The British Province
of Carmelite Friars
The Spiritual Journey
As we prepare to celebrate the new millennium we experience ourselves as part of a world which is full of contradictions. Our world is plagued by wars, famine, hatred and yet at the same time people of faith can see signs of hope, sometimes only little seeds, but these signs give us hope and the strength to continue to work in the face of what can often seem to be impossible odds.
We are privileged to live at one of those rare and most exciting times in history when there is a profound cultural shift. It was said during the General Chapter that God is purifying the Church and bringing it back to the purity of its origins. There are many double-sided events in our day. On the one hand, we lament the lack of vocations, the decreasing numbers of people coming to church, the increasing secularisation of society. On the other hand we can see in these same events the hand of God at work. As was stated in the final document of the General Chapter, now is not a time for pessimism. The signs of the times announce the coming of a new springtime for Christianity.
Given the present situation, what should be our response? The Church has asked all Christians to co-operate in an era of new evangelisation. The Church is missionary by its very nature and so must our Order be. Let us remain open to the promptings of the Spirit and continue to read the signs of the times and respond in the future as we have done in the past.
There are many ways to respond to the needs of the world and the call of Christ to preach the Gospel to all nations. Our way is the Carmelite way. It is not better or worse than any other way but it is our way. The best way for us to respond to the Church's call for a new evangelisation is to be what we are intended to be - Carmelites. We may need to change our outlook and our methods but we need not attempt to change what we are.
What are we? What is this Carmelite way? Thankfully to help us answer this question we have the benefit of our new Constitutions which describe our life and mission. We describe ourselves as living in "obsequium Jesu Christi" embracing the Gospel as the supreme norm of our lives co-operating in the realisation of God's plan in our world. (art. 2). We are the Brothers of The Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel (art. 6) and we are the inheritors of a long tradition.. After many years of discussion and scholarship, I would suggest that who we are is now clear, that is, our charism is clear. We live our following of Christ by committing ourselves to the search for the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of the Gospel), to fraternity and to service in the midst of the people (art. 14). The experience of the desert is the dynamic unifying factor of these values (art. 15). The Prophet Elijah and Our Lady are especially inspirational to us (art. 25 ff).
One of the main issues facing us in our day is not, "Who are we?" or "What is our place in the Church?" but "How do we live this charism concretely in order to respond to the call of the Church for an era of new evangelisation?" We are told in art. 64 that prayer is the irremoveable centre of our lives and it is from this centre that authentic community and ministry arise. Art. 78 points out that we must be so profoundly contemplative that we see everything that happens almost as if we were looking through God's eyes. We cannot get away from the fact that contemplation is an essential element of our vocation and indeed is the source of our fraternal and apostolic lives. However the term "contemplation" is a difficult one for us and for many Christians for a number of reasons. I think that still many people, Carmelites included, would reject the word as having anything to do with them. They are quite happy to leave that sort of thing to enclosed nuns who are often called "contemplatives". They do not see how contemplation could possibly fit in with their busy lifestyles. Our mendicant status means that we are called to the active apostolate and we know how busy we can be. The opposite reaction is to apply the term "contemplation" to ourselves too easily and therefore domesticate it and reduce it to the banal. We can talk about having a contemplative attitude and practising contemplative prayer without understanding what this means in practice nor accepting what contemplation demands of us.
The way that spirituality has often been presented has hindered many of us from accepting the invitation of God to intimacy. The ascent of Mount Carmel and the dark nights of St. John of the Cross may sound good in spiritual talks but what about their reality? Is it not better just to get on with our pastoral work and leave all that stuff to those who are attracted to it?
In 1997 we celebrated the centenary of the death of St. Therese of Lisieux. Hers was a prophetic voice at a time when the icy hands of Jansenism still maintained a grip on many Christians. She proclaimed once again the Good News of Jesus Christ, that God is love and that we are desired by God who wishes to enter into an intimate relationship of friendship with us. As we quoted in the final document of the General Chapter, "There is no need to be afraid little flock. It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom." (Lk. 12,32)
Art. 17 of the Constitutions tells us that contemplation begins when we entrust ourselves to God, whatever way God chooses to come to us. It is critical to get a good start on our journey. Obviously we who preach the Gospel are not afraid of God because we preach a God of love but I invite you to look into your heart and see whether you really believe that. If so, then following the example of St. Therese, abandoning yourself into the hands of God will be a simple matter. Faith of course is not just a matter of feelings and so it is not necessary to feel trust in order to truly entrust ourselves to God. However we need to stay awake and recognise the approach of God who may come to us in totally unexpected ways. Mary received the Word of God through the message of an angel but was also open to hearing God's voice at the foot of the cross. Elijah met God not in the earthquake or the fire or the mighty wind but in the sound of a gentle breeze. I would suggest that one of the most unexpected ways that God chooses to come to us is through our brother with whom we live in community.
