Carmelite: January 2005 Archives

I knew that title would get you. In fact some of you are already hopping mad over my presumption (aren't you--just admit it). But as usual with something so deceptively direct it is--well deceptively direct.

Sometimes you read something one way and it doesn't say anything at all to you, but you hear the same truth expressed a different way and suddenly it all comes clear. So with this passage:

from The Living Flame of Love
St. John of the Cross quote in:
Carmelite Prayer:A Tradition for the 21st Century
ed. Fr. Keith J Egan

. . . when the soul free itself of all things and attains to emptiness and dispossession concerning them, which is equivalent to what it can do of itself, it is impossible that God fail to do his part by communicating himself to it, at least silently and secretly. It is more impossible than it would be for the sun not to shine on clear and uncluttered ground.

Allow me to trace the line of thought that made of this seeming nothing the stuff of epiphanies. God's grace and desire for us is like sunlight--it falls on everything and everyone equally. We are all people who live in a deep wood, building our houses and keeping close to ourselves, protecting ourselves from all interference. Some few of us tire of this protected living, tire of the darkness of the self-contained gloominess of our own fabricated identities. We wander abroad far from the things that own us--mostly in shadow but occasionally in the dappled light of a thinner part of the wood. And then, all of a sudden, we stumble into a wide open green, no trees, no houses, no barriers, no protection. We are immersed in sunlight, completely enveloped in light. For some the experience is too intense and there is a retreat to the cool darkness of the wood. But for others, the light is the source of endless delight and a sort of rueful torment--that it had taken so long to emerge into the light.

God's grace bathes us all. It provides whatever light there is in the dark wood. And when we give up our love of darkness and seek to emerge, we will suddenly discover ourselves whole and entire in the midst of Him.

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"I Will Refresh You"

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More from Sister Ruth

from Ascent to Love
Sr Ruth Burrows

In his writings John often speaks of refreshment of spirit, how freedom from the ego brings peace. Ingulging our selfhisness only wearies us. The ego is like a child, fractious, restless, wanting now this, now that, never content with what is given. Afflictions and pain flow from the ego, refreshment from the Spirit of God. The two cannot dwell together. We all know what it is to be tormented and afflicted, labouring under a burden of anxiety and desire. 'Cast it aside by coming to me,' says Jesus. 'I will refresh you.' As fog darkens the sky and obscures the sun, or as a dirty mirror distorts an image, so the unbridled ego blocks light. Our natural power of reasoning is affected; we cannot see things as they are, cannot evaluate objectively while dominated by emotion and selfish desires. Still more, we are prevented from receiving the infused divine light. The finest intellect in the world cannot perceive truth while the heart is under the sway of selfishness.

God is one. God is simple. In order to join God, we cannot introduce an element that is not-God--this is contradictory to divinity and to divine union. One cannot be in union when one insists on a completely separate identity. And we do want to be recognized for what we are and what we do. When we get that recognition, it is rarely enough. We begin to seek larger rewards, better recognition. The self always triumphs over our better inclinations.

But surrendering to God is always refreshment. When we stop struggling against the bonds of self, we can walk out of chains. Self is like one of those Chinese puzzle traps, the more you pull to escape it, the tighter it clings to you. However, relax and the trap releases you. So with the self, the more we think about self and about how we need to escape self and about how bad self is, the more we become mired in self. But when we direct our attention outward, if only for a moment, to Jesus, to God, to the Blessed Virgin, to all of the things in the world beyond us, the tension is relaxed and we stand a good chance of escaping from self.

The secret of escape is not to look for the way out, but to look at the Way into the Heart of God.

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On nearly every page of Sr. Ruth's book there is something worthy of quotation. Were I to follow my inclination, I would end up retyping the entire book. As it stands, I'm already presenting too much--but there is a wealth of wisdom and richness in what she has to say. And she has a very deft hand at sifting out what is essential and what is optional in the teaching of St. John of the Cross. I don't know that I agree with all of her conclusions, but there is more than enough agreement to make the book helpful to me. That said, this Theresian interpolation of St. John of the Cross through Sr. Ruth is very, very nice indeed.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

This making ourselves of little account in a practical way will greatly affect our relationships with others. . . . Nothing so reduces the ego as the realities of living with others and not demanding that they change so as to suit ourselves. . . . God brings people into community precisely in order to purify them as gold is purified with fire and the hammer. . . .

What an enormous difference attitudes make. We shall have to bear many difficulties from other people anyway. To see in all these things God's will for our ascent to him and to make up our minds to adopt a positive attitude makes everything so much easier! John's asceticism taken at one swallow can seem just too much, but lived out it can only be happiness-giving. We are our own misery and affliction. Get rid of the ego and we are truly happy and at peace.

There is so much solid and clear wisdom here. Unless you are a hermit, you will live your life among other people. Living your life in this way means that you will encounter people and aspects of people that you find wearying, annoying, irritating, nauseating, and otherwise personally unacceptable. Our usual tactic in such a situation, if we cannot remove ourselves from the person involved, is to seek to change the person. How many husbands and wives carry on a kind of sparring match over issues like who takes the trash out, whether the toilet seat is down or up, who dumps their clothes where, etc. etc. There are endless irritating and aggravating proclivities in the entire world that is not ME. And if the truth be told, if the world were more like ME, I suspect I would find it all the more annoying.

When we stop trying to change the world and we accept what comes to us from God's hands, that is when the world really is changed. It is changed in that I am changed, and it is changed in that my perception of it has become more Godly. I will not convert my wife by lecturing at her, I may not even convert her by following Sr. Ruth's advice, but I will have converted myself so that rather than being aggravated and constantly looking for my own fulfillment, I am looking in the aggravating situation for a way to show my love to God by loving my wife. And the best way is to accept what comes from His hand as the will for the moment and to rejoice in the attention He is paying me and the path that is being paved to allow my ascent.

In every case, when we can put self aside, we will be serving God. And when we do so we immediately become better witnesses for Him. Our strongest Catholic witness is not necessarily a lecture about the Real Presence or the apostolic succession (true though they may be) but rather our joy in living out our Catholic Faith. Was it St. Teresa who said, "Lord preserve me from sour-faced saints?" Knowing God is real joy, profound joy, life affecting joy. Too often we are caught up in our own agendas, attempting to shape all things to ourselves and to our own convenience to notice that these little miseries, these little hardships are training us up in the way we should go--in enduring them is far greater joy than can ever be had by tryng to put them aside or change them. God is a loving Father and everything He sends, He sends for our good. Problem is, we don't really believe that--we think we can take this good and make it better. The reality is living what God has given us is our highest good.

So, as we will have to deal with people who do not precisely conform to what we think they should be or do, we do best to endure cheerfully and in fact with great humility and love. For by so doing we will be heaping burning coals upon their heads--but this isn't really the point. The point is that we will be showing them and others the way to sanctity as we pick it out ourselves.

