Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Chinese Version of Ch'an Buddhism (Seon in Korea and Zen in Japan) JENNY RAPER

This is Jenny Raper’s presentation to the Spiritual Reading Group on the Chinese version of Ch'an Buddhism (Zen in Japan), given in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 17th of April.

When thinking about the spread of Buddhism I visualize a tiny spring of pure water pushing up gently through the forest floor high in the mountains, into a tiny rivulet of water flowing downhill to become a wider and faster stream as it gathers speed through the plants and the earth.  As it flows and widens, other small streams flow in and more water pours down the widening cleft, as what is now a river makes its way to the plains where it finds many channels through which it flows, creating a great estuary flowing into the ocean.

Buddhism was like this.  One man rising up to meet a spiritual challenge creates a trickle of interest which gathers speed and widens as it flows through many ancient cultures until it is like an estuary – a river of many channels, each reaching the ocean of humanity. His teachings flowed from a small, mountainous kingdom into nearby cultures and gradually broadened into the whole of South East Asia.

The ancient Chinese spiritual beliefs and practices were well established when Buddhism arrived during the Han Dynasty – the 2nd imperial dynasty- from 206BC until 220CE. They had written inscriptions as early as 3000 BCE and had developed oracle texts during the Shang period (C1200 BCE), their religious beliefs centred on the role of the King as the diviner of the will of the Great God and the lesser gods.  He was the living embodiment of the Kingdom and he alone could communicate with his dead ancestors who continued their role in guiding the success of the dynasty.

Towards the end of the Shang period, a great mystical teacher arose – Lao-Tzu - who was venerated as a sage.  He believed people can access the power of “The Way” or the “Tao” using his collection of ancient texts based on divinations of the past Emperors. This is the great Book of Changes known as the I-Ching.  People used this book of oracles as a meditation and as a method of discovering The Way in their lives.

Other Taoist classics followed over the centuries – the Classic of History, The Classic of Odes, The Record of Rites, The Spring and Autumn Annals and possibly a Classic of Music. Later in the Zou period (C5th – 221 BCE) a concept appeared of Tian translating as Heaven or Nature.

The Way or The Tao taught that the entire universe and everything in it flows from a mysterious and unknown force, known as the Tao.

             Tao is The ultimate reality
             Explains the powers that the universe and the wonder of human nature
              Believes everything is One – despite appearances.
               Evil and Good only occur when people forget all is One.

Lao-tse taught that (even if it is difficult to grasp) “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao”. Taoism was the one Chinese teaching that offered ways to connect to the spiritual world and secure blessings and protection.  It was a path to mysticism through shamanic practices and meditation.  Meditation was the great tool, and monasteries arose (especially in the mountains, considered to be sacred) where the masters and monks practiced and refined their meditation techniques.

Taoists also developed nine general rules of behaviour.

                   Practice Non-action
                   Practice being soft and weak
                   Practice guarding the female and never move first
                    Practice being nameless
                   Practice being pure and tranquil
                   Practice doing only good
                   Practice having no desire
                   Practice knowing when to stop
                   Practice yielding and withdrawing.

There were many levels of The Tao which were practiced by different groups in society – from the ordinary people to the priests and the Kings.
A young scholar and teacher, Kong Qui, who lived between 551-479 BCE – became known as Confucius.  He did not promote a religion, but the way of the 'gentleman', personal relationships, the conduct of government and most particularly, the conduct of filial devotion, humaneness and ritual practice.  His teachings were recorded in The Analects of Confucius and used by his followers much like a religious text.  The Han Dynasty was strictly Confucian and with its fall Confucian beliefs were vulnerable. We know he visited Lao-tzu, but was not impressed with his spiritual ideals of following The Tao. Confucius was more concerned with correct behaviour and the stability of society. Taoism and Confucianism existed side by side for centuries, often one or the other out of favour with the court. It was into this world of Chinese belief systems that Buddhism arrived.

