Carmel in the World Magazine
Carmel in the World
2013. Volume LII, Number 3
- Carmel’s Call to Evangelize
- Carmelite Anonymity
- Listening to the Word of God with Mary: The Experience of Carmel
- Carmelite Spirituality and the New Evangelization (below)
- Carmel Around the World
Carmelite Spirituality and the New Evangelization
Kevin Alban, O.Carm.
Let me begin by taking as a point of departure this room itself. These most impressive portraits of various Episcopalian divines, clergyman, who are here to remind us of a certain heritage, have a certain symbolic function of reminding us what they did, what they wrote, what they stood for. Let me present you – without too much explanation – three little portraits of my own, three little scenarios, you might say, just to give you an idea of where I am starting from.
First, these portraits are all true, but I am going change the names of those involved. There are two friends of mine who live in New York called Linda and Jim, both of whom are graduates of Georgetown University, both of whom come from what one might describe as very solid Catholic families. They both went to Catholic High School, they now have a small and lovely child called Dan, who is fifteen months old, and they had given up going to church for many years after they got married (they have been married for about ten years now) and all of a sudden, they told me they were going to another church just down at the end of the road. I felt close enough to them to be able to say, “Well, what do you find there that you wouldn’t find in the church that you were brought up in?” They said, “We have such a warm welcome, such a concern for our family, a great social outreach, really good preaching, really good liturgy”. They are quite happy beyond any question of doctrine or morality, content to experience that warmth as the basis for their relationship with that particular church.
The second little story: there are two friends of mine in Rome, Stefania and Marco. Marco is an architect and in his office, in his studio in Rome, he has a young man in his thirties who is a member of one of the movements in the Church today, the neo-catechumenate – a movement, I suppose, which seeks to deepen people’s faith and address many of the needs that they have, in many ways a very admirable movement. My friend Marco was most surprised that this young man – obviously a very committed Christian – should also be an intelligent person, should also be a very personable guy and should be involved in social outreach. In his mind he couldn’t square that. How could you be such a committed Christian and actually be an intelligent person? How could you be a committed Christian and be so nice and friendly and understanding?
And then a final scenario: a quotation from a play by the British playwright, Tom Stoppard, a play called “Jumpers”. It was written in 1972 and it’s an unusual play because it talks about various problems in philosophy. If you remember in the mid-70s, philosophers were going in and out of Eastern countries – it was part of the dissident movement, particularly in the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia as it was then; for instance, the dissident Vaclav Havel who became President afterwards was a poet and a philosopher. So Tom Stoppard was exploring philosophical themes in this play. It might not sound like it but it is a very amusing play, and there is one little quotation near the beginning where the protagonist is pondering the problem of God. Does God exist? Is there such a thing as a God? And he says, “There is presumably a calendar date, a moment, when the onus of proof passed from the atheists to the believers, when quite suddenly, secretly, the Noes had it”. I am not going to explain those three little scenarios, but they are just there in the background, just as these portraits are in the background here in the room today.
Focussing on the topic
I am going to now narrow down the focus of the field of this talk this morning, because obviously, as advertised, “Carmelite Spirituality in the World Today”, is an enormous subject and we cannot deal with that in a hour and 45 minutes, so I am going to look at a particular feature of Carmelite Spirituality which I will talk about in a moment and I am going to look at the movement in the Church today which I do not think is confined purely to the Roman Catholic tradition, but is part of the Christian movement today, which we have called New Evangelization. I think is a general movement in spirituality today because it is all about how the Christian Church in general is addressing problems in the world. What might there be in New Evangelization therefore which could be of interest in understanding Carmelite Spirituality and what might there be in Carmelite Spirituality of interest to this movement of outreach, this New Evangelization. So what I am trying to do here is to set up a conversation between Carmelite Spirituality and New Evangelization. What do they have to say to each other on various topics? The choices I have made here are obviously based on time constraints, the volume of material available and, of course, my own understanding and interests, and I have to say to you that one of the things I want to do this morning, if I can, is to take what I might call a properly critical attitude towards both Carmelite Spirituality and New Evangelization. I do not intend to be an apologist for either New Evangelization or Carmelite Spirituality but to try and look at it a little bit more objectively and to confess to you that in both of these areas I do have some concerns, some issues which may, of course, depend on my own faulty interpretation. I am not saying that I understand all the aspects of these topics, but that somehow there are some features of both which occasionally rub up against me and I wonder “is that really the case?” One of the most important questions we can ask, I think, when making this sort of statement is, “Is it true? Is it actually the case that….?” Because we hear a lot of things and we never step back maybe, or step back very rarely, and take this critical stance.
