Carmel in the World Magazine
Carmel in the World
2011. Volume L, Number 1 – Fiftieth Year
- All is Grace
- Carmelite Liturgical Spirituality
- Carmel’s Quest for the Living God: A Lay Perspective (below)
- Carmel in the City
- A Spiritual reading of the Dark Night
- Carmelite Spirituality (Part III)
- Carmel Around the World
Carmel’s Quest for the Living God: A Lay Perspective
Professor Dolores Leckey, a scholar who has written and lectured extensively on the role of the Laity in the Catholic Church and who has served with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a consultant on the Laity, presented this article at the final session of the Carmelite Forum at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, in June of 2010.
I am so happy for the opportunity to thank the Carmelites, those gathered here and those afar off, for sharing with me over many years your quest for the living God. Carmelites have been pivotal in my own spiritual journey. Here is how:
My adult spiritual awakening happened when I was 27 and was diagnosed with rheumatic fever – unusual for an adult. I had two children under the age of two when I went to Georgetown Hospital for several weeks, and then was home in bed for six weeks. The children were taken to New York to be cared for by my mother-in-law. My husband went to work every day and I was alone, inactive, bedfast, with lots of time to think. It was then, in those circumstances, I felt the desire to learn to pray. When I recovered and the children returned, and life was as it had been, the desire or awakening remained. I was on a quest.
The quest led me, my husband, and by now four young children to a week-end retreat conducted by two Carmelite priests from Whitefriars Hall. There I heard about your saints and their quests, Teresa and John of the Cross, and in those early years of seeking, I benefited from the pastoral care of Carmelite spiritual directors.
My yearning to learn more (thanks to the support of my husband) led me to Spain, to Avila specifically, to Teresa’s monastery where I spent a quiet day of meditation and prayer, drinking in the environment that was related to her. I could do this because of the welcoming hospitality of the nuns. While I was in prayer, my husband walked on the ramparts surrounding the city. (Being supportive does not necessarily mean being participative.) I came home from that trip filled to overflowing with things Teresian, and from that time, 1972, until the present, a reproduction of Velásquez’ portrait of Teresa holding a quill pen has graced the kitchen of every home I have occupied.
Some of you have heard about my son, Colum, now a professor of European history, who, when he was 19 and home for a visit from college, paused over his breakfast cereal and point to St. Teresa and said, “When I was a little boy I used to think St. Teresa was flying a paper airplane and I wondered why I got in trouble when I did the same thing.” We laughed, but I always regretted that I did not explain why her image was so important to me, how in earlier years in the midst of caring for family, civic commitments, attempts to nurture the life of the mind, attending to the vocation of marriage – she, a sixteenth century mystic gave a woman of the twentieth century both hope and a practical methodology for finding the centre in the midst of complex responsibilities.
That is a long preamble to saying “Thank you.”
I think we also need to recognize the contribution of the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, to these days of reflection. Her 2008 book, Quest for the Living God, is clearly a stimulus for the theme we are all exploring in our time together.
The Fellows of the Woodstock Theological Centre meet throughout the academic year in a twice-a-month seminar. It is a three hour study session of various theological works, old and new. In 2008 we chose the Johnson book for study shortly after its publication. At the time it struck me how important two words were in the title: quest and living. Both suggest immense dynamic qualities. We do not find God and/or contain God; no, we participate in the seeking, the quest; we are on a journey. And whom do we seek? Not one who is static, lifeless, but one who lives in every age, every culture. The God we seek, the God Carmel seeks, is not stultified or mummified, but coursing through the changes of life, at both the personal and cosmic level, dynamically alive.
What Elizabeth Johnson does is take us beyond stereotypes into the rich and variegated life of the living God. And her words to describe the experience are words like liberating God, God acting “womanish” (an African-American term), God in the midst of the fiesta, a God who invited dialogue with different others, the God of an evolving world, the God of love.
So what is unique about Carmel’s quest? The answer I give is from a lay perspective, not “the” lay perspective but one shaped by my experience which includes the gift of Carmel to me, to the Church and to the world, and it includes the work which occupied me for many years regarding the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the centrality of the laity in the life of the Church and the world.
