Carmelite: November 2005 Archives

I'm still reading the book and still thinking about the complete argument in an attempt to evaluate it. But I find many of the issues raised interesting. I'm sure Cardinal Dulles would find much to refute in the course of the logic of the book. But this at least trolls an interesting depth.

from If Grace Is True
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland

I paid homage to God's grace while championing human freedom. Salvation was not dependent on God's decision to save me, but on my decision to accept him. My righteousness determined my status and destiny. I controlled my destiny. I chose whether I was loved and accepted or hated and rejected. God's love was dependent upon my behavior. Grace was not a gift but a trophy.

I had easily rejected predestination's claim that the trophy was randomly awarded. What good was a trophy if you hadn't earned it? Though I was uncomfortable when the power to save or damn lay solely in God's hands, I had no qualms with suggesting the power lay completely in mine. In retrospect, my defense of human freedom was simply plain, old human pride. I wanted to take credit for my choice to respond to God's grace. I wanted to believe I chose God.

Obviously this is not a matter for proof-texting but for understanding in the overall sense and reading in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and in this case the earliest tradition without the accretions of understanding that resulted as historical contingency shaped a world-view. We must understand the debate on its own terms without the triumphalism of one party or another. These earlier fathers give us a glimpse of that thought before accretions had been crystallized. And even among these earliest Fathers there is a strong measure of debate. In fact, there is a line (said to be overstepped by Origen, amongst others) that the Church definitively teaches we may not cross--that of suggesting the fallen angels shall be reunited with God. However, several great Saints of the Eastern tradition held fast to the idea of universal salvation as some members of the Orthodox community do today.

But what is important here isn't so much the mechanics of salvation and whether everyone is saved. Because even if everyone is saved, we still must work as though they were not because we cannot know that universal salvation is a given and there is much to argue against it.

No, what is really important, as TSO pointed out earlier this morning, is that when I take my eyes off of Christ, I will flounder. His face holds me up, His breath sustains me, His love makes me entire, His grace saves me from eternity to eternity.

When I take my mind off of this reality, I find myself in the untenable position of wrestling with matters that are really beyond me. I can no longer assume the place of the child in this--one of my favorite psalms.

Psalm 131

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.

Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.

Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.

For my own peace of mind it is far better to focus on intense love of God and following His commandments rather than trying to wrap my mind around mysteries within mysteries within mysteries. As I will not know the fullness of the truth until I have achieved the beatific vision (God be willing!), I should not trouble myself with these difficulties, but rather spend my time in the realities I know and understand. As St. Teresa of Avila said, "The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything." Which is not to argue against knowledge, but to admit that there is a time in every person's life where thinking and knowledge fail and obedience and love must prevail to carry the person through until the end. Teresa's dictum comes at the point where words end and the mind has been trained as thoroughly as possible. For some this will be a longer stretch, for some a shorter. In different matters we may think more and longer with greater fruit than in others. When it comes to the mystery of God's will in salvation, I have thought to the end of my own resources and I turn to love--because love holds the gaze of the beloved and it is in that gaze that I am made lovable. It is God's love and grace that makes any person loveable and while that Grace is constantly supplied and bestowed, it is strengthened by knowing from whence it comes, by holding the eye of the Beloved as we move ahead in faith.

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The more I read about Teresa of Avila, the more she becomes my mother. I am a person after her heart, or at least I'm in training, trying to learn to be.

The other day I quoted some swathes of St. Teresa. Now I shall regale you with other related pieces:

from Journey to Carith
Peter-Thomas Rohrbach

[first a repeat]

"My chief fear," she wrote, "is that the sisters should lose the spirit of joy by which the Lord leads them, for I know what a discontented nun is."

In this he [Nicholas Doria--the autocratic first Prior General of the Discalced Carmelites] was diametrically opposed to the mentality of Teresa who wrote: "What my nuns are afraid of is that we shall get some tiresome superiors who will lay heavy and excessive burdens on them. That will lead us nowhere." And when a visitator had written a number of directives for her nuns, she wrote: "Even reading the regulations made me tired, so what would it be if one had to keep them? Believe me, our rule will not stand additions from tiresome people like that: it is quite hard enough to keep as it is." Doria certainly fell into her category of "tiresome people."

This Saint who begged to be delivered from "sour-faced Saints" (one gets the impression that she wouldn't much have cared for Jerome or Margaret-Mary Alacoque) understood the primary place of Joy in being able to follow God.

Joy is not merely the result of following Him, it is the consolation poured out for obedience to Him, which, in turn, makes following Him easier and more desirable. In the Teresian reform and constitutions, there is the perfect blend of joy and discipline. The discipline, in fact, is a source of joy. It is a boundary that helps define the acceptable limits of behavior and the expectations of one who dearly loves the Lord.

