Seasons of the heart


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John Welch, O.Carm

The Spiritual Dynamic of the Carmelite Life


The Carmelite tradition could be understood as an 800 year commentary on The Song of Songs. This ancient love story in Hebrew scripture is a basic narrative capturing the experience of countless Carmelites. "The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills." (2,8) Thinking they were seeking an elusive God, they returned from their search with the conviction that God had been pursuing them all along in love. The yearning deep within the heart of the Carmelite has been revealed as the trace of an invitation, "Arise my love, my fair one, and come away." (2,10)

Carmelite writers have frequently turned to the passionate love story of The Song of Songs for words to meet their experience. John of the Cross drew on the story and images of the Song for his love poem The Spiritual Canticle. Teresa of Avila wrote a commentary on the Song. And Thérèse of Lisieux identified with its story but, unlike the waiting lover in the Song, Thérèse said she always found the Beloved in her bed.

Whether consciously referring to the Song or not, its lines can be found in Carmelite stories. Carmelites tell many stories, but the story of the lover restlessly awaiting the approach of the Beloved emerges as a common theme. Their union in love and their retreat into the solitude of high mountain pastures finds equivalent expression in the stories of Carmelites. John of the Cross found Hosea's words expressive of his experience, "..I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her." (2,14) Responding to an invitation from a mysterious Presence met within searching lives, Carmelites have been drawn into a relationship which forever changes them: "... the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come..." (2, 11-12)

Fundamental themes of Carmelite spirituality emerge in this story of the human heart. These themes reveal a spiritual dynamism at the core of Carmelite life which can be described as "seasons of the heart." The intent of this discussion is to review these "seasons of the heart" in an attempt identify the spiritual dynamic of the Carmelite life.

There are five "seasons" identified in this discussion:

  • A LONGING HEART (our desire for God)

  • AN ENSLAVED HEART (the worship of false gods)

  • A LISTENING HEART (contemplative prayer)

  • A TROUBLED HEART (the tragic in life)

  • A PURE HEART (the transformation of desire).

  • Endnotes

These "seasons of the heart," and Carmel's response to them, are among the realities which gave rise to the Carmelite tradition, establishing it as one of the major spiritual paths for Christians.

A LONGING HEART - Our desire for God

We choose all

"Our hearts are restless," wrote St. Augustine, and that truth remains fundamental to the human condition. Human restlessness, human desire, human yearning - none of it ever seems finally and fully satisfied. The baby beginning to crawl and explore the environment is an expression of human restlessness; the journeying of the first Carmelites who left their homes to gather in a valley on Mount Carmel was fuelled by the same desire. We are truly pilgrims.

We humans never have enough because, with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, we choose all. And we will never rest until we get it. The Carmelite tradition recognises this hunger in the human heart and says we are made this way. We are made to seek and search, to yearn and ache, until the heart finally finds something or someone to match the depth of its desire, until the heart finds food sufficient for its hunger. We name that food, that fulfilment, that goal of human desire, God. Carmelites have been intentionally pursuing that elusive, mysterious fulfilment for 800 years. "I wanted to live," wrote St. Teresa of Avila, "but I had no one to give me life..." (1)

We believe that, named or not, every human being is on this quest. We can assume this: that every student in our school, every member of our parish, every pilgrim to our shrine, every candidate in our seminary has an openness to the transcendent mystery we name God. Time and time again the desire will be denied, the hunger temporarily satisfied, the yearning stifled, distracted, weak. But we know it is there and it will emerge in one form or another. Our tradition has the power, the language, the imagery to help illumine what people are experiencing in their innermost being.

The Carmelite tradition attempts to name the hunger, give words to the desire, and express the journey's end in God. The human heart will forever need this clarification of its wants. Carmel has wanted the same thing and will walk with anyone who is met along the way. We cannot satisfy their hunger, but can help them find words for it and know where it points. We can do it, and have done it, in art, in poetry and song, in counselling and teaching, in simply listening and understanding. And we can warn people that eventually all words fail and at times all we have is the desire itself.

One contemporary author observes that a serious problem in spirituality today is a naiveté about the desire or energy that drives us. Our God-given spiritual longing, which may be expressed in numerous ways, including creative, erotic energy, is dangerous for us if not carefully tended. We are naive about this deep desire within us and are not alert to its danger. Without a reverence toward this energy and ways of accessing it and keeping it contained, most adults waver between alienation from this fire and therefore live in depression, or allow themselves to be consumed by it and live in a state of inflation.

Depression, in this sense, means the inability to take child-like delight in life, to feel true joy. Inflation refers to our tendency, at times, to identify with this fire, this power of the gods. "...We are generally so full of ourselves that we are a menace to our families, friends, communities, and ourselves." Unable to handle this energy we either feel dead inside or are hyperactive and restless. "Spirituality is about finding the proper ways, disciplines, by which to both access that energy and contain it".(2)

Desires of the Carmelites

This dilemma would be understood by the saints of Carmel, They approached this flame found deep in their humanity and were burned and purified by it in their encounter. Teresa of Avila understood it as the water Jesus offered the Samaritan woman. More fire than water, it increases one's desire. "How thirsty one becomes for this thirst!" (3) John of the Cross begins his poem The Spiritual Canticle by complaining, "Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me moaning? You fled like the stag after wounding me; I went out calling you, but you were gone." (4) John's understanding of our humanity is that we wake up in the middle of a love story. Someone has touched our hearts, wounding them, and making them ache for fulfilment. Who has done this to us, and where has that one gone? Those questions haunt every human being's journey, and propel every step from the crawling of a baby, to a Pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and all the human endeavour in-between.

John complained that our desires are like little children. We pay attention to them and they settle down for a while. But soon they are up and noisily disrupting the peace of the house. Or, our desires are like a longed-for day with a loved one; but the day turns out to be a big disappointment! John's understanding of our humanity is that we have a hunger for which only God is sufficient food.

Thérèse of Lisieux found her deepest desires captured by the image of heaven: heaven as the never-ending Sunday, the eternal retreat, the eternal shore. The eternal shore is a particularly. evocative expression holding her heart's yearning. She chose all in life, and this image for her is an expression of all that she desires. But no image or concept fully expresses her longings:

"I feel how powerless I am to express in human language the secrets of heaven, and after writing page upon page I find that I have not yet begun. There are so many different horizons, so many nuances of infinite variety ...." (SS. 189)

We reach out to this and that, lured by a promise of fulfilment, but only to be disappointed time and time again. Using Thérèse's image, we arrive at many shores, but each time we realise it is not the eternal shore.

Spirit and psyche inhabit the same country of the mind. Spirit is the dynamism in us to fullness of being, to knowing all, loving all, being one with all. Psyche expresses these desires with primordial images drawn from the body, from the earth. Psyche connects the organism of the body and its rootedness in the cosmos with the transcendence of spirit and its yearning for fullness. Our images of hope, such as of eternal shore, express both psyche and spirit.

Psyche's images are freighted with spirit's yearnings. They may stir up and express our longings for peace and justice, they may open us to profound repentance, they may throw light on our existence and illumine our path, they may provide hopeful scenarios of our future beyond this life, as Thérèse's did. But, none of them is adequate to finally and fully express the desires within us, the desire that we are. Our deepest yearning to know and to love, to be one with, all there is, is never fulfilled. Our deepest hungers never find sufficient food in this life. Our wants are given voice, but what do we want?

Theologian Bernard Lonergan believed that if we follow the trail of our deepest desires, expressing them in truth, facing them, and responding to their call in our lives, we will undergo conversions. Our wants, our desires will be purified and transformed, until more and more we want what God wants in a consonance of desire.

What do the men and women in our parishes, our retreat houses, in counselling want? Everything! Count on it, and minister to it. And we say to ourselves and them, that the hunger within us is so deep and powerful that, acknowledged or not, only God is sufficient food. When Jesus preached the present and coming Reign of God he was speaking precisely to the deep desires, the holy longing in the hearts of his listeners.

"March 24, 2000 was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador. He was killed while celebrating Eucharist in a Carmelite chapel. Romero's conversion from a rather traditional, professional cleric with a sincere but otherworldly piety, to an outspoken courageous shepherd of his people, came because he saw the longing in the faces of his people. As he celebrated the funerals of those killed by the powerful, and read off the names of the disappeared, he found it was his duty more and more to give voice to these voiceless ones, to express their oppressed longings - to embody in his courageous presence the holy longing of the Salvadoran people."

To assist people in hearing and voicing their deepest longing is part of Carmel's continuing ministry. The first Carmelites established conditions in their small valley which would bring order to their multiple desires. Each inhabited a cell and the cells surrounded a chapel, in which they daily remembered God's desire for them. Teresa of Avila founded enclosed communities within which the women could open themselves to the full force of their desires in affectionate friendship with the Lord and one another. She encouraged them to follow the lure of their depths as their fragmented desires found healing and reorientation. Both she and Thérèse believed firmly that if God has given us such longings God will ultimately fulfil them. We are not a useless passion.


Our Carmelite tradition acknowledges the hunger for God deep in the human heart. This yearning or longing propels us through our lives as we seek a fulfilment of our heart's desire. This deep current of desire within our lives is the result of God having first desired us. God, the first contemplative, gazed on us and made us lovable, and alluring to God. The Carmelite tradition does not speak of an annihilation of desire, but a transformation of desire so that more and more we desire what God desires in a consonance of desire. As Teresa of Avila said simply, now I want what You want.

Questions for reflection

  • How do I experience this longing, this hunger, which is ultimately for God? Am I aware of a fundamental disease - restlessness? Can I find places in my life where this yearning is expressing itself?

  • What gives me deepest joy and delight in life? When do I feel the most creative and alive? Do I push away, ignore, or suppress it, or do I find ways of honouring this fire within me?

  • How do I give expression to my deepest longings? What activity embodies them and keeps me hungering for their ultimate fulfilment?

  • How do the people, among whom I minister, express their deepest yearning, their hearts' desires? How do I, with them, find the language for this yearning, and celebrate it as gift which points to God?

AN ENSLAVED HEART - The worship of false gods

Settling down with idols

A second perennial theme in Carmel's spirituality is the need to decide which God to follow. Our tradition was born on Mount Carmel, the scene of the struggle between the followers of Yahweh and the followers of Baal. Elijah encouraged the people to be clear about their choice of the one, true God. The Carmelite community as well as individual Carmelites have had to continually wrestle with the forces of disintegration and fragmentation brought about by the pursuit of idols.

Nicholas the Frenchman in his Fiery Arrow letter to the Order accused members of losing their way as they migrated from the desert to the city and its allurements. He accused them of following their own disordered desires under the guise of necessary ministry. The reforms of Albi, Mantua, John Soreth, Teresa of Avila, and Touraine continually reminded Carmelites to have one God, and to serve that God with all their heart.

The saints in our tradition knew how hard it is to find and follow the true God, among the many gods offered us. This Presence deep within our lives is met in the world around us. In his Spiritual Canticle poem John of the Cross observes that "All who are free tell me a thousand graceful things of You..."(5) Teresa of Avila counselled, "Let creatures speak to you of their maker".

In our exuberance however, we continually ask of God's creation more than it can be. We regularly pour our heart's desires into some part of God's creation and ask it to be the fulfilment we seek. We ask some part of God's creation to be uncreated. We take a good and ask it to be a god.

The heart, weary from its continual pilgrimage, seeks to settle down and make camp, refusing to go on. It settles down with lesser gods, finding some joy, peace, identity, security or other alleviations of its desires. This short term relief masks a spiritual problem and also a problem in human development. John of the Cross was convinced that when the individual centres on something or someone other than God, the personality eventually becomes dysfunctional.

Such "attachments" create a situation of death. Whatever or whomever I am asking to be my god, my desires' deepest fulfilment, cannot bear the expectation. The idol will begin to crumble under such pressure as I ask it to be my "all". And because we cannot grow past our gods, a lesser god means a lesser human being. Consequently, that to which I am "attached" is dying under my need, and I am dying because my deepest desires can find nothing and no one to match their intensity.

The self-transcending dynamism within our humanity will not allow us to declare that we have "arrived" at journey's end. By declaring a premature victory as we cling to idols, we are engaging in inauthentic self-transcendence. In other words, the heart is no longer free to hear and follow the invitation of the Beloved. This slavery of the heart is the result of disordered desire. The solution, the liberation of the heart, is not accomplished by annihilation of desire but by its reorientation.

Disordered relationship

When our tradition talks about attachments, it does not mean that relationship with the world is a problem. Certainly, sometimes the world is a problem. But we have to relate to the one world we have. Relating to the world is not the basic problem in attachment; it is how we are relating that becomes the problem. Our saints are talking to adults whose heart has been enslaved by someone or something in place of God. It is not necessarily the person or thing that is the problem, but the way we are relating to them, the disordered way our desire or longing is being expressed.

It is immaterial whether the idol is valuable or not. The relationship is the critical factor. An incident in the life of John of the Cross is illustrative. One of John's friars had a simple cross made of palm. John took it from him. The friar had little else, and the cross was certainly not valuable, but John discerned that the friar was clinging to his crude cross in a disordered way. It apparently had become a non-negotiable indicating that the friar's relationship to it was skewed.

John observed that whether the bird is tied by a cord or a thin thread, it is still tied. The heart is enslaved by its idols and no longer free to hear the invitation of the Beloved. John identifies a craving in attachments which makes the person poorly attuned to God. John was convinced that a person becomes like that which she loves. This false god will encourage a false self.

It is important to emphasize that the Carmelite tradition does not advocate withdrawal from the world. It is advocating a right relationship with God's world. Without interpretation Carmel could be understood to be saying that involvement with the world is a hindrance to relationship with God. On the contrary, it is in God's world that God is met.

The Carmelite tradition is addressing those whose hearts have gone out to the world seeking fulfilment and have become scattered and fragmented in their search. Pouring their heart's desires into possessions and relationships s which cannot meet the intensity of these desires, the Christian begins to experience an impasse in life. It is a deteriorating situation. The world the Christian is clutching so frantically is having life squeezed out of it by the expectations. And the Christian is being conformed to idols, not transformed into God.

A contemporary theme related to our traditional theme of attachment is addiction. We are coming to realize that we are all addicted in one way or another, and that only God's grace can free us from our addictions. One can be addicted to obviously destructive things, but one can also be addicted to the church, addicted to the Pope, addicted to religious practices, even addicted to Carmel, and addicted to God as we create God to be.

In other words, we can ask part of God's creation to be uncreated, to be the nourishment for the deepest hungers within us as individuals and as a people. We are asking from God's creation what only God can give. And our tradition insists that nada (nothing), no part of God's creation, can be substituted for God. Only the one who is nada (no thing, yet everything) can be sufficient food for our hunger.

When John of the Cross drew a stylised mountain to picture the journey of transformation he drew three paths up the mountain. The two outside paths, one of worldly goods, the other of spiritual goods, did not reach the top. Only the middle path of the nadas attained the summit of Carmel. He amplified his teaching in the picture with several lines of text at the bottom. The lines of the text were variations of the theme, "to possess all, possess nothing".

The text at the bottom of the picture gives insight into John's basic understanding of the spiritual journey. He agrees that we are made to possess all, know all, be all, etc. But he also understands that we will never have all if we ask any part of God's creation to be sufficient for these hungers. His counsel to possess nothing in order to possess all is a cryptic encouragement to never ask some thing (some part of God's creation) to be all. Only the one who is no-thing can be our All.

Such asceticism sounds difficult unless one understands that John is addressing men and women who have tried the other paths in life for fulfilment. Their hearts have gone out in search of the one who loved them and they have become enmeshed in life with hearts broken and scattered. John's counsels are words of life for people dying for lack of proper nourishment. He is pointing out the path of life for pilgrims who have lost their way.

A prophetic role

One writer suggested that the Carmelite vocation is to be suspended between heaven and earth, finding no support in either place. That is a rather dramatic way of saying that ultimately our faith, our confidence and trust in God may have to be its own support, and God leads us beyond all of our earthly and spiritual constructs. At the end of her life, Thérèse of Lisieux found her life-long hope for heaven mocking her. John of the Cross reminded us of St. Paul's observations: if we already have what we hope for, it is not hope; hope is in what we do not possess. The spirituality of John of the Cross has been described as a continual hermeneutic on the nature of God.

Does this suspicion of human intentions and constructs make Carmelites eternally curmudgeons? Or does it allow us to bring a sharp critique regarding the human heart and its idol-making propensity? Is it not actually a ministry of liberation, freeing us from all the ways we enslave ourselves and give ourselves away to idols? Is not the Carmelite critique a challenge to not cling to anything, to not make anything centre in one's life, other than the Mystery who haunts our lives. And in that purity of heart, really only achieved by God's spirit, are we able to love others well and live in this world wisely. The Carmelite challenge is to cooperate with God's love, often dark, which is enlivening and healing us.

This continual listening for the approach of God, in the middle of all the words and structures we have constructed, is a prophetic task for Carmel. Which God are we to follow? The gods of our addictions? The gods of ideologies and limited theologies? The gods of oppressive economic and political systems? The gods of all the "isms" of our time? Or is our God the God who transforms, heals, liberates, enlivens?

Archbishop Oscar Romero was a traditional, careful, studious cleric. He was a good man, reserved, pious, prayerful. But his conversion came when he saw another face of Christ, a face somewhat different from the Christ of his piety and prayer, a face somewhat different from his theology, a face different from the Christ familiar to the hierarchy of El Salvador. It was the face of Christ in the face of the people of El Salvador; it was the face of Christ truly incarnated in history and finding its outlines in the struggles of his people. Romero said,

"We learn to see the face of Christ - the face of Christ that also is the face of a suffering human being, the face of the crucified, the face of the poor, the face of a saint, and the face of every person and we love each one with the criteria with which we will be judged: "I was hungry and you gave me to eat". (6)

The idols of our times are not just personal loves and possessions, but are especially the idols of power, prestige, control, and dominance which leave most of humankind looking in at the banquet of life. Romero commented:

"The poor person is the one who has been converted to God and puts all his faith in him, and the rich person is one who has not been converted to God and puts his confidence in idols: money, power, material things ... Our work should be directed toward converting ourselves and all people to this authentic meaning of poverty." (7)

Many of our provinces have participated in confronting the idols of our times through liberation movements in many areas of the world, including the Philippines, Latin America, North America, Africa, Indonesia, and eastern Europe. Today, the inequities between north and south often point to idols of "isms" which keep a majority of the world in a emarginated condition.


The hungers of our heart send us into the world seeking nourishment. In many ways we ask the world, "Have you seen the one who did this to my heart, causing it to ache?" Our heart finds itself scattered over the landscape as we ask each person and each possession and each activity to tell us more about the Mystery at the core of our lives.

So enamoured by the messengers of God, the soul mistakes them for God. We take the good things of God and ask that they be god. The heart, tired of its pilgrimage, seeks to settle down and make a home. It pours its deepest desires into relationships, possessions, plans, activities, goals, and asks that they bring fulfilment to our deepest hungers. We ask too much from them and they begin to crumble under our expectations. Over and over the Carmelite saints remind us that only God is sufficient food for the hungers of the heart.

Questions for reflection:

  • What are the idols, the non-negotiables, that have become part of my life? What are those things without which I cannot go on? Am I hurting them by clinging so tightly to them?

  • Where and how have I become unfree in life ? Am I unfree to follow my deepest desires? Am I unfree to hear God's call into God's future, which is dark to me? Am I unfree to hear my community's needs?

  • Have I, unconsciously, been building my kingdom rather than watching for the reign of God? Have I, without being aware of it, removed God from the centre of my life and placed in that centre my noble goals, my prophetic work, my understanding of the demands of the kingdom? Have I slowly over the years forgotten to ask, "What does God want?"

  • Have the passions which brought me to Carmel been domesticated and left to wither? Have I become compulsively active, perhaps becoming more a functionary of an institution rather than a disciple of the Lord?

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