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Are there Two Paths to Holiness?

January 27, 2015 by  
Filed under Connie Rossini, Contemplation, Holiness, Prayer, Spiritual Life

Are there Two Paths to Holiness?

TeresaofAvilaThe other day while doing research for a blog post, I came across a discussion about Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle in a Catholic forum. One poster wrote that a holy priest told her that Teresa of Avila's teaching was not meant for most lay people. This is the sort of comment that perturbs me. If the conversation hadn't been a few years old, I would have chimed in. Instead, I decided to write about the subject here.

Are there two paths to holiness–one for religious and another for lay people? Perhaps this discussion is just a twist on the age-old argument about the contemplative versus the active life. Perhaps the priest had told this woman that most lay people are not called to the contemplative (rather than the active) life, and she thought he meant they are not called to contemplative prayer.

A reader asked me a similar question recently. Confused about the right balance between family duties and the spiritual life, she asked if some people were called to more prayer than others. I answered that some people are called to MORE prayer, but everyone is called to prayer. I could have also said that everyone is called to contemplation.

Before we go any further, I want to clarify that we need to leave room for the Holy Spirit to work as He wills. God can take a total beginner in the spiritual life and raise him to the heights of holiness, if He so desires. We can't put God and His ways in a box. At the same time, there is a normal pattern of spiritual growth that people follow. Just as humans progress from children to adolescents to adults, so in the spiritual life we pass through the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive ways.

Contemplation is not like locutions or visions or miraculous powers. Fr. Thomas Dubay writes,

“Scripture knows nothing of two ways to God and two differing prayer paths, one for the many, the other for the few. Nor have I found in patristic or medieval literature anything suggesting the two-way theory of recent centuries… I may say, however, that this recent view is not only incompatible with clear texts in Vatican II, texts dealing with mystical contemplation, but it is also clearly excluded in many texts by both Carmelites [Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross]…” (Fire Within, Chapter 11, pp. 199-200.)

Now, of course, contemplation is a gift from God. He can give it or withhold it as He chooses. But that is true of all His gifts. It doesn't follow that He only gives it to a few, or that He only desires for a few to have it. The problem is not God's lack of generosity, but ours. Few people give their all to God. Those who do find that He also gives His all to them. In other words, they become contemplatives.

There are other reasons why so few people reach the deepest union with God. One is ignorance. And that ignorance is only promoted when people tell others that there are two ways to holiness. God calls us all to deepest union with Him. This is the message we should be spreading.

TrustingGodWithStThereseNote from Dan: Connie Rossini has recently published Trusting God with St. Therese. If you like Connie's posts, you will love her book.


Art: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1614, CC by SA, painting out of copyright, Wikimedia Commons. Cover of “Trusting God with St. Therese” used with permission.

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About Connie Rossini

Connie Rossini gives whole families practical help to grow in holiness. She is the author of several books, including "Trusting God with St. Thérèse" and her latest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila written with Dan Burke. Besides her blog Contemplative Homeschool, she has started a new site discussing errors concerning prayer, named after her book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? She has written a spirituality column for the diocesan press for nearly ten years.

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  • greenmartyrdom

    I have read Interior Castle and I think that the two paths are prayer and the action of martyrdom

    • Are you referring to the two reasons people can be recognized as saints by the Church? It’s true that some people will have a deep conversion at the point where they are asked to give their lives to Christ and the martyrdom suffices to sanctify them. On the other hand, if you look at the lives of the martyrs, most of them were already living holy lives before God asked that sacrifice of them. The ordinary way is the way of prayer. If God wants to do something extraordinary, that is His business, but we should not presumptuously expect Him to.

      • Nancy Schramm

        Sometimes I get a little confused because their is a definite leaning to the Carmelites on this blog. But I am a professed Secular Franciscan but I enjoy the Spiritual Direction site.
        Nancy Schramm

        • Nancy, I practice Carmelite spirituality and was OCDS for nearly 20 years before I had to leave because of my family situation. So my posts do focus on Carmelite spirituality. It is what I know. Some of the other writers here have a different focus. However, I believe all the doctors of the Church, whichever order or spirituality they came from, would agree with the point of this post.

          • Connie – you are right on this point. In fact, St. Teresa was strongly influenced by three Franciscan masters of the interior life.

          • notarebel

            Who were they?

          • She read and was influenced by The Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna and was also acquainted with St. Peter of Alcantara. I’ll have to defer to Dan on the third Franciscan. I believe Fr. Gracian was Dominican and Fr. Banez was Jesuit. She was also friends with the Jesuit St. Francis Borgia, so her spirituality was not something that only Carmelites should take seriously. Her teaching on the spiritual life is foundational.

          • notarebel

            On the main topic, here’s another question.

            Here is a sample Contemplative Horarium: Up at midnight for Matins which now takes about half an hour, but used to be much longer, Then up again early for morning meditation and Lauds, then a small silent breakfast, and off to prayer some more. A few hours of work and prayer again–one of the little hours, an hour of work, and SEXT, plus midday prayer of the monastery, then a silent prayerful lunch–sometimes someone reads out of a spiritual book. Then silent clean-up and prayer again. An hour of recreation is next which usually consists of talking about the garden and the pets. Afternoon work follows which included an hour of adoration, and then Office at 3:00 and then Vespers before Collation–which is a light evening meal. Evening Meditation, and Compline from the Divine Office. More silent prayer and bed. The work that is done is such that it does not distract your mind from God, so they can do all in union with God.

            In short–8 or so hours of prayer. 8 or so hours of work, eating, recreation, and 8 hours or so of sleep. Work is done in silence, and is light without pressure so one can pray at the same time.

            Ok, our schedule: get up bleary eyed having had very little sleep, make breakfast for husband and kids, drag sleepy, kicking kids out of bed and put out their clothes or dress them, while the other kids are asking you where are their shoes, pencils etc., the TV is blaring the news, and cars honking outside, make sure kids have everything they need for school, including last minute requests, make lunches, sign papers, finishing touches on projects, show and tell, and get everyone to school, then go to work with tons of meetings, deadlines, regulations and pressures (or take care of tiny grandchildren all day), then pick up fighting kids on the way home exhausted, make dinner, try to get the kids to help, then help them with homework and drive them and their friends to all their activities, listen to their problems and what they need for tomorrow (or tonight’s activities), listen to the cacophony of different types of music coming from your kids rooms, and the television blaring, video game crashes, listen to your husband’s day at work, apologize for being irritated. Negotiate settlements among disagreeing and crying children, get them ready for bed and then read to them so they will go to sleep, then try to pay the bills, do a load or two of laundry and do your taxes, arrange for the broken sink to be fixed, make a grocery list, and your night is just beginning because you are never alone. You include your own details. Of course we do it all out of love…but contemplative prayer is not even in sight. We are doing three of four things at once as it is. Can we add one more to the juggle?

            Are you sure we traumatized people can take the same path as the Contemplatives? The path of holiness is the same? We need help here. Thanks.

          • LizEst

            I think some are mixing up the term contemplation. We commonly think about contemplating something as thinking about something, reflecting on it, meditating on it, etc. The gift of contemplation, strictly speaking, is something totally different. It is totally a gift of God, a gift of union with Him, if only for a moment. There is nothing we can do to earn it, but we can pre-dispose ourselves to accept it from him, if and when He should desire to give it to us. This is where meditation comes in. Don’t have time to meditate? You should try to carve out some time for it. Can’t? Then, do it throughout the day. Do it while doing your daily routine, offering everything up to the Lord. Thinking about Him, meditating on His Passion and Death (refereeing kids and shuttling them to and fro gives plenty to relate to the Lord’s Passion!), accepting your crosses and loving them because it is God’s will for you, even if you do not find them pleasant. It is not easy, but, with practice, it becomes second nature. Will God give you the gift of contemplation because you are doing this? It is up to Him. But, this will pre-dispose you to receive it. And, He is more likely to gift you with contemplation if you are pre-disposed to it. Has he done this with the saints? Absolutely. God can give you this gift anywhere and at any time, whether you are meditating formally or whether you are meditating while doing the work that your station of life calls you to. Be focused on Him. Offer everything to Him. And, don’t hesitate to invoke Our Blessed Mother’s assistance with this.

