Wednesday, 30 May 2018

“To exist is to be outside” JAN MORGAN AND GRAEME GARRETT

Intersection of the Timeless with Time
Carmelite Symposium, 24-26 May, 2018
“To exist is to be outside”
Jan Morgan & Graeme Garrett

Thank you for your welcome Philip. We are very pleased to be part of this Symposium, ‘The intersection of the timeless with time.’  Our presentation is titled, ‘To exist is to be outside’. It takes the form of a John Clarke/Brian Dawe style exchange – well, that’s aiming high! But at least a nod of acknowledgment and gratitude in their direction. There are three sections, a conversation followed by two interviews, as follows:
         On spiritual guides
         What time is it?
         The Anthropocene – a spiritual challenge?

   1. On Spiritual Guides
G.  OK Jan, the typical desert island problem. Suppose you had to choose one person, one writer, to be your spiritual guide now, who would you go for?
J. You mean I’ve only got one. Just one!
G. Yes. One.
J. Anyone? From Eve down?
G. No, no. It’s got to be up to date. Let’s say the last 100 years, max.
J. Why? What’s wrong with Hildegard of Bingen, or Hadewijch of Antwerp?
G. Who the Dickens is Hadewijch of Antwerp?
J. Oh my … Who is Hadewijch of Antwerp?!
G. OK, OK! I’ve got nothing against Hadewijch of Antwerp. Except, when did she live?
J. 13th Century. She was a poet, a mystic, a writer …
G. Well, there you are!
J. Where?
G. In the 13th century. This is now. 21st century.  Time matters.
J. Of course time matters.
G. Right. We agree. So the last 100 years.
J. Alright if you must … Jean-Louis Chrétien.
G. Jean-Louis who?
J. Chrétien.
G. Jean-Louis Chrétien.
J. Yes.
G. At least I’d heard of Hildegard of Bingen. Who’s Chrétien?
J.  A philosopher … theologian … poet. French. Born in Paris, 1952. Fits the time frame nicely.
G. Right! Who is he?
J. Hard to say. A bit of a recluse apparently. But brilliant. Teaches at the Sorbonne. Philosophy. … Phenomenology, I think. This is him … I think! When he was younger.
G. You think!
J. Yep. Anyway if that isn’t him; it’s the way I like to think he should be.
G. Philosophy, you say. … Phenomenology?
J. Right.
G. So … boring.
J. No. Definitely not boring. More … challenging, I’d say.
G. Long winded.
J. Wrong again. Very concise, Chrétien. Look, really thin books, all of them.
G. Airy-fairy. Big foreign words nobody’s ever heard of – heilsgeschichte, formgeschichte, redactiongeschichte … bullsgeschichte.!
J. Well, I’m not saying he’s a push-over. But do you want a push-over as a spiritual guide?
G. No … I suppose not.
J. You need to keep your wits about with Chrétien. But he’s never airy-fairy. You always feel that he’s talking from real life; stuff he knows about from here (indicate guts) not just here (head).
G. Like … what?
J. He writes essays mostly. Short pieces. Bite size you might say.
G. About what?
J. Well, beauty, for example, or prayer, or silence, or hospitality, or call, or praise. Chrétien has an amazing grasp of the way the tradition has thought and felt about these things. … Mind you he’s blokey.
G. Blokey?
J. Yes! You know: Jeremiah, Plato, Augustine, down to Heidegger, Cassian and Barth. Blokes. Chrétien could do with a good dose of Hildegard, Hadewijch and Mechtild! But I suppose nobody’s perfect!
G. Okay, so he’s not perfect. But, give me one thing you’ve learned from this bloke that’s made a real difference to your life.
J. That’s hard. There’s so much. You’ve got to take Chrétien slowly.
G. Fine. But try. One thing that really matters to you.
J. Hmm … okay … I think that one of the most precious – and, in a way, most uncomfortable – gifts of Chrétien’s work is his understanding of the nature of the spiritual journey.
G. That’s pretty vague.
J. In our dealing with God. … No that’s not the way to put it. … In God’s dealing with us, we need to be open to what Chrétien calls ‘the unheard of’.
G. The unheard of?
J. Yes.
G. What do you mean?
J. God … always – always – exceeds us. Exceeds our apprehension. Our understanding. Our speaking.
G. You mean what we think we know, we don’t know? Is that what the ‘unheard of’ means?
J. Yes, but not quite. It’s not that we don’t know anything. Or everything we think we know is wrong. It’s rather that there is always more. We’re always on the way. 
G. Expect the unexpected.
 J. Precisely. Chrétien thinks that if we are not prepared to be caught off guard – knocked off balance, as it were – we won’t make much progress in holiness. The person who is on guard, so to speak; the person who sticks to the ideas and commands set out in her usual program of possibilities, ‘will never see anything happen but what they have already seen and will never hear anything but what has already been said.’
G. So, if you travel with Chrétien as a guide, be prepared to meet the unexpected and hear the unheard of!
J. Just so.
G. How does that relate to our situation now?
J. I’m glad you asked me that.

