Ninth Session of Fr. Robert Barron's Catholicism Project

This week, in the penultimate session of Father Robert Barron's epic Catholicism Series, we explore the way in which we speak to God and form a relationship with Him in prayer.

Father Barron explores Catholic spirituality, which is centred on prayer. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God." CCC 2559

On pilgrimage to the places where the great saints and spiritual masters lived, Father Barron explores the different types of prayer: contemplation; adoration; petition; and intercession. In telling the stories of Catholics like Thomas Merton, St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, Fr. Barron demonstrates how the human person can be transformed through prayer that manifests a deep, spiritual commitment centred in Christ.


I. The Fire of His Love: Prayer and the Life of the Spirit
A.  What is prayer?
B.  There are many forms and expressions of prayer
C. Prayer is the conscious communion with the Source of all that is
D. Three basic types of prayer: adoration, petition, and contemplation

II. Beginning with Thomas Merton
A.  One of the best-known and most influential Catholic authors of the past century
1. Most famous book:  The Seven  Storey Mountain (1948),  the story of  his conversion
2. Dozens of other books, as well as essays and poetry
B.  Nomadic childhood: New York, Bermuda, France, England
C. Rome in 1933: Spiritual awakening while visiting churches
D.  Columbia University (1935) and "Catholic atmosphere"
E. Purchased Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy
1. A "big concept": the nature of God's existence
2. God is the sheer act of being itself
F. Began attending Mass at Church of Corpus Christi
G.  Entered the Church on November 16, 1938
H. In December 1942, entered  the  monastery  at the  Abbey of  Our Lady of Gethsemane
I. At Gethsemane, Merton felt the power of adoratio, or adoration of God

This was an extraordinary story of a man who, by his own admission had a " ...declared "creed" [which, in his early life] was "I believe in nothing." (see: Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain (1978), A Harvest/HBJ Book, ISBN 0-15-680679-7., p. 108). Merton was born on January 31, 1915 and died on December 10, 1968 in a rather untimely accident: it is generally concluded that while stepping out of his bath, he was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan. He died 27 years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941.

Merton's influence has grown since his death and he is widely recognized as an important 20th-century Catholic mystic and thinker. Interest in his work contributed to a rise in spiritual exploration beginning in the 1960s and 1970s in the US. Merton's letters and diaries reveal the intensity with which their author focused on social justice issues, including the civil rights movement and proliferation of nuclear arms, as well as dialogues with other faiths. During the race riots and Vietnam War of the 1960s, Merton became well known for taking a non-violent stand .

By the 1960s, he had arrived at a broadly human viewpoint, one deeply concerned about the world and issues like peace, racial tolerance, and social equality. He had developed a personal radicalism which had political implications but was not based on ideology, rooted above all in non-violence. He regarded his viewpoint as based on "simplicity" and expressed it as a Christian sensibility. He prohibited the publication of his works on social justice issues, the civil rights movement and proliferation of nuclear arms for 25 years after his death. Publication raised new interest in Merton's life.

III. St. John of the Cross
A. Mystic, poet, and Doctor of the Church
B. Became a Carmelite friar in 1563
C. Met Teresa of Avila, who convinced him to join the reform of the Carmelite order
D.  Kidnapped, imprisoned, and beaten by Caked Carmelites
E. During imprisonment, he began composing poems and commentary in his mind
1. The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1579-1585)
2. The Dark Night of the Soul (1582-1585)
3. The Spiritual Canticle (finished in 1591)
4. The Living Flame of Love (finished in 1591)
F.  Fundamental principle: God is All, the creature is nothing
G. His books describe and explain the purification of the soul and union with God
H. The "purgative way": ridding ourselves of attachments, substitutes for God
I. The "dark night of the soul": letting go of even concepts and images of the mind
J. The mystical marriage between Christ and the individual soul

John of the Cross (1542 – 14 December 1591) was one of the greatest inspirations of Pope John Paul II as well as  the subject of one of his two (!!) doctorates, based on the Latin dissertation The Doctrine of Faith According to Saint John of the Cross.

St. John is considered one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. Although his complete poems add up to fewer than 2500 verses, two of them—The Spiritual Canticle and The Dark Night of the Soul are widely considered masterpieces of Spanish poetry, both for their formal stylistic point of view and their rich symbolism and imagery. His theological works often consist of commentaries on these poems. All the works were written between 1578 and his death in 1591, meaning there is great consistency in the views presented in them.

