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?

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.)

Fire of Love

Bernini's St. Teresa of Jesus

Bernini’s St. Teresa of Jesus

 

St. Teresa is best known for her love of God. Jesus Christ increased this virtue and many others in this saint. She experienced many visions and revelations from Christ. One time she saw an angel with a flaming dart piercing her heart. She explains this mystical experience in her autobiography, chapter 19:

“I saw an angel beside me toward the left side, in bodily form…He was not very large, but small, very beautiful, his face so blazing with light that he seemed to be one of the very highest angels, who appear all on fire. They must be those they call Cherubim…I saw in his hands a long dart of gold, and at the end of the iron there seemed to me to be a little fire. This I thought he thrust through my heart several times, and that it reached my very entrails. As he withdrew it, I thought it brought them with it, and left me all burning with a great love of God. So great was the pain, that it made me give those moans; and so utter the sweetness that this sharpest of pains gave me, that there was no wanting it to stop, nor is there any contenting of the soul with less than God”.

This heavenly gift, this flame of divine love in her heart, which penetrated her being and made her so strong that she vowed to always do what seemed to her most perfect and for God’s glory.

St. John of the Cross explains this fire of love in his work The Living Flame of Love:

“When he wills to touch somewhat vehemently, the soul’s burning reaches such a high degree of love that it seems to surpass that of all the fires of the world: for he is an infinite fire of love. Because the soul in this case is entirely transformed by the divine flame, it not only feels a cautery, but has become a cautery of blazing fire.”

“…it does not afflict it: rather, commensurate with the strength of the love, it divinized and delights it, burning gently.”

May God’s love transform our hearts and may our love of God grow, blazing like fire, burning gently.

The Queen of Angels

On the Feast of the Assumption the Lord showed St. Teresa in a rapture the Queen of Angels in her ascent into heaven and how she was received there with all solemnity and great joy. The effects St. Teresa received were “a deeper desire to undergo difficult trials” and she was also “left with a longing to serve our Lady”. (The Book of Her Life, Chap 39:26)

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Following all the many trials and persecutions St. Teresa received in setting up the first foundation, she fell into a rapture on the Feast of the Assumption. This time she was reflecting upon her many sins when the rapture occurred. In it she saw herself “vested in a white robe of shining brightness” but at first didn’t see who was clothing her in it. Later she saw that it was the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph that were putting this robe on her.

St. Teresa goes on to explain, “I was given to understand that I was now cleansed of my sins. After being clothed and while experiencing the most marvelous delight and glory, it seemed to me than that our Lady took me by the hands. She told me I made her very happy in serving the glorious St. Joseph, that I should believe that what I was striving for in regard to the monastery would be accomplished, that the Lord and those two would be greatly served in it, that I shouldn’t fear there would ever be any failure in this matter even though the obedience which was to be give was not to my liking, because they would watch over us, and that her Son had already promised us He would be with us, that as a sign that this was true she was giving me a jewel. It seemed to me she placed around my neck a very beautiful golden necklace to which was attached a highly valuable cross.” (The Book of Her Life, Chap 33:14)

Because of St. Teresa’s work and devotion, Carmelites strive to serve Our Lady and St. Joseph and to foster personal devotion to both of them. In a previous post, I mentioned how St. Teresa set St. Joseph at one door and Our Lady at the other in each of the foundations that she set up. She had great trust in their protection and intercession and we should too.

Under Our Lady’s Mantle

St. Teresa experienced numerous obstacles in setting up the monastery of St. Joseph’s. Additionally the nuns were treated unfairly before taking the habit. Before entering the new foundation, St. Teresa experienced a vision of Christ while she was at prayer. In this vision she saw Jesus placing a crown on her head and heard Him thanking her for all that she had done for His Mother.

Then at another time while all were at prayer in choir after compline she wrote: “I saw our Lady in the greatest glory clothed in a white mantle; it seemed she was sheltering us all under it. I understood how high a degree of glory the Lord would give to those living in this house.” (The Book of Her Life, 36:24)

A mantle is a large sleeveless cloak worn over clothes. It is usually used to cover or surround something else. Symbolically a mantle represents preeminence or authority.

cordoba.olmc

In this life there will always be opposition in our path as we strive to live a holy and good life. This image of being sheltered under Our Lady’s Mantle is a comforting one. I like to use this image in my own prayer asking the Blessed Mother to place me, and all of my family, under “her mantle” knowing that she will protect and guide me until I enter into eternal glory.

