Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Ruth Burrows and the World of Change

Written by Philip Harvey

Setting oneself the task of reading the works of a new author can be a change. You hear their voice, enter their world, and perhaps learn new things in the process. Ruth Burrows is a name I have known for years, but never read, so this year I set about immersing myself in her books. The combined effect is to meet someone whose life is completely dedicated to God, with all the costs and changes that entails.

In her biography ‘Before the Living God’ Ruth Burrows opens by saying she was “born into this world with a tortured sensitivity.” She details her responses - joyful or anguished, obedient or rebellious - to growing up. When her beloved elder sister Helena dies, Ruth is scarred. She does not blame God for this, but she comes to think that God is one who deprives. Change in these circumstances, however, teaches her about her own personal emotions. “Let me love anyone and God was sure to remove my loved one,” she writes. “This wound was only later healed by a friend God gave me, a friend who loved me with a deep love and in whom I have found joy. The trouble was on an emotional level and God came to me on the emotional level through friendship.”

Ruth seems an unlikely candidate for the religious life. She goes through a tomboy stage, has a boyfriend, and makes fun of the teacher nuns at her school. At 14 she has already decided she will study at Oxford and get married. Instead, she reluctantly attends a school retreat and makes a nuisance of herself by not keeping silent. On the second day of this retreat she is “seized with a sense of fear such as I had never known before. It was related directly to God and to him alone.” When she goes to confession her confessor gently confronts her, causes her to realise that “I was afraid of being ‘good’. That is, if once I decided to be ‘good’ anything might happen, there would be no knowing where it would end.” This was the moment for the grace which changed her life. She knew she had to give up everything, give herself up to seeking intimacy with God. She says of becoming a nun in the most absolute way possible, an enclosed contemplative nun, as “self-evident”. Her world was completely changed.

Ruth Burrows entered an English Carmelite convent in 1947 and has lived in one Carmel house or another ever since. Some of us would think that meant seventy years of not much change, but her biography contains unsubtle examples to the contrary. To begin with, her name changed to Sister Rachel, which is how she is known within community.

Then there are essential matters like eating and sleeping. Austerity England was hard enough, but inside a religious house food was of poor quality and lacking in protein; strict hours of prayer could be a real challenge for a young woman unused to such clockwork. The older and wiser Ruth who writes this book reflects: “There are two sources of comfort, bed and food, and need for these can be tyrannical. Surely there must be something unbalanced in a regime which, far from freeing people, binds them to such animal needs. Experience has proved that when sisters are truly happy, are given adequate worthy interests wholly compatible with the contemplative life, such as good reading, interesting, creative, responsible work, and above all emotional satisfaction in human relationships, food and sleep cease to be important. They fall into the normal pattern.”

Then there’s always the tricky business of human relationships. Several gruelling and entertaining stories are told of relations in the community, culminating in a clash of authority between an outgoing and incoming mother of the house. Furthermore, in this process Ruth’s own vocation is questioned by other nuns. These strengthening experiences of change, and threatened change, ultimately assist in Ruth’s own self-knowledge. She comes to a realisation of the supreme importance of charity. “In true love for our neighbour lies all the asceticism we need. Here is the way we die to self. What are disciplines, artificial practices of penance and humility compared with this relentless pursuit of love? Perfect love of the neighbour means complete death to self and the triumph of the life of Jesus in us.”

The glorious English summer of 1952 brought with it plans to establish a new house, with all that means in terms of choice, building, shifting, and other changes. Eventually they found a modest house amidst foothills. Ruth goes to length describing the beauties of their new Carmel and the change in daily life, especially physical work, that came with being in the country rather than the town. Ruth’s maturity is, by this stage, more apparent, as she confesses that it did not concern her which house she lived in. “The thought of a Carmel in the country was lovely but I never found myself setting store by it. I realised that Carmel was independent of situation and it was Carmel that held me.” Community is uppermost, not locality or other expectations. It was here that she developed her own sense of leadership, spending time herself as leader of the community. Her account of the changes and challenges brought by that role are also good reading.

‘Before the Living God’ is a short book intended to reach others in need, who may gain from its honest consideration of internal experience. It was only written under instruction from one of her successors as leader. Ruth was asked to do so in order that “my thoughts would clarify and that I would come to know myself and hence God’s way of love with me.” It is the story of a soul, written in Carmelite tradition, and has much more to say about prayer life than the vicissitudes of change. The book serves as useful human background to Ruth Burrows’ more thorough works on the spiritual life and mystical prayer. 

