Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Rumi: The Shakespeare of Mysticism ANN ROCHFORD

An original hand drawn and painted illustration of Rumi
created by Debra Styer with watercolor and gouache.

On Tuesday the 19th of November Ann Rochford conducted a Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. Here is Ann’s introductory paper to that session.

Rumi is not an obscure topic.  He is a great thirteenth century mystic, and is universally known across all major religions.  Much has been written about him and I will only reach the tip of the iceberg in the one and a half hours we have today.  I want to start from a personal contemporary position.

I first learnt about Rumi in any depth in 2000, when I went to offer my services to the Kilbride Centre.  Rumi was having a very serious revival at the time and we seemed to be running endless seminars about his work.

In 2012, my husband and I did a tour of Turkey (highly recommended).  As we were travelling towards Cappadocia our tour guide started talking to us about Mevlana.  Mevlana was very well loved in Turkey and perhaps we would like to go to a ceremony still carried out by his followers. We had never heard of Mevlana.

The guide kept mentioning the possibility of attending this ceremony and eventually said Whirling Dervishes.  Then the penny dropped and I said do you mean Rumi?  Rumi has many names; in Turkey he is known commonly as Mevlana, which means master. In the West we call him Rumi, which refers to the sultanate of Rum, which was the ruling entity in that part of Turkey at the time Rumi lived there. (Rum is Roman)

Some of us did go to the ceremony.  Strict rules applied to the attendees.  No talking, no clapping and of course no cameras.  It started with a long musical introduction, then the master came out, and finally the dervishes arrived one by one.  The purpose of the master is to stop the dervishes whirling off the track.  They began to whirl, always left to right, and moved into their meditative trance.  It was quite mesmerising and went on for over an hour.  The music eventually changed and brought them out of their trance and that was it.  Some of the Dervishes then came back and did a few whirls so that the camera-deprived could get one shot for their memory bank.

It was Sunday when we visited the Rumi Museum in Konya.  It was for many centuries a Madrassa.  Islamic leaders had offered it to Rumi’s father, Baha ad Din Waled who was also a famous teacher, and called the Sultan of Scholars.  Rumi inherited it from him, and then his son after Rumi’s death in 1273.

When Ataturk came to power in Turkey after the First World War, the Madrassas were closed down. Dervish ceremonies were prohibited.  Eventually, in the 1950’s, a whirling ceremony was allowed to be performed, at Konya, once a year.   As Rumi is so significant in Turkish Islamic spirituality, this Madrassa became his museum and a place of pilgrimage.  Adherents of every religion visit it.  The mosque contains his mausoleum along with those of his father and other leading scholars.  There is a display of the dervish ceremony and a few artefacts that actually belonged to Rumi. As he was an ascetic, his possessions were not plentiful.  Today Ataturk’s laws have been watered down and Dervish ceremonies are more easily celebrated……….although not popular with right wing elements in Islam.

The most amazing thing to me was the mix of people who were there that day.  It was very crowded.  There were tourists like myself, nuns in the garbs of many congregations, ordinary Turks, some of the women in hijabs, a few Buddhists, and quite a few Saudis, with women in their black burkas.  An amazing mix of people, all here because of their common interest in this man, who lived and died in the thirteenth century.

Time to find out a bit more about him.


Mevlana Jalauddin Rumi to note some of his names was born in Balkh, which was then in Persia and is now part of Afghanistan, on the 30th of September 1207. He died in his long time home of Konya, in Turkey in December 1273. Rumi is known as a Persian poet, a Jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian and great Sufi Mystic.

He is the founder of a form of the ascetic dervish movement in Sufism. (There are a number of different forms of Dervish Sufism)  Rumi is the founder of the group of Dervishes famous for their whirling trances. It is properly known as The Order of Mevlevi.  Their prayer services are called Sama.  They consist of music, which creates a rhythm, a master to keep dervishes centred and a number of whirling devotees (always to the left) who enter into deep trances, which can go on for hours. Rumi started this form of mystic devotion by circling around a pole in order to clear his mind and connect with the spiritual.

Rumi believed in the use of music, poetry and dance as a path for reaching God.  He said that music focuses the whole being on the Divine.  In the whirling dance the practitioner turns towards the truth, grows through love, abandons the ego and arrives at the perfect.

Rumi came from a family tradition of liberal Islamic preachers of the Hanafi rite. They were Sunni Muslims.  It was an automatic assumption that Rumi, this only son to survive childhood, would follow in the family vocation. By 1220 the family had fled their home in Balkh due to the Mongol invasions.  They wandered across the region for a number of years.  To Mecca, Baghdad, Damascus, and Karaman where they lived for seven years, before settling in Konya in 1228, after an invitation to his father to set up a Madrassa.

Prior to arriving in Konya, at the age of 18, Rumi met the Sufi, Attar, in the Iranian city of Nishapur.  Attar was a very renowned Sufi who was generally held in awe in the Islamic world. Rumi was greatly attracted to Attar and became a constant follower.  He was searching for deeper religious understanding and had investigated a number of other belief systems, including Christianity.  Attar recognised Rumi as potentially a great leader.  When he saw Rumi walking behind his father, Attar described the father as The Sea---- followed by the Ocean.  Further encounters with Sufi’s in Bagdad ensured that by the time he reached Konya, Rumi was a committed Sufi.

Konya had been a Roman settlement. (Rum) At that time it was a thriving, cosmopolitan city with Jews, Christians and Muslims living in harmony.  It proved a fine place for a young Sufi to create a following.  When his father died, Rumi succeeded him at the Madrassa.  He was just 25.

Rumi is sometimes acclaimed as the Shakespeare of Mysticism.  His poetry and mystical insights were respected and loved across religious traditions in his lifetime, as they still are today, eight centuries after his death.

He has left us his seminal work the Mathnavi, considered one of the greatest poems in the Persian language.  This is a poem of six volumes, which took the last 12 years of his life.  It contains 27000 lines each consisting of a couplet with an internal rhyme.  It covers many topics, including right living, wisdom, justice the wonder of the natural world and love. Images of the natural world and love in its various forms are major themes which he comes back to constantly. 

We have the works of Shams-e Tabrizi, Rumi’s teacher, which contain 35000 Persian couplets and 2000 Quatrains. It is written mostly in Persian but also in Turkish, Greek and Arabic. We also have seventy-one lectures and talks, sermons, and letters, which were written to friends and family.   A huge legacy, which is requires great skills in translation from its ancient languages to modern idioms. Rumi’s renown is such, that a number of modern scholars have devoted their lives to translating his works, e.g. the translator Coleman Barks.

An important part of Rumi’s spiritual formation was his friendship with Shams-e  Tabrizi.  They met in 1244, when Shams went to Konya and sought him out. They were spiritual soul mates who engaged is mystical conversations which enriched each other’s deepest understandings.  Shams was with Rumi for five years and then went away never to return.  What happened to him is not known, but Rumi grieved his parting for the rest of his life.  Shams is often mentioned in his poetry and there are many verses devoted to him

Rumi married twice.  He had two sons with his first wife and after her death, a son and a daughter with his second wife.

When he died in December 1273 the Christians and Jews of Konya joined his funeral procession a tribute of his great spirituality, which was above religious divisions.

Finally, because of my own interest, I have to point out that Rumi was a contemporary of both Saint Francis of Assisi and Meister Eckhart.  What was there about the 13th century that brought into the world such a wealth of mystical insight?

Thursday, 10 October 2019

A Visit to The Biblioteca Carmelitana in Rome PAUL CHANDLER

A visit in April 2004 to the Institutum Carmelitanum in Rome by the librarian of the Carmelite Library (Paul Chandler O.Carm.) in Middle Park brought an unexpected windfall of rare books to the library.

 The Carmelite Order began at the end of the 12th century in Crusader Palestine, and later became one of the four principal mendicant orders of the Middle Ages. The first surviving Carmelite literature dates from the 1270s. Although the order was never as large or intellectually significant as the Dominicans or Franciscans, there is nevertheless a large literary production from across these seven centuries: largely biblical, theological and philosophical before the 16th century, and predominantly spiritual and mystical thereafter, but ranging across almost every field from astronomy and belles lettres to canon law and psychology, even to a 1998 translation of Aristotle’s Ethics into Welsh.

Every monastery had a library, large or small, and the principal studia in the university cities usually had quite large collections. There were, of course, various destructions and depredations, but the systematic suppressions of the 19th century were the most severe blow to the Order’s libraries, with many of the most important dispersed. The Carmelites reached a low intellectual ebb in the 19th century (an old barb counted a learned Carmelite among the seven wonders of the ecclesiastical world, along with a simple Jesuit, a poor Franciscan, a humble Dominican, and a few others). The Order’s failure to re-establish an international graduate faculty in Rome or elsewhere also slowed attempts to reconstitute library collections that would represent the Order’s rich bibliographical heritage.

Although many smaller libraries remained intact, a definitive revival really came only with the establishment of the Institutum Carmelitanum in Rome in 1950. Its tasks included historical research and publication, an annual bibliography (Bibliographia Carmelitana Annualis, 1953-  ), and administration of the Biblioteca Carmelitana, which incorporated what remained of the Order’s principal Roman libraries. Today consisting of about 25,000 volumes by or about Carmelites, the BC is the most comprehensive such collection in the world. Other significant Carmelitana collections include, more or less in order of importance, the Carmelitana Collection in Washington, DC, with 14,000 volumes, the Teresianum in Rome, and the Nederlands Carmelitaans Instituut in Boxmeer. In a field where there is little competition, our small Carmelitana collection at Middle Park, with about 5,000 volumes, is not insignificant.

I spent some time in Rome in the early ’80s doing graduate work in theology, Latin, and paleography. The Biblioteca Carmelitana had a doubles room, where duplicate books from the library were kept. Legend had it that Fr Kilian Lynch, a Irishman of aristocratic bearing who was the last of the old-style priors general, had been horrified to discover the neglected state of various Carmelite libraries in Italy in the impoverished years just after the war. Supposedly, in one house he had found the exceedingly rare Speculum Carmelitanum of 1507 in a stack of books being used page by page as toilet paper. The story goes that he summoned Fr Pio Serracino-Inglott, then librarian, from Rome to the offending Sicilian convent and instructed him to remove all books of value on his authority. Other monasteries neglectful of their cultural goods were similarly stripped of them, and the library in Rome began to collect numerous duplicates of even the most valuable books. A collection of them was finely bound, furnished with bookplates bearing the prior general’s arms, and presented to the refounded 13th-century house at Aylesford in England, which had been suppressed in 1538 and regained in 1949. Others went to help establish the very fine collection in Washington, DC. By the ‘80s, however. the doubles room was no-go territory. Despite much trying, I never managed to get in.

It was a bit of a thrill, then, to be given the key and invited to ransack in April 2004, a process which took two days, and a third for packing up eighteen large boxes of books. Nearly all were hard-to-find titles which have considerably strengthened the obscurer corners of our collection. 120 were pre-1800 titles, which have been added to our Rare Book collection, which now includes about 500 per-1800 volumes, mostly Carmelitana. ANZTLA members might be interested to know of some of them.


Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Pope Francis addresses the General Chapter of the Carmelite Order

              The Holy See
Consistory Hall
Saturday, 21 September 2019

Dear brothers!

With joy I greet you, called to celebrate the General Chapter, and through you I greet all the
members of the Carmelite Order. The theme at the centre of your Chapter reflection is “You are my
witnesses” (Is 43: 10); from one generation to the next: called to be faithful to our Carmelite
charism (cf. Const. 21).

God has blessed Carmel with an original charism to enrich the Church and to communicate the joy
of the Gospel to the world, sharing what you have received with enthusiasm and generosity:
“Freely you have received; freely give” (Mt 10: 8). I would like to encourage you in this by pointing
out three lines of action.

The first line is fidelity and contemplation . The Church appreciates you and, when she thinks of
Carmel, she thinks of a school of contemplation. As a rich spiritual tradition attests, your mission is
fruitful to the extent that it is rooted in your personal relationship with God. Blessed Titus
Brandsma, a martyr and mystic, said: “It is proper to the Order of Carmel, although it is a
mendicant order of active life and living among people, to maintain great esteem for solitude and
detachment from the world, considering solitude and contemplation as the best part of its spiritual
life”. The Constitutions of 1995, which you are currently revising, underline this: “The great spiritual
teachers of the Carmelite Family have always returned to this contemplative vocation” (17). The
Carmelite way of living contemplation prepares you to serve the people of God through any
ministry or apostolate. What is certain is that whatever you do, you will be faithful to your past and
open to the future with hope if, “living in allegiance to Jesus Christ” (2), you have at heart in
particular the spiritual journey of people.

The second line is accompaniment and prayer. Carmel is synonymous with the inner life.
Carmelite mystics and writers have understood that “being in God” and “being in His things” do not
always coincide. If we become anxious about a thousand things related to God without being
rooted in Him (cf. Lk 10: 38-42), sooner or later he presents us with the bill: we realize that we
have lost Him along the way. Saint Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi, in her famous letters on the
Renewal of the Church (1586), provides that “lukewarmness” can creep into the consecrated life
when the evangelical counsels become only a routine and love of Jesus is no longer the centre of
life (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 264). And so worldliness can also creep in,
which is the most dangerous temptation for the Church, especially for us, men of the Church. I am
well aware, brothers, that this temptation has entered and done serious damage even among you.
I have prayed and I pray that the Lord will help you. And this Chapter is a providential occasion to
receive from the Holy Spirit the strength to fight together against these pitfalls.

Generations of Carmelites and Carmelites have taught us by example to live more “inside” than
“outside” ourselves, and to go towards “el más profundo centro – the deepest centre”, as Saint
John of the Cross says (The Living Flame of Love B, 1,11-12), that is where God lives, and there
He invites us to seek Him out. The true prophet in the Church is he and she who comes from the
“desert”, like Elijah, rich in the Holy Spirit, and with the authority that belongs to those who have
listened in silence to the subtle voice of God (cf. 1 Kings 19: 12).

I encourage you to accompany people to “make friends” with God. Saint Teresa said: “I hardly
ever tired of speaking or hearing about God”. Our world thirsts for God and you Carmelites,
teachers of prayer, can help many to leave behind the noise, haste and spiritual aridity. Of course
it is not a question of teaching people to accumulate prayers, but of being men and women of
faith, friends of God, who know how to walk the ways of the spirit.

From silence and prayer are renewed communities and authentic ministries will be born (cf. Const.
62). As good artisans of fraternity, place your trust in the Lord by overcoming the inertia of
immobility and avoiding the temptation of reducing the religious community to “working groups”
that would eventually dilute the fundamental elements of religious life. The beauty of community
life is in itself a point of reference that generates serenity, attracts the people of God and spreads
the joy of the Risen Christ. The true Carmelite transmits the joy of seeing the other as a brother to
be supported and loved and with whom to share life.

And finally the third line: tenderness and compassion. The contemplative has a compassionate
heart. When love is weakened, everything loses its flavour. Love, caring and creative, is a balm for
those who are tired and exhausted (cf. Mt 11: 28), for those who suffer abandonment, the silence
of God, the emptiness of the soul, and broken love. If one day, around us, there are no longer sick
and hungry people, abandoned and despised – the minores of which your begging tradition
speaks – it will not be because they are not there, but simply because we do not see them. The
little ones (cf. Mt 25: 31-46) and the discarded (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 53) will always be there (cf.
Jn 12: 8), to offer us an opportunity to enable contemplation to be a window open to beauty, truth
and goodness. “Whoever loves God must seek him in the poor”, in the “brothers of Jesus”, as
Blessed Angelo Paoli said, and whose third centenary of death you will soon celebrate. May you
always have the goodness to seek them out! Blessed Angelo Paoli’s absolute trust in divine
providence made him exclaim with joy: “I have a pantry in which nothing is missing!” May your
pantry overflow with compassion in the face of all forms of human suffering!

Contemplation would merely be momentary if it were to be reduced to raptures and ecstasies that
distance us from the joys and worries of the people. We must be wary of the contemplative who is
not compassionate. Tenderness, in the style of Jesus (cf. Lk 10:25-37), shelters us from “pseudomystics”, “weekend solidarity” and the temptation to keep our distance from the wounds of Christ’s body. Three dangers: “pseudo-mystics”, “weekend solidarity” and the temptation to keep our
distance from the wounds of Christ’s body. Jesus’ wounds are still visible today in the bodies of
our brothers and sisters who are despoiled, humiliated and enslaved. By touching these wounds,
caressing them, it is possible to worship the living God in our midst. Today there is a need for a
revolution of tenderness (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 88; 288) which will make us more sensitive to the
dark nights and dramas of humanity.

Dear brothers, I thank you for this meeting. May the Virgin of Carmel always accompany you and
protect all those who collaborate with you and draw from your spirituality. And, please, entrust me
also to her maternal protection. Thank you!

*Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office, 21 September 2019

© Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

TRADITION, CHALLENGE, WITNESS (1) An Address to the Carmelite General Chapter by Michael Casey OCSO

12 September 2019

1.     Tradition

Then the LORD said [to Elijah]: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the face of the LORD. Behold the LORD is about to pass.” And there was a great and powerful wind, rending the mountains and shattering the rocks before the face of the LORD. But the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was fire. But the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a faint whisper. (1 K 19:11-12)

One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that the God whom we seek is present to the world of space and time precisely by being absent from it. God’s presence is through a perceptible absence. God is not in the world as a discernible object, but as a presence as close to nothing as we can conceive. As Elijah’s vision at Horeb indicates, the presence of God seems to be no more than the sound of a faint whisper. It is silence. Real yet subtle beyond our imagining. Even while we can affirm God’s agency in the world we are baffled by the fact that God is not-a-thing, not a thing alongside other things, but a reality that is utterly other. Whatever we say about God is necessarily trite and without foundation, yet it is this experience of the density of God’s absence which kindles the desire that is the driving force of every spiritual journey.

The marketing of such “an unknown God”, as Saint Paul quickly discovered, is not easy. The alternatives are atheism or some form of idolatry. The lurking temptation to make contact with other more accessible deities is ever-present, and gods of our own creation are usually more amenable to our ways of thinking and acting. But manufactured religion (ethelothreskia – Col 2:23) has no transcendent component; it can be only a variant of social conditioning. Because the divine nature is directly unknowable – even if God’s existence is postulated – it would seem that human beings are limited to an effectively godless existence.

Then came the surprise. God spoke. God’s self-revelation. In various ways God addressed patriarchs and prophets, and as the centuries passed we received the gift of authoritative instruction in the things of God (torah). Furthermore, we were admonished by saints and sages to find the vestiges of God even in the opacity of the created world. Then, in the fullness of time, God sent the Son, born of a woman. In him the fullness of the Godhead resided, so that by his becoming human we might become divine.

Christ, as the site of God’s definitive self-revelation, is the portal by which we are able to make contact with the spiritual world and, thereby, with the God who dwells in inaccessible light. This ongoing revelation is living and active; it is not inert. It is the means by which God’s agency in the world continues to be accomplished. It is the means by which eternal life – which comes from contact with the divine – is transmitted. Christ as the source of eternal life transmits it to us through human mediation: the proclamation of the Good News, the sacraments, the life-giving communion which is the Church.
And there you have a description of tradition – one that goes beyond sociology and cultural anthropology and views it in terms of theology and metaphysics. It is the transmission of life. Eternal life.

1.     Tradition
“[Elisha] picked up the cloak which had fallen from Elijah and returned to stand on the bank of the Jordan. There he struck the water with Elijah’s cloak, saying ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?’’’ (2 K 2:13-14)

Tradition is often misunderstood as a stodgy reality, referring to the conservation of the past and, thereby, resistance to the present and an indifference to the future. The form of the word contradicts this reading. The suffix –itio in traditio indicates that it is a process. It is closer to a verb than a noun. Properly traditio refers to the act of handing on something to another, rather than the thing that is being transmitted. Tradition is alive as long as it is being passed on from one generation to the next. Far from being static, it is an ever-flowing Heraclitean river.1

But there is a catch. The verb tradere means not only “to hand on” but also “to betray”. Ironically, what is handed on is inevitably changed. The act of reception modifies what is received. This is the presupposition of the “telephone game” (téléphone arabe), sometimes called “Chinese whispers” (Chinesiches Flüstern). It is impossible to receive a message and to pass it on without adding to it something of oneself. So far from being a museum-keeper’s climate-controlled sterility, tradition promotes preservation by replicating itself in a variety of forms, each version drawing sustenance from its own unique and particular environment.

There are, therefore, two false notions of tradition. One is to identify it with a fixed and unchanging deposit – of beliefs, values or practices – which serves as a permanent criterion of orthodoxy. The other is to view it within the nineteenth-century mentality of continuing.
progress; every onward step is an improvement which makes the past redundant. The reality comes somewhere within this polarity. Tradition remains itself by constantly changing. It is ever new, yet it loses nothing of what it was.

Tradition is a process of ongoing re-formation of whatever is received in accordance the emergent situation. Re-formation is not an occasional necessity; it is an integral component of the process. The shape of this re-formation is not determined exclusively by what has previously existed; it is a response to new challenges. Taking the Good News beyond the ambit of the lost sheep of the house of Israel inevitably meant that the Gospel would be modified in the process. There are today thousands of ways to embody the beliefs and values of the Gospel, differentiated by their geography and by their individual cultural pathways through the centuries. The self-revelation of God has produced an almost-infinite variety of resonances is the hearts of human beings that collectively testify to the unfathomable richness of the divine entity.

This principle is exemplified in the different traditions of Gospel living that are associated with the various religious orders that have sprung up in response to what Vatican II famously termed “the signs of the times”. We can, if we are so inclined, trace the genealogy of these traditions, noting how through different concatenations of circumstances a single stream of tradition is repeatedly re-formed.2 Many of these re-formations imagine themselves as the recovery of the original and authentic tradition that had been lost or deformed over the course of time. But, in every case, it is something new that is emerging. And, of course, traditions are often deformed in the course of re-formation – that is why the history of so many of the older religious orders is punctuated by spasms of reform.

The Second Vatican Council summarily described the task of the renewal of religious life as returning to the sources and responding to the signs of the times. The key word is, of course, “and”. One or other of these courses of action is no more than moderately challenging; to pursue both objectives simultaneously is much more demanding. Within the ranks of those who follow particular traditions there have always been some who hanker after returning to the past and others who want to leave it behind and precipitate themselves into the present. And this requires – to use another much-favoured ideal of Vatican II – dialogue. Otherwise, the result is polarisation and sometimes division between what might be termed “conservative” and “progressive”. In such situations, the wisdom of the well-known saying of Hegel is often forgotten. "Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights." Two rights often make a wrong.

At the heart of this dilemma is the issue of hermeneutics. Is the tradition being read correctly and dynamically or is it being seen as something fixed and immovable – on the one hand to be embraced, on the other to be rejected? The interpretation of a spiritual patrimony is not governed by the same norms as the juridical reading of legislative texts. There is a kind of family access that allows those who have long lived according to the beliefs and values embodied in the tradition, intuitively to contextualise what is written and to grasp its meaning in their own very different situation. There is the possibility, as Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, of a “fusion of horizons” (Horizonverschmelzung) which is the prerequisite for arriving at a common language that permits dialogue.3

 To engage with our spiritual tradition we need the fundamental openness of a listener4 that permits “uninterrupted listening”,5 and this presupposes that, in approaching the text, we are “radically undogmatic”.6 I accept that in coming to the tradition for guidance I will encounter “some things that are against myself”.7 Previous internalisation of the beliefs and values of the tradition is not meant as a defence against change, but as a point of departure for a new expression of ancient truths in which the enhanced sensitivity of the committed reader plays a necessary and creative role.

We must not lose sight of the theological component in spiritual traditions. The tradition of a religious order is one expression of ecclesial tradition, one channel by which the out-pouring of God’s self-revelation flows into us. Our participation in a tradition – and not merely our reception of it – is a source of life. It is a means by which the life of Christ flows into us and enables us to live at a level otherwise impossible. Consider your call. Was not our experience of vocation a perception of a path leading to more abundant life? It opened out before us as a means of access to the spiritual world, which we could accept or decline. It was more than a career-choice. We experienced it as the call of Christ not greatly dissimilar to the call of Simon the fisherman, or Matthew the tax-collector, or the rich man who went away sadder.

Our corporate sense of being called by Christ is the hermeneutical key to understanding our tradition. We approach our patrimony with the desire to understand what it is to which we are called – today. Not yesterday. “If today you hear God’s voice…” I suppose that what is operating here is the grace of communion which energises those who give it admittance, not only to ensure that the tradition is alive but to aspire to make it lively. This means that we who participate in a tradition are obliged to allow that tradition continually to work its magic on us. With one hand we receive from the past, we make it our own and, with the other hand, we pass it on to the future. This particular lifeline by which God acts in self-revelation and self-communication is kept alive by human mediation. That is, by us. By continuing the tradition we become instruments in God’s work of sanctification.

The communion of saints is imaged in the New Testament as the Body of Christ – a body in which the different members are functionally distinct. This means that there is no ground for comparison between the relative value of one against another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’.” Within the universal call to holiness there are distinct vocations, each contributing to the divine master-plan. And we have to admit that no matter how much we labour over our vision statements and mission statements, we do not really know with much clarity exactly what is our ongoing role in the universal scheme of things. As a result, we often misjudge what is happening around us as we pass through necessary but unwelcome periods of transition. Nothing remains the same for long. Religious orders typically pass through alternating seasons of expansion and contraction. What we often fail to understand is that the driving forces of growth are often the lessons learned during diminishment.
In particular, we tend to be overly negative in assessing the potential inherent in the present situation. This is a convenient excuse for luxuriating in our lack of prospects and sinking into purposelessness, tending the fire sufficiently to keep ourselves warm, but lacking any missionary zeal to allow it to flourish. Many of us feel inclined to exclaim with Cicero, O tempora! O mores! We look around at problems and divisions within the Church, at the disheartedness of so many religious because of reduced numbers and diminishing vitality. We find rising in our hearts what may be termed the mantra of despair. “If only.” If only the pool of potential recruits were larger. If only we had more candidates. If only more of those that enter persevere. If only our leadership were more dynamic… To which God may well reply, “There are still seven thousand who have not bowed their knee to Baal.”

Too often we are held back from the good we can do by what Jean Baudrillard has termed “eclectic nostalgia”.8 We are tyrannised by our selective memories of what it used to be like, as though the exuberance many orders experienced during the 1950s, or in the nineteenth century, were normative. We are sent to interact with our own time and culture, whatever that may be now, and whatever it may be in the process of becoming. This is why tradition is alive; it draws its energy from the real world, which it views as an exciting complex of brand new challenges. The athleticism with which tradition has responded to change in previous centuries is a source of confidence that it is well able to serve God and advance God’s Kingdom in any situation that ambient society throws up.

Nobody would take seriously a tennis player who insisted on playing only those shots to which he had given prior approval. The point of the game is that a player does not know what sort of ball his opponent will send down next. He has to be ready not only to defend against his opponent’s shot, but creatively to turn it back on him in a way that is not expected. In kindergarten tennis it may be different, but the professional is expected to be able to deal with anything the other player throws at him.

Maybe it is time for us to pay less attention to the “prophets of doom” and their statistics and projections and begin to see what are the particular possibilities that this time of change brings. We should be in no doubt that we are confronting not merely an epoch of change, but a change of epoch. As Pope Francis has said.9 We are living through a paradigm shift.10 This may very well require of us new learning and new skills, but it is not the end of the world. And it need not be the end of the tradition to which we belong. Unless we have some sort of a death wish that robs us of hope and saps our energy to resist extinction. Perhaps we should take to heart the famous poem of Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A tradition is not usually extinguished by external forces alone; if it fades it is because those who bear it become disheartened, lose their nerve, and put down their burden.

1 On this see M. Casey, “Tradition, Interpretation, Reform: The Western Monastic Experience,” American Benedictine Review 69:4 (2018), pp. 400-428.
2 In “From Desert to Cloister” in Monks Road: Gethsemani into the Twenty-First Century (Trappist: Gethsemani Abbey, 2015), pp. 9-87, I tried to demonstrate how different facets of monastic spirituality were successively brought into play by the distinctive social conditions of the eras to which it was addressed.
3 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 273; “Understanding … is always the fusion of these horizons which we imagine to exist by themselves.”
4 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p.324.
5 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 421
6 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 319.
7 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 325. 
8 “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” Sourced from
9 “We are not so much living in an epoch of change, but a change of epoch.” L’Osservatore Romano, 4 July 2014, p. 10.
10 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 4th Edition 2012). p. 175. See Hans Küng and David Tracy [ed.], Paradigm Change in Theology: A Symposium for the Future (New York: Crossroad, 1989). Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013)