Carmelite: April 2006 Archives

The title pretty much sums it up. But it is a given that no entry can be so short and so let's talk about it a little.

St Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say it, Rejoice." Rejoicing is only possible where amity, friendship, and love exist. One cannot easily rejoice when brooding over hurt feelings or great loses or lost dreams and prospects. Rejoicing stems from loving. When the Lord is kept clearly at the center of life, all other things become incidentals. That isn't to say that some of these incidentals loom awfully large in the event; however, they also fall into exactly the place the Lord has designed for them in our lives.

Praying, St Teresa of Avila tells us, is a conversation between friends. Friends, by definition, share a love for one another. Prayer, we are told by St. Paul, should be the constant melody of life. We should at all times and in all events be immersed in prayer. So, we should at all times and in all events be immersed in a conversation with the God whom we love and who loves us.

Loving God is not a part-time job--it isn't reserved for Mass or for daily "prayer time." It is, indeed, an obligation and a privilege for all of us at all times. Our love of God should be incandescent, it should drawn souls like moths to the flame, so that being cleansed in the flame of God's love, they too become flames to draw more souls. Soon all the world is alight with the flame that comes from the Glory and the Love of God alone.

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I have been reflecting for some time on my own experiences as a Carmelite, and it occurs to me that my own patrimony, my own experience of the rich tradition of Carmel has been long-time coming because we had gotten hold of the tradition the wrong way around. The Carmelite tradition of prayer has never been about her great Saints, but about her motto and her vision of Elijah and Mary as examples.

"In Allegiance with Jesus Christ." The motto of Carmel and the keynote, provide entrance into the central mysteries of the Carmelite order. If we keep in mind that "Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ," we can begin to understand the central focus of Carmel on immersion in the scriptures, the central place of Lectio Divina. All of the revelations of St. John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, St. Edith Stein, Blessed John of St. Samson, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection--stem directly from this complete immersion in scripture. The Saints of Carmel are indeed Saints because of their close relationship and acquaintance with the Lord through scripture.

Any one who is interested in the Carmelites should know this up front. We are not by any means the most intellectual of the orders, in fact, perhaps the reverse, we are by far the Order than emphasizes charity and personal Love of our Lord and Savior above all else. The whole focus of Carmelite Spirituality is the development of this kind of continual conversation with the Lord. Our spirituality stems from intimate involvement in the life of the Trinity. This may only happen by visiting Jesus frequently where He may be found--in the sacraments and in the words of Holy Scripture.

The foundation of the Carmelite Mystical experience is the revealed Word of God taken as choice food for a prayer life. This meal then develops into a love-feast with Christ presiding and at the center. Our Saints may not be known for the greatness of their theological exercises, but they are certainly known for the depth of their love of God.

And putting all mystical experiences aside for the moment, this is what calls me to Carmel--the depth of the love and commitment to God that I see in her great saints. It is true of all orders, I know, and each is called as God will call; however, the true flavor and savor of Carmel is the richness of the prayer life founded on constant involvement with scripture. Love, not knowledge is always raised as the banner of Carmelites. If we were to take the words of some of our saints as guidelines for Carmelite life, they might be these:

St. Teresa of Avila-- Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed.

The important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so do that which best stirs you to love

St. John of the Cross--When evening comes, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux--My calling is love! In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love.

You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.

Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed, I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

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(A personal reflection)

I was startled today to realize that for the better part of ten or eleven years of pursuing a Carmelite vocation I have really been pursuing an illusion conjured by my reading of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of ?vila--the dream of the mystic encased in God. But Carmel is really and substantively about total immersion in God's word with resultant service to His people as summarized by this reflection:

from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

Two contemporary Carmelites, Kees Waaijman and John Welch, have reflected on the closing lines of the Rule and have something to say that may help us respond to today's needs. The concluding lines of the Rule are as follows; Here then are a few points I have written down to provide you with a standard of conduct to live up to: but Our Lord at his Second Coming will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to.

According to Welch and Waaijman this passage seems to refer to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Carmelite is the Innkeeper and Christ has come bringing the sick and the wounded asking that they be cared for--that everything possible be done to help. Christ will return and then repay the Innkeeper. According to this interpretation the Carmelite has his or her world turned upside down by the visit of Christ. We are asked to care for people with all their needs and wounds. This request, which causes inconvenience, challenges the Carmelite out of any egocentricity and reminds him or her that life is a mess and unpredictable. Spirituality is not a cosy option but is the call to respond to the gift of God's love by our involvement in what is often a dark and difficult world. Waaijman suggests: 'Real giving is essentially dark, and this is 'the going beyond' of the Rule into a desert of love, a night of trust.'

