Carmelite spirituality has frequently been presented as a "high" spirituality, a rarefied spirituality for the chosen few. It is often presented as soaring ecstatic unions, or dramatic sufferings more intense than the usual troubles in life. Images come to mind of Bernini's statue of Teresa's "transverberation", her vision of being pierced by a golden dart with all the accompanying ecstasy and agony.
John of the Cross's stark drawing of Christ on the Cross, from the perspective of the Father looking down on his crucified Son, evokes the unremitting single-mindedness of the saint. Or one thinks of John's drawing showing the way up Mount Carmel. The paths of material and spiritual possessions do not reach the top; only the middle path of the nadas opens to the top where God is nada and todo (no thing, yet everything!). Carmel seems to represent an heroic, even epic journey to God. And it is only for experienced mountaineers who dare scale its heights.
If the ascent of Mount Carmel is such an epic feat, what are we ordinary Carmelites doing here? Do we sometimes feel we are guardians of a tradition we have never really experienced? Do we feel that we often are reporting second hand accounts of the land that is Carmel, but have never really been there ourselves? As a result of our transformation in love, "We become god!" John of the Cross boldly proclaims. How rare is this divinisation celebrated in our tradition?
John uses another image for the journey, besides travelling through a night or climbing a mountain. He writes that "The soul's centre is God" and that our journey in life is to that centre. (15) But, instead of envisioning a distant centre requiring an arduous journey, John says that even with one degree of love we are in the centre! With one degree of desire, of yearning, of hope, no matter how inarticulate, we are in the centre.
Our theology today reinforces John's observation. Strictly speaking, there is no natural world. It is a graced world, from the beginning, creation and redemption going hand in hand. In other words, our lives are permeated with the loving, enlivening, healing presence of God, uncreated grace. Instead of searching for a hidden centre, the centre has come to us.
So, what is the journey? The journey, said John, is to go deeper into God. But we are in union with God all the way; divinisation is a continual process. So, the goal described by our Carmelite authors is one taking place in each soul who only feebly desires more.
"And now you awake in my heart, where in secret you dwelt all along", wrote John of the Cross. But in his commentary he corrects himself and says it was not "you" who awoke, but it was I who awoke to the love always present and continually offered me. This awakening, and the difference it makes in a person's life, is Carmel's call. A conclusion we could draw is that many, many Carmelites and certainly others as well reach the so-called "heights" of Carmel. The heights are approached, not when someone drops off their pew in a swoon, but when a life more and more is expressing God's will.
To want what God wants
The purpose of prayer is conformity with God's will, wrote Teresa of Avila. The prayerful person is more and more in union with God and this union is expressed in the individual more and more wanting what God wants. We do not get tougher ascetically and thereby wrestle our will into submitting to God's will. No, God's love lures us into a transformation of our desire so that we desire what God desires; we want what God wants. John reported, "What you desire me to ask for, I ask for; and what you do not desire, I do not desire, nor can I, nor does it even enter my mind to desire it".(16)
Divinisation is the gradual participation is God's knowing and loving. The pilgrim is so transformed that all their ways of living become expressive of God's will. If we may interpret Jesus as saying that God's will is the well-being of humanity, then the prayerful person is more and more living in a way that furthers that well-being. In other words, the transformed, divinised person is living in a way which cooperates with God's present and coming reign.
These people are hard to identify. Meister Eckhart warns us that someone living from their centre very naturally lives in accord with God's will. He says while others fast, they are eating; while others keep vigil, they are asleep; and while others pray, they are silent. After all, what is the purpose of the vigil, the prayer, the fasting, if not to live out of the soul's centre, which is God. Of course, he is exaggerating to make a point since our pilgrimage is never finished this side of death. The point, I take it, is the absolute humanness of the transformed person.
Teresa tells us that these people are not even continually conscious of their spiritual life. Interiority becomes less and less an object of focus. Not even God preoccupies them, because in all the ways they are living they are expressing their relationship with God. The goal was never to be a contemplative, or a saint, or to have a spiritual life. The goal was always to want what God wants, in a consonance of desire.
In the conclusion of the Carmelite Rule, Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem and the law-giver, writes "Here then are a few points I have written down to provide you with a standard of conduct to live up to; but our Lord, at his Second Coming will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to do".(17) Kees Waaijman of the Brandsma Institute in Nijmegen sees this statement as a clear allusion to the Good Samaritan story. The Carmelite is placed in the role of innkeeper. His plans and orderly house are upset when a stranger brings a beaten man to be cared for. The stranger asks the innkeeper to take care of the beaten man, and if the innkeeper incurs further expense, i.e. does more, the stranger will compensate him when he returns.
The stranger, Christ, asks the Carmelite to take care of His people in His absence. The guest is unexpected, the order of the house is disturbed. But the innkeeper dutifully takes care of the wounded person, perhaps without emotional investment or ego-involvement, and maybe with very little satisfaction. Kees concludes that all real giving is essentially dark. The Presence met deep in Carmelite hearts is a night that guides, a flame that heals, an absence that reveals.
Friars need make no apologies for not being true Carmelites. Our spirituality is not about heroic asceticism; it is about God's all-conquering love, a love that has touched every heart and made it ache; otherwise we would not be here.
Realizing that we are naturally at home on the heights of Carmel, or better, in the arms of God, and still always in need of God's mercy, our spiritual ministry is to make available Carmel's tradition to help our brothers and sisters "see" and "hear" the presence of God in their own lives.
In order to tend this flame in others, it seems right that we will have come to terms with it in our own lives. If we listen to our hearts, we will know the hearts of the people with whom we live and minister. Dust off any Carmelite vocation and you will usually find a glowing ember waiting to be fanned into a flame, a flame that yearns for wholeness, peace, security, joy, unity and that finds its best expression in service of our brothers and sisters. That is why we came. That is why we stay.
"Entering Carmel" is not simply a matter of entering a building, joining a community, and taking on a ministry, whether of prayer or apostolic mission. It is that, certainly, but "entering Carmel" is also entering a drama playing out deep within every human life. That drama of the human spirit encountered by God's Spirit is essentially inexpressible.
Carmelites are explorers of an inner place of intimacy with God, a fine point of the human spirit where it is addressed by Mystery. Carmel honours that pristine, privileged relationship between creature and Creator. Carmelite mystics have used bridal imagery and, regularly, the love story of the Song of Songs to capture the intimacy of this encounter. The landscape of the Song begins to give shape to the "land of Carmel".
The purpose of prayer is conformity with God's will, writes Teresa of Avila. In this relationship the desires of the pilgrim are transformed so that more and more the life of a Christian is expressing desires which are in accord with God's desire. If we may describe the goal of God's desire as the well-being of humanity, then the transformed Christian is living in a manner which naturally cooperates with the reign of God.
Questions for reflection:
Who are the truly holy people in my experience? What do they look like?
Do I understand the spiritual life as an heroic ascent, or an awakening to a love always offered from the core of my being?
Am I able to trust, in practical ways, that God's love is freely given, unable to be earned? Are there subtle ways I try to guarantee my worth?
"Relax, it has been done!" said one theologian of grace. What might that expression mean?