Sunday, July 31, 2011

Spiritual Exercises for the Morning

St. Francis de Sales provides some very practical tips for making prayer concrete in the day-to-day. He presents a sort of plan for the day, in which we are sure to take time to meet the Lord.

Like so many spiritual guides, he calls his counsels "Spiritual Exercises." It is good to remember that the idea here is not extraordinary experience - we are not racing for the Olympic Gold every day. Rather, we are exercising our souls so that we possess the power, stamina and skill to meet the challenges of the spiritual realm.

Then we can run for the gold.

The morning exercise is a general preparation for the works of the day.
  1. Thank God for his preserving love through the night, and ask pardon for any sin you might have committed during the night.
  2. Consider that this day is a gift, to be used to gain eternity, and make a firm resolution to employ the entire day for this intention.
  3. Preview the day. Look at what you are planning to do, who you shall probably meet, graces or temptations you shall likely encounter. Make appropriate internal preparations for these things - how to be patient in difficulties, what you will say to those whom you love and to those who challenge you, how you intend to grow in good habits throughout this day.
  4. Place all of this humbly before God, realizing that you cannot do any good thing without his grace, but also confident that he will give whatever help you need, as long as you ask for it.
  5. Be brief in all this. It should take just a few minutes, if possible, before you leave your room in the morning.
The idea here is preparation. It's easy to fail when you don't plan ahead, but a bit of preparation can make a huge difference in the day.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Freedom of the Children of God

Sunset through the Motherhouse gate in Thuine, Germany

There are many practices of prayer which you can adopt. We will look at many of them over the weeks and months. It is good to realize at the outset, though, that each Christian is free to adopt any orthodox method of prayer she chooses. There is no compulsion to "practice the presence of God," although it is very useful. It is not required for salvation to do any of these particular spiritual exercises. Much like physical exercise, each is free to choose that which best fits her temperament, age, level of development and so forth. That we need to pray is a given; how we do it is our own choice.

That needs to be said, because it is easy for an enthusiastic beginner to try to do everything - and then end up doing nothing because she is overwhelmed. It is good to find a few ways of prayer, try them out for a bit, say a week or two, and decide whether they are helpful or not. 

So for all of these suggestions, take them with freedom. The spiritual life is amazing country, full of good things, and many have passed this way before us. They leave guides and signs and methods - and we should use them as they are good for us.

Friday, July 29, 2011

We Adore Thee, O Christ...

In the context of the practice of the presence of God, there are many traditions. The ultimate founder of our Order, St. Francis of Assisi, handed down a simple way of remembering and coming into the presence of God.

We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee, here and in all of the tabernacles throughout the world, because by Thy Holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world.
It is a simple prayer, to be prayed when coming into a Church or chapel - or in his  case, whenever he or his friars passed in front of a Church. Our Sisters have the habit, when kneeling down, to fold our hands, bow our heads and silently pray this prayer. It is a swift and simple means to realize where we are and in whose presence we stand.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

St. Francis de Sales on the Practice of the Presence of God

St. Francis de Sales proposes the practice of the presence of God as essential for building a spiritual life. We must always begin our prayer by making ourselves aware of him to whom we are speaking. He is always present; we just forget.

Over and over again.

And St. Francis uses four different means to bring the reality of God's presence home.
The first consists in a lively and attentive apprehension of the omnipresence of God.
To bring home to our minds that God is everywhere and every place and every time. He uses the image of a bird - no matter where it goes, it encounters the air. It is upheld by it; moves through it with ease and joy; not able to survive if the air went away. Likewise, in all things we live and move in the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, Perelandra, uses the same idea with a different image. He talks about the air being "too crowded to breathe" when one was of an independent mind. In the act of surrender, it was rather "a sort of splendor of eatable, drinkable, breathable gold." In this medium, we live and walk and act.
The second way of placing yourself in this holy presence is to think that not only is God in the place where you are, but that he is in a very special manner in your heart and in the depth of your spirit...he is the heart of your heart.
To focus on the depth of our hearts, knowing that through Baptism we are particularly united to him. He lives within us.
The third way is to consider our Savior, who in his humanity looks from Heaven upon all persons in the world, but particularly upon Christians who are his children, and especially upon those who are in prayer, whose actions and behavior he observes.
In some ways, this is the easiest of the ways. We can picture Jesus - however we picture him - and know him more easily as a human person. His Incarnation makes possible the image we have. He, though God, is a man, and, in his manhood, is approachable by our minds and affections. In this method, we see him looking at us as we begin to pray and can bring our hearts more easily to the reverence, confidence and love we need to approach him.
The fourth way consists in making use of the imagination alone, representing to ourselves the Savior in his sacred humanity, as though he were near to us...but if the most holy sacrament of the altar be present, then this presence will be real and not merely imaginary.

In all of the methods above, we worked from reason and reality. The thoughts we used were all simply true. In the fourth way, he recommends that we "make a story," and picture the Lord speaking to us, sitting near us, spending time with us. This can be very helpful if you have a good imagination. He brings up the very real point, though, that if we are in the Real Presence of God, our imagination is really only telling us things that are actual. He is present. He is with us. He does look directly at us and speak plainly. Our imagination, at that point, is only giving reality the barest structure. 

All of these means are to be used as helps - and never more than one at a time. The point of the practice of the presence of God is not to "do it right," but to bring our hearts to reverence, to praise, to quiet, to focus, so that we can pray rightly to the God who loves us dearly dearly.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Practice of the Presence of God

We walk in his presence at all times. 

It is the easiest thing in the world to forget. St. Francis de Sales uses the analogy that a blind man in the presence of a prince will show the lord great reverence when he is told that the prince is in the room, but will easily forget the great one since he can't see.

We are like that with God. He is always present and he always loves us. And we forget.

So, as we begin to pray, the first necessary thing is to "put ourselves in the presence of God."

And that means...?

It is not supposed to be anything long or elaborate. It isn't even prayer proper: it is the preparation we make before addressing God.

The best means I have found is first, simply, to stop. To stop physically from what I am doing and, mentally, from whatever thoughts occupy my mind. Draw a deep breath, naturally, and, if it is possible, close my eyes. Then simply think: "God is here," or "I am in the presence of God," or something similar.

Tomorrow I will talk about the four means St. Francis de Sales suggests.

Whatever means you use, however, it should be short, natural and (externally) not very noticeable. It should always precede your prayer time, be it long or short. The idea is that, if we want to speak to God, we need to realize that he is here, present, ready to listen and to respond.

Like any practice of prayer, doing it once is not the point. It must become a habit that we use all the time; something so automatic that we do it without really thinking about it. At first, it is conscious and "clunky," but over time it becomes natural and habitual.  Sometimes you won't notice that you do it, but other people will, even though you made no show. A student once said to me, after a "routine" Hail Mary at the beginning of class, "Sister, you always pray like you mean it."

Well, at least I know that when I pray, I am talking to somebody. That is the reason for the practice of the presence of God.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The basics of prayer

How does one begin to pray?

St. Paul says that "whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Do I believe that God exists? Really? Do I believe that he is interested in me? That he wants to speak with me? That he wants to grant me good things? The questions are worth asking. So many of us have grown up with the assumption that God "is out there somewhere," but it does not mean much. And we always sort of have a feeling in the back of our minds that he doesn't really listen.

But that is the reality we are dealing with. The One who made everything - and holds it all in being at every moment is interested in me. He wants to give me good things. He wants to speak with me - spend time with me.

So that is primary. We have to believe that he exists and give good things to those who seek him.

Second is a place of prayer.

It is necessary to withdraw from the noise and the bustle and the busy in order to really pray well.  That is external - you will want to find a place that is externally quiet - but it is also internal. Don't try to pray in a place when you work or do projects. If there are reminders of "stuff to do" around you, you are going to have a terrible time focusing on prayer.

Third, set a time that is good for you. The end of the day, except for night prayers, is awful. The best time for most people is in the morning after they are clean, dressed and ready for the day. People who are not "morning people" have a bit harder time because by the afternoon, most of us are totally wrapped up in business. Tearing yourself away from work or recreation or family or friends is really hard. And even if we manage to be alone at that time, it's even harder to settle your mind. First thing in the morning is usually the best.

It may require an earlier time of rising. Which, in turn, requires a stable bedtime the night before. (see what I mean about discipline?)

How long should you pray? Every spiritual master I have run across agrees that anyone serious about a life of prayer should pray at least 30 minutes. Half an hour. And, I'll be honest, this is just a beginning. If you want to consecrate your life to God, you will probably want to expand that. But, for started, set yourself a thirty-minute time slot.

Finally, posture.

Sure, you can pray in any posture in which you find yourself. That is a given, so let's just get it out there. You are, however, composed of body and spirit - and they influence one another. We've all heard of body language and how important it is in communication. Here, you are communicating with the God of earth and heaven, the Creator of all, Savior of mankind, and your personal Sanctifier. How would you sit, stand or kneel in talking to such a one? Kneeling or sitting is usually the best, but even when you get into those positions, how do you sit? How do you kneel? It is best to be reverently comfortable. If you are not used to kneeling for long periods, don't try it at once - maybe start out that way and then sit down. With practice, your praying knees become quite stable and kneeling is not uncomfortable.

So find a respectful position, in a place, and at a time conducive to prayer. 

Ready, set...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Prayer - the definition.

Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God 
or the requesting of good things from God.

That is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its section on Christian Prayer. It covers all of the basics - and it spans everything from the beginnings of little children (or other beginners in prayer) to the highest contemplation of those closest to the Lord. This definition can be applied to simple vocal prayer - well done - to the prayer of silence, to meditation, to infused contemplation. Every single method or means of prayer is simply the raising of one's mind and heart to the good God or the requesting of good things from him.

Simple - oh yes; but simple does not usually mean easy.

