Obedience, Chastity, and Poverty

One afternoon my family had the pleasure of serving dinner in our home to two friars from the Carmelite monastery of Mount Carmel in Wyoming. (Check out what they are doing over here at their website.) One of the things that still stays with me about the visit was the topic of the evangelical counsels. The evangelical counsels are vows that religious make in their desire to become “perfect”. The counsels are three: chastity, poverty, and obedience. These counsels are not binding upon all Christians, but are works that are more than what duty requires. Religious make a public profession of these counsels in the way of vows before the recognized authority in the Church which then recognizes them as members of the consecrated life. One of the Carmelite friars that afternoon referred to these counsels as: obedience, chastity and poverty. He said that obedience was most important, which is why he referred to them in that order listing obedience first. According to Rev Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O. P.,  “Obedience is the highest of the three evangelical counsels, just as the pride of life is in itself a graver disorder than the concupiscence of the flesh.” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life)

For Secular Carmelites the desire for holiness brings us to make promises to tend toward evangelical perfection. The practice of the three evangelical counsels makes faith grow as well as hope and charity.  The promise of obedience, for Seculars, is an exercise of faith. To obey is to do what pleases God. Obedience frees one of all self will and of one’s own judgment. Obedience particularly applies to the duties of the present moment. As a lay person, Secular Carmelites “search for God’s will in the events and challenges in society and in one’s own personal life”. In the context of the Secular Carmelite vocation, members cooperate with those leading the OCDS community and the Carmelite Order. 

The promise of obedience is a pledge to live open to the will of God, “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Ac 17:28) imitating Christ who accepted the Father’s will and was “obedient unto death, death on a cross” (Ph 2:8). The promise of obedience is an exercise of faith leading to the search for God’s will in the events and challenges in society and our own personal life. For this reason the Secular Carmelite freely cooperates with those who have responsibility for guiding the community and the Order in discerning and accepting God’s ways: the community’s council, the Provincial and the General. [Const. #15]

To know God’s will begins by being open to it. God makes His will known in His revealed Word, through scripture, throughout the events of the day, and through those in authority. Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:6) will then value any occasion that manifests in daily life to do the will of God even in the “little things” – which make up the majority of each day. Small acts of self-will are not acts of love for God; however, these do not break our friendship with God or separate us from His grace. The promise that Secular Carmelites make provides the grace – that is the state of mind and willingness – to obey. The more willingness there is the more grace is given.

Related to obedience is the virtue of justice. As an act of submission one submits to the will of another (a lawful superior) since they represent God. We must obey God through His the commandments. After all we are creatures. He is the creator and obviously superior! We have free will – a gift we have received from God. A good way to acknowledge this gift is by freely submitting our will to God, the Creator and giver of the gift. As His children we should obey just like Jesus did.  Imitating Christ’s obedience who “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2: 8) Obedience applies also to any promises made and especially to vows (like marriage vows).

Have the mind of Christ Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,” (Ph 2: 5-7)

The will of God includes the Commandments, Church and civil law, as well as the natural law. We should also be willing to submit to the Precepts of the Church. We can show our obedience to Christ’s counsels by performance of good works according to our state in life. The performance of duties related to our state in life should take precedence. Obedience should also be given to the inspirations of grace – when clear and submitted to a spiritual director, least we be under illusion. Generally inspirations of grace will be customary things undertaken according to our state in life and that do not trouble the soul. If this is the case, then we may do them without hesitation or under the guidance of a spiritual director. When we discern God has spoken, sometimes we need confirmation and we should seek it. If we believe that we have had a communication from God, we need to have it confirmed through others in the Church. St. John of the Cross says that, “God is so pleased that the rule and direction of humans be through other humans and that a person be governed by natural reason that he definitely does not want us to restore entire credence on his supernatural communications, or be confirmed in their strength and security, until they pass through this human channel of the mouth of another human person.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2:22,9) Extraordinary undertakings need to be done with a spiritual director’s advising. If it is from God He will make it known and confirmed in His own way and time. With this confirmation one can be assured that there is not any danger of self deception or illusion. 

The Constitutions and Rules of Life (for religious) are also to be obeyed. In this case obedience is to be given to the superiors with and within the limits of the rule, obeying promptly and with generosity. St. John of the Cross in his Sayings of Light and Love (#13) explains that, “God desires the least degree of obedience and submissiveness more than all those services you think of rendering him.”(#13)

Obedience to those in authority can be challenging to our ego. Recalling that all authority comes from God, we should obey others over us out of reverence for God. Therefore, the wishes of those who govern us and make laws, police officers, teachers, and our bosses in our places of employment should be obeyed. Obeying them is obeying God. We should obey only those things that do not go contrary to the law of God. Additionally, we should obey not only when being watched, so as to get on the good side of the superior, but doing so willingly to serve Christ and from the heart.  

“Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ” (Ep 6: 5-9).

The Church representatives guide us – this is how God wants things to be done. Direction from our priest and bishops—this is how God speaks to us through others for our Lord said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Lk 10:16) Sometimes “we cling greatly to our own will” and “hold to our own way of doing good more than to the good itself” (Rev Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O. P. – The Three Ages of the Interior Life)

As a disciple we should be ready to listen for the Holy Spirit to prompt us and speak to us through others. God willed that we live in society because we are not self sufficient for all our needs. We need others. With our Secular Carmelite communities we are organized with leadership and the rules of our Constitutions and Statutes approved by the Church in order to come together for a common purpose. To carry this purpose out, we need rules and decisions in the various situations that the group meets. Our obedience only needs be in accordance with and within the limits of the present Rule (Constitutions). Someone needs to coordinate all those in the community towards the common good. Some command – some obey. Without obedience there would be chaos.

Even Jesus was subject to Mary and Joseph. “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Lk 2: 51)  Submitting our will even in things that are hard, difficult or go against our own preferences is not easy. Doing so wholeheartedly, not complaining, with joy and perseveringly will have its rewards.

Obedience challenges us to be of the same mind as that of the superior or the one in charge. To do so means to conform our judgement and understanding (as well as our will) to that of another. Thus obedience expresses humility and puts to death (or mortifies) the self will. We all have self love and our own opinions that can derail us from obedience. St. Teresa in The Way of Perfections counsels: “Strive to obey, even if this may be more painful for you, since the greatest perfection lies in obedience.” (Way 39:3) She also relates this wise consolation in the prologue of The Interior Castle“Obedience usually lessens the difficulty of things that seem impossible”.

The fruits of obedience will manifest in a correct way of behaving and thinking. It makes us wiser and, having the mind of God, we will think the way God does. Obedience also strengthens the will. However, God never commands the impossible, and He gives the strength to do what is difficult – like with the martyrs – He gives the grace needed. There comes a true freedom of spirit with obedience as St. Paul writes to the Romans – we will enjoy “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21) God’s truth and wisdom frees us from error and doubt. Those who do the Father’s will, will enter heaven. And as scripture reveals the humble “will be exalted” (Lk 14:11) Most importantly obedience “prepares for the contemplation of divine things”. (Rev Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O. P. – The Three Ages of the Interior Life)

The object of obedience is the will; be willing to want to even know the will of God. The precept is expressed by the will of another. The motive or intention of obedience is to please God. The more we become interiorly responsive to doing the will of God, the more obedient we are. God’s will is manifested in many ways and circumstances especially through those in authority over us. Since the word obey comes from the Latin root which means “to be open” “to hear” – we should strive to have the ear of a disciple so as to hear God’s voice – this is obedience.

Joy Not Sadness

This third week of Advent comes as a rest in the penitential spirit of this season and is known as Gaudete Sunday. We take this time to express our joy in the nearness of the Lord’s coming. There is one more Sunday before we will celebrate Christmas. The pink candle on the wreath is lit and represents our joy in that Christ has come into our world! 

This Sunday gets its name from the second reading taken from First Thessalonians, “Rejoice always.” We as Christians should always be filled with joy, even in our sufferings, because of Christ. He is the source and the cause of our joy. As St. Paul tells us we should rejoice in the Lord always, pray without ceasing and give thanks to God for everything, counting all to be pure joy. St. Teresa of Jesus teaches that we should have “a calmness and glory within” and she even went so far to say that we should “rejoice in the fact that all are rejoicing”. (Way, 30, 5)

Joy is the fruit of God’s grace. The Gospel is a source of joy since its message is that God loves us, He cares for us and He is with us!  This joy fills the heart and moves us to serve others. St. Teresa of Jesus invites her nuns, and by extension to all of us, to “be happy to serve” (Way, 18, 5); we are to put ourselves at the service of others and to do this with selfless love.

It is difficult for people to be joyful. Life isn’t easy. We are often weighed down with problems. Yet we were made for joy! Today I am hoping to raise awareness to this fact: that God is the God of joy and wants His children to be happy.

We have a soul and this is what is in us that tunes us to the inner life of the joyfulness of God. It is our soul that enables us to enjoy God in prayer. Did anyone ever teach you that you were to enjoy God in prayer? Enjoying God in prayer- seems like the concept should be self evident, but for some reason it isn’t. The little known secret of discovering enjoyment in prayer is that God is present to us and He is the God of love and joy. If we truly believe and understand this then prayer will be a joy!

“From silly devotions and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” (Attributed to St. Teresa of Jesus)

Do you think of prayer as drudgery or perhaps as something altogether boring? True joyfulness, that joyfulness that is seen in the saints, comes from being rooted in and nourished by a deep prayer life. Prayer is the grace-filled secret to joyfulness.

The greatest enemy of joy is sadness. It is so easy to serve God fervently, to spread goodness and practice virtue when we are aware of God’s presence in our lives. However, when we experience feelings of sadness and despondency, we act in the opposite manner. We have no inner peace; we are troubled and down-hearted. We go about weak and all our good resolutions have diminished. We may even avoid praying. Yet prayer is what we really should do.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” (James 5:13)

When we are suffering from sadness we should turn to prayer so that our hearts can be strengthened. Prayer puts us into God’s presence and this will lift our spirit and fill our souls with confidence. Our joyful awareness of God’s presence will bring peace, the peace for which our hearts long. 

In this Sunday’s Gospel from St. John we see that John the Baptist had to point out Jesus to the men the Jews had sent to him in the desert. He had to tell them that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize”.  Jesus is really in our midst. He is present in our Tabernacles and by grace in our souls. We can help others recognize Jesus’ presence today in the joy we express in our own lives because we have Him. God is our infinite joy. Let us always live joyfully so that all can see this joy and want it too! 

Let us recall as we continue our Advent journey that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Remember that the Lord is with us and He will help us to see Christ in all things and will move us in love to bring the joy of His presence to all men.  And isn’t this what our world needs of us now more than ever?

“When one loves, everything is joy. The cross doesn’t weigh down. Martyrdom isn’t felt. One lives more in heaven than on earth.” (St. Teresa of the Andes)

Preparing the Way for Jesus

In this week’s Gospel, we encounter John the Baptist, the messenger calling the people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.  St. John completes the work of all the prophets beginning with Elijah. He proclaims to the people that the consolation they have been longing for is fast approaching. In the reading this week from the Prophet Isaiah, we are told that “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord”. The prophets were always calling the people back from their wayward way of living.  Jesus’ first coming is near and John the Baptist is in the desert calling the people to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. The people came to John in the desert and “acknowledged their sins”. Today it seems as though there is so much sin, and yet very little acknowledgment of our own personal sin. It is much easier to be like the Pharisees and point out the plank in the other person’s eye. It is time to repent!

