Sunday, March 13, 2016

Lenten Musings on Silence & Prayer Père Jacques Style

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

The Lenten liturgical season is marching rapidly towards Holy Week, and I have been silent. Although my life continues to swirl with activity and a balancing act between prayer, tending to my family, and work, it probably wouldn't look silent from bystanders on the outside. But, amidst this I've had the opportunity to read and study a beautiful book that calls us to reflect on the role of silence and prayer in our lives. It is called Listen to the Silence, by Père Jacques de Jésus , and consists of notes taken from 14 conferences he gave to the nuns at the Carmel of Pontoise in September, 1943, just prior to his arrest by the Nazis for harboring Jewish students at his all boys school where he was Headmaster.  [For more information on his life, go to]  

In this retreat, Père Jacques gets to the heart of the matter and drills deeply into what it means to be called to prayer and to live the evangelical counsels in our daily lives. He reveals the very purpose of Carmel as 'a community of human beings who reveal God to other human beings.' He further insists that, 'There should be a Carmel in every city, and then there would be no need for works. One would see God through these human beings who live for him and Him alone.'  Wow! That is quite a statement about the strength of love and prayer found in the School of Carmel if we truly live it. 

This is where the challenges begin.  Some of his maxims and questions can be excellent tools for meditation and an examination of conscience for us during this season that calls us to personal growth and stretching out of our comfort zones. I'll share a few such nuggets of wisdom here.

1. "We cannot see Christ and remain as we are. To see Christ, we must do as Zacchaeus did. We must become poor. Riches drag down the soul. One has to become small in stature, that is detached from the goods of the world."

2.When I speak of seeing Christ, I mean the mysterious, misty vision of faith, which is the fruit of the prayer of simple regard and not the result of any activity on our part. I mean the experience of being swept up by Christ himself. When we have diligently devoted  ourselves to charity, obedience, service, and self-control, and when Christ has seen the constancy of our commitment, then he Himself comes to us."

3.  "Prayer should be our steady, supernatural method of breathing, day and night, in the silence of our souls."

4. Père Jacques speaks of those who want only consolations in prayer, and eventually walk away from God. Then he asks, "In truth, are we any different? Are we not likewise lacking in courage and total acceptance? Do we not seek to exercise choice, to impose conditions, and to  make bargains in our relationship with God?" What about adopting the attitude of st. Therese: 'Lord, I accept all.'?

5. He addressed to religious, but this can also apply to all Carmelites and those following Jesus, "In response to the question: What is our life's work, we have said: to be persons of prayer. If we are not persons of prayer, our lives are meaningless. Even God can do nothing with us, if we are not persons of prayer."  

6. "We live our lives only once, not twice. Therefore, each day, which slips slowly through our fingers, hour by hour, is irretrievable. A life misspent is lost forever."

7. "We must die to ourselves. Our 'I' must come to know this mystical death in order to know the fullness of prayer.  If we hold onto ourselves for fear of mystical death and the surrender of our worldly desires ,and if we hold on to our soul with its earthly attitudes, then we will remain just as we are with our own little soul and our own little bit of human happiness.  We must let our human 'I' diminish and ultimately coalesce into the divine will, the very being of God."

Coptic, 8th century, National Museum in Warsaw

8. "God is eternal silence; God dwells in silence....The works of God are marked in silence...Silence is the great master. It speaks to the human heart. Silence is not a empty void; God dwells therein." 

9. Regarding our own interior silence, "The soul must not be a public square, where there is always a crowd of gossipers or of persons recalled from the past with their tales of suffering and rebuke. Such types, seething at their imagined foes and smarting in their own self-love, are seriously at fault."

10. Père Jacques spoke of baptizing our suffering. "At no moment did Christ conceal any element of his Passion from his Mother.  Christ treated all the saints, without exception, in the same way. To the measure that He loved a soul, to that degree he saddled it with trials. What else would you expect? Christ is not someplace other than on the  Cross, with his head torn open by the crown of thorns and his body pierced by the whips and nails of his executioners...When Christ embraces someone, that person's head is touched by the crown of Thorns on the Lord's head  and the mark of the cross is left on him, because the Lord's mangled hand is covered with blood. To espouse Christ is to espouse the Cross."

Words of Hope and Comic Relief

These counsels might seem burdensome or make one feel like a beginner, as it were. The easiest means of dealing with our shortcomings and this call to do better is to emulate St. Terese's littleness, and remember her quip after falling and arising again with Christ at her side, 'And so we begin again.'  Père Jacques advises us to also remember our Holy Mother, St. Teresa of Avila who accepted all of God's Will in abandonment. She would confidently proclaim, "God is all powerful and He loves me." This slays our fears and our egos. It allows us to approach Our Lord as His children, and follow Him unreservedly.

I will leave you with this humorous story. A couple of weekends ago, my family attended a Christian music festival in the evening. We did not get tickets to this sold out show at Grand Canyon University, but they were inviting everyone to come and watch for free on huge screens that they had set up for the event. And so we went with lawn chairs in hand. The first band was a bit quirky to say the least. One song was about a chainsaw and featured the musicians hacking away at an imaginary tree with a chainsaw. My daughter looked at me perplexed and said, 'What next? A weed wacker?' As odd as it was, I kept thinking about that image and sawing away my sins - cutting them out of my life, and preferably at the roots. Of course, some things we can actively do on our own to stop our sins and bad habits, and other deeper issues need passive purification and healing. I then thought of the kinder, gentler  image I associate with St. John of the Cross. A pair of scissors to cut the little strings that hold us back from our souls ascending to God in prayer. 

I am still in need of the scissors, and still in need of God's Grace and Mercy which allow this cutting out and ridding the fungus in our lives.  In all of this, I know that silence is the key to knowing ourselves, knowing God, recognizing where we need healing and forgiveness, and moving forward with the Holy Spirit at our sides. Père Jacques reminds us of this in a beautiful way.