in Mount Carmel, vol. 66/3, July 2018
THE SCHOOL OF PRAYER: JOURNEYING TOGETHER, ENCOUNTERING GOD
The author is a family man, retired from direct involvement in the world of business and corporate law, seeking now to serve the community in activity of a voluntary and charitable nature. Here, he shares with us his experience of attending the School of Prayer at the Avila Carmelite Centre, Dublin. This article both opens up to us the essence and richness of prayer in its many forms, and also gives us a compelling personal account of a year of learning and sharing, of experiencing prayer – of a growing relationship with Jesus and the dynamism of a group which seeks to help and encourage each other as fellow-disciples along the way. JOHN B MORGAN
A mystery tour with God as the goal
Thirty or so participants joined the Avila Team of Carmelite friars on Saturday, September 16, 2015, on the opening orientation day, to commence a School of Prayer. My sense is that few could have predicted then the outcome of the journey being embarked upon. It was planned to last eight months, until late May 2016. For most, it had the hallmark of a spiritual mystery tour. For some, the desired destination was fixed, but the route uncertain. For all, the goal was a deeper relationship with God, the essence of prayer.
After introductions, we were each asked to share, in a couple of sentences, our individual motivations and expectations in setting out. When my turn came, I recall responding that I was in ‘the fourth quarter’ of life and really needed ‘more points on the board’ if I was to end up on ‘the winning side’.
From both the perspective of length of time and a description of the essential phases, the eight-month journey neatly fitted into four quarters, each of two months’ duration. In addition to our meeting together one evening each fortnight, the programme also included a commitment to a further full-day session on each of six Saturdays over the period, marked also by our celebration of the Eucharist together. Finally, and I believe crucially, a full week of personally Guided Prayer was included as part of the School, which took place at the end of the first quarter.
Learning about prayer
In the first quarter, the Avila Team addressed with us a range of basic questions – What is prayer for me? What helps me most to pray? What difficulties do I find in seeking to develop a prayer life? In this period, we concentrated on praying with Scripture, with lectio divina and with meditation. The approach to meditation was practical – that you learn only by doing it; that it is essentially about being alive in the present moment; that its four pillars (the body, the mind, the heart and the Holy Spirit) are captured and characterised in the words ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
The suggestion of keeping a spiritual journal or diary was examined, discussed and recommended as an aid and honest personal record of what is going on in your life, how you feel about it, and your awareness of where God is in the midst of it all. The prayer journey is clearly a life journey and a path that opens up only by our walking it. The emphasis on prayer as relationship with Jesus, and the importance of faithfulness and commitment over how one might feel on any given day, were gently introduced and discussed. The fact that there is no right or wrong way to pray, that it is not complicated (although we are), and that an authentic, sincere desire and longing to pray is in effect prayer itself, provided helpful support. After this introduction to the issues that arise in sustaining a regular life of prayer, it seemed no time before we reached our week of personally ‘Guided Prayer’.
A vital station on the journey
For some, there would have been a preference to hold back this precious week for a later stage in our journey. For me, the timing fitted perfectly. We were each assigned a specific spiritual director – a Carmelite friar. This week proved to be a vitally important station on the journey. The School work already undertaken proved for me a sound preparation to look forward to a Week of Guided Prayer.
Concentrating on Jesus’ earthly ministry, my director traced for me this model, using St Luke’s Gospel: that all key happenings were recorded as almost invariably undertaken in the context of prayer – prayer before His ‘activity’ and prayer after His ‘activity’. With my director we looked at three prime issues, referencing St Teresa of Avila as aid and guide: that of humility (dealing with truth and how we stand in God’s sight), that of love (no deep prayer without it – and Teresa’s well known advice that the soul’s progress does not lie in thinking much but in loving much), and that of perseverance (so vital). Superimposed on these key needs is the detachment inherent in desiring only God’s will – and, always, gratitude. Giving thanks is best expressed and represented for us in the gift of the Eucharist. The last day of the Guided Retreat coincided with the Saturday which ended that liturgical year. I recall reflecting how apt was the Gospel message of the day (Lk 21:34-36) – to keep watch and be alert at all times, praying to stand secure before the presence of Christ, in whom all God’s promises come true.
The heart-centred themes of Carmelite spirituality
Having immersed ourselves in the Week of Guided Prayer – a heady conclusion to the first quarter of the journey – we emerged fresh for the encounters ahead. Our second quarter, over the months of December and January, was dominated by an introduction to prayer in the Carmelite tradition. Just as there is no one way of conversing with a friend, there is no one way to pray, no sacred method. However, prayer has to do with loving. That is why the five foundation blocks of Carmelite spirituality were represented to us in heart-centred themes: the loving heart, the enslaved heart (reminding us that God alone is sufficient food for the hunger of the heart), the listening heart, the troubled heart (a reminder that Jesus’ suffering on the Cross was borne because of love, not because of love of suffering), and the pure heart (no longer belonging to myself but seeking to live with an insatiable desire for what God’s will is for me).
