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Archive for the ‘Ascent of Mount Carmel’ Category

Fasting is one of the principle means of making satisfaction for sins. By abstaining from eating all that is available to eat, one can do penance for sins, making reparation for them. Also one can gain strength against future sins by this self-imposed penance. Fasting is a way to chastise the body for the sins the body has committed. Additionally denying oneself the pleasure of eating helps to bring the body into control and subject to the soul.

St. John of the Cross tells us to keep in mind the value of our good works, fasts, alms and penances. Firstly the value of these is “not based on quantity and quality so much as on the love of God practiced in them”. (Ascent Book 3 Chap. 27) So our good works, fasts, almsgiving and penances should be done for the love of God, and we “should not set (our) heart on the pleasure, comfort, savor and other elements of self-interest (like trying to lose weight) these good works and practices usually entail, but recollect (our) joy in God and desire to serve him through these means.”

As always regarding fasting we have Christ for our example. He is perfect, so we do not see any extremes to the virtue he models for us. He did practice fasting and abstinence, though he did not need to do this. He had perfect control over his desires and the appetites. In gaining control over the sense appetites prudent discretion is in order. We are not to “kill (ourselves) with penances” and “weaken (ourselves) by fasts”. (Dark Night, Book 1, Chap 6) The idea is virtue, which is the mean between extremes. We should be doing our fasting with the proper motivation which is to repair the damage done by our sinfulness and to gain strength for future temptations to sin.

Fasting is also good because the mind is dulled when the body overeats. When one indulges in  too much, the mind becomes sleepy and unable to meditate or pray with attentiveness.

The Church has us fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. These are the days Catholics usually associate with fasting. Fasting during these penitential days of Lent is defined as one normal meal and two smaller meals that together do not equal a full meal. Snacking in between meals would also be excluded as part of the fast. The Church additionally ask us to fast before receiving Holy Communion. We are to fast from food and drink, with the exception of water, for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. It is good to be reminded as to why we are obliged to do this. We do the Eucharistic fast out of respect for the sacrament. We are about to received Jesus, and therefore it is fitting that we should not eat or drink other substances prior to receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood.

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We all have this tendency to enjoy (or seek satisfaction) in ourselves, in our pride or in other people and things. St. John of the Cross teaches that these tendencies are the root of our attachments. Attachments are those “inordinate appetites”. Basically, they are those desires we have for things that are not rightly ordered in our lives and lead us into sin, mortal and venial, and imperfections. It is important to get to the root of these inordinate desires if one desires union with God. To get to the root of these, which are the inclinations of our nature, we must oppose them and make ourselves do what is repugnant to our nature.

Gnarled Tree Roots --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Gnarled Tree Roots — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

This would mean ‘going against the current’ and requires strength of will. St. John of the Cross, in the Ascent to Mount Carmel, gives us “rules” for detachment. He tells us the soul must always be inclined:

not to the easiest thing ~ but to the hardest
not to the tastiest ~ but to the most insipid
not to things that give greatest pleasure ~ but to those that give the least
not to the restful things ~ but to painful ones
not to consolation ~ but to desolation
not to more ~ but to less
not to the highest and dearest ~ but to the lowest and most despised
not to the desire for something ~ but to having no desires.

So all that is difficult, disagreeable or wearisome to us needs to have our attention. These are the things to work on! These reveal to us our desires.

Our saint says we are to oppose these inclinations with order and discretion. In other words, we need to train ourselves to not shrink back from something we find disagreeable or that requires effort or that we find difficult or challenging. In order to strengthen the will, we can put into practice the above rules starting with little things in order to gain strength of will and then be strong enough to tackle the bigger attachments. For instance, being inclined to “restful things” like not getting out of bed when the alarm clock first goes off. The tendency is to hit the snooze and rest ten more minutes! It is a bit painful to jump right out of bed at the first call; it will require strength of will. “I will!” “I will get up right away when the alarm sounds off.” Or how about the inclination to the highest and dearest . . . a promotion, recognition, a word of praise? Can we train the will to not desire these and rather hope to be despised, past over and unnoticed? All this may sound harsh, but there is a purpose to this and it is to bring us to union with God. As we practice detachment from our desires this end is always to be kept in mind. Our desires should always be for God.

