When I was in middle school, my grandparents showed me the classic movie Somewhere in Time, about a man who is strangely drawn to the year 1912, even though he lives in the year 1979. Not only is he drawn to 1912, but a certain location, a hotel, called The Grand Hotel that was very famous in it’s time. He ends up going to that very hotel in his modern time and asks to see the records of the guests who stayed there in the year 1912. Low and behold, he finds not only his very own signature in the records, but the exact room he stayed in.
How can this be? He was not even alive in that year; and why that hotel? He goes to an old college professor who wrote a book on time travel, and I will never forget this intense scene in the movie. The part where my Grandmother said “shhh, you have to listen carefully to every word of this scene to understand the movie.” This scene made such an impression on my twelve year old mind, ears glued to every word, and it only made perfect sense why when I became a Discalced Carmelite nun eleven years later. The professor said time travel was possible, and here’s how: He told him to go to the room he stayed in from the records he saw (in his modern time) and to clear everything out of the room not from the year 1912- TV, radio, money from 1979- all had to go! Even his clothes; he bought a suit from 1912 and made sure all his coins (pennies, quarters etc.) were all dated anywhere from 1912 and below (this is important for a certain twist of events that unfold later).
When he finally cleared everything out of the room from modern times, he laid down in his vintage suit and did what the professor said next: to discipline your mind. “Clear out all distractions in your head; clear completely, the mind. Focus only on the year 1912, imagine yourself really there”:
Do this over and over and again and again and again.
After hours of this, covered in sweat and tears, he finally makes it to the year 1912. He wakes up to find that he was IN that time period. I am not writing this blog to tell you that time travel is possible, but I want to show you how what I just read to you- is the true definition of prayer. Going into Carmel, the only thing I really knew how to do was vocal prayer. I prayed the rosary “over and over and again and again and again”, and I love that devotion, but I always shied away from mental prayer. That very name sounded intimidating. Yet, Carmelites live off mental prayer. I have often been told that mental prayer is using your imagination, specifically using methods of the popular spiritual exercises by the brilliant (none liberal) Jesuit- Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
Overtime, however, I became convinced in Carmel, that the spiritual exercises and Lectio Divina are a stepping stone to mental prayer, but not the true definition of mental prayer. It is actually much simpler. More simple than I thought, but God is simple. In fact, those methods of prayer often made me exhausted and I saw unfold before my very eyes how my senses, passions and faculties of my mind were completely disordered and in a way…out of control. Those “feelings” were more of what I was getting out of prayer, and what I was looking for in prayer rather than seeking Our Lord and knowing Who He actually is. The words of my Holy Father and favorite Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross’ words regarding perfection were becoming clear.
A few months ago, a very wise Carmelite monk traveled all the way from his monastery in France to give the nuns a preached retreat, which involve a series of sermons on a particular theme. His topic was the writings of Our Holy Father John of the Cross. How providential! As, I had many speculations concerning the true definition of mental prayer and John of the Cross answered directly through this Carmelite. For who better to understand the spiritual life than the very expert of prayer, and Doctor of the Church! This great saint and mystic told his spiritual daughters (at the very convent in Spain where our Holy Mother Teresa of Jesus began her formation) that to reach perfection in the spiritual life, we NEED to set aside using our imagination in prayer. I think I knew deep down that was the case, but I wanted it confirmed. As I never trusted myself, only Christ’s representatives.
Our Holy Father (John), drew the famous chart, most of us faithful get intimidated by. With the map of three roads. One path Labeled:
Nada. Nada. Nada. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
He made a striking comment on how our imagination can often be dangerous, that the way we might picture Our Lord in a certain scene of the Gospel, most likely, doesn’t even come close to His actual beauty or Who He really is. Without realizing it, we tend to make Our Lord out to be Who WE want Him to be, contrary to Who He is. The evil one knows this, and often uses our imaginations against us; clever little devil! Many of the faithful find John of the Cross too intense, but with the Help of Our Lady, I want to show you how his way is actually the easiest and most realistic way a soul can reach perfection- and in a short time! I am convinced what I am about to share, was Mary’s very spiritual life prior and during being the Mother of God.
In Our Holy Father’s (John) famous chart, he draws out three distinct paths ALL leading up. However, only one leads to the marriage banquet at the top of the great summit of the mountain. Only one leads to union with the Beloved. That’s the path he places in the middle of the chart, the other two lead up, but not to the banquet. One path is consolation from creatures and worldly delight (that’s simple enough) but more fascinating and even a head scratcher is the third path. It does not at all appear bad in any way at first glance, at least not to a beginner in the spiritual life- still, it does not lead to the top of the mountain, where He awaits. This was the very path I had to be stripped of in Carmel. The path of all things “spiritually delightful”. This is the path we ALL have to be stripped of if we desire a perfect union with our great God.
If you need an example of this spiritual and heavenly delight, this might help: “I like to pray, because it makes me feel good.” But, how many of us actually abandon or avoid prayer because we simply felt nothing, or if we do feel something- it’s just dryness? That’s the key. The path of Nada- is choosing to continue prayer despite what we may feel, and live solely through Faith. Trusting Christ loves you, if not MORE in your state of nothingness, than your state of ecstasy. Prayer is not a feeling. No. Prayer is a clearing out of the mind. Our worries, fears, even joys! Prayer, is the emptying of ourselves completely of everything that is contrary to God: Nada nada nada. Even our imagination; “Focus only on the year 1912.” For us? Focus only on the presence of Jesus and Mary in the very center of your soul, during prayer. By doing this, one can always remain IN spirit in prayer as Our Lady told Saint Faustina.
