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Respect for Life and Human Dignity
All life is sacred. From the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, all life has meaning, purpose and dignity. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God which is where human dignity comes from, flows and goes back again.
The times we live in are troubling. Life is no longer respected. Infants in the womb are vulnerable, they do not reside in a safe haven. Mothers can snuff out life before it has even taken it’s first breath. The old are not safe either. They become burdens and are also eliminated.
As Catholics we are called to respect life and human dignity, and because we are Catholics where much has been given, therefore, much will be expected, I’d like to present a challenge to our devotion to life and human dignity:
Do I see the image of God in every person I encounter?
Do I speak to every person with kindness and respect?
Do I treat others as persons made in the image of God?
Do I respect the reputation of others, neither detracting or calumniating them, regardless of whether or not I agree with them or approve of their actions?
Am I complacent in the sins of others, approving actions against the moral law and supporting them as ‘normal’, thus aiding my fellow men to continue to live in a manner against God’s law and jeopardizing their eternal salvation?
Am I gentle to my children, and to all people, in action and in my words?
Do I respect my aging parents and all older people? And do I offer to assist them in any way I can?
Do I speak out against injustices, including those in our political, social, and prison systems?
Do I share what I have with the poor?
Do I listen to the mentally ill, the drug addict or the alcoholic and treat them as children of God, even those in my own family?
Respecting life and the dignity of every human person goes far beyond just voicing outrage against the culture that supports abortion and euthanasia. Every person deserves to be treated with love, gentleness and respect.
Prayer is difficult. It is arduous; it is hard. There is always the challenge to find the time, quiet time, to be alone to undertake this endeavor. Solitude and quiet, are so necessary in order to engage in conversation with God. Even when overcoming this obstacle, prayer still has its challenges. It can be dry, empty, and wanting in sweetness and consolation. To persevere in it during these moments takes great strength. It takes a great amount of self-denial and self-control to be a person of prayer. It takes dedication, determination and a strong will.
Prayer is manly – only for the strong. It is not just something women do.
Some of the manliest men I know are men of prayer.
Number one on that list is Jesus, who models this for us by his example.
This is a question I would love to ask a group of young people. I don’t think I would be surprised by their responses. That is because I believe that prayer is something quite innate to our human nature more than we realize. I also was thinking about the Catechism of the Catholic Church in that beautiful section on prayer where this very question is asked.
What is prayer?
And who does the Church quote? Of all the saints and doctors over all the many centuries who have passed before us, the Catechism quotes a young person, a young and modern person.
“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (CCC #2558)
This is St. Therese of Lisieux’s definition of prayer from her autobiography. Therese was a little Carmelite nun in France who died at the age of twenty-four. That is who the Catechism quotes, and fittingly so. This child of God was so filled with the theological gifts that they spill out of her definition. Charity is that “surge of the heart”, Faith is “a simple look turned toward heaven”, and Hope is the “cry of recognition and of love”. These are deeply imbued in us, given to us at baptism and increase within us every time they are exercised.
There is no better way to exercise these virtues, faith, hope and charity, than by praying. Prayer is an exercise of faith. Every time we pray we are saying “I believe”. I believe God is there, is with me, can hear me, and cares for me. Prayer is simple, it has to be, because to complicate it with excessive reasoning destroys it. And it is a look, but not the look done with the physical eye. Faith is, as St. Paul writes to the Hebrews, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) So the faith-filled person is convicted even though he has not seen.
Prayer is the activity especially intended for making fervent acts of charity. It is during prayer that we lovingly meet with God. Our love for God should be with a pure heart; a heart that loves Him so much that it seeks only after His glory and His will. When our prayer is that of a soul that loves God, we forget ourselves and are ready to sacrifice every wish for Him. Love grows stronger and will continue to grow as we perform all our actions with our whole heart and with all of its capacity for goodwill.
The Christian expands its capacity to love, through prayer. Prayer – contact with God. And what do Christians ask of God?
-for the gift of Himself
-for His grace
-for the gift of the Kingdom
The life of a Christian is and ought to be a continual prayer. Surely, then one can see that this is interior. But, all prayer attracts or leads to an act of love (at least it ought to).
The two pillars of St. Teresa’s way of life are poverty and solitude. This should come as no surprise. St. Teresa perceived these to be essential to the reform she set out to undertake. Life in the Incarnation the years before the reform were much different. The monastery was large with a number of nuns, many visitors and lots of activity. Many of the nuns were wealthy and brought their servants with them. There was no strict enclosure, so the nuns could come and go as they pleased.
Given these conditions it is no wonder that St. Teresa focused her new foundation on these two things:
St. Teresa and her nuns of the reform loved poverty. They trusted in God to provide for the things they needed. They held all things in common. No one was to own anything. They were to renounce ownership even of particular offices which were exchanged by the prioress from time to time to keep anyone from becoming attached to any one position or job. They did not worry about having enough food either. “And if at times there wasn’t enough food for everyone and I said that what there was should go to those most in need, each one thought that she could do without, and so the food remained until God sent enough for everyone.” (The Foundations, 1,2). The fruits yielded from this love were: detachment, charity, abandonment to God and contentment.
For those of us living in the world as seculars, material poverty would be imprudent, especially if we are supporting a family. But we can practice the spirit of poverty. Are we trying to accumulate masses of this or that? A lack of the spirit of poverty can be summed up in being attached to anything. How can you know if you are attached to something? Well, if it is taken away or gone and you become sad – you are attached! The spirit of poverty could also be called a “holy indifference”. It doesn’t matter if you have that new ______or not, or if that favorite ______ is now gone.
St. Teresa also saw that solitude was necessary to live a life of prayer. To be alone with Christ so that an encounter with Christ can take place. This encounter is life-giving (love-giving) because Christ is the source of life, of love. However, solitude needs time and space. Therefore, we need to make the time and space in order to live this life of prayer. An assessment of our life, of the difficulties and impediments to this time and space needs to be examined and steps made in order to make way for this longed-for encounter with Christ.
Some of the difficulties to living solitude for those of us who live in the world include the business of our state in life. Our duties to family and work come first. Also, the state of our health can present an obstacle to this solitude, so can fatigue. Distractions are a big obstacle, especially – letting other things occupy our heart. A lack of a good time and space can also infringe on our prayer. At home we need to create a time and place to devote to prayer where this can be done regularly and without interruptions.
What is the best time of day for me to pray where it is quiet and I can be alone?
Where is the best place for me to spend in silence and devotion to God?
How can I make this space and time conductive to prayer?
Finally, we should ask -Why would I want to create this time and place for solitude? If the answer is because of a desire to live a life of prayer it must be remembered that a life of prayer needs to be nourished and expressed in love for others.
Contained in the Rite of Making the Promise or Vows in the OCDS Ritual, those who ask to be admitted to make their promise before the priest are exhorted with:
“This Community accepts your petition and it accompanies you with it prayers. May the Holy Spirit confirm in you the work which he has begun.”
This statement is in reference to Philippians 1: 6:
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, is instructing the community there about the importance of unity and humility in a Christian community. This Scripture instruction is particularly important to Secular Carmelites, which is why it was inferred to in the Ritual.
As a community, all striving for holiness, that is, for each member to be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness’ (Phil 1: 11), there should be no rivalries, competition, agendas or popularity contests. Rather, all should think of each other as partners in grace and for the gospel.
“because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Phil 1:7)
In addition, all should pray for each other with the affection of brothers and sisters.
“And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more” (Phil 1:9)
All of our striving is not for our own glory. St. Paul continues:
“that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1: 10-11)
St. John of the Cross confirms this further in his sketch of the Ascent of Mount Carmel – the Mount of Perfection – which shows that at the top of the Mount there is nothing, nothing – Only the honor and glory of God. The holiness that Carmelites are seeking is not for themselves; it is to honor and glorify God. The honor and glory of God is what should unite members in the community. This takes a great amount of humility.
St. Teresa of Jesus was particularly fond of the virtue of obedience. In her writings on setting up the foundations of the Reform she mentions her fondness for obedience, and she states that she did not know how to practice it until the nuns of the first Carmel of the Reform taught it to her. The nuns of the Carmel of St. Joseph in Medina del Campo possessed ‘many lofty virtues’ of which St. Teresa praises in her work titled The Foundations. (ICS Publications, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila)
In chapter one of The Foundations, St. Teresa recounts an incident that occurred in the refectory one day. On the menu that day was a serving of cucumbers and her portion was thin and rotting. She called over one of the nuns to ‘test her obedience’. This nun was talented and intelligent. St. Teresa called her over and told her to ‘go and plant the cucumber in a little vegetable garden’ that the nuns had. The nun asked St. Teresa ‘if she should plant it upright or sideways’. St. Teresa told her to plant it sideways. The nun went out and planted it without giving any other thought to what was being asked of her, and knowing that the cucumber will do nothing but dry up. ‘She planted it out of obedience, she blinded natural reason so as to believe that what she did was very appropriate.’
Our obedience to to be like this. It should have these same qualities: prompt, without questioning or reasoning. The nun did ask a question, but this was only for clarification. Obedience requires humility. In addition to humility, obedience requires a vigilant watch for humility’s enemy.
Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and savation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist.
He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in glory of him who is the light of heaven. You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendor, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen
– from a sermon by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop
The three gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
As Secular Carmelites we make promises to “to tend toward evangelical perfection in the spirit of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, obedience” (OCDS Ritual). We can compare these three counsels with the gifts the Magi offered to Jesus on the Feast of the Epiphany.
We can offer the newborn King the gold of our obedience, the frankincense of poverty and the mysterious myrrh of chastity.
Precious gold represents the offering of our most precious treasure – our will.
The frankincense of poverty is our complete trust in God. The burning of this incense carries our prayers heavenward. Our trust rises to His throne as a sweet perfume.
The myrrh of chastity redirects our natural affections into supernatural love, a love that makes us die to all that is purely human. Myrrh had been known for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It had been used to treat wounds, bruises and swelling. The myrrh of chastity can be used now to heal the wounds of hearts and help to turn hearts back to God.
The Feast of the Epiphany would be a good time to renew our commitment to the promises we have made to tend toward the evangelical counsels and to ask for the grace to manifest Christ to others in the world with more fidelity than ever before.