Carmelite: March 2006 Archives

The End of the Road


from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

In the Passion and death of Christ our sins were consumed by fire. If we accept that in faith, and if we accept the whole Christ in faith-filled surrender, which means, however, that we choose and walk the path of the imitation of Christ, then He will lead us "through His Passion and cross to the glory of His Resurrection." This is exactly what is experienced in contemplation: passing through the expiatory flames to the bliss of the union of love. This explains its twofold character. It is death and resurrection.

What more is there to say. The culmination of a life of contemplation is a direct participation in the death and resurrection of the Lord. The passage through the Dark Night means death to the senses (which is not to say that one becomes an unanchored, floating, ethereal spirit) and ultimately leads to Union with God. Said Union is a union in both the Death of Christ, and so a Union on the way of the cross, which, by supporting our own burdens (always with the help of grace), we help to lift some of the burden to the cross itself, and in the Resurrection of the Lord, which is a resurrection into His eternal life while here on Earth. That is the meaning of Spiritual Union--actual participation in the Being of God while we live today--and I can't imagine a state more to be desired and yet which also summons up such great fear. And so the sum of my spiritual life is approach-avoidance. I look in on this wonderful spectacle and desire to participate, but innate fear (and of what I cannot say) keeps me back. Nevertheless, His grace is stronger than my fear, and so I trust myself to Him and know that eventually (I hope in this life) I will come to Him and be what He has made me to be.

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The Veil of Veronica


from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

He will communicate His power to you so you can love Him with a love as strong as death ; the Word will Imprint in your soul, as in a crystal, the image of His own beauty, so you may be pure with His purity, luminous with His light.

In prayer and in surrender to Jesus, we become imprinted with His image as did the cloth with which Veronica wiped His face. But the image imprinted upon us is a living image, full of purity and luminosity--bright beyond brightness, light so light that what we see as brilliance is all dark. In the spiritual union that occurs in deepest prayer, each person assumes the place assigned and does the work appropriate to that part of the body--some the head, some the heart, some the feet, some the hands--all One Christ, one mystical body serving our brothers and sisters in all that is done.

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from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints:
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The bridal union of the soul with God is the goal for which she was created, puchased through the cross, consummated on the cross, and sealed for all eternity with the cross.

This is the rejoinder to "Jesus died for your sins." No, Jesus didn't die FOR my sins, as though they might increase, He died because of them. As important, He died to give us an intimate knowledge of the lengths to which Love will go to hold us. He gave up what each of us cherishes most and struggles to maintain throughout its span. He did so willingly as an invitation to understanding God in His fullness.

Union with God was purchased at so high a price so that we would understand how very valuable, how very worthwhile it is. Anything less would have meant nothing at all. But in this sign, God said once and for always, that His love is complete, immutable, and unconditional.

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Pure Bloods

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Many people regard the Harry Potter series with a great deal of suspicion. I don't wish to argue the point now (or ever, for that matter), but to lift a major theme from the works for a moment of reflection.

Throughout the six-book series thus far much emphasis is placed by some on being "Pure blood" wizards. In almost every case, those who insist upon purity of blood are at best loathsome and most often outright evil. Rowling isn't writing allegory, but if we look in the world at those who insist upon purity of blood as a mark of rank, we will more often than not encounter ideologies that are antithetical to life.

What brought all of this to mind was a minor passage in Wilfrid McGreal's At the Fountain of Elijah: The Carmelite Tradition, a well-written and brief survey of the history of the Carmelite Order. In the chapter on the contributions of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, McGreal notes:

It is also interesting that both Teresa and John, to use a modern terms, were 'disadvantaged' and were therefore in a special way already poor. Neither Teresa nor John possessed limpieza de sangre--'purity of blood.' They had Jewish forbears, and this ancestry was viewed with suspicion and could be the reason for persecution. By the end of the sixteenth century religious orders in Spain had made limpieza de sangre a condition for admission. Fortunately the Carmelites did not put such legislation into place until 1596.

What a crime against love! Today, many of us can see that this is simply unacceptable for any Christian. It would be difficult to say and believe "You will know they are Christians by their love," under such conditions. And yet, such is the history of humanity--not merely of Christianity. And it is horrifying to think of what we would have lost had this edict been in place some years before.

Prejudice is ugly whenever and however it occurs. We have grown too haughty and proud--we think ourselves beyond it. But prejudice raises its ugly head in every corner and every precinct. Even now, each day, we are tempted to formulate opinions based on appearance, creed, or opinions. Prejudice hates a person for an artifact of that person. Christianity stands in firm opposition--loving the person but showing no mercy to the illicit accidents of the person. Whenever the cry of "Pure blood!" is raised, it is certain the the inevitable end is that blood will be spilled--"pure" and otherwise.