This essay first appeared in the newsletter of the Community of the Holy Name, Cheltenham, Victoria.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Emily Dickinson : The Infinite Power of Home ANN ROCHFORD

On Tuesday the 20th of February, Ann Rochford led a Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library on the poet Emily Dickinson. Here is Ann’s introductory paper.

Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest literary figures.  In her lifetime she was considered a recluse and was better know as a botanist.  Her Herbarium collection of pressed plants, which runs to 66 pages, has long been owned as part of the Harvard University collection.  In her lifetime only ten of her poems were published.  Her brilliance was not recognized.  (She has left us a chest of 1775 poems)

Emily Dickinson was born on the 10th of December 1830 in Amherst Massachusetts.  Her family home was built by her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  He was a founder of the Amherst Academy and Amherst College.  Like his male descendents, he was an attorney with an interest in politics and public issues.  Emily’s father,
Edward, was a member of the Senate. The Dickinsons were well known, middle class and very respectable. 

Emily was the second of three children.  She had a loving and close relationship with her older brother, Austin and her younger sister Lavinia (Vinnie). She was also very close to Austin’s first wife,
Susan Gilbert, who had been her best friend from childhood.

Emily was considered an exceptional student and an original thinker.
She attended Amherst Academy, and then spent an unhappy year at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary, a college for girls. Here for the first time she came into conflict with contemporary society, because she would not formally or publicly express her religious beliefs.  She did believe in God---she just did not see the need to formally worship in church.  (After the age of 30 she never attended church although she befriended a number of ministers.)

After 1848, at the age of 18, Emily returned to the family home from Mt Holyoke, and rarely left it.  She said she preferred solitude to society and spoke about  “The Infinite Power of Home.”  She nursed her ailing mother (who managed to be an invalid for 25 years!), tended the house and her wonderful garden; kept up an enormous correspondence with friends, and wrote her poetry.

She scribbled poetry all through the day, as ideas came to her.  She used the back of envelopes, old receipts, anything that came to hand, then it would go into her apron pocket and be reworked later in the evening.  She would work into the small hours getting her poetry just right, for the thoughts she wished to express.

Her reclusiveness was balanced by the wide correspondence she kept up throughout her life.  She was a very demanding pen friend, chastising her friends if they did not reply promptly to her letters. Most of her dearest friends were people she wrote to, but had never met.  As she was dying, she asked her sister to burn her letters, so we have no trace of the incoming correspondence she received, only that which her friends received and kept.

By 1860, Emily had withdrawn from social life.  By 1867 she would not open the door to visitors, but spoke to them behind it.  She began to only wear white.  She would exchange messages with locals but never speak to them in person.   In 1874 her father died and was buried from the foyer of the family home.  She did not go down to the service but listened to it from the open door of her bedroom.  Her family accepted, and was protective, of her desire to be reclusive.

Dickinson loved poetry and writing, and was very familiar with the works of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wordsworth, and the Bronte’s.  She was well versed in Shakespeare.  She understood the conventions of writing poetry in the literary style of her day.  However, she never sought to emulate it.  She had her own style, which is impossible to categorize.  Her poems have no titles.  Every word is measured, no excess word is used.  Every comma, dash (of which there are many) and strange capitalization is integral to her sense of her work.  

Her imagery ranges widely from domestic and garden metaphors, to scientific references and literary illusions.  It is thought that reflections on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ were an inspiration for some of her writings on death and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ clearly influences her sharp observations about the role of women in her society. Her poetry has many voices: the child, the nobleman, the mad woman, and possibly most famously, the corpse.  Death and immortality are recurring themes that seem to fascinate her.  She wrote to her friends about “the deepening menace of death” and speaks about going through periods of long depression over the death of a family member or friend.  She often writes in the common meter (4 beats followed by 3.)  If you take “Because I could not wait for death” it is possible to sing it to the tune of the theme song of  ‘Gilligan’s Island’, which is also written in common meter.

Dickinson’s writing was at its most active in the early 1860’s.  This is the time of the great slavery debates and the carnage of the American Civil War.  Not a word of this is mentioned in her poetry.  Dickinson is an inward poet, focusing only on those things that inhabited the small world she had created for herself and her own inner observations.