Two routes to understanding this lay perspective derive from the work of the Second Vatican Council. This lay person’s perspective draws on two developments. First is the emphasis on the centrality of the laity and the lay vocation as expressed in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. The emphasis on the laity was a surprise to many especially in regard to the insistence that the lay person’s life, in its many dimensions, was/is a true vocation, not something incomplete or provisional. What were we to make of this? William Maxwell, a writer mainly of short stories and a former editor of The New Yorker who lived well into his nineties, once remarked, “Life is so strange. Why people don’t go around in a continual state of surprise is beyond me.” Indeed. Why are the people of the Church not walking around in a state of surprise at the seismic shift in the self-understanding of laity themselves that arose from Council pronouncements? And that is not all. How strange that an Ecumenical Council of the Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church wrote such statement as all are called to holiness, or that the family can be considered a domestic church, or that there are charisms which the laity have been given to build the reign of God. It has been assumed that holiness, “the real thing,” required ordination, religious vows, or perhaps private vows of some kind. But now ordinary people living lives of work, civic concern, parenting, were called to holiness; this was new and surprising. How strange life is!
There are other points of “newness.” In the Decree on the Laity, the word “spirituality” appears perhaps for the first time in official documents. How strange and surprising. Prior to this, spirituality had been thought of in terms of moral theology, not experiential knowledge of God. Not anymore. Also in the Decree on the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) “friendship” is identified as an important relationship for lay people and for their work in the apostolate.
The lay person is described as simultaneously a “believer” and a “citizen,” one for whom the Church and the world matter greatly. How different from the opinion attributed to a nineteenth century English Churchman that the laity’s role was “to shoot (meaning ‘to hunt’) and to entertain,” not to meddle in Church business. This was in response to Cardinal Newman’s advocacy of consulting with the laity regarding the development of doctrine.
Furthermore, laity are not to adopt a passive position, to wait patiently until asked before contributing knowledge, opinion, insight. No. They are free to initiate. In fact, the word “freedom” stands out regarding the gifts and charisms of the laity and this because, as Cardinal Suenens repeatedly indicated, the Holy Spirit is given to all, and will breathe where he/she wills. All of this and so much more found its way into the Decree on the Laity in spite of procedural roadblocks designed to derail this novel development. How strange is the Holy Spirit who cannot be contained in pre-determined boxes.
The second development, closely allied to the first, is the emergence in the post-conciliar years of a new kind of relationship between vowed religious and laity. One could say the new forms of relationship are a response to the Council’s call for collaboration among men and women with different vocations.
In my 1991 Madeleva lecture, delivered here at St. Mary’s, I stated my belief that a new alliance between women religious and lay women had begun and should be fostered, that it would energize the mission of the Church. A Sister of Mercy who read the lecture, Women and Creativity, took that suggestion/hope seriously and opened a theological study centre where women, lay and religious, could pursue their quest for the living God. The leadership of the centre reflected the ideal of collaboration; the centre has co-directors, a lay woman and the Sister of Mercy who might rightly be called the “founder.”
In the almost 20 years since that lecture any number of religious communities, men and women, have formed alliances with laity. Religious have shared with laity what they have learned in centuries of valued tradition; and we laity have shared how God works in our complex lives. I need to add an important note to this: I am not claiming a direct connection between the 1991 Madelva Lecture and these new relational models, but I am claiming these new ways of being in the Church represent a flowering of the Council (although I believe the Carmelites have been “in relationship” for a long time).
So now the question is: what have laity discovered in the Carmelite tradition that is of particular value to their quest for the living God? I offer four discoveries:
The first is that lay persons have seen that the pursuit of holiness in monastic life occurs in the midst of domesticity, and domesticity is precisely where lay people anchor their lives. What author Kathleen Norris calls the quotidian mysteries, the rhythms and duties and schedules of domestic life within monasteries (certainly women’s monasteries and convents) are the entry point to the centre where the Spirit dwells. It is a journey inward through routines of meals and housekeeping, gardening, and common prayer, and common courtesy for those with whom life is shared. In both a household of vowed religious and a family household, people need order, kindness, and encouragement. In the giving and receiving are the small steps that move us along the journey that is marked by love.
It was not until I was doing research on Winter Music, a biography of Jessica Powers, the Carmelite poet, and was the recipient of hospitality of many monasteries, did I truly appreciate how domesticity is one of the foundations of Carmelite life and that lends strength to the spiritual search. A dedicated quest for the living God can open on to amazing newness, which is enormously life-giving, but which on occasion can border on mild chaos as the Spirit pulls us out of the old state into uncharted waters.
