|John of the Cross|
The Interior Life of Prayer
Posted by Carmelite Sisters • July 24, 2011
Going Deeper - The Interior Life of Prayer
Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D.
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles
A typical day in most people’s lives is usually pretty ordinary. We wake up, get up, get going, and then continue through the day with the thousand and one habits and routines that fill our waking hours. Some days can fly by so rapidly that we “can barely catch our breath,” as the expression goes. This moment-by-moment existence often drops to the level of mindless routine. We forget who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. Caught in the exigencies of the what and the how of daily living, it is easy to forget the why. As a consequence, we become restless, bored, and, at times, confused. At some level, however, we recognize that our daily lives are less than they could or should be. Something within us cries out, with or without words. Sometimes all we perceive is a yearning, a longing for something, and we don’t have a clue what it is. We only know that it is.
In time we begin to understand that we are experiencing a spiritual longing. Our very spirit within us, our soul, has been unknown, forgotten, or neglected. Catholic teaching affirms that the human soul is our life principle at the center of our being, the place where our intellect and will reside. Knowing, choosing, willing, and loving all take place within the soul. The human soul is completely invisible, immaterial, and spiritual. It cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched by any physical, material thing. It is vitally and essentially connected to our physical body and operates through it as we go about our daily routines. Most people do not think of their souls very often. From time to time, however, this spiritual part of us makes itself known. Everyone experiences these special times of grace. These are God-moments. During these revelatory occasions, we realize that such depth of feeling can only come from our spirit.
In this innermost sanctuary of our souls, the divine encounter takes place at a profoundly deep level of our being. Because of the intensely intimate nature of a prayer that is this deep, this personal, this spiritual, it is hard to understand or discuss. It is too holy. Our profoundly intimate encounter with God through prayer in our deepest center is the theme of Carmelite spirituality and the topic of the writings of the Carmelite mystics. Putting words to these experiences and explaining them, usually by way of an analogy, is Carmel’s gift to the world. This concept is captured in the mission statement of the Carmelite Sisters – “To Promote a Deeper Spiritual Life among God’s People.”
St. John of the Cross, Carmelite mystic and Doctor of the Church, wrote four major works: The Ascent of Mt.Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. His writings explain, usually by way of analogy – after all, there are no human words to describe the divine – the prayer journey. He wrote about the detachments and purifications needed to begin and continue the ascent up the mountain of prayer, the dark night of the soul, and the joy and fulfillment expressed in the spiritual canticle and the living flame of God’s love. In contemporary terms, these four works by St. John of the Cross talk about “letting go and letting God.” They describe the growing relationship between a human being and God, all occurring within the soul. “Know you not that you are God’s temple and that His Spirit dwells within you.”
Today, there seems to be a great number of people who are not attuned to their souls; rather, many people are not even aware of this integral part of their being – or so they say. The following excerpt from St. John of the Cross’s famous work, The Spiritual Canticle (Stanza 11, verse 3), explains the three ways in which God is present within the human soul. This verse begins by asking God, “Reveal Your Presence.” He then proceeds with the following commentary on the verse:
In explanation of this verse, it should be known that the presence of God can be of THREE KINDS:
I. THE FIRST PRESENCE OF GOD IN THE HUMAN SOUL IS CALLED “THE PRESENCE BY ESSENCE.”
In this way, God is present not only in the holiest souls, but also in sinners, as well as all other creatures. This presence gives them their life and their being. Should this essential presence be lacking, all would be annihilated. This presence is always in the soul.
II. THE SECOND PRESENCE OF GOD IN THE HUMAN SOUL IS BY GRACE, IN WHICH GOD ABIDES IN THE SOUL, PLEASED AND SATISFIED WITH IT.
Not all have this presence of God. Those who fall into mortal sin lose it. The soul cannot naturally know if it has this presence or not.
III. THE THIRD PRESENCE OF GOD IN THE HUMAN SOUL IS HIS PRESENCE BY SPIRITUAL AFFECTION. SOME CALL IT ‘THE PRESENCE OF FRIENDSHIP.’
God usually grants this presence to devout souls in many ways by which He refreshes, delights, and gladdens them.
To ask God to “reveal His Presence” is to ask Him for something that is personal, powerful, and at the same time, life-changing. It is the essence of why we were given the gift of life.
Life can never be the same, once we discover that in the deepest center of our soul, we can live that intimate relationship with God for which we were created. Yes, we will continue our daily routine, but it will become a life lived from our deepest center, filled to the brim, good measure and flowing over – and because God is infinite we can always go deeper.