Remember St. Peter? He denied Our Lord three times at his trial and fled before His crucifixion. But that was not the end of his relationship with Christ. After the resurrection, Jesus meets up with Peter and the other apostles for breakfast on the beach. It is morning, a new day has begun and the apostles are eating breakfast with Jesus. It is a new day and a new beginning for St. Peter.

This scene tells us of something so foundational about our faith in Jesus. It tells us that Jesus has a merciful heart. His mercy is antithetical to the scornful attitude of the Pharisees. The mercy of Jesus is like that of the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost. He goes out in search of the sinful in order to find them, rescue them, and bring them back into the sheepfold.

This Divine Mercy extents to great sinners who have repented of serious sin and have turned to Him. His mercy also reaches to those who humbly turn from venial sin only to rise again after each failure committed due to weakness or lack of reflection. Here is where I have sympathy for St. Peter. He was weak, like me. He did not reflect, but acted wrongly even though he loved the Lord. How much I am like St. Peter. I make many resolutions and want to overcome some fault, and still, I fail – again and again. But Jesus is merciful each time I repent and turn back to Him. 

Advent is a time for us to reflect on how we may have offended Him and to turn to Him to receive mercy. Since we are poor sinners let us remember St. Peter and trust in God’s infinite mercy as we examine our conscience and seek out the Sacrament of Penance as a way to prepare the way for the Lord this Christmas.

The Sacrament of Penance is there to help us prepare for our celebration of Christmas. We should also try to make this sacrament a habit in order to be prepared for His Second Coming. The second reading for this Sunday, taken from the Second Letter of Saint Peter, so aptly reminds us about how our conduct ought to be and what kind of persons we should be, conducting ourselves “in holiness and devotion waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”.  All the while remembering that the day of “the Lord will come like a thief” and when we least expect it. So let us have Him find us always ready!

Or we can just go on with our lives in peace instead. However, there are different kinds of peace.

There is the false peace that the world gives. First among this type of peace is riches. People with wealth and who try to lead holy lives avoiding any serious sin, think that they are secure. Nevertheless they often fail to reflect on the fact that they are stewards and that their money is not theirs, but has been entrusted to them by God. They do give sometimes, but they need to be sure to not delay in helping those who are poor and suffering with the surplus. For those who are not rich, St. Teresa counsels to “be content with little.“ Otherwise they will find themselves embittered with envy. (Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2, 10)

The second false peace the world can give is through honors. If we heed St. Teresa’s advice on being content with little, then this next one should not be too difficult, since “the poor are never honored very much”. Praise can cause much harm if one is not careful. Words of praise can cause harm by making you “believe that the truth was spoken or make you think that now everything is accomplished and that you have done your part.” St. Teresa’s advice is that whenever you are praised to move quickly in waging war interiorly by humbling yourself “and if in some matters people speak truth in praising you, note that the virtue is not yours and that you are obliged to serve more.” (Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2, 11-13)

Then there is the false peace that comes from our bodies, which are very fond of comfort. St. Teresa wants us to understand that there is a false peace that comes from seeking “one’s peace in comforts” and living comfortably, since the Lord suffered so much and underwent many trials. Additionally, “the body grows fat and the soul weakens” when we give the body so much pampering. Craving comforts can harm the soul without one even being aware. She gives examples of how one day the body can endure a hardship and then a week later it is unable to bear with something like a rough tunic. Or that “some days eating fish may hurt you, but once your stomach gets used to it, it will not harm you.” Her point here is that “we must not find our rest in being lax.” Since the body can be so untrustworthy, we need to understand this about it and to use discretion. (Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2, 15)

Aware of the kinds of false peace will enable us to love God more and help us reach true peace and friendship with Him. May all our efforts cooperate with the grace God gives in each moment to prepare a heart, pure and receptive, to receive so great a gift as we prepare for His coming. 

“Since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him and at peace” 2 Pt 3:14

Awake My Heart!

Jesus came into the darkness, the darkness of sin and death, but the darkness did not receive His light. Oh! If this Advent our darkness would desire and comprehend His light! Even if we don’t, the day will come when His justice will burst upon us in all its brilliance, and He will disperse all the spiritual darkness in man’s heart.

During Advent we can reflect on the state of our world before Christ’s coming. It was a world filled with darkness and sin. Then let us fill our hearts with gratitude towards Jesus who came down from heaven so that He might know our miserable state experiencing all of it, except for sin, and saving us from death.

The prophet Isaiah is read during the Advent liturgies. This Sunday we receive a glimpse of the state of the world before the Incarnation. The Chosen people had ‘wandered’ from the Lord’s ways; their hearts were ‘hardened’. Nevertheless, they were expecting Him to come and the prophet exclaims, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!” However, they are admittedly sinful and ‘unclean people’.

Then let us ponder on His mysterious coming that He desires to accomplish in hearts. Let us open our hearts to receive Him more fully than ever before. He desires to enter there, to dwell there and transform us. Let us consent to receive this Divine guest. He knocks and asks to be let in. He delights to be born in our hearts. Do not refuse Him. Receive Him and let Him in.

This Advent let Him in and preserve Him within you as a great treasure. Let Him rest there where He can shape your thoughts and guide your actions to be like His. Welcome Him with love and care more than before.

In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus exhorts his followers to be watchful and alert because they “do not know when the time will come”. We do not know when Christ will come the second time, but He will come and we do not want Him to find us “sleeping”.  