We spend time in the Scriptures to learn how to serve the Lord of the Scriptures and by serving demonstrate what true love means. In this round of life we may taste of the delights that are described by the Mystics. But whether this happens or not what matters is complete obedience to what God asks of us through the rule. Our obedience is its own reward--nothing more need come from God to me save the grace to obey and so to serve and to love.

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Mary, overshadowed by the Spirit of God,
is the Virgin of the new heart,
who gave a human face to the word made flesh.
She is the Virgin of wise and contemplative listening
who kept and pondered in her heart
the events and words of the Lord.
She is the faithful disciple of wisdom,
who sought Jesus--God's Wisdom--
and allowed herself to be formed and moulded by his Spirit,
so that in faith she might be conformed to his ways and choices.
Thus enlightened, Mary is present to us
as one able to read 'the great wonders'
which God accomplished in her
for the salvation of the humble and of the poor.

Mary was not only the Mother of Our Lord;
she also became his perfect disciple, the woman of faith.
She followed Jesus, walking with the disciples,
sharing their demanding and wearisome journey
--a journey which required, above all, fraternal love
and mutual service.

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"Leaving God for God"

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Quoting Blessed Titus Brandsma

from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal



So the contemplative prayer of the Carmelite is also the strength of the active apostolate. The influence of the contemplative soul is not withheld from the apostolate. . . . So there is no opposition of the contemplative life to the active. The former is the great support of the latter. The mystical life is in the highest sense apostolic.

Titus believed in the seamlessness of the Christian life--prayer and work were parts of the whole. Whenever he was called from silence and solitude to help someone he would say that he was leaving God for God.

In the Lay Carmelite life, prayer should find its expression in service in the world. We go to prayer to meet God and in meeting God we are given our work to do. It is a fine balance--making time for prayer and for the service that springs from it, while actively serving our families and our Churches.

But the apostolate of the Lay Carmelite is not merely contemplative prayer, but showing how contemplative prayer "works-in" with an active life. We are blessed and nourished by our prayer and our example, when lived according to the Rule and in accordance with the disciplines of the whole Catholic Church, allows others to see the integration of the contemplative and active that may occur in every person. One of the primary messages of Carmel is that contemplative prayer is for everyone. The way of Carmel is a special call, a vocation; however, contemplative prayer is available to all outside of Carmel. A person who is part of no lay order is invited every bit as much as one who has joined. God wants intimacy with all of His children. Lay Carmelites demonstrate that it is possible to live an active life of service fueled by contemplation--Martha tempered by and informed by Mary. Perhaps it is not the highest or best calling--that is reserved for those whose entire vocation is contemplation. But we don't really want all the best gifts, but rather the gifts most suitable for us as God sees us.

Thus Blessed Titus shows us that leaving our prayer to help a friend, or leaving our prayer to feed the poor is leaving God for God. In this life of apostolic contemplation and service we can never really leave God.

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A Call to Life

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from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

The writer Chris O'Donnell is influenced by the theology of von Balthasar when he says that Thérèse has something to teach the post-Vatican II Church. If we want a renewed and missionary Church we need to move away from mere organisational and structural change and live love. We will see then the wonderful reality of the Communion of Saints and learn to understand how much worth there is in an act of pure love--in living the "Little Way". In her discipleship Thérèse is in many ways a wonderful window into the faith of Mary, whose unconditional trust lived through Calvary and then experience the fullness of the Resurrection.

I don't know about the theology of von Balthasar, or even about Thérèse as a mirror of the Blessed Virgin; however, one thing struck me right between the eyes. The only way to change the Church for the better is to live love. No amount of governmental change, or tinkering with rubrics, or modifying this, that, or the other discipline, or arguing the merits of one view of atonement over another, or, in fact any critical or supportive action will mean so much as transforming ourselves first. And by transforming ourselves, I mean the utter surrender to God's will that allows us to learn how to live love. I don't know what this statement means of myself. I know it only through the action of the Holy Spirit in the transformation of my person. I do not now live love. I don't even know how to live love. But I do know that I won't find out from however many books I read or lessons I study. I haven't grown beyond learning more about God in these ways, but I will never find out the essential quality for a life pleasing to God, because this is learned only at the School of His Holy Word, in the presence of Christ the Lord. Unlike the disciples, I must learn to stay awake and heed His teachings. Only in complete attention to Him do I even learn the meaning of love. The phrase God is Love is utterly meaningless without living His life. I can make guesses at what the words mean, but it is only in my living them out that they come to the fullness of meaning. And that may only happen when I turn everything over to God. I learn love by being Love--that is the only sufficient school.

