Friday, July 22, 2011


catalpa tree

I am gaining all kinds of fresh insight into St. Thérèse of Lisieux here on retreat at the Canossian Spirituality Center in Albuquerque with the good Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC.  

One thing he points out is that in the newest edition of the Catechism, Thérèse's definition of prayer has supplanted--not replaced, but supplanted--the old definition--"Prayer is the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God"--in the Baltimore Catechism.

Lifting, he observes, implies effort and exertion and is an action that we perform ourselves and as such, is more or less a masculine way of looking at prayer. Whereas a surge of heart is something that takes place within us and as such is a much more feminine way of looking at prayer. Here's St.Thérèse's version:

"What is Prayer?

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart;
It is a simple look turned toward heaven,
It is a cry of recognition and lof love,
Embracing both trial and joy."

Also notable is that nowhere in the definition does the word "God" or "Christ" appear, the operative point being that everyone is invited, you don't need to have a degree in theology, and in fact you don't even have to believe in God...

ailanthus aka "tree of heaven"
mimosa tree

cottonwood leaf


  1. and are the cottonwoods cottoning there? This tree near my work has been cottoning for weeks.

  2. Such riches, Heather! I refer not only to the photographs, but of course to the words of Thomas Merton and of St Thérèse of Lisieux.

    Through some kind of odd synchronicity, I, too, was thinking of Merton this morning -- it's almost exactly 20 years ago that I discovered his New Seeds of Contemplation, a book which showed me the way to resuscitate the Catholicism of my youth. There are perhaps other books by other authors that I value more highly nowadays, but I still have a "soft spot" for New Seeds.

    And of course, the Little Flower's definition of prayer is simplicity and beauty itself.

  3. Your entries are always so clear and concise but the photographs are a particularly nice commentary as powerful as your words.

    I attend Mass daily at the same monastery where Merton lived and is buried.

  4. Don't know about the tree, but there's a Dragonfly Festival every September at Bitter Lake NWR in New Mexico!

  5. Hey Fred--you're in Kansas, right? No, they ain't cottoning in Albuquerque yet but they are really something, so friendly and towering and rangy...

    Hello dear Dylan, and greetings to Hermit in Bardstown--yeah, Br. Joseph is big on Merton (who was also apparently a St. T. of Lisieux fan. He (Br. Joe) wrote his book, Everything is Grace at another Trappist monastery, Snowmass--I've never been to Gethsemani though I do have a monk friend at Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA (where I once spent a few days), which is I think is a kind of sister or daughter to Gethsemani...

    And Bill--who knew your sending me that book would have led to me being here, and the opening, in a sense, of a whole new world?'ll take me awhile to reduce it to post form, but I'm really excited by his thoughts on Therese and of her influence on the direction of the Church and spirituality...

    Thanks, all, for checking in with me on my retreat...

  6. Tree of Heaven or Ailantus for the unknown tree.

  7. right you are, ailanthus--again, thanks!...

  8. Also notable is that nowhere in the definition does the word "God" or "Christ" appear, the operative point being that everyone is invited, you don't need to have a degree in theology, and in fact you don't even have to believe in God...

    Hmmm ... I'm not sure if St. Therese would agree with the very last clause of that sentence. Jesus is implicit and fully present in her "simple look toward heaven". I know that Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Ravasi are making great efforts to reach out to atheists -- and of course The Little Flower herself had a particularly soft spot in her heart for atheists. However, the littlest Doctor of the Church would also want to remind us of some basic theology here, to wit: prayer cannot be "a cry of recognition and of love" without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ. This is not a politically correct idea, but it is the truth.

    That said, the invitation to prayer is open to everyone.


  9. Actually, that is not the truth, David. As I just e-mailed someone else who was also concerned that prayer is not prayer unless you believe in God, "I think the idea is that prayer is an opening of the heart and that God and Christ are all-inclusive and meet people wherever they are. When I first started praying I wasn't even sure I believed in God or that there was a God, but I prayed anyway. And in the seeking, the willingness to believe even though I didn't know whether I believed, I found."

    I mean how could people who don't yet believe in God possibly come to God EXCEPT through prayer? EXCEPT through some kind of opening of the heart and a cry of recognition and of love, however that is individually experienced? So of course you don't have to believe in God or in Christ for your prayer to be sincere. And I, for one, have absolutely no interest and no business in policing or rating or analyzing or judging or speculating on the "legitimacy" of, whatever that means, ANYONE else's prayer. Good Lord. To me, that anyone prays at all, in whatever way is given to them, is cause for major rejoicing...and from what I understand of St. Therese, it was cause for rejoicing for her, too...

  10. Here's an excerpt from Redeemed. My friend Joan doesn't believe in Christ but can you tell me her prayer and her spirituality are not at LEAST as, if not more, authentic than many Catholics?

    But if you need God, then why Christ?, you might ask next. Why not an abstract God, a God who’s somewhere out in the ether, a God who’s more or less an idea, an abstraction? Maybe because the word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means to re-connect; and to re-connect I first have to feel the full pain of my own separation: this aging body I’m afraid and ashamed of, my brain which can’t seem to stop running in compulsive ruts, my heart that keeps lurching open and snapping shut at exactly the wrong times. I don’t know myself and I’m afraid of myself and I have to come to terms with that before I can even begin to love anyone else.

    To me, the most incredible, best possible news about the Incarnation is that it means God isn’t out there, he’s in here. He’s with me as I drive around the streets of L.A. thinking, Am I the only one who thinks they’re doing it this wrong, whose love life has been such an abysmal failure, who is capable of acting like such a lame pathetic baby? He’s with me as I sit in front of my computer thinking, Am I the only one who’s trying so hard and getting such meager, paltry results? He’s with me on my bed at night as I wonder, Will anyone be with me when I die?

    But mostly he’s with me as I wander around, mulling over snatches of Gospel, snippets of psalms, tail ends of parables: all the detritus of my Christ-steeped subconscious that, I can never tell when or where, will lead to some unexpected reflection—like the distinction between pleasure and joy. One day not long ago, for instance, my friend Joan called, crying. Joan had just come out of and was trying to work through the aftermath of a teensy decade-long love affair/obsession with a married man. Over the years, we’d hashed it over ad infinitum, examined it from every angle—the mid-afternoon trysts, the lonely holidays, the endless disappointment and hurt—but this time our conversation took a different turn. This time, between sobs, she said, “Heather. A really weird thing just happened. For the first time in eight years, I—I thought of his wife. For the first time ever, I felt bad for his wife.”

    Pleasure is shallow, but joy has pain in the middle of it. Pleasure comes and goes, but joy has eternity in it. Pleasure would have been if the married man left his wife and bought Joan a giant diamond. Joy was this dear, dear friend of mine—who is recovering from alcoholism and bulimia, who has struggled with learning disorders, workaholism, compulsive money hoarding, whose mantra is “My life is unmanageable!”, who in spite of two marriages according to her has never had a “real” relationship—forgetting herself long enough to feel a moment of compassion for the (thankfully unsuspecting) wife. That, to me, is Christ: when everything in you longs to be comforted, soothed, held, to do those things for someone else. When everything in you longs to be understood, to try to understand someone else. You don’t have to call it Christ, and I’m sure he doesn’t care if you call it Christ, but it’s that stab of joy that hints at a world hidden within this one, beyond this one, where the very real suffering of this world acquires dignity and meaning and goes out, transformed, to lay the foundations of a new one.

  11. Heather, sometimes the Pharisee in me rises to the surface, like acid bile. Thanks for helping me to push that demon back down.


  12. By the way, I think that what you've written in response to my comment is beautiful and true.

  13. Oh no problem, David, we're all entitled to our opinions, and mine are always works in progress!

    I guess for me, part of Christ's genius and goodness and divinity/humanity, part of the reason we know he is the way, the truth, and the life, is that while we who love him know he is THE greatest gift, he does not RESERVE his gifts for those who do know and love him. All true compassion, growth, light, love is somehow done in and through him, but you don't have to know that or believe that or call him by name for it to be true...he is that humble, that desirous of our spiritual well-being, that willing not to be recognized, acknowledged, thanked, or loved...

    SO unlike us...

  14. Heather, this comment post is worthy of publication itself! Such wisdom here. Thank you!

    And bravo to David for recognizing his "inner Pharisee" (which we all have)!


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