The poem The Spiritual Canticle, is an eclogue in which the bride (representing the soul) searches for the bridegroom (representing Jesus Christ), and is anxious at having lost him; both are filled with joy upon reuniting. It can be seen as a free-form Spanish version of the Song of Songs.

The Dark Night (from which the spiritual term takes its name) narrates the journey of the soul from her bodily home to her union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties she meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. The poem of this title was likely written in 1578 or 1579. In 1584-5, and St. John also wrote a commentary on the first two stanzas and first line of the third stanza of the poem.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is a more systematic study of the ascetical endeavour of a soul looking for perfect union, God, and the mystical events happening along the way. Although it begins as a commentary on the poem ‘’The Dark Night’’, it rapidly drops this format, having commented on the first two stanzas of the poem, and becomes a treatise. It was composed sometime between 1581 and 1585.

These, together with his Dichos de Luz y Amor, or "Sayings of Light and Love," and St. Teresa's writings, are the most important mystical works in Spanish, and have deeply influenced later spiritual writers all around the world. Among these can be named T. S. Eliot, Thérèse de Lisieux, Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), and Thomas Merton. John has also influenced philosophers (Jacques Maritain), theologians (Hans Urs von Balthasar), pacifists (Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and Philip Berrigan) and artists (Salvador Dalí).

IV: St. Teresa of Avila
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresaby Bernini,
Basilica of 
Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.
A. Reformer, Doctor of the Church, authority on the theology of prayer
B. Entered the Carmelite monastery at Avila in November of 1536
C. Determined efforts to achieve perfection; serious illness D. At the age of forty, began experiencing intense mystical visitations
1. Lapse into ecstasy; lying still; levitation; "transverberation"
2. Described in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus
3. Other major works: The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle
E. Contemplation for Teresa was an experienced, mutual presence, "an intimate sharing between friends"
F. "God alone suffices"

St. Teresa Teresa of Ávila, also called Saint Teresa of Jesus, was baptised as Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada  and born March 28, 1515 –she died October 4, 1582. She was one of the most important figures in the Counter Reformation. In 1622, forty years after her death, she was canonised by Pope Gregory XV and was in 1970 named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. Her books, which include her autobiography (The Life of Teresa of Jesus) and her seminal work El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle) are an integral part of Spanish Renaissance literature and along with her other important work, Camino de Perfección (The Way of Perfection) she is an important figure in Christian mysticism and Spiritual Theology. The kernel of Teresa's mystical thought throughout all her writings is the ascent of the soul in four stages:

The first, "mental prayer", is devout contemplation or concentration, the withdrawal of the soul from without and specially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence.

The second is "prayer of quiet", in which at least the human will is lost in that of God by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given of God, while the other faculties, such as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. While a partial distraction is due to outer performances such as repetition of prayers and writing down spiritual things, yet the prevailing state is one of quietude.

The "devotion of union" is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterised by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, a conscious rapture in the love of God.

The fourth is the "devotion of ecstasy or rapture," a passive state, in which the consciousness of being in the body disappears (2 Corinthians 12:2-3). Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, intermitted sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. From this the subject awakens in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, productive of the trance. (Indeed, she was said to have been observed levitating during Mass on more than one occasion (The Interior Castle St Teresa Of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr.)

Teresa is one of the foremost writers on mental prayer, and her position among writers on mystical theology is unique. In all her writings on this subject she deals with her personal experiences, which a deep insight and analytical gifts enabled her to explain clearly. Her definition was used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Contemplative prayer [oración mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." CCC 2709
Throughout her writings, persistent metaphors provide a vivid illustration of the image of mystic prayer as watering a garden.

V: Prayer of Petition
A. Petition is a fundamental form of prayer,  the most common in Scripture ("Our Father")
B. Petitionary prayer comes from the deepest part of the heart and soul
C. ''Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find ... " (Matt. 7:7-8)
D. God knows what we need, but wishes to hear our requests
E. St. Augustine: prayer expands our hearts for God's gifts
F. Jesus' prayer to the Father: "Thy will be done."

VI. "They're All Shining Like the Sun"
A. Merton's last twenty-seven years spent at the Abbey of Gethsemane, writing and praying
B. To contemplate is to waken the deepest center
C. Contemplation is not just for mystics but for every Christian
D. 1950s: Merton in Louisville

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