Seasons of the heart

A LISTENING HEART - The contemplative life


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A LISTENING HEART - The contemplative life

God, always already there

One of the most impressive messages from our Carmelite saints, has been the realization that God loves us first, as we are. Thinking they were looking for an absent God and that life was a pursuit of God, they returned from their efforts testifying that God had been pursuing them all along. That the story of our lives is not our search for God, but God's desire for, and pursuit of, us. The hungers of our heart, the desire that we are, is the result of God first desiring us and coming to us in love. In time, we may be so transformed that we live with a consonance of desire, our human desire fully participating in God's desire.

On one occasion, Teresa of Avila heard these words in prayer: "Seek yourself in me!" She asked a number of her friends and directors in Avila the meaning of "Seek yourself in me!" Among the respondents were a lay spiritual director, Francisco de Salcedo, her brother Lorenzo de Cepeda, and John of the Cross. These gentlemen met to discuss their responses but Teresa was absent. So they sent their replies to her.

In imitation of academic sparring sometimes practiced in the schools, Teresa playfully determined to find fault with each answer and gently mock it. We do not have their responses, but we do have her rejections of their answers. One respondent, Francisco de Salcedo, quoted St. Paul frequently, and then closed his response with a humble statement about having "written stupidities". Teresa then chastised him for characterizing the words of St. Paul as "stupidities". She said she had a mind to hand him over to the Inquisition.

John of the Cross must have responded that "Seek yourself in me" required that she be dead to the world in order to seek herself in God. Teresa's answer to him was a prayer to be saved from people as spiritual as John of the Cross. His answer was good for members of the Company of Jesus, she said, but not for those she had in mind. Life is not long enough if we have to die to the world before we find God. Teresa pointed to the gospels and observed that Mary Magdalene was not dead to the world before she met Jesus; nor was the Canaanite woman dead to the world before she asked for crumbs from the table. And the Samaritan woman had not died to the world before encountering Jesus at the well. She was who she was and Jesus accepted her. Teresa closed her response to John of the Cross by thanking him for answering what she did not ask! (8)

Teresa's point is, God meets us and accepts us where we are in our lives. We have been accepted all along. The challenge for us is to accept the acceptance, and allow that accepting Presence to change us. The reality of that embrace is the basis for our prayer. To pray, then, is to step trustingly into that relationship as the foundation of our lives. It is easy to talk about, but very difficulty to live day by day.

One theologian summed up Teresa's message in this way: a faithful and perduring attentiveness to our depths and centre is the best cooperation we can give to God who is reorienting our life.

Lured by love

The Carmelite tradition can be misread. Carmel could easily appear to be saying to people that a rigorous asceticism will achieve union with God; that the idols of our lives can be toppled with our courageous efforts and isolated, rugged living. When in fact, Carmel's message to people is the necessity for God's grace, and the good news that grace is always available. All we need do is open our lives to it.

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel John of the Cross offers several counsels for detaching from the idols which have fooled us into their service. The counsels at first seem unnecessarily restrictive and even imbalanced. But John is quick to point out that willpower and asceticism alone cannot free the heart enslaved to idols. The idol, at least, is providing some nourishment for the heart hungering for God. The idol perhaps is providing some joy, some identity, some security to the famished pilgrim. On its own, the heart is not going to be able to tear itself away from this nourishment and go into an affective vacuum and await the Lord.

John testifies that it is only when the heart has a better offer can it let go of what it has been clinging to for dear life. Only when God enters a life and kindles a love deep in the person that lures the person past lesser loves can a person open his or her grasp of idols. With the invitation of such a love then, what was impossible before (letting go of one's grasp on idols) becomes gently possible as idols melt away. The heart then is going from love to love. Because John is convinced that God is the soul's centre, the task is not to find a distant God but to awake to the reality of a God who is "always already there".

"Everything is a grace", said Thérèse of Lisieux. She expressed this conviction while dying of tuberculosis, surrounded by a spirituality which deeply mistrusted human nature, believed that we had to merit God's love, and called for "victim souls" to appease God's wrath. Nonetheless, when told she could no longer receive Holy Communion, she simply said it was a grace when she could receive, and now that she cannot receive, it is still a grace. "Everything is a grace!"

Thérèse was convinced that God was always present to her, that God loved her, and that this love was freely given; it was absolutely unmerited by her. When speaking of merit, she simply said "I have none".

Thérèse knew about God's justice, and she was aware that devout people often offered themselves as victims to that justice so that sinners may be spared and God appeased. This God was not familiar to Thérèse. None of the faces of God in her life demanded appeasement, not her mother, or her father, not Pauline, nor Celine, nor Marie, not the God the Hebrew Bible who loved little ones, not Jesus who called little ones to him, not the Beloved in the Song of Songs or in the poetry of John of the Cross. She believed that God is just, but that this justice will be well aware of our littleness.

Thérèse of Lisieux was once described as "Vatican II in miniature". The recent attention paid to her message reminds us that priority should be given not to our merits and efforts, but to living with confidence and trust. Thérèse begins her autobiography with St. Paul's words to the Romans: "So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy." (9)

Thérèse anticipated today's theology which understands grace as uncreated grace, the loving, healing presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit. When we speak of contemplation, we are simply encouraging an openness to this freely given love. God is continually coming toward us inviting us more deeply into our lives, into a wider freedom, and into a loving relationship. Contemplation is being open to that transforming love, no matter how it is approaching.

Contemplation re-focused

One of the recent developments in the understanding of the Carmelite charism has been the re-locating of contemplation among our priorities. We had always spoken about prayer, community, and ministry as the three corners of our charism. Contemplation was seen as a higher or deeper form of prayer and, at times in our history, ministry and contemplation appeared to be in competition. However, here is a description of contemplation found in the Carmelite Order's recent document on formation:

...a progressive and continual transformation in Christ worked in us by the Spirit, by which God attracts us toward Himself by means of an interior process which leads from a dispersed periphery of life to the more interior cell of our being, where He dwells and unites us to Himself. (10)

We are understanding now that contemplation is an activity which grounds and links prayer, community, and ministry. The door is prayer, but God's love is offered us in various ways in those realities of our lives and one can enter into this contemplative openness to God, in other words live a life of authentic faith, hope, and love, through any of those three avenues. They are not pitted one against another, but they are windows to the transcendent reality at the depth of our lives and offer contact with that Mystery.

It is important to stress this perspective because Carmel has had 800 years of ministry in response to the Church and God's people, and, God-willing, will have many more centuries of unselfish service. And none of it is inimical to a contemplative life. Many a Carmelite has been transformed into a more loving person through engagement with God's people in various ministries.

Archbishop Romero was transformed and converted by God's love not only in the solitude of his prayer, but in his engagement with the Lord in history, in the messy efforts of the people to find their place at the banquet of life. Contemplation should be the deepest source of compassion for our world. The contemplative is one who has been led into the absolute poverty and powerlessness of a soul apart from God. The contemplative learns to wait in hope with all who wait in hope for God's mercy. In this contemplative listening one learns to say, "We poor!"

Our contemplative living, our openness to God's love coming toward us in good times and bad is the gift we can give to others. What happened in the lives of Carmel's saints, what is happening in the lives of Carmelites today, is happening in everyone's life. We witness best by keeping a focus on who we are: a contemplative fraternity living in the midst of the people.

Speaking to the Order's General Congregation in 1999 a German Carmelite stressed this contemplative charism:

I strongly believe that our first task is to put quite a bit of our energy, time, and personal talents and qualities into this process of a growing relationship with the God of life and love. Our personal human and spiritual growth as well as our future as an Order depend on how much we as individuals and communities yield to and develop this intimate friendship with God so that he can transform us according to the image of Christ, acting through us for the sake of the Church and the world.


The story of the Beloved coming toward the lover to lure her heart into a deep union is the archetypal story Carmelites have rehearsed time and time again. Our lives cannot be wrestled into submission unless led by love. We cannot release our grasp on our idols unless God kindles a deeper love in the soul. The heart then has somewhere to go and can trustingly let go of its attachments, its addictions, its idols. God's love, always present and offered, lures the heart into God's wilderness, "deeper into the thicket",(12) and there encounters the suffering of the world. Our contemplative stance does not remove us from the world's cares but opens us to the full force of its struggle.

Questions for reflection:

  • Like "a watch in the night", do I keep alert to the approach of God's love? Where in my life am I called to a deeper listening? Where are the continual challenges to my mind and heart? Are these challenges invitations to surrender more deeply to God's transforming love?
  • Among the signs of God's love at work are a growing trust in the mercy of God, and a growing freedom from what enslaves the heart. Do I experience that greater trust? Am I aware of a greater freedom? Have I really surrendered myself to the Mystery at the core of my life, or do I continue to struggle to secure my own existence?

  • Have I seen the face of Christ in the face of the people I serve? Can I recognize the invitation of God's transforming love as it approaches cloaked in a culture?

  • In my community and in my ministry, how can I help create conditions for a "listening heart"?

A TROUBLED HEART - The tragic in life

The sorrows of humanity

Part of the appeal of the Carmelite tradition is its honest wrestling with the problems and dark forces that attack the body and spirit. Carmel does not avoid the tragic in life but deals with it directly. Suffering is a such a major part of people's experience that a spirituality which does not acknowledge the suffering will be ignored. Carmel's saints deeply shared in the difficulties of life.

Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma experienced the depth of human cruelty and inexplicable evil. Thérèse of Lisieux, in her short, hidden life, experienced a surprising amount of suffering. Teresa of Avila knew the damage caused by warfare both outside and inside her soul. The heavy reputation of John of the Cross, his very name, and his image of the "dark night" speak of a spirituality that is serious about coming to terms with the dark side of life. Think, too, about the first Carmelites who went to the periphery of society and there, without distractions, opened their lives to the inner warfare of evil and good spirits.

People are drawn to a spirituality which finds words for their deepest sorrows, yet offers hope in the heart of these dark times. Carmel's saints, though of differing centuries and cultures, entered into the common sorrows of humanity. A pilgrim in any era can relate to the sufferings of Carmel's saints and call on them as companions in the valley of sorrows. It is good to rehearse their difficulties.

For example, many people today can identify with the problems of Thérèse of Lisieux. As a child Thérèse experienced the loss not only of her real mother, but also of subsequent "mothers" who cared for her. Her fragile psyche knew the sufferings of neuroticism and the debilitation of psychosomatic illness. She helplessly watched the mental deterioration and eventual institutionalisation of her father, an heroic figure in her life. She experienced Carmel as a desert and in her final physical and psychological illness she knew the temptation to suicide. Devotees of Thérèse have never been fooled by the sweet exterior. They recognized in her a fellow sufferer who knew by experience just how difficult life can be. And yet, she testified to a love present in it all which will not fail.

Thérèse expressed a life-long desire to suffer. It had a mysterious attraction for her, which would be suspect had she not related it to love. From the time she entered Carmel, Thérèse began to experience dryness in prayer and remained in this condition throughout the rest of her brief time in Carmel. And, most amazingly, her autobiography with its especially appealing manuscript "B" was written while Thérèse was suffering an extremely dark night of the spirit when all was in doubt. The idea of heaven, which had been her life-long inspiration, was mocking her for her belief in it. Cognitively and effectively she had no assurance regarding the direction in her life. Meanwhile she was writing the beautiful passages about being love in the heart of the church, and sending inspiring letters to her missionary brothers.

Thérèse was undergoing her own transformation in the furnace of a dark love. All she had left was the core of faith, confidence and love. When she encourages us to have trust and to believe that "everything is a grace" she does so not from a position of tangible delights in the loving presence of God but from an experience of God's absence and the taunts of her own mind. Cardinal Daneels wondered if Thérèse could not be called the "Doctor of Hope" because of her testimony to the human possibility to continue on in life when all the props have been removed.

The dark love of God

Teresa of Avila warned that the battles within our fragile psyches are much more difficult than the wars outside us. Teresa had numerous obstacles to overcome in her reform. She had to contend with opponents of her reform, purchase appropriate buildings for her communities, hire men to renovate them, raise funds for their maintenance, recruit community members, relate to various ecclesiastics not all of whom were supportive, travel the difficult roads of Spain in extreme conditions, and at times deal with litigation in the courts.

However, she reported, these battles did not compare with the battles waged within her soul as she prayerfully attended to her depths. ... Hearing His voice is a greater trial than not hearing it. (13) One would assume, Teresa mused, that "going within oneself" would be like going home; that the wars outside are one thing, but within the soul all is harmonious. However, she reported that she went within herself, and found she was at war with herself.

Prayer throws light on previously unexamined corners of the soul. Compulsions, addictions, inauthentic ways of living, false selves, and false gods all become apparent as the person becomes grounded in truth. This uncomfortable experience can lead to fear and faintheartedness, and a temptation to abandon the journey. Teresa's call for courage and determination in the pursuit of a prayer life are not overly-dramatic. What the soul needs, Teresa wrote, is self-knowledge. And the door to self-knowledge, the door to the interior castle, is prayer and reflection.

Without a prayerful effort, we remain hopelessly locked on the periphery of our lives asking others and God's creation to tell us what only God can tell us, that is, who we are. Without a true centre emerging in our lives we live with many "centres", fragmented and scattered, asking each to fulfil our heart's desires. The painful battle to enter within oneself in prayer is the only antidote to a sure death locked in the embrace of one's idols.

Modern readers can sympathize with Teresa as she rehearses a catalogue of difficulties in her life, including being overly praised and being unfairly criticized; she suffered the contradiction of good men who thought her prayer experiences were from the devil; and daily she dealt with poor health.

But a most difficult experience arose just when her relationship with the Lord was the most intimate. She began to question her entire journey and wondered if it were rooted in her imagination rather than the reality of God's presence in her life. Had she simply imagined that God had been good to her in the past? Had she been good in the past or simply made it up? In other words, just when the friendship with God would be expected to be on solid ground, the question flares up, "Is there anybody home at the centre?" Having given one's life and best energy to the following of her perceived call, she began to wonder if it were all an illusion.

Another way the question has been asked is, "Is the ultimate gracious?" Is whatever or whoever it is all about for us? Or are we a useless passion? Are the immense desires of our hearts, the hungers of our soul, meant to be ultimately frustrated? Or is there a reality, a love awaiting us equal to our yearning? These questions get to the heart of the human journey.

Time and perseverance, and God's grace, eventually answered Teresa's doubts. She later reports the absence of such gnawing doubts and the surety of a profound, but not preoccupying, relationship with the Lord. But even in that condition she identifies as the "spiritual marriage" she still reports that she trusts suffering more. Not as hard on herself as when she was locked out of herself and locked into the periphery of her life, she still knew that the disciple of Jesus would carry the cross, and through the cross life would emerge. She did not artificially construct crosses in her life, but she did not dodge the crosses life presents. She had learned to trust in the sometimes dark love of God.

Dark nights

The dark night metaphor of John of the Cross reminds us that the experience of God's love is not always a peak experience of the unity of all creation. In the dark night God's love approaches in a way which seems to negate us. In the night God seems over against us. Nothing in the loves is dark or destructive, John maintains, but because of who we are and the purification we need the love is experienced as dark.

John provides an especially powerful description of times in life when consolations evaporate and prayer is all but impossible. Desire is still present but it has exhausted itself looking for relief from its idols. Theologian Karl Rahner commented that all symphonies in life remain unfinished. In every relationship, in every possession an incompleteness will eventually surface. This frustration of desire and the lure of something more or beyond is the unease caused by God's continual invitation into deeper union.

When gods die in the night, the personality goes into an eclipse. Psychologist Carl Jung' observed that he could not distinguish god-symbols from self-symbols. When an individual loses her god-symbol the personality begins to disintegrate. This dark condition lasts until a new god-symbol emerges or a new relationship develops with the old god-symbol.

The counsel of John of the Cross during these crises in life is most helpful. He assures us that God's love is somewhere present in the debris of our life, but it will not be experienced as love initially. John encourages patience, trust, and perseverance. This loving activity of God is freeing us from idols and restoring health to the soul. "Gods" are dying in the night and the soul needs to undergo a grieving process. The wrong path would be to artificially solve or heal the condition, or deny it altogether. John encourages facing the condition, entering into it with patience, and there where the heart is struggling hardest to be alert for the approach of love. John calls for a "loving attentiveness" in the dark; it is time to be a watch in the night. Contemplation is an openness to God's transforming love, especially when it approaches in such a disguised manner.

An intense experience which John calls the night of the spirit is simultaneously a powerful experience of our sinfulness, the finiteness of our human condition, and God's ever-emerging transcendence. While in this condition, words are meaningless. John writes it is time to "put one's mouth in the dust". All one can do is the next loving thing which presents itself. In this desert the pilgrim continues the journey in life, relying only on the guidance of a truly biblical faith. John is convinced that only this purified faith is the context for a proper relationship with God. As with Thérèse of Lisieux's disappearing thought of heaven, the pilgrim no longer possess the object of her hope, and is reminded that hope is in what we do not possess.

John's writings do not wallow in suffering. His poetry, and their commentaries, are all written from the other side of the struggles. The night has become an illuminating experience and a truer guide than day. The flame which once burned now cauterises and heals. And the absence which drove him in search of the Beloved has revealed a compassionate Presence hidden within his longing.

A new spirituality

Contemporary Carmel's witnesses to a faith maintained in the midst of abject suffering are the concentration camp victims, Titus Brandsma and Edith Stein. Brandsma resisted Nazi propaganda and Stein identified with her persecuted people. They were caught in the undertow of the 20th century's powerful expression of societal evil. In their experience of being stripped of all security and support these Carmelites witnessed to the possibility of a faith, hope, and love lived in the bleakest of conditions. In recognizing their witness the Church confirms the authenticity of their lives and places them among those who have risked everything in their following of Christ. The Rule of Carmel leads to various forms of discipleship, but all forms eventually embrace the Cross.

The generals of two Carmelite orders called for a "new spirituality" to complement the "new evangelisation". Will that new spirituality grow out of Carmel's ever-increasing awareness of the realities people are experiencing around the word? As the face of Carmel changes and new members enter the Order, especially from populous, poor countries, the situation of the world's masses is brought to the first-world's doorstep. The internationality of the Order and international bonds forged in the family of Carmel give us a unique opportunity to hear the Spirit in many diverse contexts, and the opportunity to be challenged to respond.

John Paul II has amplified John of the Cross' image of the dark night to include the modern world's sufferings:

Our age has known times of anguish which have made us understand this expression better and which have furthermore given it a kind of collective character. Our age speaks of the silence or absence of God. It has known so many calamities, so much suffering inflicted by wars and by the destruction of so many innocent beings. The term dark night is now used of all of life and not just of a phase of the spiritual journey. The Saint's doctrine is now invoked in response to this unfathomable mystery of human suffering.

I refer to this specific world of suffering ... Physical, moral and spiritual suffering, like sickness - like the plagues of hunger, like war, injustice, solitude, the lack of meaning in life, the very fragility of human existence, the sorrowful knowledge of sin, the seeming absence of God - are for the believer all purifying experiences which might be called night of faith.

To this experience St. John of the Cross has given the symbolic and evocative name dark night, and he makes it refer explicitly to the plight and obscurity of the mystery of faith. He does not try to give to the appalling problem of suffering an answer in the speculative order; but in the light of the Scripture and of experience he discovers and sifts out something of the marvellous transformation which God effects in the darkness, since "He knows how to draw good from evil so wisely and beautifully" (Cant. B 23:5). In the final analysis, we are faced with living the mystery of death and resurrection in Christ in all truth.(14)


Carmel has no answer for the mystery of evil. But Carmel has travelled the hard road and offers a word of hope for the tearful pilgrim. Deep sorrow and experiences of the tragic are part of everyone's life. The limitations of our human condition and the destructive forces loose in the world often assault our faith. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Carmel testifies that God's love is always present in the debris of our lives.

Carmel brings a particularly powerful analysis of the impact of God's love on the human spirit and personality. Invited into an ever-deeper relationship, the pilgrim is challenged to let go of all supports and walk trustingly into God's future. A Christian often experiences assaults on both spirit and psyche as he or she is accommodated to the divine milieu. Carmel offers expressive language and images for these sufferings, and is most eloquent in urging a silent vigil for God's approach.

Carmel's saints trusted suffering, and often expressed a yearning to bear the cross in their discipleship. However, this desire for suffering is most meaningful in the context of a loving response to God initiatives. The suffering of Jesus on the cross was born because of love, not because of a love of suffering.

Questions for reflection:

  • What has been my experience of walking a dark way? Have I been able to let go of known paths to be led by a way not of my choosing? What, particularly, was most helpful?

  • How do I proceed when the way is not clear?

  • What solace or guidance does Carmel offer to people living in distressing situations?

  • How should the Order respond to the "dark night" suffered by many peoples in the world? Could this be part of the "new spirituality" urged by the Carmelite and Discalced Carmelite generals?

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