Our Lady of Grace

St. Teresa’s mother died when she was about twelve years old. Since her older sister married, it didn’t seem prudent for Teresa to stay at home without a mother; therefore, St. Teresa’s father placed her in a convent boarding school as a young teenager of about sixteen.

Her first week or so at the convent school were not happy ones, but soon she become content there and even more so than she was at her father’s house. (The Book of Her Life, 2:8)

The convent school was run by Augustinian nuns and the name of the school was Our Lady of Grace. St. Teresa was greatly influenced by the nuns there. She began “to return to the good habits of early childhood”. (The Book of Her Life, 2:8)

The title of Our Lady of Grace is originally of French origin. Images of Our Lady under this title usually show the mother and child in a tender embrace with their faces touching like in the icon below.

Mother and child in a tender embrace – how appropriate for St. Teresa at this time to be placed in the care of Our Lady under this title when she no longer had an earthly mother of her own, but was in desperate need of a mother! No longer receiving the tender physical embraces of her earthly mother, she now will receive the tender spiritual embraces of Our Lady of Grace. 

The motherhood of Mary is important to all the faithful. She helps to restore supernatural life into our souls, just like she did with St. Teresa. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the Blessed Mother’s role in our lives in paragraphs 968 -969:

“Her role in relation to the Church and to all humanity goes still further. “In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace.”  “This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation . . . . Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.”

And in paragraph 970 her function is further clarified:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.”

Since Our Lady was able to help St. Teresa in her conversion, leading her back to her “good habits of early childhood”, then she will be able to help me in my ongoing conversion and growth in holiness!

Our Lady of Grace, pray for us!

St. Teresa’s Devotion to St. Joseph

During St. Teresa’s younger years she was quite ill and even crippled. After seeing how helpless the doctors were, she began to seek help from the saints in heaven that they might cure her. She writes in her autobiography that she took for her advocate and lord St. Joseph recommending herself to him with all earnest. It is to St. Joseph’s intercession that she was able to walk once again. She writes:

“I saw clearly that as in this need so in other greater ones concerning honor and loss of soul this father and lord of mine came to my rescue in better ways than I know how to ask for. I don’t recall up to this day ever having petitioned him for anything that he failed to grant. It is an amazing thing the great many favors God has granted me through the mediation of this blessed saint, the dangers I was freed from both of body and soul. For with other saints it seems the Lord has given them grace to be of help in one need, whereas with this glorious saint I have experience that he helps in all our needs and that the Lord wants us to understand that just as He was subject to St. Joseph on earth .  .  .  so in heaven God does whatever he commands.”  (The Book of Her Life)

Once she was in need when setting up a new monastery and did not know how she would pay the workmen. St. Joseph assured her that she “would not be lacking”. She hired the workers even though she did not have any money. The “Lord in ways that amazed those who heard about it provided for me.” Her brother, who was living in South America, sent her the money that she needed. In her letter to him on December 23, 1561, she acknowledges his gift and expresses her gratitude. (The Collected Letters of St. Teresa, Vol 1)

On another occasion she writes about the protection she received from this wonderful saint. In the midst of conflicts and exhausted, St. Teresa didn’t worry. Instead she “prayed to the Lord to protect me and to my father St. Joseph to bring me to his house, and I offered God what I would have to undergo.” 

She always celebrated his feast day with as much solemnity as possible. Since she has experienced so much good from this saint, she has done much in promoting devotion to him. “I have not known anyone truly devoted to him and rendering him special service who has not advanced more in virtue.” And who wouldn’t want to advance in virtue? St. Teresa is convinced that he will benefit souls in a powerful way – all they have to do is to recommend themselves to him. “For some years now I have asked him for something on his feast day, and my petition is always granted.”

St. Teresa also says that St. Joseph is someone who persons of prayer should attach themselves. Since he was so good and assisted the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus, she is convinced through her own experience that he will not fail to assist anyone who is devoted to him and entrusts themselves to him.

 “Those who cannot find a master to teach them prayer should take this glorious saint for their master, and they will not go astray.” 

Ask St. Joseph to help you pray and recommend all your cares and concerns to him. Perhaps there is a virtue that you need. If so, ask St. Joseph for this, today on his feast day.

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Reckless Mercy

God gives gifts without measure. However, we often measure how much we will receive. Prayer changes all this. Prayer changes everything. It opens up our capacity to receive, to receive the gifts God wants to give us.

