Carmelite: June 2003 Archives

Incrementally, the discussion continues. Please bear with me. As people bring up points, it seems that there is more to say.

Today's point--detachment is not a comfortable or easy exercise.

Below a commenter says that "it is easy to slip from detachment to indifference when it is difficult for you to form attachments anyway." Part of that statement evokes a certain misunderstanding of what detachment is. First to repeat: the point of detachment is to love God and the love of God needs some expression. That expression is found in love of neighbor and self. Proper exercise of detachment becomes a discipline of self-giving.

The desire or habit of not forming relationships is an attachment itself. There is something that has proven successful about not forming relationships. So detachment forces one out of this stable mode and into the mode of loving God through loving neighbhor. Love without works is dead (as St. Therese implies). And Jesus tells us, if we love Him, we will keep His Commandments. One of His commandments is feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. When becoming detached from our own preferences and our own desires, the road to indifference is a temptation, but not when the way of detachment is clearly the way of the cross.

Detachment is uncomfortable. It is a source of constant unease. It is constantly against the grain. If we would rather not become involved, then we are attached to the concept of non-involvement. And it is from this that we may have to work particularly hard to escape.

This is where detachment becomes really difficult. It's hard to identify what the attachments are. Sometimes they are defense mechanisms so thoroughly ingrained we can't see them. Sometimes they are participation in a really good thing. For example, if you absolutely must go to a Latin Mass--you wrench your schedule, the schedule of your friends and family, and generally discomfit and discombobulate everyone and everything around you in the search for a Latin Mass, that is a pretty certain sign of attachment. If you go to a Mass in English that, except for being in English, is otherwise properly conducted and carp about the music, the way the prayers are said, whether one is standing or kneeling, etc.--you are probably attached. When you cannot see Jesus for want of your preferences, attachment is indicated. John of the Cross says that even when you prefer your food prepared a certain way and will not eat otherwise, that is an attachment. (Obviously this is aside from doctor's orders. In fact, the unwillingness to follow a doctor's orders with respect to food indicates attachment.)

So, one of the difficulties is identifying the attachments. That is where prayer, patience, and focus help. If our eyes are on Jesus and we truly love and adore Him, everything else fades into the distance. Jesus truly becomes Lord of our life, and detachment from created things is a natural corollary. We might start by working at detachment, but unless our eyes are firmly set on Christ and Him Crucified, we will quickly lose our way.

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It seems ridiculous to talk about training in love. We all know what it is, we all know how it goes. Well, true and false. We all know what the emotional aspect of love looks like, but as a fallen people we rarely live out what the emotional aspect calls for.

We all know, intellectually, that love is a movement of will, not merely an emotion. Love can act without an emotion necessarily being attached. More importantly, one of the tremendous pieces of doctrine that St. Thérèse of Lisieux left with us is that love without works is dead. This is a natural outgrowth of the understanding in the Letter of James that faith without works is dead. Faith, Hope, and Love grow together or die together. When one is supported and nurtured, all three thrive. That is why love is so important in approaching God. Love causes faith to thrive and gives birth to new hope that sustains us through the long languors of love.

Training in love seems a good idea. How do we begin to love God passionately if we do not already do so?

Pardon a brief digression here. Wittgenstein is reported by some to have intimated that words shape reality. I do not know if he actually said this, but if it is true, the man obviously needed a psychiatrist. Reality is. The Ground of Being that reifies all that is, is unchangeable, so too the reality built upon His constant attention. That is not to say that things do not change, but that reality is and is discernable and understandable to some extent to the human intellect. (Good thing Wittgensteinian disciples didn't promulgate their nonsense until after we had a firm foundation in the sciences.) At any rate, words do not shape reality. However, they do shape our perceptions of reality. How we talk about or describe something shapes our feelings about that thing. How we talk about or to a person shapes our feelings about the person. Talk is not everything, but it is a powerful way to shape perception. (Hence, part of James's further admonition to "bridle the tongue.")

