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 2 of the three-part paper.
In setting myself the task of reading Ruth Burrows this year, I have come to see through listening to her words, that her first audience are the members of her community. In that community of Carmel she is known as Sister Rachel. Clearly she is a teacher. Her voice instructs, interprets, confides, questions and answers: she is there to do a job. It’s not as though she’s trying to prove anything, she is talking about the life of Christ within us. These might be novice classes, communal conferences, sermons or homilies, shared meditations given any old time, all of which find their way in some form into her writing. At times I stop and consider how we are hearing the life of the community in her tone and emphasis and priorities. The modern world goes on and the life of the enclosed community goes on, inside the modern world, not outside the modern world. Her thinking is quick-witted and yet everything slows down, her thought moving very gradually from one statement to the next, with time for reflection, or even stopping altogether before the effect of a single sentence.
I have come to think that Ruth (Sister Rachel) is essentially writing the same book but in different ways. Each of her books is different, but their preoccupations and purposes are similar. They come together out of the same place of deep contemplation and their consistent attention is to relationship with God in prayer. I wish now to quote from her writings in order to bring out some main preoccupations that are constant and that strengthen in her work through her life. This is the middle section of my paper and is called ‘Just Now’.
“Faith is not a thing of the mind, it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction of the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of our life; it is to live out the hours in a practical, concrete affirmation that he is Father and he is “in heaven”.
“It is a decision to shift the centre of our life from ourselves to him, to forgo self-interest and make his interest, his will our sole concern. This is what it means to hallow his name as Father in heaven. Often it may seem that we only act ‘as if’, so unaffected are our hearts, perhaps even mocking us: ‘Where is your God?’ It is this acting ‘as if’ which is true faith. All that matters to faith is that God should have what he wants and we know that what he wants is always our own blessedness. His purposes are worked out, his will mediated to us in the humblest form, as humble as our daily bread.” [OF 19]
I could quote Ruth Burrows endlessly on prayer. In her book ‘Guidelines to Mystical Prayer’ she creates an image of three islands as a means to the reader learning about the progress of dedicated personal prayer. To explain this would take a whole symposium, so I will only draw attention to its similarity in method to Saint Teresa’s use of a large castle with glass walls in ‘The Interior Castle’. Like Teresa, she has experienced both the advances and the setbacks involved in prayer life. Instead I will quote from her meditations on the Lord’s Prayer:
“Most of us find it almost impossible not to think of prayer as a special activity in life, as an art that can be taught or learned rather as we can learn to play a musical instrument, and so some of us are quick to feel we are proficient and others that we are painfully handicapped, are missing out on some secret or have some lack in our nature which makes prayer difficult if not impossible for us. We feel there are certain laws governing prayer, and techniques to be mastered, and when we have hold of these we can pray.
“Thus we look around for the guru, for the one who has mastered the art and its techniques, and eagerly look to be taught. When we take up a book or article on prayer, we shall probably detect, if we stop to think, that we are looking for the key, the magic formula that is going to put our prayer right, enable us to ‘make a go’ of this mysterious activity called prayer. We may feel that others seem to take it in their stride but somehow it does not work for us and anxiously we look hither and thither for someone who will hand us the secret.
“All this is proof enough that we are overlooking the fundamental facts: that prayer is not a technique but a relationship; that there is no handicap, no obstacle, no problem. The only problem is that we do not want God. We may want a ‘spiritual life’, we may want ‘prayer’, but we do not want God. All anyone can do for us, any guru can teach us, is to keep our eyes on Jesus, God’s perfect, absolute friend.” [OF 13-14]
More recently she replied to, or we might say rebuked, an interviewer who asked why she once spoke about the inevitable failure of prayer:
“Prayer can never be a failure. If I used that expression it would refer to how people express themselves: “I can’t pray”; “my prayer is a failure”; “I pray and nothing happens”; “I’m praying to myself”. This is to have a completely false idea of prayer.
“To believe in the God of Jesus Christ is to know that, through what God in his love has done for us, there is absolutely no barrier between God and ourselves. We have free access. God is always available, always there, always with us – with you, with me. What is more, we know that God made us in love, precisely because God wants us wholly united to him for his and our total happiness.
“Now, it we really believe that – and we must, surely, if we set aside some time to pray, affirm God’s (or Jesus’) loving presence and offer ourselves to him to do in us all he wants. He will not fail to purify us and gradually transform us as he unites us to himself. How can it matter that we do not feel it is happening?
“Prayer is essentially God’s work. Our part is to give time, do our best to keep attention, surrender ourselves as best we can. Then we can be sure that God works. Faith does not ask for signs, for tokens. When we really grasp that prayer is essentially God’s business, not ours, we will never talk of failure, no matter how unsatisfactory prayer seems to us.” [from the interview ‘Prayer is God’s work’ (2012)]
Ruth is modern in her awareness of other religions and their practices. We must remember that for people in the West, widespread knowledge of Eastern and other religious traditions is a very modern thing, very recent, a knowledge that really only grew appreciably in the 20th century. Empire and globalism has much to do with this expansion of our consciousness. Indeed, the encounter with other religions and the dialogues that have happened as a result have strongly influenced the way we talk about faith and spirituality; they have changed how we appreciate our own faith tradition. Ruth herself is receptive to this, but we have to remember she is a Christian and a Carmelite, a grounding in prayer and action in which Jesus is the focus and source.
She says: “To commit ourselves to Jesus and the Father whom he reveals means a deliberate choosing to move off ourselves, to refuse to stand on ourselves, to be our own judges of reality.
“We have to discover Jesus’ vision and make it our own even against what our senses and reason tell us. It means trying to live our human lives as he lived his in obedience to the Father.
“Faith has no reality if it is not love. Love chooses, Love moves out of self to the other; it is a movement of surrender.
“Faith, hope and love: these are different aspects of the one human surrender to the God of love.
“Biblical faith is not a mere intellectual assent to this or that piece of information; it is an act of the whole person surrendering to the God who calls in love, or rather, offers himself in love. It is the human ‘yes’ to the infinite mystery of love. It is obedience.” [AL 70]
In reading her different books I have noticed a confident and increased use of the Bible as she matures in her expression. This would come from the community’s daily reading of the psalms and other portions of Scripture, filling her with a language to apply to her expression. It becomes increasingly more evident too in her work that, when she asks where does she find the person and example of Jesus, the answer will be in the community life, but more certainly still, Jesus is found by returning again and again to the words of the Gospel. In her later work this message becomes more insistent. Read the Gospels, become familiar with Jesus through his words, actions, miracles, Passion and resurrection.
Faith, Prayer, Jesus, and Scripture are main preoccupations of Ruth Burrows, and another that I name here is Mystery. ‘Living in Mystery’ is the title of one of her books, a delightful work in which her preoccupations, as I call them, are spoken of as always being understood within an acceptance of and abiding return itno mystery. As she writes in another of her books, ‘Ascent to Love’:
“We ourselves are mystery and our proper ambience is mystery. When we speak of God’s hiddenness we are saying he is the answer to our yearnings. He is unfathomable mystery offered to us.
“Through Jesus he reveals himself not only as our Beloved – the object of desire – but as our Lover. Then we realize that he has always been our Beloved for the simple reason that he is our Lover.
“We learn that here is a fulfilment to our endless longings but not within ourselves, not within the limitations of this world or our own achievements, but as pure gift.
“There is an inevitable conflict between our true self and its deepest desire to be enfolded, possessed by our Beloved, and the innate desire to control, to possess, to find fulfilment within ourselves, of ourselves.
“This we can call the ego. It is our basic self-orientation which is a dead end. But it is precisely our nature to go beyond the limits of our nature so as to enter into God! The self must triumph over the ego.” [AL 20]
Ascent to Love : the Spiritual Teaching of St John of the Cross. London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987 [AL]
Love Unknown. London, Continuum, 2011 [LU]
Our Father : meditations on the Lord’s Prayer. London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986 [OF]
‘Prayer is God’s Work’, interview with Amy Frykholm in The Christian Century, March 2012