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Elijah and Mary

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In the Carmelite tradition, Elijah and Mary are brought together most closely in the image of the cloud that forms over the sea.

1 Kings 18:42:45

[42] So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Eli'jah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees.
[43] And he said to his servant, "Go up now, look toward the sea." And he went up and looked, and said, "There is nothing." And he said, "Go again seven times."
[44] And at the seventh time he said, "Behold, a little cloud like a man's hand is rising out of the sea." And he said, "Go up, say to Ahab, `Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.'"
[45] And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel.

Verse 44 is the relevant verse, and how one gets the image of Mary from that, I do not know, except that when one understands it in the way of the Medieval Carmelites, it is a most beautiful metaphor.

Mary is the cloud that rises out of the sea. The sea is saltwater, undrinkable, a vast body of water, next to which the kingdom can still thirst and die. The sea is salty, impure, an image of fallen humanity with its admixture of sin. Mary rises out of this sea, pure and perfect, laden with the water of grace that will pour out through her to all humanity--not the source of Grace herself, nevertheless the container into which all is poured until it overflows out to all people, limitless, and life-giving. Not God, but human, Mary rises from the sea, pure and Immaculate in her conception, formed as a vessel of God's grace and a place of refuge for His people.

Mary may not have made her appearance in the Old Testament, but through years of meditating and contemplating the story of Elijah, the Carmelite monks and friars came to understand this passage in a Marian sense. In so doing, they enriched the understanding of Scripture and provided another key to its depths.

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To Die of Love

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The Saint of the Little Way, well known for her French schoolgirl and sentimentality, disliked by the intellectuals, a little repugnant to modern sensibilities, had this to say:

Our Lord died on the cross in agony and yet this is the most beautiful death of love. . . To die of love is not to die in transports.

-St. Thérèse

Spoken by one in the throes of a most excruciating crucible of ravaging tuberculosis, it carries the weight of authority. This is not some starry-eyed Schoolgirl--this is a young woman facing her own death, alone as Jesus was alone, in the midst of the deepest, darkest night any of us can begin to imagine. She neither turned her back on it, nor did she flee to seek refuge in some vain hope or in bitterness. Instead, knowing full well what was at the end, she embraced it and went to it. This she did because of her love and Jesus and her thirst for souls.

The exterior of the package, no matter how much sugary dressing it may have, does not reveal the interior strength, the beauty of the soul that even now "Spends [her] heaven doing good on Earth."

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Reflection on the Rule III


In part this is a reply to and confirmation of a comment made in the entry below about the Carmelite rule. I had been mulling this over for some time, and the response was the kind of confirmation I needed to go ahead and post these thoughts as disparate and tenuously connected as they are.

from The Rule of St. Albert

Chapter 18

Since man's life on earth is a time of trial, and all who would live devotedly in Christ must undergo persecution, and the devil, your foe, is on the prowl like a roaring lion looking for prey to devour, you must use every care to clothe yourself in God's armour so that you may be ready to withstand the enemy's ambush.

The subtlety of this translation is particularly appealing. Note that the phrase used is "God's armour," not the more usual "Armor of God." This is an important difference, even thought the Latin can usually be translated either way. God's armour is the armour that belongs to God , His own battle gear, as it were. The Armor of God is armor that is not necessarily a personal possession, but rather a creation of God himself.

During our recent retreat, the retreat master went to great lengths to lay out a clear biblical exposition of the meaning and presence of God's armor in the scripture. He took great pains to make us aware that this armor was not our own armor that was "manufactured by God," but it was the very armor God himself wears when he is figuratively described in battle in a number of old-testament passages. When we clothe ourselves with it then, following the whole concept of the Simplicity of God, we are putting on God himself.

Chapter 19 of the rule goes on to give the traditional description of this armor, following closely that in Ephesians 6. What Father John-Benedict pointed out very clearly is that the vast majority of this weaponry is defensive. There is only a single offensive weapon--the sword of the word. We put on the armor to protect ourselves in the midst of the ongoing battle, not to launch an assault ourselves. The battle is the Lord's, He is the victor, and His victory is already won, we are protected by God's own armor as we walk the battlefield--but Jesus Christ wins the battle on His own merits. Our job in the battlefield is to wait and pray for all of those who have not put on the armor, who are not protected and who are not even aware that they are walking through a war zone.

