An Oasis for the Soul | Friendship, Spiritual writing and The Communion of Saints
By Br Thomas Therese Mannion, O.P | This Lent, the student brothers invite you to discover those places that have become ‘oases’ in their spiritual journey, significant places in their lives where they withdraw to encounter God. Today, Br Thomas reflects on spending time among the Saints.
The place I pray, the place I find solace, is not solitary; it is not desert or a lonely place. It is not a place where I am ‘alone with God’. I am never alone with God. Instead the place where I pray, my oasis, I imagine to be a garden. Indeed ‘the garden of my soul’ as an old prayerbook my Nan gave me is called. This garden is a noisy place filled with people, preaching and prayers.
It is a place where Christ who is the living water invites me to draw from himself, he who is the living water in the well. He who is the living water which is symbolised as water from the rock in the desert, or the water which came from his side with blood on calvary which was no less part of his body, or he who is symbolised by the healing spring in the grotto of Lourdes. This is not some platonic fantasy land or lofty idea. The wells I often go to to retrieve this water are as real as you are: the writings of the saints, pilgrimages to their earthly resting place, novenas and chaplets, venerating the relics. It is not something purely immaterial, the company of the angels duly noted.
To mention just a few frequent visitors to this garden: St. Therese of Lisieux, Michael the Archangel, Bernadette Soubirous, Dorotheus of Gaza, Thomas Aquinas, Aelred of Rivaulx, Pio of Pietrelcina, not to mention my guardian angel who has been my constant companion these many years. I encounter Christ in them, and I rest with him in them, and them in him.
When I pray then I do not retreat or withdraw from the world though I might appear to others to move off to be on my own as Christ appeared to do. We should remember Christ was never alone. The Father and the Holy Spirit were always with him and each member of his creation in his mind, heart and prayer. I can confidently say then wherever I am, God is; ‘bidden or not bidden God is present’ as Carl Jung says, and where God is then the Communion of Saints is also.
The desire to be, and the language of being, ‘alone with God’ makes no sense to me at all; in fact it strikes me as a contradiction, though I would never quibble with others expressing their prayer life in this way – after all both my end and theirs is the same. Yet, one is never really ‘alone’ even if one feels lonely when in the presence of God, firstly, because God is not solitary; God is a Trinity of persons but more than this because all the Saints are united with each other in God.
The Saints are always with me in the prayers I pray for living and the faithful departed, and when seeking the intercession of those who are already beholding God face to face. The saints are with me in my novenas, in my venerating relics, in the pictures, icons and statues which cover every inch of space in my room, and in my visiting their earthly resting place. I go to them and they come to bring me to God, not to stand before him alone but to stand alongside them.
The place I pray then, even when I am in my room and cannot see anyone, regardless of whether I am in pain or happy, on the tube or even when feeling lonely, is a busy place. The place I pray is full of life, which is both contemplative and active. Contemplative does not mean quiet. This garden is a place of apostolic activity, conversation and conversion. A place where thinking, remembering, reading, serving, loving takes place. There is nothing I do that does not concern my relationship with God and therefore there is nothing I do which is outside this dynamic of prayer. Even my study is prayer, a prayer which is ordered not merely to my own good or self-gratification but the good of others, contemplare aliis contemplare tradere. I pray through my teaching, building relationship with Christ and his Church. After all, what is prayer if not dwelling in communion with God and neighbour? To paraphrase the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: you cannot have a relationship with God in spite of your relationship with your neighbour.
We are made for unity with God, to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), which means to be one of the Saints; my Oasis is to be within this communion. This communion I am brought into through the sacraments and this relationship is nourished, strengthened, by the grace of my devotion. This is not a platonic world of abstract ideas, a fantasy land. This place is found in spiritual writing, relics, pilgrimages, novenas and chaplets; things you touch, and say, and hear – and if the fire alarm wouldn’t go off I’d smell the lit incense too! To be within and act from this communion of saints is not so much to retreat from the world or to embrace a desert as to drink the mead of gladness and make merry conversation with old friends in the garden of the soul.
All the posts from the series An Oasis for the Soul:
- Introduction, by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.
- Refreshment, light and peace, by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.
- A Place in the Sky, by Br Bede Mullens, O.P.
- Praying in a Museum, Reclaiming Sacred Art, by Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P.
- Where Astronauts and Novices Sound Alike, by Br Francesco Lorenzon, O.P.
- Mountains and Mosquitoes, by Br John Church, O.P.