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Why is spiritual detachment necessary?

Have you made an idol out of chocolate? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In my post last week we defined spiritual detachment as getting rid of our selfish clinging to things or persons other than God in response to His love for us. Today I would like to address why detachment is necessary.

St. John of the Cross, co-founder of the Order of Discalced Carmelites and a doctor of the Church, wrote, “The soul that desires God to surrender Himself to it entirely must surrender itself to Him without keeping anything for itself.” Wouldn’t you like to have God completely give Himself to you, holding nothing back? Then you must give yourself completely to Him. When you keep God at arm’s length, you cannot grow very close to Him!

Likewise, if your soul is full of earthly things, you leave no room for God. Consuming spiritual junk food leaves no room for what really nourishes us. Only God can satisfy our longing for happiness. The more we try to make ourselves happy through material things and other people, the less happy we will be. We were made for union with God. Nothing less will suffice.

Disordered attachments equal idols

Attachments are a kind of idolatry. When we are unwilling to let go of our grasp on things, even for the sake of God, we have made a little god out of them.  We are implicitly saying that they are at least as important to us as God is.

Are you often distracted during prayer? When a friend or family member speaks to you, do you find your mind wandering to your own concerns? Sometimes this is a result of wrong attachments.

We have not learned how to trust God with our lives, so we are not at peace. We have constant worries and preoccupations. They sap our energy and weaken our relationships with God and other people.

You can’t see God (or anything) clearly with a log in your eye

File:The Enthroned Trinity as Three Identical Figures.jpg
The Enthroned Trinity as Three Identical Figures (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Attachments also cloud our vision.  Jesus said we need to remove the plank from our eye in order to see clearly. That plank might be sin, or it might be attachments. Our ability to give good advice and real help to other people is jeopardized by them. (See Matthew 7:3-5.)

Finally, no one can see God face-to-face in Heaven, if he is attached to something else. We must be absolutely pure and God-focused first. Being purged from our inordinate attachments is not optional. That is where Purgatory comes in. The more tightly we cling to things while on earth, the longer and harder our Purgatory will be. Since we have to be purged sooner or later, why not—as St. Teresa of Ávila was fond of saying—make a virtue of necessity, and start the process now? Wouldn’t being at peace immediately after death be worth the price of letting go of things that can never make us happy anyway?

Are there things that are holding you back from God? What would be difficult for you to give up? It might be as small as a cup of coffee or as big as a close friendship. Take some time today to meditate on this.  Now is the moment to start letting go, so you can grasp more firmly onto God.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: What are you struggling to let go of? What practical steps are you taking to be less attached?


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What is Carmelite spirituality?

Mt. Carmel in Israel (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

What is Carmelite spirituality? A couple of readers have asked me this question, and I assume several more have wondered and not asked. So I’m going to write this as a post (for maximum visibility and readership), then make it a permanent page soon.

Carmelite spirituality stems from the teaching and lifestyle of one of the oldest surviving religious orders in the Catholic Church. Like the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, and others, the Carmelites have a particular way of living out the faith, which has been approved by the Church. St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the best-beloved saints of our age, was a Carmelite nun.

From ancient Mt. Carmel to medieval Europe

In the 12th century, a group of Christian hermits settled on Mt. Carmel,  where the prophet Elijah had once lived in a cave. St. Albert of Jerusalem wrote a rule of life for them to follow. They built a monastery and came together for prayer, but each lived in his own cell. They dedicated their oratory to Mary, becoming known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel.

As always, tensions were high in the Middle East at this time. Soon the Carmelite brothers left the Holy Land for Europe. There they assumed an active life–that is, living and working in the world. Blessed John Soreth established the Carmelite nuns in 1452. The Third Order, for seculars, began two centuries later.

The reform by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross

File:Zurbarán St. John of the Cross.jpg
St. John of the Cross by Fransisco Zurbaran (Photo Credit:Wkimedia Commons).