We are the ones who break friendship with God. It is so ingrained in our nature to dodge His demands. God wants to work in us, but we don’t want it; we have “other interests” or else we want to control God and so the conflict begins. A divided heart settles within and we resist and rebel. 

But our God is a God of Mercy. He only interacts with us as Mercy, yet we want to turn and run from so great a gift! 

All we ever have to do is to turn to Him, a simple lifting up of the heart . . . a whispered prayer. . . “Father!”, and then the Reckless Mercy begins. It washes over us, pours into our soul, penetrates the heart, fills it with blessings and makes us new. And the good news is that He never tires of doing this.

“Souls should remember His words and see what he did with me; before I grew tired of offending Him, His Majesty began to pardon me. He never tires of giving, nor can He exhaust His mercies. Let us not tire of receiving. May he be blessed forever, amen. – and may all things praise Him.” (St. Teresa, Book of Her Life 19,15)

St. Teresa was overcome by the mercy that God showered on her. She discovered in His presence mercy both for herself and for all sinners. God is merciful and His mercy is reckless and this is beautifully expressed in the following prayer by St. Teresa.

O my God! Source of all mercy! I acknowledge Your sovereign power. While recalling the wasted years that are past, I believe that You, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain. Miserable as I am, yet I firmly believe that You can do all things. Please restore to me the time lost, giving me Your grace, both now and in the future, that I may appear before You in “wedding garments.” Amen.

No Excuses for not Praying

St. Teresa was no stranger to the experience of illnesses. She suffered some severe physical torments especially at the beginning of her adult life. At one point her illness at this time had become so intense that she remained insensible for four days. Everyone was expecting her to die, so she received the last Sacraments. They had even dug a grave for her in the monastery grave yard! However, she did recover from this and writes that she gained many graces from this particularly: patience in dealing with the illness, bearing with all of it without complaining, and the will to confess what she had done wrong, even venial sins.

sicknessShe then began to live a distracted life even while still suffering a variety of different illnesses, some severe others not so. She had given up prayer. Her father believed that the reason she had not been praying was because of her sicknesses. However, she writes in her autobiography that, “I saw clearly that there is no excuse for giving up prayer.” She told her father that it was all she could do to keep up with the choir duties. But she says, “ this was not sufficient cause to set aside something for which bodily strength is not necessary but only love and a habit; and the Lord always provides the opportunity if we desire.”

 Sometimes there are occasions or sicknesses which will prevent us from being able to have free hours for the solitude necessary for prayer. Nevertheless, “there is no lack of other time when we have the health for this.” She expounds further that a soul that loves can offer the sickness up, accepting what is happening and conforming the will to God’s. This is an act of love. “Prayer is an exercise of love, and it would be incorrect to think that if there is no time for solitude there is no prayer at all.” So even our illnesses can become prayer and transformed into an act of love.

There is never a good excuse for giving up prayer.

(The Book of Her Life, St. Teresa of Avila, ch 7)

St. Joseph at one door and Our Lady at the other

When founding the monastery of St. Joseph’s, St. Teresa writes in The Book of Her Life that one day after Communion the Lord told her to strive for this new monastery with all her powers and promised that He would be highly served in it. “He said it would be called St. Joseph and that this saint would keep watch over us at one door, and our Lady at the other”. Our Lord further told St. Teresa that Christ would remain with them and that the new foundation would be a “star shining with great splendor.” (The Book of Her Life, 32:11)

With the waves of our current culture tossing us about on this stormy sea, it would be good to remember that the whole Church is under the patronage of St. Joseph, one of the first acts as pope of Pius IX. Recently, the present Holy Father, Pope Francis, issued the decree Paternas vices (Fatherly care) adding St. Joseph’s name to all the main Eucharistic Prayers. Until this decree was issued in May, St. Joseph had only been included in the first Eucharistic Prayer. It was Pope John XXIII that inserted St. Joseph’s name in that prayer in 1962. St. Joseph will now be included in Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV.

Our Lady is know by many titles one of them is appropriately fitting for the present times: The Star of the Sea or Stella Maris. This is an ancient title for our Blessed Mother. In the ancient Aramaic language the phrase “Our Lady” meant pilot, leader or guide. At sea, or in the desert, someone was needed to lead the people safely and to guide them. In ancient times, more so than today, the stars were used as a guide to safety and new life.

With this in mind, let us keep these two saints watching over us, asking for their help and intercession as we make our journey in this life, remembering that St. Joseph is keeping watch over us at one door, and our Lady at the other.

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