We need merely remember St. Thérèse's small service of a smile to a person who irritated her beyond words. And this small action seemed to have effected a change in the recipient through the love shown. But we cannot love with this in mind, we must only love with the idea that what we have is God's gift to us for the moment. Whatever it may consist of, however we must deal with it, God is showing us moment by moment how to ascend to Him. When we abandon ourselves (which, of course we can only do with His help) we can begin to walk that path. The path of detachment will not seem so hard when we see in every step the path that leads to life.

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Being Who You Are in Christ

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Another insight into St. John of the Cross.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

John is 'at home' in religious life. . . whereas when he attempts to carry his principles into secular life we feel he is floundering. As we read through his treatment of detachment from joy in the use of temporal, natural, sensible goods (his own categories) we cannot avoid the impression that he is a man ill-at-ease in the workaday world. For him it is infinitely preferable to get rid of all possessions, remain celibate, live in retirement and give oneself up to prayer; all else is second best. . . . The whole world is the Lord's, he is in all and not only in one tiny consecrated corner. All is sacred, the house of the Lord and the gate of heaven. John might prefer everyone to be within the cloister but God does not!

All John writes must therefore be interpreted using the insights of our own day, but his basic principles remain unchallenged--nothing and no one can be our ultimate joy or security. There has to be detachment coupled with great involvement and one does not rule out the other. Take John's rather down-graded view of marriage, for example, and put it against our own developing appreciation of just what marriage is meant to be. It is the way par excellance for the vast majority to grow into freedom and fulness of love, the vehicle of transcendence. What displine, sacrifice, asceticism, will be needed for it to reach this ideal! And when the partners have truly become two in one and then comes the separation of death--how incalcuable the wound! Yes, but the very fact that the marriage has reached fulfilment will mean that the other can stand alone, continuing to grow in freedom and love. All human situations are open to God. Prayer, constant reflection on the gospel, desire, vigiliance--these will reveal how, in the concrete, hour by hour, we find him in them, respond to him in them.

I especially liked the very logical, very practical insight that "ohn might prefer everyone to be within the cloister but God does not!" We have so high a regard for clergy and relgious (rightfully so) that we sometimes fail to see that the vast majority of us are not and never have been and as the Lord is doing the calling, either a great many of us are not listening too well or He calls most of us to sanctity outside the bounds of the cloister or clergy. This is simply a fact, not a statement as to who has "the better part."

But marriage is the perfect training ground for detachment, sacrifice, and love. Anyone who is or has been a parent recalls the sacrifices required when children are very young--sleepless nights, endless labor over a little one. And for a very long time, this effort may transmute but it never goes away. For example, how often does daddy's dinner (when eating out) look ever so much more appealing than what is on my own plate? Then add to that time that we'd rather be doing other things but must heed the necessity to play with, train up, advise, admonish, discipline, and just plain talk to our children.

And then there is the endless battle of wills that comprises a marriage--the misconmmunications, the hurt feelings, the endless unappreciatied labors. We bring forth each new, completed work and hold it out for an awed moment of silence, only to have it pushed away as our spouse bustles by with an armload of laundry. This isn't uncaring, this isn't unsupportive, this is merely the fullness of the day. And when we reach its end too often we are exhausted by all of its contingencies to properly express our appreciation of one another. And yet, the current flows through it and sustains it. We are servants to each other, we are Christ for each other, slowly dragging our partners toward salvation in a waltz that becomes a tango that becomes a wrestling match that feels like it will never end.

Oh yes, marriage is the perfect training ground for detachment, for giving up our need and desire to control another, for giving up our own way and going with the way of service. Every moment of every day opens up wide vistas of opportunity for service to one another. Detachment picks service rather than our own will in a given matter. Detachment always looks for the betterment of all and for God's will in a situation. Detachment means leaving the ego behind and not resenting giving half of one's dinner to an anxious, joyous, overwhelming six-year-old. Detachment means dropping our little golden crown and helping our spouses carry the laundry to the washing machine or the garbage to the road.

It is in marriage that most of us in St. Blogs are called to find Christ.The circumstances are such that we will be able to practice in all fullness the disciplines of detachment and selfless love, always keeping in mind that these are never our own, but graces given freely by God to strengthen us and our families. So the teachings of St. John of the Cross, rooted in the cloister and the convent, reach out and touch us in the apartment and the living room. We are not excused because we are not cloistered, but rather, we are called upon to an even more heroic exercise of selflessness because we do not have the moments of solitude that rebuild. While we are not called to the strictness of the cloister, neither do we have some of the advantages that accrue there. And yet our lives are graced by a sacrament that works to make us holy in the vocation to which we have been called.

So, while we may not be able to observe all the particulars of the specific discpline that St. John of the Cross calls for, the doctrine he teaches holds true. Emptying and selflessness make room for Him to come and dwell and when he is dwelling at the heart of the family there is no toil, no turmoil, no trouble so great that it does not make the family stronger and bring them closer to Him. This is part of the meaning of the sacrament of marriage. And within it we must find the balance between intimacy and true loving support and detachment from our own needs that will best move everyone toward Christ. As the chief officers on the ship we are responsible to see that she sails properly toward the Homeland.

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Beginning the Ascent

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An interesting bit of serendipity stemming from yesterday's writing regarding the Letter to the Philippians. I had not yet encountered this passage from Sr. Ruth's book. Even if God isn't talking to anyone else, He sure is hammering home the message to me.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

John says if you want God, if you want to begin the ascent of the mountain, then you have to make a decision against self-importance. You have to remove yourself from the centre-stage, see yourself as a member of a family, a community which you must serve. This is what Jesus taught and Paul after him. Never think yourself more important than others, never put yourself before them. . . . Think little of yourself and be happy that others do not consider you very important. Have a lowly opinion of yourself, not in the sense of unhealthy self-denigration but in that you do not consider yourself the pivot of the universe. Keep correcting in the silence of your heart the contrary natural attitude. Keep reminding yourself that others are more important than you are, that their well-being is more than the satisfaction of your ego. Let your actions conform to the this truth. Do not demand that circumstances change to fit you, do not labour to control events for your own benefit. See yourself as the servant of others.

Okay, now time for the really hard questions. How many of us, well-intentioned though we may be actually live this? How many of us really see ourselves as servants? I might use the language, but is my real image of myself that of one who waits on others? Absolutely not! I am in a position where I am required to lead others, to send them here and there, to tell them what to do, how could I possibly be a servant. The reality of the matter is that whatever it is I do here and now, it is momentary--a task that is not eternal. I must practice whatever influence I have circumspectly, realizing that I am the servant of all in Christ. In fact, I should seek to be the servant of the servants of God, thinking nothing whatsoever of myself, but seeking to give all in service. For example, as a husband I should seek to serve the needs of my family, caring more for the needs of my wife and my son than for my own. If I do things that are not acknowledged as readily as I would like, then so long as I do not become nonplussed and put-out about that fact, it is a jewel in the crown. Because just as I owe them this service, so to they "owe" it to me. I should not sit around waiting to be waited on. Rather, I should work to be a greater servant. I should do as I would be done by--not because I expect the return of the favor, but because it is the right thing for a servant of the Most High to do. Treat others as you would be treated and do not expect to be treated in return with this high regard.