     2. What time is it?
G. Our guest this afternoon is the Canberra philosopher Professor Clive Hamilton. Welcome to the Symposium Professor Hamilton.
J. Thank you. Good to be here.
G. Professor Hamilton you’ve written on a range of issues - ecological science, free market economics, consumerism, climate change. And you recently published a new book . . .  Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene.
J. That’s right.
G. Sounds ominous; almost threatening.
J. Then it’s a good title.
G. What exactly do you mean by the word ‘Anthropocene’?
J. It’s not my word. It burst into general use around the year 2000, as a geological term indicating a new epoch in Earth history.  In the last 23 million years we have moved through four epochs – the Miocene, the Pliocene and the Pleistocene. The Holocene, that’s the immediately previous epoch, began about 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. This was an epoch of relatively stable climate across the planet. It’s also the period of the development of more recent human civilizations.
G. So what’s changed?
J. We have.
G. We?
J. Us. Humans. Hence the name. From the Greek. Anthropos – meaning ‘human’; cene – meaning ‘new’. Anthropocene - the new human epoch.
G. But, we’ve been around for 200,000 years, making our presence felt in one way or another!
J. True. But in the last 50 years or so that ‘making our presence felt’ has magnified exponentially.
G. How so? Human beings have always had an impact – on the landscape, rivers, trees, animals. It’s no different now.
J.  But that’s the point. It is. Human impact on the world has now reached the level of a planetary force. Like the ocean. Or the air. Or the climate. We are changing the Earth System as a whole; changing ocean, air and climate. And that is new. That’s a rupture in Earth history. Not in Australian history. Or Chinese history. Though it is that, too, of course. But this is global, not local.
G.  Rupture’s a pretty violent word, isn’t it? Rupture means breaking or bursting apart. It conjures up trauma to living organs; a spleen is ruptured or an appendix. Damaged. Leading to dysfunction or even death.
J. Precisely. The organic connotations are intentional. Earth Systems are organic, interconnected, living wholes. We have to face the fact that they can be disrupted. Changed in ways that can’t be reversed. Our activity has invaded the operation of ecological systems on a planetary level to such an extent that some people speak seriously of the ‘end of nature’ or ‘the death of nature’.
G. That’s pretty alarming stuff.
J. It is.
G. So what do you mean by ‘Defiant Earth’? Does that have something to do with the ‘rupture’ you talk about?
J. Yes, indeed. You’re right to draw attention to the ‘oddness’ of the language. That’s intentional. I think we are entering a new and largely unmapped era. Everyone’s groping for language to respond. The climate is changing. The ocean is changing. The atmosphere is changing. The land is changing. But how? And where to? We don’t really know. But a lot of the signs are not hopeful from our human perspective.
G. But why ‘defiant earth’? In what way defiant?
J. Remember how we used to talk about ‘mother nature’, or ‘sister earth’ or ‘father sun’; and that we were ‘stewards of nature’ or ‘tenders of the garden.’ Stuff like that.
G. Yes. A touch sentimental perhaps. But its poetry isn’t it?
J. Perhaps. But as I read it, the poetry’s changing.
G. How?
J. I talk to a lot of people who are grappling with this thing. Scientists, economists, philosophers, even some theologians! And . . . the mood is changing. Earth is changing. We can no longer assume that Nature is a sort of benign backdrop for human ambitions; a passive stage on which we play out our various dramas. Earth is stirring. The empire striking back. So I hear phrases like: ‘an awakening giant’, ‘an ornery beast’, ‘a fractious … monster’, ‘Gaia seeking revenge’. That’s what I mean by ‘defiant earth’. ‘Now when Mother Earth opens her arms it is not to embrace but to crush us.’
G. Hmmm … I think I can see why you speak of rupture! This knocks us of balance. This radically shifts our program of possibilities. This takes us well into the realm of the unheard of.
J. Which reminds me of …
G. Jean-Louis Chrétien!

    3. The Anthropocene – a spiritual challenge?
J. Professor Jean-Louis Chrétien it’s good to have you with us. Welcome to the Symposium!
G. Happy to be here, Jan.
J. We’ve just been talking with Clive Hamilton, particularly about his ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Is that a concern of yours also?
G. Of course. It’s a concern for everyone. I don’t use the word myself – I’m a bit tentative about its meaning, but not its practical implications.
J. We’ve invited you here because we’re interested in whether you think this issue touches the spiritual life, the life of faith.
G. My first response is ‘of course; how could it not?’ Urgent new questions face us. We are changing the way Earth, our home, functions. Many of those changes are going in directions that are not promising for us. Look at your Great Barrier Reef.
J. The Great Barrier Reef? What does the Great Barrier Reef have to do with God? Or anyway, with my walk with God?
G. We need to pay attention to what I describe as ‘the call of the world’, which includes the call of the Barrier Reef.
J. I don’t quite know what you mean by that. What is the call of the Barrier Reef?
G.  That’s not for me to say. That’s for you Australians to say. This is where you live. You need to listen; listen for the unheard of that is speaking in the world. Look out for the unseen, which is manifesting itself all around.
J. But what has all this to do with God?
G. Let me put it this way. 
   We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God. If the offering of ourselves to God is possible – and I believe it is, of course – it necessarily includes all those far horizons from which we come into our own. The sky, the sea, the air, the mountains, the rivers – the Great Barrier Reef! All the embracing, life-giving Earth in which we live and move and have our being. ‘To exist’ as human beings – to exist coram deo – before God – ‘is to be outside’.
J. Wait a bit, you’re going too fast. You said ‘we cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God’.
G. Yes.
J. That’s kind of violent imagery isn’t it? Cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God!
G. It is. This is a critical issue. For people of faith. But not only them. To try to offer ourselves to God – which is one way of describing the spiritual life – to try to offer ourselves to God without bringing with that offering, the world – the world of birds and trees, morning light and evening darkness, sea and land, sky and cloud, ant and koala bear – is to pull apart – I deliberately use the word ‘tear’ – something that belongs essentially and inextricably together.
J. Do you think we do this? Tear ourselves away from the world to seek God?
G. Yes, I think we do. The spiritual journey is often understood as a journey inward, away from the physical world; a journey to seek God in the soul or heart. Or as a journey upward, a lifting of our spirits heavenward, away from time of Earth into the eternity of the divine spirit. Even if we go on to add that it is also journey outward in love to the neighbor; this still is too limited in my view.
J. Can you say a bit more about that?
G. I said a moment ago that to exist is to be outside. I mean, to exist is to be in the world. The world is where God has placed us. The world is the dwelling place God has given us. How can we imagine that tearing ourselves away from this God-given-life-world will somehow enhance our communion with its Creator? The word became flesh and dwelt among us. Here.
J. Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of the world ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, in our dealings with the one he called ‘Father’, we need to ‘look at the birds of the air’, and ‘consider the lilies of the field’? Is that what you are saying?
G. Yes, pretty much. But it’s not just a matter of a few lines of poetry and a scattering of well-known biblical texts. It goes deeper than that.
J. In what way?
G. It has to do with the nature of God; with who God is and how God acts. ‘In the [story] of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis we see brought into play, so that the game of the world can [actually] be played, a word and a gaze – and they are inseparable.’
J. I’m not quite with you. What word? Which gaze?
G. You remember how the story starts. ‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep … Then God said – you see there it is, the word – then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.’ Then it goes on: ‘And God saw – there it is, the gaze – and God saw that the light was good.’
J. Okay, God said; God saw. But where to from there?
G. That linguistic pattern is repeated throughout the story. And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters …’ And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’; and God said, ‘Let us make humankind …’. And it was so. But this divine speaking is accompanied all along by a divine looking. ‘And God saw it was good,’ says the text. And ‘God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ Repeatedly. The word and gaze – of God. Both lie at the very origin of the world.
J. But what does that mean: a word and a gaze ‘lie at the origin of the world’? How does that throw light on the spiritual journey now?
G. I agree; this talk about ‘and God said …’ ‘and God saw …’ is puzzling. It’s language under strain. By which I mean, it’s a way of trying to give voice to what exceeds the capacity of language to express. It is trying to point to the mysterious eruption of being from non-being; to the primal wellspring of everything – light and dark, water and dry land, trees and flowers, animals and birds, men and women. But this divine speaking and looking is not the action of an observer commenting upon and gazing at a reality independent and over against her. God’s word and gaze are the event – or perhaps better, the advent – of the world.
J. Event, advent? That’s the language of birthing isn’t it? There’s a deep spiritual tradition that speaks of God as Mother, the Creation as a birth, the flesh of the world, her body. But that’s perhaps another conversation.
G. Yes, I’d need to think further about that.
J. Are you saying that the word and the gaze of God, is another way of speaking about the mystery of creation itself?
G. Yes. God’s ‘speaks’ and that primal utterance causes beings to arise from the void and constitutes the world by ordering, differentiating and interconnecting it. God ‘looks’ and that originating gaze brings to bear on creation an affirmation and a blessing, ‘indeed it is very good.’
J. That all seems a bit abstract to me. What are we supposed to do with it?
G. Good question. The word and gaze of God are strictly inimitable. In that sense we can’t ‘do’ anything with them. No human word can call into being what does not exist. No human gaze can bestow goodness on what does not already possess it.
J. Agreed. But . . . ?
G. But nonetheless – and this is the practical meaning of the journey of faith; nonetheless – that is, notwithstanding that inimitable difference, the difference that Kierkegaard called the ‘infinite qualitative distinction between heaven and earth’ – nonetheless we are called by God to share in that foundational gaze and engage with that originating word, by whose grace the world stands before God, and we with it.
J. Is that what you’re driving at when you say that ‘to exist is to be outside’?
G. Exactly. To be in the world is already to be in the presence of the word that brings the world into being. It is to be in earshot, if I might put it that way, of the logos, which was in the beginning with God. And that in turn means that our lives, our whole being – body, mind and soul – are a reply, a word spoken in response to the divine, ‘let it be’ that founds the world and us within it.
J. That’s a challenging and deeply inviting thought. We label the world ‘the environment’. You are saying the world is the very speech of God. An address to us. And the spiritual journey is our reply.
G. Yes.
J. I am struck by your language about word and gaze, because I am reminded of a mother as she looks into the face of the baby in her arms – her gaze. She looks with a love that in a sense calls the child into being. Without this the child cannot thrive, cannot become. Can you say more about ‘gaze’ in your own thought?
G. As I understand it, (whatever language or imagery we use), to gaze at the world – to attend to the world – is already to be caught up in the gaze of God by which the world is blessed and affirmed. To live in the world is to be in sight of – yes, of course, through a glass darkly – but in sight of that originating ‘behold, it is very good’, that founds the world’s intrinsic dignity. St Augustine, whom I greatly admire, calls it a word and a gaze of love. As you just said!
J. So you are saying that for us to gaze on the world and see it as God’s work means to love the world in its very existence, and to will for it to thrive in its goodness and being. 
G. Just so. And for these reasons I say ‘we cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God.’ The ‘cannot’ here is not a practical limitation. It is an ontological impossibility. Our very being in the world is already a being by the word of God and a being in the gaze of God.
J. I need time to take that in … It is a jolt, unsettling …
And yet I catch a glimpse of something new – another way of being – a homecoming …
A glimpse that seems an amazing gift.
(PAUSE – G waits)
 But … now my mind is reeling . . .
If we live in Anthropocene time . . .
I cannot even frame the question . . .
G. Ah! Yes, we face a dumbfounding paradox here – dumbfounding in the sense of making us dumb, robbing us of speech. An impossible possibility. We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God.
And yet  . . . we often do exactly that.
I believe this is one of the great spiritual challenges for the journey of faith in our time.
J. Thank you Professor Chrétien.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Ruth Burrows and the Modern World

On Friday the 25th of May, Philip Harvey gave a paper on the Carmelite spiritual writer Ruth Burrows, as part of this year’s Carmelite Centre Symposium, ‘A Readers’ Festival of Spirituality’. The following is part 1 of the three-part paper.

Ruth Burrows is an English woman who was born in 1923. She will turn 95 this coming August. Of all the spiritual writers we have listened to in this Symposium, Ruth Burrows has lived longest across the set timeframe, arriving in this world only five years after the end of the war to end all wars. She grew up in a country where that was meant to mean a settled future.

You would not learn these facts when you read ‘Before the Living God’, an autobiography only written due to the encouraging instruction from the superior of her house. There she entered the religious life at the age of 18, but other dates and ages in the book are altered, presumably to protect herself and others, innocent or otherwise. Nor are we likely to collect much vivid information about her online, because there isn’t any. There is no entry for her on Wikipedia, for example, making her virtually a non-person in the virtual age we now find ourselves. Perhaps she would prefer it that way. One thing though is certain in this regard, Ruth Burrows lived through the modern age.

‘Modern’ is an elastic word. It comes from the Latin adverb ‘modo’, meaning “just now”. The modern world and the modern age conjure certain images in our mind that, for some reason, do not seem to include strict religious observance or a contemplative nun sitting at her table writing about spirituality. Why this is so need not detain us as these things have been going on right through the modern age and are defining images when we think about a Carmelite nun like Ruth Burrows. Ruth herself uses the word ‘modern’ in various different ways that I, as a reader, cannot help but find noticeable. Hers has been a life primarily of withdrawal from the world of action into the world of prayer. Yet she is alive to the modern world, as alive as any of us.

In a recent interview she was asked this: What has been the greatest challenge for you in living the contemplative life and living in community? Ruth replies:

“Coping with myself, both in community and in the ‘desert atmosphere’ of Carmel. I am, by nature, extremely egocentric. I had to face myself head on. In my early years I felt repugnance for and anger at some practices brought in from Spain and France, alien to English culture and to what was then modern times. There was real physical hardship. I suffered a lot from the cold, not least because it ‘got me  down’.”

Modern times here seems to mean her own conditions, what is normal and natural. In some ways it may mean her creature comforts, but it certainly means the world of sensible English ways that she was used to. Why import practices from a warm climate that are difficult to maintain in a cold climate? Simple commonsense resists practices that are not conducive to a normal, happy daily existence.

Repugnance and anger are reported in finely recalled detail in ‘Before the Living God.’ This memorable memoir is written in the tradition of St Thérèse of Lisieux’s ‘Story of a Soul’, a personal account of her growth in religious life, her experience of the convent and its varied residents, and her relationship with God. Importantly, Ruth’s book was written after the Second Vatican Council, during a time when nuns could still remember very clearly how things were before the changes.

We read about the extreme privations of her life in Carmel, the regimes of eating, working, praying, and sleeping. She can recall a time when “age-old traditions of kissing the floor and performing other gestures of humility and subjection were very much in vogue. At the slightest hint of reprimand one had to kiss the floor and remain in the state of prostration until told to rise.” [BLG 66] We read about the challenges brought into the community by other novices, especially those with forceful personalities or obvious neuroses, though Ruth is even more unsparing about her own faults. As she intimates in the interview, it felt as though only outside was everything really modern.

She writes: “The world could rock and reel. Everything and everyone could fail me. I myself could be broken, could be a complete failure in the eyes of men but nothing could prevent me from loving God. I was faced with the possible breakup of the Carmel or my own rejection by the community. But nothing could prevent me from giving myself to God. I remember distinctly it was this way round. It was still impossible to make real to myself in any way that God loved me even though I made continual acts of faith and tried to act as if I were sure of his love.  It seems to me that God has given me the grace to seek the truth and to stand in the truth, and essentially this means the truth about myself.” (BLG 73)

At the same time, there is another sense of modern at play in Carmel itself, one to do with the foundations of Carmelite life. You learn that Carmelite tradition, and the writings of St Teresa of Avila in particular, serve as guides to living and behaving, to the point of being formative foundation documents in their own right. Ruth’s love of Teresa is expressed often.

“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.” [EP 174]

Yet Ruth is capable of getting into very Teresian-like arguments about matters that no longer fit their conditions. Modern times means finding reason for thinking differently about how things may be done now and in the future, even in the religious life itself:

“Now the vast majority of spiritual authors, St Teresa among them, claim that there are two paths to holiness, the mystical way and the ordinary way. This we cannot accept. The notion of the dual carriage-way derives from a misconception which another modern insight has led us to correct.” [GMP 10]

Within Carmel itself, the nuns grow to perceive themselves as modern Carmelites, as distinct from those in earlier times who lived according to the very same teachings. One author, Michelle Jones, writes that “I mainly see the word as a flag indicating a contrast to the psycho-spiritual framework of Teresa and, to a lesser extent, John [of the Cross].”

I have been in email correspondence with Michelle Jones, someone living in Western Australia who knows much more about Ruth Burrows than me, and who kindly sent me a useful collection of passages where ‘modern’ appears:

“If we have paid attention to modern scientific investigations of the psyche, and it is unreasonable to think we can understand Teresa and other mystics if we have failed to do so, then we shall have come to the conclusion that it is a most mysterious, largely unexplored dimension where almost anything might happen.” [ICE 47]

Indeed, she rightly identifies Teresa herself as full of psychological insight about others, and herself:  “Moreover, our modern insight into the mystery of the human psyche – an insight always limited, ever open to surprises — especially of the dimension that we call the unconscious, applauds this objective appraisal of Teresa.” [The Wisdom of St Teresa of Avila 8]

She says: “The science of psychology is a feature of our times, and can we ignore it? To be true to our humanness means accepting these human helps. In the same way with science at our elbow it would be foolish and presumptuous to start asking God for miracles to cure what modern medicine can deal with.”  [TBJ 57]        

Reading ‘Before the Living God’ we find that 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 is not in denial, or escaping into quietism, but wishes rather to draw us into a place where the self finds peace amidst the tumults of information news, our regular encounter with “the world’s sorrows”, both minor and extreme. She returns to this in ‘Love Unknown’.

“No one can pretend that, when besieged as we are by multifarious cares, in time of crushing grief, when dismayed by the horrors of perpetrated evil and the human suffering following on natural disasters, it is easy to maintain a lively sense of God’s presence and his love which embraces us at every moment. Yet, to be true to our Christian calling to a life of holiness, to be a light to the world, we must work for steadfast faith, or rather, activate the faith we have been given. ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he has sent.’ (John 6:29). We must know what we are to believe, and how can we really know with the heart unless we take the responsibility on ourselves to labour to know the one true God and Jesus Christ his Son? Only too easily we fall for an idol that our pride and self-love create. Reality is there irrespective of our adverting to it or our belief in it. All our blessedness lies in recognizing, affirming and gratefully surrendering to it. In this is God’s glory. He made us for this blessedness.” (LU 117)

One other symptom of the modern world that makes Ruth very modern is atheism. She confesses that she wishes to spend her whole life writing about nothing but God, when and even when not she has “the slightest feeling of him.” Her honesty builds trust of a kind, 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. It almost seems that for her, as for all of us, arguments about the existence of God are one precondition of living in the modern world and she lives with her own challenges and doubts in this regard, which are openly expressed in her writing. This is though, I think, a lead to her complete attention on who God is and how we might understand and relate to God. She is highly attuned to the self-deceptions and reactions that come with trying to live a godly life, which she is constantly reminding us have to be let go of in order to get closer to the reality of God.


Before the Living God. New edition. London, Burns & Oates, 2008 [BLG]
Essence of Prayer. London, Burns & Oates, 2006 [EP]
Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. London, Sheed & Ward, 1976 [GMP]
Interior Castle Explored : St Teresa’s teaching on the life of deep union with God. 2nd edition. London, Burns & Oates, 1982 [ICE]
Love Unknown. London, Continuum, 2011 [LU]
To believe in Jesus. Denville, NJ, Dimension, 1981 [TBJ]

Ruth Burrows Just Now

On Friday the 25th of May, Philip Harvey gave a paper on the Carmelite spiritual writer Ruth Burrows, as part of this year’s Carmelite Centre Symposium, ‘A Readers’ Festival of Spirituality’. The following is part 2 of the three-part paper.

In setting myself the task of reading Ruth Burrows this year, I have come to see through listening to her words, that her first audience are the members of her community. In that community of Carmel she is known as Sister Rachel. Clearly she is a teacher. Her voice instructs, interprets, confides, questions and answers: she is there to do a job. It’s not as though she’s trying to prove anything, she is talking about the life of Christ within us. These might be novice classes, communal conferences, sermons or homilies, shared meditations given any old time, all of which find their way in some form into her writing. At times I stop and consider how we are hearing the life of the community in her tone and emphasis and priorities. The modern world goes on and the life of the enclosed community goes on, inside the modern world, not outside the modern world. Her thinking is quick-witted and yet everything slows down, her thought moving very gradually from one statement to the next, with time for reflection, or even stopping altogether before the effect of a single sentence.

I have come to think that Ruth (Sister Rachel) is essentially writing the same book but in different ways. Each of her books is different, but their preoccupations and purposes are similar. They come together out of the same place of deep contemplation and their consistent attention is to relationship with God in prayer. I wish now to quote from her writings in order to bring out some main preoccupations that are constant and that strengthen in her work through her life. This is the middle section of my paper and is called ‘Just Now’.


“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.” [OF 19]


I could quote Ruth Burrows endlessly on prayer. In her book ‘Guidelines to Mystical Prayer’ she creates an image of three islands as a means to the reader learning about the progress of dedicated personal prayer. To explain this would take a whole symposium, so I will only draw attention to its similarity in method to Saint Teresa’s use of a large castle with glass walls in ‘The Interior Castle’. Like Teresa, she has experienced both the advances and the setbacks involved in prayer life.  Instead I will quote from her meditations on the Lord’s Prayer:

“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.” [OF 13-14]

More recently she replied to, or we might say rebuked, an interviewer who asked why she once spoke about the inevitable failure of prayer:

“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’ (2012)]

Ruth is modern in her awareness of other religions and their practices. We must remember that for people in the West, widespread knowledge of Eastern and other religious traditions is a very modern thing, very recent, a knowledge that really only grew appreciably in the 20th century. Empire and globalism has much to do with this expansion of our consciousness. Indeed, the encounter with other religions and the dialogues that have happened as a result have strongly influenced the way we talk about faith and spirituality; they have changed how we appreciate our own faith tradition. Ruth herself is receptive to this, but we have to remember she is a Christian and a Carmelite, a grounding in prayer and action in which Jesus is the focus and source.


She says: “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.”  [AL 70]

In reading her different books I have noticed a confident and increased use of the Bible as she matures in her expression. This would come from the community’s daily reading of the psalms and other portions of Scripture, filling her with a language to apply to her expression. It becomes increasingly more evident too in her work that, when she asks where does she find the person and example of Jesus, the answer will be in the community life, but more certainly still, Jesus is found by returning again and again to the words of the Gospel. In her later work this message becomes more insistent. Read the Gospels, become familiar with Jesus through his words, actions, miracles, Passion and resurrection.


Faith, Prayer, Jesus, and Scripture are main preoccupations of Ruth Burrows, and another that I name here is Mystery. ‘Living in Mystery’ is the title of one of her books, a delightful work in which her preoccupations, as I call them, are spoken of as always being understood within an acceptance of and abiding return itno mystery. As she writes in another of her books, ‘Ascent to Love’:

“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.” [AL 20]


Ascent to Love : the Spiritual Teaching of St John of the Cross. London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987 [AL]
Love Unknown. London, Continuum, 2011 [LU]
Our Father : meditations on the Lord’s Prayer. London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986 [OF]
‘Prayer is God’s Work’, interview with Amy Frykholm in The Christian Century, March 2012