It’s- disciplining your mind. It can be scary at first, if you are not used to the silence, but God is silence and His first language is silence. Mental prayer is simply clearing out the mind for Jesus and Mary, a little spiritual cleaning. Mental prayer is a FOCUS; a focus on One Thing. A sitting, in the presence of a King and Queen, Who dwell in your heart as a throne. Focusing your whole mind on Them; is that not what Heaven will be? A beatific vision- a seeing- a being in the very Presence of Them. “Oh what’s that? A bug just crawled up the wall over there, I wonder how long it’s been there…” No! Clear it out, reject that distraction. Satan will use anything to take you away from the Presence of your God, in prayer. Remember what happened to the man I told you about in the beginning, who went back in time? Only did he finally make it to 1912, after much sweat and tears, but, he made it. Most of our success in this form of prayer depends on our perseverance.
What completely transformed my spiritual life in Carmel, was I started applying one of my favorite Carmelite lay brother’s method- of the “Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence of the Ressurection to my life. I applied this to my mental prayer and soon realized that this form of prayer could be practiced all day, remaining in the spirit of prayer, as I mentioned earlier. Even during my duties and work. Our whole life can become a prayer with this very practice and not only for cloistered monks and nuns, but families with twelve children, the average college student, or the missionary in Russia! I applied it to Our Lady, so She can best order my heart and affections. Who else has a more Pure Heart and was able to see God because of It? Here is what I call- “To Live and Die with Mary” or my ” Other Set of Ten Commandments”, that I believe can bring a soul to perfection in a short time:
The Practice of the Presence of Mary:
It is all about firmly believing that Mary truly dwells within you and getting accustomed to living with Her by the means of a conversation as continual as possible and by doing everything for love of Mary.
1.) Live as if there were only Mary and yourself in the world.
2.) Do for Mary what you used to do for yourself.
3.) Reject faithfully any other thought, in order to do all your deeds for love of Mary.
4.) Do everything and suffer everything for love of Mary.
5.) Transform all your deeds into little conversations with Mary.
6.) Do all your deeds with weight and measure, with neither impetuosity nor precipitation.
7.) Work humbly, lovingly and sweetly.
8.) Do not do anything, nor say anything, nor think anything, that would displease Mary.
9.) Think often of Mary.
10.) Be content with everything.
Take Mary as Thy Best Friend and Mother with Whom thou walkest continually, and thou shalt not sin, and thou shalt learn to love, and the things that are needful shall be wrought prosperous to thee.
One of my least favorite duties in Carmel- I was the “soap maker”. Yes; I made bars of soap. That entailed mixing lye ( that burns your hands) and pig fat, which often took three hours of stirring those two ingredients and I absolutely hated that job. Mary knew I hated that job. I found my perfect opportunity to test out that “practice” of Her Presence in those three hours of monotonous stirring. Hmm. Which one should I choose from those ten commandments? It was incredible to see how I could apply any of them to my soap stirring.
Especially to “work humbly, lovingly and sweetly.” Before having a purpose, I stirred as fast as I could and it still took three hours; how frustrating but as soon as I placed myself in Mary’s Presence, I tried to stir with as much “grace” as I could, taking it slow and knowing She was watching me. Then I applied my personal favorite- I turned this small “deed” into a little conversation with Mary. It was no longer what I was doing, or whether I liked it or not, but Who I was doing it for. I think at one point I must have looked like a complete fool, as I was sitting on the back porch of the convent with a big bowl of lye and pig fat, staring off into the distance with a giant grin on my face. Mary made everything sweet, and love made the task I despised, easy. Even agreeable!
I saw in such a small task, an opportunity to “do for Mary what I used to do for myself” and “living as if it were only Mary and myself in the world.” By making THIS form of prayer my life, I saw how one can actually remain in continual prayer. In all we do, simply by doing all your actions- knowing- you’re in Their Presence. In a short time you will reach the top of the mountain of perfection, where He awaits. As Therese said, it is LOVE rather than fear that leads us to avoid the smallest voluntary fault. You do not have to change to love Him, loving Him will change you. Brother Lawrence said if he was called to preach, he would only preach this devotion, and nothing else.
Lastly, at the end of that movie I started with, the man happened to find a penny in his pocket, that was dated from 1979. Something as small as a penny kicked him out of the year 1912 and back to 1979. It was a devastating part of the movie; I see that penny as those distractions that take us away from our attention to the Divine. We can call those distractions- “spiritual pennies”. As soon as you see them, say: “spiritual penny, not today!” Reject them and gently and lovingly return your gaze and thoughts to That King and Queen. They will be more pleased with your efforts to fight off distractions than your progress, I assure you!
This practice and act of the will might seem impossible, and tedious at first, but, I promise you if you make it a habit from the get-go, living in their Presence will become as natural as breathing. Nada nada nada… but in that nada, is Everything (God Himself):
Dedicated to OHF John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence and my Queen- Best Friend and Mother.