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If our desires are centered on God then we will be moving our heart to purity. The deepest, most spiritual meaning of purity is to “be detached from all creatures, free of a fixation on oneself and on others.” (Edith Stein Collected Works: Woman, p. 203)

This purity is so necessary to attaining union with God. Purity is a matter of the heart. The heart must not be allowed to be captivated by creatures, no matter how fascinating they may be. The soul longing for union with God will live among creatures and be occupied with them with all charity, but will not allow the heart to become attached to them or seek gratification in them.

The most challenging part of this virtue is the detachment from ‘self’ which we carry around with us all the time and are never wholly free. This detachment requires us to renounce our preoccupation with ourselves: our way, our wants, our comfort, our rights -to name a few.

When we become attached to something it prohibits our ascent to God. It is the virtue of purity that will help us to take flight and reach God.

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Though the path is plain and smooth for people of goodwill, those who walk it will not travel far, and will do so only with difficulty if they do not have good feet, courage, and tenacity of spirit. (Sayings of Light and Love, 3)

A plain and smooth path still needs the effort, “fired with love’s urgent longings” and the determination to never give up but to stay on the course until reaching one’s purpose which, in the spiritual life, is holiness. This path to holiness requires some self denial and conquering of the appetites. St. John of the Cross guides us in conquering the appetites by pointing out that an intense love of God in needed which will give the courage and constancy to practice self denial.

The saint tells us that whenever some joy in some vain pleasure takes hold of the heart, one will need to have “good feet” and try to remove it at the very beginning and to take courage! With courageous effort uproot the attachment while it is small and at the beginning for it will be much harder to do later when it has become deeply rooted. (Ascent Bk III, 20:1)  When one loses courage, St. John says, “ they return to their search for worldly consolations”. (Dark Night Bk 1, 14.5) However St. Paul says we are to be “rooted and grounded in love” so that we may have the  “strength to comprehend” and “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and  “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:18-19) Courage and strength go together, and strength is found in spiritual reading and in prayer.

However, when courage is “fired with love’s urgent longings” it will not prevent the soul from seeking Him. These urgent longings of love are strong and vehement, so strong that this courage makes “everything seem possible” (Dark Night Bk 2, 13.7) when seeking Him. This courage and strength can move one to suffer for His sake, but only if “vainglory, presumption and the practice of condemning others” (Dark Night Bk 2, 19.3&4) is removed.

In order to seek Him, the soul needs to be courageous and also persevere against the world, the devil and the flesh – all of which prevent one from staying on the path to God. Tenacity of spirit is fueled by a “living hope in God” which gives the courage to elevate one to eternal things. (Dark Night Bk 2, 21.6)

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The Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve tells about how the birth of Jesus came about. The Gospel of Matthew 1:18-23 is read at this Mass. During the Christmas Eve Vigil we hear that, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” and that “God is with us.” No one could know God is charity, except through this most important event in all of history – the Incarnation.

On Christmas Day the Church celebrates three Masses. The first Mass is the Mass at Midnight. This is also known as the Angel’s Mass since the scripture passages are highlighted with the visit of angels. “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord’. . . And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel praising God. . .” The Gospel reading is taken from Luke 2:1-14 which describes how the birth of Jesus took place.

Traditionally it is believed that Christ was born at midnight. Midnight is when it is darkest and this can be seen to represent spiritual darkness that is in the world. Only Christ, the Light of the world, can dispel this darkness. The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, has shown us the love of God. With allusions to Christ’s birth in our souls by grace – through the Word, God’s love is manifested and now tangible in this little baby who holds out his arms to us.

