Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Thomas Merton, Zen & Aboriginal Spirituality GLENN LOUGHREY

On Friday the 25th of May, Glenn Loughrey offered a paper on the Cistercian spiritual writer Thomas Merton, Zen, and Aboriginal Spirituality, as part of this year’s Carmelite Centre Symposium, ‘A Readers’ Festival of Spirituality’. The paper was informed by three of Glenn’s art works, which are reproduced here where they first display during the paper.

In preparing for this talk, I found myself pondering on a peculiarity within the Australian religious scene. In looking at the program for this week I found myself reading about voices from other countries and other sensibilities. There are no Australian voices, and more importantly, there is no representative of the ancient spirituality that preceded western civilisation.

Now, in the context of this conference there are obviously good reasons for that. This is a reader’s conference and we are looking at authors and spiritual guides who have made an indelible impact on the Christian religious landscape. It makes sense to look at those writers and contemplatives included in the program. Yet I would like to make a claim for the indigenous spiritual voice to not only be heard, but to be included in the spirituality of the indigenised commonwealth we call Australia. As the Hindu guru Bramachari suggested to Merton when the young man asked him to suggest some writers to read on mysticism and contemplation, look first at your own mystics and when you know all about them I will recommend some for you, but only then.

The author Richard Flanagan, in a recent talk at the National Press Club, stated that Australia is not a European or an Asian nation. He asserted that because of our engagement with the land on which we live we have become indigenised. We have taken into ourselves some of the sensibility of Aboriginal spirituality found in our relationship with the land, landscape and all that makes this a rugged and dangerous place. An understanding of this perspective makes sense of the loose affiliation Australians have to organised religion and the sacrificial guilt that is inherent in traditional religion. We are not people of Europe, Asia or even America, and our perspective on spirituality and faith comes primarily from that which we have unconsciously absorbed on a land we stole from the sovereign custodians.

A recent project of mine has been to translate the Christian liturgy and its imported language into the symbols and language (not traditional spoken language) of the Aboriginal spirituality and worldview. If the church in Australia is to grow up, it must grapple with the task of becoming one with what is already here. Much of the history of the church and of spirituality, contemplative and other, has been one of supplanting that which already exists. The church has been complicit in the destruction of language, ritual and culture through such as its role in the civilisation of the natives and its continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery. The church exists on stolen ground and has continued to steal the identity and vibrant spirituality from those who have been here for 85,000 years.

I have been using this new liturgy in our Wednesday service which is streamed on line. It averages over 120 viewers every week. The question I have asked myself is: how does a service, which is not welcomed or embraced by the church hierarchy or liturgical commission, connect to a relatively large group of non-church attending Australians? Is there something within the ordinary Australian that hears a voice from the deep and responds without understanding and why? Or are these ordinary Australians more in tune with the land, the dirt beneath their feet, than we recognise?

In the beginning of Merton’s autobiography we read: ''On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadows of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.''[1] In this single line we read, I could suggest, all we need to know about Merton. Merton places himself in the world, not in a specific town our place, but in the midst of a wide sweep of time, place and awareness which frames all he does from that moment forward.

Yes, Merton lived in England, emigrated to America, travelled to Cuba and had connections to New Zealand, but he remained always within the description he gives of his birth. He was European in both origin and thought. He was scarred by the war he was born on the edge of and the subsequent second major European war that followed. He was influenced by the southern French landscape and beauty.

His copious correspondence was primarily with those on the continent and he remained always deeply Roman Catholic even in the midst of the changes wrought by Vatican II. Merton was, at his centre, a product of the enlightenment, unable to connect with English niceness or American commercialism. It is true he engaged with American thinkers and leaders but it was always from the starting point of European thought and practice.

Merton carried the country of his birth in his body and he could never break free from it. This is key idea in Aboriginal culture – we carry our country in our body. That is why, when you ask me who I am, I say Wiradjuri and my name is…….. I am my country first and it dictates how I respond to and  engage in the world both physical and spiritual. Like Merton, no matter how far I may travel from my place of birth physically or through such as education or faith, I remain always in one place because that place is here, in my body.

Such an idea holds great possibilities for the church if we could understand that the body broken on the cross was not just Jesus’s physical body but his country. Country referring to the place he came from and the place he was born into. He remained always in the first and made his home in the second and in his brokenness he opens up the possibility for us in both countries.

