Ladders of Lenten Prayer by Gene Ciarlo

The Christian life is a challenge, and the road to sanctity is tortuous, narrow, and mostly uncharted. There are seasons in the life of the Christian that highlight certain aspects of our lives on earth. Lent is traditionally a time for personal discipline (fasting), other-centeredness (almsgiving), and prayer.

The quality of our prayer is dependent upon our maturity. “When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and my thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I had finished with childish things. Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me” (1 Cor 13:11–12). It is possible that a mature person may never grow out of childish prayer; our idea of God and the spiritual life may remain always as that of a child. However, a distinction must be made. “Childish” and “child-like” are worlds apart. “Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).

A child’s life is necessarily self-centered and rather thoughtless regarding “the other.” It asserts primarily a “me-first” attitude, the inability to sacrifice one’s own interests and desires for the sake of another, and anger toward people and a sense of annoyance over minor matters. It is not a bad thing if it is a passing stage. Children need mature adults and the right social environment to help them grow out of themselves, and along the way, if they profess a Catholic faith, that too must grow along with their physical, mental, social, and political understandings, beliefs, and practices. Their maturing will be reflected in how they pray.

A prayer life that is locked down in childhood is focused primarily on the self, and perhaps on a few near-and-dear persons. It would be characterized by the prayer of petition, of asking God for help. In itself that is not a bad thing. It is an acknowledgment of our helplessness in a difficult world. Most prayer would be formulaic, and church attendance would be perfunctory along with going to Mass and receiving the sacraments. It would be rather superficial and done out of habit. The saddest part is that once such a maturing young person leaves the family nest, chances are that they will also leave whatever religion they had within the family. They may try something else to develop their spirits and the growing need for depth in their lives.

Today many people are into yoga. It is very popular for settling the spirit and “centering,” as it is called, to regain control of thoughts and actions. Yoga is varied and nuanced, depending on what the intentions of the yogi are. It could have spiritual depth or it could be merely a humanitarian exercise, a discipline of body and mind.

Kundalini yoga, known to have its origins in India, is a bit different than other forms and can be very highly developed. It serves my purpose in explaining prayer. There are seven energy points, or “chakras,” in Kundalini yoga. They are often depicted as lotuses with varying numbers of petals. Each chakra has a location in the human body, depending on one’s disciplined progress in the spiritual art of yoga. There are six charkas, but seven ascending energy points in the body as a person advances in maturity. The seventh is not called a chakra. It is perfection, symbolized by a flame rising at the top of one’s head.

Like the image of the chakras, prayer can grow from utter simplicity to communion with divinity. My effort to point out some salient features of Kundalini yoga stems from the work of Joseph Campbell, a noted professor of comparative mythology, who, until his death in 1987, taught at Sarah Lawrence College. He briefly described the Kundalini method in his book Myths to Live By, published in 1972.

The charkas are very concretely descriptive, focusing entirely on the human body.  The first chakra is in the very lowest part of the body, where a serpent rests, coiled. It is characterized essentially by what I have described above as childhood prayer. It is just hanging on to a life with very little depth of thought or spirit. Campbell describes it as “spiritual torpor,” which succinctly describes it.

As the charkas continue up to various physical locations in the body, they release higher realizations of spiritual consciousness. The second chakra has water as its element. It is Freudian in its character since it resides in the genitals and is all about personal pleasure and self-centeredness. (Campbell compares it to Freudian psychology which centers on sexuality.) The third chakra is Adlerian, related to the psychology of Adolf Adler, who felt that the principle thrust of humanity is the insatiable will to power. The element of this chakra is fire and the serpent is uncoiling at the navel.

Specifically human is the fourth chakra or twelve-petaled lotus. Its element is air and its center is the human heart. Here is where religion resides: religious symbols, art, philosophy, and all the higher qualities of human existence. They are characteristics that make us specifically human, elevated about the rest of our environment. This level of human development might be characterized as an awakening consciousness. I suspect that this might even be compared to Buddhist mindfulness, that sensitivity to reality toward which Buddhism strives. Campbell uses words like silence, void, and contemplative prayer to describe this stage of growth.

The fifth chakra according to Kundalini yoga is located in the larynx and its element is space or ether. It departs from religion, art, and all of the lofty qualities that characterize the mature person. It seems strange to say that it leaves religion. But when you consider that religion is only a guide, a crutch, a stairway, if you will, to the divine, and that formulas for finding a spiritual life must eventually be set aside, then it makes more sense. Religion is not an end in itself. It is preparatory to leaving terrestrial realities for the beatific vision of God.

Yet there is a sixth chakra whose energy center is the mind. As Campbell describes it, it is “the inner eye fully opened as well as the mystic inward ear.” It resides above and between the brows. You’ve perhaps seen the red dot on the forehead of Indian mystics. Finally, and last of all, the fullness of union with the divine is at the crown of the head and beyond all categories, the ultimate stage of oneness with God, the sahasrara or thousand-petaled lotus.

Of course the human spirit is swampy with mystery, so these categories, energy points, charkas, and stages are just our stuttering way of trying to describe how we arise from basic animal instincts to “touch the face of God.” This sketchy description of Kundalini yoga may concretize the life of prayer that exists in anyone who is a believer and prays to God.

I started out by saying that the quality of our prayer depends upon our maturity: how have we grown up as human persons relative to God? Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century mystical writer, outlined three very basic stages of growth in prayer. Here is a more Catholic way of considering stages of spiritual growth. He called them the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way.

Perhaps Saint John was not the first to name categories like this. In the annals of theology this basic triad is named and renamed over the centuries, but essentially the stages of growth from animal instinct to a union with divinity are the same. It makes sense to feel that before we might have any depth of concern for others outside of ourselves, we must get rid of our self-centeredness and selfishness. It is to be “purged” of that “me-first” attitude. Only then can we find some “illumination” about the worth of anything outside of ourselves and finally “unity” with God.

Like the human spirit, prayer is also swampy with mystery and not easily defined. As we learned in catechism, it is the raising of the mind and heart to God. This is a good definition, but what are the kinds of prayer? That is also defined in our catechism as adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. You see how everything in our Catholic religion is laid out in structures and formulas. They are guides, like ladders to the divine. It is all very static and organized. Yet life is not like that, and neither is our journey toward sanctity or union with God.

Our most common form of prayer is petition, or as the final one of the four types of prayer calls it, supplication. According to Kundalini yoga and to Saint John of the Cross, where does that put most Christians on the tortuous path toward the fullness of humanity—which is to say, in the direction of union with the sacred? In Catholic terms I suspect many of us grovel in the purgative stage of our spiritual development. To put it simply, we are trying to shake off the dregs and the squalor that is a significant part of life on planet earth. We struggle to break away from the mundane. Jesus remains the prime example of the unitive way, the seventh energy point: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Perhaps I have been too negative in my assessment of Catholic prayer life. Positively speaking, the earth and all that it contains is beautiful. Yes, in spite of ourselves it is still a beautiful place to grow and find goodness and godliness. I am reminded of “Desiderata,” the poem composed by Max Ehrmann in the last century. After telling about the woes of humankind and the pitfalls of life, he concludes with these words: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 


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