The Buddhism that arrived in China had already undergone several centuries of development and possessed a huge collections of scriptures  – the Dharma - which had been created by his later followers of Buddha from the oral chanting of the Sanga, some centuries later.  An important point about them is that these scriptures are open– there is potential for new wisdom.

However, some ancient teachings are of paramount importance to being a Buddhist. such as The four noble truths –
                                      Life is inevitably sorrowful    
                                      Sorrow is dead to craving
                                      Sorrow can only stop if craving stops
                                      Disciplined conduct and meditation can stop it

The fundamental law of the universe: All life is “transient and changing and they have no eternal Self or soul, no abiding individuality” [Quoted by Theodore William De Bary]

The Mahayana school of Buddhism, which came to China, further taught that there was a heavenly pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Was Buddha divine? Well, he had passed away from existence, so no longer in the world.  Yet, to become a Buddhist, one had to profess - “I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.”  These difficulties were able to be overcome by the Chinese in using Taoist terms – the Indian texts were translated and Chinese schools came into existence. Following the Mahayana school, their practice was largely based on reading the scriptures, learning them, probing the hidden meanings using various methods of commentaries to gain deeper understanding.  This way was accompanied by meditation and asceticism.

For many Chinese Taoists this was really an academic way of being.  Some scholars and teachers developed ideas that reflected the Taoist teachings and emphasised meditation; this school came to be called Cha'an, from the Indian dhyana.  Owing to the difficulty of translation, the earliest texts on yoga and dhyana became sinasized (or Chinesed) into various levels.  The emphasis was on meditation 'as a means of attaining an intuitive recognition with all conceptual thinking set aside and external influence rejected.” (De Bary) Gradually, this style of Buddhism became separate from studying the scriptures and for teachings to be transmitted 'mind to mind'.  Through this, the role of a master became essential for the student and all practice and study was done under his direction.  The Master was entirely in charge of the student's progress,  unlike the Mahayana school where the monks were taught and meditated together. The Cha'an student was also required to work for the common good of the community of monks as an integral part of his training. Thus, all of life became a meditation – by concentrating the mind entirely on tasks one could apply a meditative effect – today called 'mindfulness'. For example, we all know of the raking of gravel into perfect symbolic patterns – the person wielding the rake becomes the function and at one with the symbols and the energy of raking in a meditation.

One of the best know methods of training was the use of the gongan (Koan in Japa). This was the use of a short story containing a paradox or enigmatic question and it meant 'public case'.  In the early period, this training was done in public with students responding the gongan in a meeting of monks. Gradually, these stories were collected and used as handbooks of instruction.  A further development of this method was  when a gongan could not be answered satisfactorily, beatings, shouts and gestures were applied by the master to cause the student to have sudden awakening to the Truth!  A tradition developed whereby students who had advanced could go on pilgrimage to another master in order to progress in his understanding.

The goal of Cha'an was to achieve enlightenment.  All Buddhists aim for this, however, Cha'an taught that this could only be achieved by deep meditation practice.   One story says that the Buddha himself used this method and that it was brought to China, after 28 generations in India, in 520 CE.  

As the centuries passed and the succeeding dynasties rose and fell, Buddhism rose and fell with them.  Lavish temples and monasteries were built with monies from the court and the wealthy; many of these temples and monasteries became very wealthy in their own right.  In 845 CE a persecution of Buddhists was instituted – however this varied and the north became the centre of the persecution whilst the south where there was less Confucian structure continued their support of Cha'an Buddhism as a practice of the provincials.

One of the sticking points in China with Buddhism was monasticism. The early monks were charged with being unfilial because they had to leave the family.  A defence was offered by a Cha'an Master called Mingben.  He wrote that filiality is the role of the householder and that the monk shows his filiality by nurturing his parents' dharma-nature and by practice of 'formless' love.  He can, by his devotion to meditation apply merits to his parents whether they are alive or dead.  He said there are two forms of love, one near and intimate and the other 'formless' – which has no end.  The great end of formless love is so that the parents can end their existence of rebirth and suffer transmigration.