Art. 17 goes on to tell us that contemplation is an attitude of openness to God whose presence we discover everywhere. Our preaching or teaching or whatever work we do does not bring Christ to people but hopefully helps them to discover His presence in their lives or be more aware of it. Christ is already present in each situation and individual before we arrive. Above all our daily lives, our presence, should reveal something of God. Does it? Can we really discover the presence of God everywhere even in difficulties? This is the faith of Our Lady in the Magnificat who praises God for throwing down the proud, feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty when most people would see the opposite as true. A contemplative is able to see beyond the externals to the reality beneath. A constant attitude of openness to God is of course not easy because the presence of God calls into question how we live and constantly calls us to conversion which means change and we are not always very keen to change.
Contemplation, according to the same article of the Constitutions, constitutes the interior journey of the Carmelite which begins with the completely free initiative of God who touches us and transforms us towards a unity of love with Him, raising us up to be able to freely enjoy being loved by God and living in His loving presence. Now please notice that the article does not discriminate; it does not say that this is reserved for some Carmelites - for the holy ones, or for enclosed nuns; it just says "the Carmelite" , that is all who are called to Carmel are called to this. Contemplation is not for an elite; it is for everyone; it is for you and I. Contemplation has little if anything to do with strange phenomena; it has everything to do with entrusting ourselves to God and allowing God to love us into true life. Contemplation is not a reward for virtue but is what makes us able to be virtuous. It is the space for God to transform us from within so that as article 17 says, our human, limited and imperfect ways of thinking, loving and acting are emptied and transformed into divine ways.
But what is wrong with our human ways of thinking, loving and acting? They are limited and imperfect and because of this they are often distorted and manipulated by motives of which we are totally unaware or barely aware. Article 18 of the Constitutions tells us that contemplation is not only the source of our spiritual life but determines the quality of our fraternal life and of our service in the midst of the people. Without contemplation, without entering this process whereby God transforms our human, limited and imperfect ways of thinking, loving and acting into divine ways, our community life and ministry will tend to be distorted and manipulative. We must of course work on the quality of our community lives and our ministry but without the openness to God and the willingness to change, our efforts will not have much effect although God can raise up children from stones and so uses our limited and imperfect ways to perform wonders.
In the 60's there was a debate
within the Order about how to balance the contemplative and active
elements of our vocation and indeed Carmelites have always lived
with this tension. There was a suggestion that it was very unfair
to Carmelites working in busy parishes or schools to say that
the principal part of our vocation is contemplation as was said
in the Constitutions of that time. I believe that this issue emerged
from a wrong understanding of contemplation. It was thought for
hundreds of years that contemplation was for an elite group and
certainly not for everyone and so most Carmelites felt themselves
to be excluded from this and gave themselves very generously to
their apostolic work and left contemplation to others. Therefore
it really was a problem for them to read in the Constitutions
of the time that contemplation was the principal part of their
vocation. In our day we are witnessing an upsurge of interest
in contemplation among religious but especially among lay people.
People are searching for more; they are searching for depth; they
are searching for something which will respond to their deeply-felt
hunger; they are searching for God. If we pat them on the head
and tell them not to worry about things like that, they will go
away and never come back. They will seek an answer elsewhere.