This quarter ended on another high note – a Saturday dedicated to contemplative prayer in the Carmelite tradition. We devoted our morning to the example of St Teresa of Avila and spent the afternoon with St John of the Cross. It was a day underlining the fact that love is the heart of contemplative prayer, that love is the only reality that will ultimately change us. We learnt that, in essence, contemplation is not seeing new things but seeing things in a new way – a way of looking on the world with Christ’s eyes of love. In this way, He will generate His compassion as the guiding star to light our own lives. St Teresa’s ‘interior castle’, as a journey into contemplation, and St John’s ‘living flame of love’, as the Holy Spirit, were our guides.
This move to contemplative prayer – as an active inward disposition of receptive attentiveness and love towards God – generated considerable group ‘feedback’. This active ‘passivity’ in remaining still, in waiting, in inclining ourselves to want nothing but to give ourselves to Him, was a new dimension, a new ‘reality’. For many of us, I think it was the ‘you must let go and let God’ day of the journey – another heady quarter end.
Surrender to the love of God
The third quarter of our journey opened with an evening praying with icons – where we learnt of their history and standing as a source of prayer and spirituality. We came to recognise their place as an invitation to prayer, as a window into holiness, as a reminder of being in the presence of God and his saints at all times. Another evening was given over to the subject of prayer and forgiveness. What does ‘to forgive’ mean? What is unforgiveness? Time was spent reflecting on reaching a model and prayer of forgiveness.
A highlight in this quarter was an evening studying the ‘Jesus Prayer’ – its provenance from the time of the Fathers in the desert, its development into a living experience of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, all leading to the realisation that the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is more than a prayer to be said. It is ultimately the prayer of the heart, and it is life in Christ Jesus. In the name ‘Jesus’ we possess all of Scripture.
This quarter concluded with another lovely Saturday on Carmelite prayer – with St Thérèse of Lisieux. We dwelt on her two invincible weapons: prayer and sacrifice. Prayer as an aspiration of the heart, a simple glance, a cry from the heart in the midst of any trial or joy – but always a cry of gratitude, of boundless gratitude, to God. Sacrifice for her is, in essence, a cause for giving thanks, an opportunity for participation in Christ’s suffering. She inspires us to put sacrifice into the rhythm of our prayer life, so that it becomes an occasion of gratitude to God. A life surrendered to love of God through her prayer, sacrifice and perseverance ensured an unshakable confidence in God. How timely an example as we broke off for the Holy Week and Easter celebrations of 2016.
Images of God
Spiritually refreshed, we commenced the fourth and final quarter of our journey with an evening of prayer with art – an eye-opening and gentle experience. The artist enriches the soul of humanity. While art can include everything from painting to photography, music, ways of recording nature and the sounds of nature, we addressed contemplating a painting as a spiritual exercise, as an introduction to a visual form of prayer, as a contemplative encounter. At our next station we considered ‘mindfulness’ – primarily as a practice that leads to sharpening our availability for prayer, for paying attention and listening to what’s going on both inside and outside our ‘now’.
Then came for me, two stops from journey’s end, a riveting study of ‘When the well runs dry’, involving a most gracious and humble sharing by our Avila Team of Carmelites – with some lasting advice on how to address difficulties in prayer. While prayer is a gift, God’s gift to those who pray, its necessary price is found in patience, in waiting, in trusting, in commitment and perseverance – knowing that prayer is God’s time, not ours. It became clear that the less we pray, the less well we will pray, and the less we will have the desire to pray. So often, God does not seem to be there when we want Him, we are not in charge, we realise our helplessness. It is only through love that we come to know God, and that is the gift we seek.
The last stop, before we arrived at the destination of our journey, was given over to a practical session on ‘Prayer and Life’, with the subheading: ‘They pray badly who pray only on their knees’. Here we revisited our images of God – not who God is, but who God is for me, who the God is to whom I pray. We touched on what is our own foundational image (of which we may not be aware), we considered ‘blessed experiences’ in our lives – trying to locate them – and we ended with gratitude, realising that prayer is not only a gift we receive but something we practise.
And so to our destination on a beautiful May Saturday, given over first to a reflection from the Avila Team who had guided us for eight months, then to a full plenary sharing among us, covering everything from the overall structure and content of the School journey to group and personal reviews. A truly joyous celebration of Eucharist together, followed by a festive meal, completed our safe and delightful passage.
Closer to God and to each other
The School’s key and most significant impact for me was the help received in establishing a routine and rhythm of prayer in my daily life – a realisation that prayer is indeed God’s gift to those who pray.
For all of us, partners on the journey, it helped develop a closer personal relationship with Jesus and a commitment to build on what the School of Prayer had given to us. Reflecting back over eighteen months, two thoughts dominate. Firstly, gratitude – St Elizabeth of the Trinity says, ‘gratitude is the law of my heart’ (L 275). And secondly, perseverance. St Catherine of Siena has some telling words on this subject: ‘Without perseverance you would not receive the fruits of your efforts, since it is only perseverance that is crowned. So you see that this glorious virtue of perseverance is really essential for us.’ Since we need it so badly, she goes on to describe how we can have it. In essence, her advice is the absolute necessity to be motivated by true love, which cannot be attained unless heart and will are stripped of a selfish love for ourselves, which she also describes. All this leads to a walking in the light of faith with a courageous heart. A tough call. We need encouragement.
And this is primarily why we who walked that eight-month journey together continue to meet, at roughly six-monthly intervals, to renew acquaintance, evaluate our perseverance and, more than anything else, to seek to encourage each other.