Advent is a time where we await Jesus’ coming. He has already come in the flesh, and this is the reason for this liturgical season – to celebrate anew His coming as Savior and Redeemer. This is also a time to think about His second coming when He will come in Glory. In between these two comings He manifests Himself to us, and it is to these manifestations that we need to be Awake!

This Advent let us invite Him to join us in the interior of our heart: in deep, recollection, in silence, and in solitude. Invite Him in through a deep interior recollection combined with silence that is both interior and exterior and in solitude so that we can hear His voice and prepare for His coming however He may manifest His presence.

This is a season of quiet. A time to set aside useless chatter, self-love, sensitiveness, the prattle of fantasy and imaginings, and the thoughts that flit from here to there. In addition it is a time to get rid of any preoccupation with useless things, so that we can listen and hear the Lord speak. In this way we can be awake and attentive and will not miss “the time of His visitation”. (Luke 19:44)

“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come…May he not come suddenly and find us sleepy.” (Mark 13)

The Feast of Christ the King

This feast, falling on the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar year, marks the end of the liturgical year. Pope Pius XI inserted this feast into the Sacred Liturgy at the closing of the Holy Year in 1925. In his encyclical, Quas Primas (On the Feast of Christ the King), a very beautiful and often neglected one, is of much relevance for our day, not only for the individual but also important socially and politically. In this encyclical the Pope writes the following about the Kingship of Christ:

“This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate, he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.” (no.15)

Further, the Pope writes:

“… if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls.” (no. 33)

(Taken from Pope Pius XI Quas Primas (On the Feast of Christ the King) – 11 December 1925)

St. Teresa of Jesus was fond of the image of Christ as King. In the Interior Castle, she writes about our souls:

“It is that we consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places. For in reflecting upon it careful, Sisters, we realize that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight. So then, what do you think that abode, will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of all good things takes His delight?” (St. Teresa of Jesus, Interior Castle I, 1.1)

Christ is King and He should reign supremely in our heart and in our life for His law is the law of love; His reign is heavenly peace.


Preface of Christ the King

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks. You anointed Jesus Christ, Your only Son, with the oil of gladness, as the eternal priest and universal king. As priest, He offered His life on the altar of the cross and redeemed the human race by this one perfect sacrifice of peace. As king, He claims dominion over all creation, that He may present to You, His almighty Father, an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace. And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim Your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

In Solitude

She lived in solitude,

and now in solitude has built her nest;

and in solitude he guides her,

he alone, who also bears 

in solitude the wound of love.

In stanza 35 of The Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross describes the blessings of a soul that lives in the peace and quietude of a solitary “settled in God and God in her”. Like the bird that prepares her nest, which requires labor, the soul too needs to prepare for this receptivity.

The soul at this stage of contemplation lives in solitude, but this is not necessarily physical solitude. More importantly, this solitude is for the sake of the Beloved. The solitude St. John is mainly concerned with is in reference to detachment or poverty of spirit. The soul is not attached to any particular knowledge from the world or from heaven nor does the soul take any pleasure or derived any satisfaction from these. The heart is empty, like the nest, ready to receive the one she loves – God and Him alone. There is a receptivity of the heart that was not there before. 

St. John describes a characteristic of this contemplation when he describes the traits of a solitary sparrow in stanzas 14 and 15.  The solitary desires rest but not in anything or to have any other company or affections. This is the third trait of the solitary bird which “is usually alone and allows no other bird close to it; when another perches nearby, it flies away.” Thus in this contemplation the soul is “stripped of them all” it does not “allow within itself anything other than solitude in God.” God alone.

This solitude is a quietude of soul or the “quietude of solitary love”. (stanza 35, introduction). The soul withdrawals from other satisfactions, comforts, and the support of creatures. God alone guides the soul through the liberty of spirit. The soul has learned “to silence and quiet the faculties so that God may speak.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk 3, 4:4)

When two people are in love they prefer to be alone rather than being in the company of others. If these two lovers that we are speaking of meet while others are around, they are deprived of an intimate encounter. They may not even be engaged in conversation with others around them, but just the presence of others deprives the lovers of a delightful experience. When two people are in love, they will not disclose anything intimate with each other unless they are alone. It is the same with a soul in union with God. When God unites with the soul he does so to speak in solitude to the heart. He speaks by filling the soul with divine knowledge now, only because the soul is empty of other images and forms. 

God wants to exalt the soul “by making her equal to Himself” because “the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved” (stanza 28, introduction) Again this solitude is not implying isolation from others and being disconnected from creation and the beauty that surrounds us. This solitude bestows oneness. It is about sharing the solitude of God. Solitude makes sense when viewed this way – it is keeping company with the Beloved. 

In stanzas 34 and 35 of the poem, the Bridegroom “describes the soul’s purity” and “her riches and reward for laboring and preparing herself to come to him”. The soul prepares and labors, like the bird that prepares her nest. There is a peaceful solitude in the soul – a peace that was obtained in “her victory over self”. (stanza 34, 4) Liberty of spirit has been attained under the guidance of the Bridegroom. 

“The very pure spirit does not bother about the regard of others or human respect, but communes inwardly with God, alone and in solitude as to all forms, and with delightful tranquility, for the knowledge of God is received in divine silence.” John of the Cross (Sayings of Light and Love – 28) 

St. John of the Cross teaches that exterior solitude can assist in interior solitude enabling the spirit to soar up to God. This exterior solitude is in imitation of Jesus who often sought places of solitude to pray – to the mountain, the garden, a lonely place. Contemplation does bring forth an inclination to remain alone and in silence. Like the first trait of the solitary sparrow that, “perches on the highest things” which is contemplation.

