Ask a Carmelite: “Is my prayer good enough?”

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Dear Sister,

My prayer experiences don’t seem good enough or holy enough, long enough or intense enough. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can pray better?

Dear Friend,

Yes, I do have a few suggestions. That’s easy…

First of all, I suggest not using the expression “prayer experiences” at all. Hit the delete button on that one. A lot of people tend to speak about their prayer experiences. To me, it’s not the best choice of words. I believe that to use the expression “prayer experience” lessens, or taints my prayer. Prayer isn’t just “an experience.” It is so much more.

I actually went to the dictionary to check out the word “experience” in order to respond to this question and was amazed to see the long list of definitions:

  1. involvement in something over time,
  2. knowledge or skill that is acquired,
  3. the sum total of somebody’s experiences,
  4. something that happens to somebody,
  5. knowledge from observation,
  6. to have personal knowledge of something,
  7. to feel something.

All these definitions are right and good – in their proper place, but not for a description or explanation of prayer. Why?

To Carmelites, prayer is relationship. It is time spent with Someone you love. It is that coming to know Another in a deeper way – to pray is to speak and then to listen; to communicate on a more personal and profound level and to grow in understanding, respect and appreciation of the other. St. Teresa of Avila puts it this way. “Prayer is nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart conversation with Him, Who we know loves us” (Life, viii).

Not good enough or holy enough? Not long enough or intense enough? It is one way of looking at it, but it makes me think of asking you a question. What does love look like? Does it not have a thousand faces? The face of love can sit quietly in sorrow, sympathy and compassion. Or it can radiate with joy and laughter and grimace in steadfast, faithful determination. When someone truly falls in love, I don’t think there should be, or are, such questions. They minimize and actually detract from the power of loving. To be with, to share with, to companion the One you love is love. Love is more than an experience. Well, love is love.

This same concept can be applied to prayer. God and I, as impossible as it seems and as unworthy as I see myself, can be in relationship – just as any person to another. It is mind-boggling to think about. It is actually THE relationship for which I was created. The Baltimore Catechism put it this way.

Q. Why did God make you?

A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.

That is a very personal answer, it seems to me. It summarizes the reason for our existence. I am reminded of a phrase in our profession of vows when we make our perpetual profession to God. The entire formula of vows is very beautiful, but the expression that comes to mind right now is the following – “in intimacy with God through prayer.” Yes, that’s it. That says it.

There is a four volume book set, Divine Intimacy by Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, OCD. It is a Carmelite classic on prayer. The original was one thick book and has now been broken down into the four volume set. Note the name. It is the same concept; however Father Gabriel doesn’t say Divine Relationship or Divine Friendship. No, his classic goes straight to the core, the height, the goal, which is intimacy. Just to meditate on this thought is a very fruitful meditation.

So, now to come more directly to your question, you don’t need to feel holy, or good, or any feeling. A dad doesn’t feel good getting up before dawn to get ready to go to work. A mom doesn’t feel good about taking care of her children when she herself is ill and would rather be in bed. A nun doesn’t feel so great, either, getting up before dawn to pray. But, ah! This is love. We do this out of our love, for the one we love, and ah! … that also is prayer.

I think we could sum up St. John of the Cross by saying that it is our WILL which chooses, what we see, what we hear, what we do. Our will is at work when we pray. We can will to pray when we don’t feel like it, just as in the examples above of the dad or mom or nun. We’ve heard the expression “suit up and show up.” We can use it, also, for prayer. And if we “suit up and show up” on a daily basis, on both good days and bad days, I would add, that, then, would be a powerful prayer, indeed – the prayer of a friend, who comes to be with God not looking for any gain or consolation, but is content to be with God.

Then, I wouldn’t be surprised if some day, during prayer, you would open your eyes and look at your watch and say, “My God, where did the time go? Can it be that I have been with You so long; it seemed but a few moments.” I can hear St. Teresa of Avila saying, “You are His friend now, His close friend, and He is taking you deeper into Himself in the intimacy with God through prayer. When that happens, the time passes oh so quickly.”

Until next time,

Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D


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Promoting a Deeper Spiritual Life Among Families through Healthcare, Education and Retreats

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles strive to give striking witness as a vibrant, thriving community of dedicated women with an all-consuming mission. It is our God-given mission, a mission of the heart, a mission of loving service to the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Our loving service overflows from each sister’s profound life of prayer. We strive to reflect His life and hope and His promise to all that light has come into our world and darkness has not overcome it.

A look at the history of our community, with its motherhouse in Alhambra, California, reveals how its life-giving presence has come about. During the beginning decades of the 1900s just as the epic Mexican revolution was subsiding, a ruthless religious persecution was gaining momentum in Mexico. This horrible persecution accompanied the birth and humble beginnings of our community, a legacy that Mother Luisita, our foundress, and her two companions brought with them as religious refugees entering the Unites States in 1927.

Those seeds planted by Mother Luisita, now a candidate for sainthood, have taken deep root in the United States since those early days. People and places have changed throughout the years, yet the heart of our mission remains. As an autonomous religious institute since 1983 we continue to carry out our loving service in our healthcare facilities, retreat houses and schools which remain to this day centers of life and hope. Today we are moving forward together “Educating for Life with the Mind and Heart of Christ” in schools, being “At the Service of the Family for Life” through health and eldercare and “Fostering a Deeper Spiritual Life” through individual and group retreats. At the heart of our vocation is a passionate mission of loving service which facilitates our life-giving encounter with the living God.

The heritage of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles is rooted in the spirituality of Carmel, the Gospels, the Church, with our particular charism derived from our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

In His merciful goodness, God has graced our Institute with the Carmelite charism which has its roots in a long history and living tradition. The spirituality of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross is rooted in this tradition. Carmel means enclosed garden in which God Himself dwells. The divine indwelling in the soul is the foundation of Teresa's doctrine. Thus our vocation is a grace by which contemplation and action are blended to become an apostolic service to the Church.

Our ideal finds a living expression in the life and charism of our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, whose spirit we faithfully preserve and foster.

Our life is characterized by: - A life of prayer and union with God - A deep love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist - Devotion to our Blessed Mother - Steadfast fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church - Praying for priests - Commitment to works of the apostolate in ecclesial service

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5 Comments

  1. Sister, this is just one of the most beautiful explanations of prayer ever. It has really bolstered my faith. Praying being an act of the will is very important for me, who always wants to “feel” something. The person who asked the question might find that they would benefit from spiritual direction to further their journey. I really liked Dan Burke’s “Navigating the Interior Life” http://bit.ly/ZZBAKc and his RCSpiritualDirection.com website. I have learned a lot from them. Plus anything by Fr. Thomas Dubay. The idea of intimacy with God is both scary and thrilling at the same time. Now, to make that act of the will every day – that will take many graces.

  2. Right on sister!

    He is my first true love, God. When I had my child, like the Scrooge, my heart grew three sizes bigger. Everyone around me was no longer a potential threat or suspicious character, but one of His babies too. I began to see everyone with a compassion and love because they are someone’s child too. How much I love my Lord! How could I not love His babies. Prayer can be so many different moments now because of this awareness. Sometimes I let myself be just happy to sit with Him, or struggle to quiet my thoughts to really listen, or just sing Him a song.

    God is our love and just giving Him the front seat at every moment brings joy, even through the tears sometimes.

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