It could be suggested this is Merton’s life story. He lived a life broken in many ways by his experiences and his constant spiritual struggle with identity, freedom and his past. He failed to reach the spiritual high bar he sought as a contemplative, had an affair with a much younger woman and lived in conflict with authority. His was a life that was incomplete in many ways yet held within it the wisdom one can only find in the deep abyss, deep beneath the surface. Merton was a man of his country in that sense. A man from a rugged inner and outer landscape requiring personal engagement with everything that makes us human and whose voice remains relevant.

Out of his country Merton, like Jesus, shares with us the wisdom given to him for his own personal benefit. Merton is one in a long-line of elders, just as Jesus was. The idea that Jesus is our elder strikes fear into the hearts of some theologians who wish for him to remain always Lord. For Aboriginal people the concept of Lord is a foreign one. There is no such concept for us. We are a matriarchal people built on relationships of respect and trust and not on the hierarchal model of power favoured by Western theologians. Power is shared by the land to those who listen to it and are invited into the role of elder. Like Jesus who said that he only shares what he heard from the Father, Aboriginal elders only share that which comes from the country on which they were born and live.

Speaking of Jesus as elder is not just appropriate, for us it is the only way. Merton has become an elder, a holder of transmitted wisdom which began in the nature of his birth and continued in the nature of his life as a contemplative monk. Merton shares with us only that which he has heard through quietness and stillness, reading and learning, prayer and practice as well as though the interaction as a flawed human being in an even more flawed world. As my father would say, “ Walk your country and your country will tell you what it needs and what you need to hear.”

This was the practice that governed Merton’s life. His last secretary, Patrick Hart relates that Merton would leave the monastery on an afternoon walk, walking calmly away from the building into his beloved woods. Sometime later he would reappear, in a frenzied hurry, robes billowing in the wind as he scurried to his room and began to feverishly record what he had heard in the wild. Again, this encapsulates Merton as elder, one who listened deeply to that which gave him life, life itself, and who shares that with us in his writings.

Finally there is in Merton much of the child of the Dreaming. For Aboriginal people the Dreaming is not a far off place of creation stories but the everywhere, then of meta-spatial spirituality. Everything that has existed, exists or will exist exists now within the material environment in which we live. The ancestors are not past, they are present. Every creature, stone, tree or river is alive with story and presence. They speak from the deep the truth we need to hear.

Merton embraces this idea in his engagement with Zen as well as with his Christianity. For one he says “all is Zen” and the other he says the hills here are full of the New Testament. This everywhere, then of spirituality is an always renewing, ever remaining connected to the deep experience of living. Merton could see the presence of the spirit in everything from the birds in the air to the blacksnake in his toilet, the sound of Kentucky storms or the ancient chanting of the monks. These all held the stillness and quietness of the still small voice of God defying the noise of the bombers flying overhead with the nuclear egg in its hold. His last statement in Polunnaruwa, “ I have finally found what I was looking for” was a nod to this everywhere, then of the Spirit, Zen and the Dreaming. It was not about knowledge, power, wisdom or fame. It was about a sense of being that pervades all things all the time and through all of time.


How we understand country, eldership and dreaming impacts on how we engage with Aboriginal people in terms of spirituality and respect.

A friend of mine in Utiopia, Central Australia, was talking to Centre-link on behalf of a female client. They wanted to know where she was born. She said, “Under the tree”. They wanted a more concrete address and after several attempts my friend said 1 Main Street. Centre link said, “You made that up”. He replied it is either that or under the tree.

He went on to say that under the Closing the Gap program, all mothers-to-be are moved off country to have their babies. The result is young people born disconnected from the law, language and culture on someone else’s country. This creates materially and spiritually disconnected young people and deeply shamed mothers.

Merton lived a life in conversation with these three integral ideas and challenges us to do so in this place and at this time.

[1] Merton

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

“To exist is to be outside” JAN MORGAN AND GRAEME GARRETT

Intersection of the Timeless with Time
Carmelite Symposium, 24-26 May, 2018
“To exist is to be outside”
Jan Morgan & Graeme Garrett

Thank you for your welcome Philip. We are very pleased to be part of this Symposium, ‘The intersection of the timeless with time.’  Our presentation is titled, ‘To exist is to be outside’. It takes the form of a John Clarke/Brian Dawe style exchange – well, that’s aiming high! But at least a nod of acknowledgment and gratitude in their direction. There are three sections, a conversation followed by two interviews, as follows:
         On spiritual guides
         What time is it?
         The Anthropocene – a spiritual challenge?