In this solitude, the soul is truly led and moved by God. Like St. Paul in Romans (8:14) says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  Essential to reaching union with God is solitude and the desire to be deprived of all this world offers in exchange for the love of the Bridegroom. It is in solitude that God speaks to the heart as described by Hosea the Prophet (2:14), where God led her into the wilderness to “speak to her heart”.

As a solitary soul, and for the love of God, everything which is not God or does not lead directly to Him, is refused its entry. This solitude only has meaning if the soul is “alone in Him”. Solitude according to St. John of the Cross is not really a void rather it is concentrating all human faculties and resources for receiving the life of God within the soul like the nest that is empty and receptive to receive. It is not restrictive; it is remarkably deep and vast. A large unbounded wilderness that is deeper and more boundless the more solitary it is. 

The fruits of this solitude come from the relationship between this interior solitude and union with God. True liberty of spirit is a fruit of solitude. For solitude is the way to divine understanding. In this solitude and silence, the soul’s only activity is surrender, abiding in the beauty of God which is enjoyed and shared. 

St. Teresa of Jesus encouraged her nuns to cultivate the habit of solitude.  She longed for solitude for herself and it was solitude that consoled her. In a deep mystical experience, she experienced intense spiritual pain when God placed her in this expanse of solitude. St. Teresa described the experience this way,  “I am oblivious of everything in that anxious longing to see God; that desert and solitude seem to the soul better than all the companionship of the world”. (Book of Her Life 20:13) St. Teresa, seeing that to commune with God is a great grace, arranged for herself times of solitude where she would withdraw “into solitude to pray and read”. (Book of Her Life, 7:3) 

In a letter to Ana de San Alberto, St. John of Cross wrote that “Those who seek satisfaction in something no longer keep themselves empty that God might fill them with his ineffable delight. And thus just as they go to God so do they return, for their hands are encumbered and cannot receive what God is giving.” In prayer, we can ask God to help us and “deliver us from these evil obstacles that hinder such sweet and delightful freedom”. 

Only through purity of soul, simplicity and meekness can the soul enjoy the peace and quietude of being in God and God in her. The reward for all this labor is that God comes and speaks to the heart in this solitude where there is silence of the senses and spirit. Union with God is the goal of our journey – a union of likeness brought about through love.

We can imitate the saints in seeking solitude in order to enjoy God, to love Him, and be loved by Him. Can we make more efforts to include more solitude in our day? What activities could we eliminate in order to obtain more solitude?

St. Teresa, Prayer and the Gift of Contemplation

St. Teresa of Avila was born in Spain in 1515. She is most known for her spiritual perfection and for the many mystical revelations that she received. After entering the Carmelite Order as a young woman, she soon began to have a desire to live her religious life more ardently. This caused her to attract many companions and eventually lead to the reform of the Carmelite Order. St. Teresa wrote several treatises on the topic of prayer. She is one of the few women that have been declared a Doctor of the Church. She died in 1582 in Alba de Tormes, Spain. Her feast day is today, October 15th.

Before she even begins to write about prayer in The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa says she will “mention some things that are necessary for those who seek to follow the way of prayer.” These things are so necessary that she says if one does not possess these, it is impossible to be a contemplative. So what are these things? 

“The first of these is love for one another; the second is detachment from created things; the third is true humility, which even though I speak of it last, is the main practice and embraces all the others.” (Way of Perfection 4: 4)

St. Teresa was keenly aware that the practice of the virtues is what supports prayer. Key to the spiritual life are these three: love, detachment, and humility. Love, of course, is first. It is love that moves us to pray, and it is love that is the greatest commandment: love God and love neighbor. It follows that some sort of detachment is also necessary because this virtue involves our choices. Our heart loves and is centered on what we love and desire and often these are not leading us to intimacy with God. Humility, which is next, but most importantly, is about the truth. The truth we are mainly concerned with is the truth about ourselves. An aid to the truth about ourselves is an honest examination of all areas of our lives and determining what is in need of repentance, where are our failures, and what are our sins, but also necessary is a look at our attitudes that may need to be pruned and gifts which may need to be cultivated.                       

Prayer is the activity especially intended for making fervent acts of charity. During prayer, the soul lovingly meets with God. A soul that loves God does so with a pure heart; a heart that loves Him so much that it seeks only after His glory and His will. The prayer of a soul that loves God forgets itself and is ready to sacrifice every wish for Him. Its love grows stronger and will continue to grow as it performs all its actions with a whole heart and with all of its capacity for goodwill.  However, St. Teresa says that it is also important for us to have a love for one another, but “because of either excess or defect we never reach the point of observing this commandment perfectly.” (The Way of Perfection, 4:5) When we live with others those annoying things and habits that we all have will be “suffered easily by those who love one another”.  Sometimes we gravitate towards loving one person more than another. St. Teresa also points out that when we love others excessively we are unable to love God excessively!  Nevertheless, she does value friendships and said that in her convents “all must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped.”  (The Way of Perfection, 4:7)   

Detachment is also necessary for one who is setting out on the way of prayer. Attachment is clinging to people, ideas, and things that give satisfaction, comfort, and pleasure. Detachment is letting go of the need to find pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction in these things and to center all our desires on God. Detachment is about seeking God first. One important way to practice detachment is to detach from the love of our bodies which demand so much comfort and strive to be more faithful to our duties. St. Teresa says that our bodies want so much comfort that the more we give it the more it demands. St. Teresa also suggests that souls try to remember that everything is vanity and will all come to an end. It is a great help for souls to remove any attachment it might have to trivial things and to center its thoughts on eternal things. Detachment and control of the passions can help our soul to be like Mary’s – silent and solitary- and filled with the presence of God.

