One View of Carmel

| | Comments (2)

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

The Order of Carmel stands for the mystical. Everything in its teaching and way of life as established by St. Teresa is directed precisely towards this. A full flowering of the mystical life and the Christian life are one and the same thing. The culmination, perfection, fulfilment of the Christian life--'all that the Lord has promised'-- is, in our special terminology, the mystical marriage or the transforming union. The ascent of Mount Carmel is but the fulness of the Christian life, which is synonymous with the fulness of human being. There are not two vocations, one to human fulfilment and the other, if we are special and privileged, to Christian fulfilment. There is only one fulfilment to be achieved either in this world or the next, that which we call mystical marriage or transforming union.

This is essentially what Carmel means to me. It is a view of human life translated into a definite purpose and aim. Climbing a mountain to meet God? Yes. But the mountain itself is God and he cannot be scaled by merely human endeavour. What Carmel does is to disengage the bare components of the human vocation, what is really involved in being human, and tries to live them in an absolute, naked sort of way. So convinced am I that Carmel is nothing other than a living out in a stark manner what is the very essence of the human vocation that, were I to come across any practice, ideal, principle, which has not its correlative in life 'outside' it would be jettisoned as unauthentic. There is a distinction between living Carmel and living in Carmel, just as there is between being a Christian and practising the Christian religion. It is the former that matters, and the later is useless unless it leads to the primary goal.

That is one very clear, very succinctly stated view of what it means to be a Carmelite. And, I think from my brief experience of it, largely true. Living Carmel is more important than being a Carmelite. As with any vocation it is a matter of growing into it.

Carmel's vocation is a unique statement of the universal vocation. We are not all called to achieve this end in the same way, but we are all called to achieve the end defined in Carmelite terms as "mystical marriage or transforming union." The way one goes about arriving at this end is unique to the individual. Some have been so fortunate as to be called to a certain rule and rigor--the path is, more or less, laid out for them. But even within a vocation the paths vary depending upon the individual. This must be so because Saints are not carbon copies of one another. There is only one St. Francis even though the saints among the followers of his way are innumerable. So too with St. Dominic, St. Teresa, and any other saint. While the rule may be clear, within that rule is a magnificent wideness that allows for us to be precisely whom Jesus calls us to be. Those without a vocation in a rule still have the universal vocation to holiness and to growing into God. Frankly, I don't remember what it was like to live that way outside of Carmel. Even though I have not attained even a good standard discipline (never mind perfection) in obedience to the rule that governs my life; nevertheless, it is always there and always a significant part of what I do and think, and God willing, through time, I'll become a better exemplar of it.

But the point or end of life is the same for all. Carmelites call it the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Mystical or Spiritual Marriage, the Transforming Union, or any number of other things. But it is very simply stated in the words of our Lord, "I must decrease so the He might increase." This is the Christian vocation. We must become less ourselves so, paradoxically, we can be fully ourselves in Him. The only identity we have is in Christ and so long as we try to define ourselves, we are failing to find out who we are. The entire point of all Christian living is to love God and to achieve the personhood God has set aside for us by joining Him. This will happen to everyone who follows Him faithfully--as Sr. Ruth says above, either in this life or in the life to come.

Bookmark and Share


A Jesuit gave me one of Ruth Barrow's mystical books, and it turned my took me a bit of instrospection to figure out why, and then I realized that she had a nice personality, and her book assumes we are all "good" people, and all floating off to heaven and just need direction.
The last book I read that gave me similar indigestion was (of all things) the Acquarian conspiracy...for the same reason.
In these books, they assume what William James calls "healthy" minded religion. But, as James points out, there are many other aspects of religious experience that exist, and Ms/Sister Ruth seems oblivious to this.
Luckily, she writes for others of similar mental gifts; Alas, I work with regular fallible people who commit sin, but know they do...
Perhaps Sister Ruth should contemplate the remark by CS Lewis that there is a difference between good digestion and goodness...and that those of us with poor digestion recognize our deep need for God in a way that those with good digestion never even recognize...

Dear Sir,

It isn't so much that she has a nice personality and makes assumptions about people, but that she writes for the same audience as St. John of the Cross--beginners. By this is not meant anyone who happens to stumble into the world of prayer and makes a half-hearted effort at it, but those who have been regular and disciplined and really living within a rule for some time and who are now ready to set out on the Mystical Path.

In her book, as in St. John of the Cross, most of us are not even beginners.

So as I said, it isn't niceness, but the assumption of a given starting point. Yes, even those at the starting point sin and fall short of the glory of God, but that is not really the point of the writing and would distract from the main point. Sr. Ruth assumes that we do recognize that and they we are seeking to remedy it, just as does St. John of the Cross. They point out many much more subtle traps into which we are likely to fall.

No one person writes for all, and if she doesn't speak to you, then it is best to stay away. The Holy Spirit speaks even in some of our likes and dislikes.

Nevertheless, what I have read of Sister Ruth is in line with and a condensed version of standard Carmelite teaching and doctrine. We do not deny the reality of sin, but people ready to commit themselves to lives of contemplative prayer, while still sinners, tend to be aware of the fact. What they need is not a reminder of their sinfulness--always before them--but a beacon that suggests that more than this is possible. If all I ever read rubbed my nose in my own sin, I couldn't advance, and I doubt seriously that I could for long maintain faith in the face of such despairing stuff.





About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 5, 2005 8:02 AM.

News from Franklin was the previous entry in this blog.

Strait is the Gate and Narrow is the Way is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll