ORDO FRATRVM B.V. MARIAE DE MONTE CARMELO CAPITVLVM GENERALE CARMELITARVM MMXIX
12 September 2019
[The woman] said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD on your lips is truth’.” (1 K 17:24)
If we are to play a prophetic role in the postmodern world, the first requirement is that we are what we say we are. As Blessed Christian of Tibherine wrote, “The only way for us to give witness is … to be what we are in the midst of banal, everyday realities.” This recalls the sentence dictated by Catherine of Sienna in a letter to Stefano di Corrado Maconi (Ep. 368), “Become what you were meant to be and you will set fire to the whole of Italy and beyond.” If we are truly men of God, people will notice, just as they also notice when we are phony.
To be what we are called to be involves more than extricating ourselves from the constricting coils of capitalism, consumerism and exploitation. We certainly need to shake off these constraints. But there is more. We need to allow the grace of our charism to flourish and bear fruit in our individual and corporate lives. To be what we are meant to be. In the midst of banal everyday realities.
Fidelity to our particular call is the most fundamental means of evangelisation. Silence can sometimes communicate more effectively than words. There is scope in today’s Church for a more apophatic approach to theology and ministry. Sometimes I get the impression that Church leaders lose credibility by speaking too loudly, too often. There is much that is wrong with today’s world; that is self-evident. But perhaps we need to follow the example of Jesus’ response to the adulterous woman in the eighth chapter of the Fourth Gospel. Until such time as the Church regains its credibility in moral matters, we may well achieve more by saying less. This is not so much a matter of doctrine than of tactics. Doctrine is unchanged, but our delivery of doctrine is attuned to the receptivity of those whom we are addressing. Many, especially younger people, are saying to us, “Don’t tell me. Show me.”
We need to consider the possibility of transferring our emphasis from hard-edged dogma to something subtler. Moving away from left-brain binary thinking and Cartesian categories to something more integrally human. Pope John Paul II famously spoke of the two lungs of the Church. (For example, John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §54.) For too long in the West we have been breathing on a single lung. We need to develop a theology that is more “Eastern”: one that is more in awe of the ineffable mystery of the transcendent God, one that regards the celebration of this mystery in the liturgy as an irreplaceable complement to its formulation in words, one that sees the primary response to divine revelation as the living of a godly life. Perhaps also, we should overcome our reluctance to speak about mysticism and see it as a topic that is integral to ordinary mature faith.
All of this points to the importance of a spirituality that is simultaneously authenticated by a long tradition and saturated with lived experience. Perhaps what God’s faithful people most expect of us is help in living a spiritual life, help in coming closer to the reality of God and the meaning of their own lives. There is a growing demand for centres to which seekers of solitude may return. This means, of course, that first we have to be faithful in our own practice so that it will reveal to us what will be helpful to others. It is not merely teaching that is sought, but the example of fidelity in practice – both personal and communal. Why it is important that some assume the role of giving guidance to others is simply that the spiritual journey is full of counter-intuitive twists and turns, the outcome of which is predictable only by those who themselves have passed through them.
Nor should we underestimate the political importance of the silent and contemplative life in the postmodern world and in the institutional Church. Putting ourselves beyond the pale of mass-marketing and standing apart from populist clamour are political acts. Such a stance – whether absolute or relative – not only protects the integrity of our Christian discipleship, but also represents a refusal to become complicit in the systems of oppression that surround us. When, by a deliberate choice, Pope Francis declines to watch television or participate in the Internet, this is more than a private option. It is fulfilling the admonition Saint Paul addresses to us all, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2).
Taking the spiritual life seriously demands much of any who would follow Christ. I think Pope Francis is right is considering the cheerfulness of committed Christians to be a powerful instrument in the evangelisation of unbelievers. As Saint Thomas More quipped, “A sad saint is a sorry saint indeed.” Notwithstanding the challenges facing us in today’s world, we have a living tradition to support us in the confident hope that, indeed, God will bring to completion the good work that has been begun in us. And may God lead us all together into everlasting life.
“Suddenly there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire … and Elijah was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind.” (2 K 2:11)