So my first suggestion for training in love is to change or enhance the way we talk to God. In addition to formal written prayers or spontaneous prayer it might be good to add to our daily routine a litany of thanksgiving. Perhaps the first prayer in the morning could start with a line from Psalms--"This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it." From there we could move to a simple litany of thanksgiving, being mindful of the presence of God in morning ablutions and preparations. We thank Him for our own being, for another day, for our spouses and children (if any), for our lack of spouses and children (if we lack them), for our material goods, for our health, and then we move on to thank Him even for the challenges of the day--poor health, difficult tasks, even worries. We hand them all over in thanksgiving, knowing that He will support us through them all. The litany of thanksgiving puts us in the mindframe to be grateful and to perceive God's hand in the events of the day. A very wise Jesuit once said, "A grateful heart finds it hard to be unhappy." And a happy heart finds it easier to love the Person who gave it so much happiness.

Thus my first suggestion--start the day with a litany of thanksgiving. Everything you can think of to praise and thank God for say or sing in your own private litany. Thank Him for all that you have, all that you are, and all that is around you. Thank Him for being present to preserve it all. Thank Him for the guidance He gives and the love He pours out.

Perhaps this starts as mere words, but as the practice develops and continues it grows into a yearning to do something to express thanksgiving, to share with others the fantastic joy of knowing God. This is a first step in the dance of love. We are moved to do something, however small, however seemingly meaningless. We are moved to DO something beautiful for God.

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Here's another very critical point about detachment. Detachment in the sense used here does not have the same definition one might give it in ordinary life. It takes on the patina of a technical term. Detachment is NOT synonymous with indifference. Detachment allows you to separate from creation in order to make room for the Creator. The end result of this will be to love Creation and Creator far more than you could otherwise do. Indifference is the true opposite of love--it is a cool and killing emotion or attitude that can look upon a drowning person and say, "I warned you not to go in the water." Detachment sees the same person and for the sake of the love of God sacrifices itself in order that the other might live, and does so joyfully. Hope this helps somewhat. Please, please, ask questions so I can clarify these points that I kind of take for granted.

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On Detachment


[Sorry, another long post, but may as well write them as they occur to me--otherwise they're gone.]

You may wonder why I tend to go on so about detachment. Putting aside the fact that it is absolutely central to all of the teachers (and Doctors of the Church) within my Order, there are good and proper reasons for thinking about detachment and taking steps to become detached.

In all of my reading of the lives of the Saints the central theme is one of self-giving love. For one to be able to be self-giving, one must not be too strictly tied down or restricted in motion. One cannot give oneself if one is not free to do so.

Jesus told us, "You cannot serve God and mammon." His statement was not strictly about money, but about split allegiances. You cannot serve two masters. When you are attached to things you are serving the master of self-interest while trying to serve God. These two, while not always diametrically opposed do often tend to take different forks in the road. You cannot travel two paths.

St. Thomas Aquinas has a long discussion of the simplicity of God (practically the only thing from the Summa that I think I grasp). In it, he ultimately proves that God is simple, speaking in the terms of the time, He is of one substance and mind. How can anything that is duple (or worse) hope to unite with what is simple and single? It can happen via miracle, but God prefers methods that are not so invasive of creation and of personal sovereignty. And personal sovereignty, make no doubt of it, is what God is asking us to surrender. We are to give Him rule of our lives. If we are being pulled this way and that by creation, we cannot be drawn as swiftly to the creator.

Detachment is a means to an end. It is a necessary means, but in no way a sufficient means. Grace, sacraments, prayer, and many other attainments of a life lived in accord with God's will are required. But without detachment, all of these other things will not bring one to Union with God--the ultimate aim of all Christians, and an end that is within the grasp of all at God's good pleasure. Every Saint teaches detachment in one way or another, either through their writings or through their practice and the lives that they lived.

Detachment is not easy but it is very simple. On our own it is impossible, with Christ it becomes possible. It is "simply" a matter of learning to live as St. Paul described when he said, "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor." That is, your state in life becomes meaningless because all meaning is invested in the centrality of God.