   1. On Spiritual Guides
G.  OK Jan, the typical desert island problem. Suppose you had to choose one person, one writer, to be your spiritual guide now, who would you go for?
J. You mean I’ve only got one. Just one!
G. Yes. One.
J. Anyone? From Eve down?
G. No, no. It’s got to be up to date. Let’s say the last 100 years, max.
J. Why? What’s wrong with Hildegard of Bingen, or Hadewijch of Antwerp?
G. Who the Dickens is Hadewijch of Antwerp?
J. Oh my … Who is Hadewijch of Antwerp?!
G. OK, OK! I’ve got nothing against Hadewijch of Antwerp. Except, when did she live?
J. 13th Century. She was a poet, a mystic, a writer …
G. Well, there you are!
J. Where?
G. In the 13th century. This is now. 21st century.  Time matters.
J. Of course time matters.
G. Right. We agree. So the last 100 years.
J. Alright if you must … Jean-Louis Chrétien.
G. Jean-Louis who?
J. Chrétien.
G. Jean-Louis Chrétien.
J. Yes.
G. At least I’d heard of Hildegard of Bingen. Who’s Chrétien?
J.  A philosopher … theologian … poet. French. Born in Paris, 1952. Fits the time frame nicely.
G. Right! Who is he?
J. Hard to say. A bit of a recluse apparently. But brilliant. Teaches at the Sorbonne. Philosophy. … Phenomenology, I think. This is him … I think! When he was younger.
G. You think!
J. Yep. Anyway if that isn’t him; it’s the way I like to think he should be.
G. Philosophy, you say. … Phenomenology?
J. Right.
G. So … boring.
J. No. Definitely not boring. More … challenging, I’d say.
G. Long winded.
J. Wrong again. Very concise, Chrétien. Look, really thin books, all of them.
G. Airy-fairy. Big foreign words nobody’s ever heard of – heilsgeschichte, formgeschichte, redactiongeschichte … bullsgeschichte.!
J. Well, I’m not saying he’s a push-over. But do you want a push-over as a spiritual guide?
G. No … I suppose not.
J. You need to keep your wits about with Chrétien. But he’s never airy-fairy. You always feel that he’s talking from real life; stuff he knows about from here (indicate guts) not just here (head).
G. Like … what?
J. He writes essays mostly. Short pieces. Bite size you might say.
G. About what?
J. Well, beauty, for example, or prayer, or silence, or hospitality, or call, or praise. Chrétien has an amazing grasp of the way the tradition has thought and felt about these things. … Mind you he’s blokey.
G. Blokey?
J. Yes! You know: Jeremiah, Plato, Augustine, down to Heidegger, Cassian and Barth. Blokes. Chrétien could do with a good dose of Hildegard, Hadewijch and Mechtild! But I suppose nobody’s perfect!
G. Okay, so he’s not perfect. But, give me one thing you’ve learned from this bloke that’s made a real difference to your life.
J. That’s hard. There’s so much. You’ve got to take Chrétien slowly.
G. Fine. But try. One thing that really matters to you.
J. Hmm … okay … I think that one of the most precious – and, in a way, most uncomfortable – gifts of Chrétien’s work is his understanding of the nature of the spiritual journey.
G. That’s pretty vague.
J. In our dealing with God. … No that’s not the way to put it. … In God’s dealing with us, we need to be open to what Chrétien calls ‘the unheard of’.
G. The unheard of?
J. Yes.
G. What do you mean?
J. God … always – always – exceeds us. Exceeds our apprehension. Our understanding. Our speaking.
G. You mean what we think we know, we don’t know? Is that what the ‘unheard of’ means?
J. Yes, but not quite. It’s not that we don’t know anything. Or everything we think we know is wrong. It’s rather that there is always more. We’re always on the way. 
G. Expect the unexpected.
 J. Precisely. Chrétien thinks that if we are not prepared to be caught off guard – knocked off balance, as it were – we won’t make much progress in holiness. The person who is on guard, so to speak; the person who sticks to the ideas and commands set out in her usual program of possibilities, ‘will never see anything happen but what they have already seen and will never hear anything but what has already been said.’
G. So, if you travel with Chrétien as a guide, be prepared to meet the unexpected and hear the unheard of!
J. Just so.
G. How does that relate to our situation now?
J. I’m glad you asked me that.

