were questions related to psychology and educational theory, a few had to do with terminology. Some had to do with those “Catholic reflexes” about avoiding any practices in prayer that sound “too Protestant” or “too Buddhist.”
My President described Prayer of Quiet as being a state where one is in such deep meditation that it’s like sleep. Now, he’s good about explaining the differences between authentic Christian prayer and Quietism or Buddhism, but his description of the method sounded very Buddhist to me, and I was confused a bit there. Then a very good Internet friend explained how she sees it, and I said, “Sometimes, I just sit and hold a Crucifix in my hands and just adore Jesus.” Her response was the online equivalent of Lucy van Pelt yelling, “THAT’S IT!”
So those observations helped me, and, a few Sundays ago (either First Sunday of Advent or Christ the King), I began saying a Rosary on our way to CCD. I used the method which I find to be the most effective for meditation, where you break up the Hail Mary’s with reflections on the Mysteries (i.e., “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you as Gabriel said. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners to obey His Will, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”)
I was praying as slowly as I could. It took me about an hour and a half to say 5 decades. Plus, I was holding in my hands a rosary as well as a big crucifix I sometimes carry with me in the aforementioned method of prayer.
During Mass, I got hit by the experience I recognize as the “Prayer of Quiet,” but, because of the various “Cradle Catholic Reflexes,” I always insisted on responding to with “vocal prayer.” I always thought prayer needs “content” to be Catholic. I also realized that a big misunderstanding in my Carmelite spirituality was that I’d confused “don’t be attached to consolations” with “avoid consolations,” so I was pushing consolations out of my mind–both my friends I was consulting said, “Heck, no. John and Teresa teach that if you *have* a consolation, you should run with it.” The third reason I would insist on “praying back” in that experience was just out of joy and Thanksgiving, like Peter saying “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let’s built 3 tents!,” “because he didn’t know what else to say.”
So, this time, I just shut up and let it happen, and I experienced Contemplation.
Now, this answered a major question about my prayer life I’ve posed from time to time but generally took for granted. I’ve always found that, when I pray a certain amount, I hit what I call a “wall,” where my brain can’t think of the words any more. I start to get a headache if I “try” to pray.
I always thought that experience was the Devil trying to stop me from praying, or else it was physical fatigue, so I’d either try all the harder with “vocal prayers” because I was trying to fight the Devil or fight the Fatigue.
Now, I realize that that “block” is God putting up His hand and saying, “Shut up. It’s My turn to speak.”
So, tonight, Mary and I went to a Penance Service. We got there after the “service” part and stood in line for 45 minutes. We got in what appeared to be the shortest line but actually took the longest. We weren’t sure if it was short because the priest was “fast” or because people were avoiding the priest. Apparently, people were avoiding the priest, but depriving themselves of a great gift. We both said it was the best Confession we’d had in years, and we experienced what Confession should be, Christ speaking to us through the priest. Mary’s even pretty sure he addressed her by name even though she didn’t tell him her name.
In line for Confession, I prayed Vespers according to the Roman Rite, the Byzantine Rite and the Coptic Rite on my phone, plus the Confiteor in Latin, the Seven Pentitential Psalms, and just whatever daily prayers I could think of. I planned to say a Divine Mercy Chaplet after I got out of Confession.
I could feel the “prayer of quiet” coming on even before I went into the Confessional and “shut up” in my prayers when that happened. Then I had this profound Confession experience. I began saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I said the Our Father and Hail Mary that were my penance, anyway, and then I started the Creed, but tried to be slow and deliberate about.
Then I found that “block” happening in my head. I couldn’t remember the words of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. So I’d just stop. I’d feel the prayer of quiet for a few minutes. Then I’d pray another decade of the chaplet, feel God’s metaphorical hand go up, and stop and go quiet for another several minutes.
And all I can say is, “WOW.”