Throughout the centuries many saints and blesseds in various countries reformed the Carmelites in their lands. The most significant reform came from saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in 16th-century Spain. The communities they established eventually became the separate Discalced Carmelite Order. “Discalced” means “shoeless.” They wore sandals as a sign of poverty and penance. Teresa and John were later named doctors of prayer by the Church. This means the Church not only approves their teaching, but recommends it to all Christians.

These days, the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (O. Carm.) and the Discalced Carmelites (OCD) see themselves as two branches of the same family. Though their goals and teachings are somewhat different, they share much in common. There are also at least a half-dozen new members of the Carmelite family that have been approved by the Church, including the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, to which my brother belongs.  They would probably all agree with the spirituality posts on this blog. Nevertheless, when I speak of Carmelite spirituality, I am speaking about OCDS spirituality, which is what I know most about. I was a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCDS) for about 15 years.

The spirituality of OCDS

The recently approved OCDS Constitutions list 6 “fundamental elements of the vocation of Teresian Secular Carmelites”:

  • living in allegiance to Christ by imitating the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • seeking union with God though contemplation and apostolic activity
  • commitment to prayer
  • apostolic zeal
  • self-denial in accordance with the Gospel
  • commitment to evangelization

These are the central ideas I blog on in my spirituality posts, along with wisdom from St. Therese of Lisieux and other Carmelite saints. I also include some more general Catholic spirituality.

Why I am no longer OCDS

The first Mass of my brother, Fr. Michael Mary, M. Carm.
The first Mass of my brother, Fr. Michael Mary, M. Carm.

Another question people ask is why I am a “former member of OCDS.” Here is my story. I began in OCDS when I was single and living in the Twin Cities, about 40 minutes from the nearest community. I got married a year before making my definitive promise. Within a year after making my promise, we moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where my husband went to work for then-Bishop Raymond Burke. We were now about 200 minutes from the nearest OCDS community. During this same time, OCDS was working on its new Constitutions. In the past, the order had allowed members to live their promises in isolation, but that was now no longer the case. As our family grew, I could not make it to monthly meetings, but I remained in contact with my community and participated by email in formation classes.

In 2009, we moved to New Ulm, Minnesota, about 80 minutes southwest of the nearest OCDS community. I was hoping to be able to make it to meetings more regularly, but found that was too hard on my family. I petitioned and received permission from our Provincial Delegate to temporarily wave the requirement to attend monthly meetings.

That changed in 2011, when the OCDS community I had long belonged to was suppressed. Due to irregularities in the formation practices of the community, members who wished to transfer to other communities had to be under probation for one year. I no longer had a community to relate to. I would have to attend meetings regularly for one year at least, before a new community could decide whether or not to accept me as a member. After discussing this with my husband, I realized the requirement was too difficult, given the distance and our four sons, the youngest a newborn. I was not able to obtain an exception this time, so, sadly, I had to be released from my Carmelite promises.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: Do you have further questions about the Carmelite family or Carmelite spirituality that I have not answered? What are your experiences with Carmelites and their spirituality?

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Christian prayer is much more than Eastern meditation

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Prayer (1865) (cropped).jpg
The Prayer by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

A few years ago at Mass in another diocese, the priest began a homily on the importance of daily prayer. I was elated. We hear this far too seldom from the pulpit. My elation soon turned to disappointment, however. He talked about being aware of the world around you, and your own thoughts and feelings. Shockingly, he didn’t mention God at all! I realized the priest (apparently without knowing it) was not really advocating prayer, but a Buddhist-inspired form of meditation.

Both Christians and Buddhists use the term “meditation,” so it’s no wonder sincere people confuse the practices of the separate religions. But they are quite different.

Christian meditation centers on Christ

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II noted that Buddhists seek to free themselves from the world, while Christians seek freedom from sin, through God’s grace, in order to be united with Him. Eastern meditation might relieve stress, but it cannot save souls.