     2. What time is it?
G. Our guest this afternoon is the Canberra philosopher Professor Clive Hamilton. Welcome to the Symposium Professor Hamilton.
J. Thank you. Good to be here.
G. Professor Hamilton you’ve written on a range of issues - ecological science, free market economics, consumerism, climate change. And you recently published a new book . . .  Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene.
J. That’s right.
G. Sounds ominous; almost threatening.
J. Then it’s a good title.
G. What exactly do you mean by the word ‘Anthropocene’?
J. It’s not my word. It burst into general use around the year 2000, as a geological term indicating a new epoch in Earth history.  In the last 23 million years we have moved through four epochs – the Miocene, the Pliocene and the Pleistocene. The Holocene, that’s the immediately previous epoch, began about 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. This was an epoch of relatively stable climate across the planet. It’s also the period of the development of more recent human civilizations.
G. So what’s changed?
J. We have.
G. We?
J. Us. Humans. Hence the name. From the Greek. Anthropos – meaning ‘human’; cene – meaning ‘new’. Anthropocene - the new human epoch.
G. But, we’ve been around for 200,000 years, making our presence felt in one way or another!
J. True. But in the last 50 years or so that ‘making our presence felt’ has magnified exponentially.
G. How so? Human beings have always had an impact – on the landscape, rivers, trees, animals. It’s no different now.
J.  But that’s the point. It is. Human impact on the world has now reached the level of a planetary force. Like the ocean. Or the air. Or the climate. We are changing the Earth System as a whole; changing ocean, air and climate. And that is new. That’s a rupture in Earth history. Not in Australian history. Or Chinese history. Though it is that, too, of course. But this is global, not local.
G.  Rupture’s a pretty violent word, isn’t it? Rupture means breaking or bursting apart. It conjures up trauma to living organs; a spleen is ruptured or an appendix. Damaged. Leading to dysfunction or even death.
J. Precisely. The organic connotations are intentional. Earth Systems are organic, interconnected, living wholes. We have to face the fact that they can be disrupted. Changed in ways that can’t be reversed. Our activity has invaded the operation of ecological systems on a planetary level to such an extent that some people speak seriously of the ‘end of nature’ or ‘the death of nature’.
G. That’s pretty alarming stuff.
J. It is.
G. So what do you mean by ‘Defiant Earth’? Does that have something to do with the ‘rupture’ you talk about?
J. Yes, indeed. You’re right to draw attention to the ‘oddness’ of the language. That’s intentional. I think we are entering a new and largely unmapped era. Everyone’s groping for language to respond. The climate is changing. The ocean is changing. The atmosphere is changing. The land is changing. But how? And where to? We don’t really know. But a lot of the signs are not hopeful from our human perspective.
G. But why ‘defiant earth’? In what way defiant?
J. Remember how we used to talk about ‘mother nature’, or ‘sister earth’ or ‘father sun’; and that we were ‘stewards of nature’ or ‘tenders of the garden.’ Stuff like that.
G. Yes. A touch sentimental perhaps. But its poetry isn’t it?
J. Perhaps. But as I read it, the poetry’s changing.
G. How?
J. I talk to a lot of people who are grappling with this thing. Scientists, economists, philosophers, even some theologians! And . . . the mood is changing. Earth is changing. We can no longer assume that Nature is a sort of benign backdrop for human ambitions; a passive stage on which we play out our various dramas. Earth is stirring. The empire striking back. So I hear phrases like: ‘an awakening giant’, ‘an ornery beast’, ‘a fractious … monster’, ‘Gaia seeking revenge’. That’s what I mean by ‘defiant earth’. ‘Now when Mother Earth opens her arms it is not to embrace but to crush us.’
G. Hmmm … I think I can see why you speak of rupture! This knocks us of balance. This radically shifts our program of possibilities. This takes us well into the realm of the unheard of.
J. Which reminds me of …
G. Jean-Louis Chrétien!