Carmelite Spirituality – A Working Definition
I suppose in the first instance, this is not for me a purely theoretical exercise. Carmelite Spirituality as a variety or form of Christian Spirituality must be in dialogue with, take account of, and be part of movements within the Church. It is most certainly not a separate area of action or reflection. It is right in the Christian tradition, the mainstream of thought, and the mainstream of action. The distinctive nature of Carmelite Spirituality, which we will talk about in a moment, must avoid tribalism. In other words, there will be many elements, maybe all the elements we are going to look at, which are part and parcel of the Christian tradition in general, but they are configured or put together in a particular way – and you may have read or heard something like this before – just as when we are building a house we have bricks and mortar and wood and glass and steel: all the components that we need to build a house, and the components are pretty much standard across the board. You can have a big brick or a small brick, I suppose, but it’s basically bricks and mortar and wood and glass. But just think of the variety of houses you can construct with those different elements. So if you like, Carmelite Spirituality does not offer anything startlingly new maybe in the Christian tradition, but it is put together in a way that is original, put together in a particular way, a particular configuration. So we must avoid this kind of tribal approach sometimes of talking about what is distinctively and purely Carmelite. I don’t think such a thing exists. I do not want to get in to the ins and outs of defining Carmelite Spirituality this morning because that is a huge topic in itself and something which the Order has wrestled with for years and years and years now, and I will confess to you that sometimes I think the wrestling needs to stop, and we need to get on with putting this in to practice in some sense, but that’s again my little bug bear.
Let’s just look at one or two working definitions and I have to go back I think to the agreed documents of the Order to do this. Every group, every organisation has its own kind of foundation documents, something to live by, some guidelines and I want to look at the final reflection which led to the compiling and the agreement of our Constitutions in 1995. A very simple definition here: “Carmelites live their life of allegiance to Christ through a commitment to seek the face of the living God, the contemplative dimension of life, through fraternity, through service in the midst of the people”. Sometimes this is summed up as “praying communities in the midst of the people”. That is my working view of Carmelite spirituality. This notion of these three elements was developed in the subsequent five or six years when we were preparing another document to help us in guiding people in formation, the so called “Ratio”, the kind of outline of the formation process which formators use, and which those in formation also understand as the pathway they are going down.
“Contemplation”, says this document “is the inner journey of Carmelites arising out of the free initiative of good which touches and transforms us, leading us towards unity in love with Him”. Jumping a little bit, “the contemplative dimension is not merely one of the elements of our charism; it is the dynamic element which unifies them all”. So there has been a shift there from just the three elements – prayer, community, service – to saying that they are actually linked together by the category or by the framework of contemplation. Contemplation is the glue that brings this together in the Carmelite house. Let us not forget that prayer, fraternity and service are, for example, part of the Augustinian tradition or the Benedictine one as well. None of them would be part of the Christian tradition without these elements. Absolutely not. But the Augustinian house looks different from the Carmelite house, and the Benedictine one looks different again. They are distinct; yet at the same time they share these common elements. Let us not be too insular about our traditions. Let us point out that they are all part of the common Christian understanding.
New Evangelization – A Working Definition
First, what are the sources that I have drawn on to look at this phenomenon, this movement that we call “New Evangelization”? There is a vast amount that has been written, and I have confined myself to looking at and drawing upon some of what you might call the official documents in this field. Looking at the working papers that were presented last year for the bishops to reflect, looking at their final conclusions after they had had this big meeting in Rome in October last year. I am also looking at one of the, I suppose, leading authors on the subject of New Evangelization, an archbishop called Reno Fisichella, who is the President of the Pontifical Council on New Evangelization so therefore a very authoritative figure. Now there are plenty of other people I could have looked at, plenty of other names out there, but I have chosen to look at the official understanding of this and what Fisichella has to say about it as well. And looking through these documents you soon realise that the Vatican does not believe that if you can say something in ten words, it is not better to do it in a hundred words, so they tend to produce very voluminous documents and all I can say is thank goodness we have search engines now and we can put terms in to our search engines and find very quickly the bits in the document that are relevant to us. And that is exactly what I did. Taking this idea that I have just talked about here of contemplation and contemplation for Carmelites being that unifying element in the charism of prayer, fraternity, service to see if, in New Evangelization, there is some mention of this or how it is dealt with. From one article that is put here in the working papers: “For Jesus, the purpose of Evangelization is drawing people into his intimate relationship with the Father and the Spirit. This is the primary reason for his preaching and miracles, to proclaim a salvation which, though manifested through concrete acts of healing, is meant to indicate a profound experience accessible to each person of being loved by God and learning to recognise Him in the face of a loving and merciful father”. So there is very much this idea which we heard of before in the Carmelite documents, this encounter, this union with, this profound personal experience is the primary and ultimate goal of New Evangelization. A little later in that same document, the response is also in the form of a desire to acknowledge the invaluable support coming from the contemplative life. History has proven that relationship of monasticism and contemplation to Evangelization is strong and a bearer of many fruits, and here is a key phrase: “The contemplative life is the core of the Church’s existence which keeps alive the essence of the Gospel. The primacy of the faith and the celebration gives meaning to silence and all the activities undertaken for the glory of God.” So here the notion of contemplation is not only, as it were, a particularly profound personal experience, a transforming experience of our relationship with God, with our Trinitarian relationship with God, but it is also manifest and lived in our public acts of worship called the Liturgy. This is an extremely important point because it is one of the rediscoveries, let’s say, of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, that the heart of the Church, the essence of the Church’s activity is nowhere more vividly and strongly expressed than in the act of liturgy which is the celebration of God’s saving deeds for his people. The document on Liturgy says very clearly that the heart of the Church, the source and the summit of the Church’s life is the celebration of the saving act of redemption. The Church is never more Church than when she is celebrating the Liturgy. Of course, the Church does many other things – provides community, provides social solidarity – absolutely wonderful – but it is essentially a worshipping, praising community, thanking God for his acts of salvation by – at the centre of this – what we call the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So we have now as it were the contemplative heart of the Church being equated with the liturgical heart and when we are celebrating the liturgical heart, we are also celebrating the contemplative heart because that expression “liturgically” is not merely a re-enactment or theatrical representation of the saving deeds: it is a bringing in to the present the saving grace of God operating now in our lives, and the saving grace of God, which I suppose is a very traditional way of describing it, is nothing more than God living in us. Grace manifests and identifies nothing more, if you like, than God’s relationship with us. So liturgy brings us in to relationship, liturgy – can we say – promotes that contemplative dimension because it is one and the same thing. Liturgy is union, contemplation is union – the high point of the vocation of every single person. The synod, in its discussions of this, you would think, would have seized on this and used this dimension, this very strongly spiritual dimension, to describe more of the ways that the Church might approach the modern world today, in terms of relationship rather than strict content. If you look through all the documents – and I must thank a friend of mine in Rome who did look through all the documents for me – you will actually find that the word “contemplation” is used in the synod only thirty-six times in many thousands of pages of documentation, and of those thirty-six times, nineteen times is used by a single person in a single address that was made, and that person was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who introduced very strongly the idea of contemplation as the goal and indeed the process by which New Evangelization can be most appropriately and efficaciously carried out. He looks at humanity as the image of the loving relationship of the Trinity – a very Eastern way of looking at our Church and our human community. It is the icon, the image, of that most profound and unknowable, ultimately, relationship between God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is a pale reflection, because we are weak human beings, of the bonds which constitute the Godhead itself. And therefore in humanity we are growing ideally more and more into the image of union between the three persons of the Trinity and we can therefore, Rowan Williams says, talk about a contemplative humanity. If we are thinking about contemplation as union, as that union becomes stronger and more visible as we try every day to imitate and to live out that Trinitarian image, therefore we can say humanity and its goal is ultimately a contemplative goal because it is a goal that talks about our union amongst ourselves and with God himself. I think what is extremely telling, and this is very typical of Rowan Williams, is that he immediately draws on Carmelite spirituality to sustain and support his case, and quotes immediately from Edith Stein who says that we must understand, in our relationship with God, that it is God’s free disclosure of himself in our lives that constitutes the ground of this union. He goes on to talk about the distinguishing feature of human action as searching for that union in what we would call prayer. Prayer is ultimately looking for and experiencing this union that we are striving after. It is not, may I say, essentially about asking for things. Intercessory prayer is important but it is only one element of it. It is ultimately about availability because it is God’s gratuitous, generous act in our lives that brings us in to union. We cannot earn it. We cannot follow a step of instructions which will guarantee that we will experience it. We can be faithful in prayer. We can make ourselves open and available to God in our lives but ultimately, it is God’s free action in us. For sure, if we do not open ourselves and make ourselves available and are faithful in prayer then it will probably never happen because God will not have the space to get in to our lives. But, and I suppose this is what distinguishes many people from what we call the Christian mystics, for many people that ultimate union is going to be with God in Heaven. We will probably not experience it in this life. This is a fact of Christian experience I believe. It is, however, the goal which is intrinsic to this process of transformation and certainly we are called in this life to change. This recalls in a certain sense the famous phrase of Blessed John Henry Newman that the only sign of growth in our lives is change and to have changed often is the sign