          • Liz – you are exactly right on target. There catechism is very clear on the distinctions.

          • My original post may have been unclear, but I never meant to imply that the schedule for a lay person would be the same as the schedule for a cloistered nun. My schedule–including my prayer routine–is even different from my husband’s, and different that it has been at other periods of my life. When I speak of one way, I mean that we can’t say–oh, the nuns have prayer, and I have works. We need both and we need to grow in both. And everyone is called to the heights of prayer, just as they are called to the heights of virtue.

          • LizEst

            So true! Thanks Connie. God bless you!

          • I thought you were pretty clear as usual.

  • Kim

    I have read your blog with interest today. I have a great love for St Theresa of Avila not only because of her writings but because she has always struck me as very down to earth. In my opinion her experiences were not only a gift from God but a response to her ” fiat” to her calling in life.
    Surely all who examine themselves and their calling in the depths of their souls and then respond to God with their resounding ” yes” will then be drawn into the heart of God.
    I write as a working wife and mother who has wrestled with wondering whether to enter a convent and being led to the realization that I am called to marriage and then has had to accept circumstances which keep her from staying at home for her children.
    I have come to realize I am living my calling from God as a mother and a healer and the more sincere my yeses become to whatever my circumstances He desires, the greater are my experiences of Him.

    • Kim, you have learned one of the most important lessons in life. I also had to work when my first child was an infant, and it was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. I wrote about this in my book Trusting God with St. Therese. I had to learn that if God allowed this to happen, He would also work it for my good if I let Him. Through being a working mother, I was led to a deeper trust in God’s Providence.

  • Exactly on target Connie. There are not two paths but one. We are all called to union with God regardless of our state in life. The false teaching of two paths was in fact, what the Second Vatican Council was seeking to unravel in its treatment of the Universal Call to Holiness.

    • Annie

      Were you referring to Annie ? Or Connie

      • LizEst

        I believe he was referring to Connie. Connie is the author of this post. Replies to those who comment are indented and listed directly underneath the particular comment.

        • Annie

          Oh ok sorry but thank you I got it now


    • Thanks, Dan. It’s a pity we don’t hear about the universal call to holiness very often from the pulpit.

  • Annie

    It’s like Martha and Mary . Mary went right to JESUS when He arrived at her home and just stayed with Him in awe of Him. Martha complained ” lord tell Mary to help me ” The Lord answered ” that Mary has chosen the better part” now under meditation on this I came to understand as it is told here that god asks us ” ALL” to pray but there are our different stations in life in which is the place of where we begin to become holy. Some get married and raise a family ( which is praying in itself along with verbal & mental prayer) some are chosen to live alone ( which is praying also) and some are chosen for religious life ( which is praying also as others along with verbal & mental prayer which means religious life stays with JESUS like Mary did ) us non religious have daily lives to live and still say prayers but we need remember to offer all we do to The Lord ( so in some way we pray as the religious which is constantly) of course this is the better way . When you awake in the morning and offer your day to god living your life is praying . Another words when we give god our daily lives & pray to Him ( talking ) we are immersed in Him mind, body & soul !!!
    I hope you understand what I am trying to say .

    • I think I do, Annie. I agree that we as lay people can make the fulfillment of our vocation an offering to God, doing everything prayerfully, out of love. We do need to spend dedicated time in prayer as well, but of course we will usually not be called to spend as much time exclusively in prayer as most religious are. We have duties to fulfill, and those duties should not in any way keep us away from God, as long as we keep them in perspective.

  • I agree. The details of our spiritual lives will be different, but the general steps towards God are the same.

  • Hear, hear, yes this is one of attitudes that causes the same: This is the sort of comment that perturbs me. AND the age old misnomer: Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys. My real mentor has always be Fr. Thomas Dubay and I am happy to read someone who is on the same page. As Fr. Dubay says without apology and without a flicker of the eye, “Contemplation is not just important, it is the only thing that is important in your life.” Whatever your vocation, including ours as homeschooling mothers and stay at home wives, there is no way to reach the true purpose of our lives, UNION WITH GOD, without (contemplative) prayer. There is only so much virtue that a human being can acquire with human effort because the level is can only be the human level, no as Jesus commands, “Be ye perfect AS your Heavenly Father is perfect.”.