If contemplation is really for everyone and is not reserved for enclosed nuns and monks or those with a great deal of leisure time, it must be possible in the midst of a busy apostolic ministry. Indeed if we are to believe our Constitutions, contemplation will actually determine the quality of our ministry and our community life. It is of course all very well talking about the glories of contemplation or the need for it but what can we do about it practically in the midst of our busy lives? The first and most important thing to remember is that contemplation is God's work and God's gift which is freely given whenever and to whomever God wishes. Responding to the grace of God, we entrust ourselves into the arms of God who loves us - we may not necessarily feel this but we believe it. We can prepare the way for the Lord like John the Baptist by examining our lives and seeing if there is anything which is incompatible with our vocation. We can then use the normal remedies which we are offered through the Church. However perhaps we are not ready to change or perhaps there are some elements of our character which we cannot change at present. That need not hold us back . God is far greater than our weaknesses and God's mercy is more powerful than our sins and defects.
We are told in art. 80 of the Constitutions that silent prayer is of very great help in increasing the spirit of contemplation and that we must dedicate an adequate time each day to it. What is an adequate time? You alone can answer that in the circumstances of your own life but remember if we are too busy to pray, then we are too busy. We are encouraged elsewhere to practice Lectio Divina which is becoming a great force within our Order. Of course Lectio and silent prayer can be combined very easily. The traditional practice of Lectio gives space for Lectio, Meditatio and Oratio where we read the Word of God, reflect on it and respond to it in prayer. There is of course a fourth step - contemplatio. Reading, reflecting and responding are all good but of course they utilise the human, limited and imperfect ways of thinking and loving. The stage of contemplatio is where we let go of these limited ways for a short period and allow God to act.in us. So we are invited to simply rest in God beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond our activity and leave the rest to God. When or if this silence becomes contemplation is best left in God's hands. However in the silence we slowly learn a new language which transcends our poor limited human words and then silence becomes far more eloquent than many words.
What happens when we let go of our pious words and thoughts? We find ourselves thinking of what is for lunch or planning our next homily or having an internal argument with someone who has wronged us in the past. When we become aware of this, we may very well feel that this silent prayer business is not for us, that we cannot do it and that we had better stick to meditation where we have something to occupy our busy minds. I suggest that this reaction, while understandable, is mistaken. What really matters in our prayer is not our words or thoughts, important though these are, but our desire. What do you really desire? As you know it is very possible for the lips to say one thing and for the heart to say the opposite. God reads the heart; God knows the desire of our heart even though our minds may seem to be far away. Obviously when we become aware that we are distracted, we can choose to continue thinking about our next homily or whatever but that would be changing our intention to simply be in God's presence. It is better just to renew our intention to be in God's presence and to be open to God's action and we can do so in many ways, for example by the use of a simple word or even an interior glance towards God. It may be that the use of many words or even holy thoughts is not helpful at this time. We have all had the experience in a human relationship where silence speaks far more eloquently than many words. Even very busy people can maintain intimate human relationships and so in the midst of our busy lives we are invited into an intimate relationship with God. Indeed with this relationship at the centre of our lives, all our activity and our community lives will become much more fruitful.
If we accept God's invitation to begin this interior journey, we will of course meet with difficulties on the way because we will be brought face to face with ourselves. We will see ever more clearly the motives for our actions. We will see that sometimes even our best actions have selfish motives. This is very difficult to accept and this is why the spiritual journey is so difficult and why many would seem to turn back to a less challenging place. If however we but knew the gift God was offering us, we would continue our journey despite the painful revelations about ourselves which we were offered. On this journey we become less proud, less sure of our own virtue but more reliant on the mercy of God and more aware that all human beings are our brothers and sisters.
I believe that we will respond to the call of the Pope for an era of new evangelisation and be people of the new millennium insofar as we are faithful to our vocation which is described in our Constitutions. If we take seriously the contemplative aspect of our vocation, the other aspects will also become much more fruitful. Our community lives will become much more human because as we become more aware we will more easily accept the failings of our brothers. Our apostolic work will become much more fruitful, which is not the same as being successful. We will become even more missionary because as our Constitutions tell us, "our human ways of thinking, loving and acting will be changed into divine ways" ( art. 17). We will see reality as if through the eyes of God and love the whole of reality as if with the heart of God.
Our world is undergoing great cultural upheaval as we approach the new millennium. There is a profound spiritual crisis in our times. What have we to say in this situation? What can we do with this great opportunity? We can of course do whatever our skills permit us to do but above all we can all re-commit ourselves daily to the vocation to which we have been called. Simply by living as Carmelites, we will speak a powerful word to our world because it will be a word from God.