Carmelite: January 2006 Archives

A Timely Continuation

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from Listen to the Silence: A Retreat with Père Jacques
Tr/Ed Francis J. Murphy

Whatever brings us to this point [obedience[ be it a superior or a sorrow, a sickness or a job, it is alway God who comes and speaks to us. When we embrace obedience, we embrace God. When we obey with a smile, we smile at God and welcome him joyfully into our home. To dream of profound prayer, like that of the saints, while withholding the obedience of the saints, is a contradiction.

It's remarkably simple. We cannot pray like saints if we do not live like saints. Or more simply stated, one cannot be a saint without being a saint. Period. One can't hope for deep, profound, unitive prayer while one is chasing every idle pleasure that passes by. Every licit pleasure is not necessarily something to be pursued or obtained. Licit pleasures should be used as a means to the end, which is God. A hike in the mountains should have as its end, a closer walk with God. A cruise in the Caribbean should have as its destination close communication with God. There may be any number of intermediate "ends," for example strengthening and revivifying the relationship one has with one's spouse; however, this in intself becomes a further means to closeness with God. All service, all leisure, all joy, and all sorrow should lead inevitably to the All in All. And one of the ways this happens is when we humbly obey.

What this leads me to is to ask myself, where am I lacking in obedience? Where do I fail God? He alone knows how many ways I fail in obedience, and in my prayer, if He is willing, He will show them to me one by one. Disobedience isn't always obvious. I have many clever ploys to protect myself and my habits from change. But if I wish to live in God, I must ask Him to reveal to me all these places where I fail in obedience.

Obedience is a critical means to the most important of Ends. What we start in obedience ends in growing love.

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I Love Sobering Thoughts

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So here's another. Sobering and at the same time uplifting and joyful.

Listen to the Silence: A Retreat with Père Jacques
TR/Ed Francis J. Murphy

We follow the opposite path. Christ started out from contemplation to come to the perfection of obedience. We must start out from the perfection of obedience to arrive at contemplation. This is the reverse route we must follow. In the depths of our being our prayer is worth what our obedience is worth. Our embrace of God will be in accordance with our embrace of his will.

This follows from the discussion of the other day. If God is simple and uniate, His will is not separable from Himself. We cannot find a way to God without embracing all of God. This includes his will. Thus, the measure of our prayer and embrace of God is the obedience and humility we show in following His will completely.

This said, there is always some difficulty knowing exactly what His will is for us because we see now "as in a glass darkly." We certainly know the outlines of His will for us, and we can discern the "danger areas," the arenas of temptation. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether God wants us to do this one thing or this equally worthy other thing. Obedience consists of praying it through, seeking the counsel of a wise spiritual director, and listening with all our might before one makes a choice. When one does this, one has done everything within one's power to discern the proper end. God will either direct us, or, as I often think the case, leave us to choose, desiring both ends and giving us the delight of choosing the end that most suits us.

Obedience is so important that St. Teresa of Avila advised the sisters in her foundations to follow instructions they knew to be "wrong" (I assume this meant interior knowledge of their impropriety) so long as they were not sinful. For example, if a spiritual director told you to do something you were not inclined to do and that you knew was not something you should do (speaking only prudentially)--it would better to do it anyway and demonstrate obedience to those God has put in authority over you AND at the same time to show humility and meekness in your approach to God. St. Teresa pointed out that if God wanted the circumstances to change, he would cause the director's mind to change, or would replace the director with one who better understood the circumstances.

This is radical obedience--the perfection of obedience that is demanded from those who would embrace God's will. What does this mean in practice? Well, let's take a simple, but controversial example. Let us say you go to a parish where the Priest, in contradiction to one understanding of the rubrics tells the congregation to hold hands during the Our Father. Our immediate obedience is owed to the most immediate director. St. Teresa did not contradict her own director because her Bishop or the prior general said she could do otherwise. Perfect obedience would require that we obey the immediate authority.

Fortunately, I have almost never heard a Priest tell everyone to join hands, even if he does so as example on the altar. This isn't usually an issue. But it is a test of your willingness to be obedient. We understand it to be technically wrong, but we are told to do it anyway.

The measure of our prayer is the obedience we show to those whom God has placed in legitimate authority over us. This is scary and very, very difficult. But it is also liberating. If I know that it is not sinful, even if it seems wrong to me, I do better to follow the instruction than to follow my own lead. It is a training ground for humility, patience, meekness, and obedience and it is a very direct way of saying "I love you," to God.

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"Our souls. . . fail God."

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from Listen to the Silence: a Retreat with Père Jacques
TR./ED. Francis J. Murphy

Bear in mind the words of Saint John of the Cross: "It is not God who fails our souls; it is our souls that fail God." When God seeks to test the perseverance of the soul through suffering or trials, through disappointments or challenges, consider the outcome. Many souls, who longed to taste the sweetness of prayer, but not to have direct contact with God for his own sake, take flight. In the words of the familiar saying, they longed to taste "the consolations of God, but not the God of all consolations." In truth, are we any different? Are we not likewise lacking in courage and total acceptance? Do we not seek to exercise choice, to impose conditions, and to make bargains in our relationship with God? By contrast, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus said: "I accept all." "Yes, Lord, I accept all," meant for her: I accept being as I am and remaining as you wish provided I find you and live ever more closely with you.

Père Jacques delivered these retreat talks to cloistered nuns, and so we must be cautious how much of what was said to them we take upon ourselves--after all we have neither the vocation nor the charisms nor the strengths that accompany the acceptance of such a vocation. On the other hand, we also need to be cautious of how much we reject of what is said, because what is true for those specially called is true for all Christians in the degree that normal life can sustain.

What is particularly compelling is the way Pére Jacques identifies some of the major problems in the normal religious and prayer life with such precision. How often have you found yourself bargaining with God. This happens more often in intercessory prayer, but I know that there are times when I say something like, "Let me only hear your voice and I will be more faithful to prayer." The intent is true, but the human heart being what it is, were I to hear His voice, I would be more true to prayer. . . for perhaps as much as a week. And then I would lapse into my semi-regular torpor. This is one of the reasons that the consolations of prayer must be withdrawn. As with a child learning to walk, you first provide support and then gradually allow the child to walk more and more free, so God treats us in prayer. The first bloom of prayer is a rush of ardor and affection filled with all sort of revelations and consolations and feelings of intimacy. But when that bloom has worn off, the consolations occur less and less until we are walking on our own. And like a child learning to walk, we are able to walk because we know there is a goal and we know that there is a guardian, a protector, one who loves us (though we may not understand at the time what that means or what love is). Just so, we are able to pray because we come to know that God is present as we pray, He listens and He hears and He responds as is best for us.

As we move on in prayer, we want that exhilaration of the first steps. In a sense, we want to move backward, to move to the point where we took our first steps because it was so exciting. But you can't return because your muscles have firmed up and your gait is more steady, and now you can walk. Yes, YOU CAN WALK! It's ordinary, it's mundane, it's slow, but it gets us from here to there. Exactly like prayer--we can't return to the exhilaration, but we can go from where we are to where God wants us to be one step at a time. But we can only do so if we stop longing to go back to where prayer was so sweet and God so immediately present. God is still immediately present, but like the parent encouraging those first steps, He wants us to move toward Him. He accepts our slow, halting advance, and He rushes to us when we tumble or fall, to lift us up and shower us with signs of His affection.

But we must desire what God desires. We must want to walk to Him and walk always toward Him, getting ever closer even though it sometimes seems as though we shall never be able to make it. On our own, we cannot, but He is always there, encouraging and supporting and holding out the arms we can rush into.

To make any advance, we must stop wanting to go back. Like the people of Israel released from the bondage of slavery, we long for the fleshpots of Egypt, the places of comfort, the places where we feel at home and in control.

These are the ways we bargain with the Lord as we pray. Not all of us--some great Saints stop their bargaining, and thus show us it is possible for us. But for me, the bargaining continues from time to time. Not always and not exclusively, I have trained myself sufficiently not to seek extraordinary things--and yet part of what lures me onward in this life is the promise of a single extraordinary thing--intimacy with God. Even this must fall away and what I do I must do because God calls me to it. No consolation or enticement should induce me to move forward in prayer, but rather the ardent, brilliant, burning, and all-consuming love of God.

May it be so!

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You'll all recognize this as the answer to "Life, the Universe, and Everything."

Well, I'm going to answer some of the questions I have long asked with new answers.

What is the purpose of reading a book? Loving God.

Any book? Yes, any licit entertainment, though some facilitate this more than others.

Is there no other purpose? All other purposes are secondary. And that leads to the real surprise.

The only real purpose to any human activity, properly considered, should be loving God. Not "should be" in the adjuring sense, but "should be" in the ambitious sense. Our goal should ultimately be that all of our recreations, our works, our thoughts, and our endeavors give praise and glory to God in such a way that, in the words of Jesus Christ, Superstar,

"Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd,
nothing can be done to stop the shouting,
if every tongue were still the noise would still continue,
the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing
Hossanah, Heyssanah, sannah sannha ho, sannah he, sannah hosannah. . .

In the somewhat more time-honored words of Paul, "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

It is the proper end of all of our actions that this should come about. When we orient ourselves and our days properly, even the time we spend away from work and away from direct participation in the spiritual and corporeal acts of mercy contributes to their success. Our downtime is never down because it is spent glorifying God.

So, what is the purpose of reading a book? Praising God.

What is the purpose of cooking a meal? Praising and glorifying God. A single hot dog cooked with attention and with love is more meaningful and more worthwhile than all of the grand feasts cooked under duress and oppression.

What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? Praising and glorifying God and leading all souls to salvation, especially those in most need of God's mercy.