    3. The Anthropocene – a spiritual challenge?
J. Professor Jean-Louis Chrétien it’s good to have you with us. Welcome to the Symposium!
G. Happy to be here, Jan.
J. We’ve just been talking with Clive Hamilton, particularly about his ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Is that a concern of yours also?
G. Of course. It’s a concern for everyone. I don’t use the word myself – I’m a bit tentative about its meaning, but not its practical implications.
J. We’ve invited you here because we’re interested in whether you think this issue touches the spiritual life, the life of faith.
G. My first response is ‘of course; how could it not?’ Urgent new questions face us. We are changing the way Earth, our home, functions. Many of those changes are going in directions that are not promising for us. Look at your Great Barrier Reef.
J. The Great Barrier Reef? What does the Great Barrier Reef have to do with God? Or anyway, with my walk with God?
G. We need to pay attention to what I describe as ‘the call of the world’, which includes the call of the Barrier Reef.
J. I don’t quite know what you mean by that. What is the call of the Barrier Reef?
G.  That’s not for me to say. That’s for you Australians to say. This is where you live. You need to listen; listen for the unheard of that is speaking in the world. Look out for the unseen, which is manifesting itself all around.
J. But what has all this to do with God?
G. Let me put it this way. 
   We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God. If the offering of ourselves to God is possible – and I believe it is, of course – it necessarily includes all those far horizons from which we come into our own. The sky, the sea, the air, the mountains, the rivers – the Great Barrier Reef! All the embracing, life-giving Earth in which we live and move and have our being. ‘To exist’ as human beings – to exist coram deo – before God – ‘is to be outside’.
J. Wait a bit, you’re going too fast. You said ‘we cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God’.
G. Yes.
J. That’s kind of violent imagery isn’t it? Cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God!
G. It is. This is a critical issue. For people of faith. But not only them. To try to offer ourselves to God – which is one way of describing the spiritual life – to try to offer ourselves to God without bringing with that offering, the world – the world of birds and trees, morning light and evening darkness, sea and land, sky and cloud, ant and koala bear – is to pull apart – I deliberately use the word ‘tear’ – something that belongs essentially and inextricably together.
J. Do you think we do this? Tear ourselves away from the world to seek God?
G. Yes, I think we do. The spiritual journey is often understood as a journey inward, away from the physical world; a journey to seek God in the soul or heart. Or as a journey upward, a lifting of our spirits heavenward, away from time of Earth into the eternity of the divine spirit. Even if we go on to add that it is also journey outward in love to the neighbor; this still is too limited in my view.
J. Can you say a bit more about that?
G. I said a moment ago that to exist is to be outside. I mean, to exist is to be in the world. The world is where God has placed us. The world is the dwelling place God has given us. How can we imagine that tearing ourselves away from this God-given-life-world will somehow enhance our communion with its Creator? The word became flesh and dwelt among us. Here.
J. Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of the world ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, in our dealings with the one he called ‘Father’, we need to ‘look at the birds of the air’, and ‘consider the lilies of the field’? Is that what you are saying?
G. Yes, pretty much. But it’s not just a matter of a few lines of poetry and a scattering of well-known biblical texts. It goes deeper than that.
J. In what way?
G. It has to do with the nature of God; with who God is and how God acts. ‘In the [story] of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis we see brought into play, so that the game of the world can [actually] be played, a word and a gaze – and they are inseparable.’
J. I’m not quite with you. What word? Which gaze?
G. You remember how the story starts. ‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep … Then God said – you see there it is, the word – then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.’ Then it goes on: ‘And God saw – there it is, the gaze – and God saw that the light was good.’
J. Okay, God said; God saw. But where to from there?
G. That linguistic pattern is repeated throughout the story. And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters …’ And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’; and God said, ‘Let us make humankind …’. And it was so. But this divine speaking is accompanied all along by a divine looking. ‘And God saw it was good,’ says the text. And ‘God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ Repeatedly. The word and gaze – of God. Both lie at the very origin of the world.
