The Church remembers Our Lady of Mt. Carmel today, Patroness and Exemplar of the life of the Carmelite Order, which began on Mt. Carmel in Israel 800 years ago and is still with us now. We have received a great treasury of Saints, of wisdom on prayer, and the map of the lived experience of the soul’s journey with God from generations of Carmelites. St. Teresa of Jesus called this journey of transforming love, “The Royal Road;” the life of prayer and growth toward union with God that is open to everyone, the contemplative life.
I know. “What, me?” You’re a sane, busy, regular person. You can’t sit and ponder all day, especially without your iphone 5, and anyway your kids would come looking for you. And why should you try something like this? You go to mass. Maybe you go to Adoration. You read the Bible, pray the rosary. Perfect!
Learning to enter into yourself and pray to the Lord within will only make these other things you do richer and more meaningful. In mental prayer we come to intimately know by inner experience this Lord of all those things. Interior prayer helps us become more open to being united with Him, guided and changed by Him, whatever we are doing or however we are praying. We can be for Jesus another Bethany, as Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity spoke of becoming. A soul opened to Him is one of His favorite places to be, to love and be loved. As St. Teresa of Jesus said, the Lord is truly within us, “and we aught not leave Him there alone.”
I’m going to suggest a way you can become a five- minute mystic. It’s a trick though because I’m hoping the five minutes will stretch someday to ten minutes and maybe 20 or 30 every day! But we have to start somewhere. So let’s start with five stolen minutes somewhere in your day, whenever and wherever you can, and grow from there as the Lord leads.
If I can do it anyone can. I have bad ADD for one thing. Also I was a single mom for ten years. I know what it is not to have time to pray. I also was the primary caregiver for two terminally ill family members recently. I know what “stretched thin” means.
Developing inner prayer will help your life to feel more integrated, more at peace, more aware of God and His indwelling. This is exactly what we need when we are busy, stretched thin (or have bad ADD.)
At the heart of the spiritual life of Carmelites is quality time with God in interior prayer, silence, and solitude modeled on that of Elijah the Prophet, who listened to God’s “still, small voice,” and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who “pondered and reflected in her heart” the life of her Son.
There are many different forms of mental prayer. The great Reformer of Carmel and Founder (along with St. John of the Cross) of the Discalced Carmelites, St. Teresa of Jesus, outlined the Prayer of Recollection, which she said the Lord Himself taught her. I like it because it has a loose structure and leaves room for what works for each person. There is space to carry on an interior conversation with Jesus or let your soul be moved by Him should He want to do that. Our part is to be attentive and sensitive to Him. We can be still and let Him do what He wants to do as well as being responsive to His movements toward us and in us.
“How do I find even five minutes of quiet and solitude?” You might ask.
I know how it is. To write this I am hiding in my room myself.
Once you start sneaking it you will get better and better at seizing your opportunities. You may have to snatch those moments when you can or plan them for your kids’ nap each day or during a break at your job.
You can try out this five -minute version of the Prayer of Recollection and make it part of your spiritual life if you want to, to start growing in the direction of contemplative prayer. Limited time is not an obstacle to Jesus’ will. All you have to do is prepare the way, invite Him in and spend the time you can start with. Our Lord responds to this gift you give Him of your time and attention. He seems to appreciate even a few minutes.
First, go somewhere that is quiet enough you can concentrate, and private enough that you can close your eyes without worrying anyone, and where you’re not likely to be interrupted for a few minutes. Hide if you have to. Tell your phone you won’t be answering calls for the next five minutes. Take a timer that doesn’t tick loudly or have a jarring alarm. I use a timer so I can let go and not worry about time for a while. I know the little bell will call me back to my day when it is time to go back to it.
Set your timer for five minutes.
Sit in a comfortable, supported position. Put your hands in your lap. Close your eyes. Slow down your breathing. Pay attention to all the sounds around you; sounds outside, sounds in the room, the sound of your breathing. You might think to yourself as you breathe in, “I let go,” and as you breath out, “and I let God.” Relax anywhere you feel tense. Some people will become uncomfortable physically just by trying to sit still. It will help to imagine your in- breath soothing and calming the anxiety throughout your body. Then send the stress out with your exhale.
I don’t think St. Teresa had to worry about this preliminary. She was busy too. But life was different then. In this hyper connected, information overloaded, unreasonably busy, noisy, hurried age we have to step out of the mad pace of life for a while and do something to ease our overwrought bodies and minds so we can pray.
Make a very brief examination of conscience. Just a heart beat or two of contrition will do. This is simply putting yourself in reality and letting go of any barrier or mask between you and God so He can see your beautiful face, even if, like a good parent, he has to wipe your nose a little. He doesn’t mind. He loves you. Allow Him to tend to you. Then put your burdens and worries in His hands for a time so you can be all His.
Next we do what Teresa called “calming the faculties.” Pray a prayer such as the Our Father slowly and pay attention to the words you are “saying”, and to Whom you are saying them, fixing your inner gaze on the Lord in whatever way works for you. In this way go over the words of the prayer silently and reflectively, keeping your awareness with Jesus.
Your mind is going to go everywhere. Don’t worry. When your brain starts worrying, remembering, planning, dreaming, gently bring it back each time you notice it straying. Use some simple means of “looking” again at Jesus. Silently say His Name, imagine Him with you or sit in the cave of your heart with Him. You might pretend you are the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus is thirsty. Give Him something to drink. Or just remember His tenderness and love is with you in this moment.
Recognize your distractions, let them go and use one or more of these tools mentioned above to bring yourself back again and again. Take heart that St. Teresa says that even if our intellects are running wild at times, our souls can be fixed on Jesus and in communion with Him.
Carmelite wisdom would say your prayer is even more meritorious before God when you had to fight for it but you did it anyway for love of your Lord.
You can’t sit in the sun and not get a tan whether you are thinking about the sun or not. You can’t be in the rain, set down your umbrella, and not get wet! Just put down your parasol and umbrella, that’s all. It’s your intention, your will, to remain in His presence for this little bit of time, that matters. His power can’t be limited by your own perception of how “well” you are praying. Just keep turning your attention back to Him.
Allow Him speak to your heart or sit silently with Him and have a conversation without words. It feels like work. But after a while you realize it’s love; love worth fighting for. So try to be patient when it’s a lot of work in the beginning. Bring yourself back to the love.
DING! Five minutes are up. Make the sign of the Cross and step back into the stream of life. Know you are better for this time you took to be with Christ. The stream of life itself will be bettered too by the grace you just let flow into it by your prayer and availability to God.
Happy Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel!
“Pause a while and know that I am God!” Psalm 46:10
*Special Note: Coming Soon Five Minute Theology from my fellow contributor, Julia Mendonka Motekaitis. Thank you, Julia for the title idea and for being my sweet muse so often.
To learn more about the Teresian Carmel and Carmelite Spirituality you can go to http://ourgardenofcarmel.org/