I was asked to write a blog on how Carmelite Nuns pray. All I ever prayed in the world were tons of rosaries, chaplets and too many devotions to count. I always thought the more rosaries I prayed or the more I was involved in, the holier I would be. When I entered Carmel, I was talking with my Novice Mistress as a postulant and she told me it was time to set aside my twenty devotions, because in Carmel what we experience in the interior is so much greater than all of that. Quantity over quality never rained more true. I realized that after many sufferings of giving up what I THOUGHT I could not live without, this was in fact, standing in my way of the most important gift that was yet to come. In order to receive the greater gift, we have to approach Him, empty handed.
In peace, I will come before Thee; with empty hands. ~Therese of the Child Jesus~
Almost two years after giving up all of those devotions, I never felt so low spiritually and my relationship with the Lord was just not what it had been. I grew melancholic; I realized I was not as holy as I thought I was and it was more painful when I began to doubt if I really loved God or not. After all, it began to dawn on me that I didn’t know Him at all. I would look around and see other sisters off in “ecstasy” and even crying tears of love as they prayed. I remember it seemed like God was ignoring me and no longer showing interest in me. I would look over at a sister looking so in love with God (this is not exaggerated) that I would roll my eyes and in my mind tell Jesus “Well, You can have each other.” I was annoyed and never felt more rejected. The only times I sensed God’s love for me were during my weekly confessions.
So what changed? John of the Cross so brilliantly calls the end of the Dark Night of the Soul (a time where the soul does not understand why it is suffering) the Dawn. This is when the soul sees the light at the end of the tunnel and this light is cast over all the dark spots we simply did not understand before. Just like when we are injured and have a wound and the one using the alcohol seems like the worst person in the world until the band-aid is on and we realize they were not the enemy; quite the contrary, we are grateful. When that “light” hit for me, I remembered how during the previous year a holy Carmelite priest had come from France; he spoke of a Carmelite whose name I had never heard. His name was Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
Brother Lawrence was a simple Carmelite Lay Brother, who wrote the brilliant book The Practice of the Presence of God about the ONE devotion that we must embrace to reach perfection and union with Christ. This Priest from France wrote up a list of Maxims, another set of Ten Commandments on how to we can “live and die with God.”
It is all about firmly believing that God truly dwells within you and getting accustomed to living with Him by means of a continual conversation and by doing everything for love of God.
1.) Live as if there were only God and yourself in the world.
2.) Do for God what you used to do for yourself.
3.) Reject faithfully any other thought, in order to do all your deeds for love of God.
4.) Do everything and suffer everything for love of God.
5.) Transform all your deeds into little conversations with God.
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 God.
9.) Think often of God.
10.) Be content with everything.
Take God as Thy Friend and Spouse 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.
I carried that list with me all the time, but something seriously changed in my relationship with God after giving up all those other devotions I told you about. I could not practice these Ten Commandments with sincerity because the love I used to “feel” for Jesus as Friend and Spouse seemed to have disappeared. All my love turned to bitterness. The only One keeping me going through this sorrow was Mary; the Woman I never could experience bitterness toward because years prior I had made it a habit to go to Her for everything. I talked to my confessor and he encouraged me to focus Brother Lawrence’s practice toward Our Lady instead, that “Those who love Mary, already love Jesus.” I left the confessional actually feeling like I was floating out the door on a cloud.