J. But what does that mean: a word and a gaze ‘lie at the origin of the world’? How does that throw light on the spiritual journey now?
G. I agree; this talk about ‘and God said …’ ‘and God saw …’ is puzzling. It’s language under strain. By which I mean, it’s a way of trying to give voice to what exceeds the capacity of language to express. It is trying to point to the mysterious eruption of being from non-being; to the primal wellspring of everything – light and dark, water and dry land, trees and flowers, animals and birds, men and women. But this divine speaking and looking is not the action of an observer commenting upon and gazing at a reality independent and over against her. God’s word and gaze are the event – or perhaps better, the advent – of the world.
J. Event, advent? That’s the language of birthing isn’t it? There’s a deep spiritual tradition that speaks of God as Mother, the Creation as a birth, the flesh of the world, her body. But that’s perhaps another conversation.
G. Yes, I’d need to think further about that.
J. Are you saying that the word and the gaze of God, is another way of speaking about the mystery of creation itself?
G. Yes. God’s ‘speaks’ and that primal utterance causes beings to arise from the void and constitutes the world by ordering, differentiating and interconnecting it. God ‘looks’ and that originating gaze brings to bear on creation an affirmation and a blessing, ‘indeed it is very good.’
J. That all seems a bit abstract to me. What are we supposed to do with it?
G. Good question. The word and gaze of God are strictly inimitable. In that sense we can’t ‘do’ anything with them. No human word can call into being what does not exist. No human gaze can bestow goodness on what does not already possess it.
J. Agreed. But . . . ?
G. But nonetheless – and this is the practical meaning of the journey of faith; nonetheless – that is, notwithstanding that inimitable difference, the difference that Kierkegaard called the ‘infinite qualitative distinction between heaven and earth’ – nonetheless we are called by God to share in that foundational gaze and engage with that originating word, by whose grace the world stands before God, and we with it.
J. Is that what you’re driving at when you say that ‘to exist is to be outside’?
G. Exactly. To be in the world is already to be in the presence of the word that brings the world into being. It is to be in earshot, if I might put it that way, of the logos, which was in the beginning with God. And that in turn means that our lives, our whole being – body, mind and soul – are a reply, a word spoken in response to the divine, ‘let it be’ that founds the world and us within it.
J. That’s a challenging and deeply inviting thought. We label the world ‘the environment’. You are saying the world is the very speech of God. An address to us. And the spiritual journey is our reply.
G. Yes.
J. I am struck by your language about word and gaze, because I am reminded of a mother as she looks into the face of the baby in her arms – her gaze. She looks with a love that in a sense calls the child into being. Without this the child cannot thrive, cannot become. Can you say more about ‘gaze’ in your own thought?
G. As I understand it, (whatever language or imagery we use), to gaze at the world – to attend to the world – is already to be caught up in the gaze of God by which the world is blessed and affirmed. To live in the world is to be in sight of – yes, of course, through a glass darkly – but in sight of that originating ‘behold, it is very good’, that founds the world’s intrinsic dignity. St Augustine, whom I greatly admire, calls it a word and a gaze of love. As you just said!
J. So you are saying that for us to gaze on the world and see it as God’s work means to love the world in its very existence, and to will for it to thrive in its goodness and being. 
G. Just so. And for these reasons I say ‘we cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God.’ The ‘cannot’ here is not a practical limitation. It is an ontological impossibility. Our very being in the world is already a being by the word of God and a being in the gaze of God.
J. I need time to take that in … It is a jolt, unsettling …
And yet I catch a glimpse of something new – another way of being – a homecoming …
A glimpse that seems an amazing gift.
(PAUSE – G waits)
 But … now my mind is reeling . . .
If we live in Anthropocene time . . .
I cannot even frame the question . . .
G. Ah! Yes, we face a dumbfounding paradox here – dumbfounding in the sense of making us dumb, robbing us of speech. An impossible possibility. We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God.
And yet  . . . we often do exactly that.
I believe this is one of the great spiritual challenges for the journey of faith in our time.
J. Thank you Professor Chrétien.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Ruth Burrows and the Modern World

