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 are ten quotes used to open up discussion during the seminar.
Faith is not a thing of the mind, it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction of the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of our life; it is to live out the hours in a practical, concrete affirmation that he is Father and he is “in heaven”.
It is a decision to shift the centre of our life from ourselves to him, to forgo self-interest and make his interest, his will our sole concern. This is what it means to hallow his name as Father in heaven.
Often it may seem that we only act ‘as if’, so unaffected are our hearts, perhaps even mocking us: ‘Where is your God?’ It is this acting ‘as if’ which is true faith.
All that matters to faith is that God should have what he wants and we know that what he wants is always our own blessedness.
His purposes are worked out, his will mediated to us in the humblest form, as humble as our daily bread.
[from ‘Our Father’]
To commit ourselves to Jesus and the Father whom he reveals means a deliberate choosing to move off ourselves, to refuse to stand on ourselves, to be our own judges of reality.
We have to discover Jesus’ vision and make it our own even against what our senses and reason tell us. It means trying to live our human lives as he lived his in obedience to the Father.
Faith has no reality if it is not love. Love chooses, Love moves out of self to the other; it is a movement of surrender.
Faith, hope and love: these are different aspects of the one human surrender to the God of love.
Biblical faith is not a mere intellectual assent to this or that piece of information; it is an act of the whole person surrendering to the God who calls in love, or rather, offers himself in love. It is the human ‘yes’ to the infinite mystery of love. It is obedience.
[from ‘Ascent to Love]
True human love contains two elements: a giving, a self-surrender to the beloved, but also a completion in the beloved.”
[from ‘Before the Living God’]
We ourselves are mystery and our proper ambience is mystery. When we speak of God’s hiddenness we are saying he is the answer to our yearnings. He is unfathomable mystery offered to us.
Through Jesus he reveals himself not only as our Beloved – the object of desire – but as our Lover. Then we realize that he has always been our Beloved for the simple reason that he is our Lover.
We learn that here is a fulfilment to our endless longings but not within ourselves, not within the limitations of this world or our own achievements, but as pure gift.
There is an inevitable conflict between our true self and its deepest desire to be enfolded, possessed by our Beloved, and the innate desire to control, to possess, to find fulfilment within ourselves, of ourselves.
This we can call the ego. It is our basic self-orientation which is a dead end. But it is precisely our nature to go beyond the limits of our nature so as to enter into God! The self must triumph over the ego.
[from ‘Ascent to love’]
St John of the Cross tells us that the desert is an excellent training ground, a teacher of discipline. The Book of Exodus illustrates this point.
The desert offers little satisfaction to the senses: there we learn quickly that God alone suffices and so we attain true wisdom. In silence, solitude and detachment we experience our weakness. We are without support, hungry and desolate.
Like Hagar we can cry aloud to God and like Elijah cast ourselves down exhausted and discouraged; but we also become aware of a Presence which fills the desert, ever watchful, ever tender.
So does God answer our childlike cry and show us to a fountain of living water at which to quench our thirst; so does he feed us with living bread to strengthen and comfort us on our lonely journey.
[from ‘The Watchful Heart’]
In the ‘Way of Perfection’, we are allowed to hear St Teresa in intimate conversation with a beginner who has no idea how to ‘set about it’. Typically, and significantly, she directs her to the divine Companion who is present and lovingly intent upon her. Let her respond to this Friend; let her ponder on who he is, what he has done for her, how he has shown his incredible love, what he wants of her; let her treat him with humble, tender intimacy. From the very start, without spending time on intellectual exercises, this beginner is directed to relate to a Person and to reflect on he who is present. This musing is itself a prayer. Do not leave him to go and think about him! To do that would be as foolish as breaking from a lover’s arms to study his photograph and his curriculum vitae! This more objective form of meditation is indeed essential and must not be omitted, but, according to Teresa’s understanding, the hour set aside for prayer is not the time for it; that hour is for loving much, not thinking much. John of the Cross, too, sees that the heart of prayer is the presence of God within the soul, a presence that is not static but an unceasing, positive loving that prepares us to receive ever more love, an action that is purifying, transforming, uniting.
[from ‘Essence of Prayer’]
My understanding of the Carmelite life was very vague before I entered the order. I saw it as an absolute way of giving oneself to God, which is what I was called to do. Growth in understanding was gradual, with no dramatic moment.