    • I heartily agree, Roberta. That’s why another thing that “perturbs” me is when people say that stay-at-home moms shouldn’t worry whether they have time for mental prayer or not. Uh, yes, they should, and they should try to remedy that as much as it’s in their power. If it’s truly not in their power, that’s another thing altogether. But I find for myself that it’s not impossible, just hard. We don’t need more excuses not to do what’s hard! At least I don’t. I can think up enough without help. 🙂

      • You and I are very aligned in these simple truths but your wisdom has come at an early age thanks to your devotion to contemplative prayer. If you believe Fr. Dubay, than NOTHING will stop you from carving out that contemplation time and using every innovation that must come into play. It would be very nice to drink a cup of coffee around my kitchen table and have further conversation.

  • Patricia

    St. Teresa of Jesus tells us that is the degree to which:

    we give our hearts, will, intellect and soul completely to Him in all things,
    do all things with love, and
    surrender our lives to doing His will

    that is important, rather than our station in life whether it be religious, married, or single.

    Just a few of the people who have done this and have been identified as Saints and who have not spent their entire life in only contemplative prayer include Mother Theresa, St. Pope John Paul ll, St. Giuseppe Moscati (Doctor of the Poor), and Louis and Zelie Martin (Parents of St. Therese), St Jane Frances de Chantal, Mother Elizabeth Seton, St, John Neumann, St. Paul etc. They were busy and active and represent married and were parents, single, and religious life.

    Hers are four quotes from St. Teresa which she tells us these things in her own words:

    1. So I want you to realize with whom you are dealing… and what you are giving him when you pray that his will may be done in you… Do not fear that he will give you riches or pleasures or great honours or any such earthly things; his love for you is not so poor as that. And he sets a very high value on what you give him and desires to recompense you for it since He gives you His Kingdom while you are still alive.
    Would you like to see how He treats those who make this prayer “Your will be done” from their hearts?… For my own part, I believe that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, whether great or small.

    Unless we make a total surrender of our wills to the Lord so that he may do in all things what is best for us, he will never allow us to drink from his fountain living water.”

    – Saint Teresa of Avila The Way of Perfection, ch. 32, 5-9

    2. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours,
    no feet but yours,
    Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world
    Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
    Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men

    3. “May you use the gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you.” – St. Teresa of Avila

    4. It is love alone that gives worth to all things.~ Saint Teresa of Avila

    • I especially like that first quote. Okay, I won’t worry that God will make me rich!

  • notarebel

    This is a good point that there is a dichotomy between the prayer lives of those in religious life, specifically contemplative religious, and the rest of us parish priests, active nuns and lay people. People hold up contemplative prayer as if that is how we pray when we have “arrived”, and it has been said that only the holy can do this. Let me clarify some items….
    1. Contemplative prayer is not something for which to aspire. It is a result of a surrendered life of love for Jesus.
    2. The attitude that lay people cannot take the same path as contemplative nuns, brothers and priests is not true. However, it seems much more difficult for lay people, in general, to surrender completely to God, and I am not sure why. It could be the distractions of the world, and it could be that a contemplative religious who does not surrender to God usually does not stay there very long, because there is not much else to do ijn a Monastery except seek God. Those who cannot surrender usually try entertaining themselves with projects until they decide the life is not for them.
    3. There are ways for lay people to practice contemplative prayer, but finding the time with children and families to spend time with God is almost impossible. Since they are often in a doing mode, the Rosary, or Chaplets, or 1 page daily meditations, Mass, etc. where one can feel they accomplished something, is usually preferred. There seems to be an attraction for those wanting contemplative prayer in these circumstances to see this prayer as a very holy practice, one that can be learned or awaited from God as this article said. Contemplative prayer can neither be learned nor practiced. It is not something you can accomplish. Therefore, it can feel foreign to lay people, who often feel like they are “doing” nothing but trying to keep their minds from wandering.
    4. If the above is true, it is because they are focusing on themselves and what kind of prayer they are practicing rather than looking at Jesus, His desires, His ways, and surrendering to Him in complete trust. Even then, Contemplative prayer does not come right away, nor should that be a goal. As Christians, we are followers and lovers of Jesus, not of a type of prayer, right?
    5. There are groups of people who do lead a Contemplative life in spite of pressures of workplace, marriage and family life. I have studied some of those groups and they have certain characteristics in common. They are not perfect–no one is, but they have made Jesus their first priority and spend quite a bit of time together supporting each other. I can go further into characteristics and pros and cons of each another time. I am letting you know about this to verify that it is possible to lead a Contemplative life in the world.