In The Way of Perfection chapter 10, St. Teresa writes about the virtues of humility and detachment saying that “They are two inseparable sisters.” Our saint warns that souls need to not feel secure or fall asleep. She advises souls to be alert in “going against our own will”. Going against our own will is humility. She points out that turning and being against ourselves is a difficult thing because. . . we “love ourselves greatly”. How true this is! The soul should embrace these two virtues and by doing so, imitate Christ who “was never for a moment seen without them!” Another interesting thing about these virtues is that they “have the characteristic of so hiding themselves from the person who possess them that these persons never see them or manage to believe that they even have them”. 

St. Teresa in The Way of Perfection Chapter 17 writes about the importance of humility in regard to contemplation. She says, “this is an important aspect of prayer and indispensable for persons who practice it”. She understood that God, if He so desires, is the one who leads the soul that prays into contemplation.  Not everyone who prays must be a contemplative and being a contemplative is not necessary for our salvation. St. Teresa stresses that “to be a contemplative is a gift from God.” However, she does not want us to give up prayer for any reason, but we are to persevere because sometimes, “the Lord comes very late and pays just as well, and all at once, what he was giving to others in the course of many years.” So we should strive “in humility, mortification, detachment, and the other virtues…[and not] be afraid that you will fail to reach the perfection of those who are very contemplative.”                

“I don’t say that we shouldn’t try; on the contrary, we should try everything. What I am saying is that this is not a matter of your choosing but of the Lord’s….Be sure that if you do what lies in your power, preparing yourselves for contemplation with the perfection mentioned, and that if He doesn’t give it to you (and I believe He will give if detachment and humility are truly present), He will save this gift for you so as to grant it to you all at once in heaven.” (The Way of Perfection, 17:7)   

A soul devoted to loving God has made the one necessary resolution in prayer which is to be recollected. Only then is it able to give itself entirely to God. We often fail to dispose ourselves for contemplation either because we give in to too much activity or because we do not produce enough acts of love. By offering to God a holy heart, one free from all actual stain of sin, we can at least do our part and strive for perfection.

May all our efforts cooperate with the grace God gives in each moment to prepare a heart, pure and receptive, to receive so great a gift.

Today, October 15th, is the feast day of St. Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church. It is also a Solemnity within the Carmelite Order. On this day it would be good, inspired by St. Teresa, to begin to live our religious life more ardently. All of us, whether a priest, bishop, religious or layperson, can foster this desire to live our spiritual life more perfectly.

Today is a new day; a day to begin again. Today we can begin to say our prayers faithfully and to say them well. Today we can begin to remain in the presence of God throughout our day and while doing our daily duties. Today we can begin to partake in the sacramental life of the Church more regularly and with greater devotion. Today we can begin to practice more self-denial and be at the service of others.

Father,
by your Spirit, you raised up our Mother, St. Teresa of Jesus,
to show your Church the way to perfection.
May her inspired teaching
awaken in us a longing for true holiness.
Grant this through our Lord. Amen.
(from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours)

Spiritual Dryness

Dryness, or aridity, is when satisfaction and delight, that was once enjoyed during prayer and devotion, has dried up. It can have several causes. One reason for dryness is that the soul has neglected or set aside the practice of prayer. St. John of the Cross sums this cause up succinctly in The Sayings of Light and Love no. 39, “My spirit has become dry because it forgets to fed on you.” When we strive after various forms of recreation and the gratification of our senses, we will “find spiritual dryness and distraction”. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 3, Chap 42,1). The devil can cause dryness too. He can do so through visions and locutions, but the effects “are unlike those produced by the divine”. “The devil’s visions produce spiritual dryness in one’s communion with God and an inclination to self-esteem” and the pride of thinking one is important for receiving these. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chap 24)  When the origin is from the devil there is never a good effect. St. John of the Cross emphatically counsels in regard to locutions and visions, in order to avoid “delusion or hindrance”  that,  We should pay no heed to them, but be only interested in directing the will, with fortitude, toward God; we should carry out his law and holy councils with perfection.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chap 29, 12) Dryness can also be caused by God as a way to purify the soul. When God is the cause it is usually in those souls who are already quite solicitous in their love for Him and have already moved from the practice of discursive meditation to the state of contemplation. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chap 13) 

Two things one can do when experiencing dryness according to St. John of the Cross in The Spiritual Canticle are to first continue praying with love and devotion; second to ask the Holy Spirit for His assistance. The Holy Spirit “will dispel this dryness and sustain and increase” love. (Stanza 17, 2). Another thing the Holy Spirit does is to move the “soul to the interior exercise of the virtues” of faith, hope, and love. 

The Bride in the poem The Spiritual Canticle invokes the Holy Spirit in this way:

“breathe through my garden”

The Holy Spirit “awakens love” in the soul, which is the “garden”. Upon one of these visits of the Holy Spirit, the soul is refreshed, the will is awakened, and the “appetites that were asleep” are now filled with “the love of God”. (Stanza 17, 3-4) When the Holy Spirit breathes through the soul, He touches and puts “in motion the virtues and perfections already given”, and when this happens, “the Bridegroom, the Son of God, is himself sublimely communicated” evident by the beautiful fragrances that are released. (Stanza 17, 8) 

Dryness in prayer is an interior trial. Although interior trials involve much more than just a lack of devotion, dryness (or aridity), is a common phenomenon among those souls who have taken up prayer.To make an issue of dryness, according to St. Teresa of Jesus, shows a lack of humility.

St. Teresa exhorts beginners to begin with determination and to persevere in prayer. Dryness and difficulty at prayer will come and we are to not let this cause us to give up prayer. She advises us to not become “distressed or afflicted over dryness or noisy and distressing thoughts. . .  For, clearly, if the well is dry, we cannot put water into it. True, we must not become neglectful; when there is water we should draw it out because then the Lord desires to multiply the virtues by this means.” (from The Book of her Life ~ St. Teresa of Jesus)

During periods of aridity and excessive activity of the imagination, the soul can turn to meditative reading. When the soul is unable to meditate it can turn to a book to help collect the wandering thoughts and bring its soul in touch with God. St. Teresa confesses to not being able to meditate without a book for many years and recommends this practice.