Detachment is not easy for several reasons. First, we often don't recognize attachments. Second, even when we recognize them, we often rationalize them. An example--I was in an extended Ignatian Retreat with a gentleman who was very devoted to the Rosary. The retreat master laid out the rules in the first session--there would be no spiritual reading material other than the Ignatian Exercises, the Holy Bible, and The Imitation of Christ. All other habitual devotions should be put aside for the duration of the retreat so that energy could be focused on the intense retreat exercises. The gentleman asked about the Rosary, and while the good Priest praised the devotion, he discouraged it for the duration of the exercise. The gentleman did not return. Now, this could well be a case in which the man discerned through this mechanism that he was not called to the retreat, but equally likely, it could be an example of an attachment getting in the way of a good that could draw one on toward God. I cannot know that, but proper discernment by the person involved could show which was true.

Third, even when we do not rationalize and we do recognize, sometimes we simply do not wish to give up the object, idea, or practice to which we are attached. This is typified by St. Augustine's famous prayer, "Lord make me chaste, but not just yet." Yes, Lord, I want sanctity, but not as much as I want ___________. And the things that fill in the blank vary from person to person.

The first step toward union with God is recognizing that our entire lives are meaningless without it. When we finally come to terms with the fact that God is our meaning and He is the only thing that will completely fill the empty spaces we try to cram with all manner of junk, then we can begin down the proper road. In other words, when love of God takes priority, detachment from things becomes a possibility, but not until then. And detachment is only a means--it must happen, but it doesn't happen necessarily by focusing on it. In some really tough cases, you might have to concentrate energy, prayer, and resources on becoming detached. But detachment is often a natural corollary of loving something else more. I have no difficulty choosing between say flan and chocolate because I have a built-in liking for chocolate. The choice becomes easy. When you prefer God to all other things, it becomes a matter of making choices that reflect that preference--detachment has begun.

Detachment is also somewhat like Zen. If you become aware that you are practicing it, you almost undo its effects through pride and through the idea that YOU are practicing it. Yes, your will is involved and you are actively doing something, but God and the Holy Spirit within you are more important in the overall efficacy. Here again a statement of Jesus applies in context, "Do not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing." Detachment is most effective when you are detached from doing it and its effects.

However, as I pointed out, sometimes it is sufficiently to light wash and rinse the pan, at other times one needs steel wool or scouring pad. At these times, a deliberate, prayer-infused, sacrament-powered pursuit of detachment is called for. Put in the proper context, it is amazing what one person can do. My father-in-law went for a medical checkup one day and the doctor informed him that cigarette-smoking was shortening his life and interfering with his health. He could choose between cigarettes and unassisted breathing. He went home, dumped the cigarettes and never again took a puff. A truly remarkable instance of the power of really making a choice.

So, detachment is necessary--but it is a means that should not be a focus. Detachment comes very naturally when the things to which one is attached are not valued as much as something else. So the next step is to think about the cultivation of active, responsive, all-encompassing love of God.

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More About Becoming a Saint


It seems that the first step toward becoming a Saint is deciding to do so. It seems probable that the majority of us in St. Blog's have consciously or unconsciously done so. So, once you've decided what it is you are called to, how do you go about achieving it?

There are several difficult points in this whole formulation, probably more than spelled out below. Here is a start on some disconnected thoughts having to do with the pursuit of holiness.

(1)The very first decision you face upon opting for holiness is the question of your motivation. Why do you wish to become a Saint? There are several possible reasons, all with a psychological validity, but all with different degrees of spiritual efficacy. The worst reason is the selfish one, which will act as an immediate obstacle to your pursuit. You want to be a saint because people will then remember and perhaps even venerate you. Everyone can see immediately what the problem with this is so I will not continue. But I have come to believe that there is a small element of this in most beginners on the road.