Cha'an became associated with simplicity and discipline in all realms of life.  The monks lived a severe life – no possessions, working hard for the monastery, meditating in silence for long periods, attending to their Master and undergoing constant testing until their 'awakening' to the Truth.  This Chinese style of Buddhist practice has retained its core and has flowed into South East Asia where it has developed its own flavours.  In Korea it is known as Seon and in Japan, famously, Zen.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Notices of new Carmelite books (2) PHILIP HARVEY

Damien Peile, the Provincial Delegate for The Carmelite Family, issues a Monthly News via email.  These bulletins include my own notices or brief reviews of books of interest to readers in Carmelite spirituality and history. Here are the second four. These notices are posted quarterly on the Library blog. Philip Harvey.

Maria Petyt is not a household name. A new book about her is unlikely to change that, at least not overnight. Edited by Joseph Chalmers, the erstwhile Prior-General of the Order, this collection of essays gives her context in 17th century Flanders, her life in the Hermitage of Mechelen, and responses to her mystical writings. In particular, responses to a newly found Latin manuscript, biographical in nature but filled with prayers and sayings of Maria of Saint Teresa, as she is known in religion. It’s a researcher’s dream and welcome gift to the history of Carmelite spirituality.

Such a discovery opens up meaning on a lost world. Not only do we learn about Maria’s prayer life and her deeply informed knowledge of Saint Teresa of Avila’s teachings, we read all of this against a backdrop of the Dutch War. Given that the cost of the book is in three figures, your best choice is to borrow it (‘Maria Petyt: a Carmelite mystic in wartime’, Leiden, Brill, 2015 ISBN 978-9004-29186-7) from about the only place in Australia with a copy, the Carmelite Library, Richardson Street, Middle Park.

-     -  Philip Harvey (April 2018)

When I first started working in the Carmelite Library there were many animated and, often, scholarly conversations with the librarian, Paul Chandler O.Carm. Paul’s knowledge is catholic in every sense of the word, and his historical imagination is far reaching, reasons why we have such a rich collection. A particular interest, nay almost obsession it seemed to me, was his interest in the Latin words of the Carmelite Rule, which he has spent hours considering in depth. The literal meaning is obvious. Paul’s interest was in context and purpose. Why did Patriarch Albert of Jerusalem choose these words rather than others? What hidden meanings could be gleaned about the earliest Carmelite communities?

In 2015 his own most recent satisfaction with an English rendition was published in Melbourne by Carmelite Communications. This handsome pamphlet adds to Paul’s many larger works, a distillation of his contemplative reflection on a foundation document of the Order. Copies are readily available by writing to this email communications@carmelites.org.au

-          - Philip Harvey (March 2018)  

This year the Carmelite Centre presents a series of monthly seminars called Carmelite Conversations. I knew little more about Ruth Burrows than her name, though aware of her reputation, which is why I offered to talk about her for the April session. Where to start? “Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite Nun from Quidenham in Norfolk, United Kingdom. She is the author of a number of bestselling books including Guidelines for Mystical Prayer and Essence of Prayer.” This is the two sentence biography of Ruth Burrows on the website of Bloomsbury Publishing, her current publisher. 

The two sentences divide her life into one of strict religious observance and contemplative writing about spirituality. This is itself helpful as a way of thinking about Ruth, because hers is a life primarily of withdrawal from the world of action into the world of prayer. Her books reveal this world on every page. She is someone who has rejected the vanity of the world, that staple so often required of biographies, electing instead to live a life without fanfare or shock horror chapters. It is good to discover someone whose words are essential, but whose personality is withdrawn, almost anonymous. There is no entry for her on Wikipedia. My Lenten rule is to read as much of Sister Rachel, as she is called in community, as possible.

