Little Ways of Prayer
“The soul does not go to prayer to tire itself, but to relax.”
--St. John of the Cross
Are you, like me, shocked to see this sweet and gentle sentiment coming from St. John of the Cross? I was! I who call him “my holy father in Carmel,” I must admit that I was surprised! Happily, I'm not quite dumbfounded, this statement having brought many wonderments to mind. It's the feast of St. Therese again (this time on the old calendar, and how lucky we are to get to celebrate twice!), and she's been keeping me busy wondering at the goodness of God, the goodness He shares with us through His messengers, both angels and Saints.
I think the Saints too often get a bad rap. Sure we honor them, but they’ve been so successful - they're in Heaven after all, which is the ultimate success - that we assume they must be unapproachable and would be impatient with the likes of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Have I quoted for you lately one of my favorite passages from little Therese? (Ha – I’m sure I have quoted one of my favorites, lately, but I think not this one!)
She wrote to her seminarian spiritual brother Maurice Belliere:
I have to tell you that we don’t understand Heaven in the same way. You think that once I share in the justice and holiness of God, I won’t be able to excuse your faults as I did when I was on earth. Are you then forgetting that I shall also share in the infinite mercy of the Lord? I believe that the Blessed in Heaven have great compassion for our miseries. They remember that when they were weak and mortal like us, they committed the same faults themselves and went through the same struggles, and their fraternal tenderness becomes still greater than it ever was on earth. It’s on account of this that they never stop watching over us and praying for us.
Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, you might say – just when the Saints see everything clearly, they like us even better! What a wondrous share in God’s merciful love they have! And what a participation in His infinite tenderness!
St. Alphonsus told us back on his feastday on August 1st that one holy saying, meditated on frequently, could make a Saint of even our little selves. How marvelous! I think today’s choice will be: “The soul does not go to prayer to tire itself, but to relax.” A saying which I find so very Marcellian! But then, I’ve never been one to limit myself, and one good quote deserves another. I hope you won’t mind if I add, then, two more which I think you’ll love too.
The first is an antiphon from the Divine Office (from Monday, Week I, Evening Prayer):
“The Lord looks tenderly on those who are poor.”
And the second is from our little sister:
“I assure you that the good God is much kinder than you think. He is satisfied with a look, a sigh of love.”
This last quote from Therese is one I’ve been wanting to tell you about for a long time, ever since I came across a passage in Conversations where Jesus explains to Marcel what it means to look at Him and to sigh with love.
Marcel wrote in his Autobiography, (and this passage in itself has me agog) “I still put into practice today the lessons given to me then [at their first meeting] by our saintly sister. Therese spoke to me a lot during my first novitiate [the time during which he wrote down their Conversations], but everything she told me resembled the first lessons that she gave me at the foot of the hill at Quaing-Uyen” (612).
I must say I've been remiss about recommending Marcel's Autobiography. Forgive me! Count it recommended, most highly, but remember I always suggest starting mid-way through so as to get to the heart of the matter at the outset: namely Therese and Marcel's meeting.
Perhaps, though, I dwell on Conversations so much because it is here that everything contained in that first message of Therese to Marcel is explained at more leisure, and with more words. Jesus is not above repeating Therese’s lessons to Marcel, all of them meant for us, and with His Divine Authority and clarity (and infinite patience and gentleness), I feel we have more of a chance of eventually learning the lessons by heart.
It was without too much surprise, then, but with heartfelt joy that I found Jesus in Conversations explicating Therese’s quote about His kindness. But before we get to Jesus’ commentary, let's take another moment over the quote itself.
“I assure you the good God is much kinder than you think. He is satisfied with a look, a sigh of love.”
This is assurance indeed, and it meant a lot to the one for whom it was written. For Therese originally expressed this truth in a letter to her sister Leonie, the Martin sister who had the most difficulty following her vocation.
As a child Leonie had been tormented by the family maid, and that along with a seeming lack of natural gifts (compared to her very talented and beautiful sisters) contributed to her failures, her lack of confidence, her feeling "less than," which disturbed her peace and made her the perfect candidate for Therese's Little Way. Don't worry, Leonie's story ends very happily - after Therese went to Heaven she helped Leonie even more than she had helped her when on earth, and Leonie's fourth attempt at religious life succeeded to the end of her days (which were many). She ended up as a Visitation sister in Caen, where she lived the Little Way for decades and was beloved by all who knew her.
What, then, was my awe and delight when I heard (about two years ago now) that one of Therese's sister had a cause for canonization going! The friend who told me had fun making me guess which sister . . . The dear Celine, the sweet echo of Therese's soul? Nope. Pauline, her Mother Superior and Heaven sent second mother, confidante, first formator, and editor? Nope. Marie, her godmother, who drew from Therese’s pen some of the most encouraging words ever written? Wrong again, mustard seed. The new Servant of God was none other than Leonie, the former ugly duckling who, with her little sister's help, grew out of her awkwardness into a swan of great beauty!
Leonie must have been very grateful, both while she struggled and when she later achieved peace, to know that God is much kinder than we think, even when we try our hardest to imagine Him as very kind. And oh, the sweet relief of knowing that He is satisfied, content, pleased with us even if we are only offering Him simple glances and sighs of love. I know I've found great consolation in this truth!
Here we come back to that beautiful antiphon from the Divine Office: “The Lord looks tenderly on those who are poor.” We can take great consolation from this truth too!
Our Lord instructs us in the Gospel to become like little children. It’s clear there that little children are His very ideal, and it becomes clearer still in Conversations when he tells Marcel (I love this so much!) that everything children do pleases Him. How much does absolutely everything children do please Him? So much that He insists Marcel write down both sides of their conversations to show us how children pray. Jesus explains, in words that can be taken as a commentary on Therese's quote above:
“Since there are many who only listen to what I say without daring to converse quite frankly with Me as children, under the pretext that it is not proper . . . tell them that I gladly listen to ordinary conversations, even the simplest ones, and I take pleasure in hearing them. There, that is all I expect from souls who love Me . . . "(Conversations, 6).
This gives us a glimpse into how kind He is!
Children don’t know a lot of big words yet, and they don’t stand on ceremony. But also, they’re poor. They have nothing much to offer Jesus – they can’t hope to impress Him with stories of their accomplishments, because they don’t have any yet. If we have great accomplishments and want to talk to Jesus about them, I’m sure He’ll gladly listen. He’s happy to hear whatever it is we want to tell Him, but if we're honest, if we see the truth that for us to become like little children is simply to recognize we already are like little children, we’ll be that much more free to tell Him our little nothings (which usually aren’t great accomplishments in the eyes of the world, but may be quite impressive for us.
I had the strangest and seemingly most incongruous thought recently. It occurred to me that I’m grateful for the times I’ve experienced depression. We’re all a little down sometimes, but occasionally some of us have the blessing – which feels, by definition, like the worst curse in the world, and likely is one of the worst – of what the professional emotional-temperature-takers call clinical depression. I don’t want to even bring that dark cloud here to our bright and sunny corner of the Internet, but I want to tell you about the silver lining that I’ve noticed.
When I’ve experienced depression, I’ve felt and more than felt – I’ve known – my utter and complete poverty.
I’ve been blessed, as we all have, with countless gifts of grace and nature. Whether we’re talking butterflies, hummingbirds, blue skies or clouds, sunsets, mountains, fool’s gold or the real thing, parents, children, friends, books, bread, water, angels and Saints – you name it, God has given it in abundance – perhaps not the whole list at once, but many and varied are His gifts, and they surround us in a quantities as absurd as the avocados on my tree when it’s in fruit. Huge quantities! Almost beyond counting! And in the case of the full range of God’s gifts (not just avocados), definitely beyond counting.
The result of so many gifts is the tendency in us to take them for granted. Which tendency can even become, without our realizing it, a sense of entitlement or ownership that blinds us to our original state. No, not California or Virginia or Michigan or Minnesota! Our original state as children before God our true Father!
Because that is what we are and what we’ll always be, thank Heaven, children of our Heavenly Father, and children are poor. If you take the very smallest child (born, not unborn, though a consideration of the beauty and dignity and utter poverty of the unborn child would surely yield even more fruit), you can see that he (or darling she) enters the world with nothing. Like Job said, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,” and if we turn to the other end of the spectrum, he adds, “and naked I shall go back again.”
I have felt that soul-nakedness when I’ve experienced depression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending it! In fact, let’s just say a quick prayer here and now while we’re on the subject: Dear Jesus, thank You for all You’ve given us and all You’ve allowed us to experience. Please send Your angels and Your infinite Love to keep us from suffering depression (again or ever). We ask this of the Father, in Your name. Thank You!
So you see, I’m definitely not recommending this route to self-knowledge, but I do marvel at God bringing good out of everything, and now that this suffering is past (never to come again, God willing), I can at least appreciate His showing me my poverty.
We here at Miss Marcel’s Musings are, however, the people who brought you the spiritual elevator of Jesus’ arms to lift us to Heaven (little Therese being one of our company), and wouldn’t you know our sister also has a hint about how to (less painfully, more pleasantly, and just like the children we are) achieve self-knowledge. (And let me just interject that I’m quite proud of that massively split infinitive! Love it!)
We want self-knowledge, by which I mean knowledge of who we are, because in the simplest terms, what we are is God’s children, and as Therese told Marcel at their first meeting, “To be God’s children is for us an incomparable happiness. We are right to be proud of it and never give way to fear” (Autobiography, 599). That’s more like it! Incomparable happiness, proper pride, no fear! These are the rays of sunshine we love to bask in at MMM. But as usual, there’s more.
I’ve been mulling over something else about self-knowledge that Therese told Marcel that first day, and like all that Jesus says to Marcel in Conversations, from the first word to the last, these words from our brother’s Autobiography are meant for us too. Our sister tells us:
“To comfort the good God, follow this piece of advice: never be miserly in the things I am going to speak to you about. Be always ready to offer Him your heart, your thoughts, and all your actions. In welcoming them it will be for Him like welcoming a new paradise where all the Trinity finds its delights. Remember that although He is God, our heavenly Father never scorns little things. He takes as much pleasure in things which are apparently insignificant, as in the most wonderful spectacle because it is the marvelous work of His love” (Autobiography, 603).
Yowza! Talk about the Lord looking tenderly on those who are poor! It might seem at first a lot to give Him everything Therese advises us to give: our hearts, our thoughts, all our actions. But what a wonderful list! We could add: all our feelings, our memories, our imaginations, but lest you worry I’m cooking the books, I must say I think these too are pretty much already included. So what then does this mean she’s asking us to give? Nothing less than all we have, everything we have. (Suddenly I feel like a boy with a frog in the pocket of his jeans. “Here, Jesus!”)
But actually, what is not on Therese’s list? Our money (if we have any), our accomplishments (if we have any), our possessions (if we have any) . . . because whether we are children, literally and physically, and have very little (if any) of these, or Bill Gates who presumably has quite a lot of all of them—none of these are really ours to give! They are God’s already! As my husband taught me long ago, God has all the money in the world. And this goes for all the accomplishments and all the possessions. But our hearts? Our thoughts? Our every little action? These belong to us, they are all we have really, and listen again to what Doctor Therese tells us will happen if we give them to God.
“In welcoming them it will be for Him like welcoming a new paradise where all the Trinity finds its delights.”
I’ll say it again. Yowza! But much to my chagrin, I haven’t even told you what I came to this passage to find. Here is the part about self-knowledge; it comes just after “Remember that although He is God, our heavenly Father never scorns little things. He takes as much pleasure in things which are apparently insignificant as in the most wonderful spectacle because all of it is the marvelous work of His love.”
Here it is, our sister’s insight into self-knowledge:
“Besides, in order to maintain that there is love, it is necessary that there is unity. Now unity between two loves demands from one side and the other personal knowledge and mutual understanding. On His part, God our beloved Father knows Himself personally, and understands us thoroughly. As for us, we need Him to get to know ourselves and to understand Him. Consequently, if you did not wish to collaborate with Him in the work which leads to unity, telling Him all your intentions, your words, your actions, and all your efforts, you would never attain unity. Little brother, try to think about it in order to see clearly. There is no exaggeration in my words . . . my only wish is to see you accomplish the works that the divine love desires so ardently for you” (604).
