Ask a Carmelite: Help! Sometimes Prayer is So Frustrating

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Dear Sister Mary Colombiere,

In the second mansion St. Teresa strongly emphasizes the need for perseverance. Can you help me understand how this works in a practical way? I really struggle to keep a consistent prayer time and to stay focused when I pray. Sometimes it is so frustrating that I just give up. I know this doesn’t help but what can I do?

Dear Friend,

Many doors have a sign over their entrance. If the door leading to the Second Mansion or Dwelling Place were to have a sign, I would imagine it would read, “Where is your treasure?”

Teresa teaches us in her description of the Second Dwelling Place that if we are to reach the Center, the final Dwelling Place, we will have to wage war with Satan. In this Second Mansion, we are still caught between the attractions of the world and our final destination. Self-centeredness makes us fearful of trials and penances. The tug-of-war is between falsehood and truth, between sin and virtue, between self-gratification and generosity. We must be determined to bring our wills into conformity with God’s will. To do this, we need to avoid occasions of sin: persons, places or things that pull us into the arena of falsehood. To enter into truth, we have to be willing to embrace the Cross of Jesus and conform ourselves to Him through the solid practice of virtue, accepting times of dryness in prayer, not becoming discouraged at our human failings, but persevering in our desires to draw closer to God.

A dictionary would define perseverance in these or similar words: a steady persistence in activity, purpose, or a state in spite of difficulties. Isn’t it then reassuring to know that a great saint and mystic, such as St. Teresa of Avila herself, struggled in prayer until she was 41 years of age? Because she also suffered with health problems which weakened her bodily, she gave up on prayer rationalizing her health as an excuse.

St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

Distractions were no stranger to Teresa. Her very temperament shows in her writings as she jumps around from one topic to another leaving the thread of her original thought hanging while she moves on to another lengthy discourse before she eventually returns to what she was saying previously.

The time we spend in prayer is not about our success at it; it is rather about our relationship with Him who loves us. Teresa cautions us not to use “force” to obtain a spirit of recollection but instead to “be gentle” with ourselves. Listening is essential during this stage of our spiritual development. Many voices will vie for our attention: our own inner voice, the voice of the world, the voice of the Tempter, and the voice of God. To sift out God’s voice in this cacophony of voices we need to be determined in our resolutions for good.

Some practical ways of doing this is to set a reasonable length of time for prayer, one we can better achieve. It may be less than what we had hoped to do but as time goes on and we find ourselves looking forward to those moments, we can always increase the length of time that we spend in prayer. We do not want to set an unreasonable goal that will turn us into clock watchers or cause us to grit our teeth until the time we allotted to prayer is over. It is in this Mansion that we come to know more about God and deepen our friendship with Him. This is the Room for a hard work-out; it is not the Mansion for consolations.

In our persevering prayer we gradually become more conscious of God’s Presence. We are with the One we love and we experience many of our Advent dispositions: longing, yearning, expecting, thirsting, and waiting. We are filled with gratitude for the infinite mercy God showers on us. It is in this second mansion that one really learns to pray, but we cannot learn unless we are willing to labor and not return to a former state simply because it required less toil or because we become disheartened. What will make the difference? It depends on what we want most: the things the world holds out to us or intimate union with God. Where does our treasure lie? How much do we desire God? How much are we willing to sacrifice?

Will your mind still wander? Undoubtedly! Do not become anxious. Return your focus to Him and if needed, read some brief passage from Scripture or a devotional prayer and continue to soak in His Presence. But above all, do not use excuses to abandon or omit your prayer time or shorten it. With perseverance God will give you blessings beyond your expectations.

Let us remember Teresa’s prayer:

Let nothing trouble you,
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things pass away.
God never changes.
Patience obtains everything.
God alone is enough.

Until next time,

Sister Mary Colombiere, 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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