I think one of the hardest things for the rugged individualism of the people of the U.S. is to think of ourselves as all connected. And if we are all connected the really difficult thing is to seek to be in the portion that serves, not in the portion that is served. We need to break down the arrogance of our false masks of freedom, independence, and stoic isolation and surrender entirely to the notion that by our baptism we are called to service. This means service of rude people, mean people, people who you'd really rather just kick and get it over with.

There is no real love without service. St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught that love is not merely a feeling, and not merely an act of the will, but it is expressed in concrete terms of small individual services. It needn't be anything spectacular. For example, I might serve someone by listening to them with a patience I do not have--by listening when I really just want them to come to the point and be done with it--by not deconstructing everything they say into the components of self-importance they seem to represent. Service takes many small steps.

"Think little of yourself." I like this expression for its productive ambiguity. It is both to think of yourself as small and as a servant, but it is also not to so intensively direct your thoughts inward. Rather think little of yourself and let the majority of your thoughts ascend to the throneroom of Heaven. Think little of yourself and more about who needs help and what form that help can take. Think little of yourself and rejoice in the good that accrues to others. Think little of yourself and immerse yourself in the vast world of all that God has laid out for you. Let your gaze follow that of the Blessed Mother, babe in arms, and let it rest always upon the face of Jesus--the face of the person God has sent to you in this moment.

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The Purpose of Self-Denial

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from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

The whole aim of John's asceticism is to release us from the tyranny of the ego. Influenced by his scholastic framework he seems to write as if the senses had a life of their own and must control their actions; that the appetites, passions and emotions must likewise curb themselves. But of course, this is not so. It is really the will, the faculty of choosing, that is involved. True, the eye sees, the ear hears automatically; passions are aroused automatically, but it is the will that must choose to turn away the eyes, refuse to listen, control the instincts. Everything therefore will depend on what I really want, what I prize, what I hold to be my true good. Meditation, as we have said, keeps us looking at the values of Jesus so that we may choose to make these our own. Jesus is always summoning us beyond ourselves to the Father, bidding us deny the powerful tendency to seek fulfilment within ourselves and the limits of the created, making the aggrandisement of the ego the implicit motivation of our thinking and acting.

Throughout life at different times each of us faces the trials experienced by Jesus in Luke 4.

Luke 4:1-14

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit [2] for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. [3] The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." [4] And Jesus answered him, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone.'" [5] And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, [6] and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. [7] If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours." [8] And Jesus answered him, "It is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'"
[9] And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; [10] for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,' [11] and `On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" [12] And Jesus answered him, "It is said, `You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" [13] And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. [14]And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we do not respond as Jesus does. For a variety of reasons, different reasons at different times, we succumb to the temptations offered. The reason for meditating on the Scriptures and for practicing a certain level of self denial is to prepare us for the time when these temptations present themselves. Jesus "practiced" self-control and self-denial in a marathon 40 day fast in the desert. He withdrew from all of the wonderful things of God's creation--food, wine, people, comfortable lodging, everything that we see as the necessary minimum in life. This prepared Him for answering Satan when the temptation was offered.

Now few of us are up to a complete fast for even a single day. The thought of a pang of hunger is enough to send us running to our pantries to check out our famine supplies. But neither God nor St. John of the Cross is telling us that it is a really good idea to fast for forty days. In fact, for some of us that presents a temptation all its own--the temptation to being "holier than thou." A kind of spiritual "extreme sports." 'I can fast longer than you can AND I can sit on a taller pole in a higher wind.' "Well I'll take your fast and raise you a 10 cord discipline twice a day.' It sounds silly, but people being what they are seem to be able to take pride in just about anything.

What we learn from St. John of the Cross is that we do well to deprive ourselves of small luxuries, things that in the normal course of life no one will notice except God. Then we are neither likely to take pride in them--so long as we do not deliberately bring them to the notice of others--nor are they likely to derail us by their sheer heroism. In fact, the are more likely to reinforce humility when we realize the tremendous effort we must take to momentarily deprive ourselves of something we don't really need anyway.

And all of this is about conforming the will to what God would have us do. We must make the choices, we must take action--but our action must conform to God's plan for us for it to mean anything. And this is the purpose of any self-denial or any discipline we impose. If our goal is anything less than total-self-giving to God, our actions will not have their intended consequences. As Sister Ruth points out, we must make the choice for our own greatest good. And the difficulty there is that we must wake up and come to realize what our own greatest good entails. Meditating on the scriptures will help us to open our eyes and to see what is right there in front of us, rather than what is six years (six years we don't have) down the line either direction.

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Fleeing or Being?

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from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

We cannot sufficiently stress the need for emotional control, especially today when the reaction to emotional repressions of the past has caused the pendulum to swing the other way. In certain circles feelings are taken as all-important. An enormous amount of attention is given to them with the result that people are very conscious of how they feel and quick to think they have an absolute right to feel 'well'. . . . It seems to me that sooner or later each of us has to learn to put up with painful emotions, pay little attention to them, get on with doing what we have to do, attending to our neighbours' welfare, putting all our trust in God. We who know Jesus can surely afford to feel insecure--if we do! We can afford to feel fragile, fearful. Surely these painful emotions can be an opportunity for pure trust. . . .

We find it hard to give up the idea that there is a magic answer somewhere, that it must be possible to get this burden off our backs. We have deep conviction that we are being wronged: our environment is wrong, our companions are responsible; if we had a different job, if this person was not around, if,if, if. There is no answer but facing reality. Do we not see that the truly happy people are not those who have spent themselves avoiding life’s difficulties, seeking escapes and alleviations, trying to control life so as to provide a secure base for the ego, but those who have done battle with themselves, who have tried, not to change the world but to change themselves, to adapt, to accept, to bend, to die. It is a strange thing that one of the hardest things some people are asked to do is precisely to stop being miserable, to choose to be happy in a world of limitations, the world that really is, not the world of make-believe! We prefer to cling on to self-pity, self-contempt, self-recrimination. At least it is safe. It means I cannot be disappointed and no one can blame me for not expecting too much of myself or of life. Such an attitude is an escape from living and loving. It is an egocentric prison.

[Emphasis added]

What I love about Sr. Ruth's book is that she details certain points at which the modern psyche so completely diverges from the "weltanschauung" of St John's time that we must be careful about how we follow his advice. That the emphasis on HOW to go about things has shifted a bit, even though the things we must be about remain eternal.