The Shepherd’s Mass or Mass at Dawn is celebrated early Christmas morning. Continuing with the theme of light, this Mass takes place at dawn when the natural light is increasing. The shepherds go to the crib to see the Christ child – a light in the darkness. In our consideration of these three Masses it would be incomplete without a visit to the creche, to see and worship the Infant Jesus.

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The third Mass of the day is known as the Mass of the Divine Word. The Word is a light that shines in the darkness. The Word is life. The Word became flesh. The Word is God. The Word enlightens and dwells among us. (Jn 1:1-14) And the Word ushers in a new law.

This is how St. John of the Cross speaks of the new law of grace now that it has entered into time, explaining how we do not need to question God and have him reply as it was necessary in the Old Testament because:

 “in this era of grace, now that the faith is established through Christ and the Gospel law made manifest, there is no reason for inquiring of him in this way, or expecting him to answer as before. In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, 22. 3)

God has spoken through his Son. The Son speaks the Divine Word. We are to listen to that Word and carry the love that God has revealed into the dark places of our world.

If possible make plans to attend all three of these Christmas Masses. Reflect on these themes: angels, shepherds and the Divine Word. Worship the Infant Jesus, let his Word enter your heart and bring the law of light and love to our dark world.

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“In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer –  to God.”

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In Luke 6:12 we see Jesus praying in the night.  Sometimes He would spend the entire night in prayer. It is highly unlikely that the Lord did this every night, but it was a common practice of His. This is something that we can do too, not in a legalistic way which would not be profitable, but also not to neglect this practice completely. An easy way to do this would be to pray whenever we awaken in the middle of the night.

We could pray to repair the damage that is often done at night in the cover of darkness.

 “the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy.” Romans 13: 12-13

We could also pray for those in need: those suffering some sickness or who are enduring some incredible pain or those who are lonely, lost and downtrodden.

“the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.”                                                                               James 5 :15

Whenever we awaken in the night, we can start praying for anyone who comes to mind or perhaps pick up the rosary meditating on the mysteries of our Lord and His mother. We should not pray with anxiety about all this that goes on in the world but with great calm, trusting that the prayers are doing good in the world. And if we should happen to drift off back to sleep before completing the prayers, this too should not disturb our peace and calm.

We should pray even before going to sleep, spending at least 15 minutes in prayer before drifting off to sleep.  Then when some time in the night we awaken, we can begin prayer again. Praying at night, however, should always be in God’s control. 

Praying in our beds when we awaken in the middle of the night is an ideal place to pray. It is a place that is solitary, quiet and undistracting for the senses, since it is dark. (cf. Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 3, ch 39) These night hours or minutes when the world is hushed in slumber are precious alone moments with God in undisturbed communion with Him and is a way to pray always.

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“I was doing a lot of spiritual reading – Lives of the Saints – Joan of Arc, St. John Bosco, St. Benedict, I was going through St. John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel and the first parts of the Dark Night for the second time in fact, but for the first time with understanding.

The big present that was given to me, that October, in the order of grace, was the discovery that the Little Flower really was a saint, and not just a mute pious little doll in the imaginations of a lot of sentimental old women. And not only was she a saint, but a great saint, one of the greatest: tremendous! I owe her all kinds of public apologies and reparation for having ignored her greatness for so long, but to do that would take a whole book, and here I have only a few lines to give away.

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… However, no sooner had I got a faint glimpse of the real character and the real spirituality of St. Therese, than I was immediately and strongly attracted to her – an attraction that was the work of grace since, as I say, it took me, in one jump, clean through a thousands psychological obstacles and repugnances.

And here is what strikes me as the most phenomenal thing about her. She became a saint, not by running away from the middle class, not by abjuring and despising and cursing the middle class, or the environment in which she had grown up; on the contrary, she clung to it in to as far as one could cling to such a thing and be a good Carmelite. She kept everything that was bourgeois about her and was still not incompatible with her vocation: her nostalgic affection for a funny villa called “Les Buissonnets,” her taste for utterly oversweet art, and for the little candy angels and pastel saints playing with lambs so soft and fuzzy that they literally give people like me the creeps. She wrote a lot of poems which, no matter how admirable their sentiments, were certainly based on the most mediocre of popular models.

