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]