    • Teresa of Avila urges us to strive for contemplative prayer. In reality, there can be no conflict between desiring contemplation and desiring God, because God is He Whom we are contemplating. To put it another way, contemplation is a progressive union with God, so if we desire Him, we will also desire that union with Him. Now, some people might actually think of contemplation as sweetness in prayer, and if that is what they are seeking, they will need a change of attitude somewhere along the way. Contemplation is a gift, but St. Paul tells us to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” We are unlikely to reach such a lofty goal–especially one along a narrow way–if we lack a great desire for it.

      • notarebel

        Well, OK, Connie, whatever motivates you to do things God’s way can’t be bad. People seem to start Contemplative prayer before union with God.

      • Well said Connie

  • It is true that some lay people think they have to be exactly like religious in order to be holy, and they ignore the duties of their vocation. And it’s quite possible this particular priest was cautioning someone against that. However, I think almost everyone would agree that a wider problem is that lay people in general do not know 1) that they are called to holiness; or 2) how to get there.

    Although people who are married–especially those with young children–should probably not be spending several hours a day praying in their rooms, for example, they do need to spend some time each day “alone” with God if they want to grow closer to Him. [I put “alone” in quotes, because my practice when I had infants was to pray while nursing them–not technically alone, but in a quiet state with minimal interruptions. It usually worked quite well.] For most people, even moms with young children, it is possible to practice mental prayer daily. It often calls for creativity and cooperation from one’s spouse, but I know many moms (and dads) who do it and find it is not a burden but the very thing that lifts their burdens and gives them the strength to fulfill their vocation.

    As I see it, telling married people they don’t need to practice mental prayer is like telling them they aren’t called to be saints. Human nature being fallen, we rarely strive to do something that is difficult when others assure us it isn’t necessary. So while we may be trying to help lift unnecessary burdens, what actually happens is that lay people stop striving. Establishing a habit of prayer is hard, but necessary, work. Prayer and virtue, as St. Teresa points out time and again, grow together. If you stop growing in one, you will stop growing in the other. Yes, there are many ways to grow in prayer and in virtue. But everyone needs both.

    • Todd

      Thank you for the article. Just to share. I am a husband and a father. I received some advice a number of years ago from a priest by the name of Fr. Robert Altier – A Carmelite. He gave me some excellent advice – ***pray from the heart*** for 20 min a day. If one can do this at adoration – even better. Spiritual communions and acts of abandonment also are good for keeping the fire burning and take no more than a few minutes to make. Praying slowly has been helpful to me in calming me down. We do not have to speak at a pace that we communicate with others when speaking to our Lord. God Bless!

      • Fr. Altier witnessed our wedding vows at St. Agnes. 🙂 Great advice. I have lately been adding a spiritual communion to my daily prayer as well.

      • Fr. Altier witnessed our wedding vows at St. Agnes. 🙂 Great advice. I have lately been adding a spiritual communion to my daily prayer as well.

  • DianeVa

    I heard Pope Benedict XVI say “there are as many paths to holiness as there are people!”

    • Yes, but we’re talking about two different things. It’s like my analogy of human growth. There are as many different ways of growing up as there are people. But everyone who wants to grow up should do certain things to stay healthy, or he might not live until his next birthday. Imperfect analogy, I know. In other words, dedication to prayer is necessary for everyone, and St. Teresa’s teaching on prayer is for everyone. We grow in prayer at different rates and by slightly different paths, but we ignore Teresa’s teaching on prayer to our peril.

  • I think we need to be careful of judging whether others are trying to become holy or not. But yes, holiness is hard. I do talk a lot about my struggles in my book and on my blog. It’s easy to say, “We should all be holy.” It’s much harder to live it out–no question.