Those of her poems that were published in her lifetime, were “fixed up” by editors.  They changed her punctuation, they put in commas, they fixed her capitalizations.  In Dickinson’s view this destroyed the meaning of her work.  She was dismayed and reluctant to publish others. She was also not encouraged to publish her work.  She had a long time mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was a well-known literary critic.  She initially sent work to him and asked him to tell her “if it breathed”.   They corresponded over many years and she shared a great deal of her writing with him.  He eventually came to meet her for the first and only time, a few years before her death.  He did edit the first little volume of her work that was published after her death, but is forever known as the man who overlooked a genius.

Some of her friends did recognize her literary gifts.  Her former school friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, who was a publisher, volunteered to be her literary executor “because you are a great poet and it is wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.”

Emily Dickinson died of Brights disease, on the 15th of May 1886, aged 55.  She was not buried in the manner described in her most famous poem, but at her request was carried to her grave, in a white coffin, through fields of buttercups.

Upon her death a trove of 1775 poems were discovered.  Very soon after her death, both her sister and her brother’s second wife began to put out pieces of her work – she was quickly recognized as a significant poet and her fame grew and grew.  By 1891 critics said her work had a strange mixture of individuality and originality.  By the early 1920s she was considered essentially modern.  She was hailed as a great female poet.  By the 1930s she was a post modernist.   It was not until 1955, that a complete volume of all of her poetry was published.  (It was unedited) She is now a thriving industry in her hometown of Amherst .  Her family home is a museum.  Her work has never been out of print.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The EarthSong Library comes to the Carmelite Library

A Report written by Philip Harvey

At the end of last year the EarthSong Project closed after a journey of nearly fifteen years. One outcome of this decision was the donation of the EarthSong Library to the Carmelite Library. This means that the Library, in one week, became the best ecospirituality library in Melbourne. This is a great gift, it’s also a great responsibility, a great potential learning experience.

As its website explains, “EarthSong Educational Project emerged in 2003 from a conversation amongst members of several Religious Congregations wanting to explore the nature and power of the new universe story and its implications for an integral spirituality. The project was launched at Pipemakers Park on the banks of the Maribyrnong River on 27th July 2003.  In 2008 EarthSong: Earth Literacy and Earth Ethics Association became an incorporated body, governed by the EarthSong Council. In keeping with EarthSong’s vision seminars, workshops, retreats and programs for adults and senior students […] comprised the main focus of its activity. Since 2004, the EarthSong Journal offered Australian reflections on issues of ecology, spirituality and education.” 

EarthSong’s sponsors were Brigidine Sisters Victoria, Christian Brothers Oceania Province, Faithful Companions of Jesus, Institute of Sisters of Mercy Australia and Papua New Guinea, Presentation Sisters Victoria, and the Passionist Congregation. Later Anne Boyd csb, one of EarthSong’s Project Co-ordinators, established an Ecospirituality Reading Group at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park, a group that continues to meet and share knowledge, a group to which all are welcome.
The library of EarthSong expresses the many interweaving interests of its original mission. If our concern is for the future of the planet and our place in that future, then these are not minority matters. We are each called to think differently about our living environment, to learn about the changing knowledge we have of the big picture of the Universe, right through to the most local and intimate networks of interrelated being.

So there are many books on that most ancient of disciplines, Cosmology, its history and theology, brought up to the present in which we analyse and synthesise the discoveries and theories of science. Science and religion are no longer contending opposites in some unholy battle for a correct view, but elements of the same human desire to know and understand. Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Ferris rub elbows with Bill Plotkin, Steven Chase, and John Haught.

Hence also the broad ranging literature on Darwinism and all that followed. Most Christians today accept the theory of evolution. The question for some time has been how to appreciate the changing positions on evolution in the light of Scripture and Tradition; how to conduct a constructive dialogue about its reality. EarthSong library contains dozens of authors and thinkers working in the field. Historically significant amongst these is the French Jesuit mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose observable recent rehabilitation within the Catholic Church comes at this time of cosmological and environmental dialogue. The realted events are apparent every day in the papers, how to think and address the presenting issue for our world of ecological crisis, a crisis regarded by many as a First Order issue, given that it threatens what we know of the created world.

Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, with its emphatic Franciscan title, is one of the major world documents in response to the “inconvenient truth” of climate change and ecological degradation. The EarthSong Project predates this encyclical but its library helps explain where the Pope is coming from and how to read and respond to his words.