On Friday the 25th of May, Philip Harvey gave a paper on the Carmelite spiritual writer Ruth Burrows, as part of this year’s Carmelite Centre Symposium, ‘A Readers’ Festival of Spirituality’. The following is part 1 of the three-part paper.

Ruth Burrows is an English woman who was born in 1923. She will turn 95 this coming August. Of all the spiritual writers we have listened to in this Symposium, Ruth Burrows has lived longest across the set timeframe, arriving in this world only five years after the end of the war to end all wars. She grew up in a country where that was meant to mean a settled future.

You would not learn these facts when you read ‘Before the Living God’, an autobiography only written due to the encouraging instruction from the superior of her house. There she entered the religious life at the age of 18, but other dates and ages in the book are altered, presumably to protect herself and others, innocent or otherwise. Nor are we likely to collect much vivid information about her online, because there isn’t any. There is no entry for her on Wikipedia, for example, making her virtually a non-person in the virtual age we now find ourselves. Perhaps she would prefer it that way. One thing though is certain in this regard, Ruth Burrows lived through the modern age.

‘Modern’ is an elastic word. It comes from the Latin adverb ‘modo’, meaning “just now”. The modern world and the modern age conjure certain images in our mind that, for some reason, do not seem to include strict religious observance or a contemplative nun sitting at her table writing about spirituality. Why this is so need not detain us as these things have been going on right through the modern age and are defining images when we think about a Carmelite nun like Ruth Burrows. Ruth herself uses the word ‘modern’ in various different ways that I, as a reader, cannot help but find noticeable. Hers has been a life primarily of withdrawal from the world of action into the world of prayer. Yet she is alive to the modern world, as alive as any of us.

In a recent interview she was asked this: What has been the greatest challenge for you in living the contemplative life and living in community? Ruth replies:

“Coping with myself, both in community and in the ‘desert atmosphere’ of Carmel. I am, by nature, extremely egocentric. I had to face myself head on. In my early years I felt repugnance for and anger at some practices brought in from Spain and France, alien to English culture and to what was then modern times. There was real physical hardship. I suffered a lot from the cold, not least because it ‘got me  down’.”

Modern times here seems to mean her own conditions, what is normal and natural. In some ways it may mean her creature comforts, but it certainly means the world of sensible English ways that she was used to. Why import practices from a warm climate that are difficult to maintain in a cold climate? Simple commonsense resists practices that are not conducive to a normal, happy daily existence.

Repugnance and anger are reported in finely recalled detail in ‘Before the Living God.’ This memorable memoir is written in the tradition of St Thérèse of Lisieux’s ‘Story of a Soul’, a personal account of her growth in religious life, her experience of the convent and its varied residents, and her relationship with God. Importantly, Ruth’s book was written after the Second Vatican Council, during a time when nuns could still remember very clearly how things were before the changes.

We read about the extreme privations of her life in Carmel, the regimes of eating, working, praying, and sleeping. She can recall a time when “age-old traditions of kissing the floor and performing other gestures of humility and subjection were very much in vogue. At the slightest hint of reprimand one had to kiss the floor and remain in the state of prostration until told to rise.” [BLG 66] We read about the challenges brought into the community by other novices, especially those with forceful personalities or obvious neuroses, though Ruth is even more unsparing about her own faults. As she intimates in the interview, it felt as though only outside was everything really modern.

She writes: “The world could rock and reel. Everything and everyone could fail me. I myself could be broken, could be a complete failure in the eyes of men but nothing could prevent me from loving God. I was faced with the possible breakup of the Carmel or my own rejection by the community. But nothing could prevent me from giving myself to God. I remember distinctly it was this way round. It was still impossible to make real to myself in any way that God loved me even though I made continual acts of faith and tried to act as if I were sure of his love.  It seems to me that God has given me the grace to seek the truth and to stand in the truth, and essentially this means the truth about myself.” (BLG 73)

At the same time, there is another sense of modern at play in Carmel itself, one to do with the foundations of Carmelite life. You learn that Carmelite tradition, and the writings of St Teresa of Avila in particular, serve as guides to living and behaving, to the point of being formative foundation documents in their own right. Ruth’s love of Teresa is expressed often.

“In the ‘Way of Perfection’, we are allowed to hear St Teresa in intimate conversation with a beginner who has no idea how to ‘set about it’. Typically, and significantly, she directs her to the divine Companion who is present and lovingly intent upon her. Let her respond to this Friend; let her ponder on who he is, what he has done for her, how he has shown his incredible love, what he wants of her; let her treat him with humble, tender intimacy. From the very start, without spending time on intellectual exercises, this beginner is directed to relate to a Person and to reflect on he who is present. This musing is itself a prayer. Do not leave him to go and think about him! To do that would be as foolish as breaking from a lover’s arms to study his photograph and his curriculum vitae! This more objective form of meditation is indeed essential and must not be omitted, but, according to Teresa’s understanding, the hour set aside for prayer is not the time for it; that hour is for loving much, not thinking much. John of the Cross, too, sees that the heart of prayer is the presence of God within the soul, a presence that is not static but an unceasing, positive loving that prepares us to receive ever more love, an action that is purifying, transforming, uniting.” [EP 174]

Yet Ruth is capable of getting into very Teresian-like arguments about matters that no longer fit their conditions. Modern times means finding reason for thinking differently about how things may be done now and in the future, even in the religious life itself:

“Now the vast majority of spiritual authors, St Teresa among them, claim that there are two paths to holiness, the mystical way and the ordinary way. This we cannot accept. The notion of the dual carriage-way derives from a misconception which another modern insight has led us to correct.” [GMP 10]

Within Carmel itself, the nuns grow to perceive themselves as modern Carmelites, as distinct from those in earlier times who lived according to the very same teachings. One author, Michelle Jones, writes that “I mainly see the word as a flag indicating a contrast to the psycho-spiritual framework of Teresa and, to a lesser extent, John [of the Cross].”

I have been in email correspondence with Michelle Jones, someone living in Western Australia who knows much more about Ruth Burrows than me, and who kindly sent me a useful collection of passages where ‘modern’ appears:

“If we have paid attention to modern scientific investigations of the psyche, and it is unreasonable to think we can understand Teresa and other mystics if we have failed to do so, then we shall have come to the conclusion that it is a most mysterious, largely unexplored dimension where almost anything might happen.” [ICE 47]

Indeed, she rightly identifies Teresa herself as full of psychological insight about others, and herself:  “Moreover, our modern insight into the mystery of the human psyche – an insight always limited, ever open to surprises — especially of the dimension that we call the unconscious, applauds this objective appraisal of Teresa.” [The Wisdom of St Teresa of Avila 8]

She says: “The science of psychology is a feature of our times, and can we ignore it? To be true to our humanness means accepting these human helps. In the same way with science at our elbow it would be foolish and presumptuous to start asking God for miracles to cure what modern medicine can deal with.”  [TBJ 57]        

Reading ‘Before the Living God’ we find that even though the book covers the entire mid-century period, Ruth mentions no world events or famous people that could serve as landmarks. We are left with a question that answers itself: Is any of that very important? On one page she makes reference to concentration camps and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, not to help with chronology but to remind us that “the world’s sorrows” exist, and are understood. How much emotional response any one person can give to the daily news before exhaustion or indifference set in, is a good question. Ruth is not in denial, or escaping into quietism, but wishes rather to draw us into a place where the self finds peace amidst the tumults of information news, our regular encounter with “the world’s sorrows”, both minor and extreme. She returns to this in ‘Love Unknown’.

“No one can pretend that, when besieged as we are by multifarious cares, in time of crushing grief, when dismayed by the horrors of perpetrated evil and the human suffering following on natural disasters, it is easy to maintain a lively sense of God’s presence and his love which embraces us at every moment. Yet, to be true to our Christian calling to a life of holiness, to be a light to the world, we must work for steadfast faith, or rather, activate the faith we have been given. ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he has sent.’ (John 6:29). We must know what we are to believe, and how can we really know with the heart unless we take the responsibility on ourselves to labour to know the one true God and Jesus Christ his Son? Only too easily we fall for an idol that our pride and self-love create. Reality is there irrespective of our adverting to it or our belief in it. All our blessedness lies in recognizing, affirming and gratefully surrendering to it. In this is God’s glory. He made us for this blessedness.” (LU 117)

One other symptom of the modern world that makes Ruth very modern is atheism. She confesses that she wishes to spend her whole life writing about nothing but God, when and even when not she has “the slightest feeling of him.” Her honesty builds trust of a kind, as when on the same page she can express her concern about whether God even exists, only then to declare that her dedication to God is everything in her life. It almost seems that for her, as for all of us, arguments about the existence of God are one precondition of living in the modern world and she lives with her own challenges and doubts in this regard, which are openly expressed in her writing. This is though, I think, a lead to her complete attention on who God is and how we might understand and relate to God. She is highly attuned to the self-deceptions and reactions that come with trying to live a godly life, which she is constantly reminding us have to be let go of in order to get closer to the reality of God.


Before the Living God. New edition. London, Burns & Oates, 2008 [BLG]
Essence of Prayer. London, Burns & Oates, 2006 [EP]
Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. London, Sheed & Ward, 1976 [GMP]
Interior Castle Explored : St Teresa’s teaching on the life of deep union with God. 2nd edition. London, Burns & Oates, 1982 [ICE]
Love Unknown. London, Continuum, 2011 [LU]
To believe in Jesus. Denville, NJ, Dimension, 1981 [TBJ]