I also like the head-on confrontation with the common complaints, experiences, attitudes, and actions of the present day. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have knowingly or unknowingly bought into Robert Schuller's "be-happy" or "prosperity" gospel. As a society we long to feel good about ourselves. We seek to make the road as smooth and painless as possible. Sometimes this means that rather than helping the poor myself, because I can't possibly fit it into the schedule of a busy family life, I give money to let others help the poor. Giving money is a very, very good thing to do, especially to legitimate agents who can reach into places too distant for me to touch. However, that does not remove the necessity for me to substantively help the poor in the place where I live. It does not remove the obligation for serving in soup kitchens or helping the St. Vincent de Paul society at my church.

There are other attitudes. "I am Christian and God promised Christians a happy life." Now, I doubt anyone says this quite so boldly; however, it seems to be an underlying attitude. As soon as I run up against a snag, it's time to flee. I shouldn't be inconvenienced. I certainly shouldn't be harmed or caused distress.

St. John of the Cross suggests that the remedy is to choose the most unpleasant tasks--to inure oneself to the idea that we are not promised a bouquet of roses. His chief modern explicator St. Thérèse of Lisieux has quite a different take on the matter. She tells us that life deals quite a few bad hands as it is--it isn't up to us to make our hand worse, but rather play the hand we are dealt with as much joy and fervor as if it were the ultimate winning hand--because, in point of fact, it is. So Thérèse tells us that we don't have to use the discipline and the calice to mortify ourselves--life offers ample opportunities. (As one who died so young she did not experience all the opportunities of old age--but I think the rigors of tuberculosis are quite sufficient to make what she had to say a living reality.) For Thérèse, we don't have to go out and look for trouble, we can find it in the person of the old nun down the way whom no one likes and at whom Thérèse makes a special effort to smile and be pleasant--not because Thérèse felt any marvelous love for this woman, but she nevertheless trained her will to act in love to all.

Our modern world has rigors all its own--pains, pressures, fears, hurts, losses. When faced with one of these we can either choose to flee (the course I know I most often take) or to face them as God's intent for the moment and be strengthened by living the moment and deriving from it the grace God has offered. This is not to promote a kind of false stoicism, but rather to acknowledge as the Buddha did that life is suffering, pain, and hardship (in some large proportion). If we flee these, we flee life itself. We flee the strengthening that comes through testing and endurance, we flee the opportunity for abandonment and trust. That is not to say that we should not take steps to alleviate what suffering we can; however, the reality is that no matter how much pain is removed, there will always be something left that we will either endure or flee. It is better for us to endure it, not because suffering in itself is good or because God wants us to suffer, but because God has allowed it and through it and through our reliance on Him graces will accrue.

If we are paying attention, Thérèse tells us, life offers enough opportunities for mortification and for uniting our sufferings to those of Jesus on the Cross. We needn't go out and seek more. And Thérèse is, in many ways, the "modern" voice of St. John of the Cross. She has taken his teaching and distilled it into a more-or-less modern context. (Although truthfully, even her time is quite distant from our own in many very important ways.) What Sr. Ruth emphasizes in her work is that the truth of St. John of the Cross endures even if some of the methods might be better suited for his own time rather than our own. However, it is necessary to separate the kernel from the hull, because we would tend, on our own, to discard both. The practice is outmoded so the teaching must be perishable. What St. John of the Cross teaches endures--whether the practices he enjoins are meant to be taken for our own times is up to the individual with the help of a spiritual guide to find out. But the truth of the way of self-denial, of taking up our crosses, is not one that originated with St. John of the Cross--he was, perhaps, one of the greatest of its explicators, but the truth is eternal. As with Holy Mother Church--the doctrine is eternal but subject to growth and reinterpretation through time, but the discipline is for the time and it may vary from age to age without any reflection upon the eternal verities in which She is grounded.

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More from Sr. Burrows

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I was very excited to read these two passages:

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

Everything we perceive that does not help us to grow in love of God and others must be denied at whatever cost. 'If your eye is a cause of stumbling to you,' says Jesus, 'put it out.' A highly charged metaphor to impress on us the unutterable importance of pleasing God, living as he would have us live. Nothing counts beside this, not our pleasure and satisfaction, not an easy comfortable life, not wide experience of sense, not 'happiness'--nothing. All occasions of sin must be avoided absolutely in so far as depends on us. When they cannot be avoided and we find ourselves caught up in pleasures that do not help us to God then we must detach ourselves from them, refuse to savour them. But the pleasure that attends all innocent use of created things is to be enjoyed reverently and gratefully. There is no question of denying ourselves just for the sake of doing so, as though this is what God wants. . . .

We need pleasure, but it may be that earnest love sees that we cannot hope to deny ourselves wrong pleasures unless we have undergone a prepartory discipline and learned to say no to perfectly innocent ones. This renunciation is for a purpose; one might say it is a temporary expediency. Our use of creatures, whether we forgo this or that, will be a very personal matter. Nobody can make rules for another. . . . But when all is said and done it is we who must make the decision, and never are we more lonely than when we do so in moral areas. Each has his or her own vocation in life with its own specific demands. No one can live out the full range of human/christian values. We have to choose, and the choice depends on the vocation to which God has called us.

To reply to a previous commenter--how often do you hear this on Oprah or from Pollyanna? Deny yourself--reject legitimate pleasures? More often we hear "Seize the day." Sr. Ruth is not offering us a way of lollipops and roses, nor is a way for perfect people. Sr. Ruth is pointing our the path clearly marked by St. John of the Cross. This is reality, hard and fast reality. Admittedly it is reality of a higher order than many of us ever experience, but it is not of a higher order than what God offers for us to experience.

But what I liked here is the notion that sometimes denial of innocent pleasures is a kind of training for denial of those not-so-innocent. So, in a sense, we give up those things we crave the most as a mortification. We give up beer or wine or chocolate so that we are better equipped to give up taking lustful pleasure in looking at a woman (or man) etc. I will have to weigh this all out, but it is commensurate with John's actual life as reported by others. He loved the countryside and often spent time wandering there. If these created things gave him pleasure and the point of detachment was simply to remove everything that gives pleasure, then we would not have wandered in the fields or spent time in nature in prayer. So this interpretation of Sr. Burrows rings true both with the magnificent poetry and with the life of St. John of the Cross. Now, the danger lies in being too lenient with ourselves as well. How much enjoyment is innocent. How do I stop at the chocolate before gluttony? As Sr. Burrows points out, the choices and the use of created things is something that must be decided by the individual in council with a wise advisor.

So detachment is not about denial for the sake of denial, but carefully considered and discerned denial in service of growing in love of God. We rely upon grace for all of this, we cannot do it unaided, but we must also rely upon carefully considered human reason, to help us make our choices and to discern properly. If we must give up something, if me must deny ourselves, that too should be in pursuit of the ultimate goal--not denial for its own sake, but denial to help foster deeper love of God.