Attendant upon this teaching is the general and worldwide activism, as distinct from do-nothingness, that serves to protect and restore the Earth and the sanctity of Creation. This understandably takes political and social forms, as well as theological and philosophical forms. The collection also contains important works on ecology from all the major faith traditions.

The Carmelite Centre’s 2016 Symposium on these questions introduced many attendees to the rich and varied thinking at the heart of  ecotheology and ecospirituality. The EarthSong library is well represented, its holdings augmenting what was already a strong author presence in this Library: Thomas Mary Berry, Wendell Berry, Denis Edwards, Charles Eisenstein, Andy Fisher, Matthew Fox, John Grim, Joanna Macy, Sean McDonagh, Bron Miller, Diarmuid O’Murchu, H. Paul Santmire,  and the list grows.

The slogan ‘think globally, act locally’ is a rule of thumb for ecospirituality. We are going to begin where we find ourselves, which is frequently in our own backyard. The library contains many books on Australian environment, whether fauna, flora, geology, or climate. The Carmelite Library collects materials on local history and geography, so there have been many adds on the life (in every sense of the word) of Melbourne and that large expanse of water just down the street, Port Phillip Bay. Any books on local Indigenous culture, history, and religion are added as a matter of course. Aboriginal spirituality is a constant commitment in the Library’s collection development.

Related to this is Australian nature writing, much of which speaks of the intimate connections we have with our own environment.  EarthSong collected widely in this genre, for example Geoff Lacey, Patrice Newell, Mark Tredinnick, Geoff Lacey, and Tim Winton. Some people regard the American Henry David Thoreau as a formative spiritual writer on nature and we have a very good Thoreau section, now further improved courtesy of EarthSong. But Thoreau is only one style of nature writer. Today the landscape is populated with writers putting down their words on the effect and condition of their natural world s. The spiritual life is enriched by the beauty and experience, but also the brutal honesty at times, of this genre.

Another philosophy that turned into a slogan is E.F. Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’.  Schumacher is one of several thinkers whose ideas have inspired movements and even schools of followers; such thinkers, not all of them instantly identifiable as religious thinkers, have had a major influence on ecospirituality. Writers in the widespread Sustainable movement are another example, including the Tasmanian Bill Mollison, one of the conceptual founders of permaculture.

The EarthSong library is a prized windfall for the Carmelite Library. It is a grand acquisition. The materials are being steadily catalogued and added to the collection, but it is you the reader of this report who is the future reader of these works and for whom they are being made available. The windfall is also a developing research resource for the University of Divinity, which this Library serves.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection : an accidental spiritual guide DAMIEN PEILE

On Wednesday  March 7th Damien Peile will conduct the second  'Carmelite Conversations' session on Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Here are Damien’s presentation notes.

This conversation will explore:
·         A brief overview of his life – some background.
·         His writings - The Practice of the Presence of God. This will include some time for personal reflection  to read his letters.
·         His appeal and relevance today (400 years later)

Seventeenth-century France
He lived in tumultuous seventeenth-century France, with its power struggles, debts, and perpetual unrest. Lawrence lived most of his life under Louis XIV, after the religious wars that had devastated the country in the 1500s. Louis was constantly at war.

There lived in his time several spiritual luminaries whose wisdom still guides people today. Francis de Sales’ ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’  is a book written by Saint Francis de Sales.  Blaise Pascal, Madame Guyon, and Francois Fénelon. Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675 – 1751), French Jesuit priest and writer known for the work ascribed to him, ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’,  his ideas on the spiritual life and  guidance for daily living in communion with God.

Biography (1614 -1691), Carmelite lay brother
Little is known about him.
Born in the region of Lorraine, Eastern France.
Humble parents, did not have enough money for sponsoring an education.
Some form of “home-schooling” by a parish priest (Lawrence) .
A connection to the Discalced Carmelites through his Uncle Jean Majeur.

Seeking Direction
·         1629  aged 15 entered the French military.
·         1632  aged 18 he received a revelation of the providence and power of God:  considered it a supernatural clarity into a common sight, more so than as a supernatural vision.
·         1635 Thirty Years War (1618-48), a near fatal injury to his sciatic nerve resulted in chronic pain (1635). 
·         Tried the hermit life, but thought himself a failure.
·         Later worked as a valet, saying he was a “footman who was clumsy and broke everything.”

