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.