Tuesday, 3 April 2018

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. 

Photograph:

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)




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