  • Ironically, I’ve been studying temperaments a lot lately, and many authorities say that the choleric temperament–the classic doer–produces more saints than any of the others, except perhaps melancholic. (Cholerics can also be terrible tyrants.) Why are so many saints cholerics? Because this temperament is determined never to give up. And if you know anything about Teresa of Avila, you will recognize her in that description. She was partly choleric. But it’s true that our society looks down on introverts and this may partly explain why the contemplative life is undervalued.

    • Ann Mechler

      I’d like to read more on temperaments if you write on that topic. Or perhaps you can suggest something you have come across in your studies?

      • Ann, I have a book coming out this spring (God willing) called A Spiritual Growth Plan for Your Choleric Child. It centers on helping your child grow spiritually, but is useful for adults too. I hope to write a whole series on the subject. In the mean time, Art and Laraine Bennetts’ The Temperament God Gave You is very good. I also really like Florence Littauer’s Personality Plus series. Littauer is a Protestant, but she understands and gives excellent advice on the temperaments.

  • Kristen Johnson

    I forget where I got this link, but it’s a retreat for a young mother (her birth sister) by Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, in the same vein:

    The whole site is very good. 🙂

    • LizEst

      Yes, Dr. Lilles writes for us here and also teaches for the Avila Institute. If you like this, you may want to consider taking a course from him at the Avila Institute:

  • J_Bob

    In the discussions on contemplative prayer, a couple of observations.

    The 1st was the Scribe’s response to Jesus on what is the greatest commandment. To paraphare,

    it, “that a clean heart is worth more then all the burnt offerings, etc”.

    The 2nd is that Jesus also took time to play, & noted that one is to go to one’s private room to pray.

    Jesus did not say how long to pray, or how many Our Father’s to say, but I feel what is heard is what comes out of, shall we say the heart, even for a parent who’s only private time is a few minutes in the bathroom..

    The other observation is, that unlike human tests which are graded on right or wrong answers, it may be our final grade will be based on what we did, with what we were given.

    • God can definitely give the gift of contemplation to anyone who is faithful with what they have, and that will vary from person to person. At the same time, there are ways of setting aside time for prayer (and ways of praying) that are more conducive to growth in prayer, and part of being faithful is using the best means available to us. Most of us on most days can set aside at least 15 minutes to be alone with God. But if we truly can’t, God will use what we can give Him.

  • Joan

    I think Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity said ” Prayer is a rest, a relaxation……we must look at Him all the time; we must keep silent, it is so simple”. That during this precious time we dwell in the peace of Christ. Thank you Connie for this post and for encouraging all of us to carve out that time for God somewhere in our day.

    • Thanks, Joan. Of course, when we are just starting to practice prayer, we should use some sort of method of meditation, so we aren’t just sitting idle. But our prayer will simplify to that silent gaze on Jesus, if we are faithful to it. It is simple, sweet, and refreshing.

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  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    I am so excited! I can’t believe there are people on the internet that talk about contemplation and prayer and St. Teresa and St John…and and and all of these heavenly things! I just started reading and blogging online a few months back and was ready to call it quits because of the terrible things I was finding. Now I have found this site and I am so thankful. Thank God!! Can I be this happy during Lent? 🙂

    • LizEst

      Welcome SnowCherryBlossoms! We are happy you have found us. God bless you!

      • SnowCherryBlossoms

        Oh thank you! God bless you too!

    • We are glad you found us. Check out the FAQ to learn more about the community.

      • SnowCherryBlossoms

        I will, thank you. I just figured out a few years ago I used to receive emails from your site and I loved them but had to discontinue it due to how seldom I check my emails! Now I have found this 🙂 thanks!

  • I couldn’t agree more, Connie. It is no longer generally accepted that a call to prayer and contemplation is automatically a call to the religious life. Besides, all or most renewals in the church have come through lay people who were individuals of deep personal prayer. Without prayer, no renewal.

  • We can all be a religious in what ever God calls us to in our life. I am finding that I can be a contemplative mom, wife, Christian. I can do everything with God and for God isn’t that what being religious is all about? Thanks Connie I agree!

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