The big secret of prayer is that, really, it is God's work. He calls us to pray and is really happy when we respond to his call. He wants us to ask him for good things and is eager to grant any good request we make. He wants to speak with us, to spend time with us. So when we address him, he is listening. Prayer is his gift. We have the choice whether or not to receive it.

And so, to the basics.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beginning at the beginning

Since this is a service dedicated to those discerning the religious life, it is time to begin to look at the basics.

Religious life is sometimes seen as a way to give your life in service to others - and it is.

It is sometimes viewed as something heroic or romantic or mysterious. It can be, although heroism or romanticism or mystery lived out day-to-day always seems less exciting that it looks on television.

Sometimes, religious life is seen as a way to be the best "you" you can be. It's that too.

But, in the end, Catholic religious life is committing your entire life and all that you are to the Holy Trinity. We give our lives to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Some orders emphasize one Person a bit more than the others - or one mystery of the life of the Lord more than others - but in every case, religious life is the full flowering of your baptismal commitment: to reject sin in all its forms and to live wholly to God.

Now, if you are planning to give your life to God, it is best to get to know him first. You can learn about him by reading, or by listening to other people talk about him. But really, the only way to get to know him is to spend time talking to him and listening to his response. That is the essence of Christian prayer.

Prayer is not easy. It requires discipline, commitment and absolute determination. In a society where productivity is measured by how busy you are and how many projects you accomplish, it seems wasteful and "bad" to spend any significant amount of time "doing nothing." It's not just what other people say, either; the enemy we most have to fight is within ourselves - the constant urge to be up and doing.

But if you desire to give your life to God, it is really necessary to make the commitment to daily prayer. Over the next series of posts, I will describe a variety of tested means of Catholic prayer. References for everything will be given on the Reference Page, so that you can look things up and read more if you are interested.  For right now, the most important thing to do for your prayer life is to firmly determine to spend a significant period of time each day is serious prayer. There is no substitute for "just doing it."

Monday, July 4, 2011

Spiritual Mentoring

In September, Mater Redemptoris House of Formation will launch a new program. It's called Spiritual Mentoring and it's for young women, busy with their lives, who want a structured means to grow in prayer and to discern their vocation.

Spiritual Mentoring Program 
The Spiritual Mentoring Program is designed for young women who desire to develop a spiritual life and discern a religious vocation while continuing their current activities. The program requires guided reading, prayer, direction and journaling. It is offered to women between the ages of 14 and 25 and tailored to the individual’s stage of spiritual and psychological development. For girls in high school, the program lasts until graduation. For women beyond high school, the program is limited to two years.

In collaboration with the Director of the House of Formation, the young woman sets a daily routine of prayer, reflection and study which fits her particular needs. She progresses through a course of reading and reflection, meeting regularly with the Director to discuss the materials and her reflections.

In addition to regular meetings with the Director, the young woman is also invited to participate in the daily recitation of the Divine Office at Mater Redemptoris Convent and House of Formation, to participate in the weekly Sacrament of Reconciliation offered for the Sisters and those discerning religious life, and to participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass at the House of Formation. She will also be invited to participate in vocation visits and retreat opportunities sponsored by the House of Formation.

Contact Sister M. Luka at Mater Redemptoris House of Formation for further information.

The program begins in September 2011. The cost is $60.00 for each six-month segment.

Plan of Studies

In general the program is divided into six-month units as follows. Adjustments are made as necessary for each individual.

Introduction to Prayer & Mental Prayer
Through reading, reflection and practice, the young woman will be introduced to structured prayer in the Church’s tradition and will be led to a deeper understanding of Christian prayer. She will learn the mechanics of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary and other devotional practices. She will study the structure and meaning of the Mass and the Sacrament of Penance; the purpose, history and substance of the Divine Office; and, the interrelation of the Sacraments and Liturgy within the rich tradition of the Church’s devotional practices. The young woman will be instructed in the many practical means of mental prayer and guided in Christian meditation, lectio divina, and structured journaling. She will be led to broaden her understanding of the Rosary and other devotions. The young woman will learn to base her prayer in the firm foundation of the Scriptures.

Consecrated Life
In this period of time, the young woman will explore the history and forms of religious life. The aim is to familiarize the young woman with the possibilities of a religious vocation. The variety, aim and structure of religious congregations will be examined. She will be led through the recent documents of the Church regarding the religious vocation. She also will undertake a practical study of religious congregations, involving research and writing.

Prayer with the Saints
In this period, the young woman explores the spiritual riches of the saints. Having achieved a firm practical foundation in the life of prayer, she will begin to understand the spirituality to which she may be called. She will explore readings from Saint Benedict, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux.

Personal Discernment
At this time, the young woman will formally discern of her vocation in life. She will examine seriously the religious life as lived in various religious congregations with the aim of seeking God’s way for her. The process will involve communication with various religious communities, prayer regarding her call in life and visits to various congregations.

The goal of this course is to come to a decision. Throughout this time, the young woman will come to a decision for her future. If she discerns a call to the religious life, the Director will assist her with the practical preparations for her next step in life.