The choice of a book should be one that is devout and will help in the time of prayer. The Gospels are always a good choice and are of great assistance in this matter. The book can also be one of the writings of the saints. It should be one that is practical and affective, not too speculative or intellectual. This is to foster love, a work of the heart, rather than that of the mind.

The purpose of reading is to put the soul in a proper disposition for a conversation with God. Read until enough has been read to arouse good and holy thoughts. Then when devote affections occupy the mind, stop reading and with the attention directed to God, meditate on the thoughts that have been read; speaking to Him or silently savoring the sentiments inspired by what was read.

“Like birds, who, when they drink, bend their heads toward the water, take a few drops, and raising their beaks toward the sky, swallow gradually, and then begin again, let us also bend our heads toward the devout book to gather a few drops of devotion, and then let us raise them to God, so that our minds may be fully impregnated with these thoughts. In this way, it will not be difficult to finish the prayer which we have begun by reading in an intimate colloquy with God.” (Divine Intimacy, #149 by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.)

St. Therese and the Holy Face

“Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face.” (St. Therese, Story of a Soul)

St. Therese’s name in Carmel is Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. I have always focused on the Child of Jesus part of her spirituality and have never quite connected with her devotion to the Holy Face. Recently though I have wondered more about it. I can’t really explain why except that having to wear a mask on my face and to see other people wearing a covering over their mouth and nose has bothered me very much. There is something so beautiful and God-like about the “face” and covering it seems so dehumanizing. We are not meant to have on a mask.

Devotion to the Holy Face focuses on the Incarnation. God became a man like us with a human face. As Carmelites, we love to contemplate, and St. Therese, through her devotion to the Holy Face, reminds us of the beauty that lies hidden in the face of Jesus.  The Holy Face is a human face, even though a hidden face. The Holy Face is hidden in the face of others, hidden even under the disfigured face of sin.

The human face identifies that person. Just think of someone that you love. It is their face that identifies that person and expresses who that person is. We all love to gaze on the face of a baby. How long and lovingly Mary and St. Joseph must have gazed on the face of the infant Jesus. They were the first to adore His wonderful face. Then came the shepherds, the Magi, and later the Apostles and other disciples became admirers of His teachings, wisdom, and loving care – all impressed upon them by His Holy Face. Looking upon His face they saw expressions of tenderness towards little children, glory on Mount Tabor, and anguish during His Passion. 

We need to see peoples’ faces, and for them to see ours. So much communication happens when looking at someone’s face. When you look at someone’s face you get cues as to whether that person is happy, sad, or confused. A mask hides this and even muffles the voice! So much is lost when trying to hear someone talk to you through a mask. The distorted sounds and the inability to see the lips move is especially challenging for the elderly and hard of hearing. Interestingly, the word “person” is rooted in the Latin word that means “mask” and the Greek word for “face”.

Some background on the Holy Face devotion is necessary before I move on. The devotion began in Tours, France with a Carmelite nun, Sister Marie de Saint Pierre, during the mid-1800s. Sister Marie received visions from the Lord telling her that those who would contemplate His face on earth would contemplate His radiant face in heaven. The purpose of the devotion was to make reparation for sins against God, His Holy name, and the profanation of Sundays. In another sense, devotion to the Holy Face is to become like St. Veronica, who took pity on Jesus when He carried His cross and wiped the sweat from His Face with her veil. This veil bears the impression of His Holy Face to this day. St. Veronica did this act of kindness to comfort Jesus. The devotion calls us to do as she did and comfort Jesus for the wounds and sins that are still inflicted on Him today through the lack of reverence, sacrilege, and blasphemy that men commit. This devotion, based on the life and writings of Sister Marie, was approved by Pope Leo XIII. Mister Martin, St. Therese’s father, along with his daughters, enrolled in the Confraternity of the Holy Face, most likely after Pauline, her sister, had suggested they do so. It was Pauline who introduced St. Therese to this devotion; however, St. Therese puts a different twist on this devotion regarding the Face of Jesus. 

In the Story of a Soul, St. Therese describes the beginnings of her devotion to the Holy Face that began after her entry into the convent. She writes, “Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face.” Locked away in the cloister she desired that like the Face of Jesus, her “face be truly hidden that no one on earth” would know her. St. Therese “thirsted after suffering” and “longed to be forgotten.” She knew that the face of the child in the manger was also the face of the man on the cross. Her desire to “be unknown and counted as nothing” was her way of drawing close to the suffering Christ. For St. Therese, contemplating the Face of Jesus was more about imitation and remaining hidden than about reparation. 

St. Therese had to obtained permission to add the title “of the Holy Face” to her name.  Her devotion to the Holy Face is rooted in the words from the prophet Isaiah, and it was from these words that St. Therese came to desire that she also would “be without splendor, without beauty, to tread alone the wine in the press, unknown by every creature.”  She wrote of Jesus regarding the words of the Old Testament prophet, “ ‘He was without splendor, without beauty, His Face was hidden, as it were, and His person was not acknowledged’; one finds in them the whole foundation of my devotion to the Holy Face, or to say it better, the foundation of all my piety. I also desire myself to be without splendor, without beauty, to tread alone the wine in the press, unknown by every creature.” (Story of a Soul) She longed to be forgotten and to suffer. How unlike many of us today who want to be seen and known and famous! Only to now have to cover our faces with a cloth.

