We are continuing our study of "Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers" with chapters 4 and 5 of Part II. These chapters cover Meditation and its practical corollary, Good Resolutions. I like the way the two complement each other: interior life and daily life, thought and practice; like two legs or two wings.
Easter season seems like a great time to start new things! So many graces this time of year. So if you are one of those mothers Msgr Lejeune is speaking to, who wants to try to grow closer to God but isn't sure if she can afford the time or focus, perhaps this is a good opportunity. Let's pray for each other that we get out of these counsels what God wants us to get!
I have been noticing throughout the reading of this book that Msgr Lejeune very often uses the "objection" "reply" format. He doesn't do it in the scientific, formal way that Thomas Aquinas does it, but it is clear in the structure. I'm using that structure to format my discussion of chapter 4.
Chapter 4: Meditation
Obstacles to Meditation
"I am too busy and tired to take the time to do something like meditation."
Meditation need not take much time out of the day, and it is worth the time taken.
I have been thinking about HOW we are busy as homeschooling moms. What comes to mind: we are busy with babies and small children, we are busy as chauffeurs taking our kids everywhere, we are busy with housework, cooking and other repetitive jobs. If we homeschool and/or work out of the home, we are busy planning and implementing. If we are transitioning nearly-grown children into the world, we are busy mentally with plans and strategies. Sometimes we are busy with ALL these things.
It is difficult to mix intellectual work and meditation. St Francis de Sales talks about how some peoples' labor requires so much focus that the best we can do is offer every thought and act to God and make the work itself a prayer.
However, hardly anyone is work-focused 24/7. There are repetitious tasks within the work, and there is a time of starting and stopping.
For homeschooling moms, a lot of the work will be repetitive and require only part of the mind. That is part of its difficulty, I think. However, this can become an advantage when we foster meditation. The method Msgr Lejeune recommends can be used while doing something else. Personally I meditate while vacuuming and folding laundry.
I think my main challenge in meditation has been simple overload and the necessity of multi-tasking and juggling many plates. Say I am folding laundry AND keeping an ear out for a toddler and smiling at a baby in a seat to keep him happy so I can finish the folding. And say that continues most of the day, as it often does. My mind is concerned with many things and whenever I have a moment to concentrate, my attention is on what I have to do next. Or perhaps it is dwelling on some problem or goal to achieve with one of my older children, or my aging parents and their care.
The cumulation of activities and supervision adds up to a very full mind. When we get a moment's lull, we are tempted to check Pinterest or whatever just to relax our mental and emotional muscles for a second. We need a respite from the constant demands, and spiritual practices seem to add up to one more mental and emotional demand.
I believe Msgr Lejeune recognizes this but he is saying that meditation is worth using a bit of those precious moments of lull.
“It is too difficult to meditate -- it is an advanced spiritual practice, suitable for professed religious, and that is not my state of life.”
Meditation is not difficult -- and it is for everyone, at least in its essential form.
Nowadays we probably don't distinguish the lay life quite so sharply from the professed religious life as people seemed to do a century ago. I think the papal teachings of this century have brought out the crucial importance of the laity in the life of the Church. However, we may still consider meditation either as an advanced practice, or something that requires lots of effort. Msgr want to emphasize that it is something we do naturally and that it should be something that helps ease and make meaningful life's burdens, not add one more burden onto already bowed shoulders.
“I do not feel attracted to the practice of meditating.”
“Done properly, meditation is easy and attractive.”
This is close to the second objection, but more subjective. If we feel like meditation will be the last straw on the camel's back, we are thinking of it backwards. Instead, meditation is a way of speaking thoughtfully to God, so it's more like drinking from refreshing waters than climbing one more mountain.
“Meditation requires great powers of intellect, and/or fervency of emotion”.
Meditation in its essence is an ordinary human practice done by almost everyone. Great emotion is not a requirement at all. The intellectual effort required is only the everyday effort you put into deciding on one course of action over another, or in considering some weighty event in your life that requires gratitude, or moderating anger, or whatever.
Now that we have dealt with some of the obstacles to the practice of meditating, we go on to the How and What.
Topics for Meditation:
The main topic should be the life of Jesus, especially topics taken from the gospel. It sounds to me like meditation fits in with spiritual reading which we discussed in the last post. You remember the book said that the primary focus of spiritual reading should be on the Gospels and the truths that derive from gospel content. After all, this is the ultimate good news, encapsulated in John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.Or as Aquinas said, the best prayer is thoughtful contemplation of a crucifix.
Perhaps you read the Gospel or a spiritual work at night; then you have material to dwell on and your morning meditation can even be done while engaged in folding laundry or pulling weeds or whatever.
When meditating, you are advised to dwell on the parts that are attractive, and pass over things that are hard to understand or emotionally disturbing. Meditation is supposed to be a matter of gathering blossoms and fruits, not scarring yourself with thorns. This is testified to by many spiritual writers. There is a time for challenge and conviction and instruction but meditation is not that time, except indirectly insofar as it prepares you for those things.
“Go out” from the subject of meditation, Msgr Lejeune counsels, and speak with God truly and honestly concerning your needs, especially your deepest needs and concerns. Here is where meditation can fit into the trials of daily life I mentioned above. For example, when saying the Rosary decade about the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, I often brought my growing pre-teens before God and asked Him to help us with various adolescent trials. The Wedding of Cana meditation is great for praying for your marriage and the future marriage or religious vocation of your children. I have often thought of Mary's saying, "They have no wine" and how Jesus did His first miracle in response. Sometimes if we have been married for many years, we may feel like our marriage tanks are running low. Jesus seemed to take this seriously and be willing to provide "you have saved the best for last."
You probably have your own constant topics of meditation. Msgr Lejeune points out that we will return often to the same topics, the longer we habitually meditate. It reminds me of rereading a book where you get different things out of the same words at different times in your life.
A Method for Meditation:
First, don’t mess with success. If you have a method that is working, don’t drop it. -- maybe just tweak if you read a suggestion that sounds attractive or complementary to what you already do.
Second, here is a time-worn method for meditation.
(I love this kind of bullet list, but I have to admit I don't practice meditation as outlined here -- it feels like an exhausting dance, so in light of the advice to take what works, I normally just take bits and pieces from these ideas).
1. The evening before, choose a topic for meditation (perhaps read a bit of the Gospels or your spiritual reading from the previous chapter.
2. Preparing for meditation takes three steps.
- Put yourself in the presence of God
- Ask pardon for your faults
- Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you to pray.
- Reflections, ... you consider the subject
- Acts/Affections, .. mostly dwell on love for God, but this can take different forms
- Petitions, ... ask God to help you move closer to Him
- Resolutions... make a specific intention to practice (more on this in the next chapter.
“These should be very precise, and of such a kind that they may be put into practice that very day.”
Here are some links to further resources on Christian Meditation (it is to be carefully distinguished from American/Eastern types of meditation where the goal is to empty your mind -- more on that here)
- A Guide to Christian Meditation for Beginners
- How to Meditate Like a Catholic
- RC Spiritual Direction -- posts on meditation
- Guide to Meditation
Chapter 5: Good Resolutions
Good resolutions seem to be something like goals -- they are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. But it also sounds like they are mini-goals, steps on the road to becoming more like Jesus. In other words, the kind of resolutions you make after a daily meditation are like the steps you list on the way to completing a larger goal.
So, say, you have been meditating on Jesus’s poverty -- how little He had to call His own, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Perhaps you resolve to practice poverty.
But Msgr Lejeune would call this a simple desire, like “I wish to go to Paris.” To make it actually happen, you have to start planning. “I will research train schedules; I will gather sufficient money; I will speak to my friend in Paris about staying with her.” You build up a series of little steps and habits that in the end will get you to Paris.
This is similar to a resolution. What can I do this very day to practice poverty? Can I relinquish something valuable to me? Can I donate to a worthy cause? Should I make a list of possible charities? Can I offer up a prayer when I am deprived of something I Really Want (I am just making these up as an example).
Qualities of a Good Resolution:
- It is precise. It is specifically formulated to get you where you want to go.
- It is practical. In other words, it is not a simple emotion or desire; it goes beyond that.
- It is constant. We should not jump from one resolution to another -- one day going to Paris, another day planning a boat cruise. Msgr quotes Thomas a Kempis who says that if we extinguished one fault per year we would soon be perfect. This is like Charlotte Mason’s teaching on habits, where she says that 20 good habits well inculcated could lead to a pretty decent life.
Your temperament plays a part in whether you excel in the Martha (practical, concrete, active) or Mary (thoughtful, generous-hearted, receptive) realms. No matter what temperament, you have to be both. Mary poured perfume over Jesus's feet, and listened to His words. These are acts. Martha spoke from the depths of her faithful heart: "Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn't have died. Even now I know that, whatever you ask of God, God will give you." You can't say that without a strong interior life.
Recently I realized that we don’t have to be good at this to start with. One thing that often dismays me is the huge gap between my aspirations and my daily reality. Msgr Lejeune mentions cultivating the will. My will does not easily get in line with what God wants of me.
But things like examens and resolutions, and a Rule itself, are meant to bridge that very gap. Without reflecting on the things of God and focusing on the interior life, actions become sterile and meaningless, even occasions for pride and impatience. But high thoughts are pretty much useless without any putting into practice. You need both. The will connects heart/mind and the other side, practical action. It is a bridge.
In that way, it seems to me that a Rule is a big picture framework of resolutions, a way of scaffolding and supporting the will so it doesn't wander or charge off the path. Don’t think of it that way if it doesn’t help you, but I have been reflecting on this topic a LOT recently and it seems to me that a Rule intends to codify what we really in our deepest, Jesus-influenced heart of hearts think is best for our situation. The Rule we develop for ourselves does not have to be perfect right away or cover every detail of life. It is meant to be brought out and tweaked regularly.
I always think of how St Francis of Assisi started physically rebuilding the San Damiano Church because God told Him to “repair my Church.” Over time it became clearer that God wanted St Francis to repair in a larger sense -- ie, start a counter-influence to some corrupt practices of the age. But that doesn’t mean St Francis was wasting his time brick-and-mortaring and scrubbing. Perhaps he was bridging from his careless earlier life to the great restorer he became.
Resources for Practical Resolutions:
- This one is not free, but if you liked A Mother's Rule of Life, or liked the idea but couldn't quite make the book work for you, perhaps you might be interested in this supplementary e-book: Mother's Rule of Life Workbook It is available for a donation of 8.99. I like worksheets so I am finding it useful as I do my Easter renewal and planning.
- Here is a series by Happy Little Homemaker on devising a Mother's Rule Binder.
- Here is an extensive review of the book including questions you can ask yourself in relation to the 5Ps.
- Chari recommends this book: The Family Cloister. Written by a pastor and father of several, it is full of practical ideas for bringing God into your family life.
- Do you have a favorite time, method or resource for meditation? Please share.
- Do you have any suggestions for how to move from meditation to resolution?
Have you started working on a Rule? Would you like to share any ideas?