“Prayer Time” and “Prayer Life”
Contemplation & Action / Mary & Martha
The Carmelite Masters teach us a very important way of spending the day outside of “Prayer Times”: to live in the Loving Presence of the Lord. This is in the sense that it is not enough to have set “Prayer Times” during the day, i.e. times of contemplation, i.e. contact and union with Jesus, throughout the day. They call it: “Living in the Presence of the Lord”. Brother Laurence is one of the greatest apostles of this important side of Spiritual Life, and of Carmelite Life. This is the way they see Contemplation during the day, outside of specific Prayer Times.
As a result, some Spiritual Masters have also coined the expression: « Prayer Life » i.e. Prayer outside of Prayer Time. They saw the deep unity between “Prayer Times” and “Prayer Life”. The basis of a fine discernment is to acknowledge that: The way we live our day (“in” or not “in the Presence of God”) influences the quality of our Prayer during “Prayer Time”.
Just as an example of the training one can impose on oneself let us look at what occurs in the Indian Carmelite noviciate houses: here they briefly ring the church bells every fifteen minutes to instil the new habit of Living in the Presence of the Lord. Novices would then stop what they are doing, because it is during the day, and they are supposed to be working, for a minute and direct their hearts to the Lord. They learn to make an “Act of Presence”. Like a short “Arrow Prayer”, or “Ejaculatory Prayer”. One can make St Therese’s Act saying: Draw me”.
Carmelites perceived this fundamental commandment and vital spiritual necessity in the prophet Elijah’s words: « He is Alive Yahweh Sabaoth in whose presence I am ». (1 King 18:15) It is in fact the commandment we find in the New Testament of having to Pray incessantly (1 Th 5:17).
There is a time for Prayer, which is called “Prayer Time”. And there is a time called “Prayer Life”, for everything else that is not “Prayer Time”. We are not to be united to God only during “Prayer Time”. We do not have a split spiritual personality either. There is a deep unity between these two times and they both need to be fiery. As mentioned above each one influences the other. Living as close to God during the day, remembering Him often, doing acts of Love from time to time, will increase exponentially the quality of our commitment, the quality of what we do, and of course the quality of our “Prayer Time”. The way we spend our day is the way we are when we pray. We don’t have another personality or another area in us. We are one. The same person. Therefore we need to foster a richer quality of prayer in our “Prayer Time” hence the need for vigilance during the day. This can be seen in the fact that many spiritual persons do two examinations of conscience on top of the one at the beginning of the Mass: one at mid-day and one before sleeping. The more we are attentive to God during the day, the closer we are to Him, the more inflamed our heart becomes, with the result that the better we will be when we will start our Prayer Time! Our being will be lighter, less dust will be attached to our feet.
And this is so vice-versa: when we spend time in Lectio Divina and in Prayer of the Heart, there is great closeness to God and unitive moments, therefore, when we finish the “Prayer Time” we are already closer to God, our day is spent differently, and the quality of our “Presence to the Lord” during the day will be different.
Each exercise (Prayer Time and Prayer Life) helps the other, feeds it, influences it. They go hand in hand. In the ancient mediaeval spiritual categorisation they were called: “Contemplative Life” and “Active Life”. Today, by contrast, these two expressions have completely different meanings as they allude to states of life: like cloistered Monks or apostolic Religious. However, before, during the Middle Ages and a few centuries after, referred to the moment we pray and the moment we are involved in the daily activities, like Mary and Martha.
There are two moments in the stages of spiritual life where Mary and Martha are like two aspects of our being and they work nicely hand in hand. The first is during the first stages of “Prayer of Quiet”, which is the first manifestations of the Supernatural (or Contemplative) action of God in us. The second is much more advanced, it develops from the moment onwards of the reception of the grace of “Spiritual Marriage”. One can read both descriptions in St Teresa of Avila, they look the same, but they are in fact very different.Her description thus seems to say that there is a part in us that is deeper, like an inner Tower or Castle, which is the upper part in us, that is very much united and in communication with God. This part is the spirit and a small part of the highest part of the rational soul (mind, memory and will). The rest, i.e. the soul and the body, is involved in daily business. The inner part in us united with God is Mary, seated at Jesus’ feet and the outer part is Martha, busy serving, working, in the dealings with the World. Both live together, both act in the same person, both are parts of the same person, but they are on different levels.