Doctor of Prayer St. Teresa of Avila gives us further insight, when she writes in the 1st chapter of Interior Castle.

“If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer.”  In other words, true prayer recognizes how small and sinful we are and how great God is, and addresses itself towards Him. Eastern forms of meditation are not addressed to anyone.  The question of God’s existence and character doesn’t come into play.

Prayer’s purpose is union with God

Christian prayer is communication with God. The conversation we have in prayer goes both ways. In fact, God’s action during prayer is more important than our words, thoughts, or feelings.  Prayer is a search for God, who promises, “You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13-14). As the Song of Songs envisions it, prayer is the Beloved seeking the One who loves her. This seeking (and finding!) is the purpose of our lives. You and I were made for intimate union with God. God is love, and He invites us to share in the very love that unites the Holy Trinity. The means to this union is prayer.

Union with God unfolds in stages. When we first start praying, we have to work hard to focus on God, to meditate on (that is, ponder) His goodness, and to worship Him. Faithfulness to prayer and to God’s will opens the door to the gift of contemplation, when God secretly transforms us and draws us closer to Himself. The early stages of prayer are concerned with seeking, the later stages with finding.

Non-Christian meditation aims too low. It cannot fulfill our longing for eternal love. Do not be afraid to lift your sights higher. Do not be afraid to seek the face of God in prayer!

Connie Rossini

Share with us: How have you or others around you misunderstood the purpose of Christian prayer? What insights from your own growth in prayer can you share?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. You can help support my writing by your purchases. Thanks!

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What is mental prayer and how can you do it?

St. Therese of Lisieux. (Public Domain).
St. Therese of Lisieux. (Public Domain).

Catholics divide personal prayer into 2 broad categories – vocal and mental. Vocal prayer includes prayers written for recitation. Mental prayer is prayer in one’s own words. (Mental prayer can also be subdivided into meditation and contemplation. The Catechism calls vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation the 3 expressions of personal prayer.)

St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux likewise wrote, “With me prayer is an uplifting of the heart; a glance towards heaven; a cry of gratitude and love, uttered equally in sorrow and in joy.”

Catholics are generally comfortable with vocal prayer, but mental prayer can leave us at a loss. How can you spend 20 minutes or more in prayer without a pre-written text? How can you keep your prayer from becoming mere rambling?

St. Teresa strives to make mental prayer simple and accessible to all. Since each soul is unique, each person’s prayer is unique as well. There is no one-size-fits-all model. The method of mental prayer takes 2nd place to the attitude of the heart. Still, for beginners especially, a general format to follow is helpful.

If you don’t know how to pray, try this

This method is taken primarily from St. Frances de Sales, but also incorporates other authors’ suggestions. Feel free to adapt it to your own situation and temperament.

St. Teresa of Avila. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).
St. Teresa of Avila. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).

– Preparation. Place yourself in God’s presence. Think about His omnipotence or His residence in your heart. Quiet your soul and set aside distractions.

– Meditation. This is the key to the conversation. Read a short passage from Scripture or another spiritual book. Or, if you have a vivid imagination, visualize an event from the Gospels. You could even gaze at a holy picture. Although many subjects are suitable for meditation, you should most often focus on Christ. As a general rule, the saints and Catechism recommend that when possible we meditate on the Gospels. This is how we get to know Jesus and are inspired to speak with Him. It also helps you to continue growing in virtue, as you compare your life with Christ’s teaching. Reflect on the passage. You may find it helpful to ask who, what, where, and why. How does your subject affect you? What is the Holy Spirit saying to you through it?

– Conversation. This is the goal of your mental prayer and should make up 20 minutes or more of a half-hour prayer time. Speak to God from your heart about your subject. Thank and adore Him, asking His help in acquiring virtues you have thought about or overcoming related temptations. Examine your conscience. Think of concrete ways you can change your life, and make resolutions. Offer other petitions that are on your heart. If you run out of things to say, return briefly to your meditation for more inspiration.

– Conclusion. Thank God for the time you have spent with Him and the insights you have gained. Consider how to improve your prayer next time. You could add a heartfelt Our Father or Hail Mary or invoke the saints to whom you are devoted or who are connected with your subject. Ask them to help you keep your resolutions, to bring you back to prayer tomorrow, and to maintain a prayerful attitude all day.

Remember, as the Catechism says, “[A] method is only a guide; the important thing is to advance with the Holy Spirit, along the way of prayer: Jesus Christ” (#2707).

Connie Rossini

Share with us: How do you practice mental prayer?

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Beg, borrow, or steal buy: Fire Within

In this occasional series of posts, I recommend resources for you and your family in 100 words or less. More detailed reviews may come later.

Fire WithinBy Fr. Thomas Dubay. Thorough, understandable explanation of Carmelite spirituality. Contains short biographies of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Helps you discern where you are in Teresa’s Mansions. What to do at each stage to grow more. Defines contemplation and detachment. Challenges everyone to become a contemplative. Distinguishes true mysticism from locutions and visions. Deals with difficulties in prayer, friendship, and spiritual direction. Destined to be a classic.

One “criticism:” Deep and long. Don’t expect to be able to read it in 5-minute spurts.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: Have your read this book? What did you glean from it? What other books by Fr. Dubay would you recommend?

See other posts in this series: The Golden Children’s Bible, Time for Prayer

Introduction to the Devout Life

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What is contemplation? Part 2

Ordination of Frs. Michael Mary and Joseph Marie
Fr. Michael Mary and Fr. Joseph Marie, M. Carm., prostrate themselves during their ordination Mass.

There are three major categories of contemplation. The first, which I wrote about last week, is natural contemplation. The second is the contemplation practiced in non-Christian religions. The third is supernatural contemplation. It is this third type of contemplation that St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, and other Carmelites refer to when they use the word “contemplation.”

Christian contemplation versus eastern meditation

Non-Christian contemplation consists of an impersonal awareness. Zen Buddhists practice a meditation or contemplation that is agnostic. God does not come into play. Transcendental meditation, which comes from Hinduism, consists in losing one’s personality in an impersonal, all-encompassing deity. Both these varieties of contemplation are achieved by practitioners’ own actions, which lead to an altered state of consciousness.

Christian contemplation is completely different. It is a loving gaze at God who is Love. Supernatural in origin, it can’t be produced through techniques. Modern writers often use the modifier “infused” to indicate that God pours contemplation into the soul.

Meditating on Sacred Scripture (the Bible) can produce theological contemplation, sometimes called acquired contemplation (although I no longer use this term, since it was not  used by the doctors of the Church and it can confuse people; St. Teresa’s term is acquired recollection). Christian meditation teaches us to know and love Jesus, thus preparing us to open our hearts fully to God’s love. It helps us form the habit of quieting our souls before God, focusing on Him instead of ourselves. See an example of Christian meditation.

God initiates supernatural contemplation

When a soul dedicates herself to prayer, especially Christian meditation, as well as growth in virtue, she greatly pleases God. God then initiates–in His own time–a deeper love-communion with her. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us…” (1 John 4:10). Love begins with God. God bestows His love upon the soul and lifts her up, so that she may also gaze upon Him in love. She communes with God beyond words, concepts, and images. This is a foretaste of Heaven, when we will see and love God as He is (see 1 John 3:2).

Complete union with God rarely comes all at once. Instead, there are stages of contemplation. St. Teresa explains these in Interior Castle. As the soul is cleansed from sin and improper attachments to created things, she opens herself more fully to God’s love. Prayer and virtue grow together. True (infused) contemplation produces a marked growth in virtue. Sins that seemed unconquerable before are  vanquished by grace.

Natural contemplation can prepare the soul for supernatural contemplation, but it cannot produce it. Nor can eastern religious techniques. Contemplation proper is the action of God. He desires to bestow it on every human being.

Connie Rossini