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.