All of our acts should be ordered to the end of loving God--all good things used to His just and right purposes. All that we have, all that we are, all that we do, all that we think, everything has one End in Jesus Christ. The legitimate means are many and varied, but the end is always the same--the Glorification of the Son whose glory is the glory of the Father and the Holy Spirit, three-in-one, transcendent trinity of love.

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A Mighty Fortress


. . . is our God, a bulwark never failing. . .

I've never much cared for the hymn--cumbersome, overblown, bombastic (seemingly) all that overwhelms me in German composition. And once again, I get to see how my prejudices get in may way.

I'm sure Luther didn't intend it in the way that I now read it, but for the Carmelite, and for those with Carmelite affinities, God is a fortress and the fortress is named Solitude.

Solitude is not loneliness, it is not simple isolation. The Carmelite vision of solitude never really permitted reclusion. There were isolated hermitages, but they were meant more for a time of refreshment than a constant living arrangement (outside of the earliest practitioners). For a Carmelite, including even the cloistered nuns, the fruit of solitude was to be shared with the entire world. Reclusion, in such circumstances, is not an option.

But the danger in sharing the fruit is that one will not frequently visit the fortress of solitude. What then is solitude properly considered? If isolation is not, what then is the purpose of being alone? How is it related to solitude?

St. John of the Cross taught that faithfulness to physical "alone" time even on a very limited basis led to a solitude that was a permanent fixture of your life--a solitude of heart. Thus solitude cannot be merely separation from other human beings, although it may start with some time of this. Rather solitude is being alone with the Alone. That is, solitude is total immersion in God. Solitude takes away not merely people but all of the varied trappings we carry with us to protect us from God--our books, our learning, our understandings, our conversations, everything that could potentially carry us away from God is gone in solitude. And in solitude we receive our refreshment from God Himself. In solitude we find the mighty fortress who is our God and we become part of that fortress. From the citadel of solitude we can set forth to change the world as the Spirit directs and we can be guided always, carrying our solitude with us.

Solitude is our shield and our fortress, it is our link with God's strength, it is the promise of His Love fulfilled. Solitude is not merely alone time, because in solitude, we are not alone but we are complete with the eternal and infinite. Thus in solitude, we transcend who we are and assume our proper places in the body of Christ.

Without solitude we cannot fully know who we are or what we are called to. Solitude, time alone with God, starts with separating ourselves for some period to be with Him, but it grows in the heart and becomes an "Interior Castle." In solitude we prepare the dwelling places in the bridegroom, and in the solitude of the people around us, we are joined in spiritual marriage. The fruit of this is to be shared with everyone. Solitude is not about single joy, it is about rejoicing in what Jesus rejoices in.

Solitude, for the Carmelite, has always occupied a central place. Without solitude, the Carmelite rule disintegrates. Without service, the Carmelite rule disintegrates. The Carmelite rule is Mary web to Martha for the salvation of souls and the service of the world. It is being Martha, while always sitting at the feet of Jesus. I'm sure that this is true for other orders as well, but I can only speak what I know of my own. For the Carmelite this is the end of all rules--to be so joined in intimacy with God that Solitude and the strength and bulwark of it are with us at every moment--we are alone with the Alone and never more so than when we are joyfully serving others and seeing in them the Solitude of Christ.

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Contemplatives and Mystics


From a recent Carmelite Retreat:

"People with a mature relationship with God are contemplatives. Mystics are people with an intimate relationship with God."

From this I derive that the goal is to be a mystic. To be a contemplative is fine, but what I want and what God may grant if I want it enough ("For from the beginning heaven has experienced violence, and the violent take it by storm.") Nevertheless, it is His to grant or not to grant and blessed be the Lord in either case.

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REALLY Hard Instructions


from Listen to the Silence: A Retreat With Pere Jacques
Tr./Ed. Francis J. Murphy

Then, between them, with a quick stroke, he drew what must be the way of our retreat; a direct, exacting road on which one hears the refrain, "Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing but God alone." Not this little personal matter, not this slight comfort we cling to, not this tiny curiosity that seems so trivial, but "nothing, absolutely nothing"--John of the Cross is speaking. You see, this retreat we are making must have direction. When Saint Bernard arrive at the monastery he too asked himself frequently, "Bernard, what did you come to the monastery to do?"

I hear the call of nothing--attachment to nothing, cleaving to nothing, being nothing. And my heart wants to follow it, but my body has ideas of its own. And my reason, tricky little devil that it is says things like, "Well the joy you take in this or that minor pleasure is eutrepalia legitimate, and legitimate use of God's goods.

But I've come to the point where I must say, "No, it isn't." And I need to leave behind the things that attract me and keep me away from the serious pursuit of the one thing that matters. I need to discipline myself so that nothing ever interferes with Everything.

And you know, the thought isn't chilling, frightening, or even daunting. It is enthralling. It is the most exciting thing in the world. So, why is it I never make it beyond the first few steps?

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Carmelite category from January 2006.

Carmelite: December 2005 is the previous archive.

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