This past weekend, my Secular Carmelite community had their annual retreat. Our retreat master was Fr. Sal Sciurba, who is the Provincial General of our OCDS province here in Central Florida. The topic of the retreat was prayer according to some of the Carmelite saints. It was a very applicable topic since prayer is the main charism of Carmel. The saints Fr. Sal highlighted offer very helpful insights into a fruitful prayer life and how we can incorporate it into even a very busy life of work.
St. Teresa of Avila, the Holy Mother of the Discalced Carmelite Order, gave three essential virtues and dispositions for a healthy prayer life. They are love, detachment, and humility. First of all, in order to pray, we must have love for God and a desire to get close to Him. You spend time with someone and cultivate a relationship because you care about that person. Secondly, detachment. Fr. Sal made clear that detachment doesn’t mean we don’t care about things or other people. What detachment truly is is knowing the place of material things and creatures in our lives in relation to God. It can be difficult for us to pull ourselves away from things we are doing or people whose company we are enjoying to pray (I have trouble with this too), but in order to pray properly and form the relationship that our Creator wants to have with us, we have to have our minds and hearts completely focused on God.
The third virtue required is humility. Just as two friends know the role each one plays in the relationship, it is important for us to know who we are in relation to God. We are His creatures and we have all sinned against Him. If we don’t have the humility to recognize this truth, our prayers will get us nowhere and we won’t grow in our relationship with God because of our stubbornness. Keep in mind the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. He boasted about his virtues and righteousness compared to the tax collector in his prayer to God instead of being humble and asking forgiveness for the sins that he had committed, like the tax collector did. As a result, the tax collector’s prayer was more fruitful and he went away more justified before God. If we want to grow in our prayer life and our relationship with God, we need to realize our own sinfulness and not consider ourselves any better than another before God.
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, another Carmelite saint, once said that prayer is not necessarily something that we do, but something that God does in us. If we can cultivate the silence and stillness needed to hear the voice of God, He will move us and give us the graces necessary to carry out in our lives what He asks of us and over time, we will experience growth in our relationship with Him and an ease in talking to Him. This is also why it is important to remain faithful and open to our prayers even when we experience dryness. St. Elizabeth said that even if she did not necessarily feel the presence of God while she was praying, she would later find answers and the necessary graces she had asked for while going about her duties. St. Therese talked at length about unceasing prayer, which we do when we get into the habit of always carrying on a conversation with God in the stillness of our hearts, even while we are going about our work. This is not easy, but can be aided by taking the opportunity to realize the presence of God in every moment of our day and offering up our work and sufferings as part of our prayer.
St. Therese stressed suffering in particular, saying that if we give it an “apostolic dimension,” using it as a means to pray for others and make reparation for sin, it can be redemptive and it also unites us to Christ. Using our suffering as well as the many blessings we get throughout the day as prayer to God (starting by thanking Him for waking us up in the morning) is a great way to integrate prayer into our daily lives and help us become more aware of the presence of God in our lives and in everything we do.
Prayer can seem like something that we have to drop everything to do, and while we do need to set aside time in our day to solely focus on God and talk and listen to Him, there’s no need to neglect it because we feel like we don’t have the time. Becoming aware of the presence of God in our everyday lives and using everyday experiences as types of prayer, as well as cultivating the essential virtues of love, detachment, and humility, can greatly enhance and improve our prayer lives.