This icon at the National Shrine of Saint Jude at Faversham
depicts St. Albert's giving of the Rule to Saint Brocard
From the one Well of Elijah (top left) two streams flow,
representing the two major branches of the Carmelite Family
On Wednesday the 4th of September Irene Hayes conducted a Carmelite Conversation in the Library on the Carmelite journey of the heart. Irene focussed attention on several themes in John Welch’s influential book ‘The Carmelite Way: an Ancient Path for Today’s Pilgrim’. Here is her presentation.
The Carmelite Story is one about the inner life. This makes it a different story to other religious orders which began for a particular missionary purpose. The thoughts presented in this discussion are taken largely from the work of John Welch O Carm.
The session this morning is divided into three sections:
1. The beginnings and Ongoing Reform
2. The Call to Contemplation and Prayer
3. Self-Knowledge and the Spiritual Life
Here at the Carmelite Centre our program is designed around threads reflecting the Carmelite Way – stillness and silence, exploring with others and embracing contemplation in our everyday lives. I’m hoping our discussion this morning can deepen our appreciation of what these threads are and perhaps offer some aspects to review in how we are doing!
It’s a story or tradition about interiority. A contemplative space in life that no matter what we are doing we are listening deeply for God’s word in our lives.
1. The Beginnings and Ongoing Reform
The Carmelite story began in Mt Carmel Israel sometime in the late 1100s when a community took its name from the mountain. This makes it a tradition which has been around for over 800 years.
There are likely many factors which drew a group of people to gather at Mt Carmel, near a spring known as the ‘fountain of Elijah’, in the late 12th century. Some may have come from other monastic locations – we don’t know for sure. It appears they were pilgrims wanting solitude and companionship to prioritise their lives and live a life of prayer. Perhaps they themselves had undergone a conversion process that led them there. One can only guess at what transformations would have taken place to lead them there. By the time there was any known documentation about them they were already a functioning community – reported on by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.
This was the time of the crusades, (which lasted nearly 200 years 1095-1291) and the battle between Christians and Muslims over control of Palestine. The section of land which included Mt Carmel was part of thin strip of land controlled by the crusaders.
We don’t know the names of any of these early Carmelites but we know something of their hearts.
Was it an escape or was it more a vocational call?
The men lived near each other but not together. They read scripture, fasted and worked in silence. They gathered regularly and lived very simply and what they owned they owned together. We also know there was an oratory (small chapel) in the midst of their cells where they prayed together and provided a focus to centre their lives.
The prophet Elijah was a key inspiration for the early Carmelites. Elijah defended the worship of the Hebrew God over that of the Canaanite deity Baal. In a similar way these early hermits who later called themselves Carmelites, had a singular focus on deepening their relationship with God. God became present to Elijah, not with the signs usual in the Old Testament of fire, earthquake and mighty wind, but in the sound of a gentle breeze.
From Elijah, Carmelites learned to listen for the voice of God in the unexpected and in silence.
The chapel in their midst was named in honour of Our Lady. By this fact the first group of Carmelites took her as their patroness, promising her their faithful service. The Carmelites were officially called “Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel" in 1247. This remains the formal title of the O Carm male Order today.
Later, in the early 13th Century, these aspects of their lifestyle were collected into a brief formula now known as the Rule of Albert.
This life on Mt Carmel only lasted around 100 years. Because of continuing religious and political conflict at the time, the Carmelites began to leave Mt Carmel for new sites in Europe. Muslim and Christian warfare made the area untenable.
Their intention was to continue this eremitical lifestyle but quickly took their place alongside Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians as ‘mendicants’ – adopting a lifestyle of poverty, traveling, living in urban areas and preaching – especially to the poor.
The brief time spent by these early Carmelites forever more shaped the ancient path of the Carmelite tradition.
Each figure in the Carmelite story who urged reform in the order returned to the mountain in memory and in heart to be renewed by the original impulses which gathered the group in cells and around the oratory.
As these reformers emerged throughout the history of Carmel the message has always been that any place can be Mt Carmel - our homes, businesses and most importantly within our hearts.
The Call to Reform
Some of you may have attended a talk here a few years ago on Teresa of Avila given by Bernard McGinn. McGinn is well known for his multi-volume work on Mysticism. In recent years he was asked to comment on Carmelite life and what he thought was key to their presence in our world. He said he thought Carmelites key role was to witness to the necessity to continually reform, to always try to get back to original conditions – what Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm refers to as the ‘first love’ of the Carmelites.
McGinn also makes the point that the reform of Teresa of Avila (one of the most successful in reforming and the discalced may say ‘refounding’ Carmel) doesn’t begin with her but comes after several earlier reforms:
· Blessed John Soreth – 1395-1471 (France) Often thought of as greatest because of encouragement of women into the order. In hindsight this is significant given essential role of women in reform and giving us a developed understanding of mysticism
· Blessed Baptist of Mantua (Italy)
· Bishop of Albi (France)
· Nicholas Audit – 1523 – across many countries
· Teresa of Avila – 16th Century
· John of the Cross
· Reform of Touraine – inspired by Teresa and John and eventually becomes the Discalced Order in early 17th century.
Most efforts at reform die! It’s remarkable the Carmelite spirit continues to renew and inspire today given its fragile history! It’s a story of the heart.
There are parallels with our own journey of the heart. We set out to ‘reform’ our ways but not everything works and we have to keep starting again – searching in our hearts for the original call of God’s love. This dynamic provides a link between us and the Carmelite story.
2. The Call to Contemplation and Prayer
What I am sharing today is based on the work of John Welch, a Carmelite priest in Chicago. The Carmelite story is one of an ongoing tension between solitude and spreading of God’s love in the world, witnessing to the rest of the world.
· Action and contemplation
· Balance solitude and withdrawal with engagement
‘Withdrawal to desert’ is a central part of Carmelite heritage and imagination. But when the Carmelites left the mountain and moved into ministries based in cities this tension increased. To what extent did the friars be actively involved in work and how did this balance with time to nurture their interior life?
Debate has never been about what ministries Carmelites should be involved in, but rather reform has always called the group back to proper balance and a conversion of the heart.
The story of the Carmelites invites us too, to seek this balance.
Over the centuries key Carmelite figures have provided images and structures to support the internal journey:
· Journey through a castle (Teresa of Avila)
· A ‘little way’ (Therese of Lisieux)
· Passage through a dark night (John of the Cross)
· Searching for the beloved in mountain pastures (Song of Songs)
John Welch describes fundamental themes of Carmelite Spirituality emerging in this Carmelite story of the human heart which he describes as ‘seasons of the heart’.
1. A longing heart – our desire for God
2. An enslaved heart – the worship of false gods
3. A listening heart – contemplative prayer
4. A troubled heart – the tragic in life, and
5. A pure heart – the transformation of desire
I. A Longing Heart
Restlessness is part of the Carmelite story. The journeying of the first Carmelites who left their homes to gather at Mt Carmel was fuelled by a longing, a desire to commit their lives to God. Even when our desires are satisfied to some extent, it is temporary and there is always a longing for more. We have an energy within us always needing attention but not often fulfilled.
We are all on this quest. Our longing needs to be carefully tended and by paying attention to our deepest longings we will undergo conversion. Welsh sees it as an important part of Carmelite ministry to assist people in hearing and voicing their deepest longing. He says the Carmelite tradition acknowledges the hunger for God deep in the human heart. This deep current of desire within our lives is the result of God desiring us first.
Therese of Lisieux describes the ongoing nature of this hunger:
“I feel how powerless I am to express in human language the secrets of heaven, and after writing page upon page I find that I have not yet begun. There are so many different horizons, so many nuances of infinite variety…” (Story of the Soul, p 189)
This text reminds us of our own reaching out to this and that, seeking fulfillment, only to be disappointed time and time again. Using Therese’s image, we arrive at many shores, but each time we realise it is not the eternal shore.
II. An Enslaved Heart
The Carmelite story was born on Mount Carmel which was the scene of the ongoing struggle between followers of Yahweh and followers of Baal in the Elijah story with Elijah encouraging people to be clear about their choice of the one, true God.
The struggle of the various reforms within Carmelite history also are reminding Carmelites to have one God
John of the Cross included many themes in his poetry and writing about how easy it is to form attachments and cling to false gods or idols.
'The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.'
The heart is often enslaved by its idols. However, the liberation of the heart isn’t accomplished by annihilation of desire but by its reorientation. Idols of our times are not just personal loves and possessions but are the idols of power, prestige, control and dominance which leave most people looking in at life rather than being a part of it.
Over and over the Carmelite saints remind us that only God is sufficient food for the hungers of the heart and we should attend to injustices and abuse of power in everyday life. (Edith Stein & Titus Brandsma)
III. A Listening Heart
Grace is always available to us; it is gifted to us already. What we need to do is open our lives to it. What the Carmelite tradition has to offer us today is the possibility of nurturing an inner interior life in a busy and active age. This means paying attention to God who accompanies our journey in life. Our lives are stories of God’s mercies. An interior life of prayer can organise and centre all that is outside of us. We feel like we need to earn God’s love. Rather God is looking for people to open their lives to transforming love – not to punish them!
Interiority is a word to describe living out of the core of our lives as opposed to the outer periphery self.
‘That's why we are not discouraged. No, even if outwardly we are wearing out, inwardly we are being renewed each and every day’ (2 Corinthians 4:16)
St Augustine talked about searching for so much - ‘you were inside but I was outside. You were with me but I was not with you’
Therese of Lisieux began her biography with St Paul’s words:
‘Therefore, God's choice does not depend on a person's will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy’ (Romans 9:16)
God is already within our lives so our human journey is already a graced adventure. God has chosen to be with us. We can walk away – God does not.
if we dispose ourselves to God’s grace, we have the antenna to pick up this mystery. Person who does not have interior life struggles to be anchored in this way and be available to God.
Henri Nouwen – psychologist and priest writer. Spiritual life not a life before, after or beyond our everyday existence. It’s the active presence of God’s spirit in midst of worry filled existence. Our busy lives often fragmented. ‘we are all over the place but really nowhere.’ ‘We have an address but cannot be found there! Have address but not home! Being busy is not the problem. Jesus was very busy but he always paid attention to being anchored.
‘It was very early in the morning and still dark. Jesus got up and left the house. He went to a place where he could be alone. There he prayed.’ (Mark 1:35)
What’s missing is true centre in our lives. Compassionate presence of God. Helps prioritise and calm down our worries. Holiness in many ways is fidelity to everyday life.
Long process to believe this and requires regular practice of prayer and listening.
We’ve learned this through Carmelite saints and three in particular so influential they are doctors of the church. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Their insights into the gospel are the basis of them being made doctors of the church. Among many other voices of Carmel.
Carmel’s message is a call to be open to God’s grace, and the good news is that grace is always available. All we need to do is open our lives to it.
IV. A Troubled Heart
Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma experienced the depth of human cruelty and inexplicable evil. Therese of Lisieux, in her short-hidden life, experienced a surprising amount of suffering. Teresa of Avila knew warfare both inside and outside her soul. John of the Cross and his image of the dark night speak of a spirituality coming to terms with the dark side of life. The first Carmelites too going to the periphery of society in a context of external conflict and the inner conflict they would have experienced. These figures and others in Carmelite history entered into the common sorrows of humanity. We can all relate to these experiences:
1. The loss of a parent early in life (Therese) Grief and Bereavement
2. Suffering mental and physical illness and observing others close to us (Therese and her father)
3. Temptation to suicide
It has been suggested Therese should be the Doctor of Hope in the church because of her testimony to the human possibility to continue on in life when all the props have been removed.
Teresa of Avila had numerous obstacles to overcome in her reform – negotiating with powerful figures in the church who were often opponents, raising funds, recruiting members, traveling in difficult circumstances in extreme conditions, court litigations and of course her own fragile health. Teresa’s call was very much for courage and determination in the pursuit of a prayer life. She saw the door to self-knowledge (which she saw as very important) and the door to the interior castle, being prayer and reflection.
The dark night metaphor of John of the Cross reminds us that sometimes God’s love appears in the dark! John’s message is that somewhere in the debris of our life God’s love is there and he encourages patience, trust and perseverance especially at these times.
Contemporary witness to faith maintained in suffering are concentration camp victims Titus Brandsma and Edith Stein, being caught in the undertow of the 20th century’s powerful expression of societal evil. Carmel has no answer to the mystery of evil but provides witness to traveling the hard road and being a presence of hope for pilgrims on a similar journey.
V. A Pure Heart
John of the Cross drew a drawing showing the way up Mount Carmel with three paths. The paths of material and spiritual possessions do not reach the top; only the middle path ‘nada’ opens to the top.
“To reach satisfaction in everything, desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possession of everything, desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of everything, desire the knowledge of nothing.”
(Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book One, Chapter 13)
The setting aside of ego-driven and appetite-driven strivings makes sense and fits in well with Jesus’ message in the Gospels that “the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16).
Based on this, the Carmelite way seems to represent an heroic, even epic journey to God – only attainable by very experienced mystics. However, John presents other images to us.
He writes that ‘the soul’s centre is God’ and our journey in life is to that centre.
‘And now you awake in my heart, where in secret you dwelt all along’ (the Living Flame of Love, st 4)
In his commentary he corrects himself ‘It was not ‘you’ who awoke, but it was I who awoke to the love always present and continually offered to me.”
Our relationship with Carmel invites us to a process of letting go of self, to a gradual participation in God’s knowing and loving. The pilgrim (you and me) is so transformed that all their ways of living become expressions of God’s will. Jesus’ message is that God’s will is the well-being of humanity and the prayerful person is more and more living in a way which furthers that well-being. Someone living from the centre very naturally lives in accord with God’s will. The transformed person is also absolutely human and may not be continually conscious of their spiritual life.
‘Interiority becomes less and less an object of focus. Not even God preoccupies them, because in all the ways they are living they are expressing their relationship with God. The goal was never to be a contemplative, or a saint, or to have a spiritual life. The goal was always to want what God wants, in a consonance of desire.’ (John Welch Seasons of the Heart p 32)
Carmelites are explorers of an inner place of intimacy with God, a privileged relationship between creature and creator. Interestingly in Ireland there is a spirituality group of lay people calling themselves ‘Carmelite Explorers’.
Questions for Individual Reflection
3. Self-Knowledge and the Spiritual Life/Prayer
Jack Welch is inspired by the work of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology and sees his work offering insights into engaging in the spiritual life.
Welsh holds that both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross convey an understanding of human development in their writings. Teresa believed that self-knowledge was essential for spiritual development and John of the Cross believed that when a person is centred on something other than God, the personality is dysfunctional. When the true centre emerges, the personality heals.
Welch draws on Jung’s theory to explore the polarities and tensions influencing human behaviour as we grow towards wholeness. In his book ‘Spiritual Pilgrims’. He goes into depth in connecting this theory to the work of Teresa in The Interior Castle especially through the images.
The ‘Grace and Personality’ interaction have often been written about in spiritual writings. In seminary Welch describes how he was fascinated with how psychology and spirituality relate and with the idea of ‘What does grace look like on people?
He determined that the seminary wasn’t going to provide these insights so he was prompted to pursue further studies in this area.
This idea of the relationship between grace and nature has become more relevant as we understand more about developmental psychology and can no longer just think, well adults are adults! We now have an understanding of ongoing development throughout our entire lives which occurs through a dynamic between the parts of the psyche outlined by Jung (Self, personal unconscious & collective unconscious). The personal unconscious (shadow) provides us with material for development. We cannot bypass our shadow self (parts of ourselves we don’t want to admit to). Rather we learn to own and care for this part of us so it can become a new source of life for us. Jung warns there is no new consciousness without pain and confusion (john of the cross). The process is often referred as the individuation process.
Spiritual writers today still using categories developed by Jung. Theories are still holding. Good theory explains variables in situations. Examples include:
· Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life - Richard Rohr (2012)
· The Road to Character - David Brooks (2015) ‘I wrote it, to be honest, to save my soul’
Jung himself said:
“I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life - that is to say, over 35 - there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”
― Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933 first edition)
The Carmelites are a group who since their origins, have undergone continual reform – a reform of the heart – not so much reform relating to external ministries. The Carmelites have been and still are today, a witness to walking with others on a journey inward. This challenge continues today. How do we, as people connected in some way to the Carmelites, witness to a life of companionship, contemplation and service? What does this story stir up in me?
We began by referring to the threads of the Carmelite Centre and how our conversation today could help deepen our understanding of giving witness to the spirit of the Carmelite tradition. Our hope is that through places like the Carmelite parish, the library and the Carmelite centre, we can offer spaces to journey inwards, to be comfortable exploring the seasons of our heart and to support others doing the same.