Domestic routines offer not only anchors in these choppy waters, but they are also a means of developing mindfulness as the tasks of everyday life – going to work, grocery shopping, laundry, cooking – become the means for learning how to be “all there.” Being there, mindful, brings us face to face with the heart of the quest: in the words of the old song, “It that all there is?” Is that all there is: in the one word of John of the Cross, “nada” – nothing – the conundrum: in the nada lies everything. The contemporary lay man or woman, in search of meaning, finally realizing that acquisition of things will not yield that meaning, can look to centuries of Carmelite searching to understand that everything is already present. It is we who are scattered and shattered, wanting integration. Mary Oliver has some poetic words of wisdom:
For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavoured with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbour of your longing.
And put your lips to the world.
My second discovery is that the laity have also discovered in the Carmelite tradition the other side of domestic routine, namely creativity. Here I am speaking not only about artful living, but of the creative arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, crafts, and language. Art is another entry point into the heart of the Spirit. The structure of monastic life seems to allow for the flourishing of the artistic life, should the seeds be present. To paint one has to observe the structure of a canvas or wood or a wall perhaps. This is not to deny the value of abstract modern art which appears to be structureless. Take Jackson Pollack for example. It is true that Pollack poured paint rather than brushed it, but the paint was poured onto a specific surface which had boundaries, perhaps offering a glimpse of the unconscious.
Again on my visits to Carmelite monasteries of women, I met painters, writers, musicians who enriched not only their domestic domains but the world beyond the monastery gates. So what is it about the monastic environment that lends itself to art? From this lay person’s perspective it seems that the environment shapes a person to be receptive to what is unseen and previously unknown, to the stirrings of the Spirit. May Sarton, poet and novelist and memoirist, says that not everyone who writes verse is a poet. To be a kind of lightning rod for pure experience, to be alert and awake to a constant flow of experience, to live meditatively is to be a poet. To give form and voice to that experience is to write poetry. Sarton goes on – the writing of poetry is first of all a way of life, a discipline maintained in order to perfect the instrument of experiencing, namely the poet himself/herself, so that the self may be open and transparent.
Does this sound familiar to the Carmelite way of life? It does to me. Jessica Powers gives voice to the poet’s vocation as well as the nun’s vocation:
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a listener.
It is to keep the vigil of mystery,
earthless and still.
One leans to catch the stirring of the Spirit,
strange as the wind’s will.
The soul that walks where the wind of the Spirit blows
turns like a wandering weathervane toward love.
It may lament like Job or Jeremiah,
echo the wounded heart, the mateless dove.
It may rejoice in the spaciousness of meadow
that emulated the freedom of the sky.
Always it walks in waylessness, unknowing;
It has cast down forever from its hand
the compass of the whither and the why.
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a lover.
It is becoming love, and like to him
toward Whom we strain with metaphor of creatures:
fire-sweep and water-rush and the wind’s whim.
The soul is all activity, all silence;
and through it surges Godward to its goal,
it holds, as moving earth hold sleeping noonday,
the peace that is the listening of the soul.
Unspoken in the poem is what I would call the virtue of courage, a necessary virtue for sustaining a creative life. Again, the Second Vatican Council spoke to this very point in the document Gaudium et spes declaring that literature and art are, in their own way, very important in the life of the Church. They seek to penetrate our nature, our problems, our experience as we endeavour to discover and perfect ourselves and the world in which we live.
They, the artists, try to discover our place in history and in the universe, to throw light on our suffering and joy, our needs and potentialities and to outline a happier destiny in store for us. Hence they can elevate human life. Every effort should be made therefore, to make artists feel they are understood by the Church in their artistic work and to encourage them while enjoying a reasonable standard of freedom … in new art forms adapted to our times and in keeping with the characteristics of different nations and regions.” May I suggest an international body like the Carmelites has much to offer all of us in this regard?
My third discovery is that in their quest for the living God any number of women and men associated with Carmel have explored in depth the boundary between psychology, theology, and spirituality. One Carmelite nun, a medical doctor, devoted herself to discovering the nexus points between Carmelite mystics and major psychoanalytic theories. Others have tried to understand what modern psychology has to say to the larger issues of society, issues like gender and diversity. Once again, human experience is the key, and humility is the stance, as we pursue questions of human freedom, women’s experience, and the richness of the world’s religions – what Elizabeth Johnson writes about in her book on the Quest. And I would venture they are present in Carmel’s quest for the living God.