Spiritual combat is never directed at another person, as Joachim notes below, it is always directed at fighting evil within us, and we do very, very little except don the armor and let God fight (see the notes on grace and will below). The spiritual battle is good vs. evil and we fight it every day in the most seemingly insignificant choices we make. Do we give alms, or do we ignore? Do we judge or do we help? Do we choose what is forbidden us, or do we accept God's commandments as a central pillar of our lives? One by one, or all at once, we face these choices in seemingly little things--for some it may be the question of whether they buy the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated; for others it may be returning the extra 5 dollars that came back to you by accident in change. These are small, but meaningful choices and our ability to make them in accordance with God's will is fostered by putting on His armor.

Each moment has decisions enough for a lifetime--accept God's will or reject it. And we can only perceive and understand that will when we are encased in His own armor, one body of Christ fighting the evil within ourselves by allowing the Lord to enter and win the battle, taking back the world one person at a time through His grace. So, as I concluded a day or so ago when I reopened comments--don't look to wage the battle "out there," although the battle rages there also, fight the battle within--your choices there will echo and reecho throughout the outside world, changing it slowly, subtly, bit-by-bit, to be more a reflection of what we choose moment to moment.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20: [19] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,
[20] loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them."

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From The Rule of St. Albert

Chapter 16

You are to fast every day, except Sunday, from the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Easter Day, unless bodily sickness or feebleness, or some other good reason, demand a dispensation from the fast; for necessity overrides every law.

What seems so wonderful in this simple rule is that it is so moderate. Yes, the long fast requirement is seemingly quite harsh--although it probably reflects the ways in which the hermits of Mount Carmel were already living. What is marvelous is "necessity overrides every law." This remarkably sensible moderation enters at the very foundation of the Carmelite rule. We are to see it surface again and again, with St. Teresa of Avila and her famous, "If you think you are having visions, perhaps you should eat more," to St. Thérèse's "little way" and its manifestation in "small things with great love." The Carmelite Way seems to be one of moderation in all things EXCEPT in the pursuit of union with God, about which it is completely immoderate--it is the goal, the point, and the source of life for Carmel.

What is remarkable is the subtle ways in which we are called to such things. I had no notion of the depths of the Carmelite Way or of the simplicity that is so foundational when I first joined. Indeed, I am only now beginning to understand some of the "mechanisms" of the Carmelite way and I am astounded continually by their sheer simplicity and beauty.

The Carmelite Way is not everyone's way, but it you are called to it, God will make that so clear as there can be no doubt. You may need help in the course of discernment, because it is so difficult sometimes to come to correct conclusions on your own, but then, that is part of what formation is all about.

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From The Rule of St. Albert


Reflecting on vocations again, St. Albert writes this in the Rule he proposed for "B. and the other hermits under obedience to him, who live near the spring on Mount Carmel."

Rule of St. Albert

Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forefathers laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ--how, pure in heart and stout in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of his Master.

"In allegiance to Jesus Christ" is the Carmelite motto. But it is uniquely Carmelite. Every Christian must live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ, or risk being overwhelmed by the world. How one finds the proper bonds of allegiance and what outward manifestation that might have will vary. But it is not only the Carmelites who must live in allegiance with Jesus Christ, but everyone.

Also, it would be well to consider the origin of the term allegiance before it is dismissed as too light a bond.

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La Madre's Way of the Cross


It should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with St. Teresa of Avila that her vision of the Cross is completely interpenetrated with love; not the Love of God for humanity, which she acknowledges and exalts, but the love of the person for Christ and His Cross. This is an interesting perspective and one that may help shed some light on the question of "taking up our crosses."

The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints St. Teresa of Avila

They are too attached to their honor. . . . These souls, for the most part, grieve over anything said against them. They do not embrace the cross but drag it along, and so it hurts and wearies them and breaks them to pieces. However, if the cross is loved, it is easy to bear, this is certain.

For St. Teresa of Avila, love is the measure of all things. Everything that a person does is measured by the love lavished on it. When someone loves to do carpentry, the shelves, cabinets, and woodwork of his (or her) house shows the attention given to detail. When a person loves to cook, the meals prepared show the investment of time and love.

Most people's embrace of the cross is summed up in the word endurance. The cross is not to be loved, or even to be examined, and only just barely is it to be borne, and then, often, only with ill grace. What the Saint says here is that whatever makes up the cross for a person needs not merely be borne and dragged along--in this there is mere destruction. But it must be loved, loved as the present it is from the God who gives it. While wearing braces, a person does not love them, but afterwards, for years of straight teeth and good service, the love of them grows. Leg braces are nothing great to wear, causing the owner pain and humiliation, but without them there is no motion of one's own.

