On 31 May the Hallam Diocesan Assembly Committee held another of its half-day spirituality events at Blessed Trinity, Wickersley. The subject was Carmelite Spirituality and the presenters were Fr Tony Lester, Provincial of the British Carmelites, and Johan Bergström-Allen, a professed lay member of the Order.
Johan opened by stressing that the Carmelites are not just an order of nuns and friar priests; in fact, lay associate members are the largest section of the order. He said that, in a nutshell, the purpose of the Carmelites is to be ‘love in the heart of the Church’. He told how the order’s origins went back 800 years when a small group of lay men decided to seek God by creating a religious community on Mount Carmel in Palestine. They chose this location because it is the site of the prophet Elijah’s well, and in the land where Jesus himself had walked. Very little is known about these people except that their spiritual aim had been to ‘make God known and loved’, which must be the aim of all spirituality. Mountains have a symbolic importance in Carmelite spirituality; both the Old and New Testaments contain references to important events that happened on mountains, and our spiritual journey to God can be likened to climbing a mountain in that it is a lengthy and difficult task that presents many challenges but also beautiful views. The imagery of a mountain reminds us of God, and people of different faiths approach the top of the mountain from different starting points at the base. When we start the spiritual journey we are spread out and distant from each other, but as people ascend closer to union with God the distances between them shrink. So for Carmelites, the top of the mountain – the experience of God – brings human beings closer together.
The Carmelite charism is ‘contemplative’, based on the belief that we long for something, someone, deep in our hearts. We trust that God is the answer to that deep longing, even though at times we may feel that something else will satisfy our desires and we get distracted by various false idols. Carmelites believe that we are called to be friends with God, which means speaking with and listening to God with intimacy, frankness, and trust. The Carmelite charism involves not only prayer but also community-building and service to others. Fundamental is the belief that God is not necessarily found in the obvious places such as churches, but also in the ‘pots and pans’ of everyday living. Love is regarded as supremely powerful. Johan quoted St John of the Cross, “If love is lacking, then put in love and you will draw love out.” Carmelites recognise the need to be alone in silence at certain times, but most are not hermits. They recognise that the way to God requires practical displays of love and this is impossible without contact with other people. Carmelites are expected to work as well as to pray.
The spiritual patrons of the Carmelite Order span both the Old and New Testaments. Carmelites have particular devotion to the prophet Elijah who called the people of Israel back to God by confronting them with the question: in which God are you going to trust? Carmelites also have particular devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, whom they regard as their sister. Their devotion to Elijah and Mary is strong, but only to the extent that these two people point us to God.
Fr Tony began by stressing that God wants all people to be saved and to know God. He said that human beings can know God simply by being human, because God’s grace is at work in every man, woman and child in the world.
One of the most difficult things for human beings to cope with is not being in control. We like to be in the driving seat, and we find ways of staying in control. This need for control can limit us spirituality in that we may not be prepared to take risks, and remain locked into a practice of religion that feels safe but that won’t help us truly find God. Tony said that, at times, we all follow false gods, and that one of these idols can be religion itself. Religion is not God, but it can be the most subtle of false idols because, unlike others, it promises not just security in this world but in the next. It can also make us feel that if we practice religion we have got our spiritual lives sorted.
Pope Francis is calling us to look for God where God is. He is wanting us to ask, “What is my God like?” and “Where am I going to find God?” For Pope Francis, a primary place to find God is not in the practice of religion but amongst the poor.
Fr Tony said that we come to church to hear Mass, to celebrate the sacraments, and especially to receive the Eucharist. We do so not for the sake of ritual but in order that we can go out into the world carrying Jesus in our hearts. The going-out is the main purpose. Church is not an end in itself.
We need to think about the way we pray. Often our prayers consist of giving God a list of demands. This is limiting. We often settle for not very much, whereas God wants us to have so much more. In fact, God wants us to have everything: God wants us to have God. Our physical senses give us the ability to experience the wonders of God’s kingdom, but they are untrustworthy guides to our relationship with God because they can fill us with a ‘warm fuzziness’ that does not tell us how close God is to us or how close we are to God. God does not do warm fuzziness! God continually challenges us to climb a little further up the mountain, and this may be a difficult and painful climb requiring us to relinquish control and trust in God.
Fr Tony illustrated the point by talking about his young nephew brandishing a bread knife. A bread knife is a good thing; we cannot cut bread without one. In the hands of a three-year-old child, however, a knife becomes a dangerous thing that could harm the child and others. But if a child has got hold of a bread knife, he might not readily part with it. Our childhood faith can be similar; we brandish about the ideas we had when we were immature Christians, but we have perhaps failed to progress and grow in our faith. We hold on to things associated with Church that are not bad in themselves but which impede our spiritual development. Sometimes practices that were relevant to our faith when we were children are no longer suitable now that we are adults.
In the Old Testament, Elijah challenged the false god Baal and called down fire from heaven to prove that the Lord God of Israel was the only true God. He then had to escape the anger of Queen Jezebel by going into the wilderness where, despite his success, Elijah became depressed and troubled. In the end he was told to stand at the mouth of a cave on Mount Horeb to witness God passing. A hurricane, earthquake and fire came, but God was not to be experienced in any of them. When these had passed, Elijah experienced ‘sheer silence’ and knew that this marked the presence of God. In other words, Elijah found God in the absence of any sense of God.
Carmelites say ‘be quiet and still and hear the word of God’. Their Rule of Saint Albert talks about Carmelites praying ‘in their cell’, by which is meant not simply a little room but rather relating to God in the heart. The use of silence is essential. It is about creating ‘space for God’. Fr Tony encouraged us all to try regularly to spend some time in ‘sheer silence’, and not fill every quiet time with ‘religion’ or activity. There is nothing wrong with religious practices like the rosary and other devotions, but they can actually be a distraction from encountering God in silence.
Silence can be difficult because when we are alone we encounter ourselves and our sinfulness which can make us stop, dispirited, on our spiritual journey. However, the Holy Spirit will see our silence as an opportunity to fill the space silence has created in our lives, and will sow the seeds of spiritual growth in us. This growth is never quick; it will take a life-time. Neither is it easy, but it will allow God to find us. In this way Christianity is different from other religions, which seek to find God. In Christianity, God finds us. All we have to do is allow God to find us.
Carmelites also place great importance on meditating on the Scriptures and especially on the humanity of Jesus as shown to us in the Gospels. Fr Tony recommended that each day people read a short passage from one of the Gospel accounts, and then spend a few minutes thinking and praying about what they had read. He suggested starting with the Gospel of Luke. He said that whilst there is nothing wrong with reading other spiritual books, the Gospels are the authentic Word of God and will always have priority over other religious writings. Finally, Fr Tony made the point that if we begin to spend time in silence and reflect on God’s Word in the Bible, our lives will be changed in ways that we cannot imagine.