I was inspired by a young French Carmelite of the late 19th century, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She lived her Carmelite life with a passion for “saving souls”, as she expressed it, seeing her role as “love within the heart of the church.” I felt no such passion but set myself to struggle to turn away from every self-centred motive and to offer my life for the coming of Christ’s kingdom on earth.
In the early 1970s I formed a very supportive friendship with a holy woman who enlightened and enriched my life. She gave me a deeper understanding of what it was to be a true contemplative. If I were to point to a “moment” it would be then.
[from the interview ‘Prayer is God’s work’]
Prayer can never be a failure. If I used that expression it would refer to how people express themselves: “I can’t pray”; “my prayer is a failure”; “I pray and nothing happens”; “I’m praying to myself”. This is to have a completely false idea of prayer.
To believe in the God of Jesus Christ is to know that, through what God in his love has done for us, there is absolutely no barrier between God and ourselves. We have free access. God is always available, always there, always with us – with you, with me. What is more, we know that God made us in love, precisely because God wants us wholly united to him for his and our total happiness.
Now, it we really believe that – and we must, surely, if we set aside some time to pray, affirm God’s (or Jesus’) loving presence and offer ourselves to him to do in us all he wants. He will not fail to purify us and gradually transform us as he unites us to himself. How can it matter that we do not feel it is happening?
Prayer is essentially God’s work. Our part is to give time, do our best to keep attention, surrender ourselves as best we can. Then we can be sure that God works. Faith does not ask for signs, for tokens. When we really grasp that prayer is essentially God’s business, not ours, we will never talk of failure, no matter how unsatisfactory prayer seems to us.
[from the interview ‘Prayer is God’s work’]
Most of us find it almost impossible not to think of prayer as a special activity in life, as an art that can be taught or learned rather as we can learn to play a musical instrument, and so some of us are quick to feel we are proficient and others that we are painfully handicapped, are missing out on some secret or have some lack in our nature which makes prayer difficult if not impossible for us. We feel there are certain laws governing prayer, and techniques to be mastered, and when we have hold of these we can pray.
Thus we look around for the guru, for the one who has mastered the art and its techniques, and eagerly look to be taught. When we take up a book or article on prayer, we shall probably detect, if we stop to think, that we are looking for the key, the magic formula that is going to put our prayer right, enable us to ‘make a go’ of this mysterious activity called prayer. We may feel that others seem to take it in their stride but somehow it does not work for us and anxiously we look hither and thither for someone who will hand us the secret.
All this is proof enough that we are overlooking the fundamental facts: that prayer is not a technique but a relationship; that there is no handicap, no obstacle, no problem. The only problem is that we do not want God. We may want a ‘spiritual life’, we may want ‘prayer’, but we do not want God. All anyone can do for us, any guru can teach us, is to keep our eyes on Jesus, God’s perfect, absolute friend.
[from ‘Our Father’]
Genuine prayer – how poor and unsatisfactory it can seem! – never inflates the ego but always induces humility, revealing as it does our spiritual helplessness and dependence on grace. Patience, meekness, a lowly opinion of self and deep respect for others must always characterize the people God has chosen for his own. The Gospel of John shows us the inner reality of the Father’s perfect child. “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees his Father doing.” (5:19). Jesus joyfully accepts to be powerless so that his Father can be all in him, and thus he is the perfect human expression of the Father. Through Jesus’ surrender the Father can achieve his loving purpose for humankind: “I do always the things that please him.” (8:29).
[from the interview ‘Lose yourself’ in America magazine]
Works by Ruth Burrows
Ascent to love : the spiritual teaching of St John of the Cross. Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987
Before the living God. New edition. Burns & Oates, 2008
Essence of prayer. Burns & Oates, 2006
Our Father : meditations on the Lord’s prayer. Darton, Longman and Todd, 1986
The watchful heart : daily readings with Ruth Burrows, introduced and edited by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard. Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1988
Article by Ruth Burrows
Lose yourself : getting past ‘me’ to ‘thee’, in America Magazine, 12 December 2013 Online: https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/lose-yourself
Amy Frykholm. ‘Prayer is God’s work : Ruth Burrows, Carmelite sister’ in The Christian century, 22 March 2012 Online: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-03/prayer-god-s-work