of holiness. We are dynamic beings in a dynamic Church and to that extent the discovery, or if you like rediscovery, in the Second Vatican Council of one of the key images for the people of God or for the Church is the people of God on the move, the people of God who are an image, if you recall, of that group of Israelites liberated by Moses from their oppression in Egypt and taken through the wilderness for 40 years. It is a Church which is on the move; it is a Church which is developing. I believe that in a certain sense this is an essential element of this New Evangelization process. New Evangelization is not about nostalgia; it is not about recovering something you have lost. It is about finding new ways to move forward, new ways which are going to be of relevance today and personal transformation and personal change is one of the key things we find in that generalised spiritual hunger that we see in the world today. Just think when you go in to any major bookshop today, where are you going to find most Christian books? In the Mind, Body, Spirit section. In many, many bookshops there is not a Christian section, it will be part of Mind, Body, Spirit because it is seen very much, from the outside, as part of that general desire for us to change, to understand the inner workings of our minds, the inner workings of our bodies, the inner workings of our spirits. I am not saying Christianity can be reduced to that, but certainly that spiritual hunger expresses itself in that particular way and so therefore the category of change and transformation does resonate very much with people. It is an attractive challenge to see how Christian lives as a process of transformation at all sorts of different levels for those who no longer care about institutions, which is a very big feature of the world that we live in. It does not really matter what the denominational labels say any more. It does not even really matter what order we look at the Sacraments in. It does not really matter about hierarchy or ministry. There is, as it were, an irrelevance now being attached to these things which I do not believe can simply be addressed by going back and insisting on the hierarchical and institutional dimensions, but by saying what can be a challenge to people today to see that the Christian life is about transformation, about change and that is the prime category after which institution, hierarchy, ministry will follow. I am certainly not dismissing those but I am saying there is a certain priority that we have to think about. These elements that Rowan Williams raised in his very short intervention really talked about the need for a contemplative practice in the Church which would be of an attractive nature to those to whom the Church is trying to speak today. What we might say could be a real element of this New Evangelization.
The final proposals which emerged from the meeting of the bishops unfortunately do not reflect very well the greater depth and the greater understanding that Rowan Williams gave in his own address. There are just a couple of instances in the final conclusions talking about how the liturgy, which is the most precious gift of God, is the highest source and expression of our life in Christ. That is a definition which, I mentioned before, comes from the Second Vatican Council and it is therefore the primary and most potent expression of New Evangelization. We have seen already how, in the previous documents, the liturgy was equated in a certain sense with the same goals and same concerns as contemplation; how our liturgical life of celebration and worship has that goal of bringing us into union with God which is part of the contemplative process. You would have thought that the equation between the two could have been made much more strongly and in a much more emphatic way by the compilers of these final conclusions. If I can be critical, it seems like on the one hand the highest and best expression of our Christian lives is worship which brings us into communion with God, which is the goal of contemplation, which is contemplation. On the other hand, this language of “the highest, the best, the most powerful, the most efficacious” is not actually reflected in the pastoral conclusions that the bishops drew when they came to the end of their meeting; there could have been a much, much stronger and a much more incisive view of this which would have been very helpful in overcoming some of the barriers that we sometimes experience in the Christian community and which are based on the content of faith rather than the process of faith. I think we share a great deal about the process of faith and that we must emphasise this very strongly since we are all on this journey of contemplation, of transformation in God. It is a very weak, relativized understanding of liturgy according to Vatican II and according to the ground work that was laid by this synod that there should be an emphasis on the encounter and union with God in the public worship of the Church. If this is really the heart and foundation of New Evangelization because it is the best and most expressive and most powerful way, these propositions, these conclusions do not reflect the strength and importance that was given to them not only by Rowan Williams, because when Rowan Williams introduced this word ‘contemplation’ many people then followed in what he was saying.
New Evangelization and Carmelite Spirituality
Moving then to the second part of what I would like to talk about New Evangelization in its dialogue with Carmelite Spirituality, taking up just a few points here from Archbishop Fisichella who talks about the way we are living in a world as if God did not exist. The denial of a Christian voice in public and private matters, the emphasis on a full autonomy of man without God, putting humanity at the centre of everything we do and consequently a relativisation of moral norms to a human need and a human understanding. In other words, removing that framework of what many would call a Christian tradition, a Christian ethic, a Christian code of behaviour and basing it solely on the human being. This view of what people call secularism, secularisation, the secular age, does need to be a little refined I think. It is a rather approximate view of the society that we have. I am going to give you two quotes now, one of which you will certainly recognise and one of which some of you may recognise.
The first one is that “the king, our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called the Anglicana Ecclesia”. The second quotation: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech of the press of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievance.”
You all know what that is; it is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And the first quotation was from the Act of Supremacy of 1534 of the so-called Tudor revolution in government, the Tudor Reformation. Both pieces of legislation, both pieces of our respective Constitutions, for we too have a Constitution in our country though not in the same form as yours, those two elements speak on the one hand of an established State Church and this particular part of the 1534 Act is the basis today upon which Elizabeth II is the Supreme Governor of the Church in England. It is a Church established by law, and that is not just a theoretical claim. The State appoints bishops; the Queen appoints many, many jobs in the Church. The Prime Minister appoints many parish priests, pastors in different parishes up and down the country. That is why, until recently, a Prime Minister could not be a Catholic because you could not have a Catholic appointing Anglican ministers. It has changed now. So not only an historical statement of establishment, but a reality of establishment. Obviously the First Amendment to your Constitution is a living part of your political life today, particularly the bit about freedom of expression – how that is interpreted is a huge question in U.S. jurisprudence. And of course, if I can – with all due respect – say that you have certainly avoided the establishment of a state religion; there is no connection between Church and State, but my goodness, between religion and politics the U.S. is almost second to none. Whereas most interestingly in the U.K., where there is an established state religion, in the famous words of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Press Secretary, “we don’t do God”. God is not part of the political scene in the U.K. Recently it has come up a bit because of the question of gay marriages and civil unions and marriage between people of the same sex, but in general what Alastair Campbell said – “we don’t to God” – is more or less a summary of the British political scene and the way it operates. So which society is secular? The society that says we have an Established Church, we have this whole apparatus but we do not do God, or the society that says we certainly do not have Church and State coming together because our First Amendment forbids it and yet we have the scene of many politicians actually presuming to interpret the New Testament? God would have been a good Republican or a good Democrat or whatever. There is a line from the TV programme “Yes, Prime Minister”, when the Prime Minister muses “Isn’t it amazing how bishops now talk about politics and politicians talk about morals”. You really would think it was the other way around. So let’s just be a little cautious when we talk about secularism and the secular state. It is not necessarily linked to a world where the Christian voice has been removed from public debate. It is not a necessary and logical consequence of a political system that it includes or excludes the Christian voice. The British system very much includes it; the Queen is the head of the Church but in fact it is not part of the political reality. Your system definitely excludes it and you can’t go around newspapers without tripping up on varieties of belief of one sort or another, and my final little salvo to you would certainly be that I think it is not in this country to elect a President who is a declared atheist. I just think that would never ever happen. This is a very deeply religious country. You say you do not have Church and State but in fact religion is deeply, deeply ingrained into the fabric of this country.
So whatever we might want to say about the political structure, I think there are other things that make secularism important. Is it maybe that there has been this creation of a space or a gap where belief takes place? For many societies in the West, belief took place in the context of many other beliefs. It was a believing society which American society still preserves to a great degree, which Britain, France, the Netherlands and now even Spain and Italy are losing the context of belief where non-belief is one option among another of beliefs. There has been the creation of this secular space if you like where belief has to find its own expression and its own validity without there being a presupposition that we all believe something. We can also have the presupposition that we don’t believe at all and that is the situation that we find ourselves in and that is the situation that the character in the play Jumpers was referring to at the beginning, where the onus of proof passed from a believing society to a society where belief is one option among many. I think here that there is – to my mind – a very powerful element of the dialogue, of the conversation between Carmelite Spirituality and New Evangelization which needs to take place and that is the concept of space, of absence, of nothingness in the Carmelite tradition. I am very conscious that I am by no means an expert on perhaps one of the greatest proponents, of one of the greatest expressions of this nothingness, this absence, this space than in the works of John of the Cross. I do not claim to be any sort of an expert on it, but as a kind of intuitive approach to this we can see in the writings of John as it were as a starting point the space that we need in our lives to appreciate God. When he talks about the spiritual journey, that journey which is the ascent of a mountain which is nothing, which is nada, and whose summit is nothing, is nada, is absence, is space, and it is in the nothingness of ourselves which have been stripped away in this process of spiritual transformation that allows if you wish this availability, this openness for God to come into our existence. In other words put very simply, it looks empty but it is actually full of God’s presence and that image which John of the Cross uses so powerfully that the sensation of the lack of God may actually be pointing us towards God. The realisation that in the absence God is presence and that is now filled, as I repeat, not so much with a content but with an acceptance of a relationship and the high point of New Evangelization is achieved in the context of seeming absence.
Carmelite Institute Annual Lecture, Washington DC: 16 March 2013.
Delivered at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA.