ORDO FRATRVM B.V. MARIAE DE MONTE CARMELO CAPITVLVM GENERALE CARMELITARVM MMXIX
12 September 2019
And, behold, a voice came to him saying, “Why are you here, Elijah?”. (1 K 19:13)
The most serious component of the situation in which we find ourselves is that we have lost the invincible sense of our own identity, perhaps as individuals, but also as an order. It is true that we have all kinds of symbols of our identity: our habit, our special vocabulary, the places and personages that bear our brand. But do we have a firm sense of who we are in today’s Church and today’s world? Here history is not much help. Most orders have been different things in different circumstances, and picking and choosing among historical precedents to find something that appeals to us is not necessarily helpful. The task that is ours in the present is not only to find a way that is sustaining and life-giving for ourselves, but to find one which also provides scope for our generative capacities – one that enables us to contribute to the forward march of God’s Kingdom.
It helps if we are a little bit mad. It may well be true that common sense is the guide of the virtues, but sometimes an excess of prudence can render us too timid to respond to the call of the Spirit. I love the fact that the great cathedral of Saint Basil in the Kremlin is dedicated not to the great Cappadocian Doctor of the Church but to Saint Basil the Fool (d. 1552), who was wont to wander around stark naked during the formidable Russian winter, in order to gain some attention for the message he was impelled to deliver. It is an exaggerated common sense that gives rise to “a preference for moderation that can all too easily lead to mediocrity”11 The histories of religious orders often testify to periods of self-legitimating spirals of decline, during which many small choices are made which cumulatively subvert the basic purpose of the particular group. Each individual choice is defensible, but no one takes the time to step back and assess where it is all leading. Perhaps they have forgotten Winston Churchill’s advice: “Watch the tides, not the eddies”.
And so we are led to underline the importance of a strong corporate experience of identity – strong in the sense that it enables us to arrive at choices that are in harmony with our fundamental purpose, and are not merely driven by a rapid response to opportunistic demands or possibilities. Perhaps we need to outgrow our need for winning approval by blind conformity to the self-interested expectations of others, and to invest our limited resources in doing well what we do best. In other words, all of us need to give a certain priority to those activities that are most closely linked to our particular charism, recognising that sometimes renewal is more a matter of subtraction than addition. May I recall the remark of Cardinal Braz de Aviz at the Benedictine Abbot’s Congress in 2012? Sometimes “we must have the courage to diminish our works to save our charism.”
Obviously, it is not for an outsider to define the nature of your charism. Just as obviously, it must be the task of the General Chapter of your Order to enter into a sustained dialogue about how to refocus your understanding of the tradition by which you live so that it becomes sharper and more capable of penetrating the fog which pervades the postmodern world.
Because I am not averse to rushing in where angels fear to tread, may I say that it seems to me that probably the issue that is most important and most urgent is to decide on the relative priority of activities that stem from your being a contemplative brotherhood and activities that relate to your ministry and life of service to the Church. You must surely have given serious consideration to this question in the Chapters that followed the Second Vatican Council, but that was half a century ago. The times have changed. The combination of the contemplative life with active ministry is a noble objective, but the practicalities are difficult to unravel. In Saint Luke’s story about Mary and Martha, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, whereas Martha “stands over him” [epistasa] (Lk 10:40), a word which, in the Third Gospel, indicates superiority. As the mistress of the house Martha is trying to bully Jesus. We will probably find that in our own religious life the demands of activity are always more strident than those of the contemplative life.
“Elijah stepped forward and said … ‘How long will you sit on the fence?’” (1 K 18:21 NEB)
Many of us rely on a facile belief that matters will sort themselves out without much interference from us. That is to misread the urgency of the present time. The fact is that the contemplative life – as distinct from occasional contemplative experience – always ends up in second place. I see four reasons for this.
1. Contemplation is a gift of grace; we cannot produce it through our own efforts, the most we can do is to reduce alternative activities so as to make room for the grace which comes on God’s initiative.
2. There is no direct causal link between what we do and what we experience; and so we easily come to the conclusion that since there are no visible results we are wasting our time devoting ourselves to the things of the spirit.
3. The fruits of contemplation are not always apparent to the one who receives them, and so we easily become discouraged – especially because some symptoms of progress are counter-intuitive.
4. Living a contemplative life demands much in terms of discipline and asceticism. Mostly we are more comfortable in choosing a less demanding lifestyle.
The worst thing we can do is to do nothing. We need to respond to the signs of the times. And so, let us talk about the need for a disciplined way of life. Every religious tradition that seeks to be taken seriously makes demands on its adherents through prescribing specific practices and observances, through the giving of time or money, or through stricter codes of personal and social morality. There is always a dialectic between comfort and challenge.12 “A certain amount of tension with secular society is essential to success – the trick is finding, and maintaining, the right amount.”13 In fact, it seems that the more demanding the conditions for membership, the more the institution thrives. In 1994, American sociologist Laurence R. Iannaccone published an article entitled “Why Strict Churches are Strong.”14 In it he presented the evidence for his conclusion that strictness tended to improve the health of a community both by excluding uncommitted members, and by enhancing the morale and participation of those prepared to meet its demands. Easy-going communities offer pretexts for members to drift in and out. Some become marginalised and migrate to the fringes, others see the common life as a kind of smorgasbord in which they have the right to select what appeals to them and leave everything else aside.
In many religious orders there is a continuing resentment at the perceived severity of former practice and a corresponding resistance to anything that might be seen as a return to what is labelled the “inhumanity” of past decades. Discipline was seen as penitential and perhaps even vindictive, rather than as a means of attaining the goal for which persons entered religious life. It was, furthermore, something for novices – to be discarded once maturity was attained. In this matter, we may be surprised to discover that millennials are far more positive about meaningful discipline than the middle-aged mavericks who inveigh against it.