The second reason is because you are commanded to do so by Our Lord and Savior. This is a much better motivation, very close to the best, because it is related to the best. But if we act merely under commandment, the will flags and the pursuit fades. We soon are trudging down the road of sanctity in a way that reminds me of one of La Madre's quotes, "Lord, preserve me from sour-faced saints." Pure obedience and doggedness can lead very readily to becoming a sour-faced saint--or, in other words, not much of a saint at all.

However, if that obedience springs from and is constantly nourished by the best motive, it is nearly certain that you will succeed. Naturally, the best motive is sheer love of God. We become Saints out of obedience that springs from our desire to do everything possible for the beloved. We love God so much that we fear to offend Him--not fear in the servile sense, but fear in the sense that we never wish to cause pain to the one we love. I am only now beginning to open up this mystery myself. I have always wondered about the meaning of "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." And certainly some conversions and some part of our turning to God comes from the sense of what He could do if He chose to. However, (and I may be very off-target here) what fear of the Lord is likely to turn into, particularly if it is to be fruitful, is fear of offending the Lord--not because of the consequences meted out by God, but because of the pain it would cause both God and the true lover of God. Obedience that proceeds from and is fed by this spring of love is the well-spring of sainthood.

(2) How do we get to this point of being true "lovers of God?" I would propose that the essential element is self-emptying--"I must decrease so He may increase." And this self-emptying occurs most often through detachment. I will not say that there are not other means; however, it would seem that so long as we are attached to any of the created things of the world, we inhibit progress toward God.

How might one achieve detachment? It would seem to me that there are a great many ways--numerous paths delineated throughout time by different Saints. Let us examine very briefly two that often show up here--Carmelite and Dominican. I will start with the spirituality about which I know nothing, but describe how I believe it to work in part. It would seem that Dominican spirituality is predicated on knowing God thoroughly and intimately through the works of the intellect. These works of the intellect cannot be done without affecting the will. As we come to know and understand better, we gradually learn to leave behind what does not honor God. Seen from outside and interpreted with this Carmelite's mind, I see the Dominican path as a way of gradual detachment from our own agendas and a gradual emptying of self through glorying in what can be known of God. Please understand, this is sheer speculation but I would call it "detachment through knowledge." It is not Carmelite because the detachment comes more in a "via positiva" as knowledge is an essential good. In this sense, I see Dominican and (forgive me John d) Ignatian Spirituality quite closely related. In some sense it is like Jacob wrestling with the Angels--eventually, after enough wrestling, the pathway is opened up to pure and serene surrender. The intellect is sated and one can continue to pursue God's will in a new and uplifting way. Dominicans who have struggled to this point are supremely equipped to tell others of the Glories of God, and thus their charism of preaching.

Carmelites on the other hand pursue a "via negativa" in a shroud of silence. (Though one would not know that by visiting this blog.) Detachment is an active pursuit, aligning your own will to God's through identifying and releasing yourself through the sacraments and prayer from the bonds that hold you in. I have talked some in the past about the Carmelite way of detachment, and will probably do so more in the future. For the sake of abbreviating this post, let me say simply that the Carmelite way of detachment is more like a waltz than wrestling. We seek to know God not necessarily through the faculty of the intellect, although there is nothing wrong with really knowing Who God is, but through Love. As Thérèse said, and the recent Carmelite rule repeats and admonishes all Carmelites, "My vocation is to be love at the heart of the church." Thus, in the body framed for us with Christ as the Head, metaphorically we might see the Dominicans and Jesuits as the "brains" of that body, providing the faithful with good reason for faith and achieving union with God and deep and pervasive Love for him. through truly knowing him. We might see Carmelites, Franciscans, and other contemplative orders as the "heart" of the Church, seeking God somewhat through knowledge, but mostly through ardent burning love. Now, this is merely metaphorical, and it does gift short shrift to the importance of Love in both Dominican and Jesuit vocations, and it does diminish the critical importance of the intellect in the contemplative vocation--but it is for illustration only.

