Carmelite Saints: November 2005 Archives

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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Why I So Dearly Love La Madre


from Journey to Carith
Peter-Thomas Rohrbach

[Quoting St Teresa]

They were saints in their own opinion, but when I got to know them better they frightened me more than all the sinners I had ever met. (referring to a local Church Ladies' Guild)

"Lord deliver us from sour-faced saints," she said. And the nuns of her convents leave us an unforgettable image of the saint playing the mandolin and dancing for her sisters at recreation. "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."

She prays to be delivered from foolish devotions, and she chides superiors who are too rigorous with their charges. On one of her travels she was criticized for eating an expensive partridge when it was served to her, and she looked up surprised and said, "There is a time for partridge and a time for penance."

Even the townspeople began to voice criticisms, and Teresa was publicly denounced from the pulpits in Avila. On one occasion she was attending Mass at St. Thomas' church with her sister, Juana, when the priest berated "nuns who left their convents to go and found new ones." Juana was extremely ingidnant, but when she turned to watch Teresa's reaction she saw that she had a smile on her face.

. . . but a more penetrating insight into her character might perhaps be gained from a phrase she employed so frequently in her writings--"I just laughed to myself."

Teresa was adamant on the point, but she met stern oppostion, especially from her friend Peter Ibanez. He wrote her a memorandum "two sheets long, full of refutations and theology." However, she remained unconvinced, "I replied that I had no wish to make use of theology, and I should not thank him for his learning in this matter if it was going to keep me from following my vocation and being true to the vow of poverty."

But most of all for her deep love of the God-born-Man Jesus Christ, for teaching us that the humanity of Jesus is as important as His divinity and that it is the humanity that bridges us to the divinity, showing that they could coexist.

Teresa was practical, apparently funny, a real talker (and she remained so throughout life) and yet deeply, deeply spiritual. She was an astounding woman and a Saint for all time, one from whom we might learn a great deal today if we were to open our ears to listen.

And apparently, she was stubborn as a mule. (Only a good quality when you're on God's side.)

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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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About this Archive

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

Carmelite Saints: October 2005 is the previous archive.

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