Holy guacamole! There it is again. How to pray? Just relax! Sit with God over a cup of coffee or tea (or a glass of wine or water), and spill it. No, not the beverage (though that would be quite childlike!) but your heart. Your hopes and fears, your dreams and anxieties, your days and nights, your friends and frenemies, your every thought, word, and deed. You can even venture into other people’s thoughts, words, and deeds, but if you're going that direction I’d stick to those of the Saints because otherwise Jesus is likely to tell you like He often told Marcel (though He said He wasn’t scolding; He’s too gentle for that!), “None of your business, little one.”
Which brings me finally to this conclusion:
I’ve been thinking for so long that one of the greatest gifts Marcel has for us is the gift of prayer. And he gives us this gift in so many little ways:
1. By praying for us. Even when on earth, he was instructed to pray for Mary’s little apostles of future days. That was us he was praying for! Now in Heaven, according to Therese’s description of the Blessed (which is so right and just and true), he prays for us even more. Not to mention the promises that Jesus and Mary made him about getting to REALLY be an Apostle of the little ones once he made it to the place from which all blessings flow.
2. By giving us Jesus’, Mary’s, and Therese’s instructions on how to pray, which instructions fill many pages of Marcel’s writings, he gives us the gift of many little ways to pray (the smile, the kiss, the glance, the sigh, turning the cross into roses, and these are just a beginning).
3. By giving us the most imitable and adorable example of truly sharing his every thought, feeling, and complaint as well as joy and sorrow (and disgust!) with Jesus and Mary, Marcel teaches us most effectively how we, possibly littler and weaker than he, can pray too. How can we hesitate to relax when we are laughing and smiling with Jesus at Marcel’s outbursts? Oh little brother, thank you for being so very real!
Finally, in these past two years, I’ve found Almighty God, with every power in Heaven and on earth at His disposal, has given me the gift of a prayer more delightful, satisfying, and relaxed than anything I’ve experienced in the fifty-some years prior to my discovering Marcel, through the very great miracle of Marcel’s Conversations.
You know how everyone says “literally” even when it doesn’t quite fit the case? Like, “It blew my mind! Literally!” Well I think it’s safe to say here that Marcel’s Conversations literally give me prayer. Not just his, but my own, finally in joy and peace. I pick it up, flip this dear book open, and read. And in Jesus’ words (and Mary’s and Therese’s) I hear of His Love, and the Father’s, and feel the unction of the Holy Spirit who is that Love. And in Marcel’s words, I find myself. Little, tiny, complaining, afraid of suffering, overjoyed with delights, much more attracted to the sweet sweets than the bitter sweets, and madly in love with Jesus who has shown Himself to me (through showing Himself to Marcel).
I hope I get to write this blog until the day I die! I hope that day is far off, because even though I want to go to Heaven (I don’t fool myself – I’d love to escape the suffering that is part of earth’s territory! and won’t it be fun to meet Marcel and little Jesus on Mary’s lap?), I don’t want to go until my jobs on earth are done. Loving my family and caring for them, and loving all who wander over to our place here, and caring for them (for you!) by sharing this ridiculously little message:
“I assure you that the good God is much kinder than you think. He is satisfied with a look, a sigh of love.”
And to share, too, the little ways of prayer I'm learning from our brother and sister. Prayer that is relaxed, not exhausting, made in the simplest possible way. In words provided by God Himself, for instance, in the Song of Songs, but meant for us (as Therese has taught) so that we might ask for everything without making it complicated:
Draw me, we will run!
or in French, which I've been pretending to know lately:
Ahn-train mwa, noo koo-roe(n) ah tah sweet!
or finally, in the words of our little brother Marcel:
Jesus, I love You a lot!
He loves you a lot too (Jesus-Marcel & Marcel-Jesus both)! so no more worrying, about anything, from now on ever! And if you just can't help yourself and you worry anyway, try the prayer our sweet Mother Mary gave us:
Little Jesus, I offer You this worry as a sacrifice.
And then . . . peace!
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