Grounded as Carmel is in centuries of consciously or unconsciously probing these and similar themes, there is much to offer laity and the Church at large. Carmel can remind us of the angelic imperative, “Be not afraid.” Why? Carmel has a history of honoring that imperative. Be not afraid of what is new and what is different. Be not afraid of the reign of God which probably will not resemble many of our previous images. Be not afraid of new communities where the least are included and are at home. In this kind of community, Elizabeth Johnson writes that “tyranny is countermanded in the light of God’s self-giving ways, male and female are equal partners as are Jew and Greek. Justice, peace, and the well being of all creatures are the goal. If we are not living out the types of relationships that serve this pattern of the truth of the reign of God then we have not a clue about who God is.” And I would ask – if we met God on the journey, how would we know? The work being done in this border land of psychology, spirituality, and theology offers promise.
The fourth discovery for laity is that suffering holds meaning. Carmelite history is overflowing with accounts of suffering, or so it seems to me, a lay reader of the same, encountering the material at a distance. I think of Thérèse of Lisieux, saint and Doctor of the Church, as a premier example of trust in the midst of suffering. If our moment in history needs one thing above all, it is an intelligent, authentic approach to the mystery of suffering whether in personal narratives or the mega narratives of historic proportions. You have in your Carmelite pantheon not only Thérèse and Teresa and John of the Cross, but you have also Edith Stein caught in the demonic forces of the Holocaust.
Catastrophes, intentional and accidental, are not banished from the earth. There are the continual ravages of war, volcanic eruptions, floods, oil soaked seas, and if that is not enough, the hurricane season is upon us. And, of course, there are the chronic illnesses, which can require huge changes in ordinary domestic routines. One in ten children in the USA is autistic. The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is increasing dramatically. In both cases – autism and Alzheimer’s – the question of who or where the person is must be faced. The producer of the National Public Radio program Speaking of Faith, said this about Alzheimer’s disease:
As in the midst of all suffering we can perceive and attend to flashes of wisdom, moments of beauty as fragile and real and mysterious as memory itself. In both autism and Alzheimer’s we have to discover a deeper understanding of what it is that makes us all human. But we are faced on this quest with how to enter that mysterious place of memory.
I think we enter there by way of the narrative, the human story, which is, of course, central to our Scriptural heritage. In my Introduction to Winter Music, the biography of Jessica Powers, I wrote that one important reason for narrating her life is what we can learn about suffering in its many forms. She knew about it in her teens, her twenties, her thirties – throughout her entire life. And she learned to transform it. Many people in our society suffer not only from autism, or Alzheimer’s, and other chronic and degenerative disorders, but also from clinical depression. Jessica Powers gives us a clue about how to deal with it:
All that day long I spent the hours with suffering.
I wake to find her sitting by my bed.
She stalked my footsteps while time slowed to timeless,
Tortured my sight, came close in what was said.
She asked no more than that, beneath unwelcome,
I might be mindful of her grant of grace.
I still can smile, amused, when I remember
How I surprised her when I kissed her face.
Mother Miriam of the Holy Spirit – Jessica Powers – was not a trained psychologist, but she instinctively knew that suffering, particularly spiritual and emotional suffering, could best be overcome by embracing it and moving through. That is how it dissolved. How strange is life.
In conclusion let me say that a modern icon of what I have been talking about – the value of domesticity, of spiritual theological understanding, of creativity, or the way suffering marks and reveals who we are, is a woman well known to St. Mary’s, to the theological world, to the members of the Carmelite forum – Monika Hellwig.
Monika lived in the Spirit of God because she was a listener. She first heard the Spirit’s call as a vocation to the Medical Mission Sisters. Then, inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and her own introduction to the world of theology, she encountered a different by fully authentic call, to live the life of a layperson as envisioned by the Council. All the evidence points to her free embrace of the vocation rising within her. Everything that followed in her life – her academic work, her career as a teacher and later an administrator, becoming a single parent of adopted children, her insertion into communities that nurtured lay life (her parish and a prayer group modelled on the Jesuit Christian Life Communities) – are all of a piece. She enacted the life of a committed layperson by fully participating in those expressions of the wider Church. It was as if the documents of the Second Vatican Council animated her inner life. I close with a few lines from the hymn sung at her funeral – Jerusalem My Destiny.
I have fixed my eyes on your hills, Jerusalem, my destiny.
Though I cannot see the end of me, I cannot turn away.
We have set our hearts for the way;
This journey is our destiny.
Let no one walk alone.
The journey makes us one.
 “Mornings at Blackwater Pond,” Mary Oliver.
 “To Live with the Spirit,” Jessica Powers (Mother Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD).
 Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 62.
 “Suffering,” Jessica Powers (Mother Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD).
 “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” Rory Cooney.