(3) Now, with regard to this second point, people have developed a million and one very clever, very useful means of avoiding the detachment that leads to doing God's will and to sanctity. One of these is hinted at by the quote from Dorthy Day that Mary offered in a comment box below. Paraphrased it says something like, "Don't call me a Saint, I don't want to be dismissed so easily." That is, we have constructed paper Saints--really unholy images of otherworldly sanctity that lies outside the realm of what a real person in the real world could possibly obtain. We look at the real accomplishments of Saints and say, "I could never do that. They were so holy from the very beginning." You know the kinds of things that might spring to mind when you read the lives of the Saints. There is really only one response to this obstacle and that is to crush it. No, you could never do that, I could never do that (whatever it may be), but then why would God want me to--after all I am not that person. My path to sanctity will not be the same, whatever is accomplished in the course of it will be uniquely the expression of God's grace working on the talents He has granted the individual. We should not look at the saints and despair at their actions, reactions, or accomplishments. We should look at the saints as individual mirrors of God's all-encompassing love. Thus, when we see Thérèse smiling at an unlikable nun, we should not think, "I cannot do that," but rather, "Lord, show me how you would like me to bring your love to the world." It may not be your vocation to smile at unlikable people, but rather to help the underprivileged, to assist those who have lost their way, to smile at those who have been confined to nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. Do not despair, but see first the love and know that the same love, the same Holy Spirit lives within each of us and is capable of expressing itself in ways miraculous--if we will get out of the way.

Another way we throw up obstacles for ourselves is that we become attached to the method rather than the goal. Thus it is entirely possible for a Dominican to be one of the great scholars of the age and yet to have that scholarship and study not ever touch his heart. We can have wonderful Carmelites so engaged in omphaloskepsis and nearly fetishistic pursuit of detachment that denial becomes the whole point of what they are doing. Neither the cultivation or the intellect nor the pursuit of detachment is an end, both are merely means to the same end--Union with God and a life of holiness. However, if we do not keep our reason for these pursuits clearly in focus, they quickly become an end in themselves. There is no point to detachment if it leads merely to endless self-examination and scouring to get out this or that tendency. Detachment should very naturally make room for God as we remove the clutter of self, God fits more naturally and more evenly into our lives. So too with intellectual pursuits in a different way. As we come to know and understand and revel in the glories of He who created all, as we get a sense of the complexity and brilliance of the Divine Way, we cannot help but more away from our own things and toward those that He has designed. And I'm sure this works for any number of other ways of approaching God. But we need to clear the path. When a method becomes an obstacle, it must be cast aside no matter how fond we are of it. If Teresa of Avila had spent all of her time detaching herself, she would never have had time to establish her foundations that changed forever the face and character of the Carmelite Order.

I've gone on quite a while here already, so I'll leave off, but I hope it is with some sense that each of us has the means to achieve holiness. We cannot do it on our own. In fact, given our stumbling steps, I would say most of us are just learning to walk. So we cannot take more than a step at a time. And the first step is to cultivate through sacraments, prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and growing selflessness an ardent desire to be God's presence in the world, not for our own sakes but for the sake of the world and for the sake of the many we see about us floundering and without hope.

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On Humility


On Humility

Laura asked in a comment to a post below

What does humility look like in our everyday lives? What do we think it is, but is really only a disguise for pride.

And there were a couple of very fine answers. I particularly liked Tom's:

St. Catherine of Siena wrote that "humility proceeds from self-knowledge." I think self-knoweldge is necessary and sufficient for humility -- if you know who you are and who you aren't, what you can do and what you can't, you will be humble, and if you are humble you know these things. So I'd take signs of self-knowledge as signs of humility, and their absence as an implication of pride.

And Alicia's point is a powerful one and the specific case of Tom's more general answer:

sometimes humility is in silence, sometimes in speaking up. what it isn't is aptly described by charles dickens in david copperfield - mr.micawber (I think) - the one who was 'so 'umble!"

Humility will look quite different on different people depending in large part on their personalities and on the gifts that God has given them. Because humility is at its core truest knowledge of the self and knowledge of the self with respect to the grand Other that created all that is, humility is best displayed when we are not wearing one of the many masks that we don for purposes of moving through society. A truly humble person does not change in demeanor from one interaction to another. Paraphrasing from what you must all (by now) recognize as one of the great "sacred texts" in my life, "(Being a Gentleman) Isn't so much a matter of treating one person better than another, but treating them all the same. You treat a flower girl as a duchess and I treat a duchess as a flower girl..." (Henry Higgins).

That is the reality. Humility is self-knowledge and true self-knowledge allows us to look at others and see Christ. When we can do THAT, then what can we do but treat everyone equally and show ourselves for what we are, lowly servants, "Not fit to undo the strap of His sandal."

However, you can fake this as well. You can be in public service oriented and mild and meek and smiling, and return to your house kick off your shoes and say, "Thank God, that's over with, what a unwashed mob." Humility must be carefully nurtured and cultivated. It starts from knowledge of self, as St. Catherine of Siena and countless others have pointed out. But it grows through prayers (as do all virtues and habits of sanctity) and it grows through aligning our will with the will of God and (to quote another Text of some considerable import) "Looking for the Good in people." (Pollyanna). Because when your look for the good in people (as the film shows), you will surely find it. And why is that so? Because Christ is in our fellow human beings. So we sheer away all the prickly surfaces, all of the personality that we don't care for, all of the tics and quirks that irritate us and we embrace Christ in that person.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux cultivated humility with a smile. Everyone knows the tale of the nun whom no one cared for--a particularly, prickly, sour, disagreeable nun all the other nuns did their best to avoid. St. Thérèse went out of her way to smile at this person though she had no real affection for her. She smiled brilliantly every time she met her to the point that the nun once commented to St. Thérèse, "You must have a most special affection for me. Everytime you see me you give me such a broad smile." What Thérèse loved was the image of Christ in this person and she subdued her own natural inclination to dislike the nun so that she was able to recognize Jesus.

Humility must be cultivated through prayer, love (expressed in works, even so small a work as a smile at someone you dislike), and detachment. These four and others are constant companions. It seems, and I may be very wrong here, that none may grow long without the others and they all grow with the cultivation of one. Cultivating humility drives one toward prayer--when we really look at ourselves and see ourselves as God does, when we have solid self-knowledge that includes both our wretchedness and the fact that despite our wretchedness we are prized as much as or more than the most precious Person who ever lived, we come to understand the supreme value of every living soul. We cultivate humility through knowledge of Christ--in the scriptures, in the writings of the great saints, and in prayer. We also cultivate it through a daily (or more frequent) examen to see how we have been greeting God in our fellow human beings.

Tom's post mentioned St. Gaspar del Bufalo's "Maxims for the Pursuit of Humility" (available courtesy of Father Keyes at the excellent New Gasparian site. Posted on this site is a kind of examen list, St. Josemaria Escriva's Seventeen Evidences of a Lack of Humility. If you are not disinclined to Opus Dei spirituality, you might visit this site and use the very fine search engine to look up and read the brief passages on humility.

Humility is "Something Beautiful for God," it is ultimate self knowledge, and at the same time, paradoxically, self-forgetfulness in the beloved. It is a garment cut to the individual and expressed quite differently by different people. It might appear shockingly off-putting, as when Mother Teresa spoke at the Presidential prayer breakfast and raked the people there over the coals for the culture of death they supported and cultivated. Humility is true love so that it never lies, nor does it seek to wound or hurt.

That's as much as I can say to help you on the way. All of the saints address it, many of them tell you how to cultivate it far better than I can do. (After all, I have to spend some time doing so before I would know what to tell everyone else.) But humility is the important garment that holds many of the virtues together and allows truthful expression of them. Humility guides us in what to say and how. Humility may show up as humor, as when St. Teresa of Avila spoke to the Almighty after falling from her horse, "If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few." Humility speaks the truth in love, always. I pray for this virtue, but do not spend enough time actually seeking it out. I pray for an increase in the resolution to cultivate and express humility for by so doing, I can help the lives of those around me to be just a little better.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Carmelite category from June 2003.

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