Prayer is an Open Door
by Joseph and Anita Mansour, O.C.D.S.
How does one begin to speak of the goodness of our Lord? He is the supreme Good and all that we, as His children, experience as good in this life is merely a dim reflection of His perfect goodness. Even our Lord Jesus, when asked about what is good, said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One is good, God” (Mt. 19:17). Jesus points to the goodness of our Heavenly Father, of whom Jesus is the perfect image (Col. 1:15). So, the question of how to understand the Father’s goodness leads us to desire union with Christ. With so many of the saints who have gone before us, we pray for deeper and deeper union, that Jesus might fill us with all that is good, namely Himself, and lead us to the Father – indeed, into the very life of the Holy Trinity.
Within Carmelite spirituality, the saints would teach us to foster a spirit of solitude and silence in seeking this union with God. In a world often filled with much noise and distraction, this can be a daunting task. We must remember that solitude and silence are first and foremost an attitude of the heart. While we cannot always find external silence, we are called to create a silent place within, where we can listen for the voice of our Beloved. With St. Elijah, we must climb Mt. Horeb and stand before the Lord, awaiting His Presence as He passes by (1Kgs. 19:9-13). We see in these texts that our Lord did not reveal Himself in the earthquake, wind, or fire but, rather, in a “tiny whispering sound” (1 Kgs. 19:12). Elijah heard it because he was a man of true interior silence. He waited upon the Lord and the Lord came to him. And Elijah hid his face in his mantle (1 Kgs. 19:13) in utter humility and abandonment to the Beloved.
Whatever may be the manner of our most frequent experiences of God, we must remember that He is never limited by any means. Prayer is the open door that will lead us deeper and deeper into union with Him and, as St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, we must go forward in our prayer life with great determination. It is through fidelity to prayer that our Lord will purify, transform, and unite us to Himself.
So, how do we pray? There are three main types of prayer: Vocal, Mental, and Contemplative. These are well-outlined in two works of St. Teresa of Avila: The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle (the Catechism of the Catholic Church is also good and draws from these). Vocal prayer consists of praying with words while, at the same time, being mentally aware of “what one is saying and the One to whom we are speaking”. Thus, there is an integral connection between vocal prayer and mental prayer, as one must be mentally connected to the words one is saying to be authentically praying. Otherwise, they are only exterior utterances, with no real connection to our interior life. But well-prayed vocal prayer is of such importance that St. Teresa notes, it should never be abandoned, no matter how far we progress in the spiritual life. This is absolutely vital.
Mental Prayer is essentially using the intellect to pray. We use our mind to reflect on spiritual truths, such as God’s mercy or goodness. As we said, it can be united to vocal prayer or it need not be. The mind is active – we strive to meditate, either on Scripture or a saint’s writing, or on our Lord Himself or some aspect of Him. St. Teresa speaks of the usefulness of Holy Scripture and holy images in recollecting oneself for mental prayer; so crucifixes, holy cards, statues, etc. may be very helpful for you, as well as having a particular time or topic. All of these tools help us focus and define our meditation and aid us in not getting distracted.
At the same time, mental prayer is a prayer of stillness, of simplicity. It need not be according to a certain “method” or “spiritual exercise,” although it can be (especially as one grows in union with God, He will almost certainly begin to fill the majority of the prayer time; this is a natural progression towards contemplative prayer). It is very important to allow yourself to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, especially in willingness to leave your original topic if He chooses. In mental prayer, one lives out the scripture, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Thus, the door of vocal prayer ideally opens to mental prayer, drawing us to deeper silence and stillness before our Lord.
It is at this point that the road we have been following clears before us. Our own efforts both in vocal and mental prayer may now give way to Contemplative Prayer, the spiritual inflowing of God. We find ourselves without a way, without a path that we recognize, but — at the same time — the soul is delightfully caught up by our Lord into His own reality, unlimited by the senses and faculties of reason, memory and will. The soul is intimately united with the Holy Trinity. All that the soul can do is purely experience Him in utter joy and abandonment. Authentic contemplation is not something that a person does, or that they attain. It is not a form of mind emptying, thought clearing, or relaxation. [It is not at all yoga, or eastern meditation, or a trance state. These are enemies of true contemplation.] It is something that only God can initiate and bestow on the person. Like rain that falls to the ground, the ground does not make the rain; the best it can do is to be receptive to the rain. Likewise with true contemplation. Thus, contemplation is a foretaste of heaven, where the saints enjoy this union in an eternal face-to-face encounter. Thomas Merton describes contemplation in this way:
“Contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is an awakening, enlightenment, and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply “find” a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold Him there as a prisoner to whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and His own freedom. It is a pure and a virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word ‘wherever He may go’” (New Seeds of Contemplation).
Now just a few words about how we, as secular Carmelites, live out this call to holiness and union with God. In Carmel, solitude and (interior) silence are the food and drink of our soul. As secular Carmelites, we follow the Rule of St. Albert, as it is adapted for secular people called to live in the world. We strive to pray morning and evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, do a half-hour of mental prayer per day, and attend monthly meetings with our secular Carmelite community. When possible, we also attend daily Mass and pray night prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours before sleeping. All of these are, however, secondary to our marital and familial vocations and obligations and thus some may have to be sacrificed at various times in our life. In this way, all of our time becomes sanctified and is lifted up as an offering before the Lord. All of our work, the busy-ness of the daily routine with all of its joys and sorrows, is a prayer rising up like incense before Him. Life gets hectic, but we strive not to stray from the One who is the source of our life.
Whether or not you possess a Carmelite vocation, our Lord is calling you onward to deeper union with Him. (Yes, in the Catechism it points out that all are called to grow in prayer towards actual contemplation. In this sense it is a normal part of attaining and living the universal call to holiness.) He created you for this very purpose – to know, love, and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Perhaps you have experienced this yearning and have wondered at the restlessness of your own heart, as St. Augustine did.
The message of this article is one: Seek Him. And keep seeking Him. Do not become discouraged at any obstacle, either within or outside of yourself (including setbacks, dryness, ignorance, negligence in prayer, etc…). God knows them all and He Himself is not limited by them. Only strive to do His will instead of your own, seek always to please Him and bring Him joy. Talk with Him about this and ask Him to show you His will. He will bless you and lead you on a sure path. He will remove the obstacles and unite you to Himself. The saints who have gone before us have marked out the way. Let us follow them with joy.