-        -  Philip Harvey (February 2018)

This coming May the renowned spiritual writer Margaret Silf visits Melbourne, where she will conduct a four-day workshop at Kardia Formation http://www.kardia.com.au/4-day-workshop-margaret-silf/ Margaret Silf’s name appears in a new acquisition at the Carmelite Library. She writes: “We are living through times of disillusionment and bewilderment – a global ‘dark night of the soul’. Carmelite spirituality understands this terrain. This book guides us expertly into the spirit of Carmel, outlining its background, introducing us to major Carmelite visionaries … and inviting us to explore the Carmelite method of quiet contemplative prayer, just ‘gazing on God’.”

The book she is talking about is ‘The way of the Carmelites : a prayer journey through Lent’ (ISBN: 978-0-281-07529-4) It is the last book of James McCaffrey OCD to be published in his lifetime; Fr James died on Christmas morning in St Luke’s Hospital, Oxford. As many of you will know, he wrote beautifully on Carmelite tradition throughout his life and, to judge by the glowing reviews, this book is no exception. It is ideal Lenten reading.

-         - Philip Harvey (January 2018)

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Little World of Ruth Burrows: a Biography

Quidenham Carmel Monastery, Teresa 500 copyright (c) 2015 Kayte Brimacombe

On the 4th of April in the Carmelite Library, Philip Harvey gave the third in this year’s series of Carmelite Conversations on the spiritual writer Ruth Burrows. Here is the first of three short papers given during the seminar.

“Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite Nun from Quidenham in Norfolk, United Kingdom. She is the author of a number of bestselling books including Guidelines for Mystical Prayer and Essence of Prayer.”

This is the two sentence biography of Ruth Burrows on the website of Bloomsbury Publishing, her current publisher. The two sentences divide her life into one of strict religious observance and contemplative writing about spirituality. This is itself helpful as a way of thinking about Ruth, because hers is a life primarily of withdrawal from the world of action into the world of prayer. She is someone who has rejected the vanity of the world, that staple so often required of biographies, electing instead to live a life without fanfare or shock horror chapters.

I call her Ruth, but within community she is Sister Rachel of the Quidenham Carmel. She entered the religious life at the age of 18, something I know from her autobiography ‘Before the Living God’. It is through this book that we learn she became prioress of the community in 1962 at the age of thirty-three, which by my calculations means she was born in about 1929. I could still be wrong about that. [Stop press: on the eve of giving this paper I received an email from a writer on Ruth Burrows who states that Ruth will be 95 in August] I will observe that, although a renowned best-selling author of several books, some acclaimed, there is no entry for her on Wikipedia. In 21st century terms, this makes her virtually invisible to the public, a profile that she has spent her life maintaining.

Having now read this autobiography three times (each time the book proving more astounding than the previous time) I can report the following facts. She was the third child of a family of eight: Helena, Mary, Betty, Margery, Brenda, Crispin, James and Ruth. Their parents were devoted, but there were difficulties and this was an age when people did not go for counselling. The children grew up in a Catholic household, with prayers every day. They lived in an industrial city of the north of England, a city she never names. At the age of nine Ruth suffers the loss of her beloved elder sister Helena. She goes through a tomboy stage, then gets a boyfriend. She must have been aware she was bright, because at 14 she already plans to go to Oxford University and get married. But by 18 she has entered a convent, even though successful in her scholarship examination to Oxford. Once inside the enclosure, Ruth describes some of the sorts of challenges experienced by nuns: leadership tussles, questions of appropriate behaviour and attitude, the question of shifting to a new house. She learns the hard processes of monastic life: the regimes of eating, working, praying, and sleeping.

That’s about it for facts. Even though the book covers the entire mid-century period, Ruth mentions no world events or famous people that could serve as landmarks. We are left with a question that answers itself: Is any of that very important? On one page she makes reference to concentration camps and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, not to help with chronology but to remind us that “the world’s sorrows” exist, and are understood. How much emotional response any one person can give to the daily news before exhaustion or indifference set in, is a good question. Ruth’s books draw us into a place where the self finds peace amidst the tumults of information news.

Time’s landmarks are not so important, it seems, when you are writing a biography about the inner life. As Ruth says at the start: “My experience is not wide but deep.” The biography she writes is the story of a soul, in the tradition of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, not a biography about climbing every mountain, fording every stream, let alone my life with the rich and famous. It’s my life with the poor and unknown, lived inside a religious house. There are, however, biographical clues in her writing beyond the main one, her lifetime of prayer, and I turn to some of these clues now.


“I was a lively child, bright and gay,” she says (Before the living God. New edition. Burns & Oates, 2008 = BLG 7), but elsewhere says she lived her childhood in a state of fear and defencelessness. “I was highly strung and easily ‘run down’, needing tonics,” she recalls, only to add in the same breath, “constitutionally I was hardy.” (BLG 8) We can believe that, given she is now well into her eighties. Elsewhere Ruth states she has suffered from lifelong depression, without elaborating too much, only then to express joy before God and the world for all created being. In a recent interview she says “It is impossible to understand my life unless it is seen all the time against the background of black depression. It’s no easier now. It’s just that I don’t mind. I’m happy to be poor.”  The opening line of the whole book is “I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity”, which is not promising if your wish is entertainment, but the book’s cumulative effect is witness to how a human confronts their emotional life, learning what is essential and what is transitory. Her honesty builds trust, as when on the same page she can express her concern about whether God even exists, only then to declare that her dedication to God is everything in her life. Such admissions make her very modern. Despite the admitted sorrows of her life, Ruth is adamant “it has been life. I have lived.” When young she longed to marry. “It is hard for me to recapture what I had in mind, what my idea of marriage was. It was love. I wanted to be utterly loved by someone, loved uniquely. Children were not essential. It was the companionship, the love which was my longing. At the back of my mind was the uncomfortable awareness that there was another state of life, that of the consecrated virgin. I turned away from this and supported myself with the reading from Proverbs of the valiant woman, which I found as the lesson of the mass for a woman saint not a virgin.” All of these words colour with different meaning when we know that she instead joined a community of women devoted to Christ. Which is another main fact we can state with confidence about Ruth Burrows: she entered Carmel. Her solemn vows took place in September 1951. She writes: “The long retreat preceding my profession was likewise happy. I took the retreat of Sr Elisabeth of the Trinity for my inspiration and found her helpful. I felt drawn also to our Lady at this time. I made my vows ‘until death’ with great resolution. Yes, I was happy. I remember being with the community on the morning of my profession and looking out onto our poor, ill-kept garden. I was here for ever. In one sense an appalling prospect but, contrary to all reason, I found myself content.” (BLG 83)       


We know she is a writer. Her writing is thoughtful and clear. She wishes to hold our attention with the serious intent of her words. It is precise and concise writing. She possesses a droll sense of humour that only becomes fully apparent through re-reading. Occasionally she will collapse the whole edifice by using some down-to-earth English expression. Ruth tells us herself she was writing from an early age. Here she is in her early teens: “It might appear that I had devout ideas and feelings. This is not so. I was conscious of a sense of hypocrisy when I wrote religious poems, realising that the Sisters at school and others would be impressed and think me rather special. This fact gave me some pleasure but essentially it embarrassed me. Certainly I did not write to impress. I was beginning to feel that there was nothing worth writing about except God and yet there was not the slightest feeling of him. I began to look for words about him in all sorts of books. I rummaged on the religious shelves of the public library, peeping with a creepy fear into non-catholic books but refraining from reading them as this was forbidden. I found something of Fr Faber’s but cannot remember what it was.” (BLG 27) One of the telling things about this recollection is that it foretells her life, for indeed she spends her whole life writing about nothing but God, when and even when not she has “the slightest feeling of him.” She is someone with a highly attuned self-consciousness, for she is aware of her false intentions in writing, and therefore of the kind of direct and honest writing that she must deliver, the only writing worth doing. She is also aware that acting devoutly and writing devout things is not the same as true devotion. Later, when living in the convent, her spiritual mentor Sister Mary Agnes “forced me to take a still firmer hold on myself and to shun any attempt to pose, play-act or seek attention.” (BLG 84) She was talking about Ruth’s personality, but it describes her writing, in which there is no posing, play-acting, or attention seeking. I am sure her ability as novice mistress in producing “clear, well-thought-out discourses” (BLG 94) aided her writing skills. As she says herself, such discourses “revealed the shallowness of accepted notions. My mind was stimulated to search for understanding”. Rowan Williams pays her a high compliment in his introduction to the new edition (2008) by saying: “It is a history that has the effect of providing a definition of faith itself in terms of radical conversion to the perspective of the indwelling Christ.”  

Ruth Burrows and the Desert of Carmel

On the 4th of April in the Carmelite Library, Philip Harvey gave the third in this year’s series of Carmelite Conversations on the spiritual writer Ruth Burrows. Here is the second of three short papers given during the seminar.

I am now going to talk about one of my experiences of working in a Carmelite institution. The Carmelite Library is a crossroads of Carmelite life, where people both inside the orders – friars and priests, nuns and tertiaries – and people outside the orders – everyone else – find some kind of common cause. Or, at least, some common ground. This is well and good. The Library contains one of the largest and best collections of Carmelite literature in the world and those who visit benefit immeasurably from the available riches.

Occasionally, however, users of the Library ask, as much in a spirit of scepticism as inquiry, so what is Carmelite spirituality? Or even, is there a Carmelite spirituality? Given that we are completely surrounded by the results of generations of Carmelite spirituality, this seems an unnecessary question, if you are an evidence-based thinker. Perhaps, I think to myself (I don’t say it) you might like to read an introduction to Carmelite spirituality. Sometimes I hand them one. But other times the questioner has already moved on to some other matter.

I sometimes think that their real question is, is Carmelite spirituality really very different from any other spirituality? Behind this thinking is the achieved sense that they have enough spirituality already, and don’t need to go studying the Carmelite version. And perhaps they are right, perhaps they have enough to go on with, who am I to say?

The combined effect of reading Ruth Burrows is to meet someone whose life is completely dedicated to God, with all the costs and changes that entails. It has also caused me to think differently about Christianity.

Ruth talks about living in ‘the desert of Carmel’. Occasionally she describes the lovely Norfolk countryside where she has spent most of her adult life. “Our monastery is situated on the foothills and known to command one of the finest views for miles around. To the west are the mountains – the everlasting mountains – reared against the sky, and over these the setting sun poured its splendours … Here nature runs riot. Masses of snowdrops and crocuses cover the ground in spring, then hundreds of daffodils and delicate narcissi … Amid so much loveliness the most enchanting thing of all is a wild, wooded ravine, a swift stream fresh from the mountains, singing in its depths.” (BLG 88)  This is not a desert, but then ‘the desert of Carmel’ has nothing to do with anyone’s geographical location. She means, her chosen place of ascetical life, a life that will be lived wherever she finds herself. It is a place in which all worldly concerns have been foregone for a life of contemplation and prayer. We have just survived Lent, with its reminder of Jesus going into the wilderness and being tested. And we think of other parts of Scripture where people go into the desert, to be tested, to let go of falsity, to meet God. We think of Moses leading the people of Israel and the trials of that experience, leading to ultimate fulfilment of promise.

However, any reader of Carmelite history thinks immediately of the desert life on Mount Carmel in the early 13th century, the simple community life of those poor monks who are today called Carmelites, named not after a holy founder but after the mountain. The Rule devised for them by the Patriarch of Jerusalem was rudimentary by any standard, an expression of the desert existence of those men. They had been led to live that life, but it was also their choice, and we all know how choices determine our lives in one direction rather than another. So when Ruth adopts this example of ascetical life she is at once identifying with it within the tradition of Carmel, naming it as her present reality, and also using it as a metaphor, as a device for explaining how Carmel works. By so doing, she is not alone. Saint John of the Cross wrote his treatise on union with God, ‘The Ascent of Mount Carmel’, which utilises the mountain as a metaphor for the progress of the individual soul. Saint Teresa of Avila likewise drew on images of the tradition, creating her own unique analogy for the spiritual life in ‘The Interior Castle’. Ruth Burrows adopts the language of Carmel in her writing, so that to appreciate her words we sometimes need a working knowledge of Carmelite tradition, and I will return to how Ruth does this shortly.

Essentially, there are different ways of doing Gospel and talking about it, different Christianities each with their own evolving language and ways of living out the word of God. Growing up inside Anglicanism, as I did, it was easy to think that this was Christianity and how it was done. Such a sense of rightness is not peculiar to Anglicans. The English Bible, the Book of Common Prayer (which is in many ways the English Reformation’s great tribute to Benedictinism, even if most Anglicans are unaware of it), the permanent arguments about Word and Sacrament, and which takes priority – these things were so much the air I breathed that anything else was remote and culturally alien; the Other, even. Such certainty about one’s own tradition is good, so far, but it is only one way of doing Christianity, one Mansion. It is, though rich and complex and fulfilling, however reinforced by cross-reference and practice and time, but one way of doing the Way.

Which is how I appreciate Ruth Burrows, who lives and has her being within a tradition with its own history, modes of behaviour and, despite its dedication to the Trinity and veneration of Scripture, its own insider language. So, what does Ruth mean by ‘the desert of Carmel’?       

Upon entering the convent, “the world had died for me. I could never go back to ordinary life. Were I to turn my back on Carmel I would be denying what had become part of me, had become my own reality. This emotional attachment was the first, overwhelming problem I had to face.”  We notice in this confession that Carmel is her new home, the replacement for her family home. She desires this change, but it means she must meet its challenges, in particular her emotional attachment to it, with all the attendant jealousies and demands such love creates. Carmel is a home, but one that cannot replace the family home except over time. To begin with, there is no private life. “All right, I had chosen to live in Carmel because God wanted it, but it was not home and never would be. It was no good anyone trying to suggest that I had in Carmel any substitute for my home. Carmel was hateful on the level that home was sweet. No one in Carmel could equal my mother and sisters.” (BLG 49-50) She argues out this new life. She dislikes certain Spanish and French practices that do not translate well into the English cultural context. She is critical of the more extreme forms of daily life, which she regards as inimical to healthy living. But yet, she stays. Although Carmel seems at time wrapped up with her own personal desolation, Carmel is her adopted world. She sees over time that depression and desolation will be as they are inside or outside of Carmel. She is aware that Carmel is the same for her other companions in the community, and that not all of them can cope with the demands. Some leave, and even Ruth lives through phases of wanting to leave, phases she identifies as typical of living in ‘the desert of Carmel’.

A more self-deprecating and wry picture emerges in her most recent book, ‘Love Unknown’. Upon entry she was “vividly, painfully aware that I was selfish to the core and everything a Carmelite should not be. I had imbibed an image of what was expected of a Carmelite. She should be aflame with love for God. I was stone cold. She should want suffering and be good at bearing it. I shunned it and was bad at bearing it. No angry, resentful, envious, mean, competitive thoughts and impulses should sully a mind and heart given to God. I had all these things in abundance. A Carmelite loved all the observances of the life. I found most of them boring and some made me angry as I felt they impinged on my dignity. A Carmelite loved nothing better than solitude, to be alone with God alone. I wanted love, interest, variety; I wanted lots of things! In short, I felt I was a sham, pretending to be something I was not. I lacked a natural religious sense and feared I was an agnostic if not an atheist at heart.” (LU 3-4)

Reading Ruth Burrows, I become aware that the rule of life extends way beyond the simple words of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. She and her companions have, in particular, an attitude of listening respect toward their foundress that will show itself at any moment. The ‘Foundations’ and ‘The Way of Perfection’ are two of Teresa of Avila’s works that are treated as rules for life, and she quotes other Teresian writings when it suits the context. This expansion of the working rule is observable but indefinable, it has no firm boundary. I have no proof that Carmelites do this, I only have what I see in Ruth’s writings. Arguably anything within Carmelite literature seems to have this potential as a source for action and reflection. Anything appropriate to the present circumstance may serve as example. She has an even greater respect for Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, whom she regards as misunderstood and misinterpreted by many moderns. Her adoption of Thérèse as a model of life is deep and her writing about the saint is by turns clear-eyed and rapturous. 

Ruth will occasionally describe herself as a modern. This seems to have less to do with Vatican councils and changes in dress sense, than in her place in time within Carmel. She may venerate Teresa, but she also has some very Teresian arguments with Teresa. She doesn’t agree with everything she says, sometimes understands that Teresa lives in 16th century Spain, not 20th century England, that how her teachings are read rely on understanding of circumstance, of what is practical and even humanly sensible. But, like other Carmelites, her love of Teresa is very evident and it is this constant disagreement or agreement about what she means in her writings that makes for the creative life of the community. It seems to be very much what is meant when she talks about living in Carmel. Confronting issues of life is how Teresa proceeded and it’s how Ruth proceeds.

Teresa’s great spiritual work is ‘The Interior Castle’, a work that employs the sustained metaphor of a castle of rooms or mansions, with transparent walls, that she uses as a guide to progress in the spiritual life and as a picture of access to God. It is a celebrated spiritual masterpiece of psychological exposition, available to us all. It was written by someone who lived in a society where castles were a central fact of town life. Ruth Burrows, similarly, has written ‘Guidelines for mystical prayer’, a title that might give the misleading impression that it’s some kind of how-to book or self-help manual. Seriously not. Like Teresa, Ruth contrives an image of three islands set in a sea as her way of helping readers to learn about access to God. We could spend a year’s reading group getting to know this book. When I first looked into it I couldn’t help feel that this was a very Teresian method of explanation, a style that comes directly out of living in the desert of Carmel.    

We know that she joined a contemplative order. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Prayer is your business, such is the purpose of our life in Carmel”. (Carmel ix) At the centre of that prayer life is God as revealed in Jesus and through the Spirit. Ruth will talk of prayer as the humbling of the self to the most basic means, something we understand about existence in a real desert. Within Catholicism there are teaching, nursing, and missionary orders, and even today people will say, what do they do all day in Carmel, praying? In fact that is not all they do all day. There is the housekeeping and Quidenham runs a small business. But prayer is the nuns’ essential focus. It is reported that Ruth herself prays at least two hours every day and that is in addition to the saying of the offices. She is not alone in this and sees it all as being an example to others, that a prayer life is possible for anyone, wherever they may find themselves, wherever they find themselves in relation to God. And there is in all of this an understanding of Carmel as a prayerful presence in the world itself. It is the fact that this is going on today, even as we speak, that is important and necessary. Carmel prays for the world and though set apart from the world, is in the world. It is the established practice that makes this happen. 


Playing cards at Quidenham Carmel Monastery, Teresa 500 copyright (c) 2015 Kayte Brimacombe

The three books by Ruth Burrows quoted in this paper are:

Before the living God. New edition. Burns & Oates, 2008 (BLG)

Carmel : interpreting a great tradition. Sheed & Ward, 2000
Essence of prayer. Burns & Oates, 2006 (Carmel)

Love unknown : the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, 2012. Continuum, 2011 (LU)