The cross is a gift from God. The crosses a person is called upon to bear are to right the irregularities in that person's spirit, to repair the flaws of original sin, and to make that person a perfect vessel of grace. It's hard to love what hurts, but when what hurts leads to perfection, a person can do it. It often hurts to lift weights, to jog, or to engage in other such activities--but because of the benefits that accrue to these activities many people do them, and many people "love" them. If so for things that help make better the life of this world, then how much more so for things that help make better life now and in the world beyond?

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St. Thérèse quoted in Carmelite Spirituality in the Teresian Tradition Paul-Marie of the Cross O.C.D.

Merit does not consist in doing or in giving much, but rather in receiving, in loving much. . . . It is said, it is much sweeter to give than to receive, and it is true. But when Jesus wills to take for Himself the sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let us allow Him to take and give all He wills.

Our merits increase as we empty ourselves and allow God to fill us. Utter self-giving means utter Divine receiving, and whatever merits we might have accrued dim in comparison to being spouse to God. Once again, St. Thérèse is so right on the mark. And one of the great difficulties of our time is that so many know well how to give, but receive very, very poorly.

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From a Little Flower


Great beauty. The thought and admonition are absolutely beautiful.

St. Thérèse quoted in Carmelite Spirituality in the Teresian Tradition
Paul-Marie of the Cross, O.C.D.

You are not sufficiently trusting, you fear God too much. I assure you that this grieves him. Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please him in all things if you have the unshakable confidence that he will purify you at every instant in his love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory.

I know nothing of why Saints receive the honors they do of the Church, but I'm convinced that St. Thérèse, who is adored by both traditionalists and by others in the Church, is actually the Saint who most significantly changed our understanding of God and of Salvation. I think that she opened our eyes to the supremacy of love and to the nature of God as Father, in ways that might have been touched upon, but certainly never thoroughly explored before her. While never denying Church doctrine, look at the shades of understanding in the passage above--God "regretfully" imposes the expiation of Purgatory. Certainly not the traditional view of either God or purgatory.

This is certainly not the God one would have encountered in the writings of Saints before Thérèse; and it is an image of God a great many have tremendous trouble accepting even now. The school that so adamantly opposes Hans Urs von Balthasar's contentions in Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?, would be disinclined, it would seem, to accept such an image of God. And yet there is part of me that is certain that St. Thérèse got it exactly right. God may allow some of His children to escape His love, but if so, it is done not in anger, wrath, rage, and righteous indignation, but in the way a human parent finally has to let their wayward teenager come to the end of his or her own road in a jail or halfway house. They cannot (and God does not) interfere with self-will, but both parents and God are heartbroken at the choices made by their children.

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The Shorter Way to God


from The Practice of the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection;

Quote in Carmelite Spirituality in the Teresian Tradition
Paul-Marie of the Cross O.C.D.

We look for methods. . . to learn how to love God. We want to get there by I don't know how many practices. A multitude of methods makes it more difficult for us to remain in God's presence. Isn't it much shorter and more direct to do everything for love of God, to use all the works of our state in life to manifest our love to him, and to foster the awareness of his presence in us by this exchange of our heart with him? Finesse is not necessary. We need only approach him directly and straightforwardly.

It's been my experience that when the means of approaching God are multiplied, my attention to God is divided. The means become the ends; methods become the focus of attention. Brother Lawrence here suggest a "shorter, more direct" way of approaching God, a simpler way. But, as with St. Thérèse's little way, simpler is not easier. The Carmelite way of things is very, very simple, just as most Carmelites are fairly simple; however, the Carmelite way, properly lived, I'm coming to discover, is not at all easy. Nevertheless, in this, as in all that pertains to God, if our hearts are simple and our desires quieted until only one voice remains, it is possible. And these things are possible through Grace alone. We cooperate and prepare ourselves to receive the grace (although even this is not done without Grace) and it is Grace alone which accomplishes all that need be done. We must simply focus on the End rather than all the means, and we must love the End more than any of the intermediary means. Simple, but not easy--apparently a hallmark of the Carmelite way.

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Here's a thought that I am only beginning to come to terms with:

from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints: St. John of the Cross

On this [narrow] road there is room only for self-denial (as our Savior asserts) and the cross. The cross is a supporting staff that greatly lightens and eases the journey.

I have a few minor problems with the first part. Mostly they are problems of proportionality and my role. I must deny myself, but in denying myself, I may not deny others. For example, I may give up a great many things, but I cannot impose upon my wife and child to give up those same things. I can encourage and I can lead by example, but an imposition from without is not self-denial but simply oppression.

Self-denial may be difficult, but I at least understand it. I'm only beginning to sense the truth encompassed in the second sentence, and I probably won't be able to make much sense of it to you, but here I go anyway.