We do not have to practice endless self-denying things. It is enough to take ten or fifteen minutes and spend it in prayer. Not in petitions, or intercessions, or any sort of planned, pre-considered prayer, but rather in the conversation with the Lord that results from considering His word to us. Fifteen minutes of Lectio each day is discipline enough. At least for Carmelites, at least as a start. As one is faithful to the time, the desire to increase the time grows dramatically. Fifteen minutes becomes insufficient. But the press of the day will not allow more! It's amazing what the Lord will work when we give Him the opportunity. I did not have enough time for prayer in recent weeks and so I've been visited by a condition that frequently causes me to wake in the night and need to get up and move about for a while. Surprisingly, I do not feel less rested in the morning for all the break in the middle of the night. And what is the thing I do? I pray. Yes, I also write and read and do other things, but I pray in ways that were not possible in the course of the day. If the desire is there, God will find a way to help! It won't always be the same way--but I'm stubborn to the core and have to be convinced to take time out, so the Lord used this means. For others, they will find windows of time mysteriously opening up that somehow never really affect the other tasks of the day.

The simple practice of time alone with God allows us to carry the God of our acquaintance in solitude into ordinary life. We have what St. John of the Cross refers to as "solitude of the heart" and it makes it possible to pray constantly. Elsewhere in the book referenced above is this intriguing reference:

One of his contemporaries recalls that John would frequently scrape his knuckles against the wall while he was conversing with others so that he could keep his attention on the matter at hand and not allow himself to become rapt in prayer.

Oh what a gift--to have to distract myself to keep me OUT of prayer. But that is the gift and consolation incumbent upon solitude of the heart, which is cultivated by the little discipline of daily solitude with God. What perfect joy--to have to distract myself from prayer. I only hope that this longing within me increases immeasurably until it overwhelms all other conflicting desires.

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Mary, Queen and Mother of Carmel


Some of what follows is sheer speculation, thinking out loud. If it conflicts in any way with established doctrine and understanding, it should be disregarded, and I would greatly appreciate a note correcting any such error.

Mary, Queen and mother of Carmel and big sister to the Carmelites and to all contemplatives. From earliest times, Carmelites have viewed Mary as both Queen and Mother and as true Sister and exemplar of the Christian expression of St. Elijah. In a certain way, she is the Mother Superior of the Order, chief among the sisters and brothers--example and guide for the attentive.

Also from earliest times, Carmelites have had a special devotion to Mary. The earliest manifestation of this was in the primitive Oaths and Vows that referred to the Carmelite follower of Mary as Vassal and Fief of Mary--the true property and servant, the one owed protection and special care of the Blessed Virgin. Even today, the Carmelite, with his or her habit of the brown scapular, claims the special attention of Mary. (Which is, in no way to imply favoritism on the part of the Blessed Virgin, it is merely reflective of the origin of the Order and its charism.)

True devotion to Mary does not consist of endless prayers to her but of substantive imitation of her way of life and of obedience to her very few direct words to us.

John 2:1-5

1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there;
2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."
4 And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Do whatever he tells you. These are the words of the Mother and sister who already has reason to know that what is being done is extraordinary. As she pondered the events of her life in an extended thirty year examen, she came to know who and what Jesus is even before there has been any overt sign. It is at a word from her that the prophetic and salvific mission begins. It is as though the Holy Spirit in both unites them at this unique time and place to initiate the Earthly preaching mission of Jesus. At Mary's word, the every obedient, loyal, and loving Son is released just as He had been bound after the finding in the temple.

One of the chief ways in which devotion to the Blessed Virgin is expressed is through praying the Rosary. In the before times, long ago, the Rosary was a device that led to a kind of extended lectio without the necessity of being able to read. One pondered the mysteries of the life of the Blessed Virgin and of Jesus Christ in the course of praying through the Rosary. In addition, the Rosary was a kind of "replacement" for the Liturgy of the Hours for those who could not read. It became possible through the three sets of mysteries of the Rosary to pray through the 150 psalms of the psalter.

Of the rosary, Pope John Paul the Great, of recent memory, wrote:

from the Apostolic Letter "Rosarium Virginis Mariae"

[1] With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love. Through the Rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer. . .

[3] I have felt drawn to offer a reflection on the Rosary, as a kind of Marian complement to that Letter and an exhortation to contemplate the face of Christ in union with, and at the school of, his Most Holy Mother. To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.

[5][T]he most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine “training in holiness”

[10] The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[15] The Rosary is both meditation and supplication. Insistent prayer to the Mother of God is based on confidence that her maternal intercession can obtain all things from the heart of her Son. She is “all-powerful by grace”, to use the bold expression, which needs to be properly understood, of Blessed Bartolo Longo in his Supplication to Our Lady.This is a conviction which, beginning with the Gospel, has grown ever more firm in the experience of the Christian people. The supreme poet Dante expresses it marvellously in the lines sung by Saint Bernard: “Lady, thou art so great and so powerful, that whoever desires grace yet does not turn to thee, would have his desire fly without wings”. When in the Rosary we plead with Mary, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35), she intercedes for us before the Father who filled her with grace and before the Son born of her womb, praying with us and for us.

I won't belabor the point. The entire letter is worthy of careful consideration--it may be among the most Carmelite of the Letters of this most famous Third Order Carmelite. The understanding of both the Rosary and of what it teaches, strikes me as profoundly Carmelite. We don't recite the prayers of the Rosary as a rote exercise or as a devotion, we pray the Rosary as a model and a source, a root, as it were, of contemplation. For the Carmelite, any other use of the Rosary falls short of its true potential AND, more importantly, falls short of true devotion to Mary. True devotion to Mary, in the Carmelite tradition, consists in imitating her to the extent possible according to our way of life and our present cultural milieu. Yes, through intercession and prayer, we trust her with all of our concerns, but that falls short of the perfection of devotion, which consists of Imitating her, and in the imitation of Her, gazing on and becoming like Her Son. In a very real way, in her thirty years of meditation upon the mystery of her life and the Incarnation, she bound herself to her Son--as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, she already experienced the "spiritual marriage" and "mystical union." In some way that I don't comprehend or presume to explain, it would seem to me that she shared in the sufferings of Christ in His passion AND carried her own weight of suffering (as a Mother losing a beloved child) as well. In the depths of the mystery of the Passion, she seems to play two roles--one in union with the Holy Trinity through the indwelling Holy Spirit and the complete consummate spiritual union, the other as sorrowing mother, observer and witness of the trials, terrors, and horrors, of the Passion. (I hope I don't overstate the case here, forgive me if I have or if I have inadvertently written any error in regard to these deep mysteries. They are truly beyond me, and I hope I do not go beyond what the Holy Catholic Church teaches. Here most of all, I humbly await and accept correction.)

Thus, the Carmelite looking upon the Blessed Virgin sees both contemplative and example. She is Queen and Mother of Carmel. She is the chief protector, guide, and example of the Order. But by virtue of her human birth She is our sister as well as our mother in faith. This is not so odd as it sounds--in many religious order, the Mother Superior, is merely the chief of all the sisters. After her term of office, she returns to the state she had before in the Order. Mary is simply the permanent Mother Superior of all Carmelites.

I hope I've provided some insight into the role and importance of the Blessed Virgin in Carmelite devotion. It explains why a great many Carmelites had difficulty with reciting the Rosary on a regular basis. The common recitation of it does not often lend itself to the depth implied by John Paul the Great in his letter. Too often it is too easy to be carried along on the tide of the familiar and not enter into the depths of what is available in this most wonderful of devotions. Truly prayed, the Rosary should effect a profound change in the pray-er making her or him more like the subject of the devotion and more like Jesus Christ. Too often, the Rosary is a chain of supplication and intercession more than it is an entrance into the depth of the life of Our Savior and His Mother. But, as Saint Teresa of Avila points out, even vocal prayer is raised to the level of mental prayer if we keep in mind always the vastness of great dignity of the One to Whom we speak. And even though we seem to speak to the Blessed Virgin, the Rosary is a continual plea to God through the merciful intercession of the Blessed Virgin. A properly prayed Rosary, faithfully accomplished every day, is as much a gateway to contemplation as faithful following of the Liturgy of the Hours or Lectio Divina. That the latter two along with special devotion to the Blessed Virgin--either in the form of the Rosary or in other special devotions--make up the pillars of the introduction to prayer in Carmel should come as no surprise. That they serve as the gateway to meditation, contemplation, and as God wills, eventual union with God, again should not be the source of any surprise. The Blessed Virgin Mary looks with an eye of special kindness on those who wear her scapular worthily and upon those who invoke her aid in learning to look upon the face of Her son. This is true whether one is Carmelite or not. Carmelite Spirituality merely shows these forth for what they are in a way unique to the Carmelite Order. They are a special gift to the Carmelites and hence to the Church at large--available for anyone who chooses to follow them within the order or outside. The Blessed Mother will not withhold the graces she bestows for the sake of a name.

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You may be sick to death of hearing about Carmel and Carmelites. I rather doubt it as you've put up with it for two or three years now. So I'd like to share something particularly evocative from some recent reading.

from Journey to Carith: The Sources and Story of the Discalced Carmelites
Peter-Thomas Rohrbach

[The passage below is in reference to the Early Hermits living on Mount Carmel (the 13th century or so.]

They were, in the prophetic tradition, witnesses; and their role of witness was accomplishd by manifesting the face of God in their own person. . . .

They were hermits in the Eastern and prophetic sense of the word, and as such were able to coordinate their apostolic enterprises with a life of solitude in a cave or hermitage separated from their brethren. The Elijahan tradition demanded that the hermit, under the inspiration of the Spirit and at the direction of the prior, leave his solitary retreat for the precise apostolic business at hand. It was a freer, more inspired type of eremitism than the hermit's life in other traditions.

The last sentence sounds a bit triumphalist. But let me temper it with the phrasing Father John-Benedict gave it at the retreat. Carmelites are the Church's experts at integrating a life of contemplation and solitude with a community life. That is their contribution to the world of religious orders and to the economy of spirituality. Carmelites are the example for fusing Martha and Mary. In that sense, Lay Carmelites have the potential for a marvelous witness to lay people in all walks of life. We say, in essence, YOU CAN be contemplative and still carry on a "normal" life. We don't say that it is easy, nor that everyone is called to it in the way we are. But we do stand as witnesses that it is possible.

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If you look at Carmel from the outside you probably would not be aware of one of its most open secrets. As an outsider, I was not aware of it. What's more, as an insider it's taken ten or eleven years for it finally to sink in.

What is that secret? Well, the title of this entry gives it away--lectio divina. My block in coming to terms with the importance of Lectio in Carmelite spirituality stems from the fact that Lectio was not "invented" by the Carmelites. Likely it has existed in some form as long as there have been scriptures. I suppose if anyone takes credit for codifying it, it may be the early monastics or St. Benedict. Whoever may have credit for it, the Carmelites do not. As a result I have never seen it as a particularly Carmelite tradition. But I have been woefully mistaken. Lectio Divina holds pride of place as the gateway for contemplation.

And that is why I'm sharing the Carmelite tradition. Not everyone is called to be a Carmelite and to approach scripture in a Carmelite way and to approach prayer with a Carmelite heart. However, I do think it is safe to say that Lectio Divina is a practice which everyone may use profitably to increase the intimacy and immediacy of their prayer life.

In Carmel, Lectio Divina or sacred reading, is seen as the root of any worthwhile mental prayer. One cannot engage in productive discursive meditation if one is ignorant of scriptures. Ignorance of scriptures truly is ignorance of Christ. While we might not come to know and understand fully everything the Church knows and teaches about Jesus simply from reading scripture, the vast majority of what there is to know is centered there and stems from that special revelation.

Lectio Divina is also a practice that has "methods" and a system. Further, it is a method that can be profitably employed by any reader (or, in fact, illiterate people who can memorize) in relatively little time. Ten or fifteen minutes a day is all that it takes to start. The danger (if you wish to think of it that way), dear reader, is that once started it tends to become like any good thing, addictive and consuming. That is, once you discover how simple it is and how utterly rewarding, the length of prayer time tends to increase on its own as you continue the pursuit of it.

Carmelites regard discursive meditation as the gateway to acquired contemplation. The previous sentence probably sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to those not familiar with the precise meanings of the words, so a restatement may be in order. Thinking about holy matters can lead to a greater intimacy with God. Hence, thinking about sacred scripture--not in an academic or distant way, but in a highly personalized way--can open the door that leads to union with God (in God's own time of course.)

How does one "do" lectio? My guess is that there are as many different ways as there are practitioners, but I suspect that all of the ways include certain essentials. After a period of quieting down (if done later in the day) and a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit one takes up scripture and reads. It is perhaps best if one does this according to a preset reading plan such as the Mass readings for the day or a plan to read through an entire book or section of a book. While one can use the time-honored principle of Bible roulette, it is perhaps not conducive to a continued adherence to the discipline of lectio. If one knows where one is going, one is more likely to continue the journey.

After this quieting and prayer one takes up scripture and reads. Generally this is not done as reading a novel or a nonfiction book. Rather, it is done slowly, as though weighing each word, or allowing each word to distill about it an image or a sense. It is better not to tax oneself with too long a reading, for a number of reasons. Reading a lot of scripture will provide too many points from which to begin, too many productive lines of meditation. It may introduce distraction as one flits from one idea to another. Nevertheless, the reader must gauge what is to be read--that will vary from one person to another. Perhaps a single pericope of scripture will suffice. Perhaps the next entry in the plan is dry and so two are entailed. But honestly, once you start to really rejoice in the Lord, there is almost nothing that is too dry. (I will remain agnostic on the question of the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and most of Numbers--as I haven't tried them recently. But as the beginner would do well to start with the Gospels, that's not likely to be a consideration anyway.)

One reads a short section of scripture--savoring it, tasting it, chewing it over. In the words of Father John-Benedict Weber, sucking all of the juices out of it. (Don't worry--scripture is an extremely juicy fruit--even if you think you've gotten everything possible out of it, that is merely for the moment. Were you to return to the same scripture even the next day, you would be surprised at how deeply rewarding renewed meditation on it can be.) An important point to remember: lectio IS NOT Bible Study. This is not the time to be considering the parsing of Greek verbs or the economic relations of Syro-Phoenicians (whatever they may happen to be called at any given point) with other ancient civilizations. In lectio you may fruitfully use all that you have gained from careful study and consideration of the Bible, but this is not the time to learn all of that. For example, it may be very useful in reflecting on Philippians (surely you're not surprised to see reference to that book here!) to recall that this letter was written from confinement, imprisonment awaiting a sentence that, given the tenor of the times, could only be death. That would add depth to what you read. However, lectio is not the time to find that out. One could do lectio on Philippians with very little knowledge of Paul or Paul's life and mission at all. Lectio seeks to draw out of the passage a meaning and a purpose that is intensely personal. Personal, not in the sense of exclusivity--that is, one can share the meaning--but personal in the sense of application. The end of lectio should be not so much a new understanding of the literal meaning of the text, but a new internalization of the text--a new understanding of how the text applies to oneself. As with all productive prayer, lectio should allow the practitioner to enter into a closer relationship with God. As the pray-er begins to internalize and make personal some of the truth present in the Gospel, a new way is forged to approach God.

It would be a very serious mistake to think that lectio is the work of the one praying. As with all prayer, its efficacy stems from the invitation, the grace God provides, that allows us to continue in it effectively. We do not produce the effects of lectio, but rather the Spirit praying within us shows us what we need to see in the course of our meditation.

Now, what form should this meditation take? Again, that is a matter for each person. I found it very helpful to take the course of the Ignatian Retreat over a period of about thirty to forty weeks. What one derives from it are a number of approaches to meditation. One can form images and linger in the scene of scripture. One can hear over and over again a single phrase or word which has changes rung upon it, shifting subtly and becoming progressively richer in meaning. One can begin to see all the strands that connect the whole of revelation and how this incident in a specific place is related to another elsewhere and hence has ramifications for our lives today. The passage may plunge straight to the heart and convict one of sin, error, or fault. The key is to trust the lead of the Holy Spirit. He prays within as one reflects on Scripture. He connects one to the life of the Holy Trinity, and from within that life, one is given what is needed for the time. All stems from our trust and His Grace.

This is merely a brief, unsatisfactory introduction. The method itself is so simple that one merely need take up sacred writ and start. It is in doing that one learns what exactly to do.

I realize on finishing this that I've said remarkably little about Lectio in Carmel. But I think I've said what needs saying--it is central, critical, foundational, necessary. Without lectio a Carmelite cannot reasonably hope to approach the contemplation to which we are called. Not everyone will enter contemplation in this way; nevertheless, it would seem a fine practice for any Catholic who wishes to know God as He knows Himself. That is, after all, what revelation is about.

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Blessed Maria Crocifissa Curcio


Maria Crocifissa Curcio (1877-1957), biography

Originally a third Order Carmelite, Sr. Maria founded a new group affiliated with the Carmelite Order--the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus.

It's always good to have examples of people who start at the same starting point and sprint ahead. They give some perspective and some hope.

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Important Days


Yesterday was the Feast of All Carmelite Saints, and today, the Feast of all Carmelite souls. Please join me in continuing suffrages for our beloved dead and for those in purgatory most in need of our prayers. May they soon see the light of grace in all its glory, and there interecede for each of us.

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Returned last evening from a short vacation and a day of reflection amongst the Carmelites. It would be hard to convey my sense of blessing at the marvelous provinical delegate we have.

While the retreat was very Carmelite, it might be instructive to share a few of the insights because of the depth they provide for the Carmelite vocation and how it differs from many others. Moreover, it would offer me the chance to reinforce the insights before they completely slip out of my head.

The reflection day theme was "Solitude in the Life and Spirituality of Carmel." True to the title, we spent the day reflecting on being alone with the Alone. Among the important points acquired from this reflection: Solitude is the single ascetical practice enjoined on Carmelites. There is no companion to it, and without solitude one simply is not living a Carmelite life. Solitude should not be taken to mean simple isolation from people. In fact, properly conducted, solitude should bring you into more intimate and prolonged contact with people. Solitude fuels a prayer life which fuels an intimacy with God which fuels an apostolate. Father John-Benedict went to some pains to emphasize that in the Carmelite tradition solitude DID NOT mean reclusion. He pointed out that in some traditions, solitude necessarily came with reclusion, but not so for Carmelites. The Carmelites are the exemplars of the balance bewteen solitude and community. The Carmelite "gift" to the Church is to teach the balance between individual solitude and communal life. Probably the single most important point he had to make was that for the Carmelite contemplation must always end in action for others. That action usually takes the form of some sort of guidance, spiritual companionship, or teaching, although the apostolates need not be limited to these things.

Now for a more personal view of the whole proceedings. I think there are times when every person struggles with his or her vocation. There may be times when people wonder whether or not they are really called as they thought or whether they have been deceiving themselves or misinterpreting signals. If it is not true for everyone, it is certainly true for me and it has been a strong wind in my life of recent date. I have not so much doubted my vocation as doubted what it really meant and what it called me to. I know that I am to be an active contemplative, but what does that boil down to in reality? What does it look like? What does God expect from this odd platypus of a creature?

Well, several things happened in the course of the meeting that shook me down to my foundations and raised me up with a new certainty of my vocation. For one, Father shared the "mission-critical" moment of Jesus's ministry for Carmelites. (This is, of course, from the period of the ministry, not the ultimate redemptive act which stands for all as the center of our being and meaning.) The moment that Father identified as central to the Carmelite charism and meaning was the Transfiguration. This is the single most important moment for Carmelites of the mission life. I can't explain all of the implications and ramifications because I was too busy being bowled over by grace. The central reality of my worship life is that the transfiguration has always spoken to me in ways that I can't fully articulate. It has always struck me as a central and meaningful moment. So much so that I was ready at one point to take on the cumbersome "religious" name of John of the Cross of the Transfiguration. (Fortunately God spared everyone that dyslogial trope.) When Father said this, something resounded within me and said, "Yes, you are where you are because you are called." It's nice to hear confirmation even when you are already committed and solid.

The other thing that spoke to me is Father's insistence that contemplation always ends in action for a Carmelite. I do not know if this is true of all traditions. I would think that it must be, but I leave that puzzle to those more versed in the history of religious traditions. For Carmelites it is central. And I was fascinated by the examples of service that Father indicated--spiritual direction, teaching, counseling, etc. All of these things appeal to me even as I wonder about my capacity for them. Father noted that contemplation fuels the apostolate of any Carmelite.

Fueled by the insights of this brief day, I'm ready to move on. I'm ready to practice more vigorously the discipline of solitude. Physical solitude might be limited, but it will ultimately feed solitude of the Heart, which may be had by anyone in the state of grace at any moment in life.

So, in all, this was one of those checkpoints that served to say, "You've found a direction, hold to it and keep going." Like navigators of long ago, one must steer with the wind and trust God. I do not see land ahead, but reason tells me there must be, even if it is the land I just have sailed from. This does not quell the momentary terrors as I wonder what I'm doing out here all alone and where I'm going. But the sea is vast, and we've all pushed our little ships out. You are all here with me, I simply can't spot you from my vantage point. So I don't know if I lead on or if I simply identify the center of a large group, or I trail badly, or what position I hold in the voyage home. But if leader, may I hold the course courageously and help others find the way; if measure of central tendency, may it inspire us all to continue onwards knowing our true home; if trailer, well, God have mercy on me and move me forward following the lead of all those who have gone before. Whatever it is, I will continue to offer my sufferings and prayers for the continued progress of all in humility, trust, and charity. Thanks for sailing with me--may we all find the journey fair and fast.

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The Indwelling God


So, now I move on to a different essay, with different insights.

from Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century
Ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

"Transformation and Divine Union in the Carmelite Tradition"
Sr. Vilma Seelaus, O.C.D.

From profound experience, mystics like Teresa and John of the Cross knew with certitude that God is personally present where we are most ourselves. In fact, the soul's center is God. . . . From the dark closet of his imprisonment, John learned that no time or place or circumstance exists in which God is not present. Event in the worst of circumstances, God is always present as abiding offer.

It should be known that God dwells secretly in all souls and is hidden in their substance, for otherwise they would not last. . . .In some souls he dwells alone, and in others he does not dwell alone. . . . He lives in some as though in his own house, commanding and ruling everything, and in others as though a stranger in a strange house, where he is not permitted to give orders or do anything.

Which begs the question, what dwelling does He find in me? And further, am I content in the place that He finds for Himself, or would I prefer it to be other? Have I shown the greatest Guest into a house in disarray, where one can hardly wind one's way through for all the years of junk and debris that have accumulated? Or have I shown Him into a place so spare and lean and short and narrow that it threatens to crush Him with each heartbeat? Regardless of the accommodation I have made Him, He lives there nevertheless. It makes me rather more inclined to get the house in order when I think of what a poor host I have been.

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I know that I have tried your patience with excerpts from this single essay, but all I can say is that I have found its insights so helpful I cannot resist sharing. However, this will be the last. Once again, I cannot reccommend this book highly enough. While it is about the Carmelite tradition of prayer, its insights (it would seem) can be helpful to anyone in any walk of life interested in prayer.

from Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century
Ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

"Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness"
Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

What can we do then about the stream of consciousness? In a sense the response, "Welcome to planet earth" fits the reality of distraction in prayer. Rather than trying to stop the stream of consciousness during our prayer, we can influence it indirectly through love, detachment, and humility, the Christian virtues stressed by our [Carmelite] saints As the love of God grows, God will enter all the more frequently into the stream of consciousness. John teaches that the soul lives where it loves, lives through love in the object of its love (Spiritual Canticle 8.3). Through love the soul spurs itself to seek and find God everywhere, in all the creatures of the summer heat, in the winter snowflakes at our feet, in all things, all events. The impassioned lover will go out from self and become fixed on the loved object. God will go out from self and become fixed on the loved object. God begins to pervade all the pieces, large and small, of the bride-soul's consciousness. Especially does she discover Christ in her neighbor which prompts her to the services of love. In going out ot the Beloved, then, she goes out in freedom from the many entanglements of her attachments and self-interests. The effect left on her consciousness is humility, "her heart of love will not be set on herself or her own satisfaction and gain, but on pleasing God and giving him honor and glory" (Spiritual Canticle 9.5)

In short, do not do violence to prayer by trying to force those things that are so uniquely you out of the picture. Be gentle; let the distractions flow around and always gently, lovingly, return to the center. Yes, you may be distracted for a while about some particularly knotty problem, but when you become aware of it, gently turn the eyes of the soul back to Jesus. Often recommended is a prayer word, or a short prayer, some meaningful reminder to you of Jesus in your life. For example, I prefer, "My Lord and my God." (Despite appearances I have secret sympathies for the monarchists out there.)

But the important part of prayer is to continue despite the swarm of gnats we call thoughts or stream of consciousness. These gnats are who you are and where you are right here and now. They are integral to what you are as a person and God loves them as He loves the entire person. When we share those we are sharing a part of ourselves. We should not be ashamed we do not have the strength to throw them off. Think of small children. For example, my conversations with Sam follow some alien trajectory that always ends up somewhere in Sponge-Bob land or roller coasters no matter where they start. I cherish this deeply because it is so much who he is. So God is with us, cherishing us for our childlike babbling and sharing of so many unrelated things. He will enter in and organize as He sees fit, so long as we continue to approach Him in love.

The most important point is not to let distraction stop you from talking to God. If you want to, make them the topic of conversation some time. But continue to talk, continue to spend time with the Beloved. For, as in any relationship, time spent increases the bond of love and understanding and makes us more amenable to the ways of the One who is Loved.

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The End of Prayer


from Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century
Ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

"Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness"
Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

In the seventh dwelling places of The Interior Castle, Martha and Mary join hands together. Action flows into contemplation and contemplation pours over into action. The two are not at odds, the troublesome disassociation ends, "the cavalry at the sight of the waters descended" (Spiritual Canticle 40:5). God is found present, though ever hidden, in all of life's activities and events. And the little streams of memories and plans about our past and future all flow easily into God. The spiritual marriage "is like what we have when a little stream enters the sea, there is no means of separating the two" (Interior Castle 7.2.4)

When we look at the life of St. Teresa of Avila, we can readily see that contemplation cannot help but to flow over into action. St. Teresa established at least 13 foundations throughout Spain. She ran almost every convent she lived in, and she produced a remarkable volume of spiritual guidance and letters. This spilling over into action is not always transparent. In the case of the cloistered, the action is hidden, but very real. For example, St. Thérèse desperately wanted to become a missionary nun in Vietnam. Given her health and other considerations, this was not a possibility, but it did not stop the longing. Indeed, so great was her yearning that it was recognized in elevating her to Patroness of the Missions.

But how can we love God without wanting to serve in some substantive way? How can we embrace our spouse and then say that His children mean nothing to us? It isn't possible. When we join in spiritual marriage, the welfare of all of his children becomes our overriding concern. Time and again in Carmelite writings we are encouraged to pray for all whose souls are endangered that everyone might join the banquet in Heaven.

The end of contemplation, most particularly for a lay person, is substantive action that builds or at least supports the Kingdom here on Earth. Love that does not spill over into action is mere sentiment. Love that does not honor the beloved in honoring His intent is mere illusion and blindness. Love is, above all else, hard-working, endlessly laboring to please the One who is Love.

And when we love, we join in the vast ocean of His love, still ourselves but much more in His image, and inseperable from the vast ocean of mercy that carries every child home.

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Love and Joy


If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love.

These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

(John 15:10-12)

When we set out on the road to joy, to reveling in the kingdom, what is the path? Where is it marked out for us?

Clearly, these are some simple instructions. If one obeys Jesus one is showing love. If the level of obedience rises above compliance to arrive at something that resembles enthusiasm, that is even stronger evidence of His love.

Now which commands shall we obey. Jesus boils it all down to this--"Love one another as I have loved you." This is the particular synthesis of all of his commandments that is to be the measure of obedience.

The road to Joy is love. Jesus has told us that He has spoken the command of love so that our joy may be complete. And the reality is that we are most joyful when least encased in ourselves. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "The Windhover." Hopkins tells us:

My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Our hearts spend much time in hiding, but it is in the small wonders of nature that we find ourselves yanked out of self and into the mystery of God. It is when we choose to emerge from self, for however brief a time, that we step into joy. And what better way to emerge from self than to love someone else.

St Therese of Lisieux (among others) taught us that love without works is dead. She wasn't the first. James asks:

If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? (James 2:15-16)

Love demands a response, an action, a fulfillment. It is in the response of love that we leave ourselves and begin to participate in eternity. There is where we will find joy--not in the dark interior ways, not in the eternal echo-chamber of our own minds, but in service to those around us. For when we serve them, we serve Christ. When we serve them, we love them, and thus we love Christ.

Love is the key to joy. Love is the way out of self. The path is clearly marked and yet so difficult to walk because there are other guidelines. Didn't Jesus remark that if you love those who love you, what have you accomplished? Even the worst criminals do that. The real accomplishment of love is to love those who bear you ill-will, those who despise you. If you can love and serve those who frighten you or anger you, then your service is meaningful and your love is true. If you can love those from whom you expect nothing in return, love is real.

But to give you an example of how difficult this can be, I know that I find myself grumbling inwardly if I hold open a door for someone and they walk through without acknowledgment, without a thank you. What chances I miss to rejoice in being unnoticed, being a real servant. But rather, I want the momentary, transient, fleeting reward of a thank you.

When I look at these kinds of tendencies, I begin to understand the saints who want heaped upon themselves ignominy and ridicule and disfavor when they perform charitable acts. I begin to understand that the way of love seeks completely the other. And it is in the way of love that one finds the only pathway to joy.

Later: Application:What better way to show our love on this All Soul's Day, than to pray for the release of the poor souls in purgatory. Now and throughout the month of November we can show our love in the suffrages we offer those whose imperfections have held them bound away from the beatific vision. How much better can we show love than to act out these spiritual works of mercy?

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I thought this passage a revelation and an illumination:

from Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century
Ed. Fr. Keith J. Egan

"Contemplation and the Stream of Consciousness"
Fr. Kiernan Kavanaugh

The human person is created in the image and likeness of the God who goes out, an ecstatic God in eternal Filiation and Spiration, ecstatic in the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit. The human being in its inmost activity is essentially and passionately other-directed, self-losing.

The ecstatic nature of the human person is ultimately rooted in the mystery of the inwardly self-giving Trinity. As Father and Son are for each other in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the human person is always a being for, not a being established in and unto self.

In Carmelite prayer, then, the loving awareness or presence to Christ in faith, in mystery, whether active or passive, is what one seeks to sustain. This is a relationship of love, of friendship, of being for and toward the other.

I'm inclined to think the first two paragraphs have universal relevance. This is for the Christian and the Catholic at large. The third paragraph, being qualified as talking about Carmelite prayer, may seem to be slightly less universal. But while it is a particular charism of the order, I suspect that all are invited, if not necessarily expected to participate in this form of prayer.

This formless form, this waiting and being in presence, is one of the reasons that it is difficult to speak about a Carmelite "method" of prayer. I'm not sure there is a "method," except, as is described here, reaching out to take the hand of a friend and spending time with a friend.

As you read Carmelite sources, you discover means of predisposing yourself to receive and engage in this kind of prayer, but no one ever really tells you much except to spend time in the presence of the one you love. That is the key. ". . . [H]er heart or love will not be set on herself or her own satisfaction and gain, but on please God and giving Him honor and glory."(Spiritual Canticle 9:5 St. John of the Cross).

Note--There is so much good and helpful in this essay that to do it justice, I would have to quote most of it. While I know such things are hard to come by, see if your library can ILL this book. There are other essays also well worth your time. While the subject is Carmelite prayer, I think the teaching has applications for all.

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

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