Monastic Lifestyle
·         Took the religious name “ Lawrence of the Resurrection”  lived there some 50 years
·         1642,  solemn profession of vows.
·         Primary assignments – kitchen (cook and dishwasher).
·         In later years, repairing sandals(200 pairs).
·         wine buyer for the community.

Brother Lawrence – the Person
·         A quiet and unobtrusive person.
·         Deeply aware God’s gracious love for him.
·         Had a sense of God at a young age.
·         Had insight into his nature and acutely aware of his sins.
·         A gentle man of joyful spirit, Brother Lawrence shunned attention and the limelight.

The Practice of the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence's letters are the very heart and soul of what is titled 'The Practice of the Presence of God'. All of these letters were written during the last ten years of his life. Many of them were to long-time friends, a Carmelite sister and a sister at a nearby convent. One or both of these friends were from his native village, perhaps relatives.

Father Joseph de Beaufort gathered as many of the monk’s letters of spiritual direction that he could find, along with four conversations that people recalled from their meetings with him, and these were published as ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ - including four recorded conversations and spiritual maxims

·         The basic theme of the book is the development of an awareness of the presence of God.
·         All was published after his death, as he insisted on total privacy during his lifetime.
·         Structure:
·         Part 1: four conversations - Brother Lawrence and Abbé Joseph de Beaufort. Part 2:  fifteen letters from Brother Lawrence's personal correspondence.
·         Tone-formal and detached. Sense of gravity.

This book promotes no spiritual method or technique, except that of ongoing prayer. There is little patience for methods, devotions and mortifications .
The book is more like a conversation between two friends over coffee .
It has an immediacy and intimacy that is both blunt and refreshing. It is a spirituality that is best practised in the small rooms of our ordinary lives.

Theological Criticisms - Quietism
Quetism is set of Christian beliefs that had popularity in France, Italy and Spain during the late 1670s and 1680s.
Quietists had something of the Stoic about them, a passivity and silence in the face of outward events: to suppress, rather than submit to a loving Father.
Strove to crush their own will, and any desire—even the desire for salvation—so that God could bring about whatever he desired without impedance from the human.

·         Irreconcilable with our relationship to God in the Scriptures  which teach us to seek, request,  wrestle, e.g. Doubting Thomas,  Garden of Gethsemane (ultimate anguish), death of Lazarus.
·         The doctrine of the Incarnation (God revealing Himself in Christ)  appears as a ‘blind spot’.
·         Quietism was condemned as heresy by Pope Innocent XI in the papal bull ‘Coelestis Pastor’ of 1687.

Reflecting on the Letters of Brother Lawrence (handouts)

1.       What strikes you about this in terms of the spiritual journey for today?
2.       What characteristic  strikes you about Brother Lawrence – i.e. living with pain, searching for God, difficulty with self-acceptance.
3.       What questions would you have for Brother Lawrence and how do you think he might respond?

Simple Spiritual Wisdom - Principles
Have a conversation with God. "If we only realized how much we need God's help and how much He wants to bless us, none of us would lose sight of Him, not for a second."
Develop a conscious life. Become aware of noticing where you are, what you are doing.
When facing pain, disappointments and the mundaneness of life – surrender to  God’s presence!

·         To keep God in mind at all times and to trust God as much as possible,  no matter how mundane or routine, was the medium of God's love. The issue was not the sacredness or worldly status of the task but the motivation behind it

·         We must fully recognize our spiritual poverty, our incapacity, and accept this condition.

·         Brother Lawrence developed an ability to live each moment in the Presence of God.

We must have confidence in God, in order that He may accomplish in us what we cannot do by our own powers. This path to this perfect union was not easy. He spent years disciplining his heart and mind to yield to God's presence. "As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties."

Christian spirituality : an introduction to the heritage, by Charles J. Healey  (ch. 9)
French spirituality in Christian spirituality : post-Reformation and modern, edited by Louis Dupré and Don E. Saliers.
Methodist spirituality, by Gordon S. Wakefield.

i) Works: The most useful resource is the edition of his works: ‘Writings and Conversations on the Practice of the Presence of God’, ed. Conrad De Meester, trans. Salvatore Sciurba, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1994.
    ii) Studies: Robin Maas, “Practicing the Presence of God: Recollection in the Carmelite Tradition", Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, ed. Robin Maas and Gabriel O'Donnell, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990, 259-268; Dwayne Huebner, “Practicing the Presence of God", Religious Education 82 (1987): 569-577.