If we intend to advertise the distinctiveness of our tradition by pointing to its strong contemplative component, then we need to make sure that inquirers are not disappointed when they encounter the reality. This involves more than providing a contemplative pathway for them to follow; it means that we ourselves must walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.
This is where it becomes difficult. Contemplative prayer does not fall within the ambit of human achievement. It is, rather, as Saint John Climacus avers, God’s gift to those who pray.15 This means that we have to initiate newcomers into a practice of prayer which progressively exposes them to the realisation of their own incompetence, and their consequent reliance on the agency of God. In prayer, but also in life. What we teach them is that prayer cannot be taught.
I have to admit to having reservations about insisting on particular techniques, even though it is prudent to have at our disposal a range of methods for entering into prayer. Sometimes the lesson we learn so reluctantly is that, when it comes to prayer, we are helpless and hopeless in achieving the goals we optimistically set before ourselves. As I have already said, we cannot produce prayer. All that we can do is to reduce activities that displace it. And this is the proper function of the common life. A formative community facilitates the development of a discipline of life that progressively optimises both the qualitative and quantitative expansion of prayer in the hearts and in the lives of its members.
The practices that allow prayerfulness to expand are well known to you all, as are the issues that inhibit its growth. I would like to single out one observance that has a particular relevance in our time: silence. Your rule rightly admonishes, “Employ every care in keeping silence, which is the way to foster holiness.”
The resurgence of interest in silence in our increasingly noisy world is indicated by the number of recent books devoted to this topic from the standpoint of various disciplines. 16 This perhaps suggests that we should do an audit of the practice of silence in our communities. It seems to me that we should be thinking less of imposing rigid and draconian regulations than in developing within our membership an appreciation of the human and spiritual value of silence, maybe recognising how much it has been eroded in recent decades.
Perhaps the testimony of Sara Maitland, an Englishwoman who spent years pursuing silence, may provide us with a starting point for reflection:
“Almost all serious writers on contemplative prayer, from all traditions and across history, are clear that this kind of praying can only be developed in a context that includes a great deal of silence.”17
In the right circumstances, silence is not experienced as a negativity even though arriving at it involves many negations. Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra has insisted that the silence of the audience is an integral part of any performance; it communicates an energy that is lacking when the orchestra rehearses in an empty hall. Silence creates a space that attracts whatever is repelled by a high density of sound. Its overall effect is enrichment.
There are, clearly, different levels of silence and all do not have the same spiritual value. When physical noise is reduced to a minimum, silence reigns – for a moment. Then softer, subtler sounds begin to make themselves heard. Sounds which are below our normal threshold of hearing because they are blotted out by the roar of modern life. There is often a connection between immersion in nature and silence. Even though nature itself is not silent, it calls us to wordless admiration. It induces us to leave aside our wordiness and our noisemaking devices and to be attentive. We experience this as uplifting for the soul. We are taken out of ourselves for the moment and touched by a transcendent reality. This is probably why Alfred North Whitehead was able to write: “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness … and if you are never solitary, you are never religious.” 18
We stand in need of silence for original thought and self-expression. Lack of originality is one of the aspects of postmodernity that Jean Baudrillard laments, and it may well be because of the insistent encroachment of noise into everyday life.19 We need quiet to think and to find our own voice. Totalitarian states recognise this; that is why there are loudspeakers in public places. Their purpose is not merely the communication of content and the rousing of patriotic fervour, it is also to prevent that most subversive of activities: private thinking.
While we need silence to find ourselves, silence also offers us the possibility of leaving ourselves aside. As we enter more deeply into silence, we find ourselves called to let go of the many egotistical desires that continue to populate our hearts, even after many years of spiritual pursuit. The spiritual warfare in which we are engaged has as its objective that singleness of heart which is the seedbed of deep prayer. There is no substitute. There are no short cuts.
There is a certain irony involved in spending so much time speaking about silence. I have done so in the belief that more attention in this matter is one of the ways in which we may gently move towards a more contemplative existence. I believe also that more silence will be good for most us, in the sense that it will help us more completely to embody in our own lives and in our own way something of the richness of our age-old tradition. And, if we are in the business of making resolutions, it might be good to have in mind the possibility of reading one of the recent books written about silence, in the hope of thinking new thoughts about a topic which has been long familiar.
11 Thus, David Malouf in a different context; A First Place (North Sydney, Knopf, 2014), p. 301.
12 This is the dilemma explored in Charles Y. Glock, Benjamin B. Ringer and Earl R. Babbie, To Comfort and To Challenge: A Dilemma of the Contemporary Church (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
13 Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p 134.
14 American Journal of Sociology 99.5 (March 1994), pp. 1180-1231.
15 John Climacus Ladder, 28:64. [Lazarus Moore trans.], St. John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), p. 258.
16 For example. Max Picard, The World of Silence (Wichita: Eighth Day Books, 2002). Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks (Sydney: Hodder, 2003). Stuart Sim, Manifesto for Silence: Confronting the Politics and Culture of Noise (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007). Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (London: Granta Publications, 2008). Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History, (London: Penguin Books, 2013) Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide [Two volumes], (London: Cascade, 2014 and 2017). Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise (London: Penguin Books, 2018). Alain Corbin, A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the present day (Oxford: Polity Press, 2018).
17 Maitland, A Book on Silence, p. 24.
18 Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927), p. 7.
19 See footnote 7.