Q: Dear Sister Carmen, in your last post you provided a really helpful summary of the first few mansions. You mentioned that they are “rooms of humility.” I would be grateful if you could help me understand the kinds of prayer that help us mature through these first few rooms. I have been advised to practice meditation for which Fr. John’s Better Part is a wonderful resource. Is this also consistent with Carmelite spirituality in these areas?
A: Dear Friend, thank you for your question! If we recall the words of a song made popular by Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…”, it would seem quite obvious in the natural learning order that we move from what is simple to what is more complex. Counting leads us into the world of mathematics, the A, B, C’s into the world of reading, do, re mi into the world of music, etc. Likewise in prayer there is a growth process.
When the disciples witnessed the relationship of Jesus to His Father, they besought Him, “Teach us how to pray.” And where did He begin? He began where children usually begin. He taught them by means of a vocal prayer, what we now call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. St. Teresa says, “I tell you that it is very possible that while you are reciting the Our Father or some other vocal prayer, the Lord may raise you to perfect contemplation” (Way of Perfection, Chapter 25). Surely Teresa understood that for this to happen there needed to be a genuine attentiveness to prayer.
Teresa also shows us that vocal prayer can become mental prayer when we understand to whom we are speaking, listen with our hearts to His response and remain at His side. We tend to think of vocal prayer as voicing words and mental prayer as being silent. Teresa explains however in Chapter 22 of the Way of Perfection that even in vocal prayer the mind must be used and we can mentally recite prayers with our lips closed. “Realize, daughters, that the nature of mental prayer isn’t determined by whether or not the mouth is closed.”
A particular form of mental prayer is meditation in which one makes a thoughtful reflection, through thinking on some truth or imagining some scene in Our Lord’s life, in order to draw resolutions for one’s own life. Teresa herself admits that her mind did not do well with either thinking or imagining. Rather she called her prayer a Prayer of Recollection. She used whatever means would help her become aware of God’s presence in order to enter into conversation with Him or simply be quiet before Him. Thus Teresa strove to picture Christ within her especially in those times when He would have been alone.
Both Teresa and St. John of the Cross turned to creation through which was aroused a sense of reverence and awe leading them into a deeper love for the Creator. John was drawn particularly to flowers and often took his friars on a “nature walk”. At night he would look out his window, resting his elbows on the window sill, to gaze at the stars which sight made him ecstatic. Flowers also drew Teresa but in a more special way she was drawn to water as we see in her writings. Teresa advised her nuns to use whatever helped them to recall the presence of Christ and enable them to communicate with Him, be it the beauties of creation, a good book, an image or painting.
The first movement toward prayer always comes from God who called us into life. He who first loved us begins the process. Thus He continues to call and our response is to listen and to respond. This listening and responding shapes the form of prayer which is most adapted to our particular nature. Teresa realized that God calls us all in different ways. However, our growth and perseverance in prayer is meant to open us up to the Mystery of God. Meditation enables us to discern what is necessary to bring our wills into conformity with God’s will. Cooperation with God’s grace and determination enable us to overcome the obstacles both within ourselves and without. There will be obstacles because when we enter prayer we enter the realm of the supernatural. Growth in prayer is measured by growth in the virtues. Thus for many the period of time in which meditation becomes our main form of prayer can be a lengthy phase. Growth is often slow.
Our holy mother St. Teresa teaches us that we must become very generous in living the Gospel. This generosity, which goes beyond the commandments, is a condition for a deep prayer life. “He will see that whoever loves Him much will be able to suffer much for Him” (Way of Perfection, Chapter 32).
You asked if meditation is consistent with Carmelite spirituality. Because Carmelite Spirituality does not have a structured form of prayer than these types that I described are all ways of prayer by which we strive to deepen the intimate relationship that we desire to have with God. The more that we grow in prayer the greater will be our thirst for the “living God”. This growth in intimacy rests on the sense of God’s Presence in our lives. It is likewise a preparation for contemplation should God desire to give this gift to us.
PS from Dan: To answer your question about Fr. Bartunek’s approach to meditation Fr. Bartunek’s approach is more Ignatian than Carmelite. That said, his helpful summary of traditional meditation is not contradictory, nor would it provide any impediment to growth in prayer in the Carmelite tradition. St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were both well aware of methods similar to those described by Fr. John (which were popular in their time) but were more concerned with progress in the way rather than specific ways of progress (methods). Simply put, meditation or mental prayer is a necessary means to growing in and through the first mansions regardless of the specific tradition one prefers. Methods like Fr. John’s are particularly helpful to those who are just beginning the practice of mental prayer or who are having difficulty progressing more deeply in prayer during the early phases of spiritual growth.
PS 2: To learn more about the Carmelite Sisters visit our web site: www.carmelitesistersocd.com and for more information please contact the sisters at email@example.com, or 626-289-1353 Ext. 246, 920 East Alhambra Road, Alhambra, California 91801.