To her, it would have been incomprehensible that anyone should think these things ugly or strange, and it never even occurred to her that she might be expected to give them up, or hate them, or curse them, or bury them under a pile of anathemas. And she not only became a saint, but the greatest saint there has been in the Church for three hundred years – even greater than the two tremendous reformers of her Order, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

….What can such a one do with his new idol? Stare at her picture until it makes him dizzy. That is all. But the saints are not mere inanimate objects of contemplation. They become our friends, and they share our friendship and reciprocate it and give us unmistakable tokens of their love for us by the graces that we receive through them. And so, now that I had this great new friend in heaven, it was inevitable that the friendship should begin to have its influence on my life.”

(Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain)

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“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” ~ Matthew 11: 28-30

Christ is calling us to live in docile submission to His gentle rule. He is asking us to take on His yoke. His yoke is sweet, with the sweetness of love, and His burden is light. He calls us to come to Him, all of us who are burdened with the sins of this world, and this burden of sin is heavy.

Therefore, all of us who are in trouble, in sorrow, or in sin should come to Him; not so that He can exact punishment, but so that He may remit our sins. He will remit our sins and “refresh” by setting in us all quietness.

“All you going about tormented, afflicted, and weighted down by your cares and appetites, depart from them, come to me  and I will refresh you; and you will find the rest for your souls that the desires take away from you (Mt. 11:28-29). They are indeed a heavy burden, because David says of them: “For my iniquities are gone over my head; and as a heavy burden are become heavy upon me.” (Ps 37:5)  [St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I:7,4]

The yoke is the Gospel of Christ. We need to be so familiar with the Gospel so that we can learn from Christ. Learn from Him to be meek in temper, lowly in mind, not going about hurting others or despising anyone. In addition, make sure that the virtues we show in our deeds are also retained in our heart.

“My yoke is sweet and my burden light (Mt. 11:30), the burden being the cross. If individuals resolutely submit to the carrying of the cross, if they decidedly want to find and endure trial in all things for God, they will discover in all of them great relief and sweetness. This will be so because they will be traveling the road denuded of all and with no desire for anything. If they aim after the possession of something, from God or elsewhere, their journey will not be one of nakedness and detachment form all things, and consequently there will be no room for them on this narrow path nor will they be able to climb.”  [St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II: 7,7]

St. John of the Cross in his Counsels to Religious concerning the practice of virtue says to “undertake all things, agreeable or disagreeable, for the sole purpose of pleasing God through them. To do this with fortitude and constancy and acquire the virtues quickly, you should take care always to be inclined to the difficult more than to the easy, to the rugged more than to the soft, to the hard and distasteful in a work more than to its delightful and pleasant aspects; and do not go about choosing what is less a cross, for the cross is a light burden (Mt. 11:30) The heavier a burden is, the lighter it becomes when borne for Christ.”  [St. John of the Cross, Counsels to Religious no. 5 & 6]

The reward Christ promises for bearing this yoke is rest in our soul. This will make us useful to others and we will also have peace. However, even while submitting to this yoke of Christ we may have to endure some hardships. The Lord says the way is narrow. Indeed the way of virtue is difficult, especially so for the slothful. It may seem that because of these hardships that we are not being called from labor to rest, but from rest to labor. Nevertheless, we are being renewed inwardly and are given a foretaste of rest in God and in the hope of future blessedness with Him in heaven. All things done with love, no matter how hard, are not really hardships because love makes doing the good easy.

The yoke is heavy because of our weak nature, but it becomes light and easy with God’s grace. Christ helps us to bear the yoke. A yoke always joins two. Walk with Him beside you as a friend and all will be sweet and light.

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