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.”  


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  3. My friend, with whom I meet up regularly, and discuss all sorts of things, the deep helpfulness of Ruth Burrows books being one of them, were wondering last week whether she is still alive. It looks from your writing and it's date, as though she is still alive. Has she written any further books recently.
    I have returned to "Love Unknown" as it is such a support and encouragement.
    Thanks for all you have written..

    1. Yes, it is my understanding that Ruth Burrows is now in her nineties, living in Norfolk. A new book about her by Michelle Jones has just been published and is on order with the Library.