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Because she is such a hit with a least one reader, more from Sister Ruth.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

John can sometimes give the impression that we must renounce all love of creatures:'He who loves anything besides God is incapable of divine union'. . . But of course God is not an object and therefore lies totally ouitside the range of our thinking, imagining, loving. One of the implications of his hiddenness is that he cannot be held, looked at, enjoyed directly in this life. He is in all; things are only because of his self-communication to them. To love anyone or anything purely is to love him; to relate them in accordance with his designs is to be in union with him. In our unsullied enjoyment of creatures, in our delight in others, we are enjoying and delight in him. We ask everyone and everything about him:'Has he passed by you? Show me what he is like. Tell me of him. We ask these questions not merely with the mind in meditation; we ask in action by using creatures as they should be used.

It would be very easy to misread this. Some apparently have already done so; however, understood correctly, I think Sr. Ruth is, on the whole, on-target here. Any creature available to the senses can be loved either for itself or for God in it. That is we can seek to use it illicitly or licitly. When we see God through the object or person, we are loving properly. It is the object of our love that is critical. Do we love what the person or thing can do for us, or do we love that person or thing as an object of God's love and being? I apologize because I recognize that I am not making clear what I really want to say here; and it does seem really quite simple. However language is so fraught with implicit dangers that it is difficult to say. Were I to say that we are to "love God in the creature" it might imply that we could not love the creature--that is bestow some good upon it as a logical outgrowth of love. But that is not what is meant. We must love God in the creature and the creature as an outgrowth of our love of God, thus we may do good as an outgrowth of that love. But more often than not we love the creature only for what it can do for us. We love money, or we love some other legitimate good, not because they give glory to God, but because they give glory to us. The proper use of creatures is a very difficult line to define. That may be why St. John of the Cross is so frequently misunderstood to say abandon all creatures. He does not do so. And yet, as Jesus instructs us, it is better to abandon them, even be they so close as our own eye or hand, than to be unable to enter the kingdom. When we begin to love and lust after a creature for itself rather than for God-in-it, we have moved from the proper "use" of things into the self-aggrandizement of the ego.

This is what St. John of the Cross would have us understand, I think. Anything created thing we want for the thing itself becomes an object that bars us from further growth in God. However anything loved for the loved of God can help us on our way.

It makes a certain amount of sense. Out of love for the nuns at Beas, St. John of the Cross wrote many of these works and commentaries. Obviously he did not abandon, no more did he cease to love them. He loved them for God -in-them (purely) and was led naturally to seek their betterment as love will do.

The proper use of created things is use according to their dignity, stature, and ordained purpose in bringing us closer to God. Any use other than that is obstructive to our growth and it may be sin. We cannot love creatures for what we can get from them in this world and still aspire to the kingdom of God.

(Or, at least, so my weak understanding carries me. There are a great many unresolved questions regarding this in my own mind and my formulation is far from complete, but here's a start.)

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According to the interpretation of St. John of the Cross by Sr. Ruth Burrows.

I loved this passage and I dedicate it especially to Rob.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

Turning now to the Ascent we understand that John is not demanding that we cast a pall over all created things and live in some sort of void but that we impose a night on the ego. 'It is not the things of this world that ensnare and injure the soul, for they do not enter within it, but the desire for them which abides within it, that is the ego which always seeks itself and therefore abuses and destroys." The ego curls inwards and, like a carnivorous flower, draws everything else within it, destroying both them and itself. This ego-centred movement is a perversion, it is disobedience in the fullest sense. It is sin. In Paul's terms it is the flesh that lusteth against the spirit. Called beyond ourself to the enfolding transforming love of the infinite, and never happy save in obedience to this call, we nevertheless shrink from commitment to it. Innately obstinate in us (and how strong!) is that which expects, demands, looks for fulfilment within this world, even though we know experientially and intellectually that it cannot be.

I love the metaphor of the carnivorous plant and particularly the lovely use of the word "curl" rather than "turn." Curling suggests a withering, a drying up, a post-mortem effect. That is the place of the ego--withering and death. It is the place of the spirit where we have enfolding and unfolding and the transformation of the seen into the plant.

In case you can't tell, I'm really enjoying sister Ruth's book. It seems so practical, down-to-earth, and ordinary. It takes away the sting of much of the phrasing of St. John of the Cross and reveals (or so I think) the underlying truth of what he teaches about the Spritiual life.

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The End for Which We Are Made


This weekend I asked my Carmelite community whether detachment was a means or an end. We concluded that it was something of both (at least for Carmelites). That is, the real end is loving God completely and having complete freedom in God. For this to happen, we must be stripped of everything that has a tendency to keep us from God; hence detachment is a means. Nevertheless, once we have achieved the real end--proper love of God, we will also have achieved detachment whether or not we have consciously striven for it. The two fit hand-in-glove. So, while there may be other paths to achieve union with God, they all ultimately involve dying to self. Now this prospect sounds hideous, but I think this passage from Ruth Burrows clarifies what is meant.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

We ourselves are mystery and our proper ambience is mystery. When we speak of God's hiddenness we are saying he is the answer to our yearning. He is unfathomable mystery offered to us. Through Jesus he reveals himself not only as our beloved--the object of desire--but as our lover. The we realise that he has always been our beloved for the simple reason that he is our lover. We learn that there is a fulfilment to our endless longing but not within ourselves, not with the limitations of this world or our own achievements, but as pure gift. There is an inevitable conflict between our true self and its deepest desire to be enfolded, possessed by our beloved, and the innate drive to control, posses, to find fulfilment within ourselves. This we can call the ego. It is our basic self-orientation which is a dead end. Let us say the true self is loyal to transcendence, the ego betrays it and settles for limitation. 'We must courageously resolve to pass both interiorly and exteriorly beyond the limits of our own nature, so as to enter illimitably within the supernatural which has no measure and contains all measure within itself. " But it is precisely our nature to go beyond the limits of our nature so as to enter into God! The self must triumph over the ego.

When we speak of dying to self, this is what we are referring to. We must put aside the ego--the false self, the sense of ourselves that we have constructed and by which we identify ourselves, and discover our identities in Christ. In Sr. Burrows's words, it is the ego that must die so that the self can assume its proper and divinely appointed place within the body.

Naturally we fear this because once our construct is dead, we will be naked and exposed. The whole world we see us for what we are and we do not know what that will be. Nevertheless, if what lies buried under this burden of ego (speaking for myself) resembles St. Anselm, St. Patrick, St. Thomas More, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis Xavier, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Clare of Assisi, etc. then what have I to fear when I stand exposed? The world may hate me, but God will have taken me and made me already one with Him in the body of Christ, aware of who and what I am and what my purpose for His glory is. Even at a distance I can acknowledge this as what I would like to achieve. Loving union with God for all eternity starting here and now--for that end the stripping away of ego, no matter how painful, is worth the effort and the pain. Now, it's just overcoming the fear and the selfishness that hold me back.