St. Therese also longed to see the Face of Jesus as evident in her poetry. In her poem, “What I’ll Soon See for the First Time” (PN 33) these lines reveal her desire to see His face:

I am still on the other shore,
But sensing eternal happiness,
Oh! I would already like to leave this earth
And gaze on the wonders of Heaven….
When I dream of the joys of the other life,
I no longer feel the weight of my exile,
Since soon toward my only Homeland
I’ll fly for the first time!…

Ah! Jesus, give me white wings
That I may take flight to you.
I want to fly to the eternal Shores.
I want to see you, O my Divine Treasure!
I want to fly into the arms of Mary
To rest on that choice throne
And receive from my dear Mother
A sweet Kiss for the first time!….

My Beloved, let me soon catch a glimpse
Of the sweetness of your first smile,
And let me, in my divine delirium,
Ah! let me hide in your Heart!…
Oh! what a moment! what ineffable happiness
When I’ll hear the sweet sound of your voice,
When I’ll see the divine brilliance
Of your Adorable Face for the first time!…

You know well, Sacred Heart of Jesus,
My only martyrdom is your love.
If my soul sighs for your beautiful Heaven,
It’s to love you, to love you more and more!…
In Heaven, always intoxicated with tenderness,
I’ll love you without limit and without law,
And my happiness will unceasingly seem
As new as the first time!!!…

The poem, “Heaven for Me” (PN 32), written on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1896, reveals that she wants Jesus to see her face.

To bear the exile of this valley of tears
I need the glance of my Divine Savior.
This glance full of love has revealed its charms to me.
It has made me sense the happiness of Heaven.
My Jesus smiles at me when I sigh to Him.
Then I no longer feel my trial of faith.
My God’s Glance, his ravishing Smile,
That is Heaven for me!..

Heaven for me is to be able to draw down on souls,
On the Church my mother and on all my sisters
Jesus’ graces and his Divine flames
That can enkindle and rejoice hearts.
I can obtain everything when mysteriously
I speak heart to heart with my Divine King.
That sweet prayer so near the Sanctuary,
That is Heaven for me!…

Heaven for me is hidden in a little Host
Where Jesus, my Spouse, is veiled for love.
I go to that Divine Furnace to draw out life,
And there my Sweet Savior listens to me night and day.
“Oh! what a happy moment when in your tenderness
You come, my Beloved, to transform me into yourself.
That union of love, that ineffable intoxication,
That is Heaven for me!”…

Heaven for me is feeling within myself the resemblance
Of the God who created me with his Powerful Breath.
Heaven for me is remaining always in his presence,                                                                     Calling him my Father and being his child.
In his Divine arms, I don’t fear the storm.
Total abandonment is my only law.
Sleeping on his Heart, right next to his Face,
That is Heaven for me!…

I’ve found my Heaven in the Blessed Trinity
That dwells in my heart, my prisoner of love.
There, contemplating my God, I fearlessly tell him
That I want to serve him and love him forever.
Heaven for me is smiling at this God whom I adore
When He wants to hide to try my faith.
To suffer while waiting for him to look at me again
That is Heaven for me!…

In these and other parts of her writings, we can comprehend more of her devotion to the Holy Face. The Holy Face is one that she longs to see and gaze upon. It is a face that also glances at her in an intimate and beautiful exchange of love. It is a face that is also one she wants to imitate in being hidden. Because of the Incarnation Christ’s face is now on Earth though hidden in the Blessed Sacrament and veiled under the appearance of bread. We can sit before the Blessed Sacrament and look upon Him while He looks upon us!

St. Teresa of Jesus, spiritual mother, and reformer of the Carmelite Order, advises in the Way of Perfection that we should represent Jesus as close to us when we pray; to speak to Him face to face as Moses did. Just as you would speak with a friend, speak with Jesus who is at your side and sees you. St. Teresa writes, “I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord, present within me, and that was my way of prayer… I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him… He is always looking at you; can you not turn the eyes of your soul to look at Him?” No doubt the Holy Mother of Carmel influenced our young St. Therese in her devotion to the Holy Face. Let us let Him look at our faces. Imagine our faces with no mask of pretending on. Set our faces towards Him and let Him delight in us and pray as Moses did face to face. 

St. Thérèse also wrote many prayers expressing her devotion to the Holy Face. She wrote on a small card the words, ”Make me resemble you, Jesus!” (Pr 11). In another prayer, she desires to make reparation to the Holy Face disfigured in His Passion by the sins of men. Behind His disfigured appearance she sees love and wants to spread that love to everyone, to save souls, and to bear His image so that she can see Him in heaven. 

O Jesus, who in Thy bitter Passion didst become “the most abject of men, a man of sorrows”, I venerate Thy Sacred Face whereon there once did shine the beauty and sweetness of the Godhead; but now it has become for me as if it were the face of a leper! Nevertheless, under those disfigured features, I recognize Thy infinite Love and I am consumed with the desire to love Thee and make Thee loved by all men.

The tears that thou hast shed so abundantly appear to me as so many precious pearls that I love to gather up, in order to purchase the souls of poor sinners by means of their infinite value.

O Jesus, whose adorable Face ravishes my heart, I implore Thee to fix deep within me Thy Divine Image, to set me on fire with Thy Love, and to make me worthy to contemplate in Heaven Thy glorious Face.
Amen.

It is important for us to love and to let Jesus love us. Then being consumed by Love we can soon attain the vision of Jesus setting our eyes on His face and His glory in heaven. 

So let us turn our eyes away from our false self, that person we are pretending to be. Casting off the falseness of sin and pride and without pretense humbly sit before Him. And since the love Jesus has for us is a love that suffers, let us imitate Him. He loves those who do not love. He also loves those who do not deserve to be loved.