Habit is the key word in this whole post and I will come back to that. My confessor’s words were confirmed when my Novice Mistress approached me and unexpectantly gave me God’s blessing to embrace Mary more than ever before. I had providentially just finished my spiritual reading book; in Carmel once you are finished with a book, you turn it in to Mother and she picks the next book. You never choose and you never make suggestions (that was difficult sometimes as there were books that were certainly more boring than others), but in this case it really proved how the Holy Ghost is the one Who did the choosing. Mother came up to me in the laundry room that day. What were the odds that the book I needed to read was the one she handed me – The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
I literally copied down almost word for word the entire book and applied it to Mary. To live and die with Mary – the practice of the presence of Mary. Two things immediately caught my attention. Brother Lawrence told his powerful story of how he discovered this devotion. He said before embracing God’s presence in ALL, he was often bathed in tears not knowing how to bare his cross. Then he went on to say that before he embraced it and put it into practice faithfully, he underwent untold suffering. He had to make remembering God’s presence a habit. Here is the official definition of habit:
A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
We know there are good habits and of course, bad ones! What bad habit can you think of at the top of your head that is hard to break? My personal bad habit was that of biting my nails since I was a child and it was an extremely hard to stop. It became such a habit that I would do it without even realizing it. I still remember hearing my Grammie’s voice: STOP BITING YOUR NAILS! Discipline is the answer and disciplining ourselves takes a lot of self control. Discipline and self control are really a virtue and it lays ALL in the will. NO ONE can make us give up a bad habit, but ourselves alone. So, how much more can this be applied to a habit that is good and holy – such as the practice of the presence of God. There is only one way to make it a habit – put it in to practice ALL the time.
I wrote a blog post on this called Discipline Your Mind, showing all the ways I made the practice of the presence of Mary a habit. I have so many favorites on the list I mentioned above. There were many tasks I was assigned while in Carmel that I despised. Soap-making was one of them because the mix took three hours to stir; my hands always hurt and the Mothers thought it was better to stir manually than use that “nice and handy” machine that does it for you. Take the second “Maxim” though: do for God what you used to do for yourself. I applied that to Mary and realized I had three whole hours to turn my little deed into a conversation with Mary; to think of Mary and act as though it were only Her and I in the world. I cannot tell you how the most disagreeable tasks became opportunities to love Mary and speak with Her from the heart!
As I started making this devotion my life, I noticed a change in myself. I couldn’t believe it – I started growing in virtue and saw how in a short time if I observed this faithfully, I could actually (just maybe) become the saint God wanted me to be. All from simply remembering Mary in all I do. From silent mental prayer to the most chaotic and distracting tasks, I started seeing those distracting duties as my battle field; I would impress on myself the sweet presence of Mary and do all my deeds for love of Her. How I know I made this practice a habit is how even now , I will wake up in the middle of the night and randomly say “Mary” – just as a way to remind Her I know She is there, even when I am asleep. This just happens out of habit, now! Brother Lawrence also said striking words that reminded me of what Mother told me as a postulant:
Once we embrace the treasure of this devotion, we must give up all the others because all those other devotions ( twenty devotions I started with) were all a means to an end, a stepping stone, preparing me for the greatest gift of all. THIS was the secret. Ways we can remember the presence of God are even coming up with simple little expressions throughout the day, “My God I love you, I offer this for You.” For Mary I always say “All for the Immaculata, nothing for me.” (Maximilian Kolbe’s expression) OR “My Queen, Mother and Best Friend” to help me remain faithful to the practice of the presence of Mary. Some reading this might say, your love or devotion to Mary is too much. This is where I will remind readers of what Our Lord desires before He comes again a second time:
Our Lord desires to establish in the world devotion to My Immaculate Heart. ~Our Lady of Fatima~
What are the most important devotions for our time according to Our Lord’s humble Handmaid at Fatima? Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the First Saturday Devotion. Before Christ comes again as He has revealed, devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary has to become a habit. She is not only Someone we use, She is our Mother who deserves to be loved. Christ desires this. Saint Louis De Montfort said “there is no longer a need to hide Mary”. In the end God is choosing Her to crush the head of the serpent and Her Heart to triumph. So I approached Christ empty handed, and He gave me His most prized Masterpiece, His Mother. Especially during this pandemic when Christ has allowed Himself to literally remove His presence from us in the Blessed Sacrament, isn’t it so clear? It’s time to embrace the glorious presence of Mary!