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from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

She [St. Teresa of Avila] is aware from her own conversion experience of the need to grow from a solid human basis. Prayer comes from a life of practical love, from detachment and humility. We cannot talk to God if we do not speak lovingly to our neighbour and we need realism, and a grounding of our lives.

What may surprised many, coming from a cloistered nun, is the revelation that prayer comes from a life of practical love. Sometimes we have an unrealistic vision of the cloistered life as one of ethereal and fantastical encounters with God while floating through a day of prayer. And while the life of the cloister is completely imbued with and dedicated to prayer, it has some hard realities. And in St. Teresa of Avila's time, those realities were probably a good deal harder.

What is practical love? What forms does it take? What do our lives look like grounded in practical love? It would depend upon one's state in life, one's means, one's personality and inclination. But regardless of these three it will always show in a willingness to share what God has given us with those less fortunate, less knowledgeable, or less aware of God and His Mercies. A life of practical love will always be a life of sacrifice. We will give ourselves up and surrender to the ones we love much of our energy, time, talent, and the goods of the world that have been bestowed upon us. As parents in means serving our children and bringing them up in a way that will foster their service to God, neighbor, and country. It often means long hours of what seems thankless work and doing things we don't particularly care for in correcting and instilling discipline in our children. Yes, there are great rewards and joys in this service, and that is the consolation of many acts of practical love. But practical love is based on these consolations, but on the purest love of God that makes a person constantly hunger and thirst for ways to show that he or she loves God. Practical love stems from the desire to make manifest to God, to ourselves, and to the world the overflowing love with which God fills us as His own unmerited gift of grace.

Practical love is substantially grounded and completely devoted to "other." And practical love is, well, practical and commonsense. You don't hand a starving many a worn coat. You don't give to the naked a can of baked beans. This should go without saying, but often, we are trapped in our own sense of what needs might be and we don't see far beyond our own borders.

Practical love is simply the natural outpouring of the love God pours into us as we come to know Him better. It overflows, it cannot be contained, and so it spills out in the light of the world in small acts and in large, but all of them flow from a deep and abiding love God has for us. We become Him as we pour out His love on all the Earth, seeking to return some little for the vast fortune He has bestowed upon us.

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Medieval Contemplation

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Carmelite Style:

from The Ten Books on the Way of Life and the Great Deeds of the Carmelites--Book 1 Chapter 2

The other goal of this life is granted to us as the great gift of god, namely, to taste somewhat in the heart and to experience in the mind the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory, not only after death but already in this mortal life. This is to "drink of the torrent" of the pleasure of God. God promised this to Elijah in the words: "And there you shall drink of the torrent."

From Earliest times, Carmelites saw themselves as disciples and brothers of Elijah. Elijah still is our example and our model. It is to Elijah and to the Blessed Mother we turn for examples of how to live a life in God.

The passage quoted above is practically the only excerpt in English that you can find of this famous work. But it is such a beautiful passage and so perfectly stated that it is worth lingering over and thinking about.

"To taste somewhat in the heart. . . the power of the divine presence" all while we still live. That is the goal of a Carmelite life--for a Lay Carmelite a proposition that can be difficult because of the ordering of life that must occur to allow one to spend the time in contemplation. And yet, it is promised to those who give God the time and the space and the willingness to change. And as I want to be only what He would have me be, I want to change as He would have me change.

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Because of an eclipse and distrust of mysticism that accompanied the reaction to Quietism and Jansenism, the works of John of St. Samson are not so widely available as they ought to be. Brother Lawrence fared better despite a "guilt by association" with François Fénèlon because his works were embraced in English Translation and taught by John Wesley.

from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

Quoting from L'Aiguillon, les flammes, les flèches et le miroir de l'amour de Dieu
John of St. Samson

He uses the image of God's love as being like a wave that laps around life:

Make use of this very simple aspiration: 'you and I, my love, you and I, you and I, and never another nor more!' To which you could add come burning words like: 'since you are entirely good and all goodness itself; since you are entirely glorious and all glory itself; since you are entirely holy and all holiness itself!"

The beauty of these lines suggest that I must do my best to find more. Here is another Carmelite great too long left out of my life and my consciousness. "You and I, my love, you and I."

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

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