When you love deeply, everything you do in love is made easier by being in love. Self-denial isn't self-denial, it is making a gift of yourself. You want the best of everything for the person you love and you're willing to see to it that they get it. You deny yourself some small trinket or even something necessary in order to fulfill the need you perceive. When your love is Jesus Christ, taking up your cross is part of His being able to bear His. We all participate in being Simon the Cyrene when we choose to carry our cross and deal with the burdens of the world at large. In this sense the cross becomes a staff. It is something we have taken up in love, not in thinking about ourselves, but in thinking about Jesus.

True self-denial denies even the concept of self-denial. It cannot be self-denial if it is given in love. Yes, you are incidentally denied something, but that something you are denied contributes to the welfare of another, if only in the spiritual realm. Self-denial does not always see the denial, it sees only the end for which the denial occurs--Jesus Christ. Thus, taking up the cross becomes not so much a chore as an exertion of love--a sign of our Love for the savior. Indeed, when love carries the burden, it works so strongly that it lifts us up as well.

Do what you do not for fear of hell or hope of heaven, but for the love of Jesus Christ. When that motivates all that we are and all that we do, the world itself is transformed, and what appear to be heroic acts of virtue are baubles, trifles, never enough to satisfy our desire to give. We suffer with the suffering of being unable to give enough, of being mortal and confined and limited. Our suffering greatly increases as our love increases and I wonder if even the suffering is not suffering, but it is part of the transformative union that allows us to share the aloneness of Jesus on the Cross for a single moment. If for an instant I could be with Him when He was most abandoned, what a consolation that would be to the entire world. If I could enter into that dark and terrifying place and say, "I'm here Lord," what a consolation that would be. Suffering would still be suffering, but it would be transformed in Him.

I go on too long. I am only beginning to understand, and my lack of understanding makes many words of what is probably a very simple thing. But it is a thing I need to know better and embrace more completely. Self-denial is meaningless if all I ever look at is my self and what is being denied. Self-denial seeks to look beyond the mere temporal object to the final Glory for which we have surrendered the object so important to us.

What a joyful, wonderful time Lent is. I want to say to all the world, "Come on in, the water's fine. And the company is just grand."

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Paradoxes of Faith


from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints: St. John of the Cross

[W]ho seeks not the cross of Christ seeks not the glory of Christ.

Christ's cross is His Glory. The resurrection, which affirms the triumph of the Cross is also glorious and joyful, but the act in which the separation of humankind from the intimacy of God was accomplished was the death on the Cross. If we seek to avoid the Cross, if we avert our eyes from it, we are averting our eyes from His glory, His great triumph. On the Cross He reunited God and His children. In the great Alone of His suffering, He forged the unbreakable covenant of our Salvation.

Honestly, I can't begin to understand it. I can't begin to tell what it means. But the words echo in my mind and the reality thrills my spirit as few things have done. What a gracious, loving, merciful, welcoming God we have. Isn't it time for all of us to stop rebelling and return home?

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God Spoke One Word

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Twice during my retreat I encountered this phrase from "The Sayings of Light and Love" of St. John of the Cross.

"God spoke one word."

I knew immediately the meaning, but it took a while for the implications to sink in. If God spoke only one Word, what are all those words in the Bible about? Yes, I know I'm slow, but obviously, every one of them is about Jesus Christ. How? Until I meditate on every one of them I cannot tell you. Truthfully even afterwards, I suspect that I will not understand the full mystery of it. Nevertheless, I know that it is true.

To give you an example, in this morning's Office of readings:

"Therefore, say to the Israelites: I am the Lord. I will free you from the forced labor of the Egyptians and will deliver you from their slavery. I will rescue you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment."

There's more, but let's stop there.

What I heard as I read this substituted the words "your sins" for "the Egyptians."

" I am the Lord. I will free you from the forced labor of your sins and will deliver you from their slavery."

How will he do this? "I will rescue you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment." Arms outstretched on a cross--the mighty acts of judgment, those which condemned the savior and brought Him to the cross, but also those that occurred after His death, in which the veil in the temple was torn in two, breaking the barrier between the Holy Spirit of God and His people.

This is an anticipatory reading of the passage. That is to say, it is reading into the passage and not the literal meaning. The literal meaning must be preserved, but the language used eerily forecasts the kind of redemption we were to receive.

Rolling this all into a ball and sending it spinning across the field, we come back to "God spoke one Word."

Praise the Lord!

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Words for Lent


"Whoever seeks God while wanting to hold on to his own likes and dislikes, may seek Him day and night, but will never find Him."

St. John of the Cross The Spiritual Canticle

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About this Archive

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

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