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More About Detachment

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Mama T is correct below when she says that detachment boils down to a right ordering of loves.

I am thinking more about it, and detachment may also be a training in the right ordering of thoughts and of ourselves in the universe. Detachment teaches us that what is "ours" is really only lent to us as we need it. "My child" is "the child who, throught the grace of God I hold in trust for Him."

Detachment teaches us to look through the surface of things and see behind them the true wonder of the fact that they exist at all, all sustained by His gentle breath and will.

Praise God now and always in the moment and in all that we do. He is truly all that is worthy of our Love and anything we love is not truly loved unless it is loved in, and for, and through Him. Perhaps that is the lesson of detachment. I rejoice in the rose not for the rose but for the rose whispers about Him who made her. I rejoice in the moment, because He is with me and within me, sustaining me and helping me see. My joy is always in the Lord. That is detachment--I learn to love as God loves because I abandon the need to own what I love, I can let it be what it truly is in Him.

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Whenever you start to mention detachment, there is the severe risk of being misunderstood. More than that, it is a concept that takes living with and studying a long, long time before it clarifies. My present understanding is clouded by the fact that as much as I would like to lay claim to it, I am anything but detached. Nevertheless, to understand detachment it seems necessary to consider the entire corpus of work of Carmelite writers rather than taking bits and pieces out of context. While I cannot claim deep familiarity with all of the writings, I have begun to formulate a sense of what the Saints say to me in their writings and in their lives. That's another aspect of understanding that needs to be weighed together with the writings.

Many seem to think that detachment basically means deprivation. One of the first things I point out to Carmelites who are trying to learn the concept is that Lenten practices might help strengthen us toward detachment, but they resemble detachment only very distantly. For many, the Lenten practice of "giving something up" serves as a useful penance and reminder of the sacrifice made for us. However, if most are like me, a great deal of thought is lavished on what is given up. That is, we feel the occasional craving for chocolate, or cigarettes, or whatever it is that we have given up. We resist giving in, but have the promise that in another couple of weeks we can be back to normal.

While giving things up is training and strengthening the will in what detachment is about, it isn't detachment. And it has occurred to me that detachment is never an end in itself and it is a goal that is achieved by means other than seeking it. The Carmelite saints do say that you must become detached, but they never really give any clear step by step directions for going about this. The closest they come are a few aphorisms about choosing the least appealing thing, etc. In truth, as I study more, it seems that detachment grows in proportion to our devotion to God. That is that we are given the strength and the will not to be held bound by material things as we come to love God more deeply.

I shared this analogy with a correspondent:

Sometimes there is a misunderstanding about detachment that hinges on the popular use of the word. People think of it as indifference or disinterest because that is what it popularly means. But detachment isn't like that. To give you an example from the Bible of what the opposite of detachment looks like: When Jesus was transfigured Peter immediately takes in the experience and wants to create a concrete memorial to it for all time--"We'll build three tabernacles, one for you, one for Elijah, one for Moses." Jesus, of course, refuses and points out that Peter misses the point of the entire experience. In the same case what detachment would look like is Peter saying, (as he sort of does elsewhere), "Praise God and His holy name that I have been so privileged to see such a thing." There is celebration, but there isn't the need to keep everything right at your side. Detachment is knowing when to use something and when to let it go. It isn't the rejection of reality, but rather the proper love of reality.

A lot of people think that in detachment you must reject physical reality. A misreading of St. John of the Cross leads to this conclusion. And yet if you read his poetry and even the prose, all around you can see beautiful signs of his engagement with the every day.

Let me share another example that might speak of my present understanding of detachment. Say that a person woke one morning and looked out on their front lawn and saw there striding across the lawn a Sand Hill Crane family. The heart of the attached person would say, "This is beautiful, really beautiful. I need to build a cage so that I can have the cranes with me always."

The heart of the detached person would say, "Oh, Thank you Jesus for this beauty. Thank you God for all that you have given me in this." And they would watch the cranes as they strutted their majestic way across the field and to wherever they were going.

The detached person does not need to hold on to the cranes to love them and to love Him who sent them. He or she accepts the gift for the momentary grace that it is and rejoices in it. Perhaps the joy is greater because there is no need to preserve it. No photograph needs to be taken of it, etc.

Think of it this way--often when we go on a trip with our families we take our cameras and our video cameras. I have watched groups wandering through Disneyworld with Dad's eye permanently affixed to the viewfinder, to preserve forever this experience. But think how much is lost when everything has to be preserved. Yes, you go on the rides, but if you're busy filming them, do you ever really experience them? This is what attachment is like. We go through the world trying to preserve every holy feeling, every sensation of grandeur, every sign of God, photographing each instant, and thus standing outside of it.

Now consider the child who visits Disney World. Unless they are old enough to have been unduly influenced by their parents, they engage the world directly. They run from one thing to the next. They say hello to Goofy and then are off to the flying carpets. They climb the tree house and then want to go on the Jungle ride. Every moment is alive--all sensation all drive is for the present moment the experience that is right now. There is no need to preserve it forever, it will be emblazoned in that child's brain. The child analogically represents detachment. This may be part of the reason that Jesus extols these little ones and tells us that we must become like them to enter the kingdom.

I hope this extended reflection has helped to cast some light on what detachment is. I'm not claiming this is the final word--nor can I claim that this is the true and ultimate understanding of St. John of the Cross or the great Carmelite writers. It is how I understand what they say at this moment in my journey. God grant that my understanding increase, but more, that my practice of it increase beyond measure. I pray that God take away my need for the camera and allow me to experience each moment for itself, relishing Him always in His present graces.

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Human Transcendance


I really liked this passage from early on in Sr. Ruth Burrows's book.

from Ascent to Love
Sr. Ruth Burrows

John is enamoured of human transcendence. 'One single thought of man is greater than all the world; only God is worthy of it.' We are made for the infinite and degrade ourselves if we opt for less.

The whole creation compared with the inifinite being of God is nothing. All the beauty of creation compared with His beauty is sheer ugliness; all its delicate loveliness merely repulsive. Compared with the goodness of God the goodness of the entire world is rather evil. All wisdom, all human understanding beside his is pure ignorance. . . and so it is with sweetness, pleasures, riches, glory, freedom.

This is a hymn to human transcendence not a denigration of created reality. John's pathway up the mount could rightly be entitled, 'On becoming human'.

Later I shall post Sr. Ruth's view of the universality of John's doctrine. (Note, the universality of the doctrine, but not especially of the means. John's teaching on the spiritual realm (as well as Teresa's and Thérèse's) is what had made him a Doctor of the Church universal. But his means of achieving what he describes is peculiar to those pursuing the Carmelite vocation (either within the family or unknowingly on their own. One supposes that it is possible, all unknowingly to follow the via negativa outlined by John).

What is interesting here is the thought that every human thought is exalted above all creation and hence only worthy to be directed for Him who is greater than all creation. Our words have power so too our thought.

I also think it very important to point out that John thinks the created realm is very good indeed. He acknowledges throughout this short passage all the beauty and glory of creation and then moves on to say, nevertheless, these are less than dust compared to the creator of beauty and loveliness.

When we think about the created realm, that is the proper order of thoughts. Not good and evil (although evil does exist and should be acknowledged) but rather in the normal course, the proper ordering of goods. Detachment, in Carmelite thinking is "choosing the better part," or the greatest good. It isn't about rejecting the goodness of creation but more thoroughly embracing it in the embrace of the greatest Good--the God who loves us.

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One View of Carmel

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from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

The Order of Carmel stands for the mystical. Everything in its teaching and way of life as established by St. Teresa is directed precisely towards this. A full flowering of the mystical life and the Christian life are one and the same thing. The culmination, perfection, fulfilment of the Christian life--'all that the Lord has promised'-- is, in our special terminology, the mystical marriage or the transforming union. The ascent of Mount Carmel is but the fulness of the Christian life, which is synonymous with the fulness of human being. There are not two vocations, one to human fulfilment and the other, if we are special and privileged, to Christian fulfilment. There is only one fulfilment to be achieved either in this world or the next, that which we call mystical marriage or transforming union.

This is essentially what Carmel means to me. It is a view of human life translated into a definite purpose and aim. Climbing a mountain to meet God? Yes. But the mountain itself is God and he cannot be scaled by merely human endeavour. What Carmel does is to disengage the bare components of the human vocation, what is really involved in being human, and tries to live them in an absolute, naked sort of way. So convinced am I that Carmel is nothing other than a living out in a stark manner what is the very essence of the human vocation that, were I to come across any practice, ideal, principle, which has not its correlative in life 'outside' it would be jettisoned as unauthentic. There is a distinction between living Carmel and living in Carmel, just as there is between being a Christian and practising the Christian religion. It is the former that matters, and the later is useless unless it leads to the primary goal.

That is one very clear, very succinctly stated view of what it means to be a Carmelite. And, I think from my brief experience of it, largely true. Living Carmel is more important than being a Carmelite. As with any vocation it is a matter of growing into it.

Carmel's vocation is a unique statement of the universal vocation. We are not all called to achieve this end in the same way, but we are all called to achieve the end defined in Carmelite terms as "mystical marriage or transforming union." The way one goes about arriving at this end is unique to the individual. Some have been so fortunate as to be called to a certain rule and rigor--the path is, more or less, laid out for them. But even within a vocation the paths vary depending upon the individual. This must be so because Saints are not carbon copies of one another. There is only one St. Francis even though the saints among the followers of his way are innumerable. So too with St. Dominic, St. Teresa, and any other saint. While the rule may be clear, within that rule is a magnificent wideness that allows for us to be precisely whom Jesus calls us to be. Those without a vocation in a rule still have the universal vocation to holiness and to growing into God. Frankly, I don't remember what it was like to live that way outside of Carmel. Even though I have not attained even a good standard discipline (never mind perfection) in obedience to the rule that governs my life; nevertheless, it is always there and always a significant part of what I do and think, and God willing, through time, I'll become a better exemplar of it.

But the point or end of life is the same for all. Carmelites call it the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Mystical or Spiritual Marriage, the Transforming Union, or any number of other things. But it is very simply stated in the words of our Lord, "I must decrease so the He might increase." This is the Christian vocation. We must become less ourselves so, paradoxically, we can be fully ourselves in Him. The only identity we have is in Christ and so long as we try to define ourselves, we are failing to find out who we are. The entire point of all Christian living is to love God and to achieve the personhood God has set aside for us by joining Him. This will happen to everyone who follows Him faithfully--as Sr. Ruth says above, either in this life or in the life to come.

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I stumbled across this passage in a new book obtained from Amazon the other day.

from Ascent to Love: The Spiritual Teaching of St. John of the Cross
Ruth Burrows

We have an innate drive to seek our own perfection with the dimensions of what we understand and consciously experience. We think we know what we need for our well-being and happiness and demand this of life. This is very marked today when greater opportunities are available. We say we must feel fulfilled, that we have a right to this or that because we need it for our fulfilment. We must not be diminished or feel frustrated in our desires. But the truth is that we do not know what human fulfilment is. We can neither conceive of it nor the path to it except in Jesus and him crucified. To seek what we think is fulfilment, making it our sole aim and subordinating other people and things to our own needs is to lose our way. We must allow God to bring us to the fulfillment he has made us for, by a way that is infallible because it is his way for us. We must be brought to dispossession, emptiness, formlessness. A dreadful prospect? Does not this spell death to a human being? Paradoxically, no, it is the other side of the plenitude of life. It is to enter into him who is all, to be filled by the all.

The detached heart has a far greater joy and comfort in created realities, for to treat them possessively is to lose all joy in them. . . . The whole created world is illumined and seen for what it is in a way the selfish heart can never know. The unselfish heart alone knows the joy of pure love for others. The more another is loved, the more God is loved.

In the past, I have written of detachment and sometimes I have to keep a clear focus on the fact that detachment is not an end in itself, but a means to the only End worthy of consideration. But here, for me, there was a breath of the truth, another confirmation of what I know instinctively. Detachment is not the rejection of created things, but the proper valuing of created things in subordination to the love of the Creator of All. In this proper alignment of values, created things become all the more wonderful and real because we can allow them to be without having to have some sort of control over them or possession of them.

How many relationships would be healed if we stopped the endless need to impose our own will on others? How many people would come to love more and to follow Jesus more closely if they were to abandon their own ways and to take up his? In every disagreement, in every quarrel, in every negative human interaction, the predominant element is the need of one person to express him or herself through the control of another. And the one being controlled lashes out in response to this attempt at possession. But if we belong only to God, we would not have to lash out against those who would possess us because we know clearly to whom we belong.

If we seek Him in love, all other things will not fall away, but they will fall into place. He is the keystone of the arch, the anchor of the edifice. If God is at the center everything holds together. If anything else, "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Only in God will my soul be at rest--in Him is my hope, my salvation (in the language of the psalms). Detachment is a secondary means to an end and it is achieved by focus on the primary means--love of God above all things.

But this doesn't mean that detachment is something easy to come by and simply acted upon. It is not. It takes a grace-strengthened act of will to resist the lure of possession. From the beginning we seek to possess, because possession seems to fill the aching void within. But the only possession that really fills that void is, paradoxically, being possessed, not ourselves owning anything, but being owned, redeemed, notably His. "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm." We need to wear His insignia, His band upon our arms. In this we are enslaved to all and completely free. The words make no sense at all, and yet I think we understand the reality they express at some very deep level.

And (is it because of the fall?) every fiber of our being resists this possession. We seek to identify ourselves and make ourselves known to the world at large. But our only identity is in Christ, our only meaning in God. Outside of Him nothing we do, say, or have has any substance. The more we own, the more that owns us, and the more the gnawing, all consuming hunger drives us to acquire yet more.

Detachment which comes through Love of God and graced acts of will places us in the seat of greatest joy. We need not own anything and nothing owns us except Him who is entitled. How can this reality not appeal? How can moving closer to all and away from the nothingness of everyday desire not be the burning drive of our hearts? I don't know, but too often it is so. As for me, I pray it cease as soon as it can. I would like to say with Joshua, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." And I cannot so long as I am busy serving myself

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from "The Spirituality of the Psalms" Roland E. Murphy
in Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

It would be foolhardy to claim that the spirituality of the Psalms can be appropriated by the saint, but not the sinner. These prayers are clearly the aspirations of a people that readily admitted its sinfulness, and hence are appropriate for the modern reader. However, Christian tradition emphasizes another aspect to praying the Psalms. From the time of John Cassian (fifth century) to the late Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan, there is an emphasis on the subjective attitude of the reader of Scripture. Lonergan called for a "conversion" opf the interpreter in pursuing theology, inciuding the interpretation of the Word. John Cassian insisted on spiritual preparation. While his Conferences were primarily geared to the monastic life, and were the fruit of his living with the anicent monks of the desert, his views have a taste of the modern in that they reach out to experience. Abbot Nesteros urges him to read the Scriputres with the same diligence with which he pursued secular studies; then the secular will yield to the spiritual (XIV: 13). At the end of XIV:14 the abbot insists on purity of heart: "It is impossible that anyone whose soul is not pure can acquire spiritual knowledge, no matter how diligently he appplies himself in study." . . . The situation of those who read the Bible is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, spiritual discipline is needed to prepare for the reading; on the other hand, spiritual experience accompanies and is the fruit of such reading.

Two points. This is the second time in two weeks that I have encountered the name of Lonergan in an extended nonfiction work. Were I inclined to read theology, I would think that I should pick up Lonergan at this point. However, momentary perusal of a website dedicated to a study of his philosophy reveals that I haven't the intellectual wherewithal to do so. So once again invincible ignorance triumphs.

The seond point--reading Scripture should convert the reader. I liken this to Harold Bloom's notion that a great text should read the reader as much as it is read. When Scripture "reads" me, I should stand before it convicted and converted. The reading should begin the formulation of a change. It is all a work of grace--both the reading and the change. Nevertheless, the abbot above says to apply yourself as diligently to your Biblical reading as you do to your secular. That in itself should provoke deep thought for a great many of us. How often do I read the Bible for the same or greater a length of time as I do all the many wonderful works of secular literature? Is reading Scripture a priority or is it an afterthought?

Here, in miniature is an example of what Bloom talks about. Though we're not talking a great work of literature in this small essay, the essay has "read" me and found my attitudes and ideas wanting. God delivers to an unworthy servant yet another work of grace--He leads me to such rich reading and then opens my eyes to what is being said. May He also open my heart to the change that is required.

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from "The Spirituality of the Psalms" Roland E. Murphy
in Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

As recently as 1970 a Roman liturgical directive recommended that Psalms 58, 83, and 109, along with certain parts of several psalms be omitted. This unconscionable censorship has led to their disappearance in "prayer" books. A very limited hermeneutic, to say the least, lies behind this move. It fails to recognize the human need to see divine justice at work, a need found in both testaments. Although the censorship is well meant, it betrays a superior and moralistic attitude, as if violence and vengeance were not part of Christian existence. Is prayer supposed to consist of pious thoughts, with no relationship to reality? The sad fact is that Christians can fail to confront the vicious reality in their lives, and remain blind to the vengeance and violence that lurk in their own hearts. These psalms should be turned against whoever prays them, challenging them concerning the violence and vengeance that mark their existence. It is ironic that such a directive could be given in the most violent of Christian centuries.

Sometime things are done "for my own good" by very well-meaning people. Often these result in no good whatsoever. I am not improved by them, and, in fact, I am significantly diminished by these actions. Fr. Murphy makes a case for that here. Sacred scripture is inspired and completely and wholly without error. Every word of it is worth our attention and reading. Some may be confusing and difficult, but every word is God's fullest revelation of Himself to His people. Too often we take scripture for granted. Those of us who run blogs and who read a great deal often do not spend much of a day reading scripture. Many are, at best, erratic and irregular in their approach to scripture. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours and daily attendance at Mass are the first line of defense and the premier remedy for our lack of connection with scripture.

But it is important to remember that scripture isn't something one occasionally refers to or partakes of. The Christian life, properly lived, should be a living, breathing reification of scriptural truth. Through the word of God each Christian is granted an "insider's" knowledge of the mind of God, insofar as it is possible for a human being to understand it. Scripture strengthens one's knowledge of God and hence gives more reason to love--it strengthens charity and it reading it bestows countless graces. This is perhaps one reason why regular prolonged reading of scripture is an indulgenced activity. According to the most recent Enchiridion of Indulgences:

While a partial indulgence is granted to those who read from
Sacred Scripture with the veneration which the divine word is
due, a PLENARY INDULGENCE is granted to those who read for at
least one half an hour.

Now, the motive in reading scripture should be something more than obtaining an indulgence, but it is interesting to note that the Church specifically indulgences prolonged reading of scripture. A indulgence is granted to encourage the faithful, and the Church evidently thinks that reading of Scripture is an important formative influence. One might assume from the nature of the indulgence that the Church sees prolonged reading of scripture as prophylactic, and perhaps even transformative.

So from Fr. Murphy's little tirade to a larger sense of scripture reading--God is gracious to us and grants us a great many ways to talk to Him. In reading scripture, if it is done in the proper spirit, with a short prayer for understanding to the Holy Spirit, the reader can be renewed, refreshed, revived, and brought closer to the Spirit of Love whose action inspired each word and whose continued action makes each word comprehensible.

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Carmelite Prayer


from "Carmel: A School of Prayer" by Fr. Keith J. Egan
in Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

Carmel has widely been perceived as a school of contemplative prayer, especially as the Carmelite tradition became well known through the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Carmelite prayer, it must be said, is not an esoteric or elitist tradition, despite the popular but not always accurate reputation of these two Spanish Carmelites. Contemplative prayer in the hands of Teresa and John moves toward simplicity. As Iain Matthew has written, prayer in the Carmelite mode ". . . contains an impulse toward simplicity." It is a movement that invites the Spirit of God to take over the dynamics of the heart. Graced human effort is mere preparation for prayer that truly becomes prayer when God prays within us (Rom 8:26). Contemplative prayer is not a matter of human achievement but is God's gracious gift to a heart